30 May 2011

LIKE 25: Return on Investment at the BL

LIKE 25 addressed one of its key topics, the role of the library. And it was a rather special library that we considered, the British Library (BL).

Our expert guide for the evening was Caroline Brazier, the Director of Scholarship and Collections at BL.

Like all public institutions BL is facing financial cuts and so is rethinking what it does, the value it provides and the KPIs used to measure them.

Helping them in this is a consultants' report that said that every £1 spent on BL produces over £4 in economic benefit. BL tried to drive this point home by naming their last annual report The Value of Knowledge.

BL costs around £100m a year, which seems to be a ridiculously good bargain that it seems remarkable that anybody has even thought about cutting it.

There are opportunities for BL too. Legislation passed in 2003 introduced a framework for BL to include digital content in its archive but so far none of the necessary regulations have been made to enact any of this.

A number of questions were asked and the talk evolved in to a discussion even before we got to the table discussion stage. During these discussions the position of BL became less clear.

For example, how does BL differ from the British Museum and the National Archives. BL holds the Magna Carter which I would not have expected.

BL gets 120k books and 50k periodicals given to it each year in its role as the national deposit library but it also buys copies of some of these so that it can provide commercial services around them (it cannot profit from the things that it gets given for free).

BL buys a number of foreign publications that are also collected in their country of origin. Choosing which ones to buy is an on-going decision. Overall BL spends around £17m on acquisitions.

BL has a commercial section that sells oven gloves and cufflinks. One wonders why.

The table discussions that were summarised at the end reinforced the need for BL to properly understand its purpose and value. Is it a just collection (and, if so, of what) or does it provide research services?

Who gets real value from BL and would they be willing to lobby on BL's behalf and/or pay more for the services used?

Can BL work with other specialist libraries in the UK, e.g. for professional bodies in healthcare and law, and in other countries to agree who collects what and to share collections.

The impression I got from the talk and discussions is that BL is a remarkable place but having been forced to think about what it is there for it is struggling to come up with an answer. I wish it well.

28 May 2011

Ham Open Gardens 2011

It was an ambitious plan but it worked.

I visit many gardens and when Ham Open Gardens 2011 opened lots of gardens scattered around Ham Common, just a few minutes walk from where I live, then I leaped at the chance to go to some more.

First up were the extensive grounds of the Cassel Hospital.

The plot is enormous and this picture can only suggest some of the scale. This is probably around a third, or may be only a quarter, of the garden.

It's weird to think that over the fence at the far end my house is only about 20m away.

The hospital surrounded by houses but has so far kept them at bay, with one exception when a corner was given over to a block of flats a few years ago.

I hope that it remains an unclaimed open space for as long as I live here. I may not get there very often myself but open spaces like that are what define Ham for me and the wildlife appreciates it.

Moving on clockwise we come to Flax Cottage.

This is a completely different proposition. It's also a long garden but is much narrower and is busy with plants and sheds (there are at least three) and is sculptured to hide its length.

These tall plants clustered around the urn are part of that deception. They cut across your sight-line and hide the garden beyond.

But the deception is slight and the lawn snakes around the obstruction to take you to the next section and beyond.

It's a delightful garden but it looks like a lot of work so I am glad that somebody else is doing it.

The front garden to the Gate House is bit of a local landmark.

It has a prominent position next to the path from Ham Common to Ham House. It also has a very low wall so its just as well that it is so pretty.

The back garden was unknown to me before and is quite different. The front garden squeezes a lot in to a small space but the rear garden makes the most of the extra space that it has to play with.

There is a private corner just beyond the house that is accessed via these steps that are also home to a traditional collection of pots.

Taking a few steps across the avenue takes you to the other gate house which is now little more than an ornament in the garden of the much grander Avenue Lodge.

The garden here stretches alongside the avenue which gives it plenty of space to breath and be playful. One of its tricks is a cute square of paving that seems to have no purpose other than to be attractive.

There's a nice pond nearby but the paving edged it so you'll just have to guess what that looks like.

Next up is the bright white cottage next to the New Inn. Stafford Cottages used to be a terrace of three that have now pooled resources to make one incredibly cute house.

This is another garden that is very public and much admired, and rightly so.

Here order rules with precise planting between carefully laid paths. Roses are prominent, standing tall to show off their pinkness, but there are other plants and other colours that make this an idyllic cottage garden.

Behind the cottage is a infill, Bishops Road, of fairly brutal and bland houses built when the priority was to get lots of houses up quickly and not much attention was paid to what they looked like.

But an ugly house can still have an attractive garden.

The chicane in the road has given this house a larger that average garden which has been made good use of.

There is a Japanese theme complete with a little bridge though, sadly, it does not have any water to go over.

There is some water and that splashes its way down and through a metal structure that rather wishes it was a plant.

