30 September 2009

Natural wonders in Guilin

After the day in Chong Qing we flew to Guilin where the pace and nature of the holiday changed dramatically. We left the big industrial cities behind and spent the rest of the holiday in small picturesque towns and in fantastic countryside.

First it was another short cruise, this time along the Li where we meandered slowly past stunning limestone karsts that towered over us like a giant's teeth.

Also along the way we also saw plenty of wildlife, there were water buffalo grazing at the water's edge and cormorants (more on them later) sunning themselves on pontoons.

Interest was also provided by the enterprising but apparently desperate people who rowed out to the passing boats to try and sell their wares to tourists through the windows of the cruise boats.

It was also interesting to see the other cruise boats going past as they all had their busy kitchens at the back open to the elements. The guide warned us that seeing another boat's kitchen would put you off eating from our boat, and he was right. The locals were less concerned about the hygiene standards and the kitchen did a roaring trade.

The boat took us some way from Guilin and we took a coach back. Here the local tour guide (we had a different guide for every city) did us a favour and we stopped off along the way to have a close look at some typical Chinese agricultural land.

We walked past several small rice fields that were at different stages, from freshly planted to ready to harvest.

The water also brought small boats and bridges to add to the natural beauty.

It was all very peaceful and all very lovely and was a welcome change from the big bustling noisy cities that we had spent the first week of the holiday in.

The next day we were taken to another natural wonder, the Reed Flute Cave.

Here the water has eroded the soft rock to make stalactites, stalagmites and other spectacular formations.

Many of these had names that were meant to reflect their shape but you often had to stretch your imagination more than a little to see the resemblance.

The system of caves is around 1km long and was illuminated colourfully throughout to highlight the detail of the rock formations very effectively. More use of light was made in the large cave in the centre of the system where we were treated to a short son et lumiere.

Somehow using the unnatural light and sound to enhance the beauty of the natural rock worked well and the trip was a success.

Cormorant fishing is famous so we just had to take the optional trip to witness it.

Of course it was nothing like the real fishing that is done with cormorants to get fish, this was just a brief display for tourists, but it was still special.

It was night, the river was dark, the little boats were dark and the cormorants were darker too so it was quite hard to see anything and even harder to photograph it but I hope that this picture gives a reasonable impression of what we witnessed that night.

With natural beauties like those that we saw in our two days in Guilin it is no wonder that this is a popular place for tourists and it was here that China started to feel like the China we see in the west.

29 September 2009

Funding Early Years should be easier than this

The last meeting of the Kingston Schools Forum deliberated at length on the funding of Early Years, that is settings (nurseries to you and me) for pre-school children. The Government, quite rightly in my opinion, wants to increase the provision in this sector and to achieve most of this expansion through the Private, Voluntary and Independent (PVI) providers.

Local Authorities need to introduce a funding formula for all Early Years providers, i.e. those maintained by the Local Authority itself and those maintained by the PVI sector, to ensure that funding is fair and is also sufficient for the increased entitlement children have to nursery education.

The problem is that a simple and reasonable aim has been turned by Kingston Council into a complex formula that takes 7 pages to explain and requires a further 6 pages of examples to tr and bring some clarity to proceedings.

Because the formula is too complex (as it is with the main formula for funding mainstream schools) nobody really understands it and even fewer understand the implications of it so we run the risk that it will not work and this does not become apparent until it is too late to fix.

28 September 2009

Fragile play Yes quite well

I never had the opportunity to see Yes play live, for some reason they always missed Weymouth Pavilion when touring, so seeing a renowned tribute band seemed like a good idea. And it was.

The bad news first. The venue was the Boom Boom Club which is a) in Sutton and b) pretty awful acoustically and visually. The light show was a couple of lights shining on the low ceiling.

The good news is that Fragile play Yes songs and they play them really quite well.

As their name suggests, their set veers towards Yes' early years and we were treated to, for example, Heart of the Sunrise, Perpetual Change, Close to the Edge, Starship Troopers and Yours is no Disgrace.

But we also got a couple of songs from Yes' most approachable album, Going for the One and the later hit single Owner of a Lonely Heart. I was also delighted to hear Gate of Delirium from Relayer.

Fragile play close homage to Yes without trying to be a carbon-copy, which is just as well as some aspects of Yes' music are hard to simulate. So, for example, we got a reduced Gates of Delirium and an extended Starship Troopers.

