Pre-Pandemic Memories

The best thing about living in London is the sheer variety of cultural delights on one’s doorstep. Various constraints prevent me from indulging my passions as frequently as I would like, but happily, events sometimes conspire to line up such treats like proverbial buses. Just my luck, then, to enjoy four consecutive nights out in the last week before the capital closed for business.

The week that began on Monday 9th March is already difficult to locate it time. It was the week of the Cheltenham Festival. With around 250,000 racegoers crammed in at close quarters, that event is now suspected of being a major vector for the transmission of COVID-19 around the country. It was the Wednesday of that week that Liverpool hosted Athletico Madrid at Anfield, along with 3,500 of their fans arriving from the Spanish capital, already in partial lockdown. As Barry Glendinning writes, ‘The current scientific and medical evidence appears to leave us in little or no doubt mass gatherings at major sporting events should have been banned much earlier’.

The realisation was already dawning that Italy’s dreadful Coronavirus experience would soon be ours as well. So it wasn’t without due consideration that I headed to The Roundhouse that same Wednesday evening to see Holy Holy, the David Bowie (quasi-) tribute band, who were marking the fiftieth anniversary of Bowie’s historic gig at the same venue when, with Marc Bolan in the audience, glam-rock was said to have been born. That 1970 gig was part of the week long Atomic Sunrise festival at the Camden venue which, remarkably, saw Bowie open for Genesis!

Arriving at The Roundhouse exactly fifty years later, it was immediately clear that fully 13 days before Boris Johnson would announce a formal lockdown, many Londoners were taking it upon themselves to do what the government was unwilling to ask of them: The place was barely half full, which at least meant those of us standing downstairs were able to practice a degree of social distancing, even though that now ubiquitous term was unknown to us.

The Holy Holy project was launched in 2014 with Bowie’s blessing, by Tony Visconti, who played bass that night in 1970, and Woody Woodmansey, the only surviving member of The Spiders from Mars. The idea being to play songs from the great man’s early catalogue which were unlikely to be played live again. Fifty years on, they played The Man who Sold the World in its entirety, along with a generous helping of classics from subsequent albums.  The musicianship throughout was exceptional, and in not trying to imitate Bowie’s vocals, Glen Gregory let the songs speak for themselves, rendering one after another with verve and energy, his only break coming when Visconti’s daughter, Jessica Lee Morgan, gave a beautiful account of one of my own favourites, Lady Stardust. When Visconti himself took the mic to talk about his late friend’s legacy and indicated the place in the audience where Marc Bolan had stood five decades before, the special nature of the evening became clear. Such a shame that hundreds of ticket holders elected to give it a miss.

The following day, the headlines were dominated by the lockdowns in Italy, Spain and France, and it felt inevitable that we would soon be subject to the same. Nonetheless, that evening I went, as planned, to see the dress rehearsal of English National Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Recent new ENO productions have been somewhat inconsistent, and the company’s previous Figaro, directed by Fiona Shaw, hadn’t quite been able to exploit the dramatic riches offered to a director by what is arguably Mozart’s greatest Opera. I had high hopes for this new production though, not least because it featured the wonderful Louise Alder in the role of Susanna.

Usually at dress rehearsals, apart from singers sometimes saving their voices, the only noticeable differences are technical: jammed doors, bits of costumes falling off etc. But this rehearsal gave us a whole lot more, as Elizabeth Watts, down to play The Countess, was unavailable. Her part was sung exquisitely from the wings by her cover, Nardus Williams, while her place on stage was taken by an unnamed (male) assistant director, over six feet tall, in ill-fitting (female) costume and chunky trainers. His expression throughout only added to the great comedy of the first half of the opera. Louise Alder sang (and acted) beautifully – if you’ve never heard her voice, check this out –  and Hanna Hipp was a revelation as Cherubio. As Flora Willson said in her review for The Guardian, ‘Sometimes simple solutions really do work best.’ Thankfully, Figaro had its opening night that Saturday, garnering rave reviews, before Frank Matcham’s glorious Coliseum Theatre fell dark, and the rest of the run was cancelled. Tragic, because, with the possible exception of Philip Glass’s Cocteau-inspired Orphée last year, this was the best new production at ENO for some time.

