30 March 2009

Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash do Argus

There are two versions of the classic 70's band Wishbone Ash gigging at the moment and they are both playing the album Argus!

Last year I went to see "Wishbone Ash", led by original lead guitarist Andy Powell, and last week I went to see "Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash", led by, er, Martin Turner, the original bassist.

The venue was the 100 Club on London's Oxford Street which is a great place to see bands as it has a fairly low stage that you can get right up next to - no crash barriers here. The bar is reasonable too.

Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash line up had Dave Wagstaffe on drums at the back and Martin Turner front-centre on bass flanked by the twin lead guitars of Ray Hatfield and Danny Willson. That tells you this is a rock band!

The stage at the 100 Club is a good size (though I am more used to seeing large bands like Space Ritual and Stackridge trying to squeeze on to it) and this gaves all three guitarists plenty of space to move around, swap places and jam together.

The set opened with a collection of old favourites, including Blind Eye, Pilgrim and Persephone.

If you are an Ash fan then this is just the sort of stuff that you want to hear, and there were a lot of serious Ash fans there judging by the impressive collection of old t-shirts and the enthusiastic singing.

There were some young people there and some women too but the defining demographic was definitely middle-aged male, myself included!

After a set of around 45 minutes the band took a break before returning to give us Argus, their classic album from 1972.

Argus was their third album and was in the middle of their early run of five excellent studio albums and one live album that they made before they moved to the USA and started to produce typical American style soft-rock.

Very quickly it was 1972 again and most of us were bouncing (rockers do not dance) and singing to a superb performance of memorable songs.

The interplay between the band was good to watch and good to hear as the two lead guitars swapped riffs, applauded each other's solos and even played the same guitar with one hand each.

The band clearly enjoyed playing and were getting into the music as much as we were and the enjoyment on and off stage was infectious.

All too soon Argus was over, and the encore only delayed the inevitable end, but it was a very happy crowd that eased its way out of the 100 Club into the cold London night.

27 March 2009

LIKE 2 - The Economic Crisis and the Age of Uncertainty

The talk at the RSA was billed as "The Economic Crisis and the Age of Uncertainty" and promised a debate on the recent failure of finance experts and the validity of the wisdom of crowds and offered us four leading commentators, Don Tapscott, Andrew Keen, Dan Hind and Professor Lord Eatwell.

What we actually got was four speakers on various aspects of the topics who tended to promote their won point of view rather than respond to others'. That said, there was some debate and some contention and it proved to be an interesting event.

Don Tapscott, the author of Wikinomics, opened with a keynote presentation which summarized the theory behind his book. As usual in these events, I made just a few notes of the points that grabbed me, either as truisms or as something to stew over.

Top students do not attend lectures as their professors are not the experts and the real experts are on the web.

We have moved to an era of mass co-operation where the web has lowered the cost of collaboration to the extend that the traditional role of an organization has gone, i.e. self organization is the new paradigm.

The four principles are Peering, Openness, Sharing and Acting Globally.

The three respondents then spoke in turn before some sort of debate started. Again, some interesting points were made.

The economists and statisticians built the guns (the CDOs etc) that the bankers fired that killed the economy. Who is the victim of this crime and who is looking for the culprits?

Kids playing with the new technologies may look smarter but there is nothing to show that they are, e.g. they are not solving any of today's problems.

Governments also play in these markets and are limited by what they want to do (e.g. they want London to succeed as a financial centre) and by what they can do (limiting availability of mortgages would be very unpopular).

How do we educate the public to recognise experts, particularly when the media likes to present the uninformed view of "the man in the street"?

The main area of contention that arose was between Dan Tapscott, who thought that openness and transparency could cure many of the problems, and Professor Lord Eatwell who said that openness does not solve complexity. Professor Lord Eatwell is right!

Also as usual at these events it is the conversation that follows in the bar afterwards that makes the evening great by cementing some of the ideas and exploring others with other people excited by the topic.

I was very lucky to meet up with some members of the foundling London Information and Knowledge Exchange (LIKE), some of who I had met at previous Gurteen Knowledge Cafes. The six of us went down to the RSA bar where a lively conversation was had. We were joined for the last part by Dan Tapscott which gave him another opportunity to tell some of his stories without really listening to what we had to say about them.