Yes fans will have done the maths on the songs and worked out that it was a long set, actually it was something over 140 minutes. How much over is hard to say as we managed to arrive late and Fragile had started to play when we got there. Being late also meant that we had to stand at the back, which to be completely honest, I much preferred to sitting in one of the plastic chairs.

If you like Yes, give Fragile a try next time they are in your area. You won't regret it.

25 September 2009

A day in Chong Qing

A belated return to the story of my Summer holiday picks up at the end of the cruise along the Yangtze with a day in Chong Qing. The main reason for going there was to see some pandas. In the original schedule we were due to go to a panda sanctuary but this got changed at some point and we ended up going to Chong Qing zoo instead. At least it had several pandas, like this one!

We were given the best part of an hour to explore the rest of the zoo and this proved to be a mixed blessing. The animals were good but the layout of the zoo was very complicated and we were sent out to explore without maps. Not surprisingly, a few groups were late back. With more time and a map this could have been a good morning but, instead, it was bit of a time filler between the pandas and lunch.

As with most cities we visited, we were marched up a hill. This time the reward at the top was a lesson on Chinese tea and the ceremony that surrounds it.

We were given a few teas to try which we drank out of small cups, while the importance of the cup, the pot and the temperature of the water were explained to us.

We were also shown the correct way to drink the tea; look, smell, taste and then drink with your left hand behind your back (men). They did a pretty convincing job and brought some of their tea home.

The view from the top of the hill was less of a reward as the haze that dogged us all the way along the Yangtze still hugged the river. We were at least able to get a good idea of the size and modernity of the city.

The climb up was more interesting.

Here we had more of the familiar gardens, pagodas, water and bridges. This rope bridge, like almost all the bridges we walked over in China, stubbornly refuses to take the shortest route across the water and is all the more pretty for doing so.

One of the pagodas we passed belonged to Chiang Kai-Shek when the capital city of China was moved to Chong Quin in the 1930's during the war against Japan.

Incidentally, most of the cities that we visited seem to have been the capital city of China at some point. It has moved many times either at the whim of an Emperor or because a capital had fallen to an invading force.

After the hill came the fight to the next town, Guillin, and our short stay in Chong Qing was over. The pandas made it all worthwhile.

24 September 2009

British Butterfies

Setting the questions for a recent pub quiz at The Willoughby allowed me the indulgence to revisit my childhood when, for a few years, I was an enthusiastic collector of picture cards given away with packets of Brooke Bond PG Tips tea.

I vividly recall the excitement of opening a new packet of tea to see what the card was and of taking swaps down to the local supermarket to exchange for gaps.

I collected a few books but the most complete collection, and the one that I remember the best, is British Butterflies.

It seemed to be the idea book to use this for the picture round.

There are 50 butterflies in this collection from 1963 and at that time I also collected live butterflies (I'm not very proud of that now) so the pictures were very real to me.

I selected this eighteen for the quiz.

It was, I thought, a clever combination of the dead easy, e.g. Red Admiral, and the rather difficult, e.g. which Fritillary is that?

In the actual quiz the teams that seemed to know a lot about everything  revealed that they know absolutely nothing about British butterflies.

I think that the top score was 4/18, and that was thanks to the new Polish barmaid recognising the Peacock.

As luck would have it, another regular came in half way through the quiz, too late to take part, and not only made it obvious that he knew all the butterflies but he started describing their caterpillars too!

As a round in a pub quiz it proved to be something of a failure but as a reminder of part of my childhood it was a great success.

I am now looking at Brooke Bond tea cards on eBay!

23 September 2009

More comedy at The Willoughby

Where does the time go? It is five months since I last attended a comedy night at The Willoughby and vowed to go back. As in April, the spur to attend this time was winning a free ticket in the Pub Quiz (as well as another one of the infamous swearing parrots).

The comedy shows are hosted by The Willoughby Arms (my current local) but are organised and promoted by Terry the Stand Up, who use various venues across the South East.

The Willoughby does its bit superbly by providing a comfortable function room (though everybody comments that the sound proofing does make it look rather like a padded cell) and an excellent range of beers (and probably other drinks too, but I've never tried them).

The weak link in the chain is Terry who did little, if anything, to promote the event so the only people there were a few Willoughby regulars. The plus side of this was that it made the event more intimate and the comedians were able to get to know all of the audience, except my mate Pete who somehow managed to escape their attention; not sure how he managed that.

