31 March 2012

7 More London Riverside

7 More London Riverside is PwC's prestigious new office that houses some 6,000 consultants in comfort in an area of substantial redevelopment between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.

I was there for a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe and arrived early to take advantage of the pre-cafe tour of the building.

I actually arrived an hour early for the early start as I was looking for somewhere quite and reasonably private to take a business call.

PwC were exceptional.

I was given a card for one of their client lounges. The main lounge is the other side of security and is for clients who have PwC escorts and there is a smaller lounge next to the entrance were unescorted clients can work. This looks like a friendly frequent-fliers' lounge with comfy chairs, tables, telephones and separate meeting rooms. It also had free coffee and cake. This is real customer service.

The tour took us through the more public areas of the building where clients have plenty of space to roam.

Understandably we were kept away from the main work areas where commercial secrets could have been revealed.

The building is sort of horse-shoe shaped with the opening facing towards the river and Tower Bridge. The views are stunning.

The building makes the most of its position and the river is a constant presence.

The inside of the building is impressive too with a lot more open space than you would expect in a building with so many people (it is so very different to the modern building that I work in), casual meeting spaces with easy chairs, modern art and more free coffee, and balconies that give you the fresh air to go with the views.

Rising to the top of the building you can see more of the open space that has been gained through the redevelopment. Something else to thank Ken for.

What was less obvious was the reason for the tour in the first place - this is an extremely energy efficient building.

Our tour guide told us about the record-breaking achievements and how these were achieved through a range of innovative ideas, such as using recycled chip oil to heat the building.

The message of this building is that very high standards of sustainability can be achieved without compromising space or luxury. The location and the views are a substantial bonus that make this a most impressive building.

30 March 2012

South Pacific comes to Wimbledon

I had been reintroduced to musical theatre almost by accident and soon climbed to the top of the musical mountain to taste Les Miserables only to be bitterly disappointed.

I could have given up on musicals at that point or I could have persevered and tried one of the established classics. I am an adventurous soul so I decided to try again and was pleased to see that South Pacific was in town.

Unfortunately "in town" carries a price tag that I was not prepared to pay for an experiment so I waited for the show to head out of town to the provincial charms of Wimbledon.

I went in my usual state of few expectations. I knew little about the show, other than the all-important fact that it is by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and I thought that I knew none of the songs.

The pricing of seats varies less when the top price is so much lower than in the West End so I pushed the boat out a little and went for a front row seat in the Dress Circle.

There I could sit happily and either join in the merry mumble of conversation going on around me or read the introduction on the safety screen.

The conductor arrived to some applause and started the overture. That caused some of the conversation to stop, but not very much.

From what I could hear above the hubbub it was clear that I did know some of the tunes, I just did not know where they came from.

South Pacific tells the love story of  Nellie Forbush, a U.S. Navy nurse from Little Rock Arkansas, and Emile de Becque, a much older French plantation owner.

The setting is an island in the south-west Pacific towards the end of World War II, close to the front-line with Japan. That provides us with the cast of characters, i.e. mostly American service people of one sort or another with a smattering of locals, and with a major plot line that takes Emile on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines.

Nellie and Emile are all but betrothed at the start of the play. They are clearly in love despite having met only recently.

They met, of course, on "Some Enchanted Evening" which provides the first big hit of the afternoon. Emile sings it beautifully too.

Nellie also gets plenty of chances to shine with other classics like I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, sung to her friends when things cool between them.

The reason for this cooling is rather dated. Nellie is not upset that Emile was married previously or that his two children still live with him; the objection is that his ex-wife (now dead) was coloured.

South Pacific stretches out in several directions with major plots (the war) running alongside lesser ones (the servicemen's attempt to witness native girls dancing on another island).

There is another love story too, though this one ends less well and is also a little disturbing to watch as the girl looks incredibly young.

All of the twists and turns and ups and downs make this a rich canvass on which to heap on the music to produce something very good.

