The First Modern Man, Hen & Chickens Theatre, London N1

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Michel de Montaigne is an interesting figure, and this is a well written and beautifully delivered play about the 16th Century French essayist. Much like the essays of the man himself, it is not easy to define. It is not quite a biography because it really only touches incidentally on his life and times, it is an imagined hour long conversation with the man, where you are introduced to a selection of his ideas and preoccupations in a seemingly disordered manner.

However, this is where the cleverness of the writing comes in, the rambling way in which the conversation takes place, is very similar in composition to the way his essays were actually written, with detours, diversions and asides taking you around many different ideas before bringing you back to the original, titular point of the piece. In this play, it serves to capture what you could think of as the personality of de Montaigne.

The Hen & Chickens theatre is a good venue to see this play, because it is intimate enough to give the feeling of a personal conversation. Jonathan Hansler takes full advantage and engages members of the audience individually – he makes Michel de Montagne chatty and affable. The author, Michael Barry, and actor have worked together well, both obviously care for the man they are displaying onstage, and their combination of talents makes him a likeable figure full of interesting concepts, some deep and insightful, some weird, but all entertaining in a quirky and engaging way.

I particularly enjoyed this play, possibly helped by knowing a little of his work before I attended. The quality of the writing and the delivery of the words ensure that there is much to enjoy here whether you have heard of Michel de Montaigne or not. The First Modern Man has that elusive and winning blend, it is a play that manages to be both enjoyable and informative. Recommended.

 

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Brinkley’s Kitchen, Bellevue Road, Wandsworth, London SW17

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Wandsworth is a suburb of South London that is well served with places to eat. Bellevue Road in particular is an attractive road with the broad expanse of Wandsworth Common along one side, and an array of restaurants, pubs, artisan tea rooms and independent shops along the other. Brinkley’s Kitchen is near the top of this road, we chose it for a late lunch on a Sunday afternoon.

The restaurant is decorated in a smart contemporary manner. The photos on its website show it as very bright and airy, but the blinds were all drawn on the afternoon we were there. There was no tablecloth on our table for three, but it does have linen napkins, nice cutlery and glasses. The brunch menu has good choice, we opted for roast beef and a steak. The wines by the glass had a more limited selection, for example they only had one rose. When I asked the waiter what it was like – as I didn’t know it – he told me it was very good. I said I was hoping for a more descriptive reply, he just said “you will love it”. So, I asked to taste before I chose and it was fine, although I suspect the whole bottle cost a fraction of what they charged for the glass.

The food was good but unremarkable. The beef was overcooked for my taste but the gravy was nice. When I pay top end prices for a Sunday roast, I would expect the Yorkshire pudding to be freshly prepared. These had clearly been made earlier and reheated. The ribeye was okay and the chips were hot and fresh. When my friend asked for tomato sauce for her chips, they brought a bottle of ketchup to the table, at least it was Heinz. It came without the lid, so much hitting the bottom of the bottle was required to get any out.

The service was entertaining, every different waiter who came to the table enquired “How is your day going?” which became a little Stepford Wives creepy after the sixth time of asking, especially after the busboy asked it twice in five minutes without waiting for a reply. I didn’t like the fact that they brought us the bill without us asking for it, I felt they were rushing us to finish our drinks.

Overall, Brinkley’s Kitchen served us reasonable quality pub food, but charged high end restaurant prices. In an area, indeed even a street, where there are so many fine places to eat, it will not be difficult to find somewhere that gives far better value for money.

Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 2. Queen’s State Apartments and King’s State Apartments.

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Kensington Palace has been a place of residence of the British Royal family since 1689. It was bought as a completed building by William and Mary when they ascended to the throne.  Those parts not being lived in are open to the public. Currently they contain four exhibitions, one ticket allows entry to all four. Entrance to the Palace gardens, including the attractive sunken gardens is free and these are certainly worth the time it takes to walk round them on days when the weather is clement. The first two exhibitions are about Queen Victoria and Princess Diana’s dresses. They are both interesting in different ways, I have a blog post about them here: Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 1. Victoria Revealed & Diana, her fashion story.

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The next two exhibitions are The Queens’ State Apartments, which has the rooms decorated as they were in the 1690s, during the reign of William and Mary, and The King’s State Apartments, which has the rooms restored in the way they were in the early 1700s, during the reign of Georges I and II.

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These are arranged in reverse chronological order, entry is through the sumptuous King’s Grand Staircase. Decorated in the time of George II, this is broad and spacious,  we are overlooked by painted figures as we ascend. The staircase is certainly grand, immediately we can tell that we are in an era when conspicuous wealth was expected of the monarchy. The mural was painted by William Kent in 1724 and contains depictions of many actual members of the royal court at the time. Kent even included himself in the painting, he is the man wearing a brown turban and holding an artist’s palette, and the lady looking over his shoulder was reportedly his mistress.