The format was as before with three sessions, or halves as the compère inaccurately called them, with ten minute refuelling breaks between them. In the three halves we had two, three and one comedian with a seventh holding the whole thing together.

Perhaps it was because we had one more comedian than before or perhaps they cut the sets down because of the smaller audience but most of the comedians seemed to do little more than a five minute try-out before rushing off stage to make way for the next one. This did not allow much time to build up a rapport and definitely impacted the quality of the evening.

But the biggest impact on the quality was the comedians themselves who, while generally amusing, were never riotously funny and never seemed to sustain their comedy much beyond one good gag in a row.

This all sounds rather disappointing, and it was compared to the first time I went, but it was still just about good enough to tempt me back again. Not sure that my friend will want to go back though.

19 September 2009

Ocean by Warren Ellis

The kindly postman brought me Ocean by Warren Ellis and Chris Sprouse yesterday morning and I read it today. Given that I read most comics around six months after I buy them, that is quite some testament to my enthusiasm. And my enthusiasm was justly rewarded.

At it's heart this is a simple sci-fi romp. It's set a hundred years in the future when man has mastered space travel enough to have spread through our solar system. The main action is on Europa, the sixth moon of Jupiter, which is covered in ice. Underneath the ice there is a dark and ancient threat.

There is a hero, who looks and behaves a little too like Nick Fury, and some baddies who just may be the descendents of Microsoft.

The supporting cast is small and light in terms of the role they play and their characterisation but that is not a problem. The story is all about Nathan Kane, agent of the United Nations, and how he deals with the threat and neutralises the enemy.

Chris Sprouse's artwork is uncluttered and sharp which suits Warren Ellis' minimal writing style (just as Paul Duffield's does on FreakAngels).

Ocean was originally published as a six part comic by Wildstorm, way back in 2004, but collected as a graphic novel it still reads well. The story is well paced, a compelling page turner and ends satisfactorily. It's a good but simple story well told.

16 September 2009

Surbiton then and now

The first Kingston upon Thames talk after the Summer break was on the less than compelling subject of Surbiton but I was proved wrong and it was entertaining and informative.

First up we had the history, some of which I knew. Kingston Council laughed at the new railways and chose to have Kingston Station built a mile or so out of town on the south side. The train brought people and jobs and houses and Surbiton was born.

Some grand houses soon followed but Surbiton's green-field location and good rail link to central London have proved to be a mixed blessing and the centre of the town is dominated by flats for the transient young and care homes for the elderly. Family homes and families are a rarity.

The land grab to build more flats continues today and some of the few old buildings are under threat and some others have been lost.

Surbiton may lack much local history but there are compensations and it is clear to see why it remains an attractive place to live, just not for those of us who value the buildings and parks around us.

13 September 2009

Fengdu, the ghost city

Our final shore trip on the Yangtze cruise was to Fengdu, the ghost city, so called because legend has it that all dead people go there. As with most other trips on this holiday, there was a lot of climbing involved with many spectacular things to see on the way.

Also becoming familiar were the traditional style buildings and the luscious and well-kept gardens. The buildings include an assortment of temples, usually with Buddhist icons and statues.

But there are daemons too!

Not only is this guy pretty fierce looking but if you look carefully you can see that he is chewing on a hand.

Figures like this adorn the route up the hill to remind you to be good in this life.

There are also a few tests to perform to prove your goodness, luckily none of these were too challenging.

First we had to cross a short but steep bridge in an specific number of steps and couples had to do this hand-in-hand. And before entering the temple at the top of the hill we each had to balance on a metal ball for a few seconds.

We all passed and entered the temple with relief.

On the way back down we were given some clue has to what might have befallen us if we had failed the tests!

A grizzly and imaginative montage depicted various scenes of torture that not even Frank Miller would put into one of his lurid (but excellent) Sin City comics.

I selected a picture of a man being sawn in half but the other images were just as bad. A deterrent indeed.

After that it was the walk back down the hill, past the ubiquitous shops for tourists and back to the boat for our final night of cruising. The next day we would wake up in ChongQing.

12 September 2009

Cruising the Shennong Stream

Our second shore trip was to another river! The Shennong Stream in Badong County is famous for its small boats and the way that they travel, but first we had to get there.

We left our large river cruiser for a smaller one and headed up one of the many tributaries of the Yangtze.

The reason for the smaller boat was soon apparent as the gorge narrowed and the hills crept closer to us as if determined to refuse us further passage.

