Thursday, 27 May 2010

For the aspiring writer ...

... some notable quotables from Sylvia Plath, American novelist, poet and enfant terrible of mid-twentieth century literary world (1932 - 1963).

"Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt".

Don't be shy about sending off those ideas to editors and publishers, because Sylvia also gives us the following food for thought - "Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing"!

Did you know ...

... that the famous Chupa Chup lollipop logo was designed by the iconic surrealist painter Salvador Dalì?

Chupa Chups, the world's first lollipop, was invented by Spaniard Enric Bernat in 1958. Originally marketed as "a bonbon on a stick", the product proved hugely popular with children. In 1969, Dalì was commissioned to come up with a logo which would help the brand break into lucrative foreign markets. The vibrant yellow-and-red design was born.

Soon the lollipops were being sold to international markets, reaching Asia and Australia during the 1970s, and Northern Europe and America in the 1980s. Over the years, the size of the lollipops has varied, and the number of flavours is continually increasing (there are now over 50 Chupa Chup flavours to choose from).

However, the one thing that has remained constant is the lollipop's logo. Loud, unique and instantly recognisable (much like the artist himself), it is as much a part of Dalì's legacy as his surrealist masterpieces hanging in galleries the world over.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Going, Going, Gone - What's the Point of Art Theft?

In the very early hours of last Wednesday, under cover of night, one of the most audacious art heists in recent history took place in Paris. The scene of the crime was La Musée d’Art Moderne, opposite the Eiffel Tower, directly across the moonlit Seine. A lone masked robber gained access to the famed museum by cutting a padlock and smashing a window pane at the rear of the building. Once inside, the bandit, moving quickly, helped himself to five famous artworks by 20th century masters, valued at around €100 million. The thief’s modus operandi involved brazenly cutting the paintings from their frames, rolling them up and making off by the same route from whence he came.

The impressive haul included “Le Pigeon Aux Petits-Pois” by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse’s “La Pastorale” and “L’Olivier près de l’Estaque” by Picasso’s cubism period sidekick Georges Braque. Lesser works by Fernand Leger and Amedeo Modigliani were also taken.

The robbery, however daring, was well-planned and flawlessly executed. The paintings hung near each other in the gallery, and the rear window used to enter and exit is in close proximity to the lanes of traffic that zoom ceaselessly by along the banks of the Seine – a perfect escape route which allowed the thief to vanish into thin air! Images of the bandit going about his dastardly business were caught on numerous CCTV cameras inside the museum. Authorities, however, are puzzled as to why the museum’s sophisticated alarm systems were not triggered. The fact that the three watchmen on duty failed to notice that anything was amiss until the cold light of morning has raised suspicions that the robber may have had inside help, or at least inside knowledge.

Upon discovery of the robbery, the French authorities swung into action. The museum was sealed off and experts began searching for clues. The frames, erstwhile homes to the missing masterpieces, were taken away for forensic analysis. Unfortunately, all this effort may already be too late. The innocuous nature of the loot makes it easily and swiftly transportable. Moving five rolled-up paintings is infinitely easier than moving €100 million, the equivalent cash value. Interpol was alerted two days after the robbery, indicating that authorities believe that the paintings may have already left France.

Given the widespread media coverage of this theft, you would be forgiven for thinking that such a daring robbery is rare. In fact, the opposite is true. Depressingly, art theft is a thriving business. The day after the Paris heist, another Picasso was stolen from the home of an art collector in Marseilles. The unfortunate owner was beaten by the intruder. There has been a spate of similar robberies in Marseilles during the past year. Last January, thieves made off with about 30 paintings, again including a work by Picasso, from another private collection. The previous month, an impressionist piece by Edgar Degas, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, was stolen from a Marseilles museum.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. According to the Art Loss Register (, a database of stolen artworks, there are around 170,000 missing works of art. Interestingly, Pablo Picasso is the most sought after artist, with over 550 missing pieces.

