30 April 2011

Mary Broome at the Orange Tree

Before writing this I quickly reminded myself of all the plays that I have seen at the Orange Tree in recent years. There is a lot of good, and even great, stuff there in a diverse and challenging portfolio.

Mary Broome is an exception in that it disappoints on several levels. I'll try to explain why.

I like to look at three aspects of plays; the writing, the staging and the acting. In this case I'll start with the acting as that was the most successful part of the play.

The two lead characters in Mary Broome are Mary a housemaid and the son of the family that she has a relationship with.

Mary is played by Katie McGuinness who I've written nice things about before for her roles in Nan (2007) and Chains of Dew (2008).

Katie delivers again as Mary Broome the humble but dignified housemaid.

But the star of the show is Jack Farthing as Leonard, the son who seduces, marries and then abandons Mary.

Leonard sees himself as an artist, a writer, and expects the world to look after him because of the beauty he creates. Real work is not for him. He is vain, foppish and aesthete. His language is colourful and often barbed. Jack is utterly convincing in this role.

The acting is the one part of the play that I have no hesitation in recommending.

I found the staging stilted, though I am sure that some of this is down to the weaknesses in the play, which I will come on to.

A big attraction of the Orange Tree is that it is staged in the round and the best plays make use of this. But Mary Broome does not.

The seating arrangement do give you a closeness to the action (I was in a front row as usual) but the engagement was missing. This is in marked contrast with, for example, Once we Were Mothers (2007) where I wrote, "It is like being in the room with her when she goes mad".

The lack of vitality was embarrassingly obvious in the last scene where the daughter of the family (Leonard's sister) stood immobility and silent next to me for quite a long time. I'm sure that we both wondered what she was doing there.

And that leads me to the main problem, the play itself.

In addition to the pointless daughter we had other equally pointless characters in the other son, his fiancée/wife and two friends of the family. Some were used sparingly as an excuse to have a conversation with but none of them added anything meaningful to the story.

Not that there was much of a story either. I gave most of it away earlier (Leonard seduces, marries and abandons Mary) and all that there is to add is that having been abandoned Mary sets off to the new world to make a new life with an old admirer.

None of this comes as a shock and none of it has much of an impact on the characters either who end the play just as they started.

Which leads me to conclude that the real purpose of the play is to show how two very different women, Mary and Leonard's mother, drift aimlessly through life satisfied but never happy. This is revealed to us through the contrasting eyes of two men, Leonard the artist and his stern, traditional and autocratic father.

I left Mary Broome very disappointed with the evening but these things happen and I'm far from losing faith with the Orange Tree. In fact I've already got my ticket for the next play!

28 April 2011

Walking through the grey soul of London

I've spent many a happy hour walking through the unfamiliar streets of London just to explore and discover. Over the years I have learnt a little more about the various parts of London that I have worked in and about the routes between there and the places I visit regularly.

It can come as no surprise then that I found myself on a walk organised by the Museum of London with the theme Walking through the grey soul of London.

I learnt about the walk at a Big Ideas meeting but dallied a little before booking my place and was lucky to get the final ticket for the night that I wanted to go. Clearly there are quite a few people like me out there.

The heart of the tour was Finsbury, the evocative Borough that got swallowed up by Islington in 1965 leaving behind a few faded reminders of its claim on London.

We met in The Harlequin in Arlington Way, just South of The Angel. I thought that the area was new to me but soon in to the walk I realised that we were just behind Saddler's Wells which I have been to several times.

Within a few minutes we had found a brick wall etched with the signs of policemen, learnt that a long wooden pipe brought water from Hertfordshire to a reservoir there and the little gardens were once the New Tunbridge Wells.

After that the journey took many twists and turns and the stories flew at us as we stopped briefly by each strange landmark.

We encountered Finsbury Town Hall, a road settled by Italians, the house where a woman lived to a ripe old age simply by never cleaning anything and a concert hall that became a church.

Pubs were and advertised feature of the walk and a stop at the Coach and Horses in Ray Street let us refuel and rest a little.

It also allowed some of us (not me!) to lie in the road and listen to the vestiges of the Fleet River heading south towards the Thames.

We also learnt that we had been following the route taken by the Artful Dodger when he first me Oliver.

A little further on we met the recently abandoned Post Office train, a collection of spoons stuck to a wall and various other oddities that I failed to note as we headed towards our next rest at the Pakenham Arms on the borders of Bloomsbury.

Flesh was flagging a little then and it was clear that the advertised 9pm finish was impossible and the suggested 9;30 finish was unlikely.

But that mattered little as we embarked on the final and most interesting part of the evening as we headed back towards The Angel before taking an even more convoluted route than before that took us through parks, past workers' cottages that now cost a fortune, to Lenin's former home and other such delights.

By then it was dark but still our guide, Robert Kingham, kept us enthralled with his stories.

By then it was almost 10pm and even though we were all a little tired and hungry it was with some disappointment that we made our final stop of the evening at the Union Tavern, carefully chosen, it seems, to be as far away from any tube station as it is possible to be in London leaving me with a fair walk back to Kings Cross and the Piccadilly Line home.

It was a fabulous evening rich almost to excess with discovery and delights. It could have been tailor-made for me and the rest of the group seemed to enjoy it just as much.

27 April 2011

Big Ideas on Cooperation

This month's Big Ideas discussion on Cooperation got off to a bad start when the billed speaker, Richard Sennett, failed to show. This left Big Ideas. Nathan Charlton and Rich Cochrane to run the show and it also meant a slightly delayed start while they worked out what to do.