The smaller slower boat and the quieter waters gave amble opportunity to savour the passing geology and the angled rock formations betrayed the results of India's relentless move Northwards, the same movement that created the Himalayas.

An hour or so later and the gorge finally defeated the ferry and we all had to decamp into "pea pod" boats.

These boats were manoeuvred up the increasingly narrower gorge by a crew of six locals who used to ply the river for trade but now do it for tourists.

There was friendly rivalry between the crews and much jolly banter was exchanged when a boat overtook ours despite their significant difference in age.

The paddles used look a little like oars but they are not used in the same way. Instead they are kept in the water and swished from side to side like a fish's tale.

Eventually the gorge becomes too shallow for even the sampans to be rowed and our valiant crew had to get out and pull.

This is the traditional way of moving the boats past the shallow stretches though things have changed a little, the crew who used to go naked to keep their clothes dry now keep their shorts on to stop the tourists' blushes.

And we were tourists so this was just a short pull to show us a little of what things used to be like before we retraced our steps back to the small ferry and then to the Yangtze where the large ferry was waiting to take us to our next destination.

11 September 2009

The Three Gorges Dam

We started our four day cruise up the Yangtze river just downstream of the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest in the world, and our trip ashore on the first day was to the dam.

We were not allowed on the dam itself but were able to skirt around the edges and to go to the visitors' centre.

What we could see of the dam was majestic, particularly if, like me, you like big industrial things. And the cloud added a touch of mystery.

This is the upstream side and, to give you some ides of the scale, there is around 50m from the water level to the top of the dam. If your eyesight is fantastic you can just about see two coaches crossing the dam just to the right of the first red crane.

The Yangtze is a major traffic route carrying lots of people and freight and so lots of big ships have to get past the dam every day.

Here you can see part of the two chains of locks (one heading upstream and one downstream) that run along one side of the dam.

There are five identical locks in each direction and each one takes around 40 minutes to go through.

The locks work well but some commercial traffic is prepared to pay more to save time and now they are adding a lift that will take one ship at a time all the way from the bottom to the top of the dam (and vice versa). Sometime I think the Chinese build stupidly big things like that just to prove that they can!

Passing through the five locks was quite an experience.

This is the view that greets you when the lock doors open. Come into my parlour said the spider to the fly.

Again the scale is deceptive. We were on a large river cruise ship four stories high and the lock easily held six ships like ours.

This is the view from the top deck of our ship and you can see that the walls of the lock tower above.

The side walls have vertical scratches and streak that must be as nothing to the damage that they inflicted on the ships in turn.

There is also a lot of eerie screeching caused by the moorings, housed in channels, moving up with the ships.

All this combined to give us over three hours encased in concrete with dark water rushing past us while steel wailed in protest. Wonderful!

8 September 2009

Hoaxwind at Millfest

Millfest is little more than an old fashioned street party held in a little patch of open land off Mill Street in Kingston upon Thames but Hoaxwind were playing so I went.

The afternoon got off to a good start with a pre-gig drink in the nearby pub, the Cocoanut, where I had an amiable chat with Julian and Eugene from Hoaxwind.

The next drink was more of a challenge! Millfest did not have a licence which they got round by using an exchange system, you buy paper "Moolah"s with real cash then swap the Moolahs for drink.

The stage was a simple marquee and it worked well. In fact it was bigger than some pub stages and provided ample room for the six members of the band.

The set was shorter than usual as there were lots of acts to fit in during the afternoon but Hoaxwind had enough time to treat us to seven songs, labelled on the set list as Orgone Accumulator, Assault, Death Trap, Angels, Quark and Ejection. All familiar songs and all delivered with skill and enthusiasm.

The sky grew dark but the rain kept away and it is hard to think of a better way of spending a late Summer evening than being outside listening to a good band play Hawkwind songs while nursing a decent beer.

6 September 2009

Yangtze cruise

A cruise up the Yangtze was more or less in the middle of our three weeks in China and provided a welcome respite from the hectic schedule onshore.

We had trips on each of the three days but I will cover those separately, this blog is just about the cruise.

We flew from Xi'an to Wuhan and then took a long coach ride to Yichang where we caught the boat that was to be our home for the next three days and four nights as we cruised up the river to Chongqin.

This first picture sums up the cruising as we spent most of the time cruising past cloudy hills, including the Three Gorges themselves.

The three days were broadly the same; breakfast on the boat, trip on shore to see something interesting, back to the boat for lunch then the rest of the day relaxing as the boat cruised along to our next destination.

