28 February 2011

Dickens upon Thames

This month's Kingston upon Thames Society meeting looked at Charles Dickens' local connections through his life and his works.

Our guide for the evening was Dr David Parker, former Curator of the Dickens Society, who told an interesting story with the authenticity of a rich scholarly vein behind it.

The talk started with gentle introduction to Charles Dickens and the Thames which, being an important part of London at that time was clearly an important part of many of his books that are set there. This was illustrated with pictures from some of his books, they were "The River" from David Copperfield, "The Ferry" and "Floating Away" from Little Dorritt and "up the River" from The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

We then moved on from Central London to the Richmond area which then counted as in the country (some say it still does!). An interesting comment from Dickens was that Richmond Green was a "wild and desolate place". Again, some might still agree.

Dickens' main local connection comes from the summers he spent here in 1836 and 1839. We do not know where he stayed in '36 but in '39 he stayed at Elm Cottage in Petersham. This now calls itself Elm Lodge, a claim to grandeur that I'm not sure it deserves.

Here one of the local pleasures was the Petersham Races, believed to be held in what is now the water meadows.

Another presumable pleasure was being invited to dinner at the nearby Woodbines Cottage (also still here) by two ladies who grew their social skills across the water at Strawberry Hill with Horace Walpole.

We also learnt that the building of Teddington Lock in 1811 opened the upper reaches of the Thames to boat traffic and Dickens used this route regularly to go to Slough where he had a lady friend safely a long way out of town.

It was good to come out of a Kingston Society meeting having learnt quite a lot about the local area from an acknowledged expert as that's exactly why I go to their meetings.

26 February 2011

Cirque du Soleil's Totem at the Royal Albert Hall

I was obviously aware of Cirque du Soleil but somehow had not managed to get to a show before so when a ticket offer came up at work I took the opportunity.

Somehow I had also managed to miss the Royal Albert Hall since Paul Weller's Live Wood tour way back in 1993 so this was also an opportunity to renew acquaintances.

It was an after work event so the first priority was to find some food. The Hoop and Toy was far too busy, and the beer was not up to much either, so I headed round the corner to Sole Luna for an imaginative choice of a Fiorentina Pizza and a glass of wine that did the job.

Queen Victoria inconveniently built the Royal Albert Hall as some distance from any tube station so it was a lazy shuttle bus from South Ken to the venue that was already surrounded by then as people queued up at the various entrances that ring the building.

I had completely forgotten what the RAH looked like from the inside so I took a photo of it!

The RAH was the steep sides of an opera house with some stall seating sweeping towards the middle where the centre is hollowed out according to the needs of the show. This night it was a high stage for circus.

Clustered almost randomly around the stage were some other seats, just normal chairs placed there to fill the gaps, and I was in one of those with a good close-up view of the performance.

The little that I knew about Cirque du Soleil was that it was an old circus (sans animals) with a lot of emphasis on the presentation. Brash Las Vegas comes to genteel Knigtsbridge.

And that's rather what we got.

The Totem website makes claims that it was inspired by founding myths and traces the journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly but while that may have been the excuse for the linking pieces and some of the costumes the theme was, in all honesty, irrelevant to the proceedings.

The series of acts that we presented with were mostly familiar circus acts delivered with some style.

Some of the acts were more familiar than other and despite not having seen many circus acts before I was surprised at just home familiar they were. So while they were done well there was little to get excited about with the Chinese unicyclists, balancing pole or the foot jugglers. They all lacked the wow factor.

The second half was a lot better for me and three acts really stood out. First there were the roller skaters spinning quickly and wildly within a small circle and then the juggler who started normally but then moved in to an inverted cone and the act transformed in to something really special.

Last up was the Russian Bar, a cross between a trampoline and a balancing act that threw the performers high in to the air expecting them to land on a bendy plank. Somehow they did to the surprise and delight of an enthralled audience.

The whiz-bang finished helped to compensate for some of the formulaic acts that had gone before and lifted the evened overall from average to good. But not quite good enough to make me think about going back to see it again.