Why is art theft so prevalent? What exactly is the point of going to so much trouble to steal an artwork when the re-sale options are so limited? To be in possession of stolen works is instantly incriminating, so thieves will want to offload the loot quickly. But who would the prospective buyers be? A lot of stolen art, especially by well-known masters, is instantly recognizable. Even to the untrained eye, a Picasso or a Matisse is easily identifiable, so duping a hapless buyer into purchasing a stolen artwork is not a feasible or reliable option. Indeed, any art acquired illegally on the black market could never be exhibited publically; it would have to be hidden away from view forever. Any buyer who is brave enough to purchase a stolen piece is taking on substantial risk - this fact alone means the re-sale value of stolen pieces plummets dramatically on the black market.

In reality, most stolen artwork is not sold on the black market. Increasingly, the paintings are held as “hostages”, while thieves demand ransom payments for their safe return, either from the museum or from the State. In 2005, the Tate Britain paid £3.1 million to recover two paintings by Turner, which had been stolen in 1994 while on loan to a gallery in Frankfurt. (The matter had to be dealt with very carefully, as ransom payments are illegal in the UK. It transpired that the Tate eventually paid a reward as opposed to a ransom – however, the distinction between the two is hazy at best!)

In some cases, stolen masterpieces are used as bargaining chips to help broker deals in the underworld, sometimes being exchanged for drugs or weapons. We also cannot discount the possibility that some of these thefts are “made-to-order”, for wealthy, ruthless individuals with powerful connections and low morals.

This collision between the art world and the underworld is ugly and disheartening. Depriving the public of such profound masterpieces is a highly selfish act, which flies in the face of all that art is supposed to represent. I cannot think of a worse fate for a Picasso or a Matisse or a Degas - to be hidden away, unappreciated, its beauty forever tainted with the dirty fingerprints of its captors.

Christophe Girard, the culture deputy for the mayor of Paris summed up the situation when he said: “This is a crime against the heritage of humanity”. Are the paintings lost forever? Or will they be eventually returned to their rightful place in humanity's heritage? Only time will tell ...

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Warhol's Prophecy

The remarkably perspicacious Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987), predicting society's demise into shallow obsessions with consumerism, fame and the materialistic, inadvertently coined a new phrase which would live on in our vernacular 40 years later ...
"In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes".
... a spookily accurate prediction!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Who Wrote Shakespeare ... The World's Longest-Running Conspiracy Theory?

The controversy surrounding the Shakespearean authorship question has been rumbling along for many years, centuries even.  Indeed, doubts as to whether William Shakespeare of Stratford really penned the great sonnets and plays attributed to him first surfaced around 1795. Since then, contrarians (or anti-Stratfordians, as they have come to be known) have been on an unrelenting quest to prove that Shakespeare’s work was written pseudonymously. Like all good conspiracy theories, the path to discover the truth has been strewn with deception, intrigue, falsifications and a handful of less-than-savoury characters. There have even been ciphers and code-breakers thrown into the mix. A number of high-profile skeptics (Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, Orson Welles and Sigmund Freud to name but a few) have given credence to the debate.

The root of the controversy lies in the fact that we actually know very little about Shakespeare. We have scant details around which we have built a skeletal biography, but there are large gaps in our knowledge, wherein lies the temptation to embellish. So, what facts do we have to play with? We know William Shakespeare was born circa April 1564, the son of a glover from Stratford-upon-Avon in rural Oxfordshire. We know, at the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who bore him three children; a daughter Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith. Soon after the twins birth, he left his family and went to work in London. He found success as an actor, writer and part-owner of a theatre company called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later to become The Kings Men, after James I succeeded Elizabeth to the throne). He would go on to spend the majority of his working life in London, until he retired to Stratford in 1613 (where he would die three years later). We know he was a businessman as well as an actor; a few surviving receipts and ledger entries indicate that he was a malt-trader and money-lender. We also know he was concerned about his social standing, because there is a record of him applying for “gentleman’s status” later in life when he had become wealthy from his various endeavours.

