30 November 2009

In place of cuts - making taxation fairer

My latest foray into the world of politics was another Compass briefing, this time on their recently launched policy paper on taxation that responds to the almost unanimous call to slash cuts with an alternative approach. Hence the title, In place of cuts.

The meeting was held at the Houses of Parliament which is still not familiar enough to be mundane. It amuses me that the security is less there than at the BBC; both x-ray bags but the BBC always find my penknife whereas Parliament never does. After security comes the still impressive St Stephen's Hall then the long walk along grand corridors to the committee rooms with their narrow leather-bound seats.

Professor George Irvin, the main author of the report, introduced the report with three simple slides that analysed the problem and recommended a set of measures that would both increase tax income and make the overall tax system more progressive (the richer you are the more you pay).

This chart clearly shows the problem; the poorest people pay proportionally most tax and while the middle incomes pay progressively more tax this drops off at the high end.

The solutions proposed In place of cuts include a fair degree of tinkering with the tax system to smooth the curve out. I support some of the proposals, such as removing the the upper limit on National Insurance Contributions, but I think the overall problem cannot be fixed by playing around with income tax measures.

This graph tells me that taxation works well for, but only for, the middle income group (on, say, £10k to £80k) and that income tax is not the way to address the anomalies at either end.

One reason why this is the case is that any changes to taxation impact the middle income band as well as the band that you are trying to target.

The other reason is political. Nobody ever voted for tax increases even if they were for rich people only and tax cuts are soon forgotten.

Apart from correcting a few of the current anomalies I would prefer to help the lower end through benefits and schemes like Sure Start (i.e. giving them some things for free) and to tax the high end through, for example, capital and property taxes.

29 November 2009

Desert Island Discs with Kirsty Young

The list of podcats that I listen to is fairly stable but does get updated from time-to-time, such as with the recent addition of Danny Bakers BBC Radio 5 show, Robert Elms' BBC London show and the removal of the too voluminous and not quite interesting enough LSE events.

The latest change is the welcome arrival of Desert Island Discs, a mainstay of the BBC Radio 4 schedule for over sixty years. I have listened to it quite a lot but in recent years the timings have not suited my lifestyle so it has slipped me by.

But from today it is available as a podcast so once again I can savour this audible treat. And what an episode to start with, the iconic Morrisey.

28 November 2009

A little comedy

Despite the lukewarm reception to the previous Terry The Stand Up's Comedy Night at The Willoughby Arms, the prospect of cheap tickets with a free drink thrown in, and having nothing else to do on a Friday evening, tempted three of us back for another go.

For some reason the function room was set theatre style with lots of seats packed in, rather than the more usual cafe style with a loose arrangement of chairs and tables. This made getting to a seat harder than it should have been and also made the twelve of us in the audience feel like even fewer people than that.

The compere was different from the one at my two previous visits and that was not a good start to the evening or a good omen for what was to follow. Reading lame jokes from your phone is never a good idea and warranted the "Get off" suggestion from my friend.

The first act picked up the pieces well and told some genuinely funny stories in a genuinely funny way. Loved the one about the musical slippers.

Sadly the next act was a disaster. Some excuses for it being her first outing but she had no idea of what she was trying to do and jumped from story to story without completing one or being funny along the way. At one point she read out a real love letter that she had found. No idea why she did this or what reaction she expected from us. She got embarrassment.

A huge leap forward with the next guy whose irreverent set had a poke at some dead people and the Royal Family. What's not to like? The second interval was then taken with a sense of optimism with just the headline act to come.

I was expecting another stand-up comedian to close the evening but we got a man with a guitar doing some comedy songs instead. They were OK but songs do not tend to have punchlines so they amused without prompting much laughter. To be fair, the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy it more than I did and I thought that he was all right.

So we had two good, one all right and two, er, less so. On balance that was just about good enough to get me to go back again, but it was close.

24 November 2009

A simple but useful meeting

The last of the rush of Czech and Slovak events was the modest meeting of the BCSA Executive Committee which I am invited to as their webmaster.

These meetings are important for conducting the business of the BCSA which is a charity with a few tens of thousands of pounds to look after but that does not make them interesting.