The RSA bar closed at some unreasonably early hour so we moved on The Coal Hole on The Strand where firm plans were made for the development of LIKE. I am sure that I was allocated some actions and I wait with interest for the notes from the meeting to find out what they were!

So, even though the debate element of the main event was somewhat limited, it proved to be yet another excellent Knowledge Management evening and the prospect of the new LIKE network is really exciting too.

25 March 2009

SAHB live at the BBC

A new Sensational Alex Harvey Band album is always a good thing, even if the adjective "new" applies to the release and not the recording.

This collection of various live recordings made for the BBC dates back to 1972 and includes performances for In Concert and The Old Grey Whistle Test.

This is vintage SAHB in every sense of the word giving us excellent versions of many of their early classics, including St. Anthony, Framed, The Faith Healer, Next, Give My Compliments To The Chef (my favourite) and Delilah (not typical but it has to be there).

We are also treated to three rare songs, i.e. ones that I am not familiar with. These are Giddy Up A Ding Dong, Pick It Up And Kick It and Smouldering.

But the important thing about this album is that it is live and it is from when SAHB were in their prime. The songs are delivered in distinctive Alex Harvey style with loads of drama which makes them different from the studio versions and from the other live versions from the same era.

SAHB are still playing live (and are still very much worth seeing live) but it is nice to revisit their formative years and this album is a good way to do that.

23 March 2009

Exotic Creatures in Heaven

The second night of Spark's two nights at the HMV Forum in London saw them perform Exotic Creatures of the Deep and No. 1 in Heaven, their "come back" album from 1979.

Given the opportunity to see Sparks two times in two days I headed for a different part of the arena and managed to get a second row place behind two short women on the right-hand side of the stage. This gave me the opportunity to see more of Russell whereas the previous night it was mostly Ron.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep was delivered as on the first night but the familiarity improved the enjoyment rather than lessening it. My improved vantage point also gave me a full view of the video which had been partially obscured by Ron's keyboards on the first night. Here Ron is encouraging the monkey to play the piano during Let the Monkey Drive.

No. 1 in Heaven is rather an unusual Sparks album, not that any of them are that normal, in that it is pure disco. This is due to the influence of the producer, Giorgio Moroder who is famous for the classic single I Feel Love by Donna Summer.

No. 1 has longer songs than the earlier albums, thanks to the extended instrumental sections, but still provided Sparks with a few hit singles, including the crowd-pleasing opener Tryouts for the Human Race and Beat the Clock, which Russell reminded us they played on Top of The Pops (but I knew that).

Good though the other tracks are though, it's the final track, The Number One Song In Heaven, that makes the album a classic. There is a single version, which omits the opening section, but this should not be confused with the real thing that bounces along for over 7 minutes.

To say that the crowd was delighted would be an understatement, to say I was would be too. I do not dance and I do not like disco but I forgot both these rules!

The encore was completely different from the first night (which was three tracks from recentish albums) and took us unexpectedly back to 1974 with three tracks from Propaganda.

And the show ended with This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us, which is the opening track of Kimono My House and so was the opening song on the first night. A nice touch that added just a little something to what was already a special evening.

21 March 2009

Exotic Creatures of My House

Just under a year after playing all 21 of their albums live in 21 different concerts, Sparks were back in London for 2 days to do a little bit more of the same. This time they they played their latest album, Exotic Creatures of the Deep, together with one of their classic albums, Kimono my House on one night and No. 1 Song in Heaven on the other.

Friday evening opened with Exotic Creatures of the Deep and the show was much the same as that given at the premier last June at the Shepherds Bush Empire, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Sparks put something of a show on for Exotic Creatures with performers supporting them on some songs (Intro, She Got Me Pregnant and This is the Renaissance) and good use made of the large video screen on others (e.g. Let the Monkey Drive and Photoshop).

Ron added humour at various stages such as when he tried to play the piano shown on the video while it was being contorted by Photoshop.

Kimono My House made for a great second part of the show with its familiar poppy songs that first brought Sparks to wide attention some 35 years ago (bloody hell!!).

Ron changed his style for this part swapping his straight tie for a bow tie and his humour for the deadpan looks he was famous for at the time of Kimono.

I did not go to the Kimono show last year (I did go to several others), because I saw them do Kimono at the Royal Festival Hall at a special concert in 2004, so it was good to have the opportunity to see it this year.