Across the road from the pub we have Sudbrook Lodge.

Here the garden is split in two by the house with a formal show garden on one side following the main road and a private family garden on the quieter side. The formal garden is under threat as the owners want to build a separate house there so it was good to see it before it goes.

The gravel path from the road coils slowly round to the side of the house where it is interrupted by a small but bustling pond.

The flamingo is a fake but the two ducks who live there happily are real enough.

The garden that everybody wanted to see was at Sudbrook Cottage. This is a little way down Ham Gate avenue, next to Ormeley Lodge.

People of my generation and older will be interested to hear that Beverley Nichols created the original garden here from a field. This was the subject of his last two gardening books, Garden Open Today and Garden Open Tomorrow.

Because of this I went with pretty high expectations which were comfortably exceeded.

The garden is a delight in many ways.

It's designed on a grand scale with several distinct areas that flow, rather than jump, from one of the other.

And within that large design there are many small details that make you stop and pay attention.

This old seat with the bold planting behind it is just one of many such examples.

There are discrete seats throughout the garden, a few strategically placed pots and a richness of plants that fills every corner. There are no barren areas but neither does it look too fussy or too planned or too clever.

One corner is sunk a little lower that the rest of the garden to create a private and quiet space.

The solitude is enhance by a low hedge between it and the main lawn. This hedge is just the right height to separate you from the rest of the garden but not too high to isolate you from it.

Seats at either end encourage you to look across the neatly clipped hedges arranged as a series of boxes. Additional plants between the hedges add new shapes and colours.

The high wall that keeps the garden very secret runs along two side. The brick looks just like brick should look, aged and brown, and a few shrubs and trees breaks the view up to prevent any chance of monotony.

The largest feature in the garden is this pond.

It's set to one side so while it commands that part of the garden that it is set in it does not dominate the garden overall. Indeed you could spend quite some time looking around and not notice it.

Water trickles in to it avoiding the more modern fashion of making as much noise as possible and this, and the stillness of the pond, helps to maintain the tranquillity and peacefulness of the garden.

And tranquillity, peace, quiet, solitude, rest are what this garden is all about.

Ham Open Gardens 2011 was a fantastic event. I saw nine local gardens that I had not seen before, some of which I had been aching to see for ages for my Ham Photos blog where more pictures of these gardens will appear in future weeks.

Or you can indulge yourself and see the full album on Facebook.

25 May 2011

Operation Greenfield at the Soho Theatre

This was a demonstration of the power Twitter!

I started following @sohotheatre after seeing Chekhov in Hell there recently and through them I saw lots of good comments about Operation Greenfield so I made a spur of the moment to go and see it on a free Monday evening. I'm glad that I did.

Its described as "a fast-paced, funny and furious tale of four unlikely teenagers on the rocky road to battle-of-the-bands stardom." Which is true but that leaves out that its a Christian band playing in a church competition in a small village, that one of the girls is an immigrant (French) and there is a dose of sexual awakening too, including a Brookside moment.

Music features heavily with the band playing a few pieces and heavy use of background music (controlled by the actors themselves) when the band was not playing.

I did not catch all of this but we had two decent chunks from Einstein on the Beach and, I think, Tavener's The Protecting Veil (or was it Avro Part?).

The music height was Five Years that started as background music and was finished by the band very loudly, joyfully and wonderfully. At that point they sounded like a traditional rock band, which is what The Spiders from Mars were.

Elsewhere the music was harder to categorise featuring, as it did at various times, a flute, accordion and a xylophone. A Christian Jethro Tull perhaps.

But I digress, music is important but it is just one aspect of the play that fizzes and bounces along for an hour and a half or so without pausing for breath. The few props, mostly chairs and a picnic blanket, are moved continuously as we move smoothly from scene to scene.

The humour, and there's a lot of humour, comes from the script and from the actors who brilliantly convey the delights and pains of being a teenager and also use exaggerated expressions as they tell their tale directly to us.

It was good to see such a full theatre and with so many young people there. The demographics can be rather different at other theatres!

I went to see Operation Greenfield simply because so many other people recommended it. The least that I can do is pass that recommendation on.

24 May 2011

Another President, another demonstration

Three years ago I joined the demonstration against George W Bush on his visit to the UK. Since then things have got even worse so when Barack Obama came to visit our Queen I was there again.

Three years ago we were worried about the USA and UK's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Three years later Iraq is a little better but the Afghan war has spread to Pakistan, where drones are sent in to this sovereign state to kill their people, and we have a new war in Libya where we are taking sides in a civil war that is simply not our business.

The argument that we are doing this to protect citizens has been shown to be a deceit as we are refusing to help citizens in Syria, Bahrain, Gazza or, going further afield, Ivory Coast or Sudan. We just go after people that we do not like who have oil. Simples.

