31 October 2008

Exploring Kew Gardens

I really should go to Kew Gardens more often than I do (I can get there in about 20 minutes on the 65 bus, which goes more or less door-to-door) but I did manage to get there during my recent week off to take advantage of some October sun.

A new attraction this year is the Treetop Walkway that spirals up to the tree tops then passes through them to give you a perspective on large trees that you do not normally get.

The structure is very impressive but it sways noticeably at the top and, as you can tell from the photo, the flooring is a mesh that you can see through. Not the best place to be if, like me, you have issues with heights :-(

Back on the ground, my favourite part of Kew is the greenhouses. This is because they are full of large and exotic plants which are shown off against a background of decorative white steel.

There are three main greenhouses and two of these have galleries which, like the Treetop Walkway, allow you get right up close to the tops of the plants.

They also allow you to get up close to the stunning roofs to appreciate the effort that was spent on the appearance of a strictly functional building.

But the main reason for going to Kew is for the gardens and there are lots of different ones. There are always parts of the gardens that are in season so Kew is worth visiting any time and it is only closed for two days a year!

The size of the garden also means that you are unlikely to see all of it in a single visit anyway!

This time I spent most of my time in the corner of the gardens that includes the aquatic, grass and alpine gardens. Not being much of a gardener myself, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many plants in flower at this time of the year.

It proved to be a good afternoon out and it convinced me to go back there more often.

30 October 2008

Willoughby Arms Halloween Beer Festival

The Willoughby Arms in Kingston upon Thames is worth visiting at any time but when they have a beer festival on then you need a pretty good excuse to stay away. The Halloween festival started on Wednesday and I joined many other beer lovers to sample the delights of brews like Autumn Blaze, Flying Shuttle, Albury Ruby and Aligiator. I'll be back there on Friday to try out a few more!

29 October 2008

In the city there are a thousand things to do

I'm taking a few days holiday (use it or lose it) and am trying to make the most of the extra free time. Tickets for the recording of a radio show gave the opportunity to see some of London, so I did.

First port of call was the Tate Modern on the south bank of the Thames, always worth a visit. The installation in the former Turbine Hall was typically huge, interesting and (to me at least) confusing. I have no idea what the point of dozens of metal bunk beds is but it makes an effective display and was clearly appreciate by all the people walking through it.

I also had a quick look at Material Gestures, an exhibition "devoted to painting and sculpture from the 1940s and 1950s, showing how new forms of abstraction and expressive figuration emerged in post-war Europe and America". A lot of this I really liked and some of it I really hated, but that's what I expect from modern art.

Leaving the Tate Modern on foot there are two scenic options, along the south bank or cross the rover on the Millennium Bridge. I took the bridge where I took the above picture of the city. The tall building on the far left was called the NatWest Tower originally and I worked there for a few months way back in '93.

The path from the Millennium Bridge leads up to St Paul's Cathedral where I had a much appreciated coffee and a cake at one of the Starbucks nearby. I was surprised that there was no wi-fi there so my twitter silence had to continue for a few hours more.

After the bun it was time for a pizza and so it was off to the Pizza Express in Charlotte Street. Tried to work out how many different Pizza Expresses I've been too and came up with the answer 12 to 15. Not sure if that is too many or too few.

From there it was a short stroll to the Drill Hall Theatre for the recording of BBC Radio 4 comedy The Party Line. Was not too surprised to see some of The Now Show audience regulars there and spoke to some of them while waiting for the theatre to open.

The show was good entertainment both because of the topical satirical script (well, it is written by The Now Show's Punt and Dennis) and because of the interactions between the cast, particularly when cock-ups were made.

Finally, back to Richmond for a few drinks in the Angel and Crown, the chili vodka was excellent! The perfect end to a perfect day.

26 October 2008

Excellent Hawkwind Tribute Concert

The prospect of a concert of Hawkwind music was always going to be tempting but when it is held in a pub a mile down the road then there is simply no excuse for not going. The venue was The Fighting Cocks in Kingston which, for some reason I had never been to before, which proved to be a lively pub with a decent pint of Hobgoblin.

The evening started with a short set by Xenon Codex who played a medley of, I guess, their own material and culminating with Spirit of The Age. The crowd were duly warmed up ready for the main acts.

