25 July 2009

Beyond the Great Firewall of China

I brought a PC with me to China for several reasons, including managing my photos as I go along and, hopefully, being able to update my podcasts provided I am able to get internet access once a week. So far things are just about working out; the photos are all downloaded and I am only a few podcasts off being fully up to date.

I also hoped to do a few updates on Twitter and Facebook but both sites are blocked by the Great Firewall of China, as is Blogger which hosts my two blogs so I cannot update those either. However it looks like there is a minor gap in the wall and I seem to be able to post to my main blog by email and new entries should then appear on Facebook as notes.

Unfortunately I can see neither site so I just have to trust that it is working!

I've not found a way to get photos on-line from here either but I am sorting them into albums all ready to go on to Facebook and my blog when I get back home.

Until then I will carry on enjoying China. I spent this morning clambering up some seriously steep steps on the Great Wall and was captivated by both the wall and the view from it. Sadly I cannot do it justice in words so you will just have to wait a few weeks for the photos.

24 July 2009

Enjoying China

Despite the delayed flights, the jet-lag, early starts and the occasional rain showers, China is proving to be very much the holiday that I hoped that it would be. I need to look at the photos to remind myself of all the places that I have been to in Shanghai and Beijing in the last few days which has been a dizzy and exhilarating whirl of sights and sensations. I've witnessed the eclipse (mostly through rain clouds), explored the world's largest palace, spent hours on seriously elevated roads, taken two boat trips, seen loads of dragons and eaten and awful lot of rice and vegetables. More when I get the time and opportunity.

16 July 2009

A last look at Sheffield

Tomorrow (Friday) is my last day on the Sheffield based project. I go on holiday for three weeks on Monday and while it is not certain where I will be working when I get back it is unlikely to be in Sheffield again, so now seems like a good time to say "goodbye" with some final thoughts.

The lasting impression of the part of Sheffield that I am staying and working in is of poverty, neglect and dereliction. There are quite a few new building in the area but most of them have "for lease" or "for rent" plastered all over them.

But there are some good parts too so let's think about them instead.

The area around my hotel (the Hilton) and office is very attractive. Sheaf Quay shows off it's industrial past with pride and the old buildings are converted and in use.

One of the arches under the former rail line to the quay is now home to Stumpy's which has possibly the best range of sandwiches that I have seen anywhere. Today, for example, I had hummus with wild roquet and vine tomatoes on ciabatta bread with sun dried tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil. This large and very tasty feast was under £3. I wish I could do that in London!

Next to where I live and work is an area called Wicker which all the locals warned us away from. Luckily we ignored them and so discovered a superb low-market curry house. I've been there the last two nights and had a vegetable vindaloo with pilau rice and two poppadoms both times, and paid less that £9 too.

I am not sure that I'll particularly miss Sheffield once I've left but it did enough to make the last few weeks here comfortable and interesting.

15 July 2009

Rusalka at Glyndebourne

My second visit to Glyndebourne this year was for the opening night of the new production of Dvorak's Rusalka.

The day started, as usual, with choosing a place for the picnic and clearing away the travel weariness with some champagne.

The weather promised to be good so we chose a spot on the lawn, rather than in the opera house where we had gone on our previous visit.

Our guests this time were Glyndebourne first-timers who chose Rusalka because, as Czechs, they were familiar with it and knew that they liked it. They also had the advantage of knowing some people involved in the production so it was a chance to catch-up with friends too.

Being a Sunday, the opera started early (everything has to finish in time for the last train back to London) but we still had some time for drinks, a snack and a wander through the gardens before heading to the opera house for Act 1.

A welcome short break between Acts 1 and 2 gave just enough time to stretch legs and enjoy an obligatory glass of Pimms. The long dinner interval came between Acts 2 and 3. We took this at an even more leisurely pace tan usual and took advantage of the early start, the good weather and the long day to return to the picnic after the opera for a coffee before heading home after the initial rush from the car park.

I was really looking forward to Rusalka for various reasons. One of these was that this was the opera debut for director Melly Still who directed the magnificent Coram Boy that I saw at the National Theatre a couple of years ago.

Act 1 impressed mightily. We had water nymphs in mid-air waiving their very long tails and shadowy figures manipulating the actors on stage to simulate moving through water. We even had a happy ending to the act when Rusalka becomes human to be with the man she loves.

Act 2 disappointed. This is where the real drama happens but it was all rather unconvincing. The prince suddenly pursues a former girlfriend on the day of his wedding to Rusalka. Nothing in the acting or the production suggested that this was remotely realistic behaviour, even for an opera.

