London is famous for its art collections but you don't have to go indoors to see them. For many of the most interesting sculptures are strewn around the city.
This is accessible art.
In fact, it is so accessible that I watch a succession of tourists haul themselves up on to the lions surrounding Lord Horatio Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square, to have themselves photographed.
It seems so strange to me to see three women riding one of the lions, and another few hauling one another up to be photographed mock-snogging another, that it sparks the thought of taking particular note of the art around London's streets.
My approach is haphazard. I just bump into things, though not literally. (And that makes the point that, in London, you can just walk out of your hotel, without a plan, and fill the day with interest.)
I am struck in Whitehall by the statue of "Clive". Not by the sculpture itself, but more by this nomenclature. For it strikes me as frightfully cool to be remembered in such a formal way, in such a massively important venue, just by a single name. Like Sting or Sade. Or Pooh. HA!
Only, of course, this is a surname.
"Must be Clive of India . . . " a woman, standing near me, says to her husband. And I suspect it is just a phrase that rolls off her Cockney tongue, and not a real explanation, and probably no exact understanding of the fact that Robert Clive, first Baron Clive of Plassey, was both a British general and colonial administrator and served as governor of Bengal, India, from 1765-67. Or that he was implicated in corruption scandals surrounding the East India Company and committed suicide.
As I have written previously in these pages, Bengal's growing reputation and position attracted Portuguese, Dutch, French, Danish and English traders. In 1740, it became practically independent from Mughal rule of India, which gave the East India Company, with its lust for power, an opportunity for political interference. Still, Clive got a terrific statue, on a substantial plinth.
"My uncle was called Clive," the man replies to his wife. Strange - so was mine.
In Paddington Station, there is a sculpture of both Paddington Bear - the children's book character created by Michael Bond - and, close by, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who built the great train shed here in 1854.
In the Natural History Museum, a sculpture of Charles Darwin sits at the top of stairs in the main entrance hall, overlooking the hundreds of thousands of people who pour in to see this wonderful storehouse's artefacts. The English natural historian, of course, sailed on HMS Beagle's voyage around the southern hemisphere from 1831 to 1836 and was a proponent of the theory of evolution by natural selection. He published The Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871.
The daily tide of faces flooding into the Victoria and Albert Museum from all corners of the world surely proves his theories.
Look up in the museum and its pillars are adorned with climbing monkeys which look ready to spring to life (easily an inspiration for a Night at the Museum movie).
In the Victoria and Albert, art students sit on fold-up chairs, sketching sculptures. Art on art. Interesting, if not a little confusing. Classic art reconstructed by contemporary art.
And contemporary sculpture, surely, also in the shop window displays, particularly at Christmas. Selfridges, Harrods. All the usual suspects. Characters set in freakish winter scenes; human forms made of twisted plastic.
At the offices of the International Maritime Organisation, on the Albert Embankment of the River Thames, facing the Houses of Parliament, there is something more didactic. The bow of a cargo ship rams out of the building, and a man standing on its bow stops me in my tracks.
The International Maritime Organisation is truly international, with 158 member states, and the sculpture is the work of Michael Sandle, serving to remind us of the important role seafaring plays in global trade and development. About 95 per cent of world cargo is still moved by sea, and not without cost. The sculpture also serves as a memorial to sailors lost at sea.
British sculptor Sandle says: "I have attempted to transform a ship into a cathedral. Visitors looking up at it at close range would experience resonances similar to being in one; it is not for nothing that the longitudinal axis of a cathedral is called the nave."
But, despite this, it is not this - or any other of the sculptures I have mentioned - that leaves "that echo" in my head. It is a statue stumbled upon, again by chance, in Pimlico Gardens, near Vauxhall Bridge, overlooking a wide, mud-flanked thigh of the tidal Thames.
The big statue is of a man wearing a Roman toga, right shoulder and breast bared. Nothing remarkable in that, but when I walk towards it, the writing on the plinth reads: "William Huskisson. Statesman. Born 1770. Died 1830."
It doesn't sound very Roman, and the anomaly prompts me to look into the life of Mr Huskisson. A natural serendipity reveals that he was born in Malvern, Worcestershire, where I grew up (I am too old and experienced to be surprised by this).
He was a British statesman, financier, and member of the British Parliament for several constituencies. Including Liverpool.
All well and good, but this, unfortunately, is most definitely not Mr Huskisson's claim to fame. For, for all his good works, Mr Huskisson is most remembered as the world's first widely reported railway casualty. And what a casualty. He was run over by George Stephenson's Rocket locomotive.
Now, here's an odd thing. The previous day I was standing before Stephenson's actual Rocket in London's excellent Science Museum, wondering at the fact that it was there, in front of me. The actual 1829 Stephenson's Rocket locomotive. The real deal; pivotal in setting about a change in technology and manufacturing and freight that is so obvious in the world around me today.
And I was as much bemused by the sight of two Eastern European women dramatically, purposefully and stylistically photographing one another in front of it.
I was bemused by the shift in the world and "borders" and by the new global currents and drifts of people and trade which now seem so normal.
Stephenson's Rocket, and its implications, occupied my mind so much yesterday - and today I stand before Mr Huskisson (in a toga), who was mown down by it. It severely damaged his leg and he died some days later. (Stephenson was said to have been distraught.)
The statue I stumbled across in Pimlico Gardens is similar to one in a monument in Chichester Cathedral (another of those coincidences, as I was born in Kent and spent childhood days at Chichester), which also depicts him as a Roman in a toga.
And, to this moment, I can't explain the toga.
·Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Thai Airways and The Capital Hotel and Levin Hotel, Knightsbridge.
- fact file *
- ·The Capital Hotel *
22-24 Basil Street, Knightsbridge, London, capitalhotel.co.uk. Phone +44 (0)20 7591 1200
- · *Single: £294 ($437) double or twin: £396
- · *Shop Until You Drop package from £180 per person in a classic double or twin room, single rooms available with a supplement. Package includes continental breakfast, afternoon tea for two, cosmopolitan cocktail, £50 Harrods voucher.
- · *Three Night Dollar Package in a classic double or twin from $1674 includes three nights accommodation, English breakfast, choice of a lunch, afternoon tea or dinner, round-trip transfers. Split nights can be arranged to work with a trip's itinerary.
- · *(All prices include 20 per cent value added tax)
- ·The Levin Hotel *
28 Basil Street, Knightsbridge, London, thelevin.co.uk. Phone +44 (0)20 7589 6286
- · *Double or twin: £354 including continental breakfast
- · *Business Traveller Package, for double rooms from £378 per night. Package includes: one-way chauffeured transfer from Heathrow, London City or St Pancras, wi-fi, newspaper, continental breakfast.
- · *Guaranteed Dollar Rate Package, for classic executive double or twin rooms, from $1199 to $1476. Package includes: three nights stay, English breakfast, transfer to and from Heathrow Airport, London City or Eurostar Terminal, choice of one lunch, afternoon tea or dinner for two people at Le Metro. Split nights can be arranged.
- · *(All prices include 20 per cent value added tax)
- ·Flying to London *
I flew to London with Thai Airways and was pleased with the welcome and service. And I was pleased, also, with the interesting idea of contrasting London with a stopover in Bangkok. What fun.
- · *Thaiairways.com and travel agents.
It strikes me as frightfully cool to be remembered in such a formal way, in such a massively important venue, just by a single name. Like Sting or Sade. Or Pooh.