Kimono is probably best known for its opening track This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us, which was a hit single, but my favourite is the final track, Equator, and we were treated to an extended version of this to close the main part of the show. It was pure magic.

They played three sing-along classics for the encore and we all joined in, clapped along and cheered (and the French woman next to me screamed like a Banshee). It was tremendous fun and a fantastic end to a superb concert.

To make the evening even better I had two chance meetings: while queueing for the show I met the Fabulous Ms Angel (dancer with Space Ritual) and on the tube back to Waterloo I spoke to Pete Feenstra who promotes concerts locally.

And the best bit was knowing that I would be seeing Sparks again the next night.

20 March 2009

Human will and human won’t

The latest Gurteen Knowledge Cafe was hosted by HM Treasury, was facilitated by Kate Hopkinson and addressed the subject of Human will and human won't, i.e. the reasons why change can be difficult.

We got to see little of HM Treasury at 1 Horseguards Parade as the meeting room was close to the entrance but it is impressive from the outside and there were a couple of quick glimpses of a courtyard and an atrium.

I'm pleased to say that there was not too much evidence of our money being wasted on furnishing and fittings.

The session topic was based on the work Kate Hopkinson does at Inner Skills with a model she calls Landscape of The Mind.

This shows how actions and behaviours are driven by our individual inner skills that can be categorized into six sections (essentially a 2x3 matrix) which she draws like a map of the Earth, hence the use of the term "Landscape".

Without going into too much of the detail, what the Landscape of The Mind shows is that different people have different comfort zones so in trying to implement a business change we need to be aware that we are sometimes introducing discomfort and that we need to manage it.

Unfortunately the facilitator took rather longer than usual in introducing the topic and that rather limited the discussion that we could have in the Cafe. However, quite a few of us made the short walk to St Stephen's Tavern and were able to continue the discussion.

As usual, I made a few notes of learnings and ideas to explore further, including:
  • You need to engage with people that reflects the way they work rather than the way that you do.
  • This means using a mix of messages and media to engage with a diverse group of people.
  • We adjust our style without thinking as we move between people and groups that we know but when engaging with new people and groups we have to start with a flexible and neutral stance and then adapt to the norm - and they will be reacting to us too.
  • Motivating people (carrots) to change is an inexact science as you need to understand what really motivates them and how they ill adapt to the new rules.
  • Similarly for punishment (sticks), this only works if people understand why they are being punished and can accept the reason for this, otherwise you just built resentment.
  • Give people time to play with the new rules so that they can adapt at their pace and in their way.
  • Is there a meta-model here that includes Belbin, Myers-Briggs, right/left brain, etc.?
I think that what I posted on Twitter when I got home is a good summary of the event (that's the power of the 140 character limit), "The Gurteen Knowledge Cafe was OK and the talk in the pub afterwards was excellent, so it was another superb evening overall :-)".

18 March 2009

Crispbread and pate for lunch (again)

I have never taken food that seriously and am happy to eat more or less then same thing everyday, particularly for lunch.

This started many moons ago at university when a staple part of my diet was Jacob's Cream Crackers with Shiphams Sardine and Tomato paste. These combine beautifully, allow you to vary the size of any meal easily and are a quick snack when the hunger monster strikes.

When I was in the process of moving up to London (from Dorset) I spent a few months living out of a dingy hotel on the Strand and had to eat as cheaply as possible. I soon settled into the routine of going to Pizzaland (subsequently merged into the ugly Pizza Hut chain) and having a standard pizza with a pot of tea to maximize the volume for the price while still having something nice.

More recently while working at home, cheese on toast became my usual lunch, enlivened by an assortment of chutneys from the local delicatessen (the Blistering Hot Salsa is something special!).

But I've seen and read too many things lately about how bad bread and cheese are for you so I have moved back to where it all started.

However, things are a little different now. I am older, wiser, richer, snobbier and a vegetarian so cream crackers and sardine and tomato paste do not cut it any more.

This is where the local delicatessen (Ham Pantry) scores again.

They stock a wonderful selection of Dr. Karg organic crispbreads.

They have this big advantage over other crispbreads that I have tried in the past in that they actually taste nice; you can eat them with nothing on!

The Elemental Cheese and Pumpkin Seed is probably my favourite but they are all good.

Even better, they come in two sizes. The standard size is ideal for lunches but the bite sized ones are wonderful when you need just a little more or want a small healthy snack.