Once the Prince has screwed things up with Rusalka you know there is not going to be a happy ending and on that tragic note you go and try to enjoy your dinner.

Act 3 was magnificent almost entirely due to the emotive singing of Ana María Martínez as Rusalka. The staging also improved two with the lake seen in Act 1 transformed from a welcoming blue to a threatening black.

The ending proves to be almost positive after what has gone before (the Prince dies and Rusalka is condemned forever) and the opera ends in a triumph of emotion and singing. The loud foot stomping from the audience was inevitable after that.

Rusalka was good but probably only average by Glyndebourne standards (they are very high standards) and I was a little surprised to see some newspapers give it five stars, the relatively weak Act 2 made it less than perfect.

While I would probably not go back and see Rusalka again, I was one of the people enthusiastically stomping my feet at the end and I left the opera a very happy bunny.

13 July 2009

Kew Gardens in Summer (2009)

Kew Gardens is only half an hour away yet I do not manage to get there anything like as often as I should. If this blog is to be believed then I last went there in October, around nine months ago.

A good friend is a life member of Kew (yes, it did cost him a small fortune) and I took advantage of one of his free tickets to spend a few hours there recently.

Kew Gardens is vast so any casual explore on foot will discover something new, particularly if your visits are as irregular as mine! This time I found myself in the Duke's Garden on the North edge of the garden where, almost hidden next to the Kew Gardens Gallery, is this wonderful border of colourful flowers and interesting shapes.

Almost in the middle of Kew Gardens, but still somehow rather off the beaten track, is a large lake. This is an excellent place to enjoy the magic of the plants that thrive in or near water. And here too, there are lots of water birds busy looking after their new additions; so much so that it feels a little odd not having a young offspring of my own in tow.

The lake is best explored at close hand from the newish crossing (Sackler Crossing) which curls its way lazily over the lake.

Kew Gardens is proud to remind you of its serious work and heritage, it is not just a pretty garden. There is an exhibition on at the moment on seed banks. This explains why they are needed, what and where they are, and how they work. Several large constructs help explain the complex and varied world of seeds and also have their own artistic merit.

Back in the Duke's Garden there is flower bed that seems determined to be the most colourful in the whole garden, and it just might be so. Hiding in the background is the Gallery adding a touch of structure and formality to the joyous expanse of nature before it.

The greenhouses are the most memorable features of Kew Gardens and there are several of them of assorted shapes and sizes scattered along the East edge that follows the Richmond/Kew road. The cutest one is the original Palm House. The lake with fountain in front of it denies the natural splendour of the rest of the garden and tries to demonstrate why being a pleasure garden can be a good thing too.

In the four hours I was there (that included a leisurely lunch) I managed to take almost a hundred photos while only scratching the surface of what Kew Gardens has to offer. Hopefully I will get my act together soon and visiting there will become more of a habit and less of a special occasion.

12 July 2009

Petersham House and garden

Petersham House is another one of the local gardens that I was able to visit recently under the National Garden Scheme.

The house is one of the small cluster of grand buildings that are clustered around the sharp bend in Petersham Road, which is still known as Tommy Steele Corner as he used to live there.

Some of the other local houses have a white rendered finish (e.g. Petersham Lodge and Reston Lodge) but the solid Georgian brick of Petersham House is common locally and can also be seen at places like Montrose House and Rutland Lodge.

Despite it's obvious grandeur, Petersham House looks rather unremarkable, possibly because when compared to the company that it keeps locally it is unremarkable, but I do like the garden room that is clearly a more recent addition.

However, I was not there to see the house but to explore the garden.

The shape of the garden hints at a history of acquisition and disposition that has produced an odd shaped garden squeezed in between Petersham Road and Petersham Nurseries.

Two corners on Petersham Road have been given over to other houses to make a garden that is surprisingly wide given the size of the frontage on the main road.

More of the garden has been sacrificed to the nursery and alongside this is a long border that was once a main route to the house. A large gate proclaims this past use but now it just leads to more garden.

The border along this former approach is the main feature of the whole garden. It stretches for some 50m and provides a stunning vista of mixed plants set off by the hedge behind them.

At the far end there is a bench where you can sit and enjoy the view along the full length of the border, through the gate, across the lawn and back to the house.

The rear garden is walled, as you would expect, and has a border all around it. This border is broken up into sections, by hedges grown perpendicular to the wall, and each section is planted slightly differently.

The long section of the wall facing the house also faces South. This makes it ideal for flowers which add wonderful spots of colour.

The lawn itself is decorated by a few bushes (seen in the photo of the house above) and an intriguing Antony Gormley like statue that looks a little lost amongst the greenery and the old buildings.

