28 July 2015

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A had lots of stunning outfits but little information about them

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was one of those blockbuster exhibitions that every arty person was obliged to see and so many arty people wanted to see it that extra evening and night sessions were added. It was one of those evening sessions that allowed me to see the show less than a week before it closed.

The V&A closed for the evening as usual at 5:45pm and then opened just for the exhibition at 6pm. That sounds simple enough until I missed the bit, which I am sure they told me, about which entrance to use. I tried the main entrance, the tunnel entrance and the Exhibition Road entrance before finding the Secretarial Entrance (staff only) beyond the main entrance. I found it with a good five minutes to go before my 6:30pm entrance time.

There were fewer people than I expected queueing up given that it was sold out. I suspect that the V&A were letting fewer people in than they had for other exhibitions as it was busy all the way around but never as busy as David Bowie is ... had been. Having slightly fewer people in made it much easier to move around the exhibition and to get close enough to the texts to read them.

I had heard of Alexander McQueen, obviously, but apart from one or two outfits that had appeared in other exhibitions I really had little idea of his work so was looking forward to learning something new rather than, as I had with Bowie, seeing some old favourites.

The V&A obviously thought that it had something to live up to in showing us Alexander McQueen and it was quite arty itself, probably over so.

There was a room that looked like an ossuary with walls made from painted bones. There were words of wisdom from McQueen painted on the walls, much of the lighting seemed designed for dramatic effect rather than to highlight the clothes and we were teased with different music in each room.

Despite the best efforts of the exhibition to get in the way of the content, the outfits were dominant, as they should be. There were many of them arranged in themes which sometimes, but not always, equated to collections.

My simple summary was that I loved the outfits but not the accessories. We were told that many of these were designed just for catwalk shows and were never intended for sale but, even so, some of the constructions were just weird, like the metal frame holding knees and elbows (you try walking wearing that).

There was a lot of exaggeration in the outfits, collars that rose to eye height and beyond, shoulders that ballooned or spiked, and skirts fluffed about with vasts amount of fabric. There was a lot of attention to detail too with some exquisite embroidery, neat and unusual fastenings and everything tailored precisely to the mannequins.

What was missing was much of an explanation for what it all meant, how it had been made, how his career progressed or who his customers were. The room texts were general, e.g. telling us that he liked Victorian Gothic, and the costumer texts just gave the show, the year and the main materials used. I suspect that this was all very deliberate as the V&A had a hefty book to sell.

I would have liked more words but even without them the exhibition took me 90 minutes to get around because there were so many fine outfits to see. My favourites were the Japanese inspired collection and those at the very end where digital printing on silk produced some extraordinary patterns.

21 July 2015

Accelerating change at Gurteen Knowledge Cafe with cultureQs

I had missed a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe or two thanks to my poor organisation and work commitments (I really must give up work soon!) so I was even keener than usual to get to this one. I even cut my holiday in York short to do so. The main attraction was that this was a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe, and all that means (i.e. process and people), with the secondary attraction that it was about Change Management.

One of the possibly over-simplistic statements that I often repeat is that the technology is the easy part and the difficult bit is the people. Change Management is often overlooked, especially by IT companies. I work for an IT company.

Being on holiday meant that I was travelling there from home instead of the London office only a mile away. I had had a quiet morning, walking very few steps, so I decided to leave the Waterloo train at Clapham Junction and to walk up to Westminster Business School from there. It was only 8km.

The walk was pretty uneventful, i.e. dull, apart from the Serpentine Pavilion that I took a quick detour into as I walked through Hyde Park. Despite having little to look at the walk was a success in that I got lots of steps in (around 10k) and was able to catch up on lots of podcasts.

This Gurteen Knowledge Cafe was slightly different in that we did not swap tables or form a circle at the end but it was essentially the same in that we had a facilitator, Eric Lynn, introduce the subject and then we carried on the conversation at our tables before summarising as a group at the end.

Eric introduced us to his invention, cultureQs, which he had developed over a number of years as a way of accelerating cultural change by getting people to share things about themselves. The game like format produced a neutral environment in which to ask and discuss some difficult topics.

I'll call cultureQs a game just because it is a short easy word and it looks like a game. In practice it is a technique with a tool.

