28 February 2009

Space Ritual at 100 Club

Space Ritual are one of the few bands that I go to see perform whenever I can and last night they reminded me why this is. They were playing what was billed as an "extended set" at the 100 Club in London's Oxford Street.

I've seen Space Ritual at the 100 Club several times and the venue seems to suit them and me. It suits them by being a wide stage that can accommodate a 7-man band and a woman dancer and it suits me as, if you get there early enough, you can stand right next to the stage and be within easy touching distance of the band, ideal for taking photographs!

The formation was almost the same as last time except that, on the far left of the stage, Chris Mekon (electronics) and Sam Ollis (decks) swapped places with Chris moving inside of Sam, or rather Sam stayed in more or less the same place and Chris returned from his banishment on the edge of the stage to squeeze into a small space between Sam and Mick Slattery (guitar).

Nik Turner (the man) was centre stage with "caveman" Terry Ollis on drums behind him. To the right was Jerry Richards (bass) and, finally, Thomas Crimble (keyboards). Jerry was hidden behind Nik for most of the gig but I did manage to a few photos of him but Thomas, being seated, remained obscured so is missing from these photos.

The line up was completed by the Fabulous Ms Angel who confined her exotic dancing to the space in front of Chris Mekon, i.e. right next to me.

The set was familiar but unpredictable. We had a lot of their last album and a little less Hawkwind than usual, but no problems with that. Indeed, Sonic Savages was my favourite song of the night.

I was stood in almost exactly the same place as I had been for their previous gig back in September but the sound was a lot clearer and sharper than before and that helped to make the familiar songs fizz and sparkle. The band's humour and interplay were good too.

The end result of all of these factors was the most enjoyable Space Ritual concert that I have ever been to. It is because of their continuing ability to please and delight that I see them regularly.

26 February 2009

Dilbert on the bailout

So often Dilbert gets it so right that it would be easy to inflate this blog simply by reposting two or three cartoons a week. But I try to be discerning and only highlight the very very best, particularly as I am sure that most other people are reading Dilbert daily anyway.

The other cartoons that get fed in to my RSS reader daily are Alex, Nemi, Doonsbury and Garfield. Alex, as a merchant banker, is also very topical at the moment and gives us the insider's view on why greed is good.

25 February 2009

Liberty Renaissance

"Renaissance" is the branding given to the remodelling of Liberty of London and, as this is my favourite shop, I was a little worried about the prospect of any changes.

A work meeting in London gave me an early opportunity to see these changes for myself and I am delighted. Liberty is as it was but only more so!

The main structure of the store is unchanged and it still carries the same familiar sense of history, grandeur and mystery.

It has a more open feel but this has been achieved simply by putting less stuff on the floors. No walls have been removed and so the curious mix of rooms and atria remain.

This is important for me as it means that there is always a (pleasant) surprise when walking through the store randomly.

The best thing about the change is the amount of Liberty fabric on display.

Women's clothing is now on two floors (rather than just one) and this has a lot of Liberty print blouses and a also few dresses. Hopefully this mix will change through the seasons but blouses are always good.

There is still a fabrics room on another floor where you can buy a wide range of Liberty fabrics, Liberty print dressmakers' dummies and more ready made blouses if needlework does not entice you.

The only disappointment, and it is quite a big one, is that the menswear department is almost devoid of Liberty print shirts. It is just as well that I bought three in the last sale!

One of my favourite parts of the building always was, and still is, the staircases.

Sadly my favourite one was in the Regent Street section of the building which is no longer part of Liberty. That staircase was virtually hidden at the North end of the shop and using it felt like living out a Famous Five adventure.

The staircase at the West end of the shop is charming in the way that it changes between each floor and gets narrower the further up you go. It looks and feels like an afterthought.

The main staircase is toward the South-East corner of the building and gives easy access to all floors. It creaks like it looks like it should creak in a wonderful stately home sort of way.

20 February 2009

Greenwash at the Orange Tree

Greenwash takes place on one evening in New York sometime during George W Bush's second term. A small group of people are brought together for Charlie's intervention, i.e. a meeting aimed at helping him with his alcohol problem.