I do not know what direction Richard would have take us but Rich opened up a broad canvass from social technologies to human evolution with lots of points in between.

As a result the discussions wandered in many directions, sometimes simultaneously, and, as a group, we failed to focus on any particular aspect of cooperation, much less get to any sort of agreement on it.

That said, it was a good discussion with many people contributing, including a few newcomers, and nobody hogging the debate.

The experimental twitter stream (#BIGI) was a little thin in Danny's absence but other people besides myself made some contributions. This is what we said:

reesmf Technologies like Twitter and Facebook help us to collaborate but the baddies use it too. #bigi

reesmf Collaboration needs a purpose. #bigi

reesmf Connection is not the same as collaboration. #bigi

reesmf Evolution getting lots of name checks but no votes for Marx so far. #bigi

dannyrye @reesmf tolpuddle martyrs. That's *quite* marxist #bigi

reesmf Big Society is looking to change the social framework within which we collaborate. Better than state diktat. #bigi

reesmf Current NHS framework encourages collaboration on research etc. Proposed changes will prevent this. #bigi

reesmf Are there situations where cooperation is better than competition and can we identify rules for this? #bigi

leighblue #bigi interesting debate on cooperation. Though without a clear question, hard to distinguish between coordination, collaboration and co-op.

A few broad themes emerged during the debate, including frameworks, game theory, evolution and economics.

A framework defines the context within which the cooperation happens. In some cases this is very visible, e.g. Facebook defines what we can do with our connections there, but in society as a whole they can be less obvious and generally fall under the headings of expected or acceptable behaviour.

Game Theory shows us that cooperation can be a winning strategy. Professor Martin Nowak's work got a few mentions here. Somebody (must be an academic) had read his books but you can learn all you need to know about his theories from his recent RSA talk.

The discussions on Evolution and Game Theory were linked (by me!). Evolution is driven by variation which means that various strategies are always in play from the outright selfish to the martyr and Game Theory shows us how different strategies will have prominence at different times.

Not quite sure how, or why, we got on to economics but we spent some time talking about the demutalisation of building societies and the privatisation of BT. I think that Rich made the most interesting point here when he asked if we could be considered to be all cooperating within a competitive market.

Words like "good" and "sinister" got quite a few mentions but we failed to identify any inherent goodness or evil in cooperation or competition. The question that left me with (briefly tweeted above) was whether there are identifiable characteristics of situations where cooperation or competition are clearly the better strategies.

For example, can we prove that the health service needs to be cooperative (so that practitioners can share "best practice") and that car manufacturers need to be competitive to drive innovation.

Having written that, it now occurs to be that a difference (or THE difference?) is in the nature of the customer choice; in health we just want the best care and don't mind who fixes us but with our car we all have different desires.

That sounds like a topic for another debate on another day. Perhaps Richard Sennett will make that one.

25 April 2011

Diplomacy on the edge of the EU

The British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) held it's formal Annual General Meeting in April and this was immediate followed by a public talk by Michael Roberts, British Ambassador to Slovakia 2007-10.

The fitting venue was the Slovak Embassy in London and the function room was packed for the event.

Michael Roberts had prepared for the talk well producing both a presentation and typed notes to accompany the pictures. This flair for preparation came through during the talk too as a lot of what he presented was the result of work he did for the Queen's visit to Slovakia.

We were entertained with lots of little stories showing historical links between Britain and Slovakia. Most of these were unknown to us beforehand so it proved to be an informative talk too.

For example, we were told that tapestries from Mortlake in London had been found in Bratislava Castle.

We also heard interesting takes about Englishmen measuring Slovak mountains, attending Slovak royal weddings and spying in Slovakia.

Michael also gave us some of his views on Slovakia which were generally favourable and he intends to remain working in the region even though he has now retired from the diplomatic service.

The city of Kosice came in for particular praise for its beauty and culture, something that more of us will be encouraged to sample when it become the European Capital of Culture in 2013.

The role of the European Union was another interesting facet of his time there as Slovakia become more and more engaged with Europe, leading to it joining the Euro currency zone, then the control that the EU had over Slovakia lessened as it had fewer things that it could threaten to withhold Slovakia from. You have to jump through hoops to get in to the clubs but once you are in then you're a member setting the hoops for the next countries that want to join.

I suspect that Michael Robert could have talked all night about Slovakia but he managed to restrain himself to around an hour. We then had a few questions before breaking up for drinks, nibbles and conversations.

Another highly successful BCSA talk.

24 April 2011

Steven Berkoff's One Man at The Riverside

My current plan to explore London's fringe theatre took me back to The Riverside (Hammersmith) again, this time for Steven Berkoff's one-man show called, er, One Man.

It's a show in two very different halves. In the first half we have Edgar Allan Poe's Tell-Tale Heart and after the break it's "Dog".

It was Tell-Tale Heart that attracted me as I grew up on a feast of Edgar Alan Poe films, usually featuring Vincent Price.

The story of the Tell-Tale Heart was narrated to us by the murderer himself who explained why and how he committed the crime. He also explained to us that he was not mad, as had been suggested to him, though clearly he was.

Steven Berkoff plays the murder with menace, dressed up smartly in black and standing in a harsh spotlight. Sadly I've been unable to find a decent photo of this on the internet and I was unable to take one myself as I was sitting in the front row and so it would have been too obvious (I've been told off at The Riverside before!).