Overall though, these merely distract you from the borders who are confident that they are the most interesting thing in the garden.

One of the results of the odd shaped garden is that there is amble space for a large vegetable garden out of direct site of the house.

In fact it all but backs on to Rutland Lodge which is on the bend in Petersham Road.

I usually like vegetable gardens because of the lack of pretension there (i.e. they are clearly designed for their purpose rather than to please) and this one is no different in that respect. But it stands out from most other gardens due to the well worn brick path and the collection of large pots.

The lean-to shed full of tools has industrial chic too.

Petersham House does not have the most luxurious or interesting garden that I have been to recently but there is still plenty there to make it well worth a visit.

11 July 2009

My new gadget is an Acer Aspire One netbook

I have not owned by own PC for about a year now since my IBM ThinkPad X41 lost the will to live. In the meantime I have managed comfortably with the two PCs provided by my employer and client, both of these were IBM ThinkPads too.

But now that project is over and the client wants their ThinkPad back (I really must do that soon) and having gone from three PCs to just one I was starting to worry about backup and disaster recovery.

I also wanted a PC that I could take on holiday (three weeks in China coming up) so that I can play with photos and keep up with podcasts etc. while away.

That's why I now own an Acer Aspire One netbook PC, pictured here on my lap.

It has taken me a fair chunk of the afternoon to install iTunes, Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice and Canon photograph management software but it is all working fine now and it is being used in anger to post this blog entry.

The best things about the new breed of netbook pcs is their size (great for holidays!), their weight and their price. Mine cost me just under £300 and I am very pleased with it.

9 July 2009

Sheaf Quay, Sheffield

Sheffield is very much a mixed bag with a great deal of dereliction and a large amount of redevelopment, most of which seems to be unoccupied. Sheaf Quay, on the North side of the city, shows this contrast quite well. The bits that have been redeveloped, such as this former warehouse that is now flats, look splendid but the buildings nearby are run down, empty and uninviting.

Sheffield offers a face that is trying to improve and I am happy to give it that chance but at the moment there is much of it that shows the despair of the past rather than the hope of the future. I hope the future wins.

7 July 2009

The Strange Death of Adam Warlock

I'm running rather behind on my blog postings so what was meant to a be a long post on why Rusalka at Glyndebourne is not as good as some newspapers have rated it is, instead, a shorter post on why Jim Starlin's Warlock is a masterpiece.

The initial perceptions of Warlock are rightly good, this is Cosmic Jim Starlin writing and drawing the stories of a cosmic hero, Adam Warlock.

It gets even better when we look at the cover which shows Adam Warlock going in to the future to kill himself to stop the future he has seen where he becomes the despot Magus.

It gets better still when we follow Adam Warlock after he has killed himself through to the future time when his previous self appears to kill him.

The dialogue between the two Warlocks, one of whom has been through the scene before, is just stunning.

The Dr Who episode Blink won lots of awards for doing this sort of stuff thirty years later.

There are lots of very very good people who have written and/or drawn comics over the years but there are very few who I would class as absolute masters of the genre. Jim Starlin is one of these.

The proof of the pudding may be in the eating here and I am delighted to have paid not a small sum of money for a signed collection of the Dreadstar stories.

Comics, like music, is a genre that I keep falling in and out of love with but whenever I see something by Jim Satrlin I remember just how good the media can be. Warlock is one of my very favourite comics of all time and has remained so for over thirty years. And long may this continue.

4 July 2009

Pucell's The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne

The first (of four) trips to Glyndebourne this year was to see Purcell's The Fairy Queen, loosely based on A Midsummer's Night Dream.

June is sometimes an awkward month to go to Glyndebourne as the weather can be cold and wet, or hot and sunny. The day we went rain was forecast so we got there early to claim one of the picnic benches in the opera house complex. These have the advantages of being very close to the opera of being under cover while still exposed to the outside to retain that picnic feel.

The rain kept away before the opera started so there was plenty of time to enjoy a traditional stroll around the garden.

There are quite a few changes to the gardens this year with some sight lines being opened up to better connect the various sections of the garden.

The main beneficiary of this is the small sunken garden that used to be dark and gloomy but which now flows towards the wild flower garden and the side lawn.

Also looking much better is the former rose garden that is now home to some smart trees and which provides a wonderful frame to the view of the Henry Moore statue that stands proudly to the East of the opera house.

The picnic and the garden and succulent additions to a visit to Glyndebourne but the opera is the main reason for going and The Fairy Queen proved to be a very rewarding feast. It is not an opera in the more modern sense, being a mix of spoken word, singing, acting and dancing, and the staging and direction play to this mix exceedingly well. The production is clever, lively, dramatic, sensitive and fun (as in "laugh out loud").

