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Saturday, 27 October 2012

London Monopoly (15): Trafalgar Square

This is the last property in the 'red' set in my tour around the London Monopoly board
In 1805 Britain was the world's supreme naval power when a fleet of the Royal Navy led by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson defeated the combined navies of Napoleon's France and Spain. Although they were outnumbered, the Royal navy, using Nelson's extra-ordinary tactics destroyed the enemy fleets off of Cape Trafalgar (Arabic: Tarf al-Gharb meaning 'Western Cape') on Spain's Atlantic coast near Cadiz.

JMW Turner. The Battle of Trafalgar as seen from the mizen starboard shrouds of HMS Victory

Naturally, Nelson became a hero in Britain and in 1830 the square, which was already in existence, was named after the famous battle. In 1842 Nelson's Column was erected and shortly after that the two fountains were built.
Today Trafalgar Square is seen as a major focal point and is the epicentre of Great Britain; it is the place where large celebrations and political rallies and protests are held and can fairly be considered to be the place where democracy is at it's strongest in this country.
For the last ten years the north side of the square, in front of the National Gallery, has been pedestrianised and traffic free. The church of Saint-Martin-in-the Fields and Edith Cavell's statue now have high quality paving all around giving a fine aspect.
The square is Crown property which, technically, means it's owned by the Queen.
Trafalgar Square with the National Gallery in the background

A lovely watercolour of Trafalgar Square with the tower of Big Ben in the distance and lower half of Nelson's Column in the foreground.

Next in this series: 
The rather lovely Fenchurch Street Station.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Strawberry Fields / Penny Lane

In 1966 The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, widely praised as one of the most influential and innovative popular recordings of all time. Meanwhile  in England, The Beatles were entering the most creative period in an outstandingly productive career  They listened to Pet Sounds and were inspired in the same way that Dylan had influenced them a few years earlier. They had decided to try to produce something in a similar vain and were sensationally successful as the result was the Sergeant Pepper album. 
Photo: Linda McCartney
They began by each of them returning to their roots and writing a song each about their up-bringing in Liverpool. John came up with Strawberry Fields and Paul composed Penny Lane; both titles being taken from locations in that city. Their UK record label, EMI, were pushing for a new single so they released a double A-sided disc using those two songs which never made it on to Sergeant Pepper after all.
The songs are interesting because, for me, they epitomise the character and song-writing style of each of the two Beatles.
Penny Lane is strongly melodic and actually fairly complex musically. The lyrics are very interesting and must seem mysterious to non-British listeners. They contain several ambiguities 
The 'shelter in the middle of the roundabout'
such as being "there beneath the blue suburban skies" while the fireman "rushes in from the pouring rain - very strange". Very strange indeed. So the images are being presented as a kaleidoscopic view of Liverpool. It is rumoured that McCartney was using LSD at that time....."She feels as if she's in a play. She is anyway"
"Four of fish and finger pie" is a very clever piece of writing and worth explaining. "Four of fish" referred to fourpence worth of Fish and Chips and "finger pie" is a sexual reference to the fumblings that went on the the bus shelter (solo or joint!). Also it's a lovely pun on 'fish fingers' which is how fish sticks are known in the UK.  
One of the most interesting things about the recording is the piccolo trumpet solo played by  the late David Mason of the London Symphony Orchestra. Paul heard a recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and asked George Martin what the instrument was playing the high notes. It is an exceedingly difficult instrument to play because it does not keep properly in tune with itself! The player has to 'pitch' the notes him or herself. Very strange. Paul told David Mason exactly which notes he wanted to be played. Paul McCartney was a great inventor of melody and an original lyricist. Listen to it here.
By complete contrast Strawberry Fields Forever really represents the state of John Lennon's mind at that time and I am going to talk about this song from a psychological point of view. Strawberry Field is the site of a Salvation Army Children's Home in Liverpool near where Lennon grew up. Lyrically the song is very introspective with each verse descending deeper into a kind of mire of indecision:
 "No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low.
That is you can't you know tune in but it's all right, that is I think it's not too bad.

"Always, no sometimes, think it's me, but you know I know when it's a dream.
I think I know I mean a 'Yes' but it's all wrong, that is I think I disagree."
Strawberry Field, Liverpool
But the most amazing thing about this record is the way that the very recording of the song reflects John Lennon's indecision. Did you know that the record is made from two completely different takes spliced together? If you listen carefully here at about the one minute point you can clearly hear the miraculous job that engineer Geoff Emmerick and producer George Martin have done. They had two recordings at different speeds and in different keys which they achieved by slightly slowing one down and speeding the other one up. This matched the speed and altered the pitch and it was all done with a pair of scissors and two tape machines!
Postscript: Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was in the middle of producing their album Smile when he heard the Sergeant Pepper album being played on the radio in his car. He pulled up at the side of the road and listened to the whole of the record. He immediately stopped work on Smile and did not go back to it for decades. I wonder what he thought.
Also, years later, George Martin said that it was an awful mistake not including Strawberry Fields and Penny lane on the album because they were the foundation of the concept that generated it. However, the Beatles had a policy of not including single releases on albums.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Painting of the Month (34) October 2012: John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925   On The Verandah (Ironbound Island, Maine)
Painted c.1920-22
Apologies to those four people who commented that they couldn't see the picture. I tried to fix it and accidentally deleted the whole post! So I have re-written it from memory. Doh!
This watercolour and pencil painting is of Dwight Blaney and his family at their summer home on Ironbound Island which is nestled in the coast of Maine and is only about two miles by one mile wide. Blaney was a fellow artist and a friend of John Singer Sargent. Also in the painting are his wife Edith and his daughters Elizabeth, left, and Margaret.
It is an unusual composition because the two central figures face outwards from the picture and a strong X is formed by the perspective.
The painting is not regarded as one of his best works and is not much regarded at all but I like it very much. It is charming and presents the viewer with a picture of domestic bliss and tranquility
The painting was probably made very quickly and is really almost a sketch but it is beautiful as we see Blaney relaxing with a pipe while his wife and daughters are sewing or embroidering. I especially like the depiction of the trees between the first and second pillars. Only a few dabs of paint but very effective. The 'palette' that the artist uses (that is to say the range of colours) is very cohesive and relies mainly on pale pastel colours.