And it's not as though these wars are going to achieve anything. We've tried to impose our will through military might in most of these countries before and it did not work then either.

I don't expect my little act of protest to achieve very much but the alternative was not to do anything at all and peace deserves more than that.

23 May 2011

BCSA Book Launch

My knowledge of Czech/Slovak history is woeful considering how long I have been a member of the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) but it got a little better at the launch of two books at the Czech Embassy.

Tomas Masaryk and Eduard Benes: Czechoslovakia by the historian Peter Neville of Kingston University is one of numerous titles in Haus Publishing's Makers of the Modern World series, and deals with the role of the two statesmen as champions of the independent state of the Czechs and Slovaks.

I learned how Masaryk's and Benes' experience of studying and/or working abroad was vital in building links with other European countries in the period immediately after the First World War and led to the formation of Czechoslovakia with the more or less borders that they wanted.

This, in turn, led to a country of 14m people of which over 3m were ethnic German and another large minority were Hungarian.

Exile In and From Czechoslovakia during the 1930s and 1940s, edited by Charmian Branson and Marian Malet of the University of London's Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, is the proceedings of the very successful conference held at the Institute in September 2003, at which distinguished experts examined every facet of the subject.

We were given an overview of some of the topics covered by the conference; immigration from Germany to Czechoslovakia in 1933, experiences of specific groups of exiles who came to Britain in 1938, i.e. children and musicians, and finally about some of the exiles who became famous here.

Czechoslovaks were 10 thousand of the 80 thousand that fled to Britain during the war.

The question and answer session after the talks went on for quite a while and could have gone on for a lot longer. I'm sure that this is a period that the BCSA will return to in another talk and I'll try to get to that one too.

22 May 2011

Roger Waters' The Wall at the O2

Dark Side of the Moon was one of the first LPs that I bought and, a few years later, The Wall was one of my first CDs. I have all their other albums too and I still love them.

I never got to see Pink Floyd live and while the tribute bands do some justice to the majesty of the songs they do not pretend to be anything other than talented musicians playing somebody else's great songs.

The closest that I got to the real thing was a commemorative performance of The Wall in Prague in 2009. There the size of the arena, the grandeur of theatrical show and the freedom being commemorated made it a very special event.

Having had one taste of The Wall I wanted another and signed up to see Roger Waters show at London's O2 Arena, a.k.a. The Millennium Dome.

This was my first time at the O2 and getting there proved to be easy but getting food less so. I settled for Armadillos as it had the shortest queue and while it's not my sort of place the food was reasonable enough and it did the job.

The arena bit of a disappointment. It was even more brutally functional than I expected and my seat may have folded easily and had a drinks holder for my non-existent drink but it was quite uncomfortable and was facing the seats opposite rather than the stage that was about 45% to my left.

But these gripes got quickly forgotten when the show started, and what a show it was.

The Wall that was built gradually through the first half of the show acted as the screen for some insanely good projected graphics that moved constantly and realistically.

This allowed the whole nature of the set to change to suit the mood of each song.

Against that backdrop Roger and the band were rather dwarfed but that did not matter either.

What did matter was some of the talking. I paid £75 to hear music not morons talk. Luckily most of the music was loud enough to mask the worse excesses and the biggest offenders got dealt with at half time and were not allowed back in.

The songs are the same but the show has been updated and is now even more firmly anti-war and anti-establishment. This was a concert for us lefties.

This was flagged early on when the list of names and faces of war casualties included Jean Charles de Menezes. Later on we saw the wikileaked video of two Reuters journalists killed by American soldiers in Iraq and when the animated bombers came they dropped Shell logos.

All this was loudly cheered.

The were several familiar images to complement the new ones. We saw a lot of the original Gerald Scarfe animations that were welcome despite looking very dated alongside the modern pyrotechnics.

And there was a flying pig too.

Musically it was much as recorded in 1979, which is what we wanted. There were some changes for a live set with a different group of musicians but nothing that I could easily point to.

The ending was as per the album too with the band gathered at the font of the stage in front of the demolished wall playing Outside the Wall on acoustic instruments. The melody continues as they walk off one by one with Roger announcing their names. Then Roger himself leaves the stage and that was it.

No encore but none was expected or needed.

21 May 2011

Petersham House

Petersham House is one of the local houses that opens its gardens to the public occasionally to raise money for charity as part of the National Gardens Schemes.

Entrance to the house is via Petersham Nurseries, which is convenient as the same people own both.

Petersham House is more like a family home than some other gardens that I visit and it lacks the flamboyant centrepieces that are designed to wow visitors.

The lone exception is a statue which is subtle, subdued and placed in a quiet corner of the lawn.

