31 January 2010

Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall at Richmond Theatre

I used to be a regular visitor to Richmond Theatre (i.e. 3 times a month) until the refit a few years ago and then the programme got bland and the prices went up and now I only go if something special tempts me.

And an adaptation of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall certainly counts as special as I loved the books and it had been getting good reviews elsewhere.

Also it was on on my birthday and I was looking for something to treat myself to!

The show tells some of Spike Milligan's war time stories through drama supplemented by the occasional narration to highlight some of the key events and some period music to lighten the tone.

The scenes with the band also allowed the cast to directly address us, the audience, as if we were the audience for the jazz band and that interaction added to the fun, particularly when we were warned that our clapping might cause the building to collapse and it did!

The show is a series of short varied scenes that string together to make a clever and consistent whole that felt like a good Radio 4 show, something like Loose Ends when Ned Sherrin was in charge.

If you like Spike Milligan and Radio 4, then this show will entertain you from humorous start to emotional end. It entertained me richly.

30 January 2010

Enjoying Camley Street Natural Park

Camley Street Natural Park is just a few minutes walk from my London Office at the top of Kings Place and makes a welcome retreat from the concrete city.

It's a short but rewarding stroll around the large pond in the centre and if you try hard you can almost forget that the city surrounds you, even if the occasional derelict gas holder intrudes in to the scene.

And like all natural areas, it's worth visiting at any time of the year, even on a cold January day when Jack Frost reigns supreme and most of the vegetation has retreated for the winter.

I'm looking forward to going back there in the spring!

29 January 2010

Karaoke can be fun!

A karaoke evening in a pub is normally a good reason to go somewhere else but the combination of Burns Night and a company party was enough to drag me down to The Willoughby Arms for the evening.

And after a slow start with a mix of slow ballads sung to a mix of standards it warmed up to a great night.

Things started to get lively when Gooner Dave took the approach I would have done, if I had any courage and any singing ability, and chose a loud rock song, Ace of Spades in this case.

Not only is good singing not required, it's almost forbidden and the loud music drowns out much of the noise you make anyway. There is also the added benefit that with the right song and the right mood the whole pub will sing along with you and so pay even less attention to you.

And so it was that I eventually got to sing myself, safe in the knowledge that everybody was singing Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of their voices and nobody cared how well or badly anyone else was singing. Which was just as well in my case.

26 January 2010

On our bikes

I first joined the online meet-up site, http://www.meetup.com, a couple of years ago when somebody told me about a Czech/Slovak group that meets regularly in London but I had never managed to get to any meet-ups until last week when I went to two!

Or, to be more honest, I went to one event that was being co-hosted by two groups that I belong to so I RSVP'ed. The Kingston and Richmond Social Group and Twickenham Cycling Meetup Group jointly arranged a cycle around Richmond Park.

I could hardly refuse an invitation like that!

We met at the New Inn on Ham Common where my worries started as people turned up in a range of increasingly rugged bikes, wearing incredibly appropriate clothing and carrying useful supplies like inner tubes, pumps and water. Non of which I could claim to.

Luckily a few other people turned up in street clothes and normal bikes and I started to feel more comfortable. Quick introductions were made (and mostly forgotten) over a quick half and then we were off along Ham Gate Avenue to, er, Ham Gate.

The decision was made to go around Richmond Park anti-clockwise (not my preference) which meant a slow climb towards Kingston Gate and then a sharp climb up Kingston Hill where the group I was in politely waited for the ladies on bikes without gears to catch us up.

The rest of the ride was a playful scramble along the path that continually turns, dips, bends and rises to keep the journey interesting and the view ever-changing.

A high point was towards the end of the ride when we came across a group of deer grazing by the side of the road between Richmond Gate and Ham Gate.

After that the ride was all down hill and then a quick sprint back to the pub for our reward and more conversations.

Having dipped my toe into the world of meet-ups I'm sure that I'll be going on another one before too long, such as the walk from Putney to Waterloo next month.

24 January 2010

Another great talk on comics

While the main Comica event is held at the ICA each Autumn a number of other Comica events are held throughout the year and the latest was held at the london print studio with the engaging title How a Comic is Made. On the panel were Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal (Master & Margarita), Nana Li (Twelfth Night), Pat Mills (Nemesis, Slaine, Requiem) and Woodrow Phoenix (Rumble Strip).

The event was chaired by the enthusiastic and ebullient Paul Gravett (pictured here in full flow) who gets to do these things because he is an expert on all things comics and he runs Comica.