Ham Pantry also solves the riddle of what to put on them.

Cauldron produce a lot of tasty foods including a range of pates.

My favourite is the Organic Moroccan Chickpea Pate but I like to vary things a little and so I also have the Chickpea and Black Olive and the Organic Mushroom pates regularly - I'm not quite sad enough to eat them in strict rotation but it's not far off :-)

Eating at home is one of the pleasures of working at home.

Not only do you avoid the bland Marks & Sparks sandwiches but you also avoid walking in the rain to the shop, queuing up for ages to pay, eating in the public discomfort of your own desk, looking for something to clean your PC with afterwards and trying to find an office bin that still has enough space left for all the wrapping.

All I need to do now is find an appropriate smoothie to accompany my delightful lunches.

17 March 2009

Balkan Wars Film Festival

Geographically, the area of the world that I am most interested in is Central and Eastern Europe which, in my definition, stretches from the Czech Republic to Russia.

I have been to most of these countries on holiday or for work and hope to plug the missing gaps (e.g. Albania and Macedonia) before to long.

I am also a member of the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) and was a member of the much missed British Association of Central and Eastern Europe (BACEE).

Therefore I was bound to be interested in the Balkan Wars Film Festival held at Roehampton University, which is just the other side of Richmond Park from me.

The film showings are timed to suit the students but I was able to get there to see No Man's Land, which won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2002.

This black comedy is about the futility and absurdity of the Serb/Bosnian war. Three soldiers from opposing armies find themselves trapped in a trench between the two front lines with a mine which is about to blow them all up. The presence of the UN and media does not help.

At one level it is a laugh-out-loud comedy and on another it is a subtle comedy. I loved the play on racial stereotypes with the French UN soldiers asking everybody if they speak French before being forced to use English, the German mine experts who arrives exactly on time and the hopelessly out of touch English commander who his behind regulations to avoid making decisions.

The film has a very dark side too - two of the main protagonists are killed and the third is abandoned to a certain death in the trench (he's sitting on a mine that will go off if he moves).

And, of course, the war itself provides a dark backdrop to the whole film. We see peasant soldiers fighting each other without really understanding what the war is about or who started it.

The most depressing thing for me about the film is how little we have learnt, or changed our behaviour, since then and many of the characteristics of this war can also be seen in places like Somalia, Congo, Georgia, ...

14 March 2009

A good walk, good pubs and good companions

An evening out drinking with a friend turned into quite a physically long pub crawl with a few nice surprises along the way.

I wanted to go for a long walk, and my friend agreed, so we decided to start in Richmond in a pub that we had not been to for quite a while (there are not many of these!) and then head in the general direction of Twickenham.

Our first port of call was The Rose of York on the East edge of Richmond nestling under Richmond Hill.

It's bit in the middle of nowhere which is why I don't go there very often. It's also more than a little tired and dated which is another reason why I don't go there very often.

It's main redeeming feature is that it is one of the few Samuel Smiths pubs in London and so it does Old Brewery Bitter.

From there it was a reasonable stretch along the river, over Richmond Bridge and along the main road to Twickenham to get to the next pub, The Crown in St Margarets.

As the picture shows, this has been done up and now looks like a typical modern gastro pub, but all the times that I have been there it has just been a pub with little or no evidence of the gastro bit.

There was a DJ playing loud dance music to attract the Friday night punters. It was rather too loud to enable comfortable chatting but it was also a good mix so that did not matter too much.

They had two beers from the local Twickenham brewery available, Original and Sundancer, both of which are excellent. I chose the Original.

On to the heart of Twickenham. We chose The George because of the tempting promise of the three bouncers in hi-vi jackets standing outside.

Inside it lived up to its promise and was cavernous and soulless and clearly catered for the less discerning punter.

The only real beer on offer was Sharp's Doombar and while that is normally quite drinkable the one I had was almost unpleasant, just like the pub.

Our plan was to top up our wallets at a bank but somebody else had the same idea and the town centre was crawling with police and the Nationwide was cordoned off.

Having reached our target, Twickenham, we moved just a little along the road to our next port of call, what turned out to be The Three Kings (I had to go back outside at one point to check).

This looks more like a traditional pup inside and out and it provides traditional entertainment, like karaoke!

The welcome was warm and friendly and the beer, another Twickenham Original, was welcome too.