That said we rattled through the business amiably enough aided by a little wine and the familiar M&S sandwiches. The main topics that we covered were the Annual Dinner later this week, the AGM in April and the events programme for next year. Provided the embassies agree, the Summer Garden Party will be on 19 June and I've made sure that this date is in my diary already!

The spaces in between buildings

This month's meeting of the Kingston upon Thames Society (KSoc) was held jointly with the Kingston Horticultural Society and considered how planting in the spaces in between buildings can improve the look and use of the area.

The talk took the form of a series of photographs of some unnoticed places locally that gave good examples of opportunities taken and missed in make the best of these spaces.

I was particularly interested in this approach as this is very much what I am trying to do with my Ham Photos blog that tries "to show the unusual, the unexpected and the unnoticed". I mentioned this in the open session after the talk and that garnered some interest and I hope to be able to help KSoc to get started on a similar project.

If there were any negatives from the meeting then it was the horticulturists' frequent claim that the trees in the photos softened the impact of the buildings behind them when, at times, I thought that the messy trees obscured the straight lines and impressive walls of the gorgeous building!

But it would be a little harsh to criticise the horticulturists too much for that and the joint working between the two societies to improve both the buildings in Kingston and the spaces between them has got to be good news.

23 November 2009

Great Indian food at Origin Asia

Like most English people, I love a curry and I eat them home-cooked, takeaway and in restaurants. And I like to go to different restaurants to try out different dishes.

But for some years now I have been a regular visitor to Origin Asia on the Kew Road in Richmond. It's a couple of miles away but the buses go more or less door-to-door so the journey is easy and the food makes that little effort well worthwhile.

We usually go as a foursome and share all of the dishes each picking one starter and one main meal, all vegetarian of course, which we supplement with a selection of breads and beers.

The food is what we go for and it is always exciting and well prepared. When you are used to the staple vegetable madras/vindaloo it makes a refreshing change to come across items like Aloo Tikki Pithi Wali which is described as a crispy shallow fried patty of mashed potatoes stuffed with spicy chana lentil, and topped with tamarind, mint sauce and yogurt. It tastes as good as that sounds.

I'll continue to go to several other local Asian restaurants but Origin Asia remains the place to go on special occasions, like when friends are around.

22 November 2009

PM of Slovakia, Robert Fico, speaks to BACEE

When the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe (BACEE) was wound up in 2008 it was agreed that the name would live on through a series of high-profile lectures organized with UCL's School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies (SSEES).

The event took some time to arrange but in November 2009 the first BACEE/SSEES talk was given by the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico and I took the morning off work to attend.

The original impressions were not encouraging through my western eyes as Robert Fico looks like you would expect a former Easter European Communist (or a Bond villain) to look with his square features, drab suit and bland tie.

But appearances can often be deceptive and in the case they most definitely were as he delivered a very engaging and informative talk that looked back on the successes and failures of the twenty years since the Velvet Revolution.

He claimed democracy and human rights as successes but admitted that the economy and standards of living had not done as well. For example, the average wage in the last year of Communism (1989) was not reached again until 2007.

The root cause for the problems currently faced by Slovakia (and, presumably, similar countries) is that when the Communists were overthrown the only people in a position to take over where those who already had wealth and power. This clique then disposed of state assets to themselves.

The talk covered a wide range of subjects which were presented in a refreshing open and frank way; no sign here of the empty media-trained spin that we are force-fed in the UK.

Fico was equally honest and forthright in dealing with audience questions at the end, two of which resonated with the current situation in the UK; funding and standards in university education and integration of minorities. He made the good point that minorities should learn Slovak (in addition to their own language) not to become Slovaks but in order to work better with the Slovak authorities and political systems in the cause of their community.

Overall Fico impressed me immensely and I felt that he gave a very honest account of the situation in Slovakia today.

It is still a great shame (and a mistake by this government) that BACEE no longer exists as an organisation but it is good that their reputation helped to secure such a prestigious lecture. I expect I'll be taking holiday to catch the next one too.