The cast are superb with just one slight blemish (Billis did not impress me) and while Nellie and Emile are, rightly, the stars there was enthusiastic applause at the end for several of the other characters.

Bloody Mary is certainly worth a mention here. She first appears as a comic character, a local woman selling grass skirts to the servicemen, and you do not really expect her to sing. Then she does a Susan Boyle and blows you over.

South Pacific may not have completely restored my faith in musical theatre but I'll be getting a ticket the next time that a Rodgers and Hammerstein show is around.

28 March 2012

The changing face of King's Cross

It is a great shame that I spend so little time in our King's Cross office these days as that part of London is changing more than any other and I am wish that I could watch it all unfold.

Most of the history of the area is being obliterated and, to be honest, that is the best thing for a lot of it, but there are some pearls among the swine that are still there.

York Road Station sits above the Piccadilly Line but trains have not stopped there since 1932.

For some reason the station buildings have remained intact since then and there are even suggestions that it might reopen one day to serve all the development that is going on in the area.

Almost directly opposite on freshly cleared ground new buildings are stretching skyward.

I presume that these are "yuppie flats" and that the sale of these is helping to finance the open communal spaces that cluster, understandably, around the canal.

It is too early to say how popular they will be but if you want a recent view of railways, waste transfer depot and mile-on-mile of council housing then this is the place for you.

For me the success of the new King's Cross is when the old and the new collide boldly such as here where brick has grown over the years and now gains a new leases of life when the gaps have been plugged with glass.

King's Cross' story has barely begun despite the vast amount of work that has been done already. I just hope that I get the opportunity to see that story told.

26 March 2012

The Winter's Tale at the Rose

Finally The Rose theatre has put on the sort of show that I go to the theatre for.

The previous six attempts over the last couple of years or so rose little above the bland. They were all "safe" productions with middle-of-the-road stories, simple direction, over flowery sets and not much memorable acting.

You could argue that a Shakespeare play is safe territory too, but it is not when it is delivered in a modern, almost brutal, setting and with an all male cast in a story about two couples.

My hopes were lifted beforehand when Stephen Fry tweeted that he had liked this production in New Zealand recently.

Things got better at the theatre too. The brutally industrial bar area on the ground has been softened by covering some of the concrete with wall paper and adding a few vases of flowers. All they need now is a draft bitter.

Booking was a late decision and the best seats available were in the front row of the Dress Circle but a little to the side.

These were still top priced tickets, those further round were cheaper, and the view I had was perfectly good.

I was immediately impressed by the set. It was simple, stark and a little unusual with the sand falling from the roof on to the stage.

It is a very long time since I saw The Winter's Tale, twenty four years to be precise (it was part of a season of late Shakespeare plays at the National Theatre that I went to), and I had completely forgotten the plot. That probably helped because while one of the happy endings is entirely predictable the other is a surprise that would be lessened by the remembering.

The story starts with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia visiting his childhood friend Leontes, King of Sicilia. Polixenes wants to return and Leontes tries unsuccessfully to persuade him to stay. Having failed himself, Leontes asks his wife, Hermione, to try and she succeeds.

At first Leontes is happy with this but then he begins to ask why she could persuade him when he could not and starts to suspect that they have a relationship and even that the child is wife is carrying is Polixenes'. None of this is true but mad jealous kings make for good stories.

And, before you know it, Hermione is dead, their son is dead and their newly born daughter is abandoned to die in the desert.

The play then jumps forward sixteen years and moves to Bohemia, which seems to be modelled on Glastonbury with its music, exuberance and even a tent.

The mood is very different and the stage is full of light, laughter and love.

This is the love between Polixenes' son, Florize and Perdita, a shepherdess. They are discovered by Polixenes and flee to Sicilia where everything is resolved.

The production is masterful in every respect. As with much of Shakespeare every actor gets a chance to shine with a decent monologue or too and all the cast play their part whether as kings, princesses, henchman or rogues.

