29 February 2012

The Lady from the Sea at the Rose

The Rose Theatre and I still do not get on.

I am doing my best to like it, and I even have tickets for two more shows, but nothing I have seen there so far has been special and The Lady from the Sea was decidedly poor.

I have seen a few Ibsen plays over the years and I really loved The Dolls House at the Arcola Theatre last year, so I went to this with some reasonable expectations. Though, to be fair, I was a cheapskate and went during the preview week to get cheaper seats.

The Lady from the Sea tells the tale of a woman who is haunted by a relationship in her past and wonders if she made the right decision.

She married somebody else (his second wife) and moved away from her home town to live with him and his two daughters. Step daughters and Mum are not close.

Then news comes that the old flame is not only alive but working on a steamer that is due to visit the local port. The flame duly arrives to claim his former lover and she needs to decide again which path to take.

So, like other Ibsen plays, it is a tense emotional drama with a limited amount of action. And that's fine as long as it is presented well but I found the Rose's production lacking in some key areas.

The set was simple enough (which I like) though you would never have guessed that it was meant to be Norway.

I also felt that it was too bright for the emotions that it was trying to portray. It reminded me of a P S Kroyer painting, and that's a happy scene in flat Denmark.

Some of the casting I found a little awkward.

The Lady and her husband I could believe in (him possibly more than her) but the rest of the cast seemed to float around the story with little purpose or intent. The old flame did not flicker let alone burn with any passion.

It was also very static, rather like those ballets where only the person dancing is allowed to move. Some of the more intense and dramatic scenes were little more than the two actors standing still and talking to each other. No movement and no passion.I am sure that the play would have been just as effective in audio only.

I left the Rose extremely disappointed with what I had seen and the only consolation was that I had enjoyed it far more than the couple at the bus stop.

28 February 2012

LIKE 33: Copyright, Hargreaves and DEA

I had to rush back from working in Cardiff to get to LIKE 33 on time but I was not going to miss this one as copyright and related subjects are a hot topic for me.

I even wrote a blog post ahead of the discussion to make my position absolutely clear. I do not like copyright!

I am not the only one who finds this topic interesting and, once again, LIKE was a full house with a waiting list.

We arrived in dribs and drabs and started networking with our first drink until the bewitching hour of 6:30 when we all sat our appointed tables.

These are arranged by food choice and, as a vegetarian, I have less choice than most others and I usually find myself on the right side of the room. This suits me fine - I like being on an edge so I can see the whole room easily.

Our guide for the evening was Professor Charles Oppenheim who everybody else seemed to have heard of. But then they are all real librarians and information managers while I'm just an enthusiastic dabbler.

His talk was lively, informative, humorous, provocative and captivating. My poor notes from the meeting are a testament of my inability to listen, write and tweet all at the same time and not a fault of the speaker. These are my words, not his.

Charles took us through some of the history and current status of digital copyright and the issues arising from this.

Orphaned work are a well-known problem and are a major issue for digital heritage projects like Google Books. We may lose some things because we do not know who to ask about saving them.

Copyright laws were brought in and are continually being strengthened due to the effective lobbying of the large media companies. There are no equivalent large companies arguing the other case (though Google may step in to this role). Suppliers are organised and wealthy whereas consumers are not.

In many ways librarians are well placed to lead the fightback through their knowledge of managing information assets (they used to be called books) but they do not have the political training nor the budgets to go head-to-head against media lobbyists.

The people, like the PRS, who enforce copyright laws are all over zealous bullies. They pick on a few people and make it a national story to scare other people off.

I noted that many forceful advocates of copyright have been caught with their pants down copying other people's work. These people do not believe in copyright as a right, they only believe in their copyright as a source of income.

However little money Cliff Richard gets from his old recordings it is too much.

Hargreaves recommends making some exceptions to the general copyright laws, e.g. to allow archivists to do their work.

Copying digital material permanently is illegal but recording to play later (time-shirting) is allowed. Technology will soon fill this gap and we will be able to record everything that is broadcast just in case we want to watch it one day. Home computers already have terrabytes of storage.

The DEA is a disaster (no news there then). The 3-strikes rule is most likely to impact providers of wi-fi to the public, e.g. hotels and coffee chains, and they might be forced to withdrawn this service. That would be a monumental step backwards.

The glimmer of hope is that the legislation will be surpassed by technology (e.g. more storage and user-friendly peer-to-peer networks), international loop-holes (e.g. stream the latest blockbuster from a site in China) and growing public indifference to copyright (e.g. everything is free, isn't it?).

The later is possibly a road to anarchy but it seems more preferable to me than the road the big media companies want to take us down.

27 February 2012

Bingo at the Young Vic

It has been quite a while since I bought tickets for an event over a year in advance, and that is what I did for Bingo.

The draw was Patrick Stewart, as the promotion for the show makes quite clear.

He plays the part of an elderly Shakespeare who has finished writing, left London and returned to his country home which he shares with a wife and daughter whom he cannot stand and a couple of servants whom he respects more.

