As with my 2006 trip, my visit to the UK and Europe had two purposes – to further Sandrine Meats’ Whsht research as well as progressing archive spin-offs (namely video installations based on the archive) and to catch up with family and friends and tour familiar and unfamiliar places.

My trip had two purposes  . . .

Purpose One

I met with Sandrine on a number of occasions, twice with artists who took part in Whsht events, and twice with Sandrine on her own. She is doing a marvellous job of documenting and making sense of what we did. One of the meetings was at Carlyle Reedy’s flat. Carlyle is a very fine poet and artist. I had not seen her in 40 years. She looked as I remembered her, but with a beauty that I had not appreciated then. It was lovely seeing her again.

Before setting off on my travels I had emailed a number of people whom I had hoped to meet, though several had not bothered to reply. However I was determined to give my Beauty DVD to the Art & Ecology people at the RSA and to exhibition curators at a couple of London’s public galleries, believing that it could make a successful video installation.

I phoned Satish Kumar when I was visiting Clive in Somerset as previously arranged. Much to my chagrin he declined a meeting, preferring to chat briefly on the phone. I had the feeling he did not know who I was. I told Satish that I wanted to give him the Beauty DVD as a gift. I posted a copy to him from Somerset.

Towards the end of my trip I met Hilde de Bruijn in her marvellous new art centre in Amsterdam, being created in a former medical research building. She gave me some documentation of one of her projects and I gave her the Beauty DVD, plus a generic version of the video installation proposal originally submitted to the Eden Project. The concept, beautifully designed by Christina, is titled One Small Place on Earth and is based on the idea of a mini-multiplex. In other words, seven screens showing nine short video programmes encapsulating the archive in seven pavilions capable of holding up to 15 people each. The purpose of the installation is: To help people better understand what biodiversity is. The proposal points out that 2010 has been designated “The International Year of Biodiversity”.

I am sorry to say that giving or leaving the Beauty DVD proved an entirely fruitless exercise because nobody seems to have viewed it, since none of the recipients has so far written to me about it [11 January 2009].

Purpose 2

I shall mainly be silent on the core of my journey, the intimate delight of catching up with family and dear friends. However, one of the special circumstances of this trip was the chance to meet my son Simon in London, following his visit to a mate from Tamborine Mountain who now lives in Sweden, and to travel to Istanbul and Prague with him. Both places were new to us. I had long wanted to see Istanbul, having looked longingly at photos of Hagia Sophia from a young age, marvelling at its lofty dome and vast, mysterious space, wondering how it could be so old yet look so fresh. I had also long wanted to see the Grand Bazaar. And Prague was my mother’s favourite city.

Istanbul exceeded my expectations, its many magnificent structures given added vitality by its present day city life and a pleasing frequency of trees and flowers. The integrity of its ancient places has not been damaged by later buildings. The legendary skyline of minarets is unblemished.  The mosques are Istanbul’s great glory. Perhaps I should have seen Hagia Sophia before visiting the Blue Mosque, rather than afterwards, because I found it disappointing. Its structure was ponderous and its interior murky compared with its near neighbour, a building some 1000 years its junior. We particularly delighted in the Blue Mosque’s richly decorative Iznik tiles. After visiting the two mosques we entered the eerie world of the 6th century Basilica Cistern, an amazing spectacle with its rows of columns and subdued lighting reflected in water only a column’s base deep. The Grand Bazaar is an exhausting place to visit due to over stimulus, a shopping centre centuries before its time, even allowing for arcades and market halls, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

One morning I took a taxi to the Yedikule Fortress, which I explored avidly, both from outside and within. Then I walked for a kilometre or so along the mighty Theodosian land wall of Constantinople, dating from the early 5th century, stretching a further four and a half kilometres and still surprisingly intact.

Simon decided to have a shave at a barber’s near our hotel. We were both greeted with utmost courtesy by the owner who got to work on Simon while I looked on. The shave took 45 minutes. Simon also booked a Turkish bath – in a bath-house designed by the master Ottoman architect Sinan, as prolific and long-lived as his near contemporary Michelangelo. Meanwhile I set off to see the Suleymaniey Mosque, to the complex of which the bath-house belonged. Unfortunately the mosque was being repaired and could not be viewed, so I took a taxi to the fourth century Valens Aqueduct, an impressive structure, but difficult to explore because, in spanning a busy main road, it was effectively cut in two. I returned to the bath-house and Simon soon emerged, invigorated and ready for lunch.

