7 May 2015

Old music from a new bottle

The Open Mic nights that I used to go to at the Grey Horse had moved (more or less) to The Oak just a few hundred metres north. This was a pub that I knew from when I lived in Kings Road though it was far from my favourite then and it had been many years since I last went there during which time it had a few make-overs and name changes. The new venue and day (it had moved from Wednesday to Thursday) had thrown me a little and it took a while before I was finally able to get there.

When I did get to The Oak it was just like old times with many of the acts I knew from before playing some of the songs that I remembered to some familiar faces in the audience. Not that there was anything wrong with that, it worked well at the Grey Horse and there was no reason that it should not work at The Oak too.

One of the familiar acts, and one that I was especially pleased to see again, was Catherine Paver with her mix of reasonably simple tunes and complex words. I broadcast her first song on Periscope as something of an experiment. I think that it worked but Periscope only keeps videos for 24 hours so you will have to take my word for it.

Now that the new venue and day have wormed their way into my consciousness I am sure that I will be going back for more old music from a new bottle.

28 April 2015

Big Ideas on the politics of personal debt

Some judicious planning meant that I was able to get a good run at attending Big Ideas discussions and at this time I was getting to most of them, mostly by arranging to work in London on the last Tuesday of the month.

The serious talking starts at 8pm, though I like to arrive well before that to secure a decent seat, and that allows plenty of time beforehand to grab some food, almost always a Large Thali at Govinda's just off Soho Square, and I sometimes get time to visit a gallery too.

Our topic this month was "What are the politics of personal debt?" and our leader in the discussion was Johnna Montgomerie, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a member of the newly formed Political Economy Research Centre. She has published widely on financialisation and household debt. She also managed to get more safely the previous month despite being taken to the wrong tube station initially by some fool (me).

As always these are my notes relating to the discussion, none of the words are attributable to anybody and all the mistakes are mine.

While there has been an awful lot of discussion about the deficit, the Government's increasing debt, little attention has been paid to household debt which is growing rapidly.

Part of this is a deliberate move by the Government, e.g. in moving some services from the public to the private sectors so we pay for what used to be covered by taxes (university education and prescriptions, etc.) and also by cutting benefits so that people are encouraged to borrow more to maintain their standards of living.

This is creating a personal debt problem that we have no answer to. Johnna's main hypothesis is that we should adopt debt forgiveness programmes, much as we had for many developing countries in the seventies and eighties when it became clear that either they could not pay the loans pack or to do so would cripple them.

I had some sympathy for this idea but the case for debt forgiveness lacked a compelling argument. In order to take action it has to be clear why this is necessary, i.e. it has to be shown that the household debt problem will become a crisis for us all, of the kind of the 2008 banking crisis, rather than just a problem for those individuals in debt.

A lot of the discussion that followed was on the "fairness" aspect of this, such as the fairness of letting somebody off their debt when other people had managed to live within their means. I made the point that I had played by the current rules and had paid for my two sons to go through university without any debt so if all student debt were to be forgiven (written off) then I would be tens of thousands of pounds worse off than if they had taken loans out.

If debt forgiveness is unacceptable then are there things that we can do to stop people getting to this extreme stage? Curtailing the maximum interest rates charged by pay-day lenders might be a help but there are many ways to get into debt, in particular it is very easy to get new credit and store cards.

Giving people more money through, for example, raising the minimum wage significantly, could be another way to reduce the debt problem.

I found the phrase "debt forgiveness" something of an issue. I have no problem with helping people who need help, that is what I hope my taxes and charitable donations do, but "forgiveness" suggests that those in need have knowingly done something wrong.

We spent some time talking about the role of banks in all this, in issuing the loans in the first place, but this strand got somewhat confused as few people there understood how banks work well enough to make meaningful contributions. For example, it was suggested that banks could create loans (assets) without hindrance or risk but this is not the case; if it was then they would be issuing even more loans and not worrying if some were not paid back.

Overall the discussion lacked some direction and faltered on some of the detail but the time spent in the middle territory, the politics of personal debt, was useful and thought provoking. There were definitely some good ideas trying to get out in there somewhere.

25 April 2015

The Thin White Dukes gets the Fox and Duck singing and dancing

Saturday night gigs at the Fox and Duck do not get any better than those from The Thin White Duke who regularly bring their brand of Bowie covers to the venue. It is not just me that thinks this and they always pull in a big crowd. Conscious of this I arrived promptly at 9pm and the place was already very busy. Armed with a Doombar I squeezed into a space well away from the potential dancing zone.