Shakespeare, a minor landowner, gets caught up in the lard reforms of the time, enclosure of common land, and that brings him in to local politics on the side of the rich. This is the right move for him financially but he seems unhappy with it.

He is also unhappy with other aspects of the then current ways of the world and, through his eyes, we learn about matters like almost casual hangings and bear baiting.

Shakespeare is a troubled soul.

He spends a lot of time sitting in the garden despite protestations from the house maid that he should try and keep warm.

There he talks to staff, family, visitors and, when all else fails, himself.

The other scenes are less idyllic and include a gallows, a bar and his bed chamber which is locked to keep his wife and daughter out.

The conversations continue in all these settings and through them we learn more and more about Shakespeare and his world, neither of which are particularly bright. There is little to see of what gave him the title Bard of Avon except, perhaps, a few glimpses in his monologues.

If I suggest that there is little substance, i.e. story, in the play then that is probably right, yet that is not a problem. The play resounds with the words of Shakespeare and they are delivered brilliantly by Patrick Stewart. The rest of the cast play their part too and are more than just foils to his brilliance.

Bingo educates us on Shakespeare's life and times and offers some captivating side stories as it does so.

26 February 2012

TFPL Connect: KIM for social responsibility

TFPL Connect is one of those events that I am always quick to book. It may be more uneven in quality than LIKE but it is never poor, there are only a few each year, they are always oversubscribed and I always enjoy them.

One of the things that I like about TFPL Connect is that the sessions usually look at business issues and how Knowledge and Information Management (KIM) can help to address those, i.e. they are looking for solutions to problems, whereas a lot of the KIM debate is based on techniques and technologies, i.e. solutions looking for a problem to solve.

And that was the case this time where we looked at the needs of companies that want to take a social perspective of what they do.

First up was Stuart Jackson, Actis, a private equity fund with the mantra "The Positive Power of Capital" (PPC).

Broadly speaking this means that they try to do social good with the investments they make, as well as turning a profit.

Actis use their intranet to explain PPC to their employees.

TED-like videos have proven to be the most effective for delivering education content.

Getting people to blog has been difficult (an experience that I've shared at Logica) due to the cultural change required, sharing is not just OK it is expected.

There has been good use of Speed Dating to match employees with skills to offer with to social organisations looking for help. This enables the people to match their attitudes and aspirations too.

Our second speaker was Nick Temple of Social Enterprise UK who gave us insights in to how social businesses operate.

These are for-profit organisations (i.e. not charities) but they serve a social purpose and direct their profits to this.

They get their income from trade rather than donations. Big Issue is probably the most obvious example.

Social Enterprises tend to be small and local and networking with similar organisations is an intrinsic part of the way that they operate, either to work together on specific projects or to take learning from one project to another.

After a brief Q&A session we were asked to consider the question "what is the question?" on our tables. I'm not sure that everybody understood the subtleties of that question (i.e. they did not agree with me on it!)  but the questions that came from our table were, What can we do to help (e.g. what useful skills do we have)?, What help is needed? and Who defines what a social objective is?

After the main session was the equally important networking that effortlessly filled the next hour and a half or so during which bodies are kept going with wine and peanuts.

KM is all about conversations and the room was full of them. I had many with lots of different people as we all moved professionally around the room.

Gradually the people drifted away with me one of the very last to leave, as usual, due to having an easy journey home.

This journey was made even easier by the re-opening that day of Blackfriars tube station that had been closed for a couple of years for substantial rebuilding. The news did not seem to have spread very far and the station was almost empty. A refreshingly quiet end to stimulating evening.

24 February 2012

A stroll to Strand on the Green

I really like the walk to Strand on the Green so it's a shame that busy schedules mean that I only get to do it once a year or so.

The journey starts simply enough with the much-used 65.

This time it takes me beyond Richmond, even beyond Kew Gardens and on to Kew Bridge.

I could get off the other side of the bridge and save myself a little walk but the walk over the bridge is where the journey really begins and is not to be missed.

From the bridge the north bank is laid out before you revealing the path about to be followed. The river is worth looking at too!

On the far side of the bridge some icy steps take you down to the river which follows you as you continue the journey downstream.

Kew Bridge sits patiently behind you and it is worth turning back to pay it some respect before leaving it behind.

The river is very much alive along this stretch as it is teased by the tide, wind and rain.

Today it is wide, sleepy and peaceful but it has other games that it can play. The sort of games that can kill the unwary. The lifeboat at Chiswick is kept very busy.

The river is definitely grateful for the water that fills it. When the tide is lower the exposed mud embarrasses the river with its ugliness.

The passage along the Thames is marked by its bridges and having left the road bridge behind the rail bridge appears.

This was a harsh day and the seagulls were sensible enough to find protection from the cold water, even if this does mean resting on something ugly.

Peering over the raised bank on the south-side is a row of curious cottages that seem to be almost ashamed to be there.

That may be because the houses that they look at on the north-bank are somewhat grander. And they know it.

These are brazen houses that insist that you pay attention to them as you attempt to walk past.