Aside from the above, there is very little that can be proven about Shakespeare’s life. The paucity of documental evidence has led to much speculation, as we try to fill in the blanks; these suppositions have filtered down through time until we come to believe them to be “fact”. For example, given we know Shakespeare spent so much time in London, it has been assumed that his marriage to Anne Hathaway was unhappy. This hypothesis has become so pervasive, it is now taken as a universal truth. However, whether or not the marriage was an unhappy one can never be proven.

In his book “Contested Will – Who Wrote Shakespeare?”, James Shapiro examines how the gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and history have given rise to many controversies and fuelled the ensuing authorship debate. Shapiro focuses on two main factions of the anti-Stratfordian brigade – the Baconians (who supported the hypothesis that Francis Bacon was the real author) and the Oxfordians (who believed that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was the true bard). He not only discusses what each group believed, but also why each side believed what they did. He also comes to his own conclusions regarding the authorship debate. The book makes for very interesting reading.

All Shakespeare doubters, Baconians and Oxfordians alike, seem to fundamentally agree on one thing. The crux of the dissent rests on the belief that a glovers son from rural Oxfordshire could not have possibly been the real author, because he would have lacked the necessary education and life experience to produce such accomplished work. They argue that a man of limited means and education could never have gained the knowledge of politics, law, royal courts and foreign countries which are evident in the plays. It follows then, that the real author must surely have been an aristocrat, someone much higher up the social ladder than a poor boy from the country. This theory, advocated by Twain, James, Freud et al., smacks of intellectual snobbery and a fundamental lack of imagination. Indeed, Charlie Chaplin (who, it should be noted, was not known for his own intellectual prowess) declared that “… I hardly think it was the boy from Stratford - whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude”.

Mark Twain (a Baconian) was adamant in his belief that all writers compose from their own experiences; that is, they cannot write with authority about “what they know from hearsay”. He steadfastly asserted that everything written is in some way autobiographical. This belief that the writer’s life makes its way onto the page (either consciously or sub-consciously) formed the foundations of his contrarian stance. How could a man of such limited life experience write so convincingly of love, jealously and loss? Shapiro shrewdly points out that, given the large blanks in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s early years, how can we know whether or not he received a good education? How can we arbitrarily decide whether he travelled extensively or not? In effect, we cannot fill in the blanks with guesswork. In addition, the author also deftly defuses Twain's central argument by showing that an autobiographical approach to writing is a relatively new development, gaining prominence in the nineteenth century. Self-revelation, that is exposing the authors true feelings and thoughts through his characters, was not a method employed in Shakespeare’s time. The writer’s imagination was deployed to much greater effect then than now.

Henry James (also of the Baconian school of thought) took exception to what he regarded as Shakespeare of Stratford's unsavoury business dealings. The American author revealed his true pretentious self when he declared Shakespeare's business dealings as "extremely vulgar". He believed the true author of the plays and sonnets would have been far too high-minded to engage in anything so common as malt-trading and money-lending. This patronizing and condescending attitude was another example of intellectual snobbery and can hardly be taken as conclusive proof that Shakespeare did not write the plays.

Both sects went to extreme measures to prove their man was the rightful author of Shakespeare’s works. With a lack of any real evidence, both Baconians and Oxfordians employed strange and sometimes ridiculous tactics to try to reveal the “truth”. Proponents of the Francis Bacon theory fervently believed that the entire body of work attributed to Shakespeare were actually ciphers, that the plays and sonnets contained hidden messages which would not only confirm Bacon as the bard, but would also reveal explosive political secrets of the Elizabethan period that could not have been disclosed at the time of writing. Code-breaking machines were duly constructed in an attempt to de-cipher the hidden messages. Needless to say, no substantive messages were ever found.

Similarly, Oxfordians put great weight on the fact that anagrams of the name “Vere” were commonplace throughout the plays (as in words like “very” and “every). Coupled with the line “Every word doth almost tell my name” from Sonnet 76, supporters of the Earl of Oxford were convinced they had backed the right man.