This was a theatrical tour de force. The acting was mesmerising and powerful and we were sucked in to the murderer's dark and distorted world. Genius.

The only slight problem that I had was with some of the audience (particularly one small group of young women) who found some of the man's exaggerated behaviours amusing. I thought that we had all stopped laughing at mental illness. The false humour ill-fitted the mood and story too.

Dog was completely different and you were meant to laugh at that.

Dog gave us a view of the life and thoughts of a middle-aged Millwall fan and his rottweiler told through a series of short scenes.

This was over-the-top chavviness, exaggerated to make the point and to entertain. For example, he drinks thirty four pints of lager when fourteen would have been sufficient for the story.

Steven also plays the role of the dog and we get his view of what it is like to have an owner like that. Mostly the dog starts by swearing and threatening extreme violence but calms down and becomes the submissive dog the owner thinks it always is.

In Tell-Tale Heart the drama came from the story, in Dog it comes from the characterisation. And so, again, there is the slight discomfort that we are laughing at somebody simply because they are not like us and we feel superior to them.

The lack of a story, or of any obvious jokes to compensate, makes Dog the weaker of the two pieces but both are really all about Steven Berkoff's acting, and that's why they are worth seeing.

23 April 2011

The Return of The Thin White Duke (to Petersham)

It was worth going to see The Thin White Duke at the Fox and Duck again just so that I could use the "The Return of The Thin White Duke" heading. (For the uninitiated that's a line from the magnificent Station to Station).

It was also well worth going for the songs of David Bowie as delivered by The Thin White Duke.

This was my second time with The Thin White Duke having first seen them at The Fox and Duck last November.

The only reason that I had gone so long without seeing them again was simply because they had not played locally again since then.

The Fox and Duck suits them well. The performance area is just about the right size for a five-piece band and the locals are good Bowie fans.

The pub gets packed and many people sing along to the songs. Including me.

We even got a few people dancing at end but I was happy to keep out of that. My singing is not up to much but my dancing is even worse.

The Thin White Duke bill themselves as "made by Bowie fans for Bowie fans" and that comes across strongly both in the choice of songs and the enthusiasm of the performance.

Talking to the band reinforced this even further and we were soon talking about band line-ups, producers and even songs from the often overlooked first album, David Bowie, from 1967.

One of the best things about The Thin White Duke is their selection of songs.

Bowie gives you a lot of fantastic songs to choose from, including all the classic singles like Life on Mars, Jean Genie and Fashion but The Thin White Duke avoid playing safe and also give us songs like Lady Stardust, Rock n Roll Suicide and Diamond Dogs.

And I was delighted that they ended the evening with Width of a Circle, the opening tracks from 1970's The Man Who Sold the World. Magnificent.

Pub nights don't get much better than this.

20 April 2011

LIKE 24: Human Library

Apparently it was my idea to do a LIKE meeting on Human Library so it's just as well that I went along.

I vaguely recall making the suggestion a year or so ago. I made it because I had just heard about it and wanted to learn more. In all other respects I was a Human Library novice, just like most of the people collected in the upstairs room of The Crown Tavern, Clerkenwell for a LIKE meeting on an unusually balmy April evening.

Our guide for the evening was Linda Constable, Chair of CILIP Libraries Change Lives and CILIP Community Services Group.

Once the LIKEians were assembled, watered and settled, Linda introduced us to the Human Library concept by explaining that it was about talking and chatting and discovering new things. This got a warm reception as this is exactly what LIKE is about too.

The Human Library adds structure around person-to-person sharing with clearly defined roles and rules for both the book and the reader.

These rules are simple but very useful. The first rule on both sides is to treat the other with respect. This sets the tone and the expectations; the main flow of information may be from book to reader but the relationship is peer to peer.

Another rule allows a book to refuse to answer a question that they are uncomfortable with and having this rule in place encourages more people to become books safe in the knowledge that they can control what it is they divulge about themselves. This is not an interview or an interrogation.

There are also familiar processes around how books and readers engage with each other, for example, a reader is able to withdraw a book for a defined period or to make a future reservation for one. This bought back fond memories of library cards to the seasoned librarians in the room, of which there were quite a few.

Most of the examples Linda gave us of Human Libraries were about sharing experiences either just to raise awareness, e.g. of cultural differences, or to address specific issues, e.g. alcoholism. In these cases the books were autobiographies but other types of books can be used, e.g. a reference book on a specific topic.

Once the concept and rules had been explained it was our turn.

Despite not knowing what a Human Book was beforehand I had volunteered to be one with the catchy title of Comics are for Grown-ups too.

Other books were on topics like flamenco dancing, travel, marathon running (Marja was wearing her London Marathon medal with justified pride), rock climbing and on-line gaming - LIKE is a diverse bunch!

Being a book worked out better that I expected. Andrew, Gail and Hanna all wanted to read me and I had good conversations with all of them. These conversations worked better than some of the similar speed-networking style ones that I've had as the original subject was more fully defined as was the purpose of the conversation, and there was more time allowed so we could get to meaningful detail.

A real plus was discovering that Gail was looking to bring a comic book artist to her school and I was happy to confirm that somebody I know does this very well. Kev owes me a beer next time we meet!

The book reading was harshly curtailed by the arrival of food and more drinks and we returned to our tables and to our normal networking mode. Everybody that I spoke to had found the session interesting, as a book or a reader, and many of us were starting to explore ideas of how we could use the concept ourselves.