On the south-side the houses are set back from the river and hidden behind a bank whereas on this side they sit close to the river, just the path separates the two, and they rise high and proud.

Their owners recognise the part that the houses pay in defining the character of the area and they are all well looked after, mostly by doing as little to them as possible other than maintaining the freshness of the paint.

The rail bridge that not long before defined the horizon now approaches and becomes more interesting as it does so.

The basic construction is, er, basic. The bridge has an important function to perform and that has priority.

Having achieved its structural role the bridge is free to dally in some decoration.

The railings on the spans are neatly patterned and the tops of the pillars are painted subtly. It is like a teenage boy that quietly explores his female side.

The reason for this walk, like many good walks, was a Sunday lunch in one of the pubs that take advantage of the many walkers passing. They are strung out along the path like a spider's web except that this time the flies want to be caught.

23 February 2012

Carmen at Normansfield Theatre

If ever an event had "go to me" written all over it then it was this one.

Carmen is a great opera full of audience-friendly tunes, I had not been to the recently restored Victorian delight that is Normansfield Theatre before, and all the proceeds were for the charity that is based there, the Down’s Syndrome Association (Down's Syndrome takes its name from Dr John Langdon Down who established Normansfield Hospital).

So it came to pass that I went to my second opera of the year the day after the first one.

Arriving promptly (the internet and open data make catching buses so easy these days) I went downstairs to the temporary bar for a bottle of (sadly American) Budweiser. Even in the basement the building impressed with its period structure such as the decorated yet simple metal pillars, the sort that adorn railway stations across the country.

To add further interest there were a couple of large wooden models of ships and any boy, or any age, would be impressed by their level of detail and their scale.

Also impressive is the theatre itself.

The basic construction is like a school stage with a high platform and a flat hall filled with ordinary chairs.

The decoration is anything but ordinary and the hall is a richness of colour and detail. This tells you that something special is going to happen.

And it does.

The opening of Carmen reminds you just how tuneful the opera is as the overture plants tempting snippets of music that you know will be brought to fruition later.

The opera lives or dies on the person playing Carmen and to be a success she must both sing beautifully and convince you that she is a wild temptress who drives men crazy with desire for her. This Carmen comfortably accomplished both.

There were strengths and weaknesses elsewhere but the average performance was a high average and Carmen raised the overall score even higher.

I went expecting to enjoy the building and the music while putting up with the performance but that was just me being pessimistic and I delighted in all three. This was a jolly night out (despite all the on-stage drama) and one that I'll cherish.

22 February 2012

Tales of Hoffmann at ENO

I do not think of myself as a big opera fan yet I found myself at the start of the year with tickets to ten of them, including five at Glyndebourne and three at the English National Opera (ENO). And it was ENO that came up first with The Tales of Hoffmann.

I have mixed feelings about ENO their venue, the London Coliseum.

I prefer operas to be sung as they were written, i.e. in their original language, and fail to see the point to translating them to English and then having sur titles in English too.

Perhaps they should do the sur titles in the original language for the purists.

The London Coliseum has charm but I feel that it over relies on that at the expense of comfort and convenience. Getting a drink during the interval is very hard and that is still easier than trying to get a seat. Also some of the steps to the theatre are a little harder than you would like. This is meant to be a place of entertainment not an endurance course.

I tend to judge operas by their music, singing, story and staging, and why change a method that works?

The music is pleasant enough but you do not catch yourself humming any of the tunes on the tube home.

With so little to work with the singers do exceptionally well. No complaints on that side at all. The tales of Hoffmann and his women makes this an opera of solos and duets rather than choruses so it is captivating rather than rousing.

The basic tenant of the story is cute. Hoffmann hides from his lover by going to the pub with his mates where he regales them with three stories about women, or three aspects of the same woman.

Hoffman loses each of the women in the stories and then his real-life lover as he prefers to stay in the pub. He concludes by announcing that he has gained more through his loss than he would have done through the easier option of love. It is sort of a sad ending but one which ends with the hero happy.

ENO recognises that the opera lacks a little in some areas and so makes an effort with the staging, and this pays off. I liked the trick of finding ingenious ways for the cast to make their entrances and exists, such as arriving through cupboards and pianos.

It is also a vibrant and energetic performance with lots of motion on the stage and the soloists climbing on chairs and tables to be heard the better.

There is nothing terribly wrong with the Tales of Hoffman and there is nothing particularly special about it either. That kind of makes it average, which is OK. It is only in schools where satisfactory is a dirty word, elsewhere it means good enough.

21 February 2012

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: February 2012

February's meeting of the Kingston upon Thames Committee opened with a presentation from a visitor who gave us an overview of some changes planned for Tiffin School.

He was well prepared and we were treated with all sorts of full colour plans.The scheme has much to recommend it but the immediate problem is getting funding and that is not easy in the current climate. Watch this space.

The meeting proper went over some familiar ground with some updates on the current major schemes and plans, e.g. Surbiton Filter Beds and Tolworth Broadway.