Eric started by showing us his idea of the seven components of culture, e.g. ethnic, beliefs and organisation. I was surprised to see that he had age and gender in there but not class. Perhaps that is an English thing, but I doubt it.

After a brief introduction to the game we were left to play it on our tables. We had four people on ours only two of whom, Conrad and myself, knew each other beforehand.

The point of cultureQs is that the game format decides which questions to ask. We moved around the board using a die, as in Ludo or Snakes and Ladders, and the places we landed on determined which question was asked. The person whose go it was answered the question first and then the other three of us did.

There was lots of agreement on the first question about good managers, and so we learned little from this. There was less agreement on how to work with business partners and I was the odd one out here as my company has a very formal approach to this, partially dictated by fairness and anti-bribery legislation.

I felt that some of the questions were too formulaic, like answering a Prince2 exam. and others were on generic topics, like equal rights, and so did not reveal much about us as people.

I wondered why the questions were set as a game when they could, for example, have been asked randomly just by shuffling the pack and each person taking the next card. I also wondered what the point of the game was, i.e. how it ended. I was able to ask Eric this in the group session at the end and he said that the game format with the board gave the players a focus and that the game had no end, it would just be stopped after a set period of time, around 70 minutes, but being a game meant that the players stepped into game mode and were more prepared to answer the questions.

We decided that the point was to get us to find our more about each other and that the blue rootQs were best for those so we ignored the board and the die and just answered those instead.

The other tables liked the game more than we did which may have been due to the way that we worked as a group or to the questions that came up in the short time that we played the game.

As a way of learning about people, I was reminded of two questions that Robert Elms asks his Listed Londoners, You have a day off, what do you do? and Where would you take a visitor? If I was setting the questions then I would include these two.

I was not convinced by the implementation of cultureQs but I could see the merit of asking these sorts of questions when getting teams to try and understand each other better and of asking them in a controlled manner in a neutral space. It is also fair to point out that I played the game for about half an hour in an artificial situation (we were not colleagues who had to work together), that the game was developed over several years of use with clients and has been used hundreds of times since being published.

The Gurteen Knowledge Cafe again proved itself to be a good way to explore these ideas and it was also good to catch up with some Gurteen regulars (e.g. Keith, Conrad, Sally-Ann and Noeleen) as well as meeting some new people too. It was another good evening spent stimulating new ideas with interesting people, and that is what Gurteen Knowledge Cafes are all about.

16 July 2015

Sonia Delaunay and more at Tate Modern

I took a week's holiday in July to use up some of my annual allowance and to give me something of a break before my main holiday in November. I had no plans for the day other than to do something in London.

As it happened, I had to pop into our Kings Cross office to collect something that I had printed so I set off for there first. On the train I checked the Arts Fund app for somewhere to go and it suggested the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Tate Modern. So I had a plan.

The first thing to do was to walk to Tate Modern from Kings Cross, a modest trek of around 4km. The suggested route would have taken me over Blackfriars Bridge but I was on holiday and so I took the slightly longer route and crossed the Thames on the Millennium Bridge which lifts my spirits every time that I use it. The novelty had not yet worn off and was showing no signs of doing so.

I knew absolutely nothing about Sonia Delaunay beforehand and relied on the exhibitions popularity as the reason for going. I quickly learned that her works were all about colours and the way that they work together. This preoccupation with form rather than subject mean that her works usually had the feel of abstract art even when they were of specific things.

The style of her work changed little over her long career (and there is nothing wrong with that) but there were significant changes in form and the exhibition included paintings, fabrics, posters that varied in size and completion from character sketches for a ballet through to three very large murals for an exhibition, one of which is shown below.

I never know how long an exhibition is going to take me so I first went around the eleven rooms at some speed to gauge what was there and where best to spend my time. I then went back to the beginning, not a great distance in a straight line, and went through it all again looking in more detail at the displays that had caught my eye the most the first time round.

It also enabled me to focus my surreptitious photographing on just my favourite objects thus reducing the risk of being caught and, in the worst case scenario, being forced to delete the photos I had taken (it happened to me in a theatre once).