The karaoke was pretty awful and was made even worse when I was forced to join in to a group rendition of Delilah - I was, of course, thinking of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band version, not the awful Engelbert Humperdinck one.

The final pub of the even was The Red Lion, just a little further along Heath Road.

This is also the host for Filthy's live music club where Alix Anthony was delivering an eclectic mix of guitar music that included Jimi Henrix's Purple Haze and Hot Chocolate's You sexy Thing!

We ended the evening as we started, with some Yorkshire beer, and here we had the rather delightful Black Sheep Ale.

That was the last pub and the last drinking of the evening but there were two more little incidents that helped add a little sparkle to the evening. As we waited for a bus to Richmond a young lad asked for guidance on getting back to Crystal Palace (!) and I was able to take him to the appropriate stop in Richmond for his next leg on to Hammersmith. And on the 65 bus home I had a short but interesting chat with a Polish student who is studying photography at Kingston University.

13 March 2009

More meetings

It has been a busy couple of weeks for evening meetings, so much so that I have been to busy to write about them until now, and even then I am cheating about writing about three at the same time.

The latest Kingston Area Travellers Association (KATA) meeting was the usual friendly update on anything to do with public transport in the Kingston area.

Most of the talking was about buses (timetables, routes, vehicles, stop, incidents, etc.) because of the interests of the people there and that is where most of the action is at the moment.

Of particular interest to me was the news that the 65 and 371 routes (the two I use the most) are both going to get new vehicles in the Summer.

I have managed to avoid BCSA Executive Committee meetings since resigning as Secretary some time ago but I still get invited (because I run their website and do a few other useful things) and I finally relented and went to one.

The subject matter of the ExCo meetings are fairly dry, e.g. budget and arrangements for the AGM, but there is wine too. And sandwiches.

I came away from the meeting with just one minor action (which I have not done yet), which is something of a record for me. Normally I weaken quickly when asked to do something boring and volunteer quickly when there is something interesting to do.

Public Services, particularly Education, are a passion so I was seduced by the prospect of a talk on The 2020 Challenge for Public Services by Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP. It was a big let down.

The speech was well informed and packed full of historical context and examples but the vision for the future was blurred at best. All we got was "we must move power into people's hands."

This government's record on devolution of power is a mess: we have regional government for Scotland, Wales and (to a lesser extent) London, but not for the regions; some powers have been devolved where this makes no sense, e.g. choice of hospital; other decisions have been devolved to avoid making politically difficult decisions, e.g. abolition of grammar schools; and where powers have been devolved it is almost always to bodies like local authorities which are no more responsive to citizens than central government it.

There are lots of questions on moving power into people's hands that could have tackled but, like a typical politician, difficult questions were avoided and the vacuum was filled with spin and waffle. Not impressed.

10 March 2009

Why I am remaining a School Governor

There are quite a few changes going on at the school where I have been a governor for the last fourteen years, and I am really worried that Kingston Council is forcing us down the wrong path, so I thought that this was a good time to sit back from the current crisis, re-examine why I am a governor and then nail my colours on what should be done firmly to the mast.

Let’s start with the good news.

The school that I am involved with is a wonderful, warm, welcoming and achieving place. But do not take my word for it, here are a couple of stories told by Ofsted in an inspection report.
“Older pupils look out for and help the younger ones as ‘buddies’ in the playground, as prefects and as playground patrollers, looking out for pupils who are lonely or having problems and sometimes resolving conflicts. These very good relationships were often reflected during the inspection in the way pupils helped each other in lessons. For example, a Korean pupil who had been in the school for only a short time was helped to join in a scientific investigation by her partner, who successfully encouraged her to become part of her group.”
“There were many instances observed where pupils of different capabilities and backgrounds worked with each other and gave each other support or help. Autistic pupils, in particular, were welcomed into classrooms. One Year 4 autistic pupil was helped to enjoy a games lesson on the school field by one pupil in particular who helped him to join her group and encouraged him to take part in the activities.”
We have worked hard with the children, their parents, school staff, volunteers (particularly Age Concern), other childcare workers and the wider community to build a school that is truly inclusive, respectful and motivated.

The school has been prominent, if not dominant, locally in all sorts of activities, including the written and performing arts, bridge and chess. One of our pupils even won a national competition for a story.

We offer our children a whole range of experiences that many of them would not normally get at home and they excel at them. They enjoy them too.

