I went to London today. Twice in two weeks is above my natural rate nowadays, and I'm going to a concert next week, but I was catching up with my very patient and twice postponed university friend. I should have been suspicious when I arrived at Colchester station that the man behind me in the queue for the cash machine was talking on his mobile about how a taxi to Ipswich would be thirty pounds, but it took me a minute to twig that some kind of major disruption was unfolding. As all services to and from Ipswich and Norwich began to disappear from the board I heard a mention of the emergency services being called to an incident near Manningtree, and gathered that something very bad had happened.
The chap at the ticket office said that the 10.32 ought to be running normally because that came from Clacton, so I bought a ticket and texted my friend to warn her that my entire budgeted extra travel time for contingencies had now gone. Then Abellio Greater Anglia had the unexpectedly brilliant idea of turning round the terminated Norwich train and redesignating it the 10.03 to Liverpool Street, which was the service I'd been trying to catch. After that I wouldn't have known there was anything amiss, apart from the guard walking up and down the train checking that everybody on it understood that they were now going to London and not Norwich. And the poor woman sitting next to me, who had paid to park at Manningtree before discovering there were no trains, driven to Colchester, paid to park again, and was now trying very hard not to be stressed while rearranging her day.
We met for lunch at the St Pancras branch of Fortnum and Mason. I had no idea there was such a thing, but the location suited my friend, and practically everywhere there is to eat in central London seems to be part of a corporate chain nowadays. I opted for avocado on toast, which I enjoyed at the time, only to see in the Evening Standard on the way home that peak avocado has been reached, avocado is So Last Year, and Instagram is practically collapsing under the weight of avocado on toast photographs. That is my life as a country bumpkin. By the time I even hear of a thing it is already over. But I like avocado, and didn't want the chicken salad because the menu didn't say anything about it being free range, though I managed to not preachily point this out to my friend, who had chosen chicken.
We had scones by way of pudding, which came with the most enormous pots of jam I have ever seen served as part of a cream tea. I ate as much jam as I could fit on my scones, and put the remaining half jar in my handbag for later, and my friend enquired whether I would like hers as well. When I asked if she didn't want it she pulled a slight face and said that she was worried about leakage. She did have a meeting to go to that afternoon, and I can see that turning up to a business meeting and then discovering that your handbag was full of jam would not enhance your image as a management consultant. I, on the other hand, am free to channel my inner Moominmamma with impunity. I like jam, and it seemed a shame to waste it.
After lunch I went to see Artist and Empire at Tate Britain, which closes this Sunday, another last minute dash to something I have almost missed. I did miss Frank Auerbach, which left me mildly regretful since while it's good to try things I don't think I much like Auerbach from what I've seen of him. I was pretty confident that with two days ago the exhibition would not be heaving. It has had mixed reviews, five out of five stars and billed as a captivating view by the Guardian, but dammed as painfully earnest by the Telegraph, and only one star from Time Out. By now the whole idea of Empire is so toxic that people seem to find it difficult to say anything sensible on the subject, but I thought it was an interesting show. Not visually ravishing, for the most part, definitely art as message rather than medium, but interesting. Most of the works in it are depictions by western artists of their colonial realms and subjects, there are a few objects brought back from Empire but not too many (otherwise the exhibition would have to be the size of the British Museum), and some works by the Imperial subjects themselves. And yes, a sketch map of the Society Islands by a Polynesian with the local names written on is an interesting counterpoint to the painting of the fortifications at Whitby, Tangiers.
My absolute favourite thing was a carving by a Yoruba artist of the future Edward VIII. The side parting, those very full lower lids, and most of all the faintly pained, faintly bored, utterly entitled expression, the artist had got him down to a T. There were some great colonial officials on bicycles and at their desks as well. All the time we were finding our Empire exotic, they were finding us equally strange.