My main problem was the guide seated in the gap between the final two rooms, both of which had things that I wanted to photograph. I hung around there for some time and eventually took the picture above of designs for magazine covers when somebody conveniently engaged the guide in conversation and stood between us while doing so.

There was much to like in the exhibition. My favourite room was that covering her work with fabrics and fashion which included a bow-tie that I would be very happy to wear. My favourite piece was in the room before it and is the picture at the top of somebody trying on some of Sonia Delaunay's clothes in her front room which she had also decorated.

I found the exhibition very enjoyable and I was grateful to Art Fund for pointing me to something that I would otherwise have let slip past.

The main exhibition took me something just over an hour to go around and then it was time for some coffee and cake. The usual argument that the profits went to the Tate kicked-in and justified the cake.

I had plenty of time left in the day so I decided to wander around some of the free exhibitions.

I walked around these even faster looking for things that made an immediate impression rather than trying to take it all in. I love free museums and galleries precisely for this reason.

I was delighted to see the Russian posters back. A few years ago they had been in their own space, Red Star Over Russia, in Room 11 on the fifth floor but the last few times I had been to the Tate they were not on display, or were well hidden.

Another nice surprise was the little room of architectural oddities by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. I felt that there was something of Philippe Druillet about them in their scale and oddness, at least that was the closest reference point that I had. Most of their works were posters and there was this one wonderfully industrial model.

The surreal exhibition surprised me in two ways; I learned that I do not, as a rule, like surrealism when I thought that I did and I also learned that I like Picasso when I thought that I did not.

Hence this photo of a Picasso piece.

One of the obvious things to like about the Tate and that is the scale of the place. It would be fun to walk around even if there was no art in it. But there was art, and lots of it.

In a fairly random stroll across the floors that seemed to have free exhibitions I saw some classic works by Warhol and Lichtenstein and collections of things that I presume was sculpture.

I also ventured out on to the smokers' balcony for its views of the City. A lot of people had the same idea that they really ought to designate this a photographers' zone and ban the smokers!

On the way out I looked at the model of the new extension and then ventured outside to see it taking shape. Actually the shape had been taken and it was now being finished and filled. It was originally due to open for the Olympics in 2012 but the best guess I can find on the internet for the actual opening date is "2016". Let's hope that it is worth the wait, my guess is that it will be.

I have been to the Tate Modern many times, sometimes just in passing or in a lunch break, and it has excited me every time. That is why I keep going there.

11 July 2015

The Bite at the Fox and Duck do something a little different and do it well

I do not need much of an excuse to go to the Fox and Duck in Petersham on a Saturday night but, as excuses go, The Bite were a pretty good one.

I was not impressed to have to work over the weekend and was determined to not let work ruin things completely so when I hit a natural break-point in work around 10pm I headed for the pub rather than for bed, which may have been the more sensible option. Or I could have watched the end of TED which is a great film.

I had not done many steps, less that 9k, so I walked the long way to the Fox, following the 371 bus route though Ham. That took me just above my target 12k steps and got me to the pub around 11pm.

The main reason that I made that effort was the band's published set-list on LemonRock. There are many rock cover bands on the circuit and songs like Sweet Child O' Mine get played a little too often for my taste but The Bite promised songs like Lazy (Deep Purple) and Next (Sensational Alex Harvey Band) which are far more interesting.

The promise was soon kept. I got to the pub just as they started the second half of their set and they were soon into Faith Healer, another SAHB classic. This was followed by the likes of Radar Love and Hocus Pocus both of which I love immensely. This was clearly a band with good taste in music, i.e. close to mine.

They closed with Bohemian Rhapsody which, as they said , everybody knows the words to but I was possibly the only person in the pub who knew it from when it was first released in 1975. Similarly with their first Encore song, Delilah. It was clear from the band's movements that this was the SAHB version rather than Tom Jones'. A quick conversation with the bassist afterwards confirmed this.

Their final song was a request, from me. As I said above, I had seen Next, originally by Jacques Brel and later by SAHB, on their set list and I called for this when they were looking for one last song to play. Luckily they had not played it in the first half so they could play it at the end. I loved to hear it again for the first time for a while and it was good to see that other people in the pub recognised it.