The Thin White Duke opened their set around 9:20pm and the singing started immediately. It still surprises me how many people know the lyrics to even the less well known album tracks and it surprises me more how many of these people could not possible have been born when the songs first came out. I used to think that deep knowledge of Bowie was confined to old people like me who bought every album on the day that it came out and played it to bits.

There is just so much to love in the extensive Bowie catalogue and we were all singing loudly (and mostly badly) along to songs like Cracked Actor, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Lets Dance and Queen Bitch. This singing got even more exuberant for classics like Life on Mars and anything off Ziggy Stardust.

This was a slightly different Thin White Duke with a new bass player and drummer and that may have been one reason for the different sound mix (more rock than funk) and for the extended versions of Golden Years and Fame. I liked the longer songs as they stopped the set from being a relentless string of hit singles.

The only problem was that this took their set dangerously close to the midnight curfew but things worked out and we got the final four fanfare that was expected; Rebel Rebel, Jean Genie, Starman and Heroes are songs to get anybody singing and dancing, especially when warmed up by two hours of excellent Bowie music.

The Thin White Duke are due back at the Fox and Duck on 12 September. I'll be there.

Supreme: Blue Rose is another great read from Warren Ellis

I knew nothing of the history of Supreme before latching on to Supreme: Blue Rose, though I probably should.

Supreme was an the Extreme Studios/Image Comics/Awesome Comics character created by Rob Liefeld and for whom Alan Moore wrote a run in the mid-1990s, and anything with Moore's name attached I should have picked up on.

The name that made me pick up on the new Supreme: Blue Rose series was that of Warren Ellis, a serious contender for my favourite comics writer and an even more serious one for those still writing comics.

The next part of the story is increasingly familiar; Supreme: Blue Rose was published by Image Comics and I bought it digitally to read on my iPad (which I bought three years ago primarily to read comics on).

Also as is becoming the custom, I binge read the seven part series in one sitting. To be honest, I did read issue #1 when it first came out in July 14 but it was a complex story and I was sure to forget some of it so I left it alone to reread it when I had the whole series.

And that tells you the first thing about the story, this was a single story spread over seven issues. One of the things that I like about Ellis is the way he does both single-issue story comics, e.g. Moon Knight, Nextwave: Agents Of H.A.T.E. and Transmetropolitan, and also comics with long story arcs, the best example being FreakAngels.

My lack of knowledge of Supreme before reading this series did not seem to be a problem either, much as having read Moon Knight before did little to enhance my reading of that series. There may well have been references to previous plots, events or characters but I did not pick them up and that did not matter.

The story itself was a little weird, which is what was hardly unexpected for an Ellis story (think Planetary) but was also grounded in the real-world (possibly!) which gave it touch-points into normality.

Adding to the weirdness was the wistful, almost ephemeral, art work by Tula Lotay, a new name to me.

The art was coloured subtly which both matched the mood of the piece and also made it very clear that this was not a superhero comic.

The heart of the story was simple enough in that the world needs to be reset from time-to-time and normally this happens without any of us noticing but this time there was a little problem and it needed to be fixed. Trying to fix it, or trying to stop the fixers, was a large cast of characters who spawned their own little stories and who gave their own perspective on events. Not everything seen or heard could be believed, though the car ride to the Moon was real enough.

Reading the comic was like swimming in some goo made by mixing elements of science and magic and it was that swimming experience that I enjoyed so much rather than the path that I swam along. It was more like reading poetry than prose and it had an unusually high word-count for an Ellis book (despite me choosing to show a page that has no words!). In an action comic often pictures are all you need but in the subtle space of Supreme; Blue Rose it was the words that carry the message and the tone.

I would not claim to have understood every detail of the story, and as I said earlier I am sure that I missed some references, and that did nothing to diminish my enjoyment. This was Warren Ellis doing one of the things that he does very well.

There is much to admire about Ellis and one of them is the way that he will take on fringe books like Supreme: Blue Rose when he has also written for the likes of X-Men and Iron Man. And it is comics like Supreme; Blue Rose, and several other Image titles, that have got me so interested in comics again.

14 April 2015

Game Theory at Tristian Bates Theatre addressed some difficult topics adroitly

To be honest, what first attracted me to Game Theory was my assumption that it had something to do with Mathematics - Game Theory was one of the topics that I studied at university. Further investigation revealed that Game Theory was two plays looking at current ethical issues in medicine. That was interesting enough for me.

It was not a big factor in choosing to go to see the plays but the ticket price of just £12 made it an even easier decision to make.

The Tristian Bates Theatre is Central London so obviously I planned to work in London that day and to stroll down after work. Then plans changed and I had to go to Reading which meant dashing there by bus, train and tube instead. Not ideal but it worked OK and in something of the style of a marathon runner I grabbed a pastie at Reading Station and then a beer at the theatre cafe.

