30 June 2011

Compass conference 2011

The 8th Annual Compass Conference took as its theme Building the Good Society to give an alternative view to the cuts and privatization that we are seeing under the umbrella of the Big Society.

I had mixed feeling about the first Compass conference that I attended in 2009 so gave it a miss in 2010 but was tempted back in 2011 but the current political climate.

The venue and structure of the day were much as they were previously, and more on that later.

The day opened with a series of short speeches from a range of activists and campaigners, starting with two impressively young and active members of UKuncut. Their simple message of don't punish the poor - tax the wealthy caught the mood nicely. An excellent start to the day.

It was a little mixed after that and I thought that the feminist speaker was trying to relive old and irrelevant battles against the sex industry. I'm all for female (and male) equality but there are betters ways of doing this and better words to use.

A double surprise was the video of Ed Miliband. The first surprise was the Ed was not listed as a speaker and the second that he actually gave a good speech. One of the key points that he made was on the need for the Labour Party to re-engage with its members and for them to re-engage with the general public.

We also got the definition that the Bid Society is about participation whereas the Good Society is about outcomes. Working together is no use if we do bad things.

Ed also said that we need to be honest and recognise the inherent conflicts within society, e.g. one person's freedom of speech may anger another person.

It was then time to break in to the different sessions. There were many to choose from, too many in some respects in that you could only join one interesting debate by missing five others.

I chose the session on democracy having been fairly vocal in the recent AV debate where I was on the winning No2AV side against the Compass policy and the views of most progressives.

We had a panel of three, plus a chair, who gave us their views on the current state of democracy. I did not note who said what but here are some of the things that somebody said:
  • There is a general consensus that democracy is broken, even if there is not consensus on how to fix it.
  • Giving people more of a voice is the right way to go but it needs to be an informed voice.
  • We need to rethink where decisions are made (neighbourhood, town, county, etc.) and make sure that the resources are also allocated to the same place.
  • The media needs to talk more about politics and less about politicians. The Milibands are only a story because they are brothers, not because of any policy difference.

I stuck my neck out and said that we, the Left, need to have an argument that the best way to democratise society is to privatise it and let people make decisions with their money. This is a simple argument and can be compelling because it is partly true. We need to show its weaknesses and have an equally simple and compelling alternative.

Overall this was a positive discussion but I was just a little worried about some of the denial over the lost AV referendum and the tendency to look rely on formal organisations rather than loose collections of people or even individuals.

Time for lunch and a bit of fresh air and sunshine in Russell Square.

The afternoon started with more group sessions and I found myself back in room 639 that was at standing-room only for the debate on education led by three professors from the IoE.

I should have read my notes from two years before I did so as the criticisms are the same. we had a lot of fine rhetoric, that I generally agreed with, but nothing remotely approaching a policy other than reversing a few things that the Government has done that we do not like for reasons that we cannot quite articulate.

In contrast, the Government's message is simple; schools are not doing well enough, Academies work so we'll have more of them and we'll encourage Free Schools to introduce competition and to give parents more choice. As with the democracy session in the morning, Labour needs an equally simple and compelling message. I'm not convinced that academics will give that.

It was not all bad though and some good points were made by the panel and from the floor. I particularly liked the quote from William Morris, "I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few."

We ended back in the main lecture hall for the last two sessions of the day.

First of all we had a questions and answer session with a panel of politicians and commentators.

This was another uplifting session, and Caroline Lucas was the main reason for this making lots of pert comments that got to the core of the question.

She said that we should know who owns the land and tax ownership, the Big Society is unaccountable and nuclear power is not necessary, is not commercially viable and is an unacceptable risk.

Not the panels fault, but the audience's inability to ask questions on the subject in hand was a little worrying.

The day closed with some keynote speeches from the big guns.

First up was Lisa Nandy who repeated some of her themes from the previous Compass event that I went to, which was fine because I agreed with her then too. She spoke a lot of sense but the one point that especially stood out for me was that political change will come but it will won't be led from the centre, it will come from the grass-roots.

Simon Hughes spoke some sense too, and I hate Lib Dems. He pointed out that he has more council tenants and more immigration issues than almost any other MP and that he has seen no improvement in their conditions after 14 years of a Tory government and 13 years of a Labour one. A telling remark.

In conclusion, the good parts of the day outweighed the weaker parts and it was a day well spent. The keynotes and main panel sessions were very good (mostly) but the workshops need to be improved next time to make them more interactive and to get specific actionable results from them. I want to be a participant not a consumer.

28 June 2011

Haunting Julia at the Riverside

Haunting Julia has been getting some good reviews, the Riverside Studios is an easy bus ride away and I had a free evening so I gave it a go. And it really is good.

My initial reluctance to see it was because it is by Alan Ayckbourn and while I've generally enjoyed the few plays of his that I have seen (most recently Taking Steps at the Orange Tree Theatre) they have been entertaining rather than gripping.

Haunting Julia promised something a little different, a scary ghost story with the Julia in the story having been dead for twelve years.