The only panellist that I knew beforehand was Pat Mills who, with John Wagner, has been the voice of 2000AD for the last thirty years.

The evening got off to an unexpectedly good start when I bumped in to Paul Gravett at Kings Cross Station, he and a colleague had just been to Kings Place (where I work) to see a gallery space there for an exhibition later this year on Argentinian comics - something else to look forward to.

The talk was a tremendous success for me with a lot of learning during the long discussion session and then a chance to speak to all of the creators afterwards.

It was interesting to learn that all the creators approached their art in different ways.

Some were completely chaotic just jumping in to the story with no real plan and working on individual pictures, rather than the whole page, so that they then had to be resized and cropped to fit.

The manga Shakespeare adaptations are presented to the artists as 193 pages of dialogue, leaving the artist free to do what they like around this simple constraint.

One had produced an unusual book, Rumble Strip, that deliberately does not have any people in it, not even a narrator, as the success of a story depends on your ability to connect with the characters so having no characters takes this problem away.

Pat Mills (the only writer not artist on the panel) explained the art of planning each page so that they all end with some sort of compelling incident that make you want to turn the page.

The discussion covered much more than this and was illuminating, entertaining and informal. Of particular interest was the work-in-progress samples that all of the creators brought along to show how they approach a character, a scene, a page or a script and how this then developed in to the final product.

But the proof of the pudding is in the shopping and after the talk I bought four books, including Rumble Strip, Twelfth Night and Requiem and had more delightful conversations with the creators while they were signed.

I am really grateful to Comica for organising such great events and, through these, for introducing me to books that I would otherwise have read.

22 January 2010

Kingston Society AGM was a downer

Having become more involved in the Kingston upon Thames Society over the last couple of years I guess that it was only a matter of time before I plucked up the courage to go to one of their Annual General Meetings, and last week I did.

Being an AGM some of the time was dedicated to the business of the society but fortunately the officers' reports were brief and the committee made the election of the new committee by simply nominating themselves and having one vote for all positions. I guess the irony of the need to appeal to members to get more involved that was made later in the meeting was lost on them.

We should have had the mayor there to give a speech but he was unavailable through illness. I was not looking forward to a bland political speech so the absence may have been a good thing.

The meeting then fell into a general discussion about what the society should be doing next year and this is where I started to get depressed as all the debate seemed so negative. The Society is very clear on what it does not like but much less clear on what it does.

For example, we had a long discussion on housing (on the pretext of trying to think of speakers for future meetings) and it seems that we don't want houses infilling between other houses or in open spaces, so I am not sure where we do want them.

Indeed the Society has now made being negative it's mission and the new recruitment leaflet (which I am sure will be just as (un)successful as the last one) appeals for people who are unhappy with their surroundings. I find this odd as I joined because I am interested in my surroundings (good and bad) and the Society is a good way of keeping informed.

Incidentally, we were also reminded in the meeting that the Society covers the whole borough, including the local centres Surbiton, New Malden, Tolworth and Chessington, but the new leaflet has drawings of seven local landmarks all of which are in Kingston town centre.

I have been mostly happy with the Society for the many years that I have been a member but this meeting has made me question why I am a member. It looks as though I should either leave or try and change it. I don't like quitting so that's an easy choice!

19 January 2010

Playing games

I am intrigued that playing games is a regular theme across the range of podcasts that I listen to, such as the TED talk Stuart Brown says play is more than fun, the RSA talk on Why games are the 21st century’s most serious business and IBM Developerworks on Serious games.

What unites these talks is the way that game playing helps in real world situations but what differs is the way that it does this which includes, for example, by building leadership skills or enabling simulations of events like the outbreak of a serious virus.

Games have also been a significant factor in the growth of Facebook where almost everybody I know plays some sort of game be it something "serious" like chess or scrabble or something more frivolous like Mafia Wars or Farmville.

I have a foot in both camps as I play both chess and Farmville!

What I like about Farmville is that it is a very open game which, rather like a large box of mixed Lego bricks, lets you do anything you like within the confines of some very lose rules around the planting and harvesting of crops, flowers and trees.

It's also a social game (as opposed to a competitive one) in that you are encouraged to make friends and to help them by working on their farms and sending them gifts.

But I mostly use it to make coloured patterns out of lavender, red wheat, sunflowers, coffee, etc.