21 November 2009

A long weekend in Prague

I first went to Prague to work in 1991 and spent most of the next two years there and made a few more trips in the following year. Since then the opportunities to go back have been more limited but have all been taken. I've been back for an IBM conference, a proper holiday and to break the journey home from Kiev.

The latest opportunity came thanks to some friends who now live there who offered a good reason for going, somewhere to stay and the prospect of some stimulating company. I just had to go.

I had a reasonably busy schedule for the three days that I was there but there was still plenty of time to do what I like doing the most, exploring the city on foot.

The journey started with a steep climb through the gardens of Vitkov Hill up to the National Monument where Jan Zizka sits motionless on his horse looking over the centre of Prague ready to spring to its defence.

A museum opened in the monument the week that I was there and I had a look at it but all the writing was in Czech so I did not have much clue as to what it was about. Some of the pictures look good though and there were also great views to enjoy.

It seems a little churlish to complain about a museum but I think I preferred Vitvok when there was no real reason to go there so I usually had the place to myself.

From Vitvok I walked roughly due south to the familiar Vysehrad before heading west to the Vlatava and an enchanting walk north back to the city centre past art nouveau splendour.

The Lavka bar, restaurant and club sits in one of the very best spots in Prague, on a spur of land that juts out into the river just south of Charles Bridge.

The garden at the back offers stunning views across Charles Bridge towards the Castle and this is where I usually ended the evening (or, more accurately, started the day) when I was living in Prague.

Sadly the garden was off limits this time due to the restoration work being done to Charles Bridge but the seating outside at the front was a fair alternative and I sat there for a while with a well deserved Gambrinus.

Next door is the Smetana Museum and a statue of the composer sits patiently outside providing yet another attraction for the many tourists who come here to capture the view. I did my Good Samaritan bit and took a photo of an American tourist with the bridge and castle behind her.

As I returned to by beer I tried to guess how many photos were taken there each day but this Fermi problem was beyond me.

Having sat and looked at the castle from a distance it was only natural to go there and take a closer look.

I could have walked up the hill but why bother when a tram can take you there in style?

Bizarrely, for one of Prague's main attractions, the castle has never interested me that much and I have never really explored it - ever.

The district around the castle and the views from the hill are another matter and it was for these reasons that I go there.

I love all sorts of roofscapes. I have particularly fond memories of Venice, Casablanca, Dubrovnik and Li Jiang, and Mala Strana (Lesser Town) deserves to be in this list too. I like the way that the different layouts and styles of the buildings produces interesting shapes that are emphasised by the white walls.

At the end of the day I just had enough time to go almost to the eastern edge of Prague, to Karanska in Malesice, where I and a colleague lived in a company flat.

This was two family flats, one above the other, converted in to one flat. It was enormous and there were some rooms that we never used.

The area is mostly high density housing, as pictured here, but the buildings were in good condition and there was lots of open space and vegetation to make the area attractive rather than oppressive. It's certainly far better than the equivalent housing in the UK.

Also much better is the public transport. Despite being right on the edge of town, getting around is easy as very regular buses (around one a minute at peak times) take you to the metro station about 2km away where the ridiculously fast and smooth trains take you to the heart of Prague in a matter of minutes.

Even more bizarrely than before, this minor road in Prague is on Google Street View whereas the road I live in now in London is not.

Every time that I go to Prague I leave determined to go back again one day. This time was no different.

20 November 2009

Bedroom Farce at the Rose Theatre

I've not found the programme at the newish Rose Theatre in Kingston that inviting and so, while I go to the Orange Tree in Richmond regularly, I only made my first visit to the Rose recently.

What finally pulled me in was Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn who, experience tells me, knows how to be funny.

The surprising initial problem was booking the tickets online with a website that would have felt out of date five years ago. The main problems are that you cannot see which seats you are buying and you have to go right back to the start of the purchase transaction every time you want to look at other options.

The Rose is an oddly shaped theatre due to it being some spare space left to the Council within a block of expensive flats and turning it into a theatre was an after-thought.

As a result the stage protrudes into the auditorium which is not very deep but is high. For some reason there is a pit area at the front with no fixed seating, you are encouraged to bring your own cushion!