But things do not go to plan and almost the only time that Charlie's alcoholism features in the play is when he drinks out of a child's breaker with the word "Charlie" on it (why he arrived as a clown is almost irrelevant too).

One of the main themes of the play is the way that large corporations, particularly oil companies, use Public Relations to subtly change the way that the public things about key issues, e.g. "global warming" becomes "climate change".

Other themes that are explored include dead relationships, baldness, the war on terrorism, Barbie dolls, politics, food and obsessive behaviour. The vehicle for carrying these themes is pure and simple farce and the play is a hoot throughout. For example, some of the biggest laughs came at the expense of the Barbie doll that had been reprogrammed to speak like G.I. Joe. and from Charlie's inappropriate clown outfit.

Somehow the major political themes work well in the farce fabric and are a very important part of the play. The politics is usually presented in heated and loud arguments between the PR executive, liberal journalist, political power-broker and environmental activist; and these arguments are not always made by the people that you would expect to make them.

I do not think that I would have believed it myself but the mix of high farce and high politics really does work and it makes the play an effective entertainment on several levels.

As usual, the Orange Tree itself adds to the play by being in the round and so bringing you much closer to the action and to the cast who, also as usual, more than play their part.

It is because the Orange Tree keep putting shows like this on that I keep going.

18 February 2009

Complicit at The Old Vic

It is almost exactly twenty years since I last went to The Old Vic (to see Eric Porter as King Lear) and I was finally drawn back to see Complicit through a tempting discount offer at work.

My prolonged absence has little to do with The Old Vic itself and has more to do with the steady diet of good theatre locally at the Orange Tree in Richmond.

My visits to Central London theatres have averaged about once a year and these have generally been with the family in tow, which has been the major influence on what I've seen.

The Old Vic is very conveniently situated for me being just a few minutes walk from Waterloo Station. As the picture shows, its a fairly standard Victorian theatre. There are few surprises in the waiting areas either where the former grandeur is slightly diminished by worn carpets and tired d├ęcor. The Pit Bar in the basement has been updated and is a cosy place to enjoy that all important pre-performance pint of Staropramen.

The theatre itself is more of a shock. There is a lot of the old theatre still there but the centre has been gouged out to move the stage so that it is now in the round, i.e. surrounded by seating. It is a round stage too, unlike the Orange Tree which is also in the round but is square (if you get what I mean). It works well.

Complicit examines America's attitude to the war on terror where a leading journalist who exposes torture, and the rendition that leads to it, is attacked as an terrorist sympathiser. The war is deemed by the authorities to take precedent over the right to free speech.

The play discussed the conflict of free speech and patriotism through dialogues between the journalist (Richard Dreyfuss), his attorney (David Suchet) and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) over two days as the journalist is interrogated by a Grand Jury.

The dialogues between journalist and attorney are the meat of the play and both actors are superb in presenting the arguments and in showing the emotion of the situation.

It is less clear why the wife is there. Her arguments about putting the family first are unconvincing and there is no passion shown between the couple. It may just be a crude devise to allow the two main actors some respite but it does not really matter as this little weakness does nothing to diminish the main drama.

The short story around the Grand Jury hearing serves as a good framework for the arguments and gives the play a natural and rewarding ending. Well, two actually. The play does what it sets out to do, it is thought provoking for people on both sides of the argument and it provides entertainment. It's not faultless but it is very good.

17 February 2009

Kings Cross

Walking through London recently I was passing Kings Cross Station and was attracted by the beauty of the construction work being done there. I am sure that the work is carefully planned but I love the apparent jumble of scaffolding, planks, lights, steps and sheeting. I also like the white shapes made by light escaping from the station that contrast violently with the darkness of the night-clad walls.

Kings Place

Kings Place is a new multi-purpose building just to the North of Kings Cross Station, on York Way and next to the Regent's Canal.

For most people, Kings Place is, or will be, best known as a music venue. There are two halls, imaginatively named Hall One and Hall Two, that hold a variety of musical events including classical, folk and jazz.