The play takes place in one room. The room where Julia killed herself as a student of music and a successful composer and which has now been turned in to a shrine to Julia as part of cultural centre built by her father, Joe (Christopher Timothy) in her memory.

The room is about to be opened to the public but before it is Joe invites Julia's former boyfriend, who found her body, to see the memorial. They are then joined by a psychic who had contacted Joe to say that he had something to tell him about Julia.

Julia may be there too as there are unexplained noises on a new tape that Joe believes are her.

Joe explains that he had brought them all there as he had unanswered questions about her apparent suicide, like was it really suicide and, if so, why had she done it.

As the three men talk about Julia we learn a lot more about her but also about each of them, all of which turns out to be important.

The psychic leads us in to some suspense filled moments and there is one really dramatic moment in the first half when everybody in the audience jumped a long way.

There's a short break but I presume that's just to allow the actors to rest and us to spend money as the second half starts exactly where the first finished off and the continues in the same mood.

I'll not spoil it by saying anything further about the plot.

You are always aware that this is an Ayckbourn play by the crisp humorous dialogue that trundles along nicely and hold the play together.

The characters grow on us too as we learn more about them. They are three very different people, with different views on Julia, and these differences spark tensions and keep the dialogue vibrant. All three actors played their part wonderfully and were instrumental in the success of the play.

The story of the play is a gradual reveal of Julia and her life and in the end all the questions are answered to bring the play to a satisfactory and warmly received ending.

Haunting Julia was a fantastic evening in every aspect and is another example of why the smaller London theatres are so vibrant and interesting at the moment.

Harnessing the power of networks

June's TFPL Connect meeting was on the very relevant and useful subject of harnessing the power of networks so it's no surprise that the large room was packed.

We were treated to two complimentary but different talks on networking.

First up we heard the story of the UK Competitive Intelligence Forum (UK CIF) from Julia Hordle. This is a network for CI professionals that has grown from scratch over the last few years.

The two things that contributed to this successful growth were the policy of giving value before receiving and strong leadership. This may seem obvious but it was good to hear this from a real case study.

Jemima Gibbons followed up by giving five tips on how we can all make the best use of our own networks.
  1. Understand your own network by using tools like LinkedIn Maps or Facebook FriendWheel.
  2. Identify the key influencers in your subject areas by using things like Technorati, Klout and Peer Index.
  3. Share stuff, e.g. RT, comment on blogs and reply to tweets.
  4. Find your story, be clear about what you want to stay and why.
  5. Listen to what is going on (Google alerts, market sentiment, etc.) and join the conversation.
As with the first talk this was given with the authority of experience.

As always with TFPL Connect events, the conversations continued for quite a while continued eased by a little wine and I was able to have some good conversations with some regulars and also some new people. Business cards were swapped and LinkedIn connections made.

Because of the topic covered, the people covering it and the space allowed for other conversations this was an excellent evening and one of the best TFPL Connect events yet.

27 June 2011

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was the largest ever production at Glyndebourne and it showed. The stage was full for most of the long evening with singers, actors, children and even circus acts.

But that was at the end of the evening and I want to start at the beginning.

Glyndebourne expected demand for the few performances of Die Meistersinger to be high, even though the cheap seats in the upper circle were £150 each, so we were limited to just two tickets each. So without the usual car load to take I went by train instead.

The train to Lewes leaves from London Victoria and I caught it at Clapham Junction were there were around thirty people going the same way. The train was already busy and it was bit of a struggle to find a seat and somewhere to put the picnic stuff.

The pre-booked courtesy bus took us from Lewes station to Glyndebourne. We had to take the long route as the town centre was closed for a carnival of some sort and Glyndebourne was already busy by the time that the bus got there.

A quick desperate dash up the stairs grabbed the last available space on the picnic tables next to the opera house.

Heavy rain was forecast and so a picnic on the grass was out of the question and I did not fancy the walk to/from the marquee in the expected rain.

The expected rain stayed away before the opera started allowing me to take the traditional walk through the gardens that is very much part of the Glyndebourne experience.

As is the champagne that was opened to accompany a late and light lunch.

Around 3pm the bell summoned us into the house to hear the start of the marathon opera that would occupy us, with intervals, for over six hours.

The only other Wagner opera that I had seen all the way through was Tristan und Isolde which I saw two years ago so I came to Die Meistersinger with few preconceptions and few expectations either.

The story is simple but told in a lot of detail so while there are no surprises at all there is enough substance in the dialogue to keep you fully engaged. Four hours sound like a marathon but it felt much more like a middle-distance event.

I've seen Die Meistersinger describes as a comedy but I would not agree with that. It's basically a love story that has some comic elements. A RomCom if you like.

Musically (and I may get shot for this) it carries on in much the same vein throughout and while there are some dramatic moments there are no stand-out songs. At least not on the first hearing.

The singing is pretty constant too as there is a lot of story to tell and lots of people to help tell it.

And this is where the opera and Glyndebourne wins. The singing is exquisite throughout as is the character acting that is demanded of the singers on top of their day job of delivering the music.