My seat on the far left side offered a good view across the stage and of the auditorium.

The play was not what I expected in that it was a comedy but not a farce; no trouser-less men hiding in wardrobes here. The bedroom bit of the title was true though and all the action took place in three bedrooms that were alongside each other on the stage.

There was not much of a plot but there was a lot of humorous dialogue that kept things moving along at a sprightly pace but without reaching the anticipated climax. In the end the lack of a plot, some under-par acting and the nature of the theatre itself left the feeling that a reasonable evening out could, and should, have been much better.

It's going to take something quite special to drag me back to the Rose but I will keep my eyes open for that special thing and am prepared to give the Rose another chance one day.

18 November 2009

The Vampire of Prague

Three of my very favourite things are comics, Prague and the art of P Craig Russell so getting all three together is bound to be a winning combination.

The occasion for the inspired confluence is "Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others", the seventh trade paperback collection in the Hellboy series created by Mike Mignola.

Most of the volume is reprints of the Hellboy comic but The Vampire of Prague was commissioned for the collection and so had not appeared in print before.

It is in full colour but I chose this black and white sample from the few readily available online because it is so distinctly Prague.

The story itself, like most Hellboy stories, is short, mysterious and quirky; almost like Neil Gaiman but with fewer words. That means it is good.

If that is not enough to convince you to investigate this book then knowing that the last story was drawn by Richard Corben should be the clincher!

16 November 2009

Stackridge back at the 100 Club

Stackridge put on a good show and they do not get up to London that often so when they do I am likely to be there.

Apparently it is just over a year since I last saw them play, that time at the Boom Boom Club in Sutton. so a return to the 100 Club was long over due.

Other people had the same idea and the place was packed when we arrived during the support act (the less said about them the better).

Luckily many of them succumbed to the lure of the bar when the support finished and I was able to get my usual, but unexpected, place right at the front. I elected to stand right of centre (not that I had that much choice this time due to the large crowd) and that gave me a different view of the band from previous gigs.

The were some changes from previous gigs, a new violinist and some new songs, but both blended in seamlessly and while I missed God Speed the Plough we still got Purple Spaceships over Yatton so all was well in the world.

The full crowd also served to trap the band on stage who were unable to leave between set and encore and were then not allowed to escape until the planned ending, Do the Stanley, was followed by Dora the Female Explorer.

Stackridge entertain joyously and enthusiastically, and nobody can ask for more than that.

15 November 2009

Mu's Residence, Li Jiang is magical

It has taken me three months to get around to writing about our last full day in China.

Some of the reason for that was because I had to write about the other twenty days first but the main reason was the difficulty I have had in trying to select just a few photos to capture the mood of the day.

But let's start at the beginning.

Li Jiang had already shown itself to be the prettiest place we visited during our three week tour and so I relished the prospect of a free morning to explore the town on the final day before starting the long journey home via Kunming and Hong Kong.

Our guide suggested that we spend the morning shopping but I had other ideas.

I had bought a map of the town on my arrival and that revealed that in the heart of the old town was a palace, called Mu's Residence. Exploring that was always going to be more fun that looking for cheap fake goods to give people for Christmas.

The streets of Li Jiang would put most mazes to shame and, like a maze, they all look the same too and so, even with a map, finding the palace was bit of a challenge.

On the plus side it was Li Jiang that we were bemused in and so we had pretty buildings and murmuring waterways to engage us as we set about our exploration.

When we got there we were immediately staggered by the scale and the beauty of what we found.

Mu's Residence was based on the Forbidden City and while it is much smaller it is also in a better condition, for example there was an abundance of water and plenty of plants to provide respite from the heat and the sun.

The buildings were magnificent and most are open so you can climb up to the higher floors to get different perspectives on the palace that was like a maze within a maze with its many sections and numerous walkways. Exploring was a real joy.

The large pond was my favourite part of the palace with its collection of rectangular sections that lead you further away from the buildings and deeper in to the garden and the shade.

All of that would have made for an absolutely fantastic morning, but there was more.