The main feature of the garden is the long herbaceous border that forms a corridor alongside the nursery. Here an uneven hedge provides the backdrop to a riot of colour and a jumble of shapes.

The effect is almost of a wild meadow but I am sure that there is more planing and design involved than the gardener would have us believe.

The only disappointment is that the long flowery corridor does not lead anywhere. There is a seat at the end where you can rest and enjoy the view back to the house but the only way back to the main part of the garden is the way that you came.

The house that greets you there is fairly typical of the area that was once home to hunting lodges for the nobility who could spend in time in what was then the country and hunt deer in Richmond Park.

It has been extended since them sympathetically if not quite in keeping with the original house and the garden has changed with the times too.

The formal lawn is decorated with sculptured hedges that break up the flat bland greenery of the grass quite nicely without attracting to much attention to themselves.

Petersham House does not have the most spectacular garden but it is pretty enough and is just a short cycle ride away so it's an obvious and pleasant trip to make.

19 May 2011

Echoes back at The Berry

Echoes and The Berry go well together so when they went back there so did I.

What makes The Berry so good for Echoes is the performance space that they get and the quality of the sound this produces in the lower bar. There are some downsides, such as the lack of space for the audience, no bar in that section and the behaviour of some of the locals but on balance the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses.

One of the nice things about Echoes is that they vary their set each time. It's still, broadly, a quarter Dark Side, a quarter The Wall and a half everything else but there is room for manoeuvre within that.

The main surprise this time was See Emily Play, which I had not seen them do before. Mind you, I still tend to think of this as a David Bowie song thanks to his version on Pin Ups.

The set order was also different this time with nothing from Dark Side until the very end of the first half of the set. I was actually a little upset by this as I had convinced myself by then that we were going to get Dark Side in its entirety in the second half. Perhaps next time.

And there will be a next time. When Echoes play one of my local venues again I'll be there again.

17 May 2011

Simon Fraser excels in 2000AD

I've heaped quite a lot of justified praise on 2000AD over the years but so far I've not mentioned Simon Fraser or Nikolai Dante before. I'm delighted to change that.

Nikolai Dante is a swashbuckling adventure set in the Russian empire of the 27th Century written admirably by Robbie Morrison and rendered with ridiculous aplomb by Simon Fraser.

This double page spread from Prog 1733 is just ridiculously good.

This is the Dubai of the future. You can tell that it's Arabic from the curved lines, domes, minarets, camels and flying carpets, but look at the detail and there is a real feast in there, such as the boats in the harbour and the writing on the towers.

This is a picture to savour slowly again and again. And remember, it's just part of one of the stories in the weekly 2000AD, the galaxy's greatest comic. Zarjaz!

16 May 2011

Uncle Vanya at the Arcola Theatre

Having seen, and thoroughly enjoyed, Chekhov in Hell at the Soho Theatre it only seemed sensible to go and see a Chekhov play, even if it meant going to Dalston to do so.

The Arcola Theatre is charm personified. It's an industrial brick shell in which some functional seating has been constructed. The entrance is through a cafe and bar area that looks as though it's run by a charity such is the lack of any attempt to make it look cool. They do a nice latte and cranberry flapjacks so that was my dinner sorted.

A few steps take you up to the theatre and then a lot more steps take you down again. I kept with tradition and bagged a seat in the front row preferring to watch the action close up and at the normal level rather than looking down on it.

The Arcola Theatre is a thrust, or three quarter round, stage. That is the audience are on three sides. I like stages like this where the action comes in to the audience and it's good to see so many theatres set up like this or something similar.

This closeness is particularly effective with emotional dramas, like Uncle Vanya.

The play shows us a summer on a Russian estate where Uncle Vanya is the manager to the owner, his dead sister's husband who now has a trophy bride about the age of his daughter. We also have some more estate workers and a visiting doctor. They spend the evening talking while we watch and soak up the emotion.

There is a lot of unhappiness in their lives and a phenomenal amount of unrequited love. The young bride does not love her husband but is loved by two others one of whom is loved by Uncle Vanya's niece. This is not the recipe for a happy ending.

But nor is the story that unhappy either. There are some good jokes along the way, some anger too, but the overall feeling is of disappointment of what life has to offer. Only their trust in a better afterlife gives them cause for rejoicing.

The suggestion that life is bad but it's all we've got has come up in several plays that I've seen recently but it's going to good plays that say that that proves that it's not true. If you see what I mean.

Uncle Vanya is superbly delivered on all counts and I could not fault it.

And the journey to/from darkest Dalston was easier than expected, I even bumped in to somebody that I know. I tried to bump in to another but he had left the bar at Dalston Roof Park a few days earlier!

The Arcola Theatre has joined my collection of small local theatres that I keep an enthusiastic eye on with the intention of going there fairly regularly.