The staging works well mostly by being simple and letting the story happen around it rather than being part of the story itself. The one exception is the slapstick section in Act 3 when Beckmesser (the baddie) sneaks in to Sachs' (the cobbler) workshop and he first falls over a bench and then ends up throwing lots of books on to the floor. I felt that this comedy was a little forced, inconsistent with the rest of the opera and was unnecessary too.

But I come back to the superb music and the singing which carried me effortlessly and enjoyably through the story and the evening. The journey home by bus, train and another bus felt like a magic carpet ride as I so buoyed up by the whole experience.

When Glyndebourne is as good as this it really is magical.

24 June 2011

What will localism mean?

The Kingston upon Thames Society is interested in all aspects of the physical environment and so it is natural that we would want to consider the impact of the localism bill on planning.

Our knowledgeable guide for the evening was Peter Eversden, Chairman of the London Forum, the umbrella organisation of civic societies in Greater London, who has been involved in the discussions around the bill.

The word localism has entered common usage but its exact meaning has yet to be defined, and the bill does not change that. It merely sets in place a broad framework and the detailed will be added by subsequent regulations.

One of the aims is to delegate planing decisions. This means the abolition of regional development plans, though London will be an exception. One of the unfilled details is how the decision making powers will be shared between the Mayor, Local Authorities and localities.

Localities, whatever they are, will be able to make their own local plans that the Local Authority will have to follow, as long as they are consistent with the LA's plans and are approved in a referendum.

An issue here is the scope of the locality. For example, it could be Kingston Town, North Kingston, Canbury and Riverside or Royal Park Gate, where each one is a subset of the previous.

The balance of proof will move in favour of development, i.e. there will need to be a reason to reject an application rather than a reason to approve it.

This is the sort of thing that makes Kingston Society members uncomfortable. I suspect that most of them (myself included) live in house that we would campaign against being built. In my case I wanted the factory to remain for employment but the big fears now are garden-grabbing and unsympathetic extensions, despite the fact that it is other residents that want these developments and building them boosts both the housing stock and local economy.

I appreciate, and generally agree with, the ideas behind the localism bill but am worried that it will add more tensions to what is already an adversarial process by pitting developers against residents and one locality against another.

22 June 2011

Exploring Royal Victoria Dock

The event at ExCeL may have been disappointing but the walk home was brilliant!

My original plan was just to walk one or two stops back along the DLR from Custom House to Royal Victoria or Canning Town, and then I saw this.

I also saw people walking to and from it which confirmed that it was both a bridge and was open.

Crossing the bridge would be taking me in the wrong direction and I am terribly at heights but I reasoned with myself that if I found a bridge like this on holiday then I would not have hesitated (as much!) and I was unlikely to have another opportunity to explore it.

And I love exploring.

So I made my way up the steps gingerly, cautiously and slowly, pausing along the way to enjoy the view though the metal grill and to let my knees stop knocking.

The bridge pretends to be wide but the central supporting structure forces you dangerously close to the edge where the flimsiest of barriers is all that lies between you and very deep water.

I think that you get the idea that I was not terribly happy up there but that's the price that you have to pay to get the views and to, er, get to the other side.

And the views were worth it.

To the east the water spread out like a still menacing blanket. I'm sure that there are monsters in there.

The view to the west was more familiar and comforting.

On the left there is the common docklands look with medium-rise housing and the shell of old cranes retained to remind you that this used to be the working heart of London.

Behind the housing the sharp yellow spikes of the Millennium Dome (as I still prefer to call it) puncture the sky arrogantly. Slightly to the right, but on the other side of the river, are the jagged skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

Beyond that lies the City with the Gherkin and Tower 42, where I used to work when it was still called the NatWest Tower.

Coming back down reassuringly to ground level the vastness and emptiness of the place grabs you.

The stillness during the day is eerie verging on scary and the mood is not helped by the few people that you do see appear to be more used to Carlsberg Special Brew than to suits.

On the north bank (the left-hand side) ExCeL sits in another world, crouching low to avoid attention. Inside it bulges with suits and branded food outlets where it is not only legal but expected to pay over £3 just for a sandwich.

Here Royal Victoria Dock separates the two Londons that used to be characterised as west-end and east-end. The bridge links the two but does not connect them.

Walking away from the bridge its shape and my bravery become more apparent.

Continuing the journey west to the end of the dock and then north back towards the DLR and escape makes you appreciate just how big the dock is.

Looking back from the far edge the it is obvious just how much the water is in control here and the buildings that looked big when walking past them now just fade into insignificance.

The bridge tries its best to make a bold statement on the horizon but all it can do is look like a letter box that sits and waits for the large parcels that no longer pass this way.

From there it is but a few steps to Royal Victoria DLR station and the journey home.

Royal Victoria Dock hits you with its history, size, stillness and slight hint of menace which makes it a good place to explore, but only in daylight.

21 June 2011

SmartGov live 2011

I first went to the pregenitor of SmartGov live around six years ago when I was working for the London Borough of Lambeth.