At the far side of the palace was a sign to the garden which took you through a building, along a walkway above the streets of Li Jiang and then down through another building.

The garden was small when compared to the palace but was very pretty none the less.

Beyond the garden was another path, this time leading up the tallest hill in Li Jiang. The climb was steep and hard work but was made easier by the frequent seats and the traditional covered walkway that kept the aggressive sun at bay.

The cafe half-way up also helped.

As we climbed the hill we could see increasingly more of the old town and then of the new town beyond it.

The roofs of the old town are wonderfully uniform in shape and colour, almost as if somebody had just scattered some building bricks from a Chinese Lego set (and if there is no such thing as Chinese Lego then there jolly well ought to be).

A proud pagoda sits on the top of the hill looking like an adventurous wedding cake. More climbing here but this time it was inside and with easy steps.

More views and more to marvel at on a day which had already far exceeded any reasonable marvelling quota.

I hope that the images I have chosen here have given you some confidence that this really is one of the loveliest places in the world. The cultural atheists can find more proof and the devotees can find more joy in the full set of photos.

This was the last day of the holiday and it was also the best day. If I could go back to China for just one day then I'd go to Li Jiang and Mu's Residence.

14 November 2009

Mathematics and comics

Rather a long time ago now I was in love with mathematics enough to study it at university. I've forgotten most of what I learned there, I cannot even understand the language any more, but the fondness remains.

Another passion that developed at university was for comics. So when I saw that Comica were doing a talk on mathematics and comics I just had to go.

The talk was on the new graphic novel Logicomix and was with the writer and artist on the comics side and the only mathematician anybody knows, Marcus du Sautoy, on the other.

What followed was another exhilarating talk. This was partly due to Marcus' questioning which showed his interest in storytelling, just as he did a year ago at the Royal Society. But good conversations need all participants to play their parts well and author Apostolos Doxiadis and artist Alecos Papadatos certainly did this with their erudite explanations and insights.

The talk itself would have made it a great evening but the icing on the cake was to get Marcus du Sautoy to sign one of his books and Apostolos Doxiadis and Alecos Papadatos to sign my newly purchased copy of Logicomix. Another Xmas present in the waiting.

I was also able to catch organiser Paul Gravett to thank him for the excellent Comica season; thanks I am delighted to repeat here.

13 November 2009

A Taste of Slovakia

My third Czech/Slovak event in three days this week was another social, A Taste of Slovakia at the Slovak Embassy.

My BCSA role was just about good enough to get me an invite, though some pleading was also involved!

The tasting involved several wines and a buffet. The wines all came from the region of Small Carpathia in the South West of Slovakia and the few that I tried were all very drinkable.

Sadly I could only stay briefly as I had other events to move on to but I was there long enough to catch up with some BCSA colleagues and to appreciate the event enough to try and blag my way on to the guest list again next year.

Dobre rano, Slovensko!

A showing of the documentary Dobre rano, Slovensko! (Good Morning Slovakia!) was the second BCSA event of the week, this time organised in conjunction with the UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies.

The film was introduced by its producer, Fedor Gal, who played a part in Slovakia's emergence from behind the Iron Curtain in the Winter of 89/90.

Sadly I do not know yet exactly what his role was as technical difficulties meant that we had to watch the film in Slovak, which it may surprise you to learn, is not one of the one languages that I speak.

Luckily the Q&A session was translated so I was able to follow that part easily enough.

I had to leave the drinks reception afterwards fairly early but was there long enough to speak to a few new Czechs/Slovaks who I hope to see at other BCSA events and also to get an offer from Fedor Gal to send me the English version of the film, which I am looking forward too.

Almost all of the retrospectives on 1989 in the UK have focused on Germany and so it was good not just to hear fromCzechoslovakia but actually from the Slovak part.

Enjoying the BCSA socials

A week of Czech and Slovak events kicked off in fine style with our monthly "get to know you social" at the Czechoslovak National House in West Hampstead.

All we have to do is set the date and publicise the event for a mix of people to turn up during the evening for a chat.