And things got even better when I grabbed a moment with Linda and discovered that she works for Dorset County Library for who I wrote some computer programs when I started work in 1978! For the purist, these were written in Cobol and ran on an ICL 1904S mainframe running George IV.

As always, the conversations carried on until a few shocked looks at watches made us realise how late it was and prised us out of our comfort and in to the world of bustling buses, tubes and trains.

Another very successful LIKE evening where I learnt something of real use and had fun too. That's why I keep going.

18 April 2011

The Red Shoes at the Battersea Arts Centre

It was a late decision to go and see The Red Shoes at BAC (Battersea Arts Centre) and it proved to be a wise one.

BAC is just a quick train to Clapham Junction and a short bus ride up Lavender Hill yet this was my first time there.

I've been to Clapham many times but have normally got no further from the station than the Falcon. I also spent some weeks there in 1992 campaigning (unsuccessfully) for Labour from an office almost across the road from BAC so at least I knew where it was and what it looked like.

The interior of the building is rather fancy, if not quite as grand as it once was, and houses various social spaces. These include the Grand Hall, a spacious informal theatre crafted from what looks like a former assembly rooms. There is an old stage at one end of the room but this ignored and hidden under seating in favour of a small stage in the round.

I like intimate and unusual theatres and BAC scores on both counts.

The space suits The Red Shoes well as the story is very much told to the audience in the knowledge that we are there watching.

I do not read reviews before shows as I'd rather be surprised and make my own mind up. And so it was that I had no real idea what sort of show this was going to be. It soon transpired that it is a pantomime for grown-ups.

It tells a typically gory fairy-tale in a typically gory way but laced heavily with humour, a narrator to guide us and a splash of audience involvement (nothing quite as crass as "behind you!).

The small cast fight for and play a mix of roles that are then indicated with the briefest of costume changes and, for example, a suitcase proclaiming that the carrier is "The Girl".

The Girl was played by a girl but the two women were played by men. All spent most of the time in their underwear. It's that kind of show.

It's also an excellent show.

A great deal of care and attention has been paid to the little details in the script, staging, music and performances to make a rich texture from what is, essentially, quite a thin story about a pair of shoes that go wrong.

But the obvious labour is not laboured and the story skips along without overplaying it's hand or trying to pretend to be something that it's not.

The cleverness of the show would not be enough by itself and its the fine ensemble performance that makes The Reds Shoes a special show. And the layout of the BAC really helps here by bringing you close to the action.

The enthusiastic ovation at the end was well deserved. It was a Saturday afternoon very well spent.

The journey home was as easy as the one there, though I did take a little detour via The Falcon! I'll be keeping an eye on the schedule at the BAC now in anticipation of repeating the journey before too long.

17 April 2011

Saving Slovakia's Heritage

One of the best things about the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) is the talks that they arrange.

These talks directly support the BCSA's charitable aim of raising public awareness in Britain of Czech and Slovak life in all its aspects: history, arts, literature, economies, politics and sciences.

And given my acknowledged interest in Slovakia and in architecture then a talk on Saving Slovakia's Heritage was bound to attract my attention.

The talk came in two parts and was delivered by Michaela Kubikova and Katarina Voskova pictured here sorting out some last minute problems with the technology.

The event venue was the Slovak Embassy which is always worth going to, particularly for a talk on architecture, because it is such an interesting building that is well designed for events like this.

Unfortunately it was a BCSA event rather than an Embassy one so the food and drink was rather limited but that was a small price to pay for such an interesting talk.

Michaela Kubikova kicked things off with her talk on The National Trust of Slovakia.

This is very much like the UK's National Trust from which it has taken a lot of advice and guidance.

The main differences are that it is a lot smaller, saving heritage is not yet such a big public concern as it is here, and most of the properties that they are interested in are state owned.

Another good idea copied from the UK is the opening of private parks and gardens over a weekend, in this case manifested as the Weekend of Historical Parks and Gardens of Bratislava.

The National Trust of Slovakia is fifteen years old this year, much much younger than our NT, and look to have a promising future as it has a clear vision of what it wants to achieve and how it can achieve it.

The second talk by Katarina Voskova was an update on the one she gave last year at the Slovak Embassy's exhibition on Banska Stiavnica.

That event convinced me to visit the town during my Summer Holiday where I was lucky enough to get a tour of the hills around it from Katarina herself.

The talk was interesting the first time but was much more so the second time round having been to all the places mentioned as I could put all the pictures in to context.

For example, this picture above shows a view across Banska Stiavnica towards the Calvary and was drawn from one of the places we visited on the tour of the hills. I also climbed up the Calvary so could appreciate the restoration work that is being done there.

One of the great attractions of Slovakia is its architectural heritage and so it is good to hear that such sterling efforts are being made to preserve it.

15 April 2011

Three recent photos

For years I've always carried a camera around with me (and it has always been a Canon Ixus of some kind). Now I carry two. The Ixus 80IS is still in my bag but there is also a decent camera in my iPhone4.

I still take the vast majority of photos with the Ixus but here is a selection of three recent photos taken with the iPhone4.

Spring heralds that start of the Open Gardens season and that means lots and lots of photos.

I've chosen this one simply because I like the composition.

The trees stand proudly with their arms outstretched as if protecting the flowers beneath them.

These flowers cluster together and stick close to the trees as if seeking safety in number.

Overall I think that the photo gives an accurate representation of what makes this garden tick.

The second photo is very different and required a little trickery.

It was taken at the monthly BCSA "Get to know you" Social where I have developed the sad habit of taking photos of some of what I eat and drink.