In those days it was called Government Computing and was held conveniently at Earls Court but now it has adopted the topical adjective "smart" and has moved out to the posh but inaccessible ExCeL complex by Victoria Docks in what is still very much the East End.

Previously it had been the exhibition that had attracted me with the large hall full of vendors eager to sell their latest content management or customer relationship management products. I went to one or two talks but they were of peripheral interest.

This time the talk programme was my main pull and I identified several sessions that would all but fill my day.

and it's just as well that I did as the exhibition part of the event had shrunk alarmingly and there was not one stand that I found more than mildly interesting.

The reduced scale was reflected in the freebies. I went expecting to have to fight off the cloth bags but I managed to leave with none. There were a only few there, just three stalls had them, and none were of any brand that I wanted to carry with me to the shops. And I alread have more pens than I'll ever need too.

Luckily it was not long to wait until the first talk.

10:00 - 10:30 Channel shifts and large scale transformation

David Wilde, Chief Information Officer, City of Westminster gave his view of the trends in government technology and how these are helping the transformation of public services.

He explained that Local Authorities had initially responded badly to external players, like FixMyStreet, but had learnt to accept and then to work with them.

He went on to say that the adoption of web services had been less successful than had been expected (they were the big cure when I worked at Lambeth) but he had high hopes for easy to use apps that citizens could access any time anywhere.

We also heard a fair bit about the shared service initiatives being run by the three Conservative boroughs. Remarkably this is a five year programme of IT standardisation and consolidation. Stalin might have approved but I cannot see it working.

11:00 - 11:40 Public data transparency and open standards

Paul Davidson, Chairman and CIO, E-Government Standards Board (LeGSB) and Sedgemoor District Council, and Simon Rogers, editor - Datablog, The Guardian, gave us two contrasting perspectives on open public sector data.

Paul Davidson came with enough slides for a week that broke all sorts of records for words per page and boredom per minute.

The LeGSB reminded me of some of the public organisations that I was involved in at Lambeth and which I hoped had all died a natural death.

Local Authorities just love talking to each other at length about standards even though this has no impact on the delivery of services. It's just foilware for gullible executives.

Simon Rogers followed with a breath of fresh air.

He talked through some examples of how the Guardian has collected, analysed and presented public sector data in a clear and understandable way.

The Freedom of Information Act is a useful lever to pull to get this data but it takes a lot of effort to pose the same questions to each authority and to consolidate it in a consistent format before the clever design work with the presentation can begin.

The Guardian also makes the consolidated data available, usually in spreadsheet format, for other people to play with.

This is a genuinely interesting and useful application of open data, and the originating local authorities are not involved.

12:15 - 13:15 Lunchtime keynote debate: how is information technology changing the UK?

I was really looking forward to the lunchtime debate with Dave Briggs Kind of Digital, Andy Gibson founder and director, Sociability, Chris Chant interim executive director for digital Cabinet Office, Dominic Campbell director, FutureGov and Professor Paul Watson director of the digital institute Newcastle University because I'd come across some of these people before, e.g. at citycamplondon, and I follow them on Twitter.

In the end the session proved to be disappointing as it tried to cover a wide range of topics, from identity to the Cloud, and so failed to cover any of them in any real depth.

It may be because that I am am fairly close to the subject and the people involved that none of this was new to me and I took no notes during the session.

13:30 - 14:00 Open Standards and Open Source Software: Crucial for Government IT in a Big Society

Bill McCluggage, deputy government CIO Cabinet Office and Gerry Gavigan, chair Open Source Consortium gave us some very lively views on Open. Put simply, Bill said that the Government takes Open very seriously and Gerry firmly replied that this is not true.

I found Gerry to be the more convincing and I tweeted at the time, "The Government speaks Open but acts Microsoft."

Gerry's main argument was that Government likes building cathedrals, and rewards their staff for doing so, and so it naturally opposed to open even if those at the top would like to embrace it.

One of the reasons for this is at Open leads to Localism (if you have access to the tools you can do it yourself) and Central Government does not like losing control.

14:15 - 14:45 Intelligence based public customer service reform

The day ended with a case study from Valerie Pearce, programme director- Improving the Customer Experience, Brighton and Hove City Council.

In some ways this was the most positive session as it told us what is really happening and there were some nice nuggets in there. Such as the effort that they make to get information out there, e.g. giving extreme weather updates by twitter, so that people so not have to call in to find out, for example, if the school is open.

Brighton and Hove also have the courage to ignore some Government guidance, which I heartily approve of.


Overall I was surprised and disappointed at how little progress had been made in the five years since I last worked in the public sector.

The programmes in place then failed and local authorities are still promising jam tomorrow with lots of enthusiasm but little evidence to back their claims up.

20 June 2011

Kew Gardens in June

The ridiculously slow membership renewal process at Kew Gardens started in April but did not conclude until June, which meant that I was unable to visit the gardens in May.

So it was almost with a sense of desperation that I went back there in June.

The weather forecast was less than promising so I played safe, went in at Victoria Gate and headed for some of the greenhouses.

