31 July 2011

Big Ideas on Communities and Laws

I had to miss a Big Ideas discussion or two so it was good to get back in to the swing in July.

There was a familiar and pleasant start to the evening with a vegetarian and alcohol-free curry at Govinda's Restaurant just off Soho Square. Then it's back off the waggon with a pint of the guest ale at The Wheatsheaf. This month it was the very acceptable Cumberland Ale by Jennings.

Beer in hand, I headed upstairs traditionally early to ensure a decent seat.

Our topic for the evening was Do Communities Make Laws Or Do Laws Make Communities? and we were guided by Roger Cotterrell, Anniversary Professor of Legal theory at Queen Mary College, University of London.

Law is not one of the subjects that I claim to know much about so I was a little surprised at how engaged I got in the debate, that I raised a few points and easily filled the allotted one page in my A5 notebook.

Roger started by showing how laws are increasingly being divorced for states (nations) with the growth of European and International courts on one side and the call for regional, or even neighbourhood, laws on the other.

An example of judicial pluralism is Malaysia where the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities have separate courts. Nearer to home there is the suggestion that Sharia Law could be used alongside national laws in countries like the UK.

Sometimes states have to recognise other laws by default. For example, if a man who is legitimately married in his home state to more than one woman moves to a state where only one wife is allowed then that state need rules to handle things like divorce and death.

Laws are there in place of trust. If two parties trusted each other then they would not need a contract backed by laws in order to do business. Communities can build trust but laws cannot.

Roger's hypothesis was (if I understood him correctly) that laws arise from communities and not from states.

During the long discussion that followed I'm not sure that anybody agreed with that but that was hard to tell as we wandered well around the subject, as usual. In particular we drifted away from laws to consider other judicial aspects like policing and judges.

We looked at some examples of how communities react to laws. In some cases, such as the right to bludgeon a burglar, the general population had a perception of what the law was that proved to be wrong. Some other laws, like the motorway speed limit or using a mobile phone while driving, are simply ignored.

This attitude to specific laws can change over time and, for example, drink driving has gone from the norm (I drive better when I've had a few) to a complete no-no (not for me thanks, I'm driving).

State laws have the legitimacy of democracy to support them. We vote for the government that we want, they make laws and so these are our laws. And if we do not like the laws that they make then we can vote for somebody else.

Knowledge of laws is becoming increasingly problematic (in the UK at least) with even judges making mistakes over what the actual law is in some cases. It is completely unreasonable to expect communities to understand the law in these circumstances. This government's cuts to Legal Aid will make this even worse.

Even when laws do have the support of communities they are usually imposed by people outside of those communities. Judges are very different from the rest of us.

The powerful are best placed to take advantage of laws that were created for the benefit of the community.

We said a lot more than that as the conversation ebbed and flowed for the best part of two hours but I've still not mastered the art of being in a discussion and taking notes at the same time so these notes are all I've got. I hope that they are enough to give you a flavour of what the evening was like and to show why Big Ideas is worth going to every month.

30 July 2011

Trondheim waterside

Trondheim was the most northern place that I visited on my holiday.

It was also the place that I spent the most time, four days, so it is the town that I have the most to say something about.

I'll start with the waterside.

Not only is Trondheim on the coast but the old town is all but circled by the river. Only a narrow stretch of land on the western edge joins it to the mainland.

Lots of water means lots of waterside.

This water comes in two sections with distinct characteristics. To the north and east are the old buildings from Trondheim's seafaring past and to the south and west are the sedate suburban streets and open spaces that are more typical of the rest of the city.

So it's the north-east corner of the Trondheim waterside that I'll focus on and it's immediately clear why.

The buildings are colourful but functional. They share a similar style but each is unique. And they hug the still water which rewards them with sympathetic reflections.

The industry has long gone, these are offices now, and the stillness of the water is echoed in the stillness of the buildings and engulfs the neighbourhood. There are very few people in any of these photographs.

The ring of water around the town centre is breached in several places by bridges. The age and social attitude of the city mean that some of these are just for people.

Bridges are always a good place from which to enjoy rivers and Trondheim is no exception.