This picture of the cast, taking a well deserved ovation, gives some idea of the complexity, i.e. the sheer number of players, and of the fun, yes that is a rabbit outfit in the bottom-left corner.

The music was provided by The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment which is clearly a good thing as 1) they are a very good orchestra and 2) they use period instruments to more accurately present the music in its original form, i.e. as the composer wanted it to be heard.

Not being an opera in the more familiar sense, there are few stand-out singing parts but the aria O Let me Weep stole the show and was a wonderfully poignant moment provided by a solo singer on an empty stage that was even better for the stark contrast to the normal hustle and bustle of a stage full of fairies in sharp suits and wicked wings.

The rich production had so many nice and detailed touches that you probably have to see the production several times to appreciate it all. I guess that means I will be going to the revival in a few years time.

2 July 2009

Neil Young at Hyde Park

The day after headlining at Glastonbury, Neil Young topped the bill at Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park. There were quite a few other acts on the bill but I was there just to see Neil.

Unfortunately to get anywhere near the front for Neil I had to stand through Fleet Foxes which was probably the most boring concert I have ever seen.

But all that was quickly forgotten when Neil powered and growled his way in to My My Hey Hey. Intentions were announced, the crowd were engaged and the singing along started.

The show was a fairly typical trawl through Neil's extensive back catalogue with a spotlight on Everybody Knows this is Nowhere (1969) and Ragged Glory (1990) which each provided three songs. We also had the expected foray into his acoustic collection, such as Old Man and The Needle and the Damage Done.

This was all very good stuff indeed but the last part of the show was just sensational. We were treated to an elongated version of Down by The River that bounced and cavorted has only a long Neil Young jam can. This led in to Rocking in the Free World (with lots more crowd singing) that screamed its defiant message across Hyde Park to the accompaniment of belligerent lights.

That would have done but an encore was expected and duly arrived. Arriving with it unexpectedly was Paul McCartney who supported on vocals Neil in A Day in The Life.

Neil Young albums are usually a little patchy with a song or two that feels a little below the standard of the rest but live Neil is always good and always worth seeing, even if you do have to sit through the Fleet Foxes first.

1 July 2009

Green beer and pubs

A few words on beer and pubs are long overdue so here is a quick update to try and redress the issue.

I continue to try new beers whenever I can and this happens to be fairly frequently these days due to several reasons.

My main pub, the Willoughby Arms in North Kingston, has the excellent policy of having five real ales on all the time with most of these changing guest beers. Well done Rick!

I find myself in Sheffield for a few weeks which gives me the chance to try a few new pubs and a few new local (for Sheffield) beers.

And when back down South I vary the pubs that I go to and I strongly favour those that regularly have new and interesting beers.

One such pub is the Roebuck on Richmond Hill where I was delighted to find the green beer, Sign of Spring from Stonehenge Ales, that not only looks cool but tastes great too. The pub crawl ended at that point and my mate and I finished the evening there on the green stuff. Wicked!

Also green is the new look Hand and Flower on Ham Common.

This is my "local" on the grounds that it is, by far, my closest pub but it has not yet become my local again in terms of patronage.

The good news is that the Hand and Flower is definitely a pub again, having tried to be an up-market restaurant with a bar with the odd name the Legless Frog.

As a result of this change quite a lot of the former regulars have made their way back and I can see a lot of familiar faces whenever I go.

The bad news is that, for whatever reason, it has also attracted some less sociable people who tend to sit out the front where they smoke and swear and act as a deterrent to more moderate people. This came to a head a couple of weeks ago when around thirty people ended up in a raucous fight outside of the pub that led to the destruction of much of the pub's garden furniture, closed the main road and attracted the attention of the local police (which takes some doing).

I'm prepared to give the Hand and Flower the chance to demonstrate that it has regained its form but at the moment it has not yet become an obvious choice when I fancy a drink.

One place that continues to do well is another North Kingston pub, the Canbury Arms.

There is a green connection here too, albeit a little tenuous, in that once a month it hosts an Irish music night.

Here you can see the ad hoc group of musicians who gathered together on the first Tuesday in June. Some regulars turn up every month but there are normally a few new faces which helps to make each month a little different.

The Canbury Arms is to be congratulated for maintaining the long tradition of Irish music in Canbury (bands have played previously in the Richmond Park Tavern and the Lamb) but it must not be forgotten that it also has a superb choice of real ales (not quite as good at the Willoughby Arms, but not far off) and does good modern gastro pub food too.

Good pubs are fairly hard to find but they are still out there and that makes the effort of looking for them all worth while.