Next up were local band Hoaxwind featuring the engaging Eugene on sax and with Julian dressed in best Bob Calvert style flying suit and helmet on vocals.

Hoaxwind were a lot of fun and played mid 70s Hawkwind with enthusiasm and gusto.

The Hawkwind albums from that period, such as "Hall of the Mountain Grill" and "Amazing Sounds, Amazing Music" are my favourites so I really loved their song selection.

Sadly the strict curfew at the venue meant that Hoaxwind had to finish when still in full swing to allow the main act their full time

The Assassins of Silence ended the evening with a very professional rendition of more Hawkwind classics; the bands had discussed set lists beforehand to avoid playing the same songs.

For some reason, the whole band wore Dave Brock style white coats which while a clear homage to Hawkwind was a little odd as there is clearly only one Dave Brock in the band.

Assassins of Silence seem to understand that visually they do not offer very much so they employ the distracting charms of a dancer, as Hawkwind often do too.

But the music is the main thing and they played an interesting selection of Hawkwind greats, i.e. not just the obvious greatest hits, and they played them well changing them enough to make them more exciting but not too much to miss the point of being a Hawkwind tribute.

The 11pm curfew came all too quickly and the music had to end. It was a cracking evening much enjoyed by the packed hall and I hope to go to similar gigs in the future.

23 October 2008

An average Aida at ENO

My only previous visits to the ENO had been to see rarely performed operas (Nixon in China and Satyagraha) but I was tempted to take the family to see Aida at the ENO because it was some months since the Glyndebourne season ended (I went three times this year), even longer since we had all gone to the opera together (The Bartered Bride at ROH in 2005) and I was intrigued by the prospect of Zandra Rhodes’ designs.

In the best tradition of beauty contests, I’ll comment on the various aspects of the production in reverse order.

Easily the worst part of the evening was the audience which was inconsiderate, noisy and rude. Around me people spoke during the performance, frequently unwrapped sweets, clapped during the music, left a mobile phone on and ran for the exit as soon as the performance ended.

It’s hard to image a worse audience at an opera so that gets a score of 0/5.

The theatre itself does little to enhance the evening. It was too warm throughout, there is less legroom than on a budget airline, the seats are uncomfortable and the pitch between the rows is insufficient for the height people are today. (2/5)

The solo singing was mixed at best. We were warned beforehand that several of the cast were suffering from seasonal ailments but if they were not well enough to perform then understudies should have been used or the performance cancelled. Deliberately offering up below par singing is unforgiveable. Some of the soloists seemed uninflected by the dreaded lurgy and the Ethiopian king and the High Priest gave commanding performances. (2/5)

The direction was limited and very formal. For a love story set during a war there was very little emotion on stage. The soloists were stationary for most of the time and usually singing directly to the audience rather than to the objects of their passion. (2/5)

The ensemble scenes were much much better. Whether it was the priests singing at the trial or the triumphal procession after the initial skirmish with Ethiopia, the stage was full of singing and movement.

I am not sure that we needed the acrobats but they did no harm and the scene they were in was the liveliest and helped to kick momentum in to an otherwise fairly flat performance. (4/5)

But easily the best part of the performance was the Zandra Rhodes designs. The sets were fairly simple but brightly decorated with Egyptian symbols in turquoise and orange. The same colours were used in the costumers and in, er, the elephant! I especially liked the Anubis headdresses worn at the celebration and the large Eye of Horus symbol on the prison bars. (5/5)

On balance, the ensemble singing and the designs saved what could have been a poor evening and made it one that was worth going out for (3/5).

However, I already know that I will be going to Glyndebourne several times next year but I am unlikely to be going back to the ENO in a hurry.

22 October 2008

Ham Amenities Group AGM 2008

I think that working from home has helped but for the last year or so I have been a lot more active with various local societies that I have been a member of for several years. I have been going regularly to meetings of Kingston Area Travellers Association (KATA) and of the Kingston upon Thames Society (KSoc), and I have also been to a meeting of Kingston Peace Council/CND. This week I went to my first meeting of the Ham Amenities Group (HAG).