Here, on the east of the town, the river has been sculpted in to a wide straight avenue that almost convinces you that it is the Grand Canal in Venice until you realise that the architecture is wrong and the river is too quiet.

Either side of the avenues of shacks are busy roads packed with tourists, visitors and locals. A few of these have broken through the barrier of the buildings and can be seen by, or on, the water, enjoying the it just for doing what water does.

A closer look at the buildings shows how they are held high to keep dry and this also suggests how high the water can get at times. Indications that the calm waters can be fierce and threatening when the mood takes them.

The boats and doors on to the water confirm what we already suspected that the water was a major highway.

The physical nature of the coast of Norway means that the easiest way to get around was, until quite recently, by boat and it was only natural to extend the sea routes in to the cities.

Fish and timbers may account for a lot of the goods transported this way but these were Norway's main roads and so everything would once have moved on the water and in each port there were buildings right on the water's edge ready to receive them.

Today's boats may be used more for pleasure than for business but they still enliven the waterside and reassure you that this is not just a picture-postcard, it is also a vibrant city. And that's a great combination.

27 July 2011

Much Ado About Nothing at Wyndham's Theatre

The obvious draw for Much Ado About Nothing was the pairing of David Tennant and Catherine Tate as the reluctant lovers Benedick and Beatrice.

This was reflected in the long queues for the merchandise and the number of small children dragged along for the evening.

I had other reasons for going. After a heavy run of his late plays at the National Theatre around twenty five years ago my diet of Shakespeare had been a little thin and a top-up was welcome. I had not seen this play before. And there was a cheap ticket deal through work!

As usual, I'd paid scant attention to reviews beforehand so apart from some idea that it was a modern setting my preconceptions were minimal.

The modern setting soon revealed itself to be mostly about new clothes.

The dialogue was refreshingly Shakespearean though I suspect there were a few minor changes along the way, mostly additional exclamations of the "Hey. Ho." type by Catherine Tate.

Keeping to the original script was a big plus for me but soon lost some of the children who had probably never heard many of the old words before let alone encountered them strung together in lyrical prose.

Most of the play was left untouched too with the rich humour coming from the dialogue and the plot from overheard conversations.

The big change were the addition of some slapstick scenes. Two of these were when Benedick and then Beatrice try to listening to conversations. Benedict has a series of accidents with paint left behind by decorators and Beatrice got hoist in to the air by the wires they were using to reach the high places.

These scenes had the whole audience cavorted in riotous laughter in a way that would make the best pantomime jealous.

But while the slapstick might have been a useful prop for those unfamiliar with Shakespeare (or even theatre) it was not really necessary as the whole play was genuinely funny. Laugh out loud funny.

The whole cast contributed to this. Several of them were recognisable from various tv programmes (don't ask me which) and while the two stars drew most of the attention they could not have shone without everybody else supporting them magnificently.

And the stars did shine. David Tennant was the more convincing as the love-sick Benedict who is easily led by others but Catherine Tate was also strong playing Beatrice as one of her sassy characters, much as she did with Donna in Dr Who. David Tennant simply did more acting.

This was a near faultless production and while some purists may object to the modern setting or the additional slapstick those criticisms would be a matter of taste rather than an objective view of the performance.

This was a highly enjoyable show and is as good as this sort of theatre gets. Much Ado About Nothing is really something.

25 July 2011

LIKE 26: Information Architects

Our guide for the evening was Martin Belam who explained how he became and Information Architect and what that meant to him.

His first experience, as with most of us, was with cataloguing his own collection of music which he organised by band and then year with the singles next to the albums that they were taken from.

He then had the opportunity to do this for real when working for a record shop. There he organised albums by genre but, unlike some stores (and last.fm), recognised that not albums by a band are in the same genre. So, for example, Nirvana's first album, Bleach, is Indie but the second, Nevermind, is Rock.

Moving on to the BBC, Martin described his approach as trying to meet the needs of "Mandy from Bromsgrove". One approach used here was a careful analysis of the search terms used on the BBC website to understand what people were looking for and then making sure that the appropriate content could be found easily.

Back end processes were changed to feed data directly on to the website through tags. For example, a news story or programme tagged with "Leeds United" would appear automatically on the Leeds United page.