23 February 2011

Lunchtime stroll

My usual lunch break consists of a walk of all of 50m to either Pret or EAT and then back again but occasionally the schedule and the weather permit me to stretch my legs a little bit more and to explore the mean streets and parks of Victoria.

I like the ordered streets of tidy mansion blocks, cottages and mansions to the south towards the river but today I headed north for the open spaces of St James' Park.

While the streets around Victoria are clogged with office fodder squeezing lunchtime errands into tight schedules the area around St James is full of tourists leisurely ticking Buckingham Palace and Horse Guards Parade off their to-do lists.

I'm slightly impressed that somebody managed to convince so many of them to visit London in February. I think I'd rather be where most of them come from.

The first defining feature of the park is the large lake that conveniently creates a circular route for those of us looking for exercise rather than memories. The bridge across it offers a figure of 8 route with long views towards both Buckingham Palace and the EDF Energy London Eye.

The other defining feature is the pod of pelicans that live on an island in the lake. You can see one of them here.

20 February 2011

Beachy Head at Jacksons Lane

Normally with my theatre reviews I describe the show and lead up to a conclusion but this time I'll start with the summary to make sure you get there.

Beachy Head is one of the very best things I have ever seen in a theatre.

Having made that bold claim I'll try and justify it.

Jacksons Lane is a long way from home but it's next door to Highgate underground station so it's fairly easy to get to. I came across it only recently through my Czech/Slovak connections and I went there to see e Slovak Dance Theatre perform their version of Carmen. That was good too. And that was enough to sign up for the Jacksons Lane newsletter which is how I heard about Beachy Head.

The clincher was the video clip that the newsletter pointed me to.

This seemed like just the sort of quirky and innovative production that I like so it was quickly booked.

Arriving straight from work I took advantage of the neat cafe and reception area to have a panini and the traditional bottle of Becks (often the only drinkable beer at theatres).

Fed and watered it was time to grab a good seat for the show.

The play opens with a Doctor talking to camera with her back to the audience with the picture projected on the back of the stage so that we could see here. Things got a little weirder when I could see myself in that picture.

The doctor tells us about suicides and so the scene is set.

The story revolves around a suicide at Beachy Head that is accidentally captured on film by some film makers planning on doing something on lighthouses. They decide that the short clip of the man's leap would make a good centre point of a film and so, after some agonising, they try to find out more.

That brings them in touch with the young widow who is (understandably) struggling to come to terms with her loss and sees working with the film makers as a way of helping her. They do not tell her that they have the film of her husband and that leads to further tensions.

The doctor returns as the dispassionate voice of reason talking first to the wife and then to the film makers. This device works very well to both provide as with information, much as a narrator would, and also to provide moments or respite from the
high emotion of the story.

At first we see the husband as just a memory, a ghost even, that the wife sees around the house doing the familiar things she is used to him doing.

The story then proceeds in several directions, or times, simultaneously. We see the development of the film which shows us more of the past while the Doctor adds her detail from time to time.

The tension grows as we learn more about the husband through a story he was writing and he starts to appear more to tell his side of things.

There is one particularly dramatic scene where the husband calls the Samaritans from the cliff top. The dialogue is convincing and depressing. We know how it ends.

The play ends as it started with the doctor talking to us quietly and calmly and suddenly the emotion has nowhere else to go except in rapturous applause for a stunning performance.

Some of the expected pyrotechnics promised by the video were delivered and they added something to the show but they were never became the point, that was left to the story.

So, a sympathetic story about suicide turned out to be surprisingly wonderful on many levels and gelled in to a truly remarkable and memorable experience.

18 February 2011

BCSA "Get to know you" Social

There must be a slight risk of me becoming predictable or even, heaven forbid, a little boring.

The second Wednesday of the month is the usual date of the BCSA "Get to know you" Social where a few of us gather to chat, eat and drink. Elements of my evening are so repetitive that they are becoming recognised traditions.

I start the evening with a pint of Pilsner Urquell in a jug.

I dally over the menu, size up the options and then choose Smazeny Syr anyway. The waitress knows that I am going to do this before I do.

As the evening progresses I go on to bottled Zlaty Bazant which comes with its own special glass which I am always amazed has not walked out under somebody's jacket.