The Kingston upon Thames Society can be exceedingly conservative at times yet it takes a positive and supportive approach on many of these schemes that flies against some of the more vocal public opinion. I like that.

I was saddened to hear that the Swan Inn (scene of Labour Party Quiz Nights in the past) had closed and is being converted by Kingston University in to offices and a gallery. I suppose that a gallery is not a bad option and is certainly much better than what they could have done with it.

The Open House event promises to be bigger and better this year (all thanks to Jennifer) and we spent some time worrying if we would have to reduce the size of the font on the leaflet to get all the details on.

The low point came at the end under AOB when we nodded through a proposal to print some of the cards shown here. I wanted to talk about fonts, images, use of capitals etc. but the meeting was not mindful to have any sort of a discussion and the proposal was nodded through.

I can see that I am going to have to do some work on the communications side.

That said, I agree with the sentiments expressed on the card and encourage anybody interested in the built environment in the Borough of Kingston upon Thames to  join the Society or just to try one of our meetings or have a look at our website.

Hampstead Heath in the snow

I was in Hampstead for the theatre and that allowed me to make my first visit to Hampstead Heath. From Richmond that is an easy journey, you just take the Overground to, er. Hampstead Heath station and cross the road.

A short walk through a narrow section of the park takes you to the ponds in the south-east corner with houses looking on enviously. Here the snow and ice still had a grip on the land that it had lost south of the river.

Taking random paths from there, trying to head towards the centre of the park and to keep away from people, took me in to landscapes that I had only seen before on holidays in Eastern Europe.

Far from retreating from the sun, the snow was still fresh and crisp and made a satisfying crunching sound as you walked.

If I knew the paths I could have go lost in the snow's confusion but I managed to get totally lost without the snow's help.

The map suggested that Kenwood was a place to head for but much like the Three Men in a Boat could not avoid the centre of Hampton Court Maze I continually found myself walking away from it.

I finally got in to the grounds of the house and carefully followed the map to the house itself, only to find myself leaving the grounds and back in the Heath again.

A second foray in to the Kenwood estate was more successful and  I was back on the main path to my chosen exit.

The snow kept me company all the way while the bare trees caught the light of the falling sun to create contrasts and shadows.

Even after an hour or more the landscape still felt and looked unnatural, which only reinforced the reason for being there.

We get so little snow in London that there is a childish excitement when it comes that draws us in to its heart. It even calls to us all the way from Hampstead.

20 February 2012

Brotherly Love at Pentameters

Having discovered Pentameters Theatre at the end of last year and having proved to myself that the journey up north to Hampstead is possible with little effort or danger it was no surprise to find myself back there to see Brotherly Love.

The theatre is probably the smallest that I have even been to, the way up to it from the street is via a cluttered narrow staircase and the entrance is through the mysteriously dark box office.

All this add to the excitement and the experience. Discovering the play starts with discovering the theatre.

Downstairs, in another world, is the Horseshoe pub, that is fiercely current, i.e. it looks and feels like every other gastro pub that you have been to. This is perfect for the pre-theatre drink simply because of its location, otherwise it has little to offer.

Brotherly Love tells the story of two brothers whose common past includes playing in a puck rock / new wave covers band (an excellent excuse to punctuate the evening with some fine tunes and finer words from that period) before they took wildly different tracks.

Public School educated Ian is a barrister looking to move in to politics while Barry dropped-out and led a narcotics fuelled life.

In the middle sits Oxbridge educated Carla, Ian's current girl friend.

The play opens with Carla laying the dinner table ready for Ian and some influential guests only to have Brian arrive and throw various spanners in the works.

Ian arrives soon later and then the sparks start to fly. Ian makes it clear that he does not want to see Brian, much less say anything to him.

Brian tries to explain that his dark past is behind him and he is looking for reconciliation, Carla sides with reconciliation over conflict and is the glue that gets them talking again, albeit not in a very friendly way.

Encouraged by Carla, Brian becomes a regular visitor.

As the brothers talk we learn more about them, their shared past and why their feud started. Some of this is not unexpected, a woman is involved, and some of it comes as a shock to both us watching and to the other brother.

What we at first accepted as "it's complicated" in a Facebook sense soon becomes complicated in a very real sense as all three lives unravel.

The present becomes complicated too as new relationships form and old ones rekindle.

All this happens in a light-hearted and humorous way. There is no malice in anybody's heart and while dark deeds are done these are mistakes rather than machinations.

And they are mistakes that we can forgive in the characters. We watch without taking sides and can enjoy the humour in their behaviour.

Brotherly Love offers no great insights in to the human position, and I do not think that it tries to. What it does do is show a little of the imperfection in all of us while entertaining us in the process. It is a lot of fun.

16 February 2012

Muswell Hill at the Orange Tree

Muswell Hill is so funny at times that at one point the action had to pause momentarily to allow a member of the audience to recover from a particularly violent and loud fit of laughter.

But lets go back to the beginning.

I got their early enough to get my preferred position on the front bench opposite the entrance. For some reason all the other occupants appeared to be doctors, including one I know.