But the bulk of the building is office space and it is now the office of The Guardian newspaper.

It is also Logica's new Central London office and we occupy the top (seventh) floor.

Very few staff are based there as its main purpose is to host client events. Its location and public spaces make it ideal for this. To meet this requirement, most of the space is given to meeting rooms and hot desks. It is an effective if somewhat soulless space.

Kings Place makes the most of its canal-side location.

There are terraces all around the building and these are populated with works of modern art. I like the shapes and colours of these and the way that they break up the familiar straight lines of modern buildings.

The small dock, Battlebridge Basin, is home to several houseboats and these provide more interesting shapes and colours.

These boats have seen much change over the years. They are surrounded by some Victorian warehouses (converted to other uses now) from when the canal was first built, some social housing from when canals were all but forgotten and some brash new offices now that water-side properties are attractive again.

Sandwiched between the music halls and the offices are some exciting public spaces with restaurants, bars and galleries.

The current exhibition in the main gallery is by Albert Irvin.

Most of the canvasses are large (2m x 3m) and some are huge (3m by 6m), but all are as brightly and boldly coloured as in this example.

The smaller gallery has a collection by Dale Atkinson that was inspired by the building of Kings Place over two years.

These skilfully combine elements of abstract art with fine pencil drawings of the workers. It may be because of the industrial nature of these drawings that I find them more interesting than their more colourful neighbours.

Kings Place follows in the tradition of the Barbican, though on a much smaller scale, and perhaps one day it will become as well known and as well loved.

15 February 2009

Richmond Park in February

Richmond Park attracts hordes of visitors at weekends and they walk, jog, cycle and drive along the roads, paths and tracks. But if you keep away from these obvious routes then you can find yourself all alone and can forget that you are sharing the park with anybody else.

Richmond Park is worth exploring at any time of the year as the foliage, colours and light change with the seasons. In February, the browns dominate large areas where the ferns are still waiting for the warmer weather.

The trees are one of the best features of the park as they provide screening and shade when in leaf and become mysterious shapes when their branches are exposed.

To the West of the road between Kingston Gate and Richmond Gate, the park falls away toward Ham offering invigorating slopes, sights and spaces. It is also one of the quietest parts of the park, which is another good reason for going there.

Just over the brow of this hill is the section of the main path between Pembroke Lodge and Ham Gate but that's where the people and the cars are so it is best to keep well away.

In the corner of the park between Dysart Gate and Richmond Gate, the sleeping brown ferns give way to grass growing on small mounds of earth. The trees are fewer and the terrain more difficult but it's the only way to get to Richmond Gate so it's a route I often take. At least the changing ecosystems add interest to the exercise.

This part of the park is also wet, sometimes very wet. There are no rivers or gullies here but the water oozes out of the ground in several places and hangs around long enough to create the sort of mud that turns paths into slides and, somehow, leaps up to cover your shoes and trousers.

The path gets steeper and wetter as you approach Richmond Gate and the last few metres are only passable thanks to some stone steps but despite struggling through the mud and brambles I always regret leaving the park behind as I emerge from the gate on to the path to rejoin all the people and cars.

13 February 2009

St. Valentine's Winter Beer Festival

I do not need much of an excuse to go to The Willoughby Arms but any reluctance induced by the cold and the snow was blown away by the St. Valentine's Winter Beer Festival.

This is a much smaller affair that the two big beer festivals that The Willoughby runs each year, on St. George's Day and at Halloween, but there are plenty of new beers for an amateur fan like myself to enjoy.

It had just started to snow again when I set out for the mile or so walk to the pub, which is the idea weather for dark fruity beers.

As is always the case at festivals, I had heard of very few of the breweries and even fewer of the beers so it was something of a lucky dip in deciding what to drink. There is a guide but it is simpler just to go on the name, much as most people pick their horses for the Grand National.

The evening started with Hammerpot Red Hunter then moved smoothly on to Ascot Anastasia's Exile Stout before going back to Hammerpot for some Bottle Wreck Porter. The evening was closed with a Downton Chocolate Orange Delight which does its best to taste like a Chocolate Orange while remaining an excellent beer.