We shared the river with many other boats, including a lot of commercial vehicles taking advantage of the easiest route into central China.

This ferry crammed full of lorries was typical of our fellow travellers.

We also saw several boats carrying coal and managed to catch the loading operation in action at one point.

The coal is brought near to the edge of the river by lorry and is held there in large storage bays. When the boats arrive they are filled using long hoses.

This creates a lot of coal dust around the boats and the inaccurate filling technique also pour some of the coal into the water leaving a black streak on the surface of the water as if some particularly nasty snail had just slithered over it.

For most of the journey all we could see on the shore were hills too steep to support anything more than a few huts in one place. One exception to this relentless greenery was the bridges.

And there were lots of bridges of all shapes and sizes.

I chose this picture because I like the shape made by the cables but I loved many of the other bridges too and I ran outside to one of the observation decks whenever we passed under one.

Each bridge warranted at least three photos (before, under and after) so I now have lots of photos of Chinese bridges, which is a good thing.

As we got towards the end of the cruise the steep hills gave way to more gentle slopes and these allowed bigger towns to creep towards the river's edge. They were all nameless and all looked much the same.

Despite being some days from the Three Gorges the impact of the dam is still obvious and the towns were well above the Summer water level in preparation for the higher waters to come.

These higher waters had marooned some very large boats on the side of the hills to create graveyards of rust that would slip naturally into a J G Ballard novel.

Some of the towns, like this one, had counterbalancing railways down to the river's edge.

The cruise provided many interesting sights over the three days but these were often some hours apart and were usually shrouded in haze so we often resorted to the standard holiday pastimes of playing cards and finding excuses not to write postcards. But the rest was welcome and the trips ashore were good and so, overall the Yangtze cruise was a good section of the holiday.

3 September 2009

2000AD Prog 1651

2000AD continues to please mightily and is still the first comic that I read every week - my copy arrives in the post on Saturday morning.

Judge Dredd has started a new era with a new Chief Judge in Mega-City One banishing him to the Cursed Earth to look after the returning mutants. John Wagner still writes most of the Judge Dredd stories and that is a good thing.

Returning to 2000AD this prog were Strontium Dog (Johnny Alpha), also written by John Wagner and also originating over thirty years ago, and Nikolai Dante, another classic story that dates back to 1997.

Two more recent additions to the 2000AD stable, Shakara and Kingdom, were into part two of their latest stories.

Kingdom is written by the seemingly ubiquitous Dan Abnett who having made his name at 2000AD and with his Warhammer novels, is now also writing comics for Marvel (War of Kings) and DC (The Authority) which I also read.

2000AD started as something of a rebellious young kid but after thirty years it has matured wonderfully into a literary and artistic tradition that is still enjoyed by many of us that were there in the beginning as well as other generations who have joined the journey to the future more recently. It's simply a great read every week.

2 September 2009

Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne

My fourth, and final, trip to Glyndebourne this year was to see Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

It's an opera that I did not know and it was the second visit this year with the same friends so we went for some (relatively) cheap seats and we found ourselves in the very back row (Row G Upper Circle).

We also found ourselves in the very middle of the row so being at the back was no problem. In some ways it was better than being in the stalls, where we had been on the previous visit, as it is easy to see the surtitles from higher up.

The weather looked less than promising so we grabbed one of the picnic tables in the opera house complex. This worked out well as it not only gets rid of the potential rain problem it also vastly reduces the travel time to the seats thereby giving more time for eating and drinking!

Tristan und Isolde is a fairly simple tragic love story told over four hours of gorgeous and dramatic singing.

Wagner tells the story at a consistent pace and in a consistent mood. There are no stand-out arias and no simple songs heavy with repetition.

The drama is mostly told by Tristan and Isolde who spend most of the time on stage and singing.

The staging was fairly simple, which I like as it leaves the focus on the actors. The same stage (shown here in its 2007 guise) was used very effectively in all three acts where it gave admirable impressions of a boat and two different rooms.

The clever bit was the lighting which was used, for example, to show the passing of the day. It also allowed actors to hide once they had done their bit thereby reducing the distracting noise of people walking on and off stage.

Tristan und Isolde was an undoubted success and was a fitting finale for the Glyndebourne season. I saw four very different operas this year (though they all featured magic and three had love potions!) and it is hard to compare them but, if pushed, I would say that L’elisir d’amore by Donizetti was the most complete production, with Tristan und Isolde a most creditable second.