Shapiro, who has always believed Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, affords all these outlandish theories a large degree of respect. He dutifully discusses all hypotheses at length, while admirably steering clear of the temptation to denounce all detractors as lunatics (notwithstanding the fact that one Baconian, a certain Delia Bacon, no relation, did end up living out her days in an asylum while  others died penniless and disillusioned as a result of their vain quest). Instead of engaging in hyperbolic condemnations and vehement denials, Shapiro quietly and elegantly disproves the majority of the Baconian and Oxfordian conjectures. Indeed, the author doesn’t waste time disproving the more outrageous claims (for example: that both Bacon and Oxford were Elizabeth I’s illegitimate children, and that Oxford went on to become her incestuous lover) – he allows these theories to speak for themselves. In doing so, he gracefully builds his own case in favour of Shakespeare being the true mastermind behind the works. And it must be said, his reasoning is distinctly more balanced, scholarly and believable than some of the high-profile detractors who have gone before him.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A Tough Critic

Another quote from the irreverent Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967) to brighten your day ...

When reviewing a novel, said to be Benito Mussolini's "The Cardinal's Mistress", she came to the following conclusion:

"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force!"

Top of the Pops - A Chronicle in Pictures

On 30 April this year, an extraordinary exhibition was launched in the V&A with remarkably little fanfare. The exhibition, nestled in the seldom-visited Theatre & Performance Gallery on the museum’s first floor, is called “My Generation: The Glory Days of British Rock”, and is an anthology of photographs taken behind the scenes of the music chart-show Top of The Pops from 1964 to 1973. The photographer was the then relatively unknown Harry Goodwin who, over the course of a decade, would go on to produce some of the most iconic pop images of a generation.

Top of The Pops burst onto our screens on New Years Day, 1964. The show, which was initially broadcast live, featured the pop and rock acts with songs in the British charts. The very first show included performances by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Dusty Springfield and The Hollies. Originally scheduled for only a few episodes, TOTP enjoyed instant success. Defying all expectations, the weekly show would continue for another 42 years, its run only coming to an end in 2006.

Harry was already in his forties when he was employed by the BBC as resident stills photographer on the fledgling music show. In the beginning he was paid only £30 per week, although he would eventually go on to receive a pay-rise and a mention in the closing credits as the show grew in popularity. His shots of the often reluctant stars would be used as background stills when the acts were unable to perform on the show.

The exhibition, made up of 200 images, is a veritable who’s who of 1960’s and 70’s rock and pop. The list of subjects is as impressive as it is expansive - from a youthful Paul McCartney and Keith Richards, pictured drinking tea and Coca-Cola respectively, to Sony and Cher, Ike and Tina, the Jackson 5 and John Lennon. Glam rock features heavily, with candid shots of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan, The Who and The Alice Cooper Band. The image of Jimi Hendrix playing guitar with his teeth is now famous in it’s own right (the shot was, apparently, improvised by Hendrix himself, without any input from the photographer).

Perhaps the most interesting image is of the famously camera-shy Bob Dylan. Grumpy and un-cooperative, Dylan was proving a difficult subject. Harry overcame this reticence, and extracted a little revenge, by temporarily blinding Dylan with the camera flash – the resulting image of a petulant Dylan speaks volumes.

For anybody interested in photography or pop history, this exhibition is not to be missed!

Incidentally, while you are there, make sure to pop next door to the Paintings & Drawings Gallery, where prints and sketches from Picasso (including “The Frugal Repast”) can be found in glorious juxtaposition with Warhol’s famous Marilyn Monroe prints, among many others.