Zlaty Bazant is a lovely Slovak beer made lovelier by the attractive bottle and glass that it comes in.

The extreme colouring is done by the Instagram app that lets you play with your picture before posting it to the internet.

The final picture is of Gloucester Road Underground Station and was taken when waiting for a Richmond train late one night.

Clearly the sense of movement is important here but I also like the line of old-fashioned lamps and the near empty platform that gives a sense of stillness that contrasts with the train.

I took the picture at the angle that seemed to work best for the subject, especially the lamps.

I hardly take any photos vertically these days!

I do not claim that any of these pictures have any great merit but there is something that I like in all of them and I thought that was worth sharing.

14 April 2011

Visualising my professional network

One of the web2.0 tools that I still use actively is LinkedIn and that is where my professional network now lives. I have used other similar tools in the past, like Plaxo, but just as Facebook has taken over on the social side so has LinkedIn for my professional stuff.

I use it mainly to keep track of people that I meet. A business card is useless once the person has changed jobs, and with it their email address and phone number, but LinkedIn maintains these connections for you. It's worth using just for that.

Now the LinkedIn InMaps tool lets you see all the connections that you have built up in a Social Network Map. This is mine which I find very interesting.

The first thing that strikes me is how little connected the various sub-networks are. As these are all essentially different groups of IT people I would have expected to see more cross-fertilisation.

The big blue group is people at Logica, dark green is London Borough of Lambeth, purple is Charteris, light blue is Royal Bank of Scotland and the large red group is the consultants who go to LIKE, TFPL and Gurteen meetings.

If you look at this network online then you can drill down to see the people in the network. For example, it is probably no surprise that the biggest and most central red dot is for David Gurteen.

LinkedIn is a great tool for professionals and InMaps gives useful insights in to your own network. Give it a go.

13 April 2011

Shoes at the Peackock Theatre

The Peacock Theatre, just off Kingsway cheek-by-jowl with the LSE, is a sister theatre to Sadler's Wells and so dance features prominently in its programme. Shoes, a musical, would not be an obvious thing for me to do go but some friends had tickets and I was happy to go.

The poster proclaims "Shoes: The Musical" but that's a little misleading. It's more like an old fashioned variety show with a succession of song and dance acts.

The tenuous link between them is that they are all about shoes.

As with any show with many acts there are some hits and some misses.

A clear miss was the short song on Ugg Boots that had time filler stamped all over it. A joke song that failed to raise a laugh.

The two big hits for me were scene where dance took the lead.

In one, a single man split his time between three women dancing with each of them provocatively in turn as he moved from bed to bed. The dancing was expressive and sharply modern with the emphasis on shapes rather than movement. Good use was made of the beds as props to dance on and around.

The second told the story of a pair of wedding shoes being passed down through a family using a family photograph to do so. The people in the picture and the frame itself moved as they told each part of the story.

Overall I was a lot more impressed with the dances than the songs but that was fine as there was enough dancing to keep me involved.

The biggest negative of the evening was neither the singing or the dancing, it was the audience. Too many people act as though they are sitting at home by themselves watching TV and don't even notice how much noise they are making. And a polite Shush to remind them just leads to localised warfare. We moved seats at the interval.

Shoes was not a great show and I'd happily never see it again but I am glad that I saw it this once.

12 April 2011

Laughing at socks (again)

When I saw the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre back in September I went by myself, not risking the experiment on other people, but I when I went back just seven months later I brought five other people with me.

We approached Leicester Square from different directions so it was sensible to arrange a meeting point and even more sensible to pick the original Pizza Express in Wardour Street. Pizza and wine consumed we walked the short distance to the Leicester Square Theatre where I successfully convinced that the two PDF attachments on my phone entitled us all to entry. Who prints tickets?

Once inside I managed to get a few words with author, performer and general star, Kev.

He was just back from giving a performance in Aarhus, Denmark which I have been to so the opener was on how well jokes that rely heavily on cultural references go down with people who do not watch British TV. Quite well apparently.

This time I was prepared for laughter which was just as well as it was soon required.

The Socks are in many ways a traditional double act with a straight guy and a silly guy, the difference being that they are the same guy.

This is quite hard to believe at times so well established are the two characters. At one point one sock told the other off for ad libbing as though he really was not expecting the line!

The Socks are anarchic, which is to say that the script, such as it is, consists of a few defined sketches and songs loosely laced together with free-form interplay between the two Socks.

Some of the sketches work better than others and I think that there was some new stuff in the show that is still settling down. The second half was a lot stronger than the first and was near faultless.

And I don't count dropped props as a fault, that happens so often it's an integral part of the show. Another excuse for ad libbing, such as doing part of the Star Wars scene in an Elvis costume!

The whole point of going to see the Socks is to laugh. Out loud. A lot. And that's exactly what we all did.

10 April 2011

LIKE 23: Information in the palm of your hand

I was on holiday on the day of LIKE 23 but rather than that being an excuse to miss the event it was an excuse to arrive early instead.

I had planned to use my early start to better discharge my regular duties as beer and juice monitor but I forgot my LIKE badge and, besides, everybody knows what to do anyway. LIKE is a pleasantly oiled machine.

This session was rather different from all previous ones in that we considered the physical devises that we all use to retrieve and manage information.

Mark Needham started us off with a brief history of mobile devises, such as the Psion Organiser, and some speculation about the future.

The brave statement was made that the mobile devises of 100 years time will not be that very different from those we use today, in much the same way that a 100 year old car looks and behaves rather like a modern car.

