31 August 2008

Love and Other Demons at Glyndebourne

This weekend I took a chance on Love and Other Demons, a new opera by Peter Eotvos commissioned by Glyndebourne, and was well rewarded.

While the music and staging were very modern the story was typical opera material: girl gets consumed by demons (of some sort); well-meaning but misguided people try to help her; she dies. Dramatic stuff made more dramatic by the tense score and singing that ranged widely in both pitch and volume.

And to add icing to the cake we actually had a hot sunny day in which to enjoy the exploring gardens while sipping a glass of Pimms. This is what summers are for.

30 August 2008

A trip down memory lane

During a short break in Weymouth to see my dad and sister I managed to get some time to walk revisit many of the places that were important to me when I was aged around 7 to 12, this time with a camera.

Sadly the place that I spent a lot of my time back then, the woods off Mount Pleasant Avenue, have been replaced by the Relief Road and there has been much other building on what was woods and fields.

Even the river Wey seems to have decided that there is no place for nature in the new Radipole and it now dribbles its way towards the sea when once it flowed friskily. The water is brown and the river channel is narrow and chocked by plants. It seems to have lost the will to live.

Radipole Manor (pictured) is much as it always was but is currently being worked on; hopefully this will be a tasteful repair rather than yet another conversion to flats. I went to school there when I first moved to Weymouth in 1964 as it was being used as a temporary classroom during the building of the new Radipole County Primary School nearby.

The best part was playing in the large wooded grounds, something that the Health and Safety bureaucrats would not allow today.

27 August 2008

Outnumbered repeats and new series

Outnumbered is currently being repeated on BBC Four prior to the showing of the new series.

It written by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, the creators of Drop The Dead Donkey and various other comedy drams).

The strap line is "the daily rollercoaster of life with small children" but it is much more than that and, typically for a Jenkin/Hamilton script, the dialogue is thick with well observed humour.

Of course, having Hugh Dennis as the Dad does not hurt either but the real start of the show are the young children who you hope are acting!

Outnumbered is really funny and you should watch it.

*Update* The second series starts on Saturday 15 November 9:05pm on BBC1.

26 August 2008

Dream Hunters adapted by P Craig Russell

P Craig Russell has been a favourite artist of mine for many years having first fallen in love with his delicate style in the mid-70s Killraven, Marvel's loose adaptation of War of the Worlds.

Since then he has worked on diverse projects such as opera adaptions, Elric an Conan, all with a large element of fantasy where he excels.

But his most famous work is probably with Neil Gaiman, starting with the special fuller length story in Sandman #50.

Since then he has adapted some Neil Gaiman prose stories including Coraline and, my favourite, Murder Mysteries.

Now comes the excellent news that P Craig Russell is adapting Dream Hunters, one of Neil Gaiman's most fantastical Sandman story. This is going to be a real treat :-)

25 August 2008

A last look at Helsinki

My most recent trawl around Helsinki uncovered several pleasures but, The Saint statue apart, no real delights. Somehow as a city it seems to lack something. That may be because it was a Sunday and it may be because I am used to the hustle and bustle of London but Helsinki does not attract me in the way that, for example, Prague, Riga and Copenhagen do.

All that said, Helsinki is plain rather than ugly and there are some parts of it that are really quite nice, such as the area around the opera house and the main promenade to the harbour. And dotted around the city centre are some very attractive buildings, such as this one.

24 August 2008

A walk in the park

I like walking and I like parks so I was delighted when a work event included a guided walk in Koli National Park in Finland. Our walk was over hills, through trees and across meadows on the west side of Lake Pielinen. From the tops of the hills we got views like this of the lake, its many many islands and, in the distance, Russian hills.

The day was shaped by water. It rained several times during the walk, at times quite heavily, which meant that we had to walk around or through puddles and temporary rivulets. Water lay in small still pools and cavorted down streams. We pulled water from a well for our coffee. The lake came in and out of view all day. And the hike ended with a hot sauna and warm showers to, so I was told, provide relief to our muscles.

The other three elementals played their parts too; we walked and scrambled over the earth, drank in the fresh air and cooked our lunch over an open fire. It was back to nature but in a good way and with the support of modern technology, like waterproof coats :-)

20 August 2008

Cashback if your council fails you

This story caught my eye as yet another example of how the Government is interfering with Local Government in a way that increases costs and reduces service:
  • Homeowners will be able to claim a cash refund if their local council fails to deliver key services such as emptying rubbish bins under Government plans.Payments could include £50 in shop vouchers or £10 in cash.
    Read the full story here.

This may look like a sensible idea but it is seriously flawed.

Paying refunds is very expensive and it probably costs councils something like £100 to repay £10. That £90 spent on processing and administration is simply waste and as councils' budgets are capped this has to come from other services.

Councils will also need to spend more money on detecting and preventing fraud, e.g. to confirm that bins really had not been emptied as claimed. Again this expenditure does not help to deliver services and so is more waste that we will all be paying for.