HAG is a local community group whose most visible activity is the maintenance of the small Gate House Garden on a corner of Ham Common but they also get involved in local planning matters and in local events, such as Ham Fair.

The main part of the AGM was as boring as you would expect at these events, e.g. election of people you do not know to positions on the committee, but I did find that report on planning very interesting.

I knew about most of the applications that were mentioned (including the Russian oligarch on Ham Common who bought a large plot of land next to his mansion just for a swimming pool) but it was interesting to hear some of the history behind some of the applications, particularly from people in the room who were directly involved in them.

Once the business was out of the way we had a long talk on the Thames Landscape Strategy. Sadly this was pretty much identical to the one I saw at a KSoc earlier in the year and it left me just as depressed as it did then. I hate to see the urbanisation of the small really wild areas that we have left passed of as improvements.

It was almost 10pm by the time the talk finished and while I was slightly tempted to stay and drink wine in a room full mostly of women somewhat older than myself I made the wiser choice and came home to watch a repeat of House Season 3 on Five US.

21 October 2008

Watergardens on Kingston Hill (Oct 2008)

A few weeks ago I visited Warren House on Coombe Hill, Kingston and last weekend I was able to see the water gardens that used to belong to the house but which are now part of an exclusive development of flats.

Coombe Nursery, from whom the land was bought, was famous for its many rare specimens of flowering trees and shrubs, most notably magnolias, azaleas and acers, and for its Japanese Water Garden which was apparently inspired by the well-known “Willow Pattern” plate design.

The garden has a maze of paths that link and circle the many ponds, cross bridges over little streams, wind their way up the hill to the source of the water and pass through thickets of exotic trees and bushes.

It is not a particularly large garden (well, it is a lot larger than mine but a lot smaller than a country estate garden like, say, Stourhead) but the many twisting paths mean that a small horde of us could descend on it and not get in each other's way and it always felt small, cosy and private.

19 October 2008

Restoration or destruction?

Some words have positive connotations so it is tempting to use them when trying to convince somebody that your proposal is a good idea. Common examples are "modernisation", "democracy" and "restoration". How could anybody be against any of these? Well, I can actually!

Richmond Council is consulting on the restoration of Ham Common acid grassland but they plan to restore the grassland by removing 23 trees!!

I am sure that if they had been more honest and consulted on the "Destruction of Ham Common woods" then they would get a very different result.

17 October 2008

Leaving by Vaclav Havel

The new season at the Orange Tree theatre begins with the English language premier of Leaving, the latest play by Vaclav Havel.

Leaving is a highly entertaining, if confusing, play. The main theme is the leaving of office of Chancellor Rieger and his eviction from the state villa which has been his home by the new political heavyweight in the country, Deputy Minister Klein.

This theme provides the thread through the play from which several other themes hang.

Some of these themes are also to do with leaving, such as the transfer of allegiances from one person to another and the many exists and entrances made by the large cast, some of whom seem to have little role in the play other to go on and off stage.

We also get a scene in Shakespearean dialogue, wild dancing to the European anthem, many references to cherries and orchard, drinking and womanising, silent partners, slow-motion fights and a naked man.

Some of the complexity is explained, or perhaps excused is a better word, by an occasional spoken commentary provided by Vaclav Havel himself.

The Orange Tree delivers all this with a single staging of a table and bench in the garden of the villa. Good use is made of the theatre's four exits to provide depth of movement.

As always, the proximity to the action that you get at the Orange Tree adds to the feeling that you are participating rather than watching, particularly when you have to move your feet to make way for a busy of Gandhi or when one of the cast turns to speak to you.

The acting is also good with all the performances being at least convincing and usually better than that. I particularly liked Carolyn Backhouse's portrayal of Chancellor Rieger's long-term companion (i.e. mistress) who is rude to servants, fawning in front of cameras, betrayed by Rieger but ultimately forgiving and humble.

The only minor gripe I had, and it shows how sad I am that this is even a gripe, is that the four chairs at the garden table are set as they would be in England whereas in the Czech Republic they would be in two pairs side-by-side opposite each other (something like EO3).

But don't let the arrangement of the chairs put you off, this is well worth seeing.