Most of us eat there too and I always have a good look at the menu and then choose smazeny syr. I meant to take a photo of it this month but I forgot so here's a picture of my empty plate instead and I'll leave it to your imagination to work out what it looked like before I ate it all!

The food is pleasantly washed down with draught Pilsner Urquell but there is Budvar too for those who require an alternative.

The food and drink are fine but what makes these evenings work is the meeting of people who enjoy an evening out with good company.

11 November 2009

Dark we were and golden eyed

The first event that I went to in this year's Comica Festival was a panel talk on the arrival of American comics to the UK via fanzines, conventions and iconic shops like Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed.

I recall that my first visit to Dark They Were was on a trip up to London from Southampton University in '77 for a march against cuts in student grants (anybody else remember student grants?!) when I managed to do some quick shopping before the protesting began.

The shop blew me over with a ground floor packed with science fiction books many of which, like the comics on the floor below, were only available in the UK through a few specialist shops, none of which were in Southampton or Weymouth.

The basement was like Aladdin's Cave for me, except that you can read comics and gold is pretty useless of itself.

The sense of awe must have been blatant and soon I was talking to a helpful member of staff. Back in Southampton just getting comics regularly (from WH Smith) was a challenge and there was no way to get any news about comics. Suddenly I was surrounded by more comics than I could imagine and was talking to somebody who knew what happened in Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 (featuring one of my favourites, Adam Warlock). I still have a Dark They Were shopping bag somewhere.

But back to present day and the talk. The panel consisted of five people who were heavily involved in the start of teen/adult comics in the UK, as retailers, distributors, fanzine producers and artists. And they were all clearly fans too.

The hyper-active Paul Gravett (the organiser of Comica) sat in the front row and nudged things along when the reminisces threatened to take the talk away from the rather loose script that it was attempting to follow. A little like herding cats but when cats are as cute as this, who cares?

The talk was aided by some period photographs and art work which really helped to recall those days. I was particularly impressed that legendary artist Brian Bolland showed us the cover of his first ever comic, drawn just for fun as a child, in which there was absolutely no sign of the talent or distinctive style that would emerge later.

The panellists were all informative and entertaining, which is always a winning combination, and so I had a rewarding afternoon. This was betrayed by the large grin that I wore throughout.

10 November 2009

Talking about comics

I have contented myself so far by just reading comics (and a few books about comics) and have generally avoided fandom activities like conventions and signings, but that is starting to change.

Having dipped a cautious toe into the Comica waters over the weekend I was back for more on Monday night at Islington Central Library where Kevin O'Nell and Paul Gravett talked for two hours about Kevin's life and work.

It seemed that most of the audience were attracted by Kevin's recent, and current, work on the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but my interest dates back to the first Nemesis the Warlock story published in 2000AD way back in 1980. His distinctive angular style has been attracting deserved attention and praise ever since.

The talk wandered through various themes and we learnt, among other things, that Kevin's first job in comics was removing artists' signatures from pages of the Buster, that League moved from Warner Bros. to a smaller publisher to reduce the threat of being sued for copyright infringements and Marshall Law may yet be a film.

The Great Hall on the second floor of the library was grand but also vast and echoing which made listening to the conversation difficult at times. Fortunately the conversation was easily engaging enough to make the extra effort worthwhile and the two hours flew by and suddenly it was 8pm and we were being evicted sympathetically by the library staff.

9 November 2009

Learning about comics

I've been reading comics for the best part of fifty years and been a serious collector for over thirty but I still learnt a great deal about the art from a talk at ComICA by Bryan Talbot.

ComICA is a festival celebrating the best of comics today and it is to my shame that I have not managed to get to one of their events before.

ComICA is organised by Paul Gravett who probably knows more about comics than anybody else around today. His knowledge and enthusiasm drive the festival.

In his excellent talk, Bryan explained some of the approach to and influences in his latest book, Grandville, a detective story with animals!

Without the talk I would have got the cultural references in Grandville to Rupert the Bear and Mucha etc. but Bryan explained so much more about the history of anthropomorphism in the graphic media and the other subtle references he has made to famous paintings and drawings.

Almost as a bonus, Bryan also explained the way that he crafts a page through layouts, the use of colours and action lines that guide the flow between panels.