Credit for the idea of mobile devices was given to Larry Niven for the story The Mote in God's Eye from as recently as 1974. Remember that at that time computers filled large rooms so to speculate that they would become mobile was a monumental leap.

The main constraint with modern devices is power consumption and battery technology is improving less fast than demand for mobile power. Most of us smartphone users carry charging cables so that we can top-up during the day.

Modern devices are also much better at presenting content (text, image and video) than they are at capturing it. Single thumb typing on a small keyboard does not hack it! Voice recognition is the great white hope here. But then Microsoft have been predicting the imminent arrival of voice for more than ten years.

An often under appreciated issue is data security, especially as we do not usually know where the data we are using actually is.

In the group sessions we looked at the information needs of specific industries (each table considered a different one) and at the issues around this. Our table looked at the charity sector and our discussions ranged from getting accurate geographical data to the availability of basic telecoms.

The food and drink then interrupted the conversations briefly before the informal part of the evening started and, refreshed and stimulated, we mixed and talked and drank a little more until somebody sensible suggested going home.

Another excellent LIKE event that's hard to fault in any way; so I won't.

9 April 2011

Hotel Strand Continental and India Club

A recent trip to London for a show also became a wander down memory lane.

Before the show I went for a curry at The India Club Restaurant on The Strand close to Somerset House.

The food was good and refreshing different. For example, I had some Chilli Bhajias to start, which I had never had before but will definitely have again.

I had eaten there many times before but mostly breakfasts.

Above the India Club is the Hotel Strand Continental where I stayed for a few months when moving up to London twenty five years ago.

The hotel's location was good, I was coming in to Waterloo and working in Holborn, but what really swung it was the price. It was about £13 a night.

Even then that was cheap and the hotel was very basic. And I mean basic. There were some weeks that I put the mattress on the floor as the bed just caved in under the slightest weight.

The rooms had no facilities, not even a clock, radio or wash basin. The equally basic showers were along the corridor.

Breakfast was two slices of lightly toasted sliced white bread and was served in the restaurant that become the India Club at night. I treated myself to a few curries there too but I was on a tight budget in those days (my salary was around £16k I think) and usually went to Pizza Hut instead.

The Hotel Strand Continental did not have a lot going for it but it was a bed for the night and it was a good location and it was cheap so I kept going back.

7 April 2011

Wishbone Ash at The Brook

I quite like Wishbone Ash and I quite like The Brook (in Southampton) so this gig always had its attractions.

Add to that the opportunity to spend the evening with my eldest son who is at university there and the earlier part of the day with Dad in Weymouth then the deal was done.

It must be a symptom of the average age of Wishbone Ash fans but as soon as the doors opened there was a rush for the few seats upstairs. I prefer to stand so that I can move a little (I cannot call it dancing due to the Trades Description Acts) and to be closer to the band so I ambled in to the main downstairs area.

Breaking with tradition (I seem to be doing a lot of that recently) I did not go for the very front, despite the easy opportunity to do so, but instead chose to be half-way back in the centre to get a better sound balance and to see more of the stage.

There are two Wishbone Ashes these days, this one features two original members, Andy Powell (lead guitar) and Bob Skeat (bass), and carries the original name. The other is called Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash. I've seen them both.

The two "new" members of Wishbone Ash are Muddy Manninen (guitar) who joined in 2004 and youngster Joe Crabtree (drums) who is the newest new boy having only been in the band for four years.

You know what to expect with Wishbone Ash and they know that's what you are expecting too so that's what they do.

It's the familiar and much loved bluesy rock tinged at times with touches of the progressive.

They opened with Blowing Free and for the next couple of hours we had many more songs like that. Some were equally well known, even to fair-weather fans like myself, such as Throw Down the Sword.

Others were introduced as being more recent, were completely new to me, and sounded refreshingly like the old songs.

And that is the heart of what Wishbone Ash are about, a familiar and comfortable sound that varies little. Whether that's a strength or a weakness rather depends on how you feel about that sound. I like it!

A highlight of the evening came towards the end when Andy Powell introduced another classic, Phoenix, with a story about Japan with the hope and expectation that it too would rise like a phoenix from the aftermath of its natural disasters. That got a good round of applause.

A good, solid, professional, uplifting and bouncy performance that helps to explain why Wishbone Ash has been going strong for forty years.

6 April 2011

Big Ideas on religion in US political life

March's Big Ideas asked the provocative question, What Is The Role Of Religion in US Political Life?

Religion and US political life are two topics that I know little about but I am always happy to learn so I went along.

But first a slight change of routine; instead of cheesy chips from the bar I stopped off at Govinda's Restaurant on Soho Street, just north of Soho Square. It's run by the Hare Krishna people and does a great line in veggie food, including curries. I'll be back!

Once at The Wheatsheaf I got a pint and headed straight for the upstairs room to grab a decent seat.

A psychologist may be able to tell me why I gravitate to the right of open rooms but, whatever, the reason is, that is what I did taking a chair at a table next to the wall about half way back.

Just to prove that I'm not a saddo, it was not the same table I had the last time. But it was next to it.

I was not the first person there by any means but it was empty enough for me to take a clear picture of the impressive front windows.

By 8pm the room was full, but not to overflowing this time, and we were off.

Dr Tim Stanley (the other person in the room wearing a tie) kicked the debate off in traditional Big Ideas style with a short talk thick with hooks to hang the discussion on.

This is some of what was said over the following hour or so.