First up was the magnificent Palm House that stretches itself along the north-west side of oddly unnamed lake. The path around the lake takes you closer to the fountain and provides the best view of the Palm House.

Inside the Palm House is one of my very favourite places on the planet with its extravagantly large-leafed plants squeezed in to a simply magnificent structure.

For reasons that escape me, Kew thinks that this is not enough to delight everybody and have planted a few colourful monsters amongst the greenery. I suppose that they are trying to attract, or scare, children.

My favourite part of my favourite place is the high walk way in the central part of the greenhouse where you can get up close and personal with both the largest of the large leafs and the metal and glass that conspire to form the room.

The one-way system means that to see everything at this level you have to go around one and a half times but that is just a good excuse to spend even more time up there.

Leaving the Palm House at the east exit takes you straight to the Waterlily House.

This is much smaller and much simpler that its grand neighbour and so is easy to overlook, but that would be a mistake as the inside is sumptuous.

From there I went to the Princess of Wales Conservatory, a building I've not yet fallen in love with. It's wonderful when the orchids or butterflies are on show but the rest of the time I find it a little cold, stark and humourless.

It does not help that the structure is ugly as that tend to ruin any pictures in which it can be seen in the background.

That's why there are no photographs from it in this collection.

Passing south from the Princess of Wales Conservatory takes you through the Rock Garden to the south-east corner of the garden.

This is garden within a garden hidden by a high wall so you always enter it unsure of quite what to expect, especially as it is laid out with many rectangular beds with seemingly random planting.

Making a whole of the pieces is a long rose strewn pergola that run the length of the inner garden and also up to the main entrance in the middle.

Following the path under the pergola to the west takes you back towards Victoria Gate.

But before you get there you have to pass through the Woodland Garden with the Temple of Aeolus sitting on top of a short hill. Here the planting is wild, natural and beautiful causing you to pause and drink in the colours.

This was a relatively short walk confined to just one small corner of Kew Gardens but that was more than enough to fill a few hours with colours, shapes and smells all complimented by some good old fresh air and exercise.

18 June 2011

Arthur Brown at QEH

Arthur Brown needs to get out more. A lot more.

I saw him several times in 2007 in various locations including a Town Hall and a cafe.

I then had to wait until late 2009 to see him again, this time supporting Hawkwind at the Shepherd's Bush Empire.

And then it's another long wait until he pops up again at Ray Davies' Meltdown at the South Bank Centre.

But first there was the support act, the Legendary Pink Dots.

Whatever I was expecting from the Legendary Pink Dots they were something else! Their MySpace describes them as Alternative / Experimental / Psychedelic, which seems reasonable. They sounded a little like Vulgar Unicorn to me, but that probably does not help you much!

[A bit of research there suggests that Vulgar Unicorn's Under the Umbrella CD is worth $100. See you on eBay later.]

The Legendary Pink Dots were appreciably weird, melodic and captivating. They had some problems deciding how and when to end songs but getting there was a suitably long and pleasant journey. I did not even mind that the lyrics included words like sanctuary and crystal.

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Arthur Brown and was far from disappointed.

He made his trademark entrance with his face masked with black cloth but instead of emerging from the back of the stage he walked slowly and majestically through the audience.

There was no staff though and no Hard Rain.

But we did get a string of favourites including All the Bells, Devil's Grip, Kites, I put a Spell on You and, of course, Fire. All delivered with Arthur's distinctive and powerful voice.

Helping him a long was an eclectic band of musicians that Arthur had collected over the years. They were all good but a special mention goes to Lucie Rejchrtova, formerly of Instant Flight, because she provided most of the musical lead. It helps that she's Czech too.

The band were carefully arranged in a semi-circle around Arthur leaving him space to leap and cavort, as he does. Constantly.

Also filling that space for some of the songs were two dancers, including the Fabulous Ms Angel who is normally seen with Space Ritual.

And then there was Z-Star providing contrasting, but equally powerful, female vocals to some songs.

And a trumpeter. And a guest guitarist. That made ten people on stage at times.

This mixture worked fabulously and all the performers oozed ability, confidence and, above all else, fun.

The only low point of the evening was when the set drew to a prompt close at 10pm but this was quickly followed by another high point when the encores went on for half an hour, including an extra song not included in the set list.

Everything about this performance was just right. The choice of songs, the playing, the presentation and the exuberance on stage. This was a special concert that had us all standing, clapping and cheering at the end.

16 June 2011

Three Farces at the Orange Tree

Three Farces is just what it says it is, three farces in one evening.

John Maddison Morton wrote all three farces which made them refreshingly similar in mood and style, though they are quite distinct from each other. These are three plays in a series not one play in three acts.

He wrote them in Victorian times which makes them comedies of class and manners.

To keep the continuity going the Orange Tree uses the same cast for all three farces. There were some familiar faces among them too, like Stuart Fox and Jennifer Higham, so that was reassuringly familiar too.

The only unfamiliar thing was finding myself in the second row (rather than the front) due to the eagerness of the audience to get in and my own difficulties with the 65 bus.

