2021, the year of lockdown.

After spending the night at Suzy Treister and Richard Grayson’s beautiful flat overlooking Hampstead Heath, on January 13th, I went with them to a symposium on the work of Anselm Kiefer held at White Cube, Bermondsy. Hans Ulrich Obrist led the panel discussion of Kiefer’s extraordinary show ‘Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot’, with Kiefer himself doing his best to explain how he approached this, to me, most difficult scientific theory. I grasped the theory, basically ‘everything is connected’ but didn’t really see how he had applied it to the work. 

But, before that, we all had a wonderful lunch. A long table had been set up right down the centre of the gallery and there we sat, surrounded by Kiefer’s enormous monochromatic paintings, enjoying fine wines and food. The guests appeared to be about half scientists and half from the art world. The people across from me and to one side were from Imperial College. To my right, a late arrival, was a beautifully dressed young woman who apologised for being late. She had just flown in on her employer’s private jet from Gstaad. ’He was talking about this lunch and decided that I should come and have a look at the show,’ she explained. ‘We’ve already got two of his big ones, but we think that maybe we need another.’ As Kiefers sell for a couple of million, this collector clearly had a large budget. She was charming, discreet, but had a dinner date that evening that she didn’t want to miss back in Gstaad. 

The Andy Warhol show at Tate Modern in March, 2020, was intended to run until November. In fact it only lasted about a week before lockdown closed the gallery. The launch party on the 10th was one of the last big art events before that extraordinary period. There was a constant stream of canopies, wine flowed endlessly, a d.j. channelled the Exploding Plastic Underground, people danced and gossiped and flirted. It was great. Here’s a picture of my friend Harriet, who has since sold up and moved to Spain, disenchanted with Brexit Britain, with John Dunbar who I co-started Indica Books and Gallery with 55 years ago, (along with Peter Asher). We’re all still standing.

There were many people who quite enjoyed the first lockdown, in March 2020, because it was so extraordinary. As someone in the vulnerable age group, I was naturally apprehensive about venturing out, but meals had to be bought and exercise taken. For the former I would line-up outside Waitrose, where we were only allowed to enter when someone left, as there was a maximum capacity of about 30. For the latter I decided to really get to know Regent’s Park, and for the first time in the more than sixty years I’ve strolled there I got to see the full cycle of the seasons, from the snowdrops and crocuses, aconites and daffodils through to the turning of the leaves. I explored all the John Nash and Decimus Burton buildings in the Regent’s Park development, every dead-end mews and backyard. There were many beautiful buildings that I’d overlooked or not looked at properly before, which included plenty of Regency bling, and some that I had not known were there, like the public footbridge connecting the Park to Prince Albert Road at Charlbert Street, which is in fact an aqueduct, carrying the Tyburn across the Regent’s Canal. The river finally surfaces at the Boating Lake. 

Meanwhile in Soho, the streets were like a post-apocalyptic movie. It took a while to realise that the really creepy element was not the fact that the streets were completely empty, with all the shops and clubs shut, many of them boarded up, but the silence. I walked down Wardour street and passed The Ship, the roadies’ pub that usually has a crowd standing outside smoking. It has an old-fashioned inn-sign and as the breeze picked up, I could hear it creaking on its hinges. I wish I’d made an audio. I could hear distant church bells, St James’s Piccadilly, and from St. Anne’s churchyard, birdsong. A pair of mounted police trotted down the centre of Old Compton Street, but otherwise I spent about an hour wandering about and saw less than a dozen other people in total on my first venture. After that I walked there two or three times a week, taking hundreds of photographs of the deserted streets.

Most places serving alcohol had taken the trouble to board up their windows before departing. The Groucho Club was one of them. Naturally it got fly-posted. Here is the sequence of change that it went through during the first lockdown:

During the weeks, then months, of lockdown I developed a displacement activity strategy of cooking; I made a three-course meal for my son, who lives with me, every day for what turned out to be months. I enjoyed it, and it did for me what meditation does for many others. My diary shows meals like ‘duck in broth followed by prawns in a béarnaise sauce’ ‘filet of sole in a Catalan sauce’ and ‘chicken in honey-mustard sauce.’ Later I moved on to coq au vin and guineafowl in calvados. My first wife, Sue, became a professional chef, working at some very high-end places including L’Escargot in Soho where she not only wrote the menus and cooked them, but set up the kitchen, hired the staff and established all the accounts with suppliers. When Sue and I were together, 1963-1970, I didn’t cook, only watched her and learned. Like her mother, Betty, before her, Sue had done a cordon bleu course and sometimes explained the basics to me. ‘Never salt shallots before frying, only after’, ‘slice onions lengthwise, not quite to the root end, then slice horizontally, to get quick chopped onions’, etc. (She was fast.) We were living on Allen Ginsberg’s hippie commune in upstage New York in 1970 when we broke up. No-one else there could cook and though the ingredients were superb and home-grown, the cooking was terrible except when Gordon Ball did it, but as farm manager he was often busy. I bought Julia Child’s two volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking and cooked my way through all the vegetarian dishes, teaching myself to cook in the process. After more years as a vegetarian living with Ann Buchanan, I finally got stuck into Elizabeth David and cooking poultry and meat and have never looked back. I have always bought organic or bio, as they say in France, and always cooked everything in virgin olive oil. I must say that my cooking improved over lockdown because there were few interruptions, no dinners with friends and no restaurants. 

I made a point of exercising, either walking in Regent’s Park, in Soho, or down by the river. Encounters took on a new meaning: it was exciting to see a friend. I was walking down a deserted Dean Street when a bicycle shot out of Meard Street. It was Celine, one of the waitresses at the Academy Club, who lives in Soho. At times like this Soho becomes a village. Sometimes Jill Nicolls and I would walk in Regent’s Park, find a convenient bench, and enjoy a bottle of Chablis, carefully positioned six feet apart or Fran Bentley and I would have a picnic lunch by the artificial waterfall there. By July we could see people again and I began cooking for guests: an almond-grape soup followed by lamb stew with honey for Maribel, stuffed squid for Jill, chicken Marengo for Harriet. My son Theo spent a week in Ireland at Ed Maggs and Fran’s place, walking in the woods, fishing, enjoying nature. It was good for him after being cooped up for so long.

Then Christmas was cancelled. Like everyone else, we were unable to see our friends. Theo and I made do with foie gras and a confit de canard, alongside some rather good claret instead of Martha’s goose in Cambridge. Compared to most people, we were fine.

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