15 May 2011

A walk along London's South Bank

An after-work drink with a friend by London Bridge and a fine sunny evening combined nicely to conjure an unplanned but most welcome walk along London's South Bank to Waterloo.

The sun was rushing away at the time and stared right at me from low in the West sky as I walked towards it so I had to turn around and look back the other way whenever I wanted to take a picture.

Pausing frequently like that made it s long but rewarding work made only slightly disconcerting by following another suit wearing man doing the same thing. Synchronised photography?

There are many bridges across this stretch of the Thames as both cars and trains fight to bring people in to the heart of the capital.

Cannon Street Railway Bridge is clearly proud of what it is and strides across the Thames with bold confident steps.

Waiting for it on the far side are the two towers that herald Cannon Street Station and, taking advantage of this distraction, a rather good pub, The Banker, sits almost hidden between water and rails.

A little upstream is the newest bridge and one of the few that carries pedestrians only. The Millennium Bridge links St Paul's to the Tate Modern and so is a busy thoroughfare for tourists and is one of the reasons that the South Bank has opened up so much in recent years.

Most photos of the bridge that I have seen, including many that I have taken, contrast the modern bridge with St Paul's in the background so I've been a little perverse and chosen one that hides St Paul's. I think the bridge is more interesting anyway.

Next up is Blackfriars Bridge with the ever changing City behind it.

Here we do get to see the historical St Paul's as well as a few cranes that give evidence of the new buildings that are imposing themselves on the older buildings that were new once.

On the North Bank Blackfriars Station is being rebuilt and is currently closed. This provides another excellent excuse for walking rather than taking the tube.

Blackfriars is the last bridge before Waterloo, but it's not the last landmark.

The first building that you come to that forms part of the concrete delight of the South Bank Centre is IBM's main London office.

I worked there for a year or so back in the late 90s having previously been based at the bigger, more flamboyant, but less accessible office at Bedfont Lakes near Heathrow.

One of my abiding memories of working there is the noise from the recording of the Jerry Springer Show at LWT next door. I watched this sometimes at 2am, which seemed the right time of day to watch it, so it was a little weird to hear shouts of "Jerry! Jerry!" at 11am.

It's almost time to leave the riverside and head a little way south towards Waterloo Station but, before doing so, there is more of the South Bank Centre to enjoy.

I like all of the buildings in the complex, particularly the National Theatre, for the shapes they make on the skyline and also for the spaces in side but they are striking underneath too.

This section was colonised by skateboarders years ago and they now rule this place with confidence and grace.

And with that the journey ends. Waterloo is efficient but ugly, a place to pass through but not to linger. But that does not matter as the walk there has been a real joy. It always is.

13 May 2011

What future for centre-left politics?

My first Compass event for over a year confirmed both why I am a paid-up member and why I am not that heavily involved.

The event got off to a poor start when Compass Chair Neal Lawson announced that three high-profile speakers had pulled out at short notice. These were Caroline Lucas MP, Jon Cruddas MP and Polly Toynbee. Substitutes had been found but my immediate impression was that I had been short-changed.

Things got worse when Neal Lawson opened the meeting with an analysis of the current situation that over emphasised the need for analysis and also got some analysis wrong. For example, Neal professed himself to be collaborative rather than tribal but then went on to decry the success of the SNP in Scotland. Sorry, but I see that as a success for the centre-left.

I am always a softy for a 2x2 matrix so I liked Neal's with tribal/collaborative on one axis and public service/free market on the other (avoiding for the moment the problem that the second is not actually a valid axis). He put Compass in the collaborative/public service quadrant, New Labour in collaborative/free market and the Tories in tribal/free market. I guess the empty tribal/public service box is where Old Labour sits.

The other speakers proved to be more informative, interesting and inspiring.

Professor John Curtice explained how Labour had made the easy gains in the recent elections, mostly at the expense of the lamentable Lib Dems, but had struggled against more powerful opponents like the Tories in the south and Alex Salmonds's SNP.

The Green substitute, Darren Johnson, said a few things that I did not disagree with but which did not grab my attention either. Or, to put it another way, I took no notes while he spoke.

Then came the star of the evening, Lisa Nandy MP for Wigan.

And her opening comment was Wigan is not Westminster and with that she took us firmly out of the Westminster Bubble and in to her world where real people live.

People who care more about canoe facilities than they do about AV, judging by her mailbox.

Lisa said that Labour needs to engage with people in ways that matter to them. Management Consultancy speak is a big turn-off, what does "progressive" mean anyway?

We should not be afraid to talk about issues like immigration. When pressed, concerns here are usually a proxy for another issue, such as housing or unemployment, which we can fix. People need Labour to win to fix them.