At some point my camera comes out and I experiment with the settings and with composition. This is sepia.

The evening starts reasonably early and I am normally there a little before 7pm but it is always a rush to catch the train that goes just after 11pm. Seasonal timetable changes are a big risk here but there is always the long way home via the tube if I do miss the last train.

The shape and form of the evening is familiar but what makes the evenings special is the different mix of people that come each month and the different conversations that flow as a result.

17 February 2011

A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic

Another theatre offer via work saw me back at the Old Vic this time for a classic French Farce by Georges Feydeau and translated by John Mortimer.

I had seen mixed reviews of the play but a farce is a farce so I went with reasonable hopes of being entertained if not intellectually stretched.

The 507 bus took me almost door-to-door from the office to the theatre and so I arrived early enough to get a seat in the Pit Bar and to eat one of the British Railway standard cheese and tomato sandwiches. The Staropramem lager was a welcome find though.

Going in to the theatre was something of a shock as it was nothing like I remembered it from just a couple of years ago for Complicit. Then the layout of the theatre was proscenium style with clusters of chairs around it but this time it was a typical Victorian theatre with the emphasis on decoration rather than comfort.

The set, a reception room in a grand house, started to allay any fears about the production and it was only the presence of some of the most attentive and dedicated camera-spotters that I've seen in a theatre that prevented me from taking a photo of it. Pity, because I liked the set and cannot find a photo of it on the internet.

The play quickly introduces us to the main characters and the first plot device. The wife of the house suspects her husband of being unfaithful to her and devises a plan to test this. She gets a friend to write to her husband inviting him to an assignation at a hotel with an ill reputation. The friend's husband then arrives and recognising his wife's handwriting things she is up to no good.

Add to this the family doctor and a nephew with a speech impediment (both of whom use the hotel), a manservant with ideas above his station and a gentleman with designs on the wife and the scene is set for the farce. End of Act 1.

Act 2 takes us to the hotel where farce reigns in typical fashion.

People come and go, hiding from each other as they do so, the many doors open and close and confusion triumphs. It may be reasonably predictable but it is delivered with aplomb and the laughter is sincere and continuous. It is genuinely funny.

The misunderstandings which sent the characters to the hotel are resolved in a riotous end to the act but the play's defining feature is that the devises that initiate the farce are them supplemented by another.

The bellboy at the hotel turns out to be the spitting image of the husband. A deceit portrayed simply by getting one actor to play both roles.

Here we see the husband dressed as the bellboy (all part of the story) attacking his wife's amour when earlier the bellboy dressed as the husband had ignored the dalliance.

When the first set of misunderstandings collapse in the hotel the participants flee and gradually they all return to the grand house where the doppelgänger ploy is played out beautifully.

As you might expect, it all ends happily in the end with only minor consequences. Then the audience claps and cheers long and enthusiastically in recognition that they have been royally entertained for a couple of hours. And there is not a lot wrong with that.

14 February 2011

SFX Weekender: Beyond the US - The wider world of comics

The final session I saw at SFX Weekender looked beyond superhero comics at how the medium can be much more than that and took examples from beyond the UK and USA to show that.

Bryan Talbot was on the panel again (no problem with that) where we was joined by Pat Mills (not pictured) and two others who's names I did not catch as I had rushed upstairs to but Heart of Empire for Bryan to sign (which he did!).

All of the panellists told stories of how comics flourish in other countries which was both encouraging as it showed that the is some really good stuff out there but also dispiriting in that it can be hard to find even if you start looking for it in a comic shop.

Indeed comic shops came in for a fair deal of criticism for sticking unintelligently to the USA format and not learning about and promoting other material.

There are some exceptions and nice things were said about Page 45 in Nottingham, OK Comics in Leeds and Gosh in London.

We were also given some tips on where to start our own comics adventures and I'll be trying out Persepolis, Blacksad, Maus, Phonogram, Laika and Mouse Guard before too long.

Interestingly most of these are anthropomorphic (ok, so Laika was a real dog) but it was not just Bryan that was recommending them.

Another interesting panel discussion and this time one with real value as were given tantalising glimpses of the rich world of comics and shown the first steps to take to get there.