In many ways it's not unlike Kings of Chaos that I played for a few years in that most of the game's objectives were personal, it has to be played regularly to work and there is some interaction with friends. So, bizarrely, being a gentle farmer is not unlike being a violent elf.

I don't know how all this makes me a more effective or nicer person but I'll accept all the testimony from the learned speakers mentioned above and believe that it does!

17 January 2010

Carpet Crawlers at The Peel

It's a well known fact that 70's music is the best and that prog rock is one of the reasons for this. Sadly most of the bands that played then are either dead, retired or too rich to play these days and so the many tribute bands are the closest that we can get to reliving those glory days.

So when the House of Progression at The Peel announced a show by the Carpet Crawlers it went straight into my diary.

Carpet Crawlers recognise that one of the things that made Genesis legends was the grand performances that they put on, starting with Peter Gabriel's costumes and acting then on to the light shows of Seconds Out, so this is a large part of what they do - even in a small place like The Peel.

Their act is in two parts with the early era first and then a short break and a change of tempo to the Phil Collins era with songs I'd never heard of before.

Part 1 was, as expected, a joyous ramble through the early catalogue with songs like Watcher of the Skies, Supper's Ready (all of it!) and a medley from the Lamb Lies down on Broadway (oddly without Carpet Crawlers).

Part 2 was all new to me but I appreciated the extended instrumental sections that clearly descended from Genesis' progressive origins. I was rather expecting to hear at least one of the classic ballads from Trick of the Tail, i.e. Entangled and Ripples, but all we got from their last great album (my personal prejudice) was Los Endos which, not surprisingly, closed the show.

There is a great deal going for Carpet Crawlers, the show is well planned and delivered and they really do look and sound a lot like Genesis. But that is their problem too because thirty years on the Genesis songs do not stand-up to close examination in the same way that, say, those from Yes and Pink Floyd do.

15 January 2010

Parking charges approved for Royal Parks :-)

The immediate reaction to today's news that car parking charges are to be introduced in Richmond Park has been overwhelmingly hostile.

For example, Shadow London minister Justine Greening said, “Richmond Park will become the preserve of the rich", and there has been some groaning on Twitter.

So I just wanted to publicly support these charges and to explain why they are a good idea.

Put simply, I believe that parks are for people, not cars. I want to see fewer cars in Richmond Park (which I can see through my study window as I write this) and if introducing parking charges discourages people from driving there then that is excellent news.

The whole point of Richmond Park is that it is a natural park and cars have no part to play in that. Attractions like Chessington World of Adventures need large car parks and having them does not impact on the reason for going there, but in Richmond Park they do.

If the discouraged motorists chose to walk or cycle there instead then that is even better.

There is also the side benefit of the extra income from the charges which can only be a benefit to the park and it's visitors.

Richmond Park was an unwelcoming mess until not that long ago but then they closed Robin Hood Gate and, later on, reduced the speed to 20mph, and now we can look forward to reduced use of the (over large) car parks.

Each of the other changes were introduced against wails of protest about the impact on the neighbouring areas and it was nonsense every time. Just as it will prove to be with the parking charges.

This is another step forward for the park which, as a local resident and regular visitor, I warmly welcome.

14 January 2010

Zlaty Bazant

My knowledge of Slavic languages remains limited despite the years spent in Prague and the amount of time spent with Czech and Slovaks since then but I do know that "Zlaty Bazant" means "Golden Pheasant", though you could argue that the picture on the label is bit of a clue.

What the picture does not tell you is that it is a smooth drink from Slovakia that is now available at the Czechoslovak National House in West Hampstead.

I was there for the monthly BCSA "Get to Know You" Social which is an informal meet-up for anybody who thinks that they have Czech/Slovak connections or who just fancy some regional beer and food.

The Zlaty Bazant made a change from my usual Pilsner Urquell but, that apart, it was a typical social with a healthy mix of regulars and newcomers that leads to stimulating conversations.

I go to a number of regular meetings each month, all of which have a large element of fun - otherwise I would not keep going to them, but the BCSA socials are something special and I'll be trekking off to West Hampstead on 10 February to greet some more golden pheasants.

12 January 2010

Making London Legible

Thanks to Twitter, I was alerted by a colleague from the London Information and Knowledge Exchange (LIKE) of a talk organised by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). I know that none of that sounds like fun but bear with me.

The talk was by Tim Fendley of the Applied Information Group (AIG, to keep the acronyms going) who described the Legible London project that his company is working on.

The aim of the project is to make London more legible to it's main users, pedestrians. And the main way of doing this is through vastly improved signage, such as that shown here.