Lord Matthew Oakeshott said that there were several opportunities for left leaning parties to work together, such as banking reform and opposing the proposed NHS changes.

Labour cannot win on its own, especially with the boundary changes, and so needs to form alliances to be in government.

Jon Trickett MP said that the frequent Tory U-turns are a sign of weakness that Labour should be exploiting.

The platform speeches over a few short questions were taken from the audience. Compass calls this a debate apparently.

Once the Q&A session was over most of the panel and audience disappeared rapidly but a few of us hung around briefly to catch a few words with our favourites. The longest queue was for Lisa and I was happy to wait my turn before getting my chance to say how much I agreed with her and also to swap some tales of Wigan. I've been there once so that makes me an expert.

The old-fashioned panel and audience format and the inward looking views of Neal Lawson were real low points of the evening but all the other speakers were reasonable, except for Lisa Nandy who was exceptional and made the event a success.

10 May 2011

Autumn and Winter at the Orange Tree

Autumn and Winter is just the sort of play that the Orange Tree delights in doing and in doing well. It's foreign, modern and meaty.

A family of four, a retired couple and their two daughters, gather round the family table for a meal, a lot of drink and some brutally honest conversation.

The catalyst for this is the younger daughter (38) who wants to explore feeling she has that something is wrong somewhere, She does not fit. Her interrogation swings between abusive and loving and quickly draws in her outwardly successful older sister, her somewhat pathetic doctor father and her matriarchal mother.

As the conversation gains its own momentum, fuel by the drink and years of things unspoken and unasked, we learn a lot more about each of them. There are several surprises along the way for all of them.

My fly-on-the-wall vantage point for this drama was almost exactly where this promotional photo was taken from demonstrating the intimacy that the Orange Tree brings to this sort of drama.

And while this was essentially a dinner table conversation a lot of natural devices were used to keep the cast moving and, like good ice dancers, they made full use of the stage and of the steps in to it. This was a refreshing contrast to the overly static Mary Broome that I was critical of in this respect last month.

Autumn and Winter, like the not dissimilar In a Forest Dark and Deep, is delivered in one sitting to maintain the drama and tension. Obviously this is more realistic and is to be welcomed for that but it does mean one less Becks in the evening.

The family conversation is genuinely interesting and, more or less, flows naturally but I did find the opening and the closing a little artificial. We are watching a slice of a family's life and there is not an obvious start or end point. A little messy but I can live with that.

As these messy conversations develop and we find out more about each of the family members the picture gets gloomier and most of the things we discover are nasty rather than nice. There is unhappiness in each of them.

Unusually the acting was a little below par, but then I am not used to going so early in a play's run. The prompter was called in to action and there were some fluffed lines but normal conversation is full of mistakes so these were easily hidden.

Autumn and Winter is not a great play but is good enough and it does play in to the Orange Tree's strengths which makes for a passable night out.

8 May 2011

Petersham Lodge garden (May 2011)

Another of the local gardens that I go to regularly is at Petersham Lodge.

Petersham is that ill-defined area between Ham (that is clearly defined by its parades of shops, common, churches, avenues and Ham House) and the local town of Richmond upon Thames.

Historical Petersham, as defined by the Conservation Area, is quite small but has more than its fair share of grand buildings dating from the time when Richmond was a country retreat from London and noblemen needed hunting lodges close to Richmond Park.

One of the things that I really like about the garden at Petersham Lodge is that parts of it are almost completely wild and natural.

The orderly paths that take you in to all corners of the garden pass through areas like this where nature is allowed a free hand.

Or at least the convincing appearance of a free hand with just a little discrete interference from the gardeners to gently tame the wilderness and heighten its beauty.

There are a few sculptured features too, but not that many that they dominate or distract from the rest of the garden.

There are a few seats, two or three traditional (Greek/Roman style) statues, a Wendy House and this bridge.

The bridge is in a dark and heavily planted corner of the pond where it is almost hidden by the trees. The attempt to avoid discovery is enhanced by painting the bridge a soft green.

Next to the bridge is the main feature of the garden, the large pond. A classic folly at the far end provides seating and shelter from where you can look leisurely back across the pond and over the lawn to the house. Magic.

These three pictures are just a sampler of what Petersham Lodge has to offer. Elsewhere in the garden you can find a formal lawn, an avenue of trees, a knot garden, colourful beds flower beds, a nursery and an arched pergola.

There are more photographs of Petersham Lodge in my other blog.

6 May 2011

Watergardens on Kingston Hill (May 2011)

There are several local gardens that I try to get to each year when they open as part of the National Gardens Scheme and the Watergardens on Kingston Hill is emphatically one of those.

The gardens begin at the top of the hill with a pond.

Here the calmness and stillness are emphasised by the trees and bushes that protect the pond from casual prying eyes.