Finally moving on to The Guardian, Martin continued his love affair with tags and has built a taxonomy containing around 9,000 key words.

The selection of key words remains an issue of editorial policy and can lead to some idiosyncrasies. An example here is The Guardian's use of the term "climate change" when most readers search for "global warming".

The taxonomy has some simple rules built in to it so that other tags can be generated automatically. The system knows that Paris is in France and that France is in Europe.

Management of the taxonomy is important in making all this work and so they employ a "tag manager".

For me, the message of the evening was that tags are the way to organise large amount of disparate information, they should be kept simple and they need to be managed. I think that I knew that beforehand but it was useful to hear it from the horse's mouth and to get real examples of how they are used.

21 July 2011

From Bergen to Trondheim

After less than a day in Bergen it was time to move on to Trondheim. While the aim of the trip from Oslo to Bergen was travel first and sightseeing second this journey was all about sightseeing with a little bit of travel thrown in for good measure.

That's why we took the rather indirect route of Bergen, north to Alesund, south-east to Geiranger, north by bus along Trollsteigen to Molde then back on the cruise ship for the final leg, mostly east, to Trondheim.

Our vehicle for most of the journey was the cruiser Midnatsol (Midnight Sun).

This was a lot smaller than some of the cruisers that we saw but was still comfortably the biggest boat that I had been on.

Working down from the top, levels 9 and 8 were public areas with lots of seating and a few bars, levels 7 and 6 were cabins, level 5 was the main restaurant where we all fought for a breakfast table, and level 4 was more cabins.

Below that were the crew's quarters, service facilities, some engines and a few sea monsters (probably).

There were several places that you could go outside but level 6 was the best as you could walk all round the boat and because there was nothing there to sit on it was nicely quiet. There were generally around half a dozen hardy souls at the front braving the wind.

The boat set sail at 8pm at night and the rest of the evening was spent leisurely exploring the boat, watching the land slip slowly by and waiting for the sun to realise that it was time for bed, which it did around 11:30pm.

I was woken the next day by the tannoy announcement that we had arrived at Alesund, one of our scheduled stops, and would be there for 45 minutes. I knew that Alesund was pretty because I have a jigsaw of it (somewhere) so I took the opportunity to go ashore and have a look around. Good plan.

From there we went down the pretty Geiranger fjord. Those of us taking the overland excursion had to decamp on to a smaller boat to get ashore where our coach was waiting for us.

All too quickly we were hurtling up the mountain and town below looked small, even if the cruise ships didn't.

We headed north along Trollsteigen (Troll's Ladder) getting higher all the time. Our helpful and knowledgeable guide told us that the road was cleared of snow unusually earlier this year, the middle of May.

We also heard lots of stories of avalanches and hardship. Yet people live there. Not many though.

We had a break at the highest point to take in the sights, the fresh air and the snow.

This was too much temptation for some people and the expected snowball fight broke out on one of the larger patches of snow.

But seriously, a snowball fight in July?!

Moving on we took in some more of the sights, crossing awkward stretches of water by ferry to do so.

One of the more spectacular was a thundering gorge that you could get up close and personal to thanks to a metal walkway that snakes above it. Some of the recent repairs to it suggested that it was perhaps not always as sturdy as it should be, but I was brave.

As we descended the final mountain we had the highest waterfall to entertain us.

We also had eleven tight, terrifying hair-pin bend to negotiate.

The blue speck towards the centre of the picture is a coach gingerly making its way down in front of us. It also give a scale to the picture to show just how far and fast the road descends.

Passing the vehicles made enough to go the other way is difficult but the regular drivers know where the passing points are and how to look ahead to spot the traffic coming towards them.

Coaches are the main problem and while it was a good idea to let our driver know that there was one coming towards him I was less impressed that this was via a mobile phone call that he answered while negotiating one of the bends.

The bus journey ended at Molde.

This town is known for its roses but from the little I saw of it has nothing else going for it. This was the only low point of the holiday.

The tour ended with an evening meal in one of the hotels. The meat eaters got a slap of fish, mashed potato from a tin and frozen veg. They were lucky. After some panic at the mention of "vegetarian" I got just the mash and veg. Ugh.