The separation of Church and State is there to protect Churches from the State; this is why the founders had fled Europe.

The Democrats are just as guilty as the Republicans of playing the Church card when they can.

The Religious Right is losing the moral battle with things like Gay Rights and abortion now generally accepted by the public and increasingly by the Church. Capital Punishment is an odd exception.

America was founded by white men for white men and is obsessed by it's history.

The Constitution has achieved Biblical status and to question the Constitution is to question America, even though it has been changed in the past.

America is a young country that has yet to decide what it wants to be, with sharp divided between the small-state Right and the social-democratic Left.

Europe sees America as a cute but troublesome teenager who has yet to grow up.

For some reason we spent quite a bit of time on philanthropy and charitable giving which caused the only significant split of the evening with some quoting Katrina as an example of the USA helping each-other out and others pointing out that Comic Relief had raised £17 million in one evening. I made the Comic Relief point so you can tell what side of the split I was on!

The mechanics of the debate were good with Tim Stanley responding well to all comments and questions, Rich Cochrane controlled us calmly and fairly and, by and large, we stuck to the rules allowing others to contribute and not being too dismissive of their views.

It's because Big Ideas addresses unusual and challenging concepts in a balanced way that I find it so stimulating.

5 April 2011

The Children's Hour at the Comedy Theatre

The Children's Hour is another of those plays that I got tempted in to seeing via an offer through work (thanks Elaine!).

The name Keira Knightley was bit of a pull too but, to be honest, apart from knowing that it was a name that I should know I knew little about her.

They play, dating from 1934, tells the story of two school teachers who, after years of struggling, are starting to make a real success of their venture when a child's lies about their relationship throws their lives in to turmoil.

It takes the first half of the play to introduce the characters and the scene and then the story really unfolds in the second half.

In addition to the two teachers (shown here) there is the tell-tale schoolgirl and her aunt who is material in giving the story legs.

And therein lies the strength and weakness of the play. The story burns slowly as the morale mood of the time eats in to the women's lives. I'll not say more about the plot at the risk of spoiling it but I will say that there were a couple of surprises at the end. Well, they surprised me anyway.

The plot is a real strength, as is the acting of the two women. They are very convincing both as earnest teachers and as bemused victims.

I found the stronger characters, the young girl and her aunt, to be less believable and their actions were never fully explained. I don't blame the two actors for this at all, the weakness is in the play's characterisation of them but the play is much more about the plot than the people so this is only a minor gripe.

I'm not sure that the play is worth the hype that it's getting because of its stars but if you look past the names this is a good story well acted and that's plenty enough for a good night out.

4 April 2011

Van der Graaf Generator at the Barbican

I first saw Van der Graaf Generator live on 15 October 1975 at Southampton University just after I started there as an undergraduate. That's over 35 years ago!

My lasting memories of the gig are of Dave Jackson playing two saxophones at the same time and standing through the concert when almost everybody sat down. Somehow the music did not stick and I did not become a fan.

I renewed my interest in VDGG when working in Prague in 1992/93. There the large flat with a good stereo system, free weekends, local bootlegs and a ludicrously generous expenses policy allowed me to experiment with lots of CDs of bands that I knew that I probably ought to like.

I took the easy way in and treated myself to the compilation albums First Generation and Second Generation. There's plenty of good stuff in there and over the next few years I picked up most of their early albums.

I gradually became enough of a fan to see them live again on 8 July 2005 (the day after 7/7). There was a new album out then to promote, Present, but there was lots of old stuff in the set list too. And they were still a four-piece at the time.

Six years later and some fortuitous circumstances brought me to the Barbican to see them again.

I learnt about the gig late and then dallied a bit before deciding that I really did want to go but when I made the jump some returned tickets meant a seat in the middle of the front-row of the circle was available. And it was quickly mine.

I like the main theatre at the Barbican as the acoustics are what you would expect from a concert hall, the seats are comfortable and the pitch means that you've always got a good view. The Victorian theatres that plague London can claim none of that.

VDGG hit the stage promptly and strongly at 8pm. Now down to a three-piece they made far more noise that they had any right too. And glorious noise it was too.

Most of the songs, understandably, came from their most recent album, A Grounding in Numbers, with a smattering from their previous one, Trisector. New songs but familiar sounds.

These driving and pulsing sounds are generated by Guy Evans at the back doing all sorts of things with drums, Hugh Banton on the right conjuring with keyboards and, on the left, Peter Hammill on electric piano, guitars and outrageous vocals. How does somebody in their sixties get to have such a powerful and distinctive voice?

The new songs, just like old ones, are complex tapestries of sounds that move unexpectedly just as you think you've got the hang of them. It's this continual change and invention that makes them interesting and compelling.

Just before the end we did get one old song that I recognised, scorched Earth from their 1975 Godbluff album. I believe they've played it at each of the three concerts that I've been to.

The only disappointing thing about a truly excellent performance was the duration, at little over an hour and a half it was all over far too quickly. But it would be churlish to moan about that and it was a happy bouncy crowd that streamed in to the vast reception areas of the Barbican.

VDGG do not play that many gigs but next time that they do I'll try a lot harder to get tickets.

3 April 2011

Echoes in Petersham

My third experience of Echoes in about as many months was at The Fox and Duck, just a mile or so up the road in Petersham. The 65 bus takes you door-to-door.

The venue can work well for music, as it did when I saw the Bowie tribute band The Thin White Duke, but it's a little awkward for a band as numerous and popular as Echoes.