From my usual seat I took my usual photo of the stage taken at a jaunty angle. I was looking in to the jaws of a kitchen and that is where all the action takes place.

What we witness is a dinner party, and it's something of a car crash.

The guests arrive one at a time allowing us to be introduced to each of them in turn. They are all odd, if not quite weird, in some way and the cause for this is often buried in their histories.

And that's how the story progresses.

We meet more people (I will not give any games away by saying how many they are or why they are there) and we learn more about them.

Some of this is genuinely surprising and shocking, both in a funny way and a dramatic way.

The characters move in and out of the kitchen and we have a series of short interplays between two or three of them.

A lot of this is seriously funny and, again, I do not want to give anything away but the singing scene and the Shakespearean quotes scene are two of the many gems.

There are darker moments too. These are usually dug up from the past but there are present day tensions too, mostly of a kind that tends to be called relationship problems. Some of the old scars are much worse than that.

In the background to these personal dramas we get newsflashes about the earthquake in Haiti. Little is made of this by the party guests but it sits there as a constant reminder that things could be worse.

The actors are excellent, but you knew that as they always are.

If I had to pick fault with the play it would be with the production that makes little of the Orange Trees unique layout and with the cumbersome set that may be a little too big for the stage.

All that does though is knock a five star performance down to four and three quarters.

Muswell Hill is a violently funny play that also manages to shock you with some black moments and that makes for a hugely satisfying evening.

15 February 2012

X In Search of Space

Hoaxwind certainly have some good ideas for concerts.

In December they audaciously played either side of the Hawkwind Christmas Concert in the pub next door to the venue and now they may have even topped that by playing with Hawkwind Legend Nik Turner (currently very active with Space Ritual) and including Hawkwind's second album, In Search of Space, in its entirety.

Hoaxwind also find some unusual venues to play in and so I found myself in Tufnell Park for the first time ever. This sits just above Kentish Town so I should not have been surprised to find that The Boston Arms is an Irish Pub.

Luckily I had swapped my Welsh Rugby shirt that I wore earlier in the day for something traditionally black.

The venue was actually the Boston Arms Music Room which has its own entrance and bar so I headed there as soon as my pint of Guinness was finished and did not wait to see the conclusion of the Gaelic Football match that was on the big screen in the public bar.

Next door the music had started with the opening set from Scud Penguin followed by one from The Strange Agency. Both were acceptable appetisers for the main course.

Hoaxwind started much as usual, and that is a good.

The stage was a mixed blessing. There seemed to be plenty of space for everybody (and don't forget that there are seven Hoaxwindians) but the odd shape meant that some of them were hidden in dark corners.

I was too busy enjoying the music to make any attempt at a set list so I'll assume that the opening part of their set was mostly the four-minute songs they favour like Urban Guerrilla, Damnation Alley and Kerb Crawler.

Nik joined them early on, squeezing in to a busy front row next to Eugene where they played a game of swap-the-instrument all night. Eugene won that one by bringing out an acoustic guitar.

As the set progressed the quality of the sound became more obvious. I don't know if it was the sound system, the large hall or a combination of the two but something was working very well.

The main beneficiary of this was the spacey electronics that were more audible than ever before and added a lot of richness to the wall of sound.

Somewhere in the set In Search of Space started with the Turner/Brock composition You Shouldn't Do That, which lasts a long time but not long enough. The pretty full crowd was dancing seriously by then and most were joining in with the many repeats of "Shouldn't Do That" in the chorus.

Of course we also had Master of the Universe from the same album as well as other long-play favourites like Brainstorm and Orgone Accumulator (pretty much established as my favourite Hoaxwind/Space Ritual track).

It was a sociable evening too with several familiar faces there. It was good to meet Dennis Brunskill IRL for the first time and disappointing not to link-up with John Keogh (who looks nothing like his profile pictures on facebook or foursquare).

The party lasted until after Midnight when the many happy revellers then had to face the twin challengers of heavy snow on the roads and no trains underground.

Luckily I had been offered a lift back to Kingston (thanks Margaret!) and our path home was passable with caution.

I still have my reservations about Tufnell Park but none about Hoaxwind. This was another excellent concert and probably their best ever. Wherever they go from here I'll be going with them.

14 February 2012

Willoughby Pub Quiz (February 2012)

Having been lured back in to the Willoughby Arms Pub Quiz in December I was soon called in to action again. I suspect that this had more to do with my willingness to set another quiz rather than any great enthusiasm for the way that I set them.

This time I did rounds on: Parks, Gardens and Recreation Grounds in Kingston upon Thames; TV Spin-offs, e.g. Holby City comes from Casualty; Top Scorers, e.g. Monty Panesar took 69 wickets for Sussex; EU Leaders; No. 1 singles on 27 January starting with 1957 and Frankie Vaughan's "The Garden of Eden"; and Advertising Slogans, e.g. "Finger lickin' good" was used by KFC.

As usual some of the rounds proved to be harder than others. I expect people to do better on the round on Kingston than they did but I knew that the round on EU leaders would be low-scoring. The TV and Advertising Slogan rounds proved to be the easiest and I think we even got some 10/10s.