Bryan demonstrated his storytelling skills in the way that he told the story behind Grandville, he even managed to make PowerPoint look interesting!

The presentation showed us pictures that helped to shape Grandville while Bryan narrated the story.

His knowledge of, well everything, was phenomenal and even reached as far as Racey Helps' Happy Families playing cards - I am sure we used to have a set of these.

I went in to the talk thinking that I knew quite a bit about comics but I learned a great deal in the hour or so and was thoroughly entertained in the process too.

I'll definitely be going to more ComICA events.

Many thanks to Bryan for the talk, to Paul Gravett for arranging it all and to Bryan (again) for patiently autographing every copy of Grandville with a drawing as well as a signature. Why did I agree to have my copy as a Christmas present?!

8 November 2009

Alison's House at the Orange Tree

Alison's House, previously unknown to me, apparently won Susan Glaspell the 1931 Pulitzer Prize which gives it some pedigree.

However, I do know of other Glaspell plays staged at the Orange Tree, such as Chains of Dew, and that was incentive enough for me.

I am not sure what the incentive was for everybody else but I was pleased to see that the house was packed for the performance.

Alison was a poetess who died eighteen years ago and now the family are preparing to move out of the house for good. This stirs up memories for the various family members and the nature of these memories becomes more obvious and darker as the story unfolds.

Alison, though absent, provides an anchor for the rest of the family as their frailties unfold and we learn of several love-less marriages and the reactions to these (some stayed, some ran).

The story concerns Alison's reputation as a poetess as the centuries tick-over from the 19th to the 20th but the meat of the play, for me at least, is the view we get of fractured relationships and fractured characters.

The staging of the Orange Tree allows you to experience these fractures up close like no other theatre can; I was less than 1/2m away from the old lady when she died in her chair. That was a rather intense moment!

It almost goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, is that the acting was superb and the direction made the most of the Orange Tree's unique arrangement.

Another excellent night out at the Orange Tree. I am so very lucky to have such a reliable treat so close to home.

5 November 2009

What sort of consultant am I?

Our CEO’s all-staff call this week covered the usual wide range of topics, one of which was the switch of terminology from "management consulting" to "business consulting", an issue that Logica and I have both been entwined in for some years.

I started my career in IT as a lowly programmer (I probably would have been asked to make the tea in those days if it was not for the fact that a tea trolley came around twice a day) and the first big step up was to analyst/programmer, which recognised that the understanding of customers’ needs is a rather useful skill. Along with this elevation came some formal training in Business Analysis where I learned lots of diagrammatic tools, such as Entity Relationship Diagrams and Functional Decomposition Diagrams. Tools I still use today.

For the next several years the roles that I had were either labelled Business Analyst or Team/Project Leader but the work always contained a mixture of both and I was happy with either title. Both terms are generally well understood within the industry. This is not true among the regulars down my local pub where I used to say (and still do) that I work in IT, which people interpret as either I write software or I fix PCs. It is too hard, and too boring, to try to correct them so I let these misconceptions lie.

Business Analysts work within projects where you know what it is that you need to analyse but before you can start a project you need to understand the business needs (e.g. the drivers of competition or regulatory changes) and the potential of IT to address them. This is where the Business Consultant comes in and I first called myself this around twelve years ago, when at IBM, and I have used this title on-and-off ever since then.

I think that “Business Consultant” describes what I do well but then I would think that having been in the industry for over thirty years and using the title for a large chunk of that time, but I find that it means next to nothing to anybody else that I speak to; particularly the business people in client organisations who are the main people that Business Consultants need to speak to!

The temptation, therefore, is to use the more generally recognised term “Management Consultant”. Logica did this in 2007 when Logica Management Consulting was introduced as a sub-brand. Ironically, those of us using the brand (it is on my business card) were on the Business Consulting career path.

Using the term Management Consulting gets you around the “what does that mean?” problem that Business Consulting gives but, sadly, the term is recognised mostly for things that I do not do, such as advising on mergers and acquisitions and developing corporate strategy, i.e. the stuff that the “Big Four” consultancies do.