But signage is not easy and Tim explained the research, design and testing that went on over a few years to produce signs that work.

There was also a lot of lobbying to do to get to the situation where all the stakeholders (primarily TfL and the London boroughs) would agree to the designs. One of the main issues here was resolving boundary issues, such as where does Fitzrovia end and Bloombury start?

The new signs also have to meet the requirements of purposeful and casual pedestrians and also those who know nothing of the local area and those who know a lot.

Ledgible London is also looking at the existing signage to try and introduce some consistency and Tim showed lots of current bad examples that proved the point that something needs to be done. One, hopefully simple, part of this is getting the local boroughs to ensure that all streets have road signs, like they are supposed to.

Tim impressed throughout the talk with his knowledge of the subject and his enthusiasm for explaining cities. It was just what I hope for but even more so.

Other factors that made the evening work well were the location (The Sekforde Arms in Clerkenwell), the unexpected free food and the intelligent company (including two people who work in the same building as me but for another company). I'll be back for more.

11 January 2010

Fabulous FreakAngels

My two very favourite comics at the moment are both (very) English and part of that means that they come out every week. How good is that?!

I heaped well deserved praise on 2000AD recently and now it's the time to return to the truly magnificent FreakAngels from the truly magnificent Warren Ellis.

When I last wrote about FreakAngels, back in October, we were approaching the dramatic end of Volume 3. That situation has yet to fully resolve itself (I'm trying not to any spoilers here) but Volume 4 breaks the chronology and takes us back not quite to the beginning of the beginning but but certainly to the end of beginning and possibly to the beginning of the end.

FreakAngels is a post apocalyptic story and this picture shows some of the apocalypse in motion. Once again Paul Duffield's art is allowed to tell the story unsullied by spurious word balloons or unnecessary narrative. This is a story telling team working brilliantly together when they are already rather good individually. This is what makes FreakAngels work.

And the counter-intuitive marketing still seems to be working. You can, and I do, read FreakAngels for free every week, but I also but the collected volumes as soon as they come out for easier rereading.

I am not sure where Warren Ellis is going with the story, at the very least we have all those loose ends from Volume 3 to tidy-up but I hope that there is a lot more to come than just that. But, wherever the story goes from here, I'm along for the ride as it continues to surprise, delight, confound and entertain.

9 January 2010

The ABC Warriors are back!!

I was going to write about some other comics but then this week's 2000AD arrived and the plot changed.

Prog 1666 see the start of the latest saga of the ABC Warriors, which started waaaay back in 1979, is Book IV of The Volgan War.

It's a year since Book III (how did that happen?) and the warriors have been greatly missed, because Pat Mills writes scorching scripts and Clint Langley is just an insanely good artist.

So good is the art that I was compelled to take a photo of a double page spread last time that I wrote about it and I've done it again today.

This is why 2000AD continues to be the first comic that I read every week.

7 January 2010

Cosy night at the Grey Horse

The Grey Horse used to be conveniently situated between my house and Kingston Station and town centre which made it a good choice for a quick pint on the way home after an arduous day of working or shopping.

But I moved away from the area thirteen years ago and so my visits have become much less frequent. My last visit there was back in June and that was to see Hoaxwind play in the music room at the back of the pub.

I was summoned back there this week for an open mike night which one friend was participating in and another wanted to see. These sessions are held in the main bar which makes them much more informal and also free!

We settled ourselves on a long bench by the door and I made the obvious choice of Winter Warmer as my companion for the evening.

There were two distinct groups in the pub, students aged 19 to 21 and old fogies aged over 50. Guess which group I was in!

But this age difference quickly disappeared with the first students to the mike choosing to play old songs like Hotel California. Each act was limited to three songs but at the end of the evening a few were allowed a second turn.

The music was quite varied with lots of songs familiar to me, e.g. Creep by Radiohead, some new to me, e.g. stuff by Richard Thompson, and a few presented there for the first time. Most turns had two guitars but there were solo acts and a drummer too - he was asked by some of the other performers to accompany them unrehearsed which he did well and so won my unofficial award for musician for the evening.

At some point in the evening the accumulation of Winter Warmers collided with a stirring rendition of Bowie's Starman and even I was compelled to join in the singing.

The snow fell gently outside all evening while the musicians played and I enjoyed the sounds, the company and the atmosphere before trudging home happy.