14 October 2008

Kingstonian 1 - 1 Metropolitan Police

I am only an occasional visitor to Kingsmeadow these days but I was tempted by the fine weather, a midweek game on a day that I had nothing else on, and the ridicule of some friends for my extended absence to go and see Kingstonian play Metropolitan Police in the Isthmian League Division One South on Monday night.

I started my football life watching Weymouth play in various minor leagues and I like the atmosphere of these games where the crowd almost know each other as well as the players do. I also like being able to stand to watch the game, rather than the enforced seating in higher leagues, and walking from one end of the ground to the other at half time to be behind the goal that my team is playing towards.

Kingstonian are currently top of the league and so a draw at home against the team currently fifth was a little disappointing. More disappointing was the way that they played with a very slow midfield that seemed incapable of playing forward quickly and imaginatively and equally incapable of stopping the opposition from doing just that.

My friends claimed that the lethargy was due to a hard game just two days previously but I had not been there to see that so have to take their word for it!

The result and the lethargy apart, it was not a bad night out and if the favourable circumstances repeat themselves I could go again :-)

13 October 2008

Ender at Marvel

Ender's Game is the first of a series of books by Orson Scott Card. It was the winner of the Hugo Award for best novel in 1986 and the Nebula Award for best novel in 1985. The following year, the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, also won both awards. The Ender series now consists of five books with a sixth planned.

The companion books, the Shadow series, tell the same stories but from another perspective, Ender's shadow. The Shadow series now consists of four books with a fifth planned.

Finally, some thirty years after the first Ender short story was published, the saga has made it to the world of comics with the publication of Ender's Game: Battle School (part 1 of 6) by Marvel Comics.

This will be followed by Ender's Shadow in December so there is more good reading to look forward to. Now I just need a few days off to tackle that backlog ...

11 October 2008

Czechoslovak beer, food and conversations

We have made the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) "get to know you" socials a regular event, they now happen on the second Wednesday of each month, mainly because that makes planning the dates easier.

All we need to do is book one of the rooms at the Czech and Slovak National House, West Hampstead for the evening and and the guests turn up any time between 7pm and 11pm. Food and drink is available from the restaurant and bar so that is all sorted.

Basically, it is a very easy event for us to run and all we really need to do is take care of the publicity. Increasingly this is via Facebook where the BCSA group now has over 260 members.

It may have been because of Facebook, or it may have been down to the start of the new academic year, but October's social attracted a lot of students and the evening was quickly full of lively conversations.

The kitchen and bar had a good night too with most people choosing to have the very traditional meat and dumplings. I had my usual Smazeny Syr (cheese fried in breadcrumbs) that I grew so fond of when I worked in Prague some 17 years ago. And we all drank a reasonable amount of the excellent Czech beer. I, predictably, had Pilsner Urquell (another taste acquired 17 years ago) but draft Budvar is also available.

We always seem to discover connections at these events so it was no great surprise to discover that one of the newly arrived students had been taught in Prague by a friend of mine.

The Czechoslovak food and beer are enticing but it is the unexpected conversations that make these BCSA socials such fun for me.

9 October 2008

Two icons

The back page ot last week's 2000AD had this stunning advertisement for clickwheel, a service that lets you read comics online.

The advertisement is for the iPhone/iPod touch clickwheel application that looks like an interesting way to read comics, I will be giving it ago.

But what I really like about the advertisement is the simple use of two icons that says all it needs to say in one white and one black image.

The white iPod and earphones should be familiar to everybody from the TV, billboards and personal use.

The black image will be familiar to lovers of comics in general and of 2000AD in particular, and is Nemesis the Warlock as drawn by Kevin o'Neill.

The strap line, iPod + Thrills, says it all.

8 October 2008

English beer, Indian food, Irish music

The first Tuesday of every month is Irish music night down at the Canbury Arms which provides a good excuse for a night out, particularly when one of your friends is playing in the band and is about to disappear off around the world for two months.

The Irish music is provided by a loose collective that sits at a large table in the middle of the bar and entertains us from around 9pm to closing time. I think that you can see around 11 musicians in this picture but the number changes throughout the evening and I am sure that there were 14 or 15 playing at one point.