I am proud of the (very) small part that I have played over the last fourteen years in the development and success of the school.

But now comes the bad news.

The school serves a relatively disadvantaged area, and gets fewer resources than similar schools to help address, this which results in relatively low results in the Standard Attainment Tests (SATS) taken by pupils in the final year at primary school. Kingston Council is upset by this.

At our last governors’ meeting, a representative of Kingston Council twice said very clearly that the purpose of our school is to give our children a foundation in English and Mathematics to enable them to learn at secondary school. No mention of other subjects, no mention of arts and sports, no mention of social skills; just English and Mathematics. I could not disagree more.

The Council’s relentless drive for English and Mathematics has absolutely nothing with helping children to make the most of their lives, it is all about hitting targets set by the Government in these subjects and Kingston Council does nor care what it does to try and make these targets.

Schools are strongly encouraged (forced even) to hold extra classes outside of normal school hours for children deemed to be underperforming, to find excuses to exclude these children from the tests and to make the children take many practice tests.

The end result can improve standards in these two subjects but at the huge cost to the children and staff who both find that the school becomes an unhappy place. The children are forced to practice and take individual tests; the joy and companionship are taken out of learning. And the staff are scared that they will be blamed for any perceived failure by their children. The number of senior secondary leaders sacked each year has increased five-fold, with at least 150 dismissed in England last year, research suggests.

This relentless pursuit of exam results is putting children off school and despite a lot of effort, and money, being put in to trying to keep children in school they are staying away in increasing numbers. The only surprise is that anybody is surprised.

Outside of Kingston the tide has firmly turned away from a strict focus on just two subjects and this trend was given a major boost by a recent authoritative report from Cambridge University which concludes that children in England are getting a primary education that is too narrow and warns that too much emphasis on testing the basics could "impoverish" learning in areas such as the arts.

What next?

I am more convinced than ever that the approach our school is taking is the right one for our children and for our community and it would be wrong to let Kingston Council destroy that. Therefore I will remain a governor to try and stop this.

But the main reason I am going to stay a school governor is the reason that I became one in the first place – my skills and experiences can help the children of the school and that is help that I am more than willing to give. It’s all about the children.

9 March 2009

London contrasts and delights

A short walk back to the nearest tube station from a meeting near to St. Katherine's Dock reminded me of why I love walking around London so much.

St. Katherine's dock has long since given up on its industrial past and has become a pleasing jumble of cafes, bars, boats and wooden walkways.

In some ways in displays unfashionable yuppie traits of brashness and a love for ostentation over character but it has sufficient swagger to carry it off and its relatively small size means that the excess does not become excessive.

Emerging from the dock brings you suddenly to the manic congregation of roads leading to Tower Bridge. London has few bridges and each one draws roads to it hungrily and these squeeze desperate traffic through the pinch-points.

Bravely facing these roads, as if caring nothing for the tons of steel that flow like the tide relentlessly past it, stands a proud new office block.

The blaze of light makes sure that you've noticed its iron and glass majesty. The structure appears to have no purpose other than to be boastful, and that is all right as it has something to be boastful about.

The traffic is escaped by taking a pedestrian tunnel under Tower Bridge Approach and the world changes as much as if the journey had been made in the TARDIS.

What greets you on the other side is the Tower of London which can trace its history back to the 11th century and William the Conqueror.

The Tower stands tall, wide, strong and purposeful and provides an idyllic last view of London before heading underground into Tower Hill station and taking the tube home.

8 March 2009

Poor choice for Kingston's schools

Kingston Council keeps reminding those of us who work in Education that they are officially rated as "outstanding" by Ofsted and their attitude is never less than smug. But the customers of their services know that this is nonsense and there is a lot wrong with schooling in Kingston.

We learnt this week that Kingston's secondary school place choice is among London's worst with only half the applicants for secondary school places in September getting a place at the first choice school. About 125 children are being asked to settle for their fourth, fifth or sixth choice place and 25 have nowhere to go at all.

The situation in the primary sector is not much better and next September up to 300 children will start their school lives in new temporary classrooms. This is in addition to the temporary classrooms that had to be built last year when Kingston Council got its planning seriously wrong.

Getting a place for their children at a school of their choice is the main thing that parents want from their council and Kingston is failing in this in both the primary and secondary sectors. Something has to change. A new council administration next year might be sufficient but it may require the government to give more power to citizens, as they keep saying they plan to do.