13 February 2011

SFX Weekender: Tie-in and shared universe fiction

The session on tie-in and shared universe fiction might not have been the sort of thing that I went to SFX Weekended for but it sounded interesting enough and it meant that I could keep my hard-won front-row seat for this and the following session too.

There were a couple of names I knew on the panel; I've read several of Dan Abnett's stories in 2000AD and in various Marvel Comics (e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy) and I'd seen Ben Arronovitch on the Dr Who panel earlier that day.

There were a few times that day when panellists were repeated, but that's a good thing when the panellists contribute knowledgeably and appropriately. There was no repeating of favourite stories here.

The conversation flowed immediately and we were treated to many insights in to the life of a writer working within the boundaries set by other people.

And perhaps the most interesting aspect of this was the way that a pre-defined world and characters takes some of the hard work away from authors, leaving space to play with the story.

The differences between canonical stories and spin-offs filled a large part of the session. During this Stephen Baxter produced an old Stingray book that I recognised as I have a copy in the attic!

We also learnt that Dan Abnett had been commissioned to write a Primeval story that the producers wanted to tell but which would have been too expensive to do on TV.

There are various reasons why copyright owners want to extend their franchise in to print media ranging from the obvious one of making more money from the brand to finding a way to keep fans engaged when the main product is not available.

The obvious example here is Dr Who that was kept going for several years in books and audio. Similarly the Warhammer books let game players in to the world of space Marines and Tyranids from places other than Games Workshop.

From the author's perspective there is the need to play within the rules and that's a question of getting the tone right (would the character behave like that?) as well as the continuity. And the continuity problem is getting bigger all the time as the back-catalogue grows. Imagine how much a new Dr Who or X-Men writer has to read and watch.

Ben Aaronvitch also made the interesting point that writing within a shared universe means a writer has other people they can talk to about their story, e.g. to discuss exactly how a character would behave in a given situation.

So what I initially treated as a fill-in session proved to be much more than that and I learnt a lot and gained even more respect for authors.

Debating the Alternative Vote (AV)

In recent weeks I've become a little embroiled in the Alternative Vote debate on Twitter.

The debate there is very limited, not because of the 140 character limit, but because most of the vocal protagonists (particularly on the #yes2av side) just throw blandishments like "fairer", "better" and "reform" around as if vocabulary was a fair substitute for debate.

And so I was easily tempted to go to a real debate on the topic organised by the UCLU Debating Society.

I had been to a few events at UCL before, mostly in connection with SSEES, but this was my first time in the magnificent Wilkins Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre.

Getting there was something of an achievement in itself as UCL is as well signposted as most hospitals and there were obstacles like a keep fit class along the way.

Arriving early meant a good choice of seats (on the end of a row about a third of the way up) and also time for a little wine kindly provided by the society.

This was billed as a public event but, apart from the speakers, I'm pretty sure that I was the only non-student there. It was a little weird so it's lucky that I don't get fazed by things like that.

The speakers for the motion, This House Would vote YES to AV, were Jonathan Bartley and Murad Qureshi AM (2nd and 1st right) who were opposed by Dr. Robert McIlveen and Stephen Parkinson (3rd and 4th right).

This was a formal debate, rather than a discussion and normal debating rules regarding length of speeches, interruptions and rights or reply.

The disappointment was immediate with Jonathan Bartley's opening remarks repeating the familiar vague claims and also the misleading claim of needing a majority of votes to win.

Robert McIlveen responded well by pointing out that AV will make no difference at all in the 1/3rd of seats that are already held with over 50% of the vote going to one party.

He also pointed out that a more complicated voting system will work against the less intelligent to which Murad Qureshi later responded by saying that it was OK for these people to vote with a single X. An appalling attitude.

The AV leads to PR claim was also demolished to complete a very convincing speech by Robert McIlveen.

Sound-bite of the evening went to the Nos with "AV moves us from wasted votes to wasted elections" as coalitions will means, as we have seen with the current administration, the policies we voted for being discarded by politicians in favour of agreements made behind closed doors.

The debate livened up a little when the audience were allowed there say. Unfortunately most of these were written beforehand and so were unrelated to what had gone before. For example, one speaker argued that AV would lead to PR when this had already been dismissed.