My Generation - The Glory Years of British Rock
Victoria & Albert Museum
30 April - 24 October 2010
Admission Free

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Sex, Lies & Virginia - Escaping Bloomsbury

The renowned group of artists, writers and intellectuals, who collectively became known as "The Bloomsbury Group", have been the subject of innumerable books and biographies in recent years. This may be due to the fact that Bloomsbury (whose members included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the painter Vanessa Bell and her husband Clive, the artists Duncan Grant and Roger Fry and the economist John Maynard Keynes) were highly influential in the fields of art, literature and economics during the first part of the 20th century. The Group (which incidentally derived its name from the fact that most members lived in close proximity to each other in the Bloomsbury Square area of London) advocated intellectual and sexual freedom. Indeed, the latter is probably the reason why Bloomsbury has held our fascination for so long – the complicated friendships, family ties and romantic entanglements prove irresistible to our curiosity, as we strive to discover what makes this group of extraordinary people tick, both individually and collectively.

Angelica Garnett’s "Deceived with Kindness - A Bloomsbury Childhood" is not simply another revisitation of a now-familiar subject. Her book gives us rare and fascinating insight into Bloomsbury, not as an outsider looking in, but as a witness to the intimate workings of this exceptional group. The illegitimate daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and Virginia Woolf’s niece, Angelica Garnett was raised in the company of, and under the influence of, some of the most respected intellectuals and artists of their day. Hers is a fascinating story.

Born on Christmas Day, 1918, Angelica grew up at Charleston in Sussex (now a museum) with her mother, her much-older brothers Quentin and Julian, and her mother’s close friend and confidante, Duncan. She believed her father to be Clive Bell (Vanessa’s estranged husband), a lie perpetrated by Clive himself, in a bid to prevent his family from disinheriting the child. Despite being surrounded by artistic and intellectual heavyweights, hers was a closeted up-bringing. Spoilt and doted upon, Angelica was, by her own volition, a much –loved child. Her relationship with her mother, however, was strained – mainly due to Vanessa’s inwardness, secretiveness and possessiveness. It was not until Angelica was seventeen, when her mother disclosed the truth about her father, that she began to understand the reason for her mother’s cautious and reserved demeanour.

Angelica was the product of an ill-fated love affair between Duncan and Vanessa. Duncan was predominately homosexual and very promiscuous, whereas Vanessa, it seems, remained in love and devoted to him all her life. Vanessa’s liberal acceptance of Duncan’s lifestyle appears to be a desperate attempt to hang onto him, no matter what – a desperation disguised as intellectual detachment. The lie about Angelica’s paternity is a central theme in the book, as it becomes obvious that her life has been irrevocably shaped by the repercussions of this insidious untruth.

Being a child of Bloomsbury, Angelica also had the unenviable task of trying to forge a life for herself outside the tight-knit group. Marked out as different from an early age, she struggled to establish an identity for herself. She did not have the intellectual aptitude of her aunt Virginia Woolf, nor did she excel at painting like her parents. She even admits Virginia was “disappointed” with her, having not lived up to expectations. In a bid to assert her independence, to loosen herself from her mother’s possessive hold and her aunt’s disapproving eye, she married David “Bunny” Garnett at the age of 24. Bunny, an author and publisher, was 26 years her senior and a friend of her parents. He pursued her intently for 6 years, despite being married with children. (His wife subsequently died, leaving him free to marry Angelica). It was only after her marriage that she discovered that Bunny had been Duncan’s gay lover years earlier. Bunny was also present at her birth, when he declared he would eventually marry her. He wrote to a friend: “I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 -- will it be scandalous?” And so, it seems, in marrying Bunny, far from escaping her mother and Bloomsbury in general, she found herself entangled even more, trapped in an unhappy marriage with the shadow of her parents constantly looming over her. Bloomsbury defined her, and she could never escape its grasp.

This book feels like one long exercise in self-analysis – the incestuous and Freudian undertones are unmistakable. Although the author at times comes across as self-obsessed and ego-centric, one imagines that she is as surprised as the reader about what she discovers during this process of self-discovery. "Deceived with Kindness" is an intriguing book, which not only gives us unique insight into the legend that is Bloomsbury, but which charts one woman’s extraordinary journey trying to cast off the familial and social ties that bind her. A captivating read.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Passing Years

Fragile little columns, alive with tiny dancing flames, candles on the birthday cake mark another passing year.