Stone steps take you close to the water's edge at one point and in another a bench lets you rest and watch the ducks at play.

The trees and bushes that hide the pond also conceal the rest of the garden and walking along the path around the pond there is little clue of what is to come.

There are several paths that flow down the gentle hill and each has its own appeal.

One eases its way through tall shady trees passing a noisy waterfall as it does so.

Another follows the water and this is the most colourful. Walking down there is like taking part in a royal procession with hordes of cheering citizens greeting you on both sides.

Other paths take more difficult routes down and across the hill exploiting stepping stones to reveal hide-aways among the rocks. Further exploration uncovers statues, bridges and strange plants.

At the bottom of the hill the purpose of the garden becomes clear.

The water that comes down the hill along various routes all meets up in another pond that mirrors the one at the top of the hill.

Except the darkness and secrecy are replaced by openness and boastful decoration.

One approach is over a bright red Japanese style wooden bridge. Another is over a similar bridge but smaller and made of stone.

Commanding the pond, but discretely, are some cranes who keep perfectly still as they watch for fish.

The Watergardens are open twice a year (May and October) which means there is quite a wait between visits but we should be grateful to NGS that private gardens like this are open to the public at all.

4 May 2011

Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park

I am not a great fan of Richmond Park as it's not wild enough for me and it's far too busy but Isabella Plantation is an exception.

It's an easy reach for me, a leisurely stroll to Ham Gate, a brisk stroll up to the main road then a short amble across the grass to the gate by the small disabled car park.

Almost as soon as you enter this gate you come to the large pond with a collection of unusual ducks surrounded by a collection of usual children pointing at them.

It took quite some effort to take a picture without any children in it. Perhaps I should make it easier for myself and learn PhotoShop!

The pond collects the water that flows gently through the centre of Isabella Plantation from one of the many small springs in the park.

The stream (if you can call it that) is flanked by tall bushes on both sides with paths on the other side. It's like a stick of rock.

These bushes both hide the stream, but not its murmurings, and give the garden shape and colour in exactly the same way that lawns don't.

It is here that most people congregate and the children nosily bounce across the many narrow bridges that cross the stream.

But not far away from this bustle there are quieter paths and these are the ones that I choose to tread.

Here the trees grow in confidence and spread themselves out more creating little glades that the Bluebells are quick to colonise.

The shrubs make good use of the extra space too and the Rhododendrons and Magnolias also stretch out like peacocks to show-off their colours.

There are dark shaded corners too where even the Bluebells fear to roam. And contorted tree that compel any stray boys to climb them.

Isabella Plantation is not that big but it is easy to spend an hour ambling through it savouring the smells and colours. A place of calm and beauty.

3 May 2011

The Truth about Data Quality

I've found the talks at the British Computer Society (BCS) London Central Branch a bit hit and miss. A few have been far too basic to be useful and in others the speaker has not impressed me with their grasp of the topic.

But I go to the meetings because some of them are good, even very good. The Truth about Data Quality was one of those.

As a Business Analyst / Consultant I deal a lot with data and processes and I learnt long ago that data is far and away the more important of the two. The main reason for this is if you have the data model correct (in business terms) then it is easy to adapt processes to different needs but if the data model is wrong no playing around with processes can fix it.

All that means that a talk on data quality was guaranteed to pique my interest. And so I went.

Jon Evans' talk was in two parts. First we had a useful (i.e. more than basic) introduction to data quality and this was followed by a detailed case study from the NHS that really brought the lessons home.

It was a long talk, around 75 minutes, and in picking out a few of my personal highlights I am obviously leaving a great deal out.

The four cornerstones of Information Quality are Accuracy, Timeliness, Relevance and Completeness. Accuracy is the most important of these as the others are meaningless without this.

We build to Accuracy through Validity, Integrity and Credibility.

Jon explained this well by successfully correcting the colours, fonts, spelling and grammar in a familiar sentence. The result all seemed very sensible until Jon asked, "Does the quick brown fox really jump over the lazy dog?". The point being, this is a valid sentence but is it creditable?

When looking to improve the quality of data we can use the FIRM approach; Find, Investigate, Remedy, Monitor.

At that point we moved on to the case study.

To make sense of this we first had to learn a lot about how hospitals get funded through the incorrectly-names Payment by Results (HbR). This is calculated from the Healthcare Resource Group (HRG) of each episode, e.g. a diagnosis or treatment given to a patient.

The HRGs are recorded by clinical coders working from the doctors' handwritten notes. Clearly there is much scope for error in this process and making a small error can make a big difference to the hospital financially. Jon gave us an example where a patient's condition had not been fully recorded and that doubled the amount paid to the hospital.

The system Jon had been heavily involved in developing with the NHS compared results between hospitals to see if they were creditable, e.g. were the numbers of episodes, as recorded in the HRGs, of each type in line with expectations.