I followed up my picture round from the last time on cartoon cats with an equally easy one on cartoon dogs.

This is the one round where I did not have to write the answers down as all of these dogs are very familiar to me.

How many can you name?

11 February 2012

Big Ideas on Social Justice

Recent meetings of Big Ideas have been busy and an early arrival is advised so when the star turn was Newsnight's Paul Mason I got there around 6:30pm for an 8pm start. It was a good move.

There were other early birds and I was soon juggling conversations with beer and cheesy chips. By the time we got to the bewitching hour they were standing in the aisles ready to hear Paul Mason espouse on his chosen subject, What Would Be A Socially Just Solution To The Current Economic Crisis?

Paul told a history of Social Justice starting with the interesting claim that Social Justice was invented by the Catholic Church centuries ago to keep their followers away from Socialism and, in the modern day, has been refined by the likes of Rawls to remove the original concepts of power and hierarchy.

An early sound-bite was that neo-liberalism had converted the rural poor to the urban poor.

This stalled a decade or more ago and since then growth has been maintained by borrowing rather than increases in pay. This form of capitalism has run its course and the question now is what will replace it?

The current approach to debt bankrupts countries not banks and this impacts most on the young who need governments to provide the services and pensions etc. that earlier generations have enjoyed.

An example of what this means is cutting the minimum wage in Greece and threatening to do so here.

As times become harder the call for protectionism grows. There will be a trade war with China.

There is also a growth in the appeal of marginal parties, both left and right, as the mainstream central parties are seen to have no answers. Or, more worryingly, are too myopic to see the real problem that they face.

Opening the debate up to the floor we got our first mention of Marx, no Big Ideas meeting is complete until he gets mentioned.

I made the point that the young have been loosing out for some time but they have not noticed. For example, I was paid to go to university whereas today they have to pay $9,000 a year. Similarly Legal Aid has withered away.

The People: Planet: Profit: mantra is just a disguise and copies the factory acts of a century ago. The real aim is not to be nice to people but to make sure that there are still markets and employees in the future. It is the system that is being protected.

It is no longer clear what the working class believe in or are prepared to fight for, which makes it difficult to engage with them politically. We do not have a modern equivalent of a Land fit for Heroes.

The debate was wide-reaching and absorbing. Paul answered eloquently and at length pulling stories from history to make his points. I was seriously impressed.

Less impressive, but sadly not uncommon for Big Ideas, was some of the intellectual snobbery on display where people were criticised for not having read something or other, e.g. Rawls, or for having, done so, come to a different conclusion from the questioner.

But I can let intellectual snobbery pass me by and the overwhelming impressions of the evening were Paul Mason's authority and the conversations with friends. Another excellent evening at Big Ideas.

10 February 2012

LIKE 32: The Future of History

Having missed LIKE 31, on information literacy, a topic I am very interested in, (due to working away) I was keen to get back in the groove and go to LIKE 32 on digital archives, a topic I am not that interested in. Or so I thought.

Our guides for the evening were LIKE stalwart Lena Roland and Adrian Brown from the Parliament Archives.

Lena opened with a general description of the problems relating to the retention of digital materials and some of the approaches than can be used to address these. Adrian then explained the specific issues that Parliament has and the work that they are now doing.

In the past most information was stored on physical media (paper, film, etc.) and while these have their own preservation problems they are generally understood. Whereas now most is created and stored digitally. This creates new problems that we need to solve.

Compounding the problem is the sheer volume of information. Once we just had a few newspapers and TV channels to worry about, now we have to add the likes of blogs, twitter, Google+, Facebook, etc. etc.

This means that a "save everything" solution is difficult to create and even harder to search. The alternative "save the important stuff" solution relies on good judgement on what is worth saving and that judgement often only comes with hindsight. For example, all my old family photos may become useful if one of my sons becomes famous but otherwise they have little external value.

This is not just a problem for historians and archivists, we are all creators of digital content and need to come up with our own solutions for our documents, photos, blogs and tweets.

Some organisations are wise to the problem with initiatives to, for example, archive Twitter.

Searching will become more of a problem. Books have ISBNs to identify and classify them but there are no equivalents for blogs, tweets, etc.

Customisation of web sites to individual users, e.g. the Amazon home page, complicates matters further. How do you archive Amazon if every person's view of it is different?

The Parliamentary Archives in some ways have a simpler problem to solve in that it is just concerned with a relatively small and discrete set of records but this is made harder by the historical records, some of which are on parchment, and the need to have a precise and accurate record.

The approach they are taking is to separate the content (the words) from the media (a PDF file on a CD-ROM). Adrian gave the example of an old movie that requires the preservation of both the acetate film and a projector to display it. Separating content from media allows the preservation of both to be addressed separately.

Approaches to be considered include Preservation (keep everything as it is today), Migration (move it periodically to new media, e.g. from WordStar to Word) and Emulation (a new machine pretending to be an old one).

There are some decisions to make about what constitutes "content". Clearly it is the words but it may matter how the pages are laid out, which font was used, etc.