As before, my only previous visit to the theatre, I was well positioned when the bell summoned us upstairs for the first play but this time it was a harder choice to make as seating was set up on one side of the stage as well as in front of it. The seats at the side seemed to offer a better view of the stage so I took a front row seat there.

The first play, Membrane, addressed the tricky subject of hymenoplasty (hymen reconstruction). A middle-aged woman approached her doctor to get the surgery done. They knew each other and had been lovers once.

This situation was somewhat artificial, and the play suffered as a result, but it did allow the two of them to explore different aspects of the issue, for example he saw the restoration of her virginity as a denial of their earlier relationship.

From this starting point the theme of deception spread in many directions, from make-up to blow-fish, and brought in the doctor's academic wife in the process. This further reduced the believability of the play but also added to its interest.

Membrane was in three acts, which fooled me and I started to clap after the second. My argument is that if the play felt it was ending then, then it probably should have done so!

Membrane managed to provoke some thoughts and to entertain despite the falseness of some of its premises. A fair result.

It was time for a break and another Japanese larger in the bar downstairs before being summoned back for Mutiny. This was a completely different play but written by the same person, Odessa Celt, and performed by the same cast, Andrew Pugsley, Nadia Shash and Georgina Blackledge.

This story was about a young couple with a new baby discussing the possibility of getting her genetically tested. This would have to be done privately and was not cheap. The father saw this as an opportunity to build the baby's environment to suit their genetic predispositions (making the nurture support the nature) while the mother was not keen to learn what their new baby was likely to die of.

As in the first play, the discussion on the benefits and disadvantages of genetic testing developed and this time the arguments were more focused on just the matter in hand and were helped by having clear protagonists on either side of the argument. The problem for me was that it was not an argument that I was particularly interested in.

Mutiny got its name from the woman's reaction when she appears to give in to the father but had something else in mind. Unfortunately that something was rather obvious and the father should not only have seen it coming, he should have suggested it.

After the second play there was a second interval before the panel session on hymenoplasty. I had not realised that was on, it may have explained the large number of young women in the audience, and I decided to give it a miss. Not only was hymenoplasty a subject that I had no great interest in, I had even less knowledge of it and the thought of being the odd-one-out in the audience did not appeal, that is alright when watching a play but much less so when discussing a difficult gender-heavy subject.

Writing this now, some weeks after the event, I am a little surprised at how negative some of this seems, perhaps I just remember the "bad" parts better, as it was a fine, if not spectacular, evening at the theatre and that is all that I wanted it to be.

12 April 2015

Kew Gardens on a sunny day in Spring

With Spring settled in and the promise of a bright morning it was obvious that I should pay Kew Gardens another visit. So I did.

Broadly speaking, the southern end of Kew Garden has trees and the northern end has flowers so I decided to enter the gardens at Victoria Gate in the middle. From there I walked west towards the river with the plan of then walking vaguely north following the river. I would make the rest of the plan up as I went along letting Kew Gardens guide me.

I soon came to the lake and as it was going the same way that I was I followed it. This is the view I had of it as I approached it with the subtle Sackler Crossing in the middle. It is only the person in  white on the bridge that reveals its position.

The view from the bridge is always worth seeing so I walked on the north side of the lake then used the bridge to cross to the south side. Being Spring the birds were busy, far to busy to pay attention to people walking on the bridge above them.

As always, the view from the far end of the lake was spectacular and it forced me to stop for a few moments to take it all in. The Sackler Crossing is in the picture again but it is harder to see this time.

From the lake I headed to Rhododendron Dell. This little stretch of sunken garden is slightly sheltered and that is enough for blooms to thrive there.

Having emerged from the Dell all the paths seemed to lead towards the Orangery and it seemed sensible to allow them to take me there for the obligatory coffee and cake. While resting there I made my plan for the rest of my visit and chose to follow the outer path clockwise back to the Victoria Gate.

The first place that the path took me was the Duke's Garden where this large Magnolia stole the show.  Everybody passing through paused to look at it and it featured in many photographs, including this one.

Next stop was the semi-walled garden that housed the Plant Family Beds. The familiar beds were there but they had been joined by a few new statues, including this smarty dressed but not very effective scarecrow.

The next surprise was the Waterlily House. This had been closed for a while and had only recently reopened when I paid it this visit. The basics of the building were the same but the inside was completely different.

The plants around the edge had been replaced and the new arrivals were a lot smaller than those the were there before, though I dare say that they will grow in time. Before that happens the Waterlily House will continue to look bright and fresh.

Leaving by Victoria Gate meant walking past the Palm House Parterre, and that is always a good thing to do.

Kew Gardens is a wonderful place to visit at any time of the year but a sunny day in Spring is obviously a wonderful time to go.