Slasher and Cracker opens the evening. These are the names of the gentlemen chasing the daughter and sister of a recently rich ex-army man who finds them both wanting in valour.

The contrive a plan to demonstrate their worth that leads to them fighting a rigged duel. This is a farce so all ends well but there are lots of laughs before we get there.

There is a quick interval to change sets, costumes and to rest and then it's An Unwanted Intrusion.

Another rich man with a daughter to get rid of rescues a drowning man from his pond only to have that man committing to stay with his rescuer in the rescuer's house, a bit like The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Here the comedy comes from the eagerness of the rescued to inveigle himself in to his rescuer's home when that is clearly not what the rescuer expected or wanted.

This relies heavily on the exuberant acting of Edward Bennett who meets the challenge with relish.

The last play, Grimshaw, Bagshaw and Bradshaw is more typically farcical with mistaken identities and a room with three door through which people come and go with bewildering frequency. It is also typically funny.

There are some nice touches during the evening as the Orange Tree maintains its own tradition of engaging well with its audiences. We even had an entertainer to sing to us between the plays and who also chatted to us during the intervals.

There is nothing particularly clever about any of these plays but that's not their point. They are three different farces that keep you laughing all evening, which is exactly what three farces should do.

15 June 2011

Back to Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill is such an extraordinary house that a quick return was justified having got a first taste of its treasures last November.

The weather was a little better this time, but only a little. Rain was threaten but stayed away for long enough to let me cycle there and do have a closer look at the outside.

This is the face of the house that faces the road and so tries hard to impress with its grandness and individuality. Approaching, you are in no doubt that this is a very different house.

Restoration work continues on the house and a few more rooms are open now. You can also see where further work is being done and the useful introductory video shows you the care and attention that is going in to this.

Each of the rooms have their own purpose and charms but it is impossible to ignore the Gallery which is the show-piece of the house. It sits comfortable on the garden side of the house with views towards the river, now hidden by trees.

The Gallery may demand the most attention but all the rooms are enchanting.

One of my favourite rooms is the Library.

Here the Gothic style is all around you in the bookcases on three walls, in the windows on the fourth, on the painted ceiling and in the door.

Luckily there are no books to ruin the look!

Not only are the rooms pretty individually but the way that they are carefully, and confusingly, put together adds to the excitement and sense of discovery.

Strawberry Hill is a little gem, and it's only a short bike ride away. I'll be back.

14 June 2011

Nemesis the Warlock, Volume 1

The reprints of strips from 2000AD continues to provide me with much pleasure.

The latest one to bubble to the top of my reading pile is Nemesis the Warlock, Volume 1, which reprints the first four stories of the epic saga that started in 1980, appeared frequently until 1989 and finally finished in 1999.

The author is Pat Mills who is a 2000AD stalwart for all the right reasons, i.e. he writes a lot of very different strips very well. I've previously mentioned his recent excellent work on ABC Warriors and on Slaine and I've had the extreme pleasure of meeting him a couple of times.

Pat Mills is a genuine star of comics and Nemesis the Warlock is just another example of why this is true.

But comics require artists too and Nemesis the Warlock has been blessed here too.

Kevin O'Neill started the ball rolling with his distinctive sharp angular style.

O'Neil's style defined the look of the strip but, not surprisingly, the detail in his artwork meant that his speed of drawing was too slow for a regular weekly comic and he had to be replaced.

Several other artists were used, including Jesus Redondo, but it's Bryan Talbot (again) who had the most impact for me.

And I'm ashamed to say that I had forgotten that he had even drawn it. My bad.

Bryan is supreme on the fourth story, The Gothic Empire. This plays nicely into Bryan's love of steampunk that he has returned to in Grandville.

The Gothic Empire uses the idea of an alien civilisation that has been listening earnestly to Earth's earliest radio communications to learn about and copy our largest civilisation of the day, the British Empire.

This gives a world that combines Victorian culture with modern technology. Perfect.

Bryan throws himself into the task with glee giving us panels rich in detail and imagery.

I love the way that this train looks like the Palm House at Kew.

It's thirty years since I first read Nemesis the Warlock, and I do remember when it first appeared.

Sometimes returning to an old story is a disappointment as the memory fails and what seemed like a classic through the mists of time is revealed to be merely average, or even worse.

In this case the opposite is true, Nemesis the Warlock is even better than I remember it. And I've got Volumes 2 and 3 still to look forward to.

13 June 2011

Rear terrace at Ham House

Ham House is my local National Trust property. It's only about 1.5 Km away and I have free entry thanks to The Art Fund so I pop-in a few times a year.

When I say pop-in I mean in to the garden, the inside of the house is of little interest to me.

To be even more specific it's the back of the house and the gardens there that I go to see.

The back of the house is bright and orderly, unlike the cluttered front. And it helps that it is South facing so the sun bleaches the brick and the light plays with the white of the windows.

Running across the back of the house is a wide terrace gravel terrace that shrieks order and cleanliness. It's width and height providing a clear break between the house and the garden.