The Midnatsol picked us up at Molde and took us on to Trondheim.

That mean another night on boat waiting for the sun to set. Eventually it obliged and sipped a little below the horizon for a couple of hours but before it did so it painted a streak of red across the water for us to remember it by.

Another good night's sleep on the peaceful boat then there was just enough time for breakfast before we arrived in Trondheim and the next stage of the holiday.

18 July 2011

Midsummer Art Fair

It was not my idea to go to the Midsummer Art Fair in Teddington but it was a good one.

I was tempted to go by friends, the possibility of a beer in the Tide End beforehand and the chance to go to the Landmark Arts Centre that makes good use of a Victorian Gothic church that was never actually completed.

Inside the exhibitors' stalls were crammed in to a few narrow aisles with each artist having a space about 2m long.

I guess this is what they are used to as they do the tour of art fairs and they all made good use of the space allocated to them.

As the brochure shows, there was a wide range of styles and techniques on show and this mix is part of the attraction as it allows you to experience the unexpected.

I only went to have a casual look around but still managed to pick up a few business cards along the way.

Claire West describes her work as Art to make you Smile, and that works for me.

The themes are simple, often flowers, and are presented with large dollops of shocking colour and wild exuberance.

I also like the simple style and the bold colours, there's a thirties art deco feel here, and that's a good thing.
Jennie Ing's work "mainly features the urban environment and the places she knows best: London and its nearby area."

I like the urban landscape of London too so the attraction was immediate.

I also like the simple style and the bold colours, there's a thirties art deco feel here, and that's a good thing.
Shyama Ruffell also likes flowers and draws lots of them individually and in busy meadows.

The colours and compositions are sedate and evoke the stillness and beauty of flower in their natural state.

There is something very girlie about these pictures but I wear flowery shirts so I live with that.

Lara Bowen is another fan of flowers and also of bright colours.

She also does fruit and landscapes etc. but it is the jolly pictures of flowers stuffed casually in to watering cans that really caught my eye.
Jan Levy is another artist who draws on London for her inspiration and uses bright colours to express it.

The effective result is a collage of colour that could almost be abstract art but which, on a longer inspection, reveals itself to be the City skyline.

There were several other artists' work that I liked, and I would have shown you one of Jennifer Jokhoo's stylistic pictures of London buildings and cranes if her website worked, but I think that you get the idea of what was on offer.

The prices were well within temptation range too, typically just a few tens or low hundreds of pounds depending on the size and complexity of the work, and all that stopped me from adding to my limited art collection was my complete lack of preparation.

Next time maybe.

17 July 2011

Bremen is Grimm

Bremen loves the Brothers Grimm's tale of the Town Musicians of Bremen and you come across the donkey, dog, cat and cockerel everywhere you go.

This is despite the fact that it is a short tale of little consequence (or merit) and that the musicians of Bremen where not musicians and did not get to Bremen.

They are normally to be seen standing on top of each other as they do in the story to scare the robbers away from the house.

This representation of them, of which there are several scattered across the city, shows the four animals reading the story about themselves. These statues are painted brightly and differently, much like the London elephants of last year.

The musicians brighten Bremen up and add a lovely touch of local folklore.

14 July 2011


Constraints with booking the boat for the next leg of the journey meant that I got to spend just one night and under 24 hours in Bergen. But that was enough to get a flavour of the place.

As you would expect, Bergen is centred around the harbour which is still very active but these days caters more for tourists than for fish.

One of the things that draws them in is the charming cottages that hug the harbour-side that is now littered with tables and chairs ready for those tourists to spend some of their money on food and drink.

At one end of the harbour is the old fort.

As with Oslo, this fort seems more for decoration than defence. At least it does the decorating bit quite well.

The setting helps with the old buildings surrounded by bouncy grass and appropriately regimented trees.

The park is not that large but the greenery sits nicely between the closely packed buildings of the harbour-side and the open sea beyond.

Having finished exploring the East side of the harbour it was time to climb the hill behind.

The lower slopes of the hill are packed with houses that despite the discomfort and difficulty of living on the slope make an effort to keep clean, pretty and colourful. The good burgers of Bergen add to this beauty by putting pots of flowers outside their houses.

