Eye on England 15-06-2008

Summer’s lease hath all too short a date Summer colours Butterless chicken Bombay bordellos Tittle tattle

  • Published 15.06.08

Summer’s lease hath all too short a date

No country is more beautiful than England on a perfect summer’s day. Last Sunday was just such a day at Blenheim Palace, the idyllic 18th century home set in 2,100 acres of Oxfordshire countryside where Winston Churchill was born.

The ground slopes down to a lake that is surrounded by woods containing trees wearing the fresh green of early summer. Shakespeare was right: “summer’s lease hath too short a date”. There is nothing like an English summer, I find, to inspire a nostalgic sense of passing time.

Last weekend Blenheim was the setting for the Mazda-sponsored Triathlon. Against a ticking clock, an estimated 4,000 competitors had to swim 750 metres, followed immediately by a 19.3km bike ride and a 5.2km run. The fastest time recorded on what turned out to be a hot day was 1 hour 8 minutes 14 seconds.

The event was not strictly a race as the competitors were raising money for their favourite charities. My wife and I had turned up to lend a bit of parental support for Rajah whose charity was Ataxia, from which his great aunt, Sylvia, died in Colchester last year. He announced he was pretty hungry after clocking 1 hour 31 minutes 35 seconds.

Thanks to their university education, he and his friends knew that a certain pub, the Trout Inn, located by a “hidden brook in the leafy month of June”, in the Oxfordshire village of Wolvercote, would be open in the late afternoon. The village had a Common, an open area looked after by local residents, where a pair of swans could be seen in the distance. It is comforting to know such places still exist for this England is under threat.

After many twists and turns through the Oxfordshire countryside, we arrived to find a large family of Indian holidaymakers enjoying a late Sunday luncheon. This is welcome evidence that Indians are making the transition from tourists to travellers.

Summer colours

A natural transition back to London life was accorded by a retired Sikh couple, obviously on holiday in Britain, who preceded me into the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.

Later, in the room where the exhibits had been curated by Tracey Emin, who relishes her reputation as the “bad girl of British art”, I found another elderly Sikh woman taking off her glasses to ponder a sculpture composed of a cluster of erect penises. But lit from the side, the shadow of the intriguing object cast on the wall was that of two human heads back to back. Another “work of art” depicted a zebra having sex with a woman.

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, an event we could attempt in India, “is the largest open contemporary exhibition in the world, drawing together a wide range of new work by both established and unknown living artists,” says Britain’s premier institution for the visual arts. “Now in its 240th year, the exhibition includes around 1,200 works and the majority of the works are for sale.”

Anish Kapoor’s entry is a polished cone lying on its side, but, for once, he has been outdone by Jeff Koons’s outsize cracked egg like structure, with an electric blue metallic sheen. Dhruva Mistry has two offerings — stainless steel and paint — while Shanti Panchal has a watercolour of a man on a sofa watching a nude woman. The only new name among Indians appeared to be that of Savita Patel, who had done a portrait of a Rajasthani woman in traditional dress.

The Summer Exhibition, which is sponsored by Insight Investment, an asset management group, runs until August 17. Choosing from thousands of works sent in from all over the country by professionals and amateurs alike somehow makes the whole bigger than the sum of its individual parts. The way the paintings cover all four walls, for example in the academy’s Small Weston Room, is almost a work of art itself.

This year there appeared to be a lot of screen prints of photographs plus a room set aside for the latest trends in cutting edge architecture. Jaded critics tend to sneer at safe art but I, knowing next to nothing about the subject, still like those paintings which reflect the beauty of nature. There was one of the trees at the back of a house in Islington, north London, with the leaves in autumn colours. Another was of snow in Times Square in New York.

As I was leaving, another Sikh couple were going in. Are they the new culture vultures of India or is it that Sikhs have always had a soft spot for the arts?

Butterless chicken

Pankaj Mishra, author of Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, should now write a sequel, Butter Chicken(less) in London.

This is because Kartar Lalvani, who already runs a flourishing business, Vitabiotics, making vitamin pills, gave a party last week to launch his latest venture.

This is a new Indian restaurant, Indali Lounge, at 50, Baker Street, dedicated to the “art of healthy Indian dining”.

According to its mission statement, “Indali uniquely pioneers an approach that preserves ancient Ayurvedic principles to produce an unparalleled cuisine that has finally made Indian dining healthy”.

Like all new men, 76-year-old Kartar himself enjoys cooking and spent hours in the kitchen, making sure all was well before his guests arrived.

“We serve Butter Chicken but without the butter,” he explained to me, eyes glistening with missionary zeal.

The street’s best-known residents, Lord Swraj Paul (103 Baker Street), and a well-known detective (221b Baker Street), are expected to be among his customers.

Bombay bordellos

India was once sexually liberated compared with Victorian England but has now, ironically, adopted some of the repressive attitudes that its former colonial ruler has rejected.

This is the opinion of Rupert Everett, an openly gay English actor, who last week presented a TV documentary, The Victorian Sex Explorer, on his hero, Sir Richard Burton (1821-90).

This was the explorer who investigated the bordellos of Bombay, befriended courtesans, prostitutes and hijras, learnt Arabic before sneaking into Mecca, and translated the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden.

Burton was sent by his army bosses to spy on fellow British soldiers at a male brothel in Karachi but his report on the Indian boys at the establishment convinced his superiors that their man could not have been a detached observer.

The documentary, in which Everett retraces Burton’s footsteps, begins with the actor approaching the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay from the sea.

“My grandfather was born in India and three generations of my family served there,” says the actor who clearly identifies with Burton.

A group of Hijras tells Everett that they happily have sex with men but never with women though many have retained their male genitalia.

“We are not lesbians,” protests the head Hijra.

When Everett touches his cheek, the latter makes the Englishman’s day by squealing coquettishly: “Oh, he’s flirting with me.”

Tittle tattle

A great honour awaits Sanjay Leela Bhansali who directed the French opera, Padmavati, in Paris in March, and Tanusree Shankar’s classical dance troupe from Calcutta. Their Padmavati, I can confirm, has been invited to open the 51st “Festival of the Two Worlds” of opera and music in Spoleto in Italy on June 27.