The funnel diagram here shows the distribution of hospitals' results and the statistical significance of this. The hospitals get detailed reports that shows them their relative performance and allows them to drill down in to the detail to see of any anomalies. But, remember, being incredible does not mean wrong.

Using this analysis has helped hospitals to dramatically improve the quality of their data. The two main problems they have had to address are the quality of the original records and training for the clinical coders on the HRG framework.

It was an impressive case study but I was left with the worry that, despite the improvements made, data quality would always remain a significant issue and the inherent instability of the HRG framework (i.e. small differences in coding make a big difference in costs) means that the whole system may be invalid.

Or, as I put it in a tweet at the time: The NHS PbR is inherently bonkers.

But the basic faults in the PbR system take nothing away from the case study or from the talk. I learned a lot and that's what I went there to do.

2 May 2011

Chekhov in Hell at the Soho Theatre

I have been rather successful over the last year or so in seeing good innovative plays in small theatres and so it proved again with Chekhov in Hell at the Soho Theatre.

This was my first time at the Soho Theatre too though I had walked past its nondescript frontage many times, especially when I worked in Soho in the early 90s. In marked contrast to most of the theatres I've been to recently this one is not buried underground but is up on the third floor then sinks down like a lecture theatre. It certainly does not look purpose-built.

There is a little theatre bar that just about lives up to its name but is certainly the smallest theatre bar that I have been to. Not a big problem as I was happy not to have a drink and did not have long to wait before the doors opened.

There was a minor scramble for the best seats when the doors opened (my definition of a small theatre is one with free seating) but I am well practised at this and managed to get a seat in the front row. In the middle.

I like minimalist sets as great plays do not need much in the way of props and too many or too extravagant props can detract from what you are meant to be watching.

Chekhov in Hell has a wonderfully minimalist set. For most of the play there is just a chair or two on the stage and sometimes there is nothing at all.

The minimalism extends to the costumes and while the small cast each plays several roles (apart from Chekhov) they do so in the same clothes. And I mean clothes rather than costumes as the actors are dressed normally.

That simple approach works well as the superb cast are able to convey the different characters that they play through just voices and mannerisms. It's a joy to witness.

The play takes a look at modern life through the eyes of Anton Chekhov who awakes from a coma after a hundred years and after being introduced to his closest living relative, a chavy single mother, he escapes in bemusement in to the world of today.

The story then evolves as Chekhov moves from one scene to another each rich with comedy as the slightest weaknesses in modern life are exposed cruelly.

There are too many scenes running thick and fast after each other for me to do anything other than pick out a few.

There was the self-help group, The Survivors, who were somewhat less than helpful to each other. A gay designer who explains that fashion is just men's way of proving that women are stupid. A Customer Support Officer who provides very ineffectual and patronising support, e.g. offering a hug.

Chekhov also gets inadvertently involved with the Russian Mafia and that theme makes the play a story rather than just a collection of disjointed scenes.

Chekhov in Hell is some of the best fun that I've had at the theatre for ages. It is genuinely funny throughout, pointing an irreverent mirror at ourselves, and is acted with aplomb. Superb stuff.

1 May 2011

Kew colours

The unseasonal warm and dry weather took be back to Kew Gardens to sample some early Spring colour.

Entering by the main entrance by Kew Green I followed the Broad Walk west, past the Nash Conservatory until a decision has to be made on whether to turn right or left.

While you pause to make that decision you can enjoy the decorative roundabout dense with pink tulips determined to defend the urn in the centre.

I then headed right towards the ponds and Kew Palace.

The rear gardens at Kew Palace are a masterpiece of structural design and their formality contrasts wonderfully with the rest of Kew Gardens.

But I have chosen to highlight the side courtyard instead. Everything about this picture is nice; the courtyard floor, the planters that break up the space, the brick wall of the building, the worm blue door and the tree that has found refuge there. Just beautiful.

From there it is a short walk to the Azalea Garden, the purpose of today's visit, and it's easy to see why.

I could have chosen dozens of photos just of the azaleas with their breathtaking colours and delicate shapes. The yellows are reds shown here are joined by girly pinks, virgin whites and fiery oranges.

And, this being Kew Gardens, there is an abundance of benches where you can rest and swim in the colour and scents.

I always leave Kew Gardens from a different gate to that which I entered and this time I headed south towards Victoria Gate (the biggest of the entrances). The route there takes you past the impressive Palm House.

There you also find a large flower bed with hundreds of flowers regimented by colour in to formal shapes that dance across the lawn drawing your eye with them.

This visit to Kew Gardens took around two hours and shows just some of the variety and pleasure on offer. It is a place you have to visit several times to know and then several more to fully appreciate.