The Bite were a new band for me, and for the Fox and Duck, and they did enough on their first visit to make me want to see them again.

10 July 2015

Ladybird by Design exhibition at House of Illustration

I still have my many Ladybird books so I was always going to be interested in an exhibition about them. Even more so when it was on at the House of Illustration which is a very short walk away from my office in Kings Cross.

In fact I was so keen that I went a day early having failed to check the opening date. A day later I went again, this time with more luck.

This was an exhibition at the House of Illustration so it was about the pictures rather than the words, and that was fine with me. I like pictures.

The gallery is not that large with one main room about the size of my downstairs living space and a couple of little rooms off this. I think that the entrance fee is a tad high for time it takes to see everything, around twenty minutes, so I was pleased to see that they now had an Art Fund discount, which they had not on previous visits. This had annoyed me a little as the Art Fund were in the same building!

The first illustration that grabbed my attention was this one, the cover of the book In A Big Store. It was not the book that what was familiar, it was the store. This was the Bentalls store in Kingston upon Thames. It is now the Bentalls Centre, with the store having moved next door, but the wonderful frontage have been retained.

Most of the exhibition was illustrations like that which had been used in Ladybird books. The original drawings were all A4 sized (or something very close) and they were printed smaller for the books.

I was interested to learn that the size of Ladybird books had been set by the default size of print. It was just after the war and materials were scarce so the books were designed to use all of a standard print with all 56 pages arranged so that they used all of the paper and could be printed in one go. The exhibition had a sample book as it was printed and it was fun trying to work out how it was folded and cut to put the pages in order.

The largest part of the exhibition was illustrations from the book Shopping with Mother, not one that I ever had. The pictures were displayed in two rows on one of the long walls in the main room.

These had the double interest of being illustrations where I could appreciate the work of the artist and could also be reminded of how the world was when I was a small child. Ham Parade still looks a little like that with the fruiterers and hardware shop having impressive displays of goods outside of their shops.

That double joy continued throughout the exhibition as I looked at the illustrations and remembered the books that they came from. Books in the exhibition that I had read as a boy included Exploring Space and The Story of Flight.

They also had The Policeman and my memories of this were more recent, only twenty years old. My eldest son was in love with it for a while when quite small and I spent many a long evening reading it to him. It was very wordy too!

I thought that I had a lot of Ladybird books but there were whole series of them shown here that I did not even remember seeing in shops. The variety was enormous and I had not realised that subjects like wildlife and travel had been covered as widely as they had.

There was a sort of house-style to the books, all the illustrations looked real to life, but the different topics and different artists meant that there was some variance and part of the fun was trying to learn about and understand these differences. Just like it is fun to try and guess who drew a specific Dennis the Menace story.

In one of the small rooms, the last one if you go around anti-clockwise which I think you were meant to do, was a documentary about the books on a continuous loop and I found this interesting and informative, which is probably what it wanted to be.

Ladybird by Design was a jolly exhibition that revealed much about the illustrations, and their illustrators, that many of us took for granted when growing up. Now we can properly appreciate their quality.

9 July 2015

Dark and innovative Henry V at the Union Theatre

I have seen a few Shakespeare adaptations at small theatres in the last few years and they have all been good or better, including two (Lear and Play of Thrones) at the Union Theatre, so there was never really any choice to make about going to see Henry V.

Like Lear, Henry V had a woman in the lead role only this time it had women in all of the roles. That was clearly unusual and interesting but that was not the main reason that I wanted to see it. More important to me were the reputations of Shakespeare and the Union Theatre and it helped that I has seen some positive comments posted on Twitter, my main source of information on current shows.

Because work was messing me about regarding where I worked and how long I had to work for (working on bids always always means late nights, which is a sign that we do not manage them well) it was a late decision to go on this Thursday evening. So late that the online booking system had closed and I had to head to the theatre to get a ticket. The online system had indicated availability earlier in the day so I was not too worried. Besides, the worst case is that they would be sold out in which case I would still have had a good walk from Kings Cross to Southwark.

It took me about 45 minutes to walk to the theatre from the office, a walk I had done several times by then, and I got there around 6:45pm only a quarter of an hour after the box office opened. I paid my £15 (a bargain) and was pleased to be given a ticket number of less than ten which meant that I would be in the first group of people allowed in.