Links are an increasing problem. For example, a debate may refer to a policy document that is held on a Departmental website that is not under the Archives' control, i.e. it could move or be deleted. Archives are working with the Departments on this and one approach is to get them to keep everything in its original place even if it is no longer directly addressable from the Department's website.

Archives are considering whether the only way that they can be sure of keeping an accurate record is to keep a copy of all the things that they link to, with the implications that has for storage.

My notes from this session broke my golden rule and went on to a second page, which only goes to show that I am more interested in this topic than I thought.

Overall the debate was encouraging in that bright minds are aware of and understand the problem. What was less convincing was whether anybody has yet got the answers.

9 February 2012

Between the Tower and the Bridge

It is quite a short walk from Tower Bridge to London Bridge along the south side of the Thames but there is much to see along the way.

Getting off the bus that arrives north-bound along Tower Bridge Road the eye is immediately drawn to nearly complete Shard.

This is visible from most of London but usually the lower sections are hidden by building that were once thought of as tall but here there is only Old London between you and the Shard which makes most of it visible.

Sadly all this extra visibility does is confirm just how bland the Shard is and its impressive height does little to overcome the disappointment of this.

Tower Bridge could hardly be more different.

It gets none of its immense charm from its height. Instead it relies almost completely on Victorian Neo-Gothic decoration.

You have to zoom in to the picture to see it in all its glory with extravagant decoration everywhere as if the building is scared of leaving any part unadorned.

A blank wall calls for a small window, a curvaceous lintel, a balcony, a pillar or an alcove.

Either side of the tower its function is revealed in the metal that keeps the road from the water.

And just to make sure that you notice the wires somebody has kindly painted them Manchester City blue.

I think that I would have gone for black myself but at least the light blue has the advantage of being distinctive. Maybe yellow would work.

For most of Central London the river this is a sleeping giant, even crossing it on the nearby Millennium Bridge has no hint of menace, but the Thames grows wider and more violent passing the bridge as it tries to scare away the frail wooden boats that used to gather in the busy docks there.

The swell is noticeable and suddenly the boat that looked so big when moored upstream looks frail and hopelessly outclassed. Surprisingly it calls the river's bluff and survives.

The modernisation, gentrification and yuppification, of much of the south bank has produced a profusion of individualistic mixed-use buildings housing open-plan offices, trendy shops, trendier restaurants and expensive flats.

Among these is the Hays Galleria which has a large inner courtyard with two distinctive features.

One is the moving scrap-metal statue in the centre that always reminds me of Sir Killalot from Robot Wars.

The other is the roof. I like roofs, especially ones like this so it gets the nod here ahead of the statue.

The building bends slightly to the left as it approaches the river and the roof flows with it.

As you would expect, the galleria has a collection of cafes to feed the office workers and tourists giving you plenty of opportunity to sit under the shelter of the roof to enjoy it the more and to try and work out just what the status is meant to be.

Braver people can try one of the open-air courtyards.

Admiral's Court has a very (mainland) European feel to it. The buildings that surround the square are of a human scale and there is a work of art in the middle.

The water provides movement and vitality that sharpens the sense of calmness and peace in the figures.

Of course there are cafes and seats too making this a place to pause rather than rush through.

And the best feature is the total lack of cars that blight so much of Britain.

Returning to the Thames Path and looking across the river the history of London is there before you.

On the left is the Tower of London, which for almost a thousand year has been the reluctant home for would-be kings and princes.

On the right is the Gherkin which displaced the Nat West Tower as the City's iconic building in 2004.

In-between the buildings are a mixture of shapes, sizes and ages.

The newer ones look the more shocking but I suspect that is just because of their newness and that this will soon pass and they will become as familiar and as accepted as their neighbours.

Another part of old London lies all but hidden near to London Bridge Station.

Southwark Cathedral can also claim a history of a thousand years though the current building is much more recent having been completed only six hundred years ago.

The city has grown closer to the Cathedral over the years and it is now closely surrounded by buildings, roads and railways. Whatever peace it once brought to the community is long gone.

One of the culprits for the surrounding bustle is Borough Market which is busy bringing artisan food to trendy twenty-somethings.

But the food is of little interest me (OK, so the cheeses were tempting, and some of the pies) and my eyes turn away from the stalls and look naturally upward towards the splendid Vict5orian roof. 

The stretch between the two bridges is only around 500m, which you can walk in 5 minutes if you are mindful to do so, yet it manages to encapsulate the history and variety that makes London such a great city to walk through.

6 February 2012

{Event(Dimension);} at Jacksons Lane

I fancied seeing something a little unusual and {Event(Dimension);} by The Sugar Beast Circus was certainly that.

Jacksons Lane was the venue for the evening which was not much of a surprise given that everything that I've seen there has been on the weird side of usual in a nice and stimulating way.

{Event(Dimension);} takes its theme from the worlds of Newtonian and Quantum physics. The first we all learnt at school and explains why apples fall and planets orbit whereas the regarding the second Richard Feynman, one of its greatest teachers, famously said, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics".