One outcome of this was that Guy Smith (Tenor Saxophone) was banished to the corridor that runs alongside the stage area. Hardly ideal but it just about worked.

The other outcome is that the pub was so packed that even sitting at the very front in the middle my view was obscured at times by people standing around me. Again, no big deal, just a minor annoyance.

I managed to secure the good seat by arriving before 8am and just before the pub really started to fill. The poster outside the pub promised an 8pm start, the one inside was more honest and claimed 9pm. Not that I minded sitting in the pub for an hour particularly as I was able to grab a few words with some of the band as they fought with cables and boxes.

Come the appointed hour Echoes launched straight in to the familiar, and expected, In the Flesh? from The Wall, chosen because it opens with, "So you thought you might like to, Go to the show."

And we were off!

What followed has almost an hour and a half of Pink Floyd classics, a short break for drinks, and another hour and a half of songs.

My front-row seat put me almost in touching distance of front-man John Vassar on Lead Vocals, Electric and Acoustic Guitar. In the middle here is Oran Halberthal on Bass Guitar and on the right it's Lee Deal on Lead Guitar, Slide Guitar and Acoustic Guitar. Lee was celebrating a year with the band.

Hidden at the back was drummer Simon Melvin and off to the left was Peter Bamford on Keyboards. Guy Smith was even further left.

The set was obviously very similar to the last two times that I saw them, it had most of Dark Side and highlights from The Wall, but there were also some nice surprises.

Added to the set were Have a Cigar and, from the very easiest days of the band, Arnold Lane. Also added was the eponymous Echoes (from Meddle), an absolute favourite of mine even when played alongside other great songs.

Evenings do not get much better than listening to three hours of live Pink Floyd music played with skill and enthusiasm in a local pub.

2 April 2011


The only question for me on the big anti-government march on 26 March was which banner to march under as various groups that I belong to or support were taking part.

I chose to march with the peace contingent as one of the easy cuts this government could make to address the deficit is Trident. We've never used it and never will use it but we still spend billions on it.

This was also the opportunity to protest against our imperialist involvement in Libya where we have taken sides in somebody else's civil war just because we don't like Gaddafi.

All the peace groups congregated on Victoria Embankment between Temple and Blackfriars. I got there around 11am and had plenty of time of lap up the atmosphere before we got going.

And the atmosphere demanded to be lapped up as it was thick with indignation, good humour and camaraderie. Four hundred thousand people with one purpose.

As expected, the Kingston Peace Council / CND were there and I spent most of the day with them and their colourful banner.

I've been a member for years but have only managed to get to a few meetings so this was a good opportunity to meet some fellow members. Through this I learnt that one shares my surname and lives just round the corner from me and another used to work for the same company as me until very recently.

For five hours we marched slowly along the Embankment to Parliament, up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, along Pall Mall and Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus, and finally west on Piccadilly towards Hyde Park.

There was no point going in to Hyde Park at that point as it was almost 5pm and the speeches had long been over by then. So I nipped in to Green Park station and made my way home after an exhausting but exhilarating six hours of standing, walking and occasional marching.

During all that time I saw no violence, no anger and less damage than Westminster normally gets on a Saturday of hosting hordes of shoppers, football fans and fun seekers.

I brought the TUC issued flag that I had carried all day home with me and I'll end by quoting the three final words on it; "Jobs - Growth - Justice".

2000AD Prog 1727

Just a quick reminder, if any were needed, of why 2000AD is still the galaxy's best comic.

The exceptional cover was drawn by Henry Flint who does the art for the story Shakara which ended its fourteen part run this week. I'll miss it.

In other stories this week, Judge Dredd protects a potato alien that may have absorbed human characteristics, some gun totting cowboys take on flesh eating dinosaurs with gory results and a practitioner of the mystic arts who looks like Peter Wyngarde is troubled by visitors.

Four fine stories, British made, and not a spandex superhero in sight.

1 April 2011

A day in London

I've been burning the remains of my holiday entitlement for 2010 by taking a few odd days off in March, one of which was a reasonably aimless stroll around London.

And, like several such strolls, it featured the walkway along the South Bank of the Thames and a visit to the Tate Modern which lives there.

But the first port of call was Somerset House on the North Bank.

In the dim and distant part I stayed for a few months in the incredibly cheap, and justifiably so, Hotel Strand Continental that back on to Somerset House so its a part of London that I know, or knew, fairly well.

Somerset House has been done up since then and now boasts a courtyard flush with fountains that vary their height as the mood takes them which makes it a place that you can just sit for a while and watch them play. Luckily there is a cafe there too so the watching can be enhanced with a Latte.

Crossing the Waterloo Bridge to the South Bank takes you past the iconic National Theatre.

Its a building that attracts a wide range of reactions and comparisons to concrete boxes but I love it. One of the great strengths of concrete is that you can make any shape that you like with it and the architects of the National Theatre have done just that in a marvellous way.

The walk to the Tate Modern is a treat, the outside of it is a delight and the interior is joy.

There is much to enjoy here but my favourite gallery is this one, Red Star Over Russia, in Room 11 on the fifth floor. Wonderful stuff.

The other reason for going to the Tate Modern is to savour the view from the top floor where they have conveniently placed a (very expensive) bar.

I walk though London regularly, both for work and for fun, and it still stimulates me every time that I do so. It's a city that can be old and young, quiet and lively, brash and squalid, provocative and secretive, and all sorts of other things too. None of these aspects is any more natural or important than the others, it's the mix that makes London a great city.