I also had time to pop across the road for a much appreciated pint (it had been a hot day for the walk) and my usual nachos to provide some calories.

Going into the Union Theatre is always exciting. The stage area is hidden by a wall with entrances either side and it is not until you walk though one of those entrances that you know how the stage is laid out and then a quick decision has to be made on where to sit.

This time the seating was U-shaped and I took a seat in the front row half way down the right side of the U. In the centre of the stage was a table with candles and a crown and around the stage was a line of folding chairs. The open end of the U was hazed with mist made spookier by low lighting. The cast were hidden in there chanting.

Once we were settled they came into the central area, some standing and others taking advantage of the chairs.

Henry V, despite the battles, is a play dominated by speech and with little action. Shakespeare recognises this an opens with an almost apologetic narration explaining that great things will happen but we will need our imaginations to see them. This production recognised the play's limitations too and instilled life into the long dialogues with lots of movement, plenty of direct eye contact with the audience and some clever lighting. They also made the French ambassador wear a clown's mask and sing Frère Jacques.

I seemed to be man-marked by a Welsh woman, look you, who looked at me a lot and spent some time standing on the chair directly in front of me leaving me to contemplate her toes which drew the thought that they should have been painted, preferably black, as they had been in Duncton Wood.

The play followed the lines that it had the last time that I saw it though some of the language was a little different and a little more profane. Essentially the play is a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of Henry V in which everybody tells us how great he is and he does great things. The greatest great thing was beating the French at Agincourt when vastly outnumbered and with the loss of only 25 men against 10,000 on the French side. This is not entirely accurate historically.

There was a rawness and a darkness to the play that I liked. This was reinforced by both the low level of lighting and the black boiler suits that the cast wore but most of it came from the strong and harsh delivery of the words.

Henry V is far from my favourite Shakespeare play but it is a Shakespeare play and this production captured its mood neatly and enjoyably.

2 July 2015

The Dead Monkey at Park Theatre was a story of love/hate and humour/tragedy laced with a touch of the surreal

I had been interested in going to see The Dead Monkey since it was first announced but other things in my life, like work and life, had conspired to keep me away. I came up with a brilliant to see it at a Thursday matinee and then see another play also in its last week in the evening. Sadly the brilliant plan failed when the matinee performance sold out.

That left me having to make a last minute decision on the Thursday afternoon which of the two plays to see. The Dead Monkey sounded more fun and I like the bar, food, wifi combination at the Park Theatre so it got the nod. It was a good nod.

The theatre is about 4km from the office and that was a good excuse for a nice walk. I varied the route from previous times. I knew the general direction and headed that way taking care to try new roads when I could. There were no startling discoveries along the way but a change is as good as a rest and it was a fine walk, despite the heat.

On arrival I helped myself to a latte and an asparagus and almond flan with salad. I also helped myself to their wifi and spent my time usefully updating the Kingston Society websites. Finally I helped myself to a beer to take into the theatre with me. It was still warm.

The Dead Monkey opened with a dead monkey, it was that lump under the blanket at the front of the stage.

It was owned by a couple who lived on the California coast and who had been married for fifteen years. He was away working as a salesman and she was distraught with grief at the monkey's death and also concerned about how her husband would take it on his return.

The vet helpfully suggested ways that the monkey could be disposed of. These included an expensive burial plot at the zoo, with an optional headstone, or the cheapest option of eating it.

And that very much set the scene for the rest of the play, a relationship that had love but not much trust, events that ranged from the funny to the tragic, and a heavy dollop of the surreal.

This ebb and flow of events and moods was redolent of the sea but that might have been heavily influenced by the play being set there and by the author, Nick Darke, having a close association with North Cornwall coast. It may have been an unintentional metaphor but I found it a useful one. The other thing about the sea is that it does not stop and the play did not stop either, it came to an end but was still in motion.

And it was this movement that was the point of the play. Each event had it's own importance but what was more important was what happened before and what happened next. These events were suffused with life, death, sex and water.