The fun starts when you collect your ticket at the box office and are given a "0" or a "1" label to wear. Come show-time the "0"s and "1"s are led in different directions.

I was led in to the main theatre, a little smaller than I remembered it, where three identically dressed and wigged girls were miming to electronic music with some animations playing on the screen at the back of the stage.

Once we were all settled the story began. The miming continued and all the clues were given to us through written titles included in the animation.

There followed a series of short scenes, or acts, where we were given the introduction and then one, two or three identical circus girls would perform with ropes, hoops, balloons or throwing balls.

The circus acts were arty rather than technical, these were dancers giving their interpretations of the themes and the music rather than performers trying to impress us with their skills.

After half an hour or so it ended and the surprise came. We were led around the back of the stage, along narrow corridors and then in to what I realised was the other half of the theatre that we had just left, the two sides being divided by a black curtain.

The music started and one of the pennies dropped. There were two shows performed in parallel to the same music.

And as we sometimes had three girls on our stage it was obvious that there were more of them than I first thought.

The second half (or the first half if you were a "1") was not noticeably that different in format and feel to the first though light seemed to be more of a theme here (the girls wore spectral helmets for some of the scenes) whereas gravity had been prominent before (throwing, climbing, falling, etc.)

There was an after performance chat that did little to illuminate, sometimes artists can be just as self referential as philosophers are, and with the sort of questions that a guest on the Graham Norton show would have thought were a little easy we were never going to learn very much

I managed to grab a few words with the show's main creator, Geneva Foster Gluck, after the event but that merely lessened the connection in my mind between quantum physics and the performance. Not that that mattered at all, the show could be appreciated for what it is without needing to understand what inspired it.

At the core of the show is a clever (but not too clever) device to present two stories in parallel and each act within those stories is entertaining and sufficiently unusual to be stimulating too. All boxes ticked.

5 February 2012

Terence Conran at the Design Museum

The Design Museum had been on my list of places to go to for a while but its slightly out of the way location (it's to the East of Tower Bridge on the south bank of the Thames) had kept me away.

Then an evening at the theatre gave me an afternoon in London and the opportunity to explore a part of the city that I had only been to fleetingly before.

The current exhibition, Terence Conran: The Way we Live Now, was of interest because the Conran name is well known in the design world, especially for Habitat, and in my younger richer days I had bought some furniture from his flagship store in the Fulham Road, Chelsea.

Conran hit my consciousness in the 70s, that is when I bough a large black ash desk from Habitat, but he started work long before that (he worked on the Festival of Britain in 1951) and this is reflected in the exhibition where some of the work looks interesting but seriously dated.

The 50s feel to the furniture and fabrics is unmistakable yet the nearest pattern also has a touch of the modern about it.

The furniture is just horrible but must have seemed revolutionary at the time when most houses had little furniture in them other than the basic table and chairs. Wall units were new once!

In telling the story of Conran's life, the exhibition reveals much about his approach and philosophy.

My main learning here was regarding his interest, background and skill in the manufacturing side of the process, as summarised in this quote.

One of the exhibits was a large chest of immaculate woodwork tools and there were several photographs of the furniture factory that was Conran's first major enterprise.

It was interesting to see that some of this was flat-packed which must also have seemed revolutionary once.

Habitat features heavily in the exhibition and has a large area dedicated to this period. Some of the more eye-catching displays include a selection of Habitat mail order catalogues (I remember getting those) and a pile of bright red tea-pots.

And this sofa.

I used to own a sofa something a little like this but not as impressive. The Bauhaus influence is strong, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The other fabrics in the Habitat room were nice too.

Again the Bauhaus style can be seen in some of the geometric shapes and some of the other motifs look familiar too.

To be fair, I am not sure if that is because I remember them from the time, they copy designs that I know or other designs that I know copied them.

The chicken and egg problem is a real one in design and it is often impossible to be certain where a particular idea started. Who wore the first stripped, hooped or flowery outfit?

There is some real furniture as well as pictures and this chair is simple and very attractive.

Unfortunately it is an exhibit so sitting on it is not allowed but it looks comfortable though it may take some getting used to something as low down as this.

It might also be hard to get in to and out of, much like a sports car that is only a foot off the ground.

More practical are the wide arms while the Mackintoshesque cuts in the back make it beautiful too.

I knew that Conran had been involved in restaurants though I have never been to one and do not expect to either.

What I did not know is how many restaurants he had been involved in or the extend to which the design extended, e.g. it included all of the crockery and glassware as well as the furnishings and furniture.

There is a simple but effective cameo of each restaurant which has a place setting, a dining chair and a photograph of the interior.

I found this to be a neat way to present all of the designs and, as a result, I spent more time than I expected looking at forks.

The Conran exhibition was an informative and rewarding experience and was a fair reward for the walk from Tower Bridge to get there.

I may well head back there for another exhibition before too long but in future years this will become easier as the Design Museum is moving to the former Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street.

That's just a tube ride away from me and it's close to the V&A too. That makes it a good move.