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The rooms in the King’s State Apartments have many wonderful Georgian features. The fireplaces and ceilings are spectacular. One ceiling is decorated with shields representing the members of the Order of the Garter, with its insignia making the centrepiece. The King’s Gallery has a mantelpiece with a map of the British Isles and Western Europe. This is linked to a weather vane on the roof, so that King George could see how the wind was affecting his fleet. It is still working today. The drawing room has some interesting examples of gaming tables from the era and the best perspective of the gardens, down to the lake.

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The Queen’s State Apartments are 17th Century and this exhibition is more intimate, showing their bedrooms, their dining room and gives a little more of an insight into how they went about their, still opulent, daily lives. The furniture and delft is remarkable and the tapestries and bed coverings are extravagant. It is interesting to see the shortness of the four poster bed, it was thought at that time to be beneficial to health to sleep in a sitting position.

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The exhibitions also contain lovely examples of the fashions at the time, there are some wonderful farthingale supported embroidered skirts, which look spectacular but must have been completely impractical to wear.

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Between all four of the shows here, it would be difficult to do it justice in less than a couple of hours, there is almost too much to see in one visit. Perhaps it would be worth viewing the Palace on one day and the Gardens, Park and Orangery, which are free to enter, on another. This way you could spread the visit over a couple of days and only have to pay the, not inconsiderable, entry fee once. Kensington Palace and Gardens is one of the most historic visitor attractions in London, the exhibitions are well stocked and informative, although it is not cheap to visit, it should be among the sights that you consider when in London. It is free to enter with an Art Pass, if you have one of these you should not miss it, Kensington Palace is a highlight of their offer.

 

The Patate, Kerb, Camden Market, London NW1

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The next step on our hunt for London’s best burger led us once again to Camden Market. This time we went on a dreary damp Monday in December, and still the place was mobbed. We had friends visiting from Ireland, who combined the trip with some light Christmas shopping. On a side note, the market appears to be a very good venue if you are searching for unusual and funky gifts. The Patate is unit 215, the centre of a bank of three purpose built food stalls facing into the square. The main sign says French Burger with The Patate in smaller letters underneath.

 

The have a pot of boeuf bourguignon heating on the griddle and it is this that they make their burgers from. They are very specialised, that is all they do. You can have it with or without cheese and with or without fries. They do have three different types of cheese, and they do have béarnaise sauce to go on the chips, which you can have with added chilli. When you order, they take the beef bourguignon and make it into a patty on the griddle and cook for about five minutes drizzling the gravy over as it cooks.

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We had one with Raclette cheese and one with a Camembert Blue. The hamburgers were beautifully moist and the meat was incredibly tender. This burger is probably not for you if you do not like your meat to be well done, but there is still a lot of taste in this meal because it has been cooked in the gravy from the stew. The cheeses were both delicious and creamy, unusual for a hamburger, but they set off this particular one very well. The chips were nice and crisp and the béarnaise was divine.

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Once again, being from a street food stall, there was no knife and fork, but I guess we knew this would be the case when we came. The burger was delicious but if you are a person who chooses to have their meat rare, or even medium, you will not have that option here. A great meal, lovely friendly service and for a tasty variation, I would certainly recommend it. If we were looking for the best burger in Paris it might be the one, but its a bit too sophisticated for the best burger in London.

Handel & Hendrix in London, Brook Street, London W1

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London has a number of small and quirky museums. This one dedicated to life and works of George Frederic Handel and Jimi Hendrix is certainly an unexpected combination. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street for 36 years in the 18th Century and Hendrix lived at number 23 for short time in the 1960s.

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Bach’s house is decorated in the slightly austere Georgian style that was fashionable when he lived there. It does contain some beautiful musical instruments, including a wonderful harpsichord and a chamber organ. The bedroom has a four poster bed and there are some good paintings and a bust of Handel too. There are recitals held in the music room at least once a week and the staff are knowledgeable and helpful.

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The Hendrix flat is laid out somewhat differently. The bedroom/living room is decorated as it would have been when Hendrix and his girlfriend lived here, this is borne out by the many photos of the room published during this time. The rest of the apartment is done in a more traditional museum style, with guitars and jackets in glass cases and commemorative posters on the walls.  The bedroom is interesting, the fact that it is so classically psychedelic Carnaby Street 1960s in style probably reflects the huge effect that he had on the fashion of the time.

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Unlike many museums in London, this one is not free unless you have a National Art Pass. It is small but it does contain a number of curious items. It is striking to compare what the height of fashion was in the centre of London two hundred years apart – and there is something apt in the fact that it doesn’t open until 11am on any day. Half an hour or forty minutes will adequately see you round this exhibition, but if you are a fan of either rock or baroque, I think there will be something here to please you.