To the young, standing on the precipice of the unknown, they are beacons of hope. Blinded by eager vitality and abounding energy, the young have much to learn.

Year by year, as the candles grow plentiful, hope is replaced by loss – loss of time, loss of faith, evaporating hopes and dreams. Time waits for no man.

The little lights are illuminated every year, but just for a short while. Nothing lasts forever. All too quickly, their delicate glow extinguished, easily snuffed out with one breath. (Make a wish!)

What do we wish for? Health, happiness, love? We wish for what we can’t have - the merciless onward march of time ensures all these things will be gradually taken from us, never to be returned.

The little lights are illuminated every year … until they light no more.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Google Doodle - Music Trumps Politics

Yesterday, as the British nation went to the polls in the first General Election in five years, Google commemorated the occasion by incorporating the famous door of No. 10 Downing Street into its Doodle du jour. After a hard-fought and dramatic campaign, the country woke up this morning to a parliamentary system plunged into chaos, as it became clear that the ballot failed to return a decisive winner. As politicians and electorate alike scrambled to make sense of this unfolding drama, I was almost expecting the Google Doodle to continue with its political theme, as a reflection of the uncertain and uncharted waters in which we now found ourselves.

This was not to be the case. Instead, Google elected (excuse the pun!) to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the birth of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky – a more tranquil subject, I’m sure you’ll agree, and a welcome distraction from the political battle that rages all around us. The Doodle itself is rather beautiful, composed of a number of dancers in ballet poses vaguely representing the Google logo. It is unquestionably one of the more artistic Doodle offerings of late.

And of course, the acclaimed composer is a very worthy subject. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky entered the world on 7th May 1840, born into a middle class family with a long history of military service. His father, Ilya, was an engineer, and his mother Alexandra (Ilya’s second wife) was of French extraction. He began piano lessons at five years of age, and proved himself a prodigious student. However, after initially supporting his musical education, his parents’ enthusiasm eventually waned, and they insisted he attend a school which would groom him for a career in the civil service. As a result, Tchaikovsky’s musical ambitions were put on hold for several years. He entered the civil service in 1859, at the age of 19, and remained there for three years. Upon leaving, he continued his musical education, enrolling to study at the St Petersburg Conservatory. He graduated in 1865, and composed his First Symphony a year later. And so began an incredible career, lasting until his early death in 1893, at the age of 53.

During Tchaikovsky’s relatively short life, which saw professional successes marred by a turbulent and troubled personal life, the gifted composer produced many of the enduring pieces from the Romantic era. His most famous works are the ballets "Swan Lake", "The Sleeping Beauty", and "The Nutcracker". He was equally proficient in composing operas, "Eugene Onegin" probably being the most well known. In addition, he composed a host of symphonies and concertos. This prolific output ensured that his legacy was guaranteed, and it is a testament to his genius that we find the time to celebrate him today, in the midst of the biggest political and social upheaval of a generation.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Life Through The Lens

Irving Penn (1917 - 2009) was an influential American photographer who specialised in portraiture and fashion photography. Having worked at Harper's Bazaar and American Vogue before setting up his own studio, he was to become one of the most successful portrait photographers of all time. He died last year at the age of 92.

This is what he had to say about the relationship between a camera and it's sometimes reluctant subjects ...

"Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show they world ... very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares believes"

The River Cafe - A Disappointing Pilgrimage

The River Café is an eatery which has been on my dining wish list since arriving in the UK over three years ago. Established in 1987, it has become one of the most enduring and iconic restaurants on the London dining scene, surviving two major economic recessions, a devastating fire, and more recently, the death of one of it’s co-founders Rose Gray. It gained a prestigious Michelin Star a year after opening, which it has retained ever since.