The two best speakers were both for abstaining on the vote. One pointed out that the debate was not being taken seriously by the government as they had put the referendum on the same date as other elections that the political parties would give priority to. Another said, quite rightly, that nobody had explained why AV changes anything.

The lowest point of the evening came in Jonathan Bartley's closing remarks when he mentioned his disabled son meeting David Cameron for no apparent reason.

The evening recovered a little after that when I joined some of the student in the nearby The Bar @ TCR for some closing drinks.

If this is a sign of the standard of debate that we can expect over the next three months then politics is going to be the loser, whatever the result of the referendum.

12 February 2011

History Boys at the Rose Theatre

Only three months after visiting the Rose Theatre in Kingston I was back there to see another comedy.

Somehow I had not seen History Boys before, on stage or on screen, but I knew some of Alan Bennett's work (and not just his readings of Winnie the Pooh either) so had some idea of what to expect.

The Rose Theatre as a venue still disappoints. The reception area gives every appearance of being an odd area left over after the theatre was built that could have housed props or costumes but somebody decided to put a bar in there instead. They should have put one or two more bar staff and a wider choice of drinks as well so that I would not have to wait so long just to get a bottle of Beck's.

Inside the theatre itself a reasonable, but not full, crowd ignored the unfinished look that other venues manage to carry with more confidence and settled down to be entertained.

History Boys tells the story of a class of boys at a grammar school who, having got good A Level results are now trying for Oxford. The school does not have a strong record here and so the desperate Head brings in an additional teacher just to coach them for this.

Their current history teacher, Hector, wants the boys to gain knowledge for its own sake and also wanders wildly off the curriculum. In one extreme example the boys act out a visit to a brothel in French.

Hector also has a reputation for fondling the boys as he gives them lifts on his motorbike but they accept this (and even enjoy it in some cases) and they take it in turns to ride with him.

The new teacher, Irwin, admires the boys' knowledge but calls all their essays dull, or worse, as all they have done is regurgitate facts. He encourages the boys to look at historical events from another perspective and even gets them to question the standard assumptions about the Holocaust, for which he gets a written complaint from a Jewish boy's parents.

The play explores themes of knowledge, sexuality, honesty, race and class. Rather what you would expect from Alan Bennett.

The story flows nicely. It's mostly linear but with a couple of flash-forwards to let us see how some of the characters developed.

Irwin is the strongest single character but the stretch of the play is in the ensemble of boys who speaking intelligently and wittily and who also do some song and dance routines that entertain and also provide a break from the relentlessly quick dialogue.

History Boys is amusing throughout and is often funny too in a laugh-out-loud way and while there is nothing especially consequential in any of its musings its also serious enough and intelligent enough to keep the Guardian reading Radio 4 listeners very happy.

11 February 2011

SFX Weekender: Bryan Talbot on the anthropomorphic tradition

Having got a back seat for the previous session I was well placed to leap for a front-row seat when the sessions changed and Bryan Talbot returned for his solo set.

This was the third time in little over a year that I seen Bryan give his talk on "Grandville and the Anthropomorphic Tradition" and it still informs and entertains.

The story does change a little each time, when I asked Bryan about the presentation beforehand he said that this version had more pictures of funny animals, and so it did.

It also had all the old pictures too which gives me the excuse to pick the Kamandi one this time.

As always, Bryan spoke quickly, clearly, intelligently, knowledgeably, charmingly and enthrallingly on a subject he is clearly very interested in. There is so much content in the talk that it easily bears a second and a third listening.

I got the impression that SFX saw this session as something of a filler, something ready on the shelf that they could reuse, but that mattered not to me as I was just delighted to be able to see the talk again and from the front-row too.

The only disappointment at that time was that I was unable to get Bryan to sign Heart of Empire due to my complete failure to buy a copy. That story has a happy ending later.

9 February 2011

SFX Weekender: Dual Britannia

In the second year at secondary school (that's year 8 in new money) there was a period when the boys ran from one class to the next to get the envied desk in the back corner by the window. Winning that was a badge of honour but it also put you in last place in for the next race facing the prospect of a desk at the front next to the teacher.