Mac & Wild, Great Titchfield Street, London W1W

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Mac & Wild is a restaurant that markets itself as serving the highest quality ingredients in its dishes – with a Scottish bias. It is known for its venison, steak and salmon. It is listed in the 2018 Michelin Guide and the Evening Standard named it in their “5 best places to eat game in London”. In 2016 it won the award for the best burger in the UK and it is in Time Out’s list of the best in London.

It opens for dinner at 5.30pm and we arrived, without a reservation, before 6. The place seemed pretty quiet, but they told us they would be able to squeeze us in at a table near the window. It was a damp autumnal Tuesday so I was a bit sceptical, but sure enough, by twenty past six they were turning people away and the restaurant was packed by the time we left at 7pm.

The room is long and narrow, decorated in a rustic style, with plain walls, rough hewn wooden tables and chairs and monochrome photos of Scottish countryside on the walls. There is a cellar room too, the same shape and decorated similarly. Even the bathrooms continue the rustic theme, with an old fashioned overhead ceramic cistern and a chain pull flush.

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The menu is basically steak, venison, salmon, cod or hamburger. The sizes and cuts of steak vary according to their stock, they have a list on the wall and cross them out as they are sold. There are vegetarian starters and one main course on the list.  We ordered the scotch egg and fish bites to start. The fish was delicious as was the egg. We were here late October and the Scotch egg came Halloween style – stuck with a syringe and oozing blood! Very funny, but possibly not for the fainthearted.

The burger has two patties, one beef and one venison, it comes with caramelised onion melted cheese and béarnaise. The taste is good, a nice meaty flavour, juicy and with a lovely texture. Be aware that it will come rare unless you ask for it to be well done, unusually they did not enquire when we ordered. The bun is a nice toasted brioche and the chips are skin on and tasty.

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It is served on a tin tray, with the chips in a small metal bucket by its side. For a restaurant that is proud of its Scottish heritage, a plate seems like an odd thing for it to forgo. At least it did come with a knife and fork. The lager was quite pricey, a hair under a fiver for a small tin. There are a number of wines served by the glass and the Pinot Grigio Rose was good. The service is excellent, the waiters are likeable and honest, they seem genuinely invested in making sure we had a good time.

All in all we had a really good experience. Mac & Wild are proud of the provenance of their ingredients and this shows in the quality of their burger.  If you plan on going, I would certainly recommend that you book – even as we left there was a couple standing outside in the drizzle waiting for us to pay the bill, so they could have our table.

 

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1

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London is blessed with a large selection of excellent museums and galleries. The majority of these are free. The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth is a good example of this. It is one of five Imperial War Museum locations in the UK, three of which are in London. Set up in the 1920s to commemorate the effort and sacrifice of Britain in First World War, it is now dedicated to the understanding of modern war, and confines itself to those conflicts in which Britain or the Commonwealth had some involvement.

The building is impressive, surrounded by the green lawns of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, it is about a five minute walk from Lambeth North tube station. It has ionic columns at its entrance and an impressive dome. It also has its own interesting history, in the 19th Century it was the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital, the psychiatric facility that allowed visitors to watch the inmates as public entertainment. It is this building that became the origin of the word bedlam.

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The museum is arranged over five floors. The top floor is the Lord Ashcroft gallery which has a large collection of medals awarded for bravery and the stories of many people who have been presented with them. It is an interesting investigation into the definition of courage and what inspires heroic acts.

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The fourth floor is dedicated to the holocaust and the rise of Nazism in the mid twentieth century. This contains a surprisingly in depth analysis of the political climate that led to the spreading of the ideology and a comprehensive presentation of its results. There is a scale model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which really gives perspective to the magnitude of the crimes. This floor needs to be approached with care, the display is moving and distressing.

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The Third floor has an exhibit called Curiosities of War, which is a collection of unusual war related items. This is quirky and  comparatively light. The second floor is split between conflicts after WWII and a display about espionage. The recent conflicts exhibition is thought provoking, it brings current events sharply into focus. The spy section seems lightweight, I guess it is tough to say much about state secrets without giving those secrets away. This floor also holds a real size model of an atomic bomb, it is shocking how small it is.

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The two lowest floors hold the largest items, tanks, ambulances, rockets, large guns and planes….the remains of a vehicle that was once a car bomb. The descriptions of the items and the uses to which they were put is almost more interesting than viewing the items themselves.

The Hall of Remembrance, is a gallery that was proposed to be built containing artwork commissioned as a memorial to the war dead of WWI. The project ran out of money in the 1920s and was never completed. The Imperial War Museum holds all the artwork that was due to be shown in this gallery and has put it on their website in the form of a virtual gallery. This is a beautiful testimonial and well worth a visit, I have put a link here . 

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War is not entertainment and this will not be your jolliest day out in London. However, The Imperial War Museum is something that you really should visit when you come to the UK. It is wonderful that this city has such high quality resources and amazing that it offers them for free. The building has step free access and there is  parking for Blue Badge holders, but it needs to be booked. Recommended.