Initially opened as a staff canteen, the restaurant rose quickly from its humble beginnings and soon gained popularity among London’s movers and shakers. The River Café has numerous claims to fame. It is widely credited as enlightening the British dining public to the fact that there is more to Italian cuisine than spaghetti bolognese and tiramisu. It is also renowned for revolutionising restaurant design - it was one of the first restaurants to have the now familiar open-plan kitchen. But perhaps the most notable of all, The River Café is responsible for introducing the world to Jamie Oliver.

Barely out of his teens, Jamie trained at the River Café for three years, having moved there from Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant. During the recording of a documentary about the Café, Jamie was asked to film a five minute segment. A sharp-eyed producer noticed the appeal of the cheeky chappie, and not long afterwards he was offered his own TV show. The Naked Chef was born!

Being a massive fan of the inimitable Mr. Oliver, and an even bigger fan of Italian food, I certainly didn’t argue when my husband suggested the River Café as a birthday treat! Bearing in mind the popularity of the restaurant (it has become a place of pilgrimage for many J.O. devotees like myself), we booked our table a month in advance. We were unperturbed when we were politely informed that that first evening sitting was from 7pm to 9pm - this is a common time restriction in popular, high turnover restaurants. But boy, were we kept to the clock! Arriving at 7pm on the dot, we were ushered to our seats so quickly that I barely had time to take in the surroundings. Being one of the first parties to arrive, the wait staff descended upon us with breathtaking swiftness. After perusing the menu for barely a minute, our waitress began pestering us for our order. We requested more time to consider the menu. The wine list, being entirely in Italian, was confusing, and so Hubby asked for the sommelier for some much-needed advice. Before the sommelier arrived, we were again asked for our food order, at which point we got a bit huffy, declaring that we would like to order the wine before food.

Scarcely five minutes after our arrival, we ordered our food and wine and I excused myself to visit the ladies room. Upon returning to the table I was astonished to discover my entrée sitting waiting for me, going cold. After gulping down our first course, our second course was served with the same lightening speed, and by 7.30pm we were ready for dessert! By this stage the restaurant had filled to capacity - which was no mean feat considering the number of tiny tables crammed like sardines into every available space on the dining room floor. The place was packed to the rafters, a hive of activity! Wait staff jostled with customers trying to manoeuvre in the tiny spaces between tables, our chairs were being constantly bumped by other diners, the cacophony of noise was deafening.

Stubbornly determined to remain at our table until the 9pm curfew, I lingered over my dessert for an hour, which gave me time to absorb the setting. If I am honest, I didn’t find the décor aesthetically pleasing. After being almost destroyed by fire in 2008, the restaurant was completely refurbished, and I suspect the design has lost some of its charm. What was a state-of-the art lay-out in 1987 now feels like a school cafeteria. Paper coverings over the tablecloths were quite off-putting. One would at least expect linen table coverings from a Michelin-starred restaurant! The bathrooms are painted in headache-inducing neon colours. And let’s not forget the ridiculously huge projection clock which dominates the back wall of the restaurant – a constant reminder of our two-hour time limit, just in case we forget ourselves and start to relax over dinner!

The food was delicious, but not without its faults. The crab linguine was overpowered by too much fennel; the chilli-and-garlic squid was so hot it numbed the roof of my mouth. Desserts of gelati and the signature chocolate ‘Nemesis’ cake were sublime, although our after-dinner cappuccinos were almost cold! Prices were exorbitant. A small plate of pasta cost almost £20, while my husband’s medium-rare steak set us back £35. The owners certainly know how to squeeze customers for every last penny!

On the whole, I expected much more from this iconic restaurant. The food was good, but so it should be for £100-a-head. There is a disconcerting sensation that one is on a conveyor belt, being hurried in and out as quickly as possible to maximise turnover – the “churn ‘em and burn ‘em” system is barely disguised. The River Café is not for the faint-hearted. However, if you are brave enough to try this restaurant, don’t risk a trip to the loo – you may very well miss a course!!