This waste will generate even more waste as officers' time will also be spent on dealing with queries from residents about the refunds, e.g. "where's my cheque?". Yet again, this effort does not help service in any way so is a cost that we will all be paying for but with no benefit in return.

But the main problem with the idea is that it does not meet customer wishes as the money does not equate to a missed service. If the bin men miss my bin then I want the council to come and empty it and if the council gives me £10 then I still want them to empty it; the compensation does not remove my requirement.

I am reasonably confident that the government will soon see how unworkable this idea is and it will be quietly dropped or, even better, never announced.

18 August 2008

The Saint in Helsinki

A work trip to Finland gave me the opportunity to spend a few hours walking around Helsinki to discover new sites and to revisit some old favourites, such as the Opera House.

Just behind the Houses of Parliament I came across the famous Saint stickman working as the doorkeeper to an underground car park. This is why I always carry a camera with me.

My Finish is pretty poor but I think that the car park belongs to the Houses of Parliament which, if true, gives that saintly figure serious recognition.

16 August 2008


The Hilton hotel in Helsinki has decided that I need a duck to keep me company in the bathroom.

This is odd as I always shower and never use the bath and everybody knows that a bath duck should be bright yellow.

Due to these errors the duck is staying here and is not coming home with me tomorrow.

Also staying here are the hotel pens as they are dreadful. Luckily the three NSN pens that I acquired this trip are rather nice :-)

13 August 2008

Swaddling Songs by Mellow Candle

Swaddling Songs by Mellow Candle is a lovely English prog-folk album from 1972, surely the best year for albums ever!

Mellow Candle sit nicely alongside bands like Stackridge and Fairport Convention but, inexplicably, failed to emulate their success at the time.

I discovered Swaddling Songs through the podcast of Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone which is worth listening to just for the amazingly bizarre music that it introduces you to, such as Turkish psychedelia.

Swaddling Songs is available from Esoteric Recordings which is building up an excellent prog-rock catalogue and has just acquired the rights to a large number of Hawkwind albums.

10 August 2008

Systems Thinking in the Public Sector

Systems Thinking is one of those concepts that immediately made sense to me and helped me to understand what was wrong about the things that felt wrong about what was happening at work.

At the time I was on my way out of Lambeth Council in a cloud of frustration but took the opportunity to attend a conference on Systems Thinking run by Vanguard and hosted by their guru (if I can use that word positively) John Seddon.

A series of case studies helped to explain not on that another approach works but also why it works and why the government's top-down approach of target setting cannot work. This is possibly most obvious with school league tables which tell us nothing other than children are getting better at passing the tests.

Now Systems Thinking in the Public Sector is fully explained in a very readable yet thought-provoking book by John Seddon. It is so good I took it on holiday with me!

7 August 2008

Walking in Pest

Buda, being on a hill, has impressive monuments and views but Pest, while it may be the lesser cousin of its neighbour, has its majesty too. It is helpful, if somewhat simplistic, to think of Buda as the old town and Pest as the new to see how Budapest compares to other grand European cities.

Pest has a touch of Paris about it, and having a leisurely morning coffee in a French cafe in a pretty square with a fountain and a statue certainly helps to foster that feeling, as do the wide boulevards and the art nouveau buildings.

A lot of the main areas are car-free, or car-light, and so it is easy to stroll between the parliament, cathedral, square, market, river, etc. Along the way you can look up to see beautiful buildings with decorations, ornaments and balconies, all of which are best observed at leisure over a large glass of a local beer. This is what holidays are about.

3 August 2008

Citadel, Budapest

A golden rule of travel is to climb the high places so I spent a day on the hills of Buda exploring palaces, museums and old cobbled streets while enjoying the extensive views of Pest across the Danube (the views of Buda were less impressive!).

Citadel is on one of the hills of Buda and is worth the tortuous, and confusing, walk to the top to see the magnificent Soviet era statues.

The Liberty Statue was first erected in 1947 in remembrance of the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi forces. It is 14m tall and stands on a 26m pedestal. It depicts a woman holding a palm leaf.

The brutal concrete landscape, the large statues and the stunning views remind me very much of Vitkov Hill in Prague, one of my favourite places in that city.

2 August 2008

Visegrad, Hungary

A colleague of mine who lives in Hungary took us for a trip out of Budapest to the Danube Curve where the Danube loops around Visegrad, which means high castle. We spent the afternoon and evening in pretty villages, in wild woods, up high hills, on a car ferry, learning Hungarian history and enjoying the occasional beer and an enormous pizza.

Visegrad is steeped in history. The Visegrad Group was formed on 15th February 1991 at a meeting of the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Václav Havel, the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Hungary, József Antall.

 A similar meeting, took place there in 1335 and was attended by John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, Charles Robert, King of Hungary, and Casimir III., King of Poland. The central motif of the two meetings was the desire to intensify mutual cooperation and friendship among the three Central European states.