And so it was that my front row seat for the first two sessions of the day turned in to a pretty poor one when I had to move downstairs to the Screening Zone for the next session.

Never mind.

In Dual Britannia authors who had presented alternative Englands (particularly Londons) discussed the attractions, approaches and issues in doing so.

This was a fascinating talk for me, particularly as the only author who's work I knew was Bryan Talbot.

Over the next half hour or so several ideas emerged, some of which were slightly at odds with each other due to the authors' different perspectives.

London has familiar landmarks, e.g. Big Ben or Crystal Palace, that can be morphed in to new realities to mix reality with fantasy.

London has real places that suggest fantasy. A good example of this was Neil Gainman's Neverwhere which reinterpreted places like Earl's Court, Old Bailey and Knightsbridge.

There are alternative Londons (fantasy) and obscure Londons (real).

Michael Moorcock is generally though of as the inventor of alternative but similar worlds with his Eternal Champion stories. He invented Steampunk too!

I had reasonable hopes of the Dual Britannia session but these comfortably exceeded due to the wide range of knowledgeable contributions from the diverse panel. This was exactly the sort of thing I went to SFX Weekender to see.

7 February 2011

SFX Weekender: Dr Who panel

Having secured a front-row seat for the first session of the day I stayed there for the second on the popular theme of Dr Who.

On the excellent panel were four writers who have told stories about the good Doctor on TV and in books over a number of years. And this time we had a moderator too to push things along and to keep some sort of structure to the debate.

What followed was a very insightful look at the life of a writer that raked through a large range of subjects including, writing for children and adults, TV and books, then and now, humour and horror, series and episodes, Sarah Jane Adventures, politics, gay role models and lots more besides that I probably should have made a note of at the time.

I especially enjoyed Toby Whithouse's accounts of writing for the modern Doctor where the demands of the audience mean that the pace has to be relentless to keep the kids involved and the plot clever enough to keep their parents involved too.

Toby wrote one of my favourite episode, School Reunion, and he told us how Russell T Davies said that it was too slow at one point and the way to fix that was to kill another child.

And that story hints at the one minor problem that I has with the session. I recognised the story School Reunion because it was set in a school but the Who fans threw episode titles around like confetti and none of the others meant anything to me at all.

Throughout the session, what came through strongly was each writer's passion for writing and for taking that mission seriously through research and planning.

Equally evident was their enthusiasm and the session was lively and totally engaging. I'd not call myself a Whovian (though I never miss the program) but I was totally enthralled by the discussion and was surprised and disappointed when it lost out to time and had to end.

SFX Weekender: 2000AD panel

The fist session on the Saturday of SFX Weekender was on 2000AD and i was not going to miss that!

Driving down from London in the grey morning flecked with intermittent rain still got me there before most of the weekend residents and so I was easily able to get a front row seat for the 2000AD session that started they day at a leisurely 10am.

On stage we had Al Ewing (author of Zombo and Judge Dredd), Leigh Gallagher (artist on Defoe) and Keith Richardson (head of the graphics novel line).

There was no facilitator for this session and that hurt as the session got of to a slow start while the panel worked out what they wanted to talk about.

But these are all creative types and so do not need much prompting to get talking and a few questions from the audience helped too.

And so we learned some things about the new Dredd movie, what it's like to draw him and to write stories for him, the Nikolai Dante saga will end next year, one day soon you'll be able to buy Zombo underpants and, best of all, there's an iPad app on the way.

A bit disjointed and unstructured it may have been but, despite the early out for them and us, the panel entertained and informed easily and before you knew it signals were being passed and it was time for session to end.

I doubt if the session did much to win new fans to 2000AD but those of us who already were fans had a good time.

6 February 2011

Clint Langley is a real star

I had a fun day at the SFX Weekender and in telling that tale I'll start and the end, which was the best bit, thanks to Clint Langley.

I'm a big fan of Clint's artwork for 2000AD and have written about it a few times here over the last couple of years and so I was delighted to see that we was part of the 2000AD delegation.