Before long the houses give up trying to survive on the slope and they give way to the trees.

A network of paths criss-cross the hill-side taking you up and around to several places. Maps and signs help you to choose your way but I had no specific destination in mind so just kept going uphill for the better views.

There is also a funicular railway that goes straight to the top but I preferred the exercise and to keep the large amount of money required in my pocket.

A few other people were walking, jogging and even cycling along the paths but not that many and they soon passed so the walk was quiet and peaceful. One minute in the bustle of the town and the next in the calm of the country.

The point of climbing high is to look down.

The climb offered many views of the town below and while I would usually chose a picture of just roofs (and nearly did so) this time I've selected a panorama to give some idea of the size and shape of Bergen.

Of course there are the lovely roofs in the foreground, behind that are the grounds of the fort and behind that the entrance to the harbour.

The three cruise ships in the harbour seem to defy perspective by dwarfing even the buildings in the foreground. The fort would have been of little use if faced with warships that size.

Coming back down the hill a different way reveals more pretty houses on the lower slopes.

It's finding clutches of houses like this that made the random walk through Bergen so worthwhile.

Returning to the harbour-side it was time to trawl the Bryggen UNESCO World Heritage Centre that lies next to the fort.

Bryggen is a jumble of wooden buildings that grew organically to fill that section of the two with only a few narrow passageways between them.

The original buildings date from the 14th to the 16th century when Bergen was a major trading centre for the Hanseatic League.

Fire has been unkind to them over the years but they have been carefully restored allowing us an honest view of times past.

Trade has changed a little over the years too and now these buildings meet the needs of tourists with the predictable souvenirs, local crafts (jumpers mostly) and cafes. Trolls too.

So far I've only described the old town on the East side of the harbour but there is a new town too that caters more for the locals than the tourists.

The new town looks much like any other town in any other European country with wide pedestrianised streets lined with familiar shops.

In the one walk that I took in this area I found very little worth taking a picture of.

The one place that did stand out and which justified having its photograph taken was the park and lake in the centre of the town.

The fountain was expected (Norway has a great number of fountains) but is welcome none the less adding a touch of excitement and action to an otherwise sedate park.

I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Bergen and if I ever go back I'll spend more time exploring the hill and the new town. But, to be honest, I am unlikely to go back because, pretty though Bergen is, I think that I did all that I want to do there in one day.

12 July 2011

From Oslo to Bergen

The train journey to Oslo and then the day spent sightseeing there were all a prelude to the formal part of the holiday that I had booked as a package.

An advert in the Saturday Guardian for a tour described as Norwegian Fjords and Mountain Highlights seemed just the trick, so I went for it.

This is a round trip starting and finishing at Oslo so I had to organise the London/Oslo bit but the rest was sorted.

There is a fast train from Oslo to Bergen but I was going the pretty way.

Actually this mean starting with a bus due to the extensive works around Oslo closing most of the rail lines.

The bus (or rather buses, there were a lot of us taking this leg of the journey) went as far as Honefoss and then there was a proper train to Myrdal where an old, and very packed (I stood), train took us down the picturesque Flam Railway.

Along the way we stopped by this thundering waterfall where a wide wooden platform let us get up close and wet. That was very welcome on a hot day. As was the opportunity to stretch legs a little.

The rest of the valley was pretty, if not sensational, and the slow journey down hill to Flam passed easily enough, despite the standing.

Waiting for us there was our boat to take us to Bergen.

Sadly it was not the grand cruiser in the background but, instead, it was the smaller more functional boat.

It was also a fast boat which meant that the journey was a mere five hours. There was not much to do on the boat for that time but luckily there was plenty to look at from the boat and the sunny weather encouraged you outside to appreciate it better.

We had trees all the way, whatever the shape of the valley, but when it was shallow we had farms and summer houses and when it was steep we had mostly just rocks.

We stopped at a couple of places along the way but their names meant nothing to me and were quickly forgotten. None of them was particularly large but I was surprised at how much settlement there was along the fjord and even the most desolate regions could boast a hut or two.

The snow was a surprise to me.

I did not think that the Norwegian mountains were not that tall (and I'm still not convinced that they are) but it is a long way North; Oslo and Bergen are on similar latitudes and are both above mainland Scotland.