Ferries in Sydney, Hong Kong and New York are renowned for providing some of the best and cheapest entertainment on the planet. So it is with Istanbul. Taking a ferry became our favourite pastime. Our first trip was a cruise through the Bosporus and back, breaking the journey at a fishing village, above which a ruined crusader castle commanded a splendid view of the Black Sea. Both sides of the Bosporus have many trees among the buildings. We twice took the ferry to the Asian side of the city. Although the ferries were usually crowded, I miraculously managed to find a seat with what I regarded as the best view on board. Simon and I loved Istanbul.

I am fortunate to live in a remarkable and wonderful world. Imagine being able to enjoy breakfast on a roof terrace in Istanbul, with close views of the Blue Mosque as a background and a panorama afforded by the entrance to the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara busy with shipping, stretching to a horizon of almost invisible mountains on distant islands – and a good performance of Don Giovanni that evening, in the very theatre in Prague where Mozart conducted the first performance in 1787. Simon didn’t have breakfast, but he appreciated going to the opera.

I liked rather than loved Prague, perhaps because my enjoyment was slightly marred by a surliness I encountered in certain waiters, hotel staff and officials. Prague’s architecture, dating from mediaeval times to Art Deco, is of a higher standard than that of any other comparable city I know. The record is not quite complete. I don’t recall seeing any distinguished Victorian Gothic or 19th and early 20th century iron or steel and glass buildings. But its wealth of medieval churches, merchants’ houses, towers and other buildings, including the oldest synagogue in Europe, dating from 1270; its sumptuous baroque palaces, terraces, churches, theatre; its grand 19th century neo-classical public buildings; its many Art Deco cafes and dwellings; the elegant beauty of its squares, some monumental in scale, some cosy; and the delicious flow of its streets and open spaces on both sides of the Vlatava, slightly undulating on the east bank, steeply sloping to the castle atop its ridge on the west bank, more than make up for the gaps in the city’s architectural record. Luckily it seems Prague escaped being bombed during World War 2.

I love culture. Increasingly I find that I absorb it through my stomach, whether a classic afternoon tea in the garden of a thatched Somerset cottage; a refreshing apple tea or the juice of sweet, freshly squeezed oranges in Istanbul; or coffee and cake in a palatial Prague or Amsterdam cafe. Admittedly, the place can play almost as big a part as the food and drink.

The last week of my stay was in Holland. A special treat was a day trip by train to Frankfurt to spend some time and have lunch with Christina. I visited Piet & Lina, whom I met at Wildscreen in 2006, and their new baby Finn. I went to the Hague to see some of the marvellous paintings at the Mauritshaus. On my first visit in 2004, the painting I most wanted to see was Vermeer’s incomparable View of Delft. I turned up on a Monday, not knowing that museums on the continent are closed on Mondays. Being denied entry, I vowed to return, which I did in 2006. Beholding the Vermeer more than lived up to what I hoped to see. But I did not know that the collection included Rembrandt’s sublime early work The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. On this visit I also saw the late Rembrandt self-portrait, which was not on display in 2006. I am more drawn to the artists of the Dutch golden age than I am to those of the Italian Renaissance, primarily because they tend to depict life around them rather than hark back to classical times or religious subjects.

Holland is so full of glorious old towns, built to a human rather than a domineering scale, except for some of the churches. On my way back to Amsterdam from The Hague I stopped off to explore Leiden and walked its streets for several hours, absorbed and happy. One of the places which commanded my attention was the Hortus Botanicus because of its association with the great Linnaeus. I hastened towards it, paid the entrance fee and thoroughly explored it, noting an impressive display of cycads, some from South East Queensland, in one of the greenhouses. By good fortune I met Constance, the information officer, who kindly let me into the inner sanctum, the Clusius Garden, a re-creation of the original dating from 1594, but not in its original location, although it was overlooked by early 17th century houses. To wander its paths alone, within the locked gate, was a magical experience. There were four, conical wicker hives, of which one was active, although the bees did not appear to be busy in the actual garden.

There was great excitement in the Hortus because its giant Arum lily was due to flower that night. I returned after eating dinner in a restaurant. Television cameras had been set up to film the event and an eager crowd waited. The director suggested that meanwhile we take a look at the flower of a Victoria lily in bloom that night, which I did. The Victoria is the world’s biggest water lily. Its leaves can grow to 2 metres across. Its flowers are correspondingly large and impressive. As I had to return to Amsterdam, I thanked Constance, gave her my card and left the Hortus without seeing the giant arum lily’s flowering.