4 January 2010

A welcome return for Hustle

Having been made to wait two years for series 5 we now have series 6 following in almost unseemly haste less than a year later. For fans like me that is excellent news.

Series 6 carries on where series 5 left off with the same cast and the same slick scripts that keep Hustle warmly back at their roots, in London doing classy scams to deserving victims while the police circle impotently.

Hustle creator Tony Jordan was at the scriptwriting helm for the first episode and he delivered in spades.

Even though you believed (or hoped) that the gang would avoid prison, it was wonderful to see how they did it and there were lots of tense moments and laughs along the way.

And the news gets even better with the release of series 5 on DVD next week (my Amazon order was placed months ago).

After the bitter disappointment of Day of the Triffids, it is good to be able to compliment the BBC on producing some excellent drama. Hustle is a real treat in a bleak schedule that otherwise seems to be lying comatose waiting for the return of Dr Who.

2 January 2010

Feasting on Avatar in 3D

I do not tend to go to the cinema that often but it is the holiday season and Avatar 3D is on so it seemed like a good way to spend a Saturday evening. Preceded by the usual visit to Pizza Express, of course.

Apart from the graphics I was not sure what to expect. What Avatar delivers in spades is a visual feast with just enough of a plot, simple and obvious though it is, to hang it all together for a thrilling two and a half hours.

The CGI is stunning, so much so that I was not sure at times if we were looking at real faces or computer generated ones.

But if the faces were good then the scenery and animals were even better.

The alien flora and fauna reminded me of the alien worlds that sprung from Philip Jose Farmer's fertile imagination, and that's a compliment to the creative minds that devised them.

The landscapes were also fantastic but floating mountains and large stone archways reminded me of Roger Dean's fantasy art that adorns many of my favourite albums for the 1970s when prog rock ruled (and rightly so).

I've shown here just a couple of examples of Roger Dean's work that are similar to scenes in Avatar but there are twenty eight examples at io9.com.

Roger Dean's own website also recognises the issue without making a direct comment; it simply suggests that you do a google search for "avatar roger dean" and draw your own conclusion. I'm convinced.

I'm less convinced about the 3D. There were no spears thrown into the audience or other such extreme effects but there did seem to be a greater depth to the image and some objects, such as the airborne seeds, did seem to hover above the audience.

I will just have to watch it in 2D next time to spot the differences. Hopefully they will not be that big otherwise I'll be forced to buy a 3D home entertainment system before too long!

But, the minor quibbles do not detract from what is a great cinematic experience. Avatar 3D has set a new standard for visual impact and I am delighted that I have had the opportunity to savour it.

1 January 2010

The Lady or the Tiger at the Orange Tree

The seasonal show at the Orange Tree Theatre is the amusing musical The Lady or the Tiger, making a welcome return to the theatre after a long absence.

The evening got off to an unexpectedly bad start as due to the vagaries of the Orange Tree's on-line booking system we got tickets for upstairs without realising that we had done so until we arrived to pick them up. They need to get that fixed.

That said, an upstairs seat is better than no seat at all and the performance that we went to had been sold out for some time.

Being banished to the gallery was not such a hardship for this performance as the set was unbelievably minimal (that box was it) and the cast made an effort to engage with all of the audience, including us looking down on them.

They even managed to get me to join in the sing-along song in the second half, and to do all the arm gestures too!

The Lady and the Tiger has a simple plot that revolves around a small cast.

The story is set in a kingdom ruled by a childish and despotic king who has decreed that his citizens must be killed when they reach 65.He is aided by his bumbling Prime Minister who also acts as the play's narrator. The king has a young daughter who is desperate to be let off the leash at 25 and who falls for a travelling minstrel.

The kings latest wheeze is to replace courts by giving the prisoner a choice of two doors, behind one is a tiger and the other one has a lady.

A victim is needed for the grand opening and the minstrel gets selected just because he is there.

The princess discovers which door and the tiger and which has the lady and has to make the choice between losing her love to his certain death or to another lady.

Despite the serious setting and theme, it's actually a comedy - the sort you laugh out loud during.

The excellent cast made the most of their characters to keep the humour bubbling along nicely.

Most of the story was carried in the songs with relatively little spoken dialogue between them. Individually the songs were fairly simple, especially the nursery rhyme that we all sang along to, but several of the musical themes were repeated effectively to make the overall experience stimulating as well as fun.

And fun is what the play is all about, which makes it an excellent choice for the holiday season, especially when delivered with the Orange Tree's usually professionalism and panache.