The festival is only on for a few days, i.e. until the barrels run dry, but the weekend is upon us so I am sure that I will have the opportunity to try one or two more new beers before it ends. In fact, tonight looks like a good night to go for a walk!

12 February 2009


The news that there is a truancy jailing every two weeks is bit of a shock. This is the pinnacle of the iceberg that has seen 10,000 parents being prosecuted for not getting their children to school. Sadly, this seems to have had no impact on truancy rates which are still rising and I guess that they will rise even more when the school leaving age is raised from 16 to 18.

School attendance is clearly an important issue and as governor it something that we discuss fairly regularly, particularly as schools have attendance targets. The argument for attendance that we preach is simple (ignoring the fact that it is a legal requirement), we cannot teach your child if they are not in school.

For the vast majority of children attendance is either not an issue or is something that we can manage by working with the parents etc. The question is what to do with the children for whom this approach does not work?

I do not thing that replacing the carrot of learning with the stick of a fine or imprisonment is the answer as they do not fit the "crime". There is no damage that the fine can be used to repair and going to prison does not make you a better parent. This makes the sentence nothing more than a punishment.

The families with truancy problems tend to be socially deprived so this punishment is being inflicted on a group of people that society is trying to help. It is much harder for the authorities to help a family if they are also trying to prosecute them. You cannot build up trust when carrying a carrot in one hand and a stick in the other.

There are also some children for whom school is not really a suitable environment. For example, some simply do not cope with being surrounded by lots of people, especially when those people are teenagers who are not noted for being kind to each other.

I do not think that there is a single solution to truancy but the approach must be to understand the individual situation of each child and their family and work with them to achieve the best for the child, in or out of school.

10 February 2009

Aproaching Richmond upon Thames

I live roughly half-way between Kingston upon Thames and Richmond upon Thames and whenever I go to either of them I walk most of the way along the river. Walking north then east from Ham there are few signs of Man on either bank and places like Ham House are the rare urban structures that prove the natural rule.

But nature loses in the end and, as the river turns sharply north again in its relentless journey through London to the sea, glimpses of Richmond start to appear. At first some grand houses and hotels stare down at you from Richmond Hill and then a few moments later Richmond Riverside is exposed and you know that you have left the quiet wilderness behind and are about to join the milling throng of the town.

The promise of crowds and harsh buildings is softened by this first view of Richmond where the converted boat houses, new flats that try to look like boat houses and the boat houses that have managed to remain boat houses gently touch the river. 

Here Richmond looks like a fragile place threaten by the grey river and the grey sky both of which dwarf the timorous buildings in scale, strength and history.

8 February 2009

Dexter is intriguing

I when I first heard the idea behind Dexter, police scientist kills baddies who escape the clutches of the law, I was not particularly impressed by what seemed a not very original idea and so I did not watch the series.

Then one night there was nothing else on so I started to watch it (about half way through series 1) and I've been hooked every since!

Without going into all of the gory details (and there are lots of those) the thread which weaves through the series is Dexter's past and how he is trying to both understand it and live with it.

In series 1 the main story was the search for the Ice Truck Killer who we discover at the very end is Dexter's estranged and forgotten brother. In series 2, which is showing in the UK now, Dexter's handiwork has been discovered and the police are now looking for the "Bay Harbour Butcher".

But I find the second plot line equally interesting and more intriguing. To cover up an earlier incident, Dexter has admitted to a non-existent drugs problem and is now attending a group-help program. Through this Dexter realises that his need to kill is exactly like a drug addiction and his sponsor in the programme (played by ex-Hustle star Jaime Murray) understands him better than anyone else, including himself.

It is the psychological element running alongside an unusual cop story that makes Dexter stand out from the crowd and an essential part of my weekly viewing.

6 February 2009

I Found My Horn is a joy

The latest show at the Orange Tree is a departure for the usual being a single act play with a single actor.

I Found My Horn tells the story of Jasper Rees who on entering a mid-life crisis returns to the Horn that he last played at school.

Jonathan Guy Lewis adapted the story from Jasper Rees' autobiography and plays the part of Jasper.