So now we are back to being Business Consultants again, which I think is much the lesser of the two evils and it is now up to us to make that work for us with our clients.

I will also continue to sidestep the issue personally by not including my job title on my business card or in my email signature, both just say who I am and who I work for. What I actually do is something for the client and I to explore.

3 November 2009

Remembering The Wall

Two of my favourite things are the music of Pink Floyd and the culture of Prague so I was not going to turn down the opportunity of spending a long weekend in Prague during which I could see a performance of The Wall.

Some brave Czech musicians had chosen to stage a spectacular version of The Wall to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

The venue for this extravaganza was the O2 arena in Ceskomoravska, just two stops on the metro from where I was blagging free accommodation in some friends' apartment.

They know the venue very well as it is also the home to HC Slavia Prague ice hockey team. This familiarity enabled them to buy me a decent ticket even though I was not able to confirm my attendance until just a few days beforehand. A lot of other people must also have made late decisions as the place was all but packed on the night with only some of the more remote seats left unsold.

I know the music of The Wall well but had not seen it in concert so I was not too sure what to expect.

The first thing that was obvious was that there were a lot of musicians involved. Most of these, I am told, are well know Czechs but the name Harry Waters (keyboards) was rather more familiar and gave a semi-official stamp to the occasion.

I was amused to see that The Wall was sung in English with Czech sur titles, a reversal of what I am used to at operas in this country, and I wondered what the translators made of phrases like "toys in the attic" and "somebody must have taken my marbles away".

The show was a real performance as the story was told through acting and film montages, as well as the words of the songs. The wall itself was gradually added to through the performance until it completely covered the front of the stage and hid the musicians from us.

But it came down soon after to the ringing chants of "Tear down the wall." I was not alone in joining in heartily.

As originally conceived, The Wall is about one person's struggle against their own daemons but has been slightly modified over the years to accommodate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Roger Waters solo song, The tide is turning, from Radio K.A.O.S., has been adopted as the new ending.

The enthusiastic standing ovation after this was long, well deserved and rewarded with an encore.

First up was the unexpected, but relevant, Who needs information, also from Radio K.A.O.S. then the quadraphonic jingling announced the arrival of Money. This rock anthem featured three guitar solos, two keyboard solos, a saxophone solo and a scat piece from the three backing singers.

The Wall was played and presented brilliantly and was made the more meaningful by the anniversary of that other wall. Without any doubt it was one of the very best concerts that I have been to. Simply wonderful.

1 November 2009

Sparks on The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman

The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman is an unusual album, even for Sparks. Originally designed as a radio programme for Sweden (and hence written in Swedish) it is now being released in English and Sparks are in the UK to promote it.

One of these promotional appearances was on the Stuart Maconie Radio 6 programme, Freak Zone, and this was recorded in front of an enthusiastic audience, myself included. This was at the BBC Radio Theatre, a familiar venue for me which made getting middle seats in the front row hardly a challenge.

The show started with the album played in its entirety. It narrates the fictional but allegorical story of Ingmar Bergman's attempted seduction by Hollywood.

Ingmar Bergman plays the role of narrator of his own story and he provides the link between the songs.

Musically the album is something of a new direction for Sparks (not that they are unused to taking new directions) and there is only one song that sounds as though it could have come off one of the recent albums.

From one hearing it is hard to define a theme or a mood to the music but I do recall a lot of heavier rock-like tunes. There was also a lot of what I thought was Steve Reich influenced.

The hour of music was followed by an hour of interviewing though I suspect it will be greatly edited down when broadcast on 8 November as Stuart Maconie looked and sounded rather lost at times and the interviewed drifted poorly between subjects and (mostly) failed to reach any meaningful depths.

It was not all gloss though and when Sparks were asked specific questions about music (most of these were audience questions) then we did learn some new things, such as Ron's appreciation of the music of Bernard Hermann (most famous for the soundtracks to several Hitchcock films) and of John Adams.

But I do not want to focus on the negatives because it was a very good evening; we got to hear the exciting new Sparks album before its official release and got to spend an hour in their easy company. It's nights like this that make living in London such fun.