As the terrace steps gingerly down from the house to the garden it plays host to a line of bright orange urns that stand motionless as if protecting the house from what might emerge from The Wilderness beyond the lawns.

The garden begins with another gravel path, the first of several that cut through the lawn to make a pattern of squares.

A row of climbing plants soften the drop and make a bold line of green that can be seen from the garden but not from the house.

Either side of the house a hedge maintains the straight edge of the terrace and in front of this is a deep colourful border that rejoices in not being straight or ordered.

Ham House is not as big or as grand as some other country mansions but it's attention to detail in things like the rear terrace make a visit there always rewarding, though, to be honest, being free to me is the biggest thing in its favour.

12 June 2011

Chelsea flowers

There is just so much to see at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show that even splitting it across two posts you can just hint at the range of delights on show.

My previous post covered the show gardens that is what most of the TV coverage focuses on but the large marque packed with flowers is just as important, if not more so.

Especially when it is raining.

There is a wide mix of stalls starting with those from specialist nurseries keen to show off what they can do.

This stunning collection of tulips is just one example, albeit a rather nice one. Elsewhere there were lupins, cacti, acers, orchids, alliums and everything in between.

There were probably too many acers and alliums, to be honest, they were everywhere this year.

Some of the displays were slightly more mixed and more structured showing off the flowers in a more garden-like setting.

There seemed to be two main themes here, the English Country Garden and the Overseas Exotic. In this later category we we treated to strange (to us) plants from South Africa and the West Indies.

I made the mistake of offering to take a group photograph of one of the overseas visitors only to be handed a separate camera from every one of them to take their own picture. That took quite a while!

And then there were the two large show pieces.

The more exotic of these was an India themed tableau composed of flowers.

The pink, yellow and turquoise flowers make this a hard-to-ignore display even if they are not the colours that you would choose for your living room.

Striding across the carpet of flowers is a group of elephants. Elsewhere there are lions and fish.

There is a lot of detail to savour which means getting up close and parading the display slowly to capture everything that it has to offer.

More traditional, and more to my liking, was an equally large display of flowers, fruits and vegetables that rejoiced in its colour. Look carefully and you can see orange and red peppers, green apples and red tomatoes.

It's this imaginative use plants to create a rich feast of colour that made this a centrepiece of the whole show and a firm reminder that there is a lot more to Chelsea than the formal show gardens.

11 June 2011

Blithe Spirit at the Apollo Theatre

Blithe Spirit is an absolute gem that delights throughout and reassures you that ghosts can be sexy as well as scary.

The clue that you are in for a good night comes from the phrase "by Noel Coward" who certainly know how to write a good story as I discovered with Hay Fever at The Rose last year.

The story is quite simple. An author in search of a plot asks the local clairvoyant to dinner and to perform so that he can see the tricks of the trade. In the seance he makes contact with his former wife who is then conjured back in to a half life where only he can see and hear her, to other people she is invisible and mute.

A lot of the humour derives from this situation but Coward also has fun with the characters and their foibles along the way.

To make best use of good characters you need good actors, and this production does.

Alison Steadman plays the rumbustious and somewhat dotty clairvoyant with exuberance.

Robert Bathurst is utterly convincing as the feckless author and husband who is never in control of the situation.

I only know Hermione Norris from her ruthless role in Spooks so it is with a lot of credit that she morphs successfully in to a suave lady of leisure.

But missing from the poster is the real star of the show, Ruthie Henshall who plays the ghost.

Ruthie sizzles on stage as she weaves her mischief. Every movement, gesture and look is gleeful and sprightly, particularly when she plays with the people who cannot see her. And she looks fantastic too.

After the extreme disappointment with Betrayal just a few days before it was good to have my faith in the theatre reaffirmed with a play that delights in it own humour and carries its audience happily with it to the very end. A real treat.

10 June 2011

Gardens at Glyndebourne

The opera is the obviously main reason for going to Glyndebourne, and that is a good enough reason in itself, but there are also the gardens, dining and drinks which combine to make it a day out, a proper event, rather than just a concert.

The gardens are a good size, but not extensive, and are cleverly designed with lots of different areas from the large picnic lawn, to the small plot where the Henry Moore statue now sits.

The gardens at Glyndebourne have a long tale to tell; this is the abridged version.

A large herbaceous border, the Terrace, sits between the picnic lawn and the house with a just-wide-enough-for-two stone path running through it.

The planting here, as in most of the garden, looks chaotic but I am sure that it isn't. This makes it look natural even though some of the plants in it are unusual and their combination even more so.

There is a lot of height in the planting too which nicely separates you from the rest of the garden.

Through the tall plants you sometimes catch a glimpse of one of the buildings. Here you can see the corner of the Old Green Room that juts in to the picnic lawn.

Walking around the Old Green Room to its South side we can appreciate it's age and beauty.

Old brick and stone almost always looks good and usually looks even better when set off against some bright plants.

Continuing on past the Old Green Room we come to the Croquet Lawn which is surrounded by a tall hedge.