Riding the waves, literally and metaphorically, were the married couple Dolores (Ruth Gibson) and Hank (James Lance). He was big, brusque, loud and hairy while she was petite and something of a dumb blond. They were an unlikely couple brought together and united by the monkey. The only other character was the vet, Charles Reston, who was a deadpan foil to the emotional couple and also the source for most of the surreal elements. All three actors were good and were very warmly applauded at the end.

The Dead Monkey was an entertaining romp through emotional peaks and troughs which seemed not that big to us as we were all sitting on the same raft as it navigated the troubled seas. This flattened the experience a little and deprived it of shock value despite the shocking things that happened. Did I mention the bestiality? 

29 June 2015

FFS (Franz Ferdinand Sparks) at the Troxy easily exceeded my high expectations

Few, if any, bands have the capability to surprise as much as Sparks.

For many they are just the odd electronic duo that had their fifteen minutes of fame in the early seventies with songs like This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us. For those of us that stayed following them we have seen them take their pop songs in several directions and have seen them tour with various band formats and as just a duet.

Then they announced that they were working with Franz Ferdinand.

The first fruits of this was the album FFS, the deliberately provocative combination of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. Then even better news and FFS became a band too and they started touring to promote the album.

I have a simple rule for Sparks concerts in London - Go.

Sparks have also surprised with their concert venues in recent tears and I have seen them as place as geographically and physically diverse as Barbican, Union Chapel and Bush Hall, amongst others. The venue this time was Troxy, a converted cinema in Stepney, a part of London that I knew little about and had only been too on a few lunchtime walks when based at a project at Aldgate East.

Citymapper showed all sorts of interesting ways to get there but in the end I took the easiest option of the District Line all the way from Richmond to Stepney Green. From there it was a fairly simple walk more or less due South, past an unexpected city farm.

Troxy was easy to find and a lot of other people had found it too and there was a long queue down the side of the building. It moved pretty quickly and I was inside within ten minutes or so. Obviously all the best places had been taken so I settled for a central position about six "rows" back.

There was a support band and  they helped to pass the time but while they were harmless they were also largely forgettable.

As promised FFS hit the stage at 9pm.

I had the album and had been playing it so I had some idea of what to expect musically though I had little idea of what their stagecraft would be like.

It was obvious from the very first number, Johnny Delusional which was also the first track on the FFS album, that FFS were one band, not two bands playing together. The synergies and the energy were amazing.

Leading the charge, so to speak,  were Russell Mael (ex-Sparks) and Alex Kapranos (ex-Franz Ferdinand) who matched each other line-by-line and  step-by-step, much like the walk-off in Zoolander. They swapped lines and swapped moves like twin brothers that looked a little different. The voices had the same timbre too so the sound they produced was consistent no matter who was singing.

Russell cannot keep still on stage and, if anything, Alex out did him. Russell probably bounced a little more while Alex put in more dramatic crouches and arm salutes.

There were plenty of other antics from the rest of the band too. There was the Ron Dance, of course, and we also had some crowdsurfing from Nick McCarthy while he carried on playing guitar, a few swapping of positions and instruments and massed drumming for the introduction to the Number One Song In Heaven.

From that you will have gathered that they played a few tracks from their previous bands as well as most of FFS. Everybody there seemed to know the FFS album well and also all of the songs by one of the original bands, Sparks in my case. I worked on the assumption that anything that I did not recognise was a Franz Ferdinand song. I did recognise their biggest hit single Take Me Out but I had forgotten that it was by them.

The music was poppy and bouncy so we bounced along with them. It was hardly a mosh pit but everybody was dancing, even me (just a little bit).

I do not know how FFS wrote their songs but there were a few that had the easy repetition of more recent Sparks albums and these were my early favourites from the album, songs like Little Guy From The Suburbs ("You'll know I didn't, I didn't make it like I hoped we would...") and Save Me From Myself (er "Save Me From Myself"). Of course I liked the very poppy songs too and had to sing along to things like Call Girl ("Why don't you call, girl?") and Police Encounters ("Bomp bom diddy diddy").

There was much to like about the new FFS material but my highlight of the evening, as it often is, was When Do I Get to Sing "My Way".

Every time I see Sparks I marvel at just how good they are live and FFS more than lived up to my very high expectation of the evening. The sell out dates and the five star reviews are all easily deserved.