That combination was enough to keep some snow on the mountain tops on a hot day in July.

I presume that the still melting snow was one of the causes of the many waterfalls I saw along the way.

They almost stopped being interesting, but not quite.

As we got closer to Bergen the mountains slipped in to the distance and the immediate shore was (relatively) flat, rocky, uninhabitable and yet inhabited.

Some people obviously like having rocks for neighbours.

The fjord splits apart and divides the coastal region in to a series of islands (a Viking word) such that the concept of mainland almost becomes meaningless.

The more populated islands were always linked by water and now they are increasingly linked by tarmac and concrete too with sleek and slender bridges cutting through the sky.

And finally Bergen.

The journey started with a bus at 8am, had a couple of trains in the middle and ended with a boat just over twelve hours later.

That made it a fairly long day with a lot of travel but there was just so much to see every step of the way that it definitely felt more like a day of holiday than a day of travel.

In particular, the boat journey was both relaxing (inside) and refreshing (outside).

I saw little of Bergen on that evening as the hotel was on the harbour-side (though on the other side from where the boat came in) as was Pepes Pizza where I went for my evening meal before calling it a day.

The little of Bergen that I did see when walking around the harbour held out promise for the next day.

10 July 2011

A day in Oslo

The only time that I had been to Oslo before was around fifteen years ago, and that was a short business trip where I managed to see virtually nothing of the city, so it was good to have a full day to explore at leisure.

My hotel was next to the central train station so the exploration started from there.

I headed West along a main pedestrianised road that was processional in nature with wide pavements shaded by avenues of trees.

Along the way I passed the somewhat underwhelming parliament building and the slightly grander National Theatre.

The most attractive feature was the succession of gardens each with several water features, plenty of flowers and copious seats on which to rest and enjoy it all.

At the end of the road is the Royal Palace.

It sits on the top of a slight incline which gives it commanding views back across the city.

I believe that the place is still in use but, as with other Scandinavian and North European monarchies, security is not as overt as it is in England and it is possible to climb through the short garden and then walk across the large parade ground right up to it.

The parade ground make the front view of the palace a little harsh but step to one side and in to one of the gardens and the view becomes much more appealing, helped a little by the statue of Maud.

Turning South from the Palace takes you to a new and vibrant part of the city.

As is the case with other waterfront developments world-wide there are stunning new buildings with lots of open space between them filled with imaginative (or crazy) works of art.

There are also lots of cafes crammed with people appreciating the setting and the ambiance.

Here, on the far left, we have a footbridge connecting two parts of the development and in the centre the large waterfall has a crocodile like feature behind it and a man on stilts in front.

This all adds up to fun and the ideal place to have a coffee or an ice cream.

Just to the East of the new quarter is the large fifties style block of brick that is the Radhus (Town Hall) that makes you think for a moment that you've slipped the other side of the Iron Curtain.

I actually like the building a lot but I like the park in front of it, that separates it from the sea, even more.

Flowers grace the section nearest the building and beyond these is a large paved area with three fountains and two statues.

This is clearly another place that people like to congregate on sunny days, as the group of paddling girls demonstrates.

Turning south again takes you to the old castle.

The small size of the castle may be one reason why Noway has spent most of its history as part of Denmark or Sweden!

Today it provides a contrast to the rest of the city, old stones resting on a grassy hill and watching over a harbour that has long since outgrown its ability to protect.

We too can rest and watch over the old part of harbour as an endless stream of small boats eases in and out.

But we cannot rest for ever and the time comes to slip West over the headland where we find one of Oslo's greatest treasures.

The Opera House is stunning.

It slopes up from West to East and then turns and slopes the other way. And what makes it extra special is that you can clamber all over these slopes.

This picture is taken at the turning point with the lower level sweeping down to the harbour and the upper level climbing up to become a popular vantage point.

A closer look will reveal that the slopes are not uniform and there are smaller slopes within the larger one and patterns within the white stone. These are solely for the pleasure of the clamberers and confirm that the outside of the building is as important as the inside.

I've seen first-hand some of the world's greatest opera houses and while Sydney, Glyndebourne and Helsinki all have their considerable charms, Oslo Opera House is my new favourite.