11 April 2015

Intimate and engaging performance of The Feast at Solhaug at Baron's Court Theatre

I am still not a great Ibsen fan but I appreciate that there is something there, especially after trying Ghosts three times in a year, and so an Ibsen play was always going to catch my attention, even if I then did not go to see the show after all.

The Feast at Solhaug had a lot more going for it that just Ibsen's name; it had never been performed in English before and was on at Baron's Court Theatre which I had not been to before despite it being so close. And it was only £14 which is ridiculously cheap for any theatre.

I had changed trains at Baron's Court many times before but had never explored the area before so I took the opportunity to do so, combined with looking for somewhere to eat. The area around the theatre was full of mansion blocks, much like Kennsington but not quite as posh. Wandering around I came across Queen's Club, famous for its pre-Wimbledon tournament, which I did not know was in the area.

The quest for food did not go that well and I ended up back at Curtains Up, the imaginative name from the pub above the theatre. It was Boat Race day but that means nothing to me so I had not factored it into my calculations. This was something of a mistake as a few hours after the event the pub was still packed and the tables were covered with the evidence of a good time being had by all. Luckily I was able to find a table and to get some food. And a beer.

The theatre was downstairs and it was not obvious where we were meant to queue, or if we were even meant to queue. I checked every few minutes and panicked slightly when the queue appeared and immediately had about ten people in it. I joined them.

Once allowed inside I saw that the theatre was in the old beer cellar and nothing had been done to hide this. There was seating on three side but the best seats in front of the stage had gone by the time that I got in (the usual few people, many coats situation) so I went to the right of the stage where a front row seat was still available.

One of the early arrivals who claimed many seats was an annoying woman in a bright white dress. It was hard to take a decent picture of the stage with this white dress in constant motion so eventually I settled for this one with her in the top-right corner.

The Feast at Solhaug was very different from every other Ibsen play that I had seen in that it was a brash historical drama rather than a subtle contemporary one. It was more like William Shakespeare than Tennessee Williams.

The beer cellar suited the play well as it already looked medieval in style and was built from crude stone.

At the centre of the drama were a lord and lady celebrating their third wedding anniversary, though he was celebrating it more earnestly and vigorously than she was.

The an old flame from her past arrived and she rekindled her feelings for him but he fell for her younger sister, as did the king's sheriff who was chasing the flame for serious crimes committed against the king. This stew of passions and jealousies was stirred with alcohol until it boiled over messily, as it was always going to do.

The complexity of the relationships and the number of main characters meant that the ending was nicely unpredictable. Some people died, some had other bad things happen to them and one couple managed to live happily ever after. I've found other Ibsen plays to end weakly and unrealistically but that was most definitely the case here.

The acting was good throughout and the intimate setting helped us to feel the deep emotions that the characters were wrestling with. The actor who made the most impact on me was Lucy Pickles as Margit, Lady of Solhaug, and that was probably because she had the more difficult decisions to make, spent more time on stage and was rather pleasing on the eye.

The Feast at Solhaug was a lovely play neatly presented, and it helped that it was below a reasonable pub not that far from home. All in all it was a very pleasant evening.

8 April 2015

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (April 2015)

There was no BCSA (British Czech and Slovak Association) "Get to Know You" Social in March because there was another BCSA event on the second Wednesday and it was easier to skip the social for a month than to move it off it's regular day. That meant that I was even more keen than usual to go there in April.

I decided earlier in the day that as I am cutting down on my excessive consumption of cheese that I would break the habit of a life-time and not have the smazeny syr. That plan worked well.

Luckily the rest of the evening followed its usual pattern too; I had a few Pilsner Urquells before closing the evening with a Zlaty Bazant, there were some regular faces and some new ones there, and we talked about all sorts of things.

The conversations that stuck with me the most, for reasons that only the neurons in my brain can account for, were on skiing (not my favourite past-time), using your iPhone to count your steps (I'm an evangelist) and making aromatic candles in tea cups (I volunteered to provide some unwanted cups).

The point about these evenings are they are informal and anybody can come and go at any time during the evening. We normally have the hardcore, myself included, there by 7pm and the numbers gradually grow through the evening (sometimes people leave too) and there are a dozen or so of us there at 10:30 when the social ends (because that is when the bar closes). The change in people is one of the things that helps to stir the conversations.

The Zlaty Bazant may have been a pint too much as I left my bag in the room with some expensive stuff in it. Luckily I just missed the Richmond train, only by a few seconds, and in the fifteen minute wait for the next one some friends rescued it for me.

The near mishap at the end forgiven, this was another delightful BCSA "Get to Know You" Social and because of that we will keep having them.