7 March 2009

Hustle series #5

After four series of the Hustle in four years (2004 to 2007) we had to wait two years for series 5 which made its return bit of a surprise.

In the meantime many of the cast had gone to do other things, such as Wanted, Dexter and Bonekickers, so when the crew is reassembled it is with two new members but we also had the return of Adrian Lester as Mickey Stone, the leader of the gang.

The imprint of the series creator, Tony Jordan, is clear and he set the mood for the new series by writing the first episode.

Hustle is a simple concept superbly executed. Each episode is a separate story where they find a deserving victim and con them out of some serious money. But there is always more to it than that and each con is full of twists and surprises. The mood is very much like the wonderful Saint books by Leslie Charteris where wrongs are unwronged with careful planning and panache.

For some reason the BBC seems to have a "no repeats" rule for Hustle so I will have a long wait until the DVD comes out in early 2010 before I can watch this series again. Now that is something to look forward to.

5 March 2009

Watching the Watchmen on the Thames

I was in Central London on Wednesday evening for a talk at the RSA which gave me the not-to-be-missed opportunity to attend a special event to mark the opening of the much anticipated Watchmen film.

The event was billed as, "This one-off spectacle will be created using the world's biggest water screen projector. The water screen, moored especially for this occasion in the middle of the Thames near the London Eye, will create an enormous vertical screen of water that will extend to 72 feet in height and 100 feet across."

The show was targeted toward the Hungerford Bridge which provides excellent views across the Thames with the London Eye on the South bank and the Houses of Parliament on the North.

The screen created a dramatic effect with (prior to the main show) alternating images of the yellow Smiley face that is a Watchmen icon and of the blue Doctor Manhattan.

The news of the event had spread (I found out about it through Twitter) and the bridge was almost full of spectators prior to the advertised start of 8pm.

We were a hardly crowd as it was pretty cold and a strong wind was blowing in our faces bringing spray from the screen with it.

We also had to brave the bridge that has very open sides and shakes whenever a train goes past. Not a good place to be if you suffer from vertigo, like I do!

The show failed to start at 8pm, by which time I was already frozen enough to question why I was there, but I stayed for another fifteen minutes before bravely squeezing through the crowd to get to the safety and warmth of a District Line train back to Richmond.

I have read some reviews of the show that started not long after I left and it sounds as though I missed nothing very much. The still images, the location and enthusiastic atmosphere were enough to make it an event worth being at, I did not need to see the trailer too.

2 March 2009

Hoaxwind rock!

Technically it was a Dumpy's Rusty Nuts concert but I was there to see the support act, Hoaxwind, having previously tasted a short set of theirs as part of a three-act Hawkwind tribute concert. This time they had around an hour to demonstrate their prowess to a room full of getting-on-a-bit rockers at The Peel in Kingston, and they did it very well.

Coming the day after a Space Ritual concert it was interesting to note the contrasts and the similarities between then two.

Hoaxwind very much focus on the Bob Calvert era Hawkwind of the late 70s, hence Julian's flying goggles and scarf, whereas Space Ritual now play a lot of their own material and a few early Hawkwind classics.

Both play Master of the Universe and Sonic Attack but Hoaxwind also play tracks like Psychedelic Warlords, Hassan-i Sabbah and Quark, Strangeness and Charm.

The seven men of Hoaxwind line up on stage in almost the same formation as the seven men of Space Ritual with, going left to right, electronics, lead guitar, drums, lead vocals/saxophone, bass and keyboards.

The differences are Space Ritual have one person doing the vocals/saxophone stuff whereas Hoaxwind have two and Space Ritual have two people on electronics to Hoaxwind's one. However, the end result is much the same, a rich and complex sounds that bubbles, squawks, enchants, captivates, engulfs and rocks.

Here we see Hoaxwind's doing their version of Sonic Attack with "Tiny" on guest vocals. And it was their version too as Hoaxwind do not copy the Hawkwind originals they represent them in a way that best suits their line-up and also takes advantage of thirty years of listening to and appreciating the music.

I enjoyed my first short Hoaxwind concert enough to go and see them again and the second time was so much better, thanks to the bigger stage and longer set, that going to see them again is a real no-brainer. That will be on 13 June at the Grey Horse.