A Thursday evening dress rehearsal of any Mozart Opera would usually be sold out, but less than two thirds of the available seats were occupied, more evidence of Londoners exercising caution while the Prime Minister was still shaking people’s hands. With pandemic storm clouds now gathering fast, my wife and I did briefly consider not going to Ronnie Scott’s on Friday evening to see the inimitable Bill Laurence. Knowing, however, this was likely to be our last visit to our beloved Ronnie’s for some time, and reluctant to pass up the chance to see Laurence at close quarters, we boarded what remains, eleven weeks later, our last train to Charing Cross. The London-born piano genius didn’t disappoint, the highlight for me being a lovely account of the Philip Glass-inspired piece, Winter in New York. Ronnie’s was buzzing as usual, the food was great, we even bumped into some people my wife knows through work who turned out to be huge Bill Laurence fans. But there was a palpable sense among the sold out crowd that none of us were likely to be back there any time soon.

The following morning, with the news still focused on the situation in Spain and Italy, my wife heard from a colleague at one of London’s largest hospitals that wards were rapidly filling up with seriously ill coronavirus patients. We both decided to contact staff at our respective workplaces to tell them that as of Monday, everyone would be working from home. It would take another nine days for the Prime Minister to announce the lockdown: the government was still suggesting that pubs and restaurants could stay open. We knew that Coronavirus was in the community in London; obviously they did too, but they chose not to take decisions that had alreday been taken by their counterparts across Europe, decisions that might have saved thousands of lives.

Had we been doing something in town that evening, we would have cancelled, but with friends visiting from the west country, and a table booked at our favourite local eatery, the unmatched Sparrow on Lewisham roundabout, just a ten minute walk away, we ventured out one last time. Service, food and wine were as good as ever, and the company excellent, but this time we really did know we were drinking in the last gasp saloon.

Now, after eleven weeks of resolutely staying in, those four evening, indelibly stamped in my memory as they are, feel not only like a relic of an almost forgotten time, but serve, at least in optimistic moments, as a totem for the future, however far off any return to ‘normality’ may be. The temporary loss of live music, opera and theatre only serves to remind us how valuable it is, and how lucky we are to have such treasures on our doorstep. We must do whatever we can to support artists and venues, so that when, eventually, we emerge from the pandemic, all this wonderful stuff is still out there to enjoy. It’s not a given, however. As Charlotte Higgins wrote recently, ‘The situation is especially serious in the performing arts. Music, dance, opera and theatre are in the mass-gathering business, and they will be among the last areas of public life to reopen.’

However generous we, as individuals, can be, converting our cancelled tickets into donations and the like, only the state has the power to ensure that our arts infrastructure survives the crisis. As Charlotte reminds us, it was the economist J.M.Keynes who, while also working to finalise the post-1945 economic settlement, also brought his influence to bear in the campaign that led to the establishment of The Arts Council. Reflecting on the success of efforts to restore the arts after six years during which theatres, opera houses and concert halls remained closed, Keynes observed that “we soon found that we were providing what had never existed even in peacetime”. Let’s hope we can use the opportunity presented by the eventual recovery from the pandemic as productively, to recognise the things we should value, and to ensure they receive the support and investment they need.

Those four dates in mid-March are now decorated with pink highlighter in my diary; the weeks that follow peppered with crossings out. The following weekend we were due to fly to Madrid for a couple of days. I’ve missed Operas by Dvorak, Janacek, Wagner and Strauss; concerts featuring the music of John Adams, Mahler and the rarely performed Busoni Piano Concerto, on my list for such a long time, that one. Glyndebourne is cancelled; let’s hope this season’s dazzling array of delights is transplanted wholesale into next year’s programme (a Rake’s Progress starring Louise Alder and Matthew Rose can’t be binned, surely?). Theatre wise, we still hope to see Leoploldstadt and The Southbury Child if they can be rescheduled. Ronnie Scott’s has moved our June booking for Trilok Gurtu to next March, and their first Milestones Festival at Ally Pally scheduled for July, featuring Kamisai Washington, has been put back a year. And, the the first UK tour by Van Der Graaf Generator for seven years has been rescheduled for November. My fingers are especially tightly crossed for this one.

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