I love the way that chocolate remains inert until you put it into your mouth and it gradually reaches body temperature, dissolving into goo and working its eagerly anticipated magic on the taste buds. If you like the stuff you would have been delighted to come across, as we did by chance, thirty or more market stalls displaying the produce of chocolatiers from far and wide. It was a spectacular demonstration of the diversity and excellence of their skills but, unfortunately, it was outdoors and, with a sub-zero temperature and a Siberian wind whipping the canvas, customers were reluctant to linger. Although I admired the confections, I didn't buy: it was too cold to take my gloves off and fumble with banknotes and, in any case, I had begun to doubt if my own body temperature would ever return to the requisite level.
We were on London’s South Bank, en route to catch the exhibition called Light Show (a phrase I still associate with early Pink Floyd concerts). It’s a pot pourri of electric-light art installations made during the last 50 years and it’s very popular (advance booking required) but, while some of the pieces are certainly intriguing, its classification as art is debatable: the attraction seems to consist mainly in the spectacle of coloured lights. Back up North we are quite familiar with this phenomenon: the annual Blackpool Illuminations (no booking required) are a hundred times more spectacular and have been drawing millions of viewers every year since 1879. However, the one thing the Light Show did demonstrate is that advances in technology do not necessarily equate with imaginative leaps forward: those psychedelic slide projections of the 60s still shine brightly in my consciousness - although that may have something to do with the circumstances of the time.
Our next stop was the National Theatre where we watched a gritty Northern drama played out in front of an effete Southern audience. Despite the authenticity of the dialogue and the accents (I lived 20 years in the place it was set) the audience needed no explanatory sur-titles because Northern TV dramas have long since prepared the ground. Although the actors deserved the enthusiastic applause at the curtain, to my mind the production contained more grit than drama and scarcely justified our journey from the real-life setting to the staging.
The next day we set out for a stroll around central London but, with the wind so cold that it hurt our faces, shelter soon became a priority and we found it in Boca di Lupo, an Italian restaurant in Soho. The excellence of this place must be in part a consequence of the fierce competition in the area. Customers here are too sophisticated to be palmed off with pale imitations of stock dishes, pantomime Italian waiters and special offers. Consequently a breed of establishments has evolved, like this, so stylishly Italian it almost hurts. As we ate, our journey South no longer seemed so futile.
After lunch it was the strikingly handsome face of a North American Indian, rather than the promise of shelter, which attracted us into the National Portrait Gallery. His face stares down from posters and is one of a series of portraits, painted in the 1830s by George Catlin, who made several expeditions into the western United States to document all the tribes and their traditions. His work is not only an invaluable pre-photographic record but also evidence of his personal empathy with a people that, in his own words, “had been invaded, their morals corrupted, their lands wrested from them, their customs changed and, therefore, lost to the world”.
He subsequently made his living touring the paintings, along with an entourage of Indians - and their tepees - around America and Europe. While not considered to be an A-list painter, audiences nevertheless flocked to his shows and, whilst we can’t be sure that they shared his sympathies, we can be sure that people then loved a spectacle - just as they do nowadays.