In today’s Le Monde a neurologist waxes lyrical about the key rôle art plays in our brains’ principal functions: keeping us alive, and giving us the will to live.  Art, he says, “caresses” the brain, “pleasures” and “rewards” our grey matter.  Art slows the heart rate, relieves stress, releases cortisol . Provided, I assume, you’re not looking at Jeff Koons balloons?


The moment I’ve been dreading has arrived.  The plot of land opposite, where fruit and other trees grow, haven for birds and snuffling hedgehogs, is about to disappear. And with it, our privacy.  Another addition to this street of architecturally deeply boring-ugly houses will appear and I’ll have to invest in a dressing gown.


In ordinary settings, the sight of heavily armed military police never fails to shock.  Uniforms with kalashnikovs sometimes stroll around on market days.  During the gilets jaunes protests, Toulouse felt like a town under siege (see N° 697). When ZADists protested the destruction of a forest (N° 352) military vehicles filled the countryside. 


In 2013 a neighbour phoned to ask if I’d noticed our sleepy rural town looked more like Chicago. Opposite the house a car, a man (arms raised), guns pointing at his head. Within 20 minutes, the street was blocked off by armoured vehicles, a helicopter hovering overheard. Why? Two gypsy families unable to resolve their differences.


I am, as I often am, lost in dreams of boats and living by water, surrounded by Anna Cattermole’s illustrations of Luke Powell and his team building a 42’ wooden pilot cutter, Freja.  With great originality, Cattermole’s series of “drawings from life” capture the whole process, drawings on a loft floor, the atmosphere in a Cornish boat shed, the boatbuilders themselves, their banter – and their dogs! http://www.annacattermole.com/   


Luke Powell created Working Sail to safeguard the art and craftsmanship of building and sailing traditionally rigged, C19th Scillonian pilot cutters. The pinnacle of boat design, pilot cutters were renowned for their seaworthiness and speed. By offering sailing adventures from Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to Brittany, Working Sail also keeps alive historical maritime skills. https://workingsail.co.uk/


Turn the corner – Bang! into a huge sting. At least 20 armed gendarmes surround each male teenager of North African origin. 50 metres away, draped head to foot, filming on their phones, the mothers. Monday evening, in a small rural town.


A regular sight when I was a child was the “human billboard” Stanley Green.  Every day Green cycled the 12 miles from his home to walk up and down Oxford Street with a placard that read: “Less Lust from Less Protein”.  In peaked cotton cap, toting a shoulder bag of home-printed pamphlets priced at 12p, Green fervently believed eating less protein would make people kinder.


A 1758 registry of deaths noted the number of Londoners who died from: Smallpox  (1273), Measles (696), Lethargy (4), Leprosy (2), Water in the Head (40), Twisting of the Guts (50), Chocking by Fat (1), Bloody Flux (5) Grief (5), Dropsy (682) Apoplexy (191) and the French Pox (46).


A Turk from Smyrna called Pasqua Rosee opened London’s first coffee shop in 1652.  So popular did the drink prove, that by 1714 London boasted 500 coffee houses. And London was a small place then. Coffee houses became the preferred haunt “of gentlemen to whom beds were unknown,” wits, satirists, poets, actors, brokers, men-about-town.


Her name alone excites.  Architectural studios carrying the flame of Zaha Hadid have unveiled 2 major designs for Hong Kong, a subway in Moscow (the catchily named Klenoviy Boulevard Station 2…) and a skyscraper in downtown Miami. Hadid’s last design before she died was a tower in Beijing.   The world’s largest atrium twisting at 45°angles, dancing towers that seem alive. Quite literally breathtaking.


Architect Norman Foster tells de zeen magazine Covid won’t so much change our cities, as accelerate existing trends.  Before the C19th cholera epidemic, the Thames in London was an open sewer.  Result? Modern sanitisation and the establishment of public parks.  Modern architectural movements ushered in by tuberculosis included big windows (sunlight) and terraces (fresh air).   


First day. First job. A Victorian Theatre, London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The wonderfully named Sue Honey sent me up to Production Wardrobe and the wonderfully named Arden Coppage. How wonderfully Shakespearean! The name Coppage originated in  Warwickshire, where once upon a time the Forest of Arden stretched from Stratford-upon-Avon covering what is now Birmingham and Coventry.


Arden was Shakespeare’s mother’s maiden name, an ancient name with forestial roots. The Ardens were staunch Catholics. In that 25-year Tudor period when England was Catholic-Protestant-Catholic-Protestant, a Catholic plot to shoot Elizabeth failed and an Edward Arden’s head displayed on London Bridge.


A house first built in the early 1400s remained in the same family for 12 generations/500 years.  A moat, a priest hole, stained glass dating back to 1582, Baddesley Clinton is just one of many treasures managed by the National Trust.  Another, Snowshill Manor, once belonged to Catherine Parr, the sixth and only surviving wife of Henry VIII.


Snowshill was gifted to the National Trust by the eccentric, eclectic artist, collector and architect Charles Paget Wade who slept in a bed in a wooden box, filled attics and rooms with bicycles, clocks, musical instruments, Samurai armour and 22,000 other objects from around the world, including animal bones delicately carved from rations by Napoleonic prisoners of war.


I vividly remember reading The Secret Garden aged 10, in a tiny bedroom in Colherne Court on the Brompton Road. My mother had flown to Aberdeen where my sister was in hospital with acute appendicitis.  The teenager whose room I’d been given came in, straddled, and started to strangle me.


The Secret Garden has been given a fantasy make-over by producers of the Harry Potter films.  A total sucker for stories of orphans I’ll put up with a great deal but oh! my heart sinks to see Julie Walters has been cast, yet again, in the housekeeper role.  She’ll turn in yet another ham, predictable, over-the-top performance, use that same ridiculous voice.


To some, it’s just a number.  150 jobs.  But in Stratford-Upon-Avon a theatre laying off armourers, scene painters, milliners, wig-, boot-, jewellery- & costume makers may mean some highly skilled, ancient crafts disappear.   The knowledge, ingenuity and talent of artists in the RSC’s specialist in-house workshops is uniquely awesome.


Craft skills contribute billions to Britain’s economy.  The history of Cornwall is famously rich in Arts & Crafts.  In Britain, following changes in educational policies, student participation in craft courses fell by 46 % between 2007 & 2012.  Cornwall’s Falmouth School of Art (now Falmouth University) used to offer a Contemporary Crafts degree (vital to Cornwall’s economy) until vice-chancellor Anne Carlisle killed it off.