Sadly I was kept busy in sessions until late in the afternoon and missed Clint's official signing session but I was able to catch him when he returned to the stall not long before it closed. I then expressed my admiration for his art in much the same gushing manner that teenage girls use for the latest boy band, but with slightly less screaming.

Clint was very approachable and signed my copy of ABC Warriors enthusiastically, as author Pat Mills had done earlier, and with the same gold pen.

But the unexpected icing on the already rich cake was the sketch of Slaine that Clint drew for me. It was worth going to SFX just for that.

3 February 2011

Back to Kew (March 2011)

The Sunday morning sun shone unexpectedly bright through the bedroom curtains so a quick decision was made to go to Kew Gardens to exploit it.

The plan of what to do there evolved on the 65 bus en route and coalesced in to a gentle ramble in the north-west corner where priority is given to the trees.

An intrinsic part of the design of the gardens here is the long sight-lines to landmarks like the Pagoda. This less travelled path towards the river takes you past a garden within a garden. The clue is the seats and if you accept the offer of sitting there you can enjoy a small pond heavily planted. Last time I lingered there I saw a few peacocks who were ridiculously hard to spot amongst the vegetation.

Kew Gardens is reassuringly large and encourages you to wander at will. In doing so you see different things or familiar things in different ways. That's why it's special.

1 February 2011

Wandering the corridors of the V&A

The pretext for my latest visit to the V&A was January's Friday Late on the topic of China Through the Looking Glass; but there was a lot more to it than that.

Rejoicing in the amazing feat of getting out of the office as early as 5pm on a Friday I was able to get to the V&A a good hour before the evening event started, which meant more time to explore. And exploration is what the V&A is all about.

My first destination was the Arts and Crafts section located two floors up on the left-hand side of the main entrance. I had not been to that section for a little while and a visit was long overdue.

Heading slowly and erratically along the corridor and its side rooms presents a succession of pictures, models, statues, posters, fabrics and all sorts of other artifacts that suck you along from one to the next.

Soon the reason for choosing that particular corridor is forgotten and is simply irrelevant.

A pleasant surprise waited at the end of the corridor.

Taking a short-cut revealed a side room in the Gothic style of Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. The fireplace gives you some idea of what to expect but the ceiling is even better.

The V&A is a wonderfully bizarre building and that section occupies just two relatively short sides and from there the staircase down takes you conveniently close to the cafe where English Breakfast tea and carrot cake can be found and consumed in ridiculously resplendent rooms.

Then it was time for the China event which, to be honest, proved to be somewhat less than expected and did not take that long to explore. In, or just off, the main entrance were an installation of Chinese dresses, some moving things, chess games with unusual pieces and, er, karaoke.

But what the China event lacked the rest of the V&A more than made up for with its assembly of unusual rooms containing unexpected objects.

Amongst these is the vast Raphael room containing seven enormous cartoons, i.e. designs for tapestries. I have no idea why these are even in this country let alone collected in a single barn-like room in the V&A rather than a gallery, but it works so well that such thoughts slip away and all the matters is that they are there and you've found them.

And keeping up the curating policy that makes the V&A so magnificently shambolic, leading from this gallery is a short flight of steep steps guarded by four extravagant heraldic figures.

After this the turquoise pottery from Uzbekistan is almost expected. It's certainly welcome.

It's this continual discovery of the unexpected that makes each trip to the V&A different. Each visit has the same excitement as the first.

There is one exception to my rule of unplanned exploration and that is the small but perfectly formed architecture section.

The main display area changes gradually and so has something new to offer each time but the real purpose of going back is for the small side room that holds temporary exhibitions.

Currently on show is Underground Journeys: Charles Holden’s designs for London Transport where we can see how some of the most iconic buildings in London were created.

This rough sketch of Highgate Station shows how just a few simple lines can produce a visually striking building that evokes both pride and purpose.

I had the great pleasure a few years ago to go on a tour of the northern reaches of the Piccadilly Line, organised by the London Transport Museum, and was able to see many of these buildings first-hand. The V&A exhibition reminded me why that was such fun.

Somehow a couple of hours had passed with little effort and little pause and it was time to head home and reflect on just what a great treasure the V&A is and how lucky I am to have it so close by.