Letter from London

Sue Limb on the London spring.

Visiting London in the first few months of 1998? You’ll find a city warming up to a sparkling spring season of events — from classics such as the Ideal Home Exhibition and the Boat Race to exotics such as the Chinese New Year and the Byzantine Festival, which commemorates the visit of Emperor Manuel Palaeologus to England in 1400. (Oh yeah, him.)

The days are getting longer, the light is strengthening, and sporty types will be cramming on their lycra. After the 44th London Boat Show at Earl’s Court (January 9–18), and more nautical fun at Sailboat & Windsurf ’98 (at Alexandra Palace), of course the high point of the year for water-babies is the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race on March 28.

Wander down to Putney Bridge, ogle the Hugh Grant look-alikes, and try and decide whether you’re a Cambridge type (dreamy, pastoral, honey for tea, etc.) or an Oxford wallah: bossy, egocentric and determined to be running the country by the time you’re 30. (I may be betraying my dreamy pastoral loyalties a bit here.)

Lads from the wrong side of the tracks who want to be millionaires these days just bypass Oxbridge and become snooker champions. The gripping Benson and Hedges Masters Tournament will take place at the Wembley Conference Centre. You won’t hear a pin drop or an oath uttered as the immaculately-clad cue-men lean out like figureheads over a sea of green baize.

If you want something noisier, the hot ticket as far as musicals are concerned is Chicago, starring Ruthie Henshall at the Adelphi. It’s sexy, sassy, and will vaporise your thermal underwear. Or try Smokey Joe’s Café at the Prince of Wales, where an all-American Broadway cast give an explosive show all they’ve got — from tear-jerking ballads to slick dance routines. It’s inspired by the songwriting duo Leiber & Stoller, who gave us Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock.

Other popular West End shows include Cats, Oliver, Grease, Miss Saigon, Stepping Out
and Jesus Christ Superstar. Two unmissable evenings are Martin Guerre, an unusual musical as it’s set in 16th-century France, and Blood Brothers, Willy Russell’s award-winning musical about twin boys separated at birth — a Shakespearean theme.

If you need your Shakespeare fix whilst in London, the RSC offers Hamlet and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the National has Othello, the most domestic tragedy — and perhaps, with its focus on race, most controversial to the modern age.

If you’re into arts and antiques, you’ll be spoilt for choice. In January the Cartier Exhibition will add a sparkle to the British Museum. The legendary jeweller’s own collection is on show, with additional pieces from public and private sources, some on display for the first time.

Leighton House Museum and Art Gallery has an Arabian Nights exhibition, examining the Victorians’ fascination with sultans, princesses, genies and flying carpets — highly appropriate for the pantomime season. The Victorians’ interest in fairies is the subject of a show at the Royal Academy of Arts, with examples from the work of Turner, Blake, Reynolds, Millais and the eccentric Richard Dadd.

If you like your history real and serious, visit the Imperial War Museum, where you can find out all about Enigma and the Code Breakers. Highly secret stuff, and fascinating for all aspiring spies. The museum has also been staging an exhibition called Surviving the Holocaust — unique photographs collected by Jack Kagan, a holocaust survivor who escaped and fought as a partisan.

The Museum of London has an exhibition highlighting the difference between madness and creativity, and the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the unique double bicentenary of two remarkable women. Mary Wollstonecraft, the first feminist, died in 1797 giving birth to her daughter, also a Mary, who grew up to marry the poet Shelley and wrote Frankenstein. This exhibition has the provocative title of Hyenas in Petticoats.

If you love paintings, there’s a Bonnard exhibition at the Tate Gallery, which includes a series of self-portraits, the largest ever brought together, and at the Dulwich Picture Gallery there’s a show called Italy and British Art in the Age of Turner which will make you feel you’ve travelled across the Alps for a fraction of the air fare.

When I go up to London for my springtime treat, Icons from Moscow at the Royal Academy of Arts will draw me like a magnet, as will Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs at the Hayward Gallery —Bresson’s candid and inspired glimpses of 20th-century street life have the quality of old masters, full of poignancy and humanity.

But I expect my daughter will want to drag me off to the Museum of the Moving Image where they’re into Hammer Horror in a big way. “As a tribute to 40 years of British horror, this exhibition promises a bonanza of blood and barely-restrained cleavage.” Money back if not affrighted.