A gap in this hedge lets you pass through to the Urn Garden but continuing South takes you past some new borders that are starting to look mature this year, and to another long lawn popular with picnickers.

And the lake.

The long lawn continues along the length of the lake and then a path takes you across the bottom and back on the other side.

From the far end of the lake you can look back towards the Opera House which can just be seen through the trees.

There is a lot more to the garden than this but I hope that I've made the point that it is a good idea to arrive early to give you plenty of time to explore and enjoy it before the serious bit of the evening starts.

Betrayal at the Comedy Theatre

We all make mistakes and going to see Betrayal was one of mine.

I was tempted by the big names, Pinter wrote it and it stars Douglas Henshall (Primaeval) and Ben Miles (Coupling), and was finally hooked by a ticket deal that got me a reasonable seat for £25.

The play opened badly.

In the first scene lovers Douglas Henshall and Kristin Scott Thomas (a new name to me) met in a bar that reeked of the waiting room in Brief Encounter. At first I assumed that Henshall's character was meant to be drunk as he mumbled his way unconvincingly through the opening dialogue.

The stilted conversation was due, at least in part, to Henshall forgetting lines and having to be prompted. After that I was never sure if the poor dialogue was down to more forgotten lines, bad acting, real drunkenness or the director's intention. Either way the dialogue sucked throughout.

The play tries to be clever by starting at the end and working back to the beginning but once you know how it ends there are no surprises and no drama.

The characters were mostly unconvincing too. Henshall and Miles are prominent literary figures, both edited poetry magazines at Oxbridge, but you had to be told this as you would never have guessed. Miles came across as a businessman, which, to be fair, he had become, while Henshall was a school teacher. Economics probably.

Kristin Scott Thomas was a compelling gallery owner and was the one bright spark in the whole production.

Unfortunately her brightness made the dimness elsewhere even more obvious. I could never convince myself that a bright young thing like her could have had an affair with Henshall. The surprise was even greater than Shula Archer's when Caroline Bone revealed that her secret lover was Brian Aldridge (a classic Archers episode).

The betray in the title is missing from the play. Betrayal is a much stronger word than, say cheating, but nobody in the play seems that bothered by anybody else's infidelity.

There is only one scene with any passion in it at all and that's when Miles accuses Scott Thomas of having an affair with Henshall. But one good walk later and all is forgiven and life carries on as before.

Betrayal is a limp play presented limply and while Kristin Scott Thomas brightens it a bit that is not enough to make it worth seeing. Avoid.

8 June 2011

Don Giovanni back at Glyndebourne

When I first saw the programme for this year's Glyndebourne Festival I was a little disappointed by the number of revivals of operas that I had seen recently. There are six operas in the season and I've seen four of them.

Choosing to see the other two operas was an easy choice but if I wanted to see more than just two operas I had to pick some to see again.

Don Giovanni was chosen for me as some friends wanted to see that and I had said last year that I would be happy to see it again.

This year's performance is a revival of last year's production but with a different cast and a different conductor and that made it a very different show.

A much better one.

My minor gripes about some of the cast not being fully convincing in their roles (as actors) were swept away and the production was close to perfect.

Of course there will be some people who do not like the possibly over elaborate box that transforms itself to make each scene and who will be dismissive of the opera because of that but I keep saying that, for me, it's all about the singing and that was stupendous.

The star for me was Albina Shagimuratova as Donna Anna (the first woman that Don Giovanni wrongs during the opera). I was transfixed.

It may have been a repeat performance but Don Giovanni was a very strong start to the new season.

7 June 2011

Five Chelsea gardens

Having dipped my toe into the RHS Chelsea Flower Show water last year it was an easy decision to go again this year. I even took a day's holiday to do so.

This year I went on the Thursday rather than the Saturday, managed to get there a little earlier (about quarter to nine) and the weather was kinder with the heavy rain holding off until I was in the marquee.

I was there for something like seven hours and still did not manage to see everything.

With such an embarrassment of riches it has been difficult to select which highlights to write about. So I've cheated a little. This post is just about the show gardens and I'll write about the displays in the marquee separately.

It's easy to see why I chose this one, it's the colours. Oranges were popular this year and so too were fox gloves. This looks like a fairly traditional cottage garden set against a rather nontraditional coloured cottage. The combination just works.

Structure defines this garden, though I like the planting too. Grey slate featured in a few of the modern gardens but nowhere was it more effective than here where it is bent to look like a curling stone with the handles becoming garden seats.

The Irish Sky Garden by TV gardener Diarmuid Gavin gained attention for the large purple metal cage that was lifted by a crane but I felt that the outrageous centrepiece detracted from the rest of the garden where a metal path weaved through dense grass with pools of water.

This garden combined old and new features wonderfully. The stone walls and wild flowers speak of tradition and you can imagine shepherds swapping yarns at the end of the day. The contrast comes from the circular pools and bright blue Summer House.

Nothing says modern garden quite like turquoise artificial grass, and this garden had lots of it. There were lots of flowers too which lessened the shock. They even managed to compliment each other somehow.