7 July 2011

Directors Showcase at The Orange Tree

As is now the tradition, the Orange Tree Theatre ends its season with two short plays that showcase the skills of new directors. And is also the tradition, these plays are some of the most challenging that the theatre put on.

First up was Then the Snow Came, adapted and directed by Jimmy Grimes. This was inspired by, and incorporated parts of, The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde but set amongst the homeless of today's Richmond.

Here we meet Stuart and Mickey. Stuart is new to homelessness having come out of the Army and Mickey has been on the streets for some years following the breakup of his marriage and a drinking problem. Typical stories and, no doubt, chosen for that reason.

Mickey gets a letter to say that his ex-wife is ill and tries to get the money to make the trip home to the North East. Stuart has dreams of a place in a hostel and some sort of job.

But this is the world of the unemployed and things are not easy.

We follow Mickey and Stuart for a couple of days and learn a lot more about them and their lifestyle as we do so. It's a gripping and harrowing picture of life on the edge of society that reminds us that people still live like that and they are still people.

In contrast, Winter by Jon Fosse (Norway) and directed by Teunkie Van der Sluijs is almost a love story. Almost. With lots of swearing.

A businessman in another town for a meeting meets a girl in a park who wants to talk to him. He wants to get away but cannot. After they go back to his hotel she tries to get away from him but cannot.

He is a married man with children and a steady job and she is damaged goods.

There is no great passion in their relationship but there is a strong compulsion and the business man ends up pleading with the girl to go away with him.

The story is simple but the motives and emotions are anything but, and it is that drama that draws us through the play. And that's a rough journey but I loved it.

I found the second of the two play the more interesting but it was clear from the audience reaction that some were uncomfortable with the very strong language used, possibly unnecessarily.

These were two difficult plays tackling difficult subjects and that made them the more rewarding and a welcome change of pace from the farces that were on before.

It's a bold decision for the Orange Tree to put on plays like this and they have my warmest thanks for doing so. This is real in-your-face theatre doing what only theatre can.

3 July 2011

To Oslo by train

It has been a while since I've been to Scandinavia on holiday and longer still since my one visit to Norway so it seemed to be a good time to head north. And, as last year, I chose to do it by train rather than take the more troublesome and planet-killing plane.

All international train journeys in the UK start at St Pancras, and what a good place to start it is.

It was a lot more convenient for me when the Eurostar left from Waterloo but that is dingy and decrepit and is hardly the place to start or end a grand adventure. William Boot would not have approved.

The new St Pancras is clean, fresh and airy in a modern way but is still protected by its magnificent Victorian roof.

From there it was next stop Brussels, of which probably the least said the better. I know people who live there and say that it is a nice city but it is horribly let down by its shabby, camped and confusing station.

The on to Koln (Cologne) and a much better station in a much better location, perched just above the Rhine and squeezed as close to the Cathedral as possible while still allowing them both the space to be their own landmarks.

And another sensational roof.

The next leg to Copenhagen took me up through Germany and Denmark as far as Kolding then it was a hard right and across a series of bridges and islands.

But I saw little of this as I was travelling overnight in a sleeper car. I woke soon after Kolding, which is a shame because it is a pretty town.

After Copenhagen it was the short hop through the tunnel and over the bridge to Malmo.

This is as far as Deutsche Bahn could take me for some reason and the rest of the journey was booked through SJ, the state-owned railway company.

SJ would not post the tickets to me in the UK (in rejected my post code format) so I had to collect them from a machine in the station. This worked well and any worries about being becalmed in Malmo were quickly dispersed.

Large parts of Sweden (and Norway) are being rebuilt so the journey to Oslo had to be made in stages. First there was the regular train to Goteborg, then a replacement bus service to Trollhattan and finally a Norwegian train in to Oslo, arriving just in time for a Pizza and a scramble over the new opera house.

I left St Pancras on Friday at 14:30 and arrived in Oslo on Saturday at 20:45. The journey was easy and there was plenty of time at each change to catch a meal and even to see some of the town before moving on.

Now that I am in Oslo the holiday really begins but getting here has been part of the adventure. This is much better than flying.