Commonwealth Institute

I first went to the Commonwealth Institute in High Street Kensington when I was about twelve or thirteen. 1965 or 6. I wasn’t allowed to go to many places by myself at that time but this was just a short tube ride away from home (South Ken) and I was with a friend. Even my over protective mother let me do something cultural! The institute was a fascinating building. Very large, very modern, full of displays of “other cultures” from all around the world. A lot of the countries I’d never heard of, except from postage stamps, but I wasn’t all that interested at that time in making the connections. Shame on me. A wonderful collection of flags outside, from all the commonwealth countries. But inside the displays were virtually meaningless to Jackie and me. We were much more interested in the more local culture. I.e. Boys. Perhaps it was not a typical venue for meeting the pimply youths of our age but we never gave up hope. This wasn’t quite yet the swinging sixties but the anticipation was always there. This was no exception.
We went to the cafe. It sold an exciting new drink: orange Fanta. Now I don’t remember if it was new to England or just new to me, but I had never had it before. Very nice. Quite expensive, I think, for someone of limited means like me, but worth it!
Jackie and I spent a lot of time eying up the talent. I seem to remember some members of the opposite sex saying something to us yet I must have blanked out the rest of the conversation, if indeed there was one, on waves of embarrassment. I was very shy in those days so the actual talking would have been excruciating for me. Jackie was pretty and confident and seemed to take it all in her stride. Nothing of course happened, and we went home knowing we had been somewhere important and potentially interesting.
Anyway, this all came back to me today as I went to the New Design Museum. What a disappointment. The interior of the building is still spacious and maybe even awe inspiring but the design exhibition is so cramped. The same sort of stuff as at Shad Thames previously, but laid out in a narrow spiral. Very underwhelming. We didn’t go to the paying exhibitions. Maybe they made better use of the circular space at the bottom of the building but they were not particularly inviting.
(I wonder what happened to the theatre that used to be there? I remember going to see Mazury, a Polish folk dance troupe perform there. I could find no photos of it.)
The Design Museum should be at the forefront of exciting design. Yet even the gift and bookshop is disappointing. Either the stuff on sale is inordinately expensive, or geared towards children with rich godparents, or just not very attractive.
A pity.
So, we went to Holland Park instead for some instant nostalgia, accompanied by the ear-piercing sound of the peacocks, near the Ice house and the formal gardens where I used to play with lollipop sticks in the mud and ride on my little red scooter, my grandmother at my side.

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