The play is a simple story of how Jasper takes up the horn again, makes a rash promise to perform solo and lives up to that promises with the help of various teachers.

And it is told as a story too with Jonathan/Jasper talking directly to the audience throughout and involving them at times in the story.

It's a one man show but in telling the story Jasper impersonates some of the other characters, i.e. Jonathan is always playing Jasper but Jasper is sometimes playing somebody else. It's a clever approach that breaks the tone and pace of the story but leaves the sole actor completely in charge of the show.

The story is simple and is carried forward by frequent but brief moments of humour and pathos. It entertains, amuses and delights.

It goes without saying that a one man show relies on that one man and Jonathan Guy Lewis carries the burden with aplomb and makes the play a triumph.

I Found My Horn is a fun story superbly acted in an atmospheric theatre which all adds up to an excellent night out.

5 February 2009

Comics greats - Jim Steranko

Marvel Comics have started doing a poll on the best comics of all time. While recognising the many flaws in this concept, such as trying to identify a single issue in a major story such as the Kree Skrull War, it was a welcome prompt to revisit some of my favourite stories from the last forty years or so.

I have some more research and memory prodding to do to complete my list of all time greats but a few came to mind quickly.

So far all the stories that I have thought of are worthy of the highest praise mostly because of the art. That is not to dismiss the stories in any way but in each case the artist is somebody recognised as a true master of comic book art.

First up is Jim Steranko who had drew a relatively small number of comics back but had a dramatic impact on the media in the late 60s and early 70s.

Steranko's art was very striking and so a lot of his work was covers and when he did interiors there were often large dramatic images, one stretched over four pages!

But the main impact Steranko had was on page composition, eschewing the traditional square panels for a collage of pictures with unusual perspectives and eye-catching images.

The two page spread above is from an episode of Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD and is typical of his work.

I first discovered Steranko in British black-and-white reprint comics where the already heavy contrasts are even more pronounced and the pictures are made even more dramatic.

Sadly I only have one bettered second-hand copy of an original comic in my collection and I have to satisfy my love for his art in various collected volumes of his work. Luckily I have several of these.

4 February 2009

A cracking night at the Canbury Arms

For various reasons, I have not been to the Canbury Arms for a few months (October to be precise), despite considering it to be one of my locals.

This unhappy and unexpected state of affairs was satisfactorily resolved on Tuesday night which, being the first Tuesday of the month, was Irish music night.

The snow provided an additional drop of excitement into the mix but somehow we managed to get there on the K5 hoppa despite the fact that some of the route takes in roads that would have seemed narrow to a motorcyclist in those conditions. The last K5 of the evening is ideally timed for evenings like this and takes us almost door-to-door.

From outside, the Canbury Arms proudly shows its heritage as a Victorian corner pub, though the fresh look lets you know that it has been done-up in keeping with modern times.

Inside the Canbury Arms is a bright, busy and welcoming gastro pub.

Even with the recent heavy snow the punters were out in force to enjoy the food and drink. I suppose that this means that most of them are local enough to walk, which is a good sign.

Tuesday is also curry night so I started the evening with a Butternut Squash and Chick Pea curry washed down with Winter Cheer, another fine ale from the local Twickenham Brewery.

Around the witching hour of 9pm the Irish music started. They settled themselves quietly down at the table reserved for them and started to play, mingling in nicely with the winers and diners - you have to look fairly closely at the picture to see where the band are.

Adding the companionship of some friends to the brew (including John who is playing with the band here) made it a superb evening. Only four weeks until we do it again.

2 February 2009

A walk in the snow

A rare burst of snow in London was a good excuse to walk along familiar paths to see unfamiliar views. This is one of the "Ham Avenues" that flow around Ham House. This path leads from Ham House to Ham Common and has the rather majestic name of Grand South Avenue.

Normally I find these paths too wide too flat too clean and too straight and I prefer to head off piste into the narrow, hilly, muddy, bendy paths that wriggle aimlessly through Ham Lands. But the snow hides the urbanity and returns the paths to nature making them a pleasure to walk along again.