The Canbury Arms is a fairly standard gastro pub with an interesting, if limited, menu that is well presented and well cooked. I normally stick to the small dishes (bar bites and starters) but there was a curry available for the main course so the decision was made. The curry was butternut squash and chick peas, which I would probably have gone for even if they were not curried, and the spiciness was just right, almost a madras.

There was the usual good selection of real ales available and I settled on the Sundancer from local brewery Twickenham Ales. They produce several beers and I enjoy all of them!

Good music, good food, good beer and good friends makes for a great evening.

6 October 2008

Some good words for American politics

There is clearly something seriously wrong when there is a reasonable chance that Sarah Palin could be elected Vice President of the USA in a few weeks and could then be President within a few years, but there are some aspects of American politics that I have respect for.

I like that fact thay they have fixed term elections which prevents those in power from calling elections at times that they are popular. Mrs Thatcher was behind in the polls for most of her time in office but managed to win repeated elections by calling them at the right time (for her), such as just after the Falklands War.

The USA also has two elected chambers whereas in the UK we started to dismantle the unelected House of Lords several years ago but have yet to decide what to replace it with.

Finally, the President is able to appoint whomever he/she wants to the various offices of state whereas the Prime Minister is limited to people in parliament. As a result, for example, Peter Mandelson is becoming a Lord just so that he can join the Cabinet.

So, three cheers for democracy in the USA but these are outweighed by the one massive boo for allowing people like Sarah Palin to rise to the very top.

5 October 2008

A fun night with Stackridge at the Boom Boom Club

I am a recent convert to Stackridge, even though they have been around for almost forty years, but the concert I saw at the 100 Club in May was enough to convince me to see them again when they played the more local, but harder to get to, Boom Boom Club in Sutton.

The venue is more used to hosting Sutton FC supporters in an after match drink to solace yet another deserved defeat and it is pushed to a few limits to host live bands, particularly one with eight members on stage. My main gripes are that the ceiling is too low and the lighting system is designed more for birthday parties. I blame both for the poor quality of the photograph!

The set was slightly different from that which I saw earlier.

They played many of their old classics, including the progressive tracks like God Speed the Plough and Purple Spaceships Over Yatton, but there were several changes including a new song, Boots and Shoes, which we were told would be on a new Stackridge album early next year.

At the 100 Club they announced the songs but here they did not, perhaps assuming, rightly, that they were playing to an audience of mostly diehard Stackridge fans. Luckily I was able to pick a set list up at the end to get some clue as to what they played, though I know that they deviated from it a little, e.g. they played three songs over the two encors whereas the set list only showed one.

I deliberately lifted Andy Davis' set list as he had rewritten it in large capitals using interesting abreviations, e.g. Purple Spaceships Over Yatton is just PURP, God Speed the Plough is just GOD but Syracuse the Elephant is SYRACUSE. I also noticed that James Warren's set list had Fish in a Glass as Fish up the Arse! These are fun guys.

Indeed fun was a major component of the evening with all of the band smiling, laughing and whispering to each other. This showed a band that thinks as one and they played as one as well. With eight performers on stage and some complex songs to play there was plenty of scope for error but they made it all look as easy to do as it was fun to do.

The music started not long after 9pm and bounced merrily along until the 11pm curfew, treating us to over twenty songs along the way. It was with a happy heart and some tunes in my head that I left darkest Sutton to catch the 213 bus back home.

4 October 2008

Complete Ace Trucking Volume 1

A welcome surprise this week was the discovery of Complete Ace Trucking Volume 1.

The excellent 2000AD back catalogue has been raided in recent times for collections of Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock and Strontium Dog, all of which I am buying, and I was hoping for, but not expecting, Ace Trucking Co. to join this illustrious list.

Ace Trucking Co. was a comedy science fiction series that featured in 2000AD from 1981 to 1986 in something like twenty adventures.

It followed the misadventures of a space trucking company headed by Ace Garp, a pointy-headed alien who spoke in a kind of futuristic CB radio slang.

Ace Trucking was created by writers John Wagner and Alan Grant and artist Massimo Belardinelli, all of whom are recognised masters in their field, which is why they were such good stories and I am so happy to have the chance to read them all again.

1 October 2008