It all just works and works very well. It drags you in and keeps you enthralled throughout. These are people you quickly learn to love and to care about. They matter and because they matter the plot matters too.

Sadly Propeller were only in Kingston for a week otherwise I would have gone to Henry V too. Why the Rose let something as good as this slip through their hands is beyond me. Still, looking on the bright side, it is good that they came at all to deliver comfortably the best performance that I have seen at the Rose so far.

25 March 2012

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker on tour

The three nice things about Wimbledon Theatre are it's a classic Victorian theatre that has been sympathetically updated, it is easy for me to get to by bus and, for reasons that escape me, it is considered to be out of London and so it attracts many good shows during their provincial tours after a successful spell in Central London.

That is why I found myself there to see Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker after its run at Sadler's Wells.

I missed the show then as I always felt that Nutcracker is a weak ballet with even less plot than usual and somewhat flimsy music. There are some nice tunes and some nice set pieces with nothing to string it together.

But if anybody can refresh a stale ballet it is Matthew Bourne.

The story opens in an orphanage where all the children are working hard cleaning and scrubbing before going to bed.

This takes you straight in to one of Matthew Bourne's strengths, ensemble dancing with the so stage full of action it is hard to know what to watch or who to follow. The scene is grim but the dancing is exuberant.

We then meet the orphanages owners and their two spoilt children. They bring simple decorations and a simpler tree in preparation for Christmas.

The real purpose of this is soon revealed when the orphanage's governors pay a visit and they distribute some equally simple present to the children.

In this version Clara's present is an ordinary doll, not a soldier. I'm not even sure that it is still a nutcracker, not that this is material to either version of the story.

Things then continue in the familiar vein with the doll getting broken, the toys being locked away for safe-keeping and Clara having a dream that features her doll come alive and the magical kingdom of Sweetieland.

There Bourne's production is a marked improvement on the original giving some narrative shape to a series of themed dances.

Here Clara is trying to gain entrance to a party but has no invitation. As she waits outside a series of genuine guests arrive and give us a display of their dancing skills before skipping inside. The burly doorman stops Clara from following each time.

Bourne gives these small groups of dancers exotic things to do but keeps well away from the weird. This is modern dance that is rooted in traditional dance.

Clara finally finds a way in where she finds all the other guests arrayed on a very pink layered cake that is leaning slightly as a cute angle.

Now the groups of dancers can interact again and we get more exhilarating ensemble dancing before the dream ends and we return to the orphanage.

There the doll is discovered to be still alive (he's a Prince, of course) and he and Clara escape from the orphanage as the curtain falls.

Matthew Bourne makes the most of Tchaikovsky's music throughout giving us bombast and grace as required while be continually innovative and thrilling. I must have looked like some sort of idiot because I was grinning with delight all the way through.

You could argue that Nutcracker is Matthew Bourne by the numbers but when the numbers are that good there is no reason to change a winning formula. This is not his best ballet, that's Swan Lake or maybe Edward Scissorhands, but it is still a far better ballet than most and is comfortably the best Nutcracker that I've seen.

23 March 2012

Mazeworld by Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson

Mazeworld first appeared the the pages of 2000AD in the regrettable period of my life when I was not reading it so this new collection allows me to recover some of that mistake.

Mazeworld is a fantasy set in the dreams somewhere between life and death, not unlike Life on Mars which came some years later.

The central character is hanged for murder but refuses to die. Instead he finds himself in a world of many mazes each ruled by a tyrant. One of the ways they keep their power is by not revealing the maps of the mazes.

The story is rich with ideas. There are mazes with traps, a captured angel, doctors hoping to profit from his non-death, demons trying to break through to our world and strange prophecies.

Arguably none of these ideas is earth-shattering by themselves, and a lot of them have echoes in other stories, but it is the wealth and diversity of ideas that grabs you. Alan Grant is an established and revered write of stories and Mazeworld shows why.

By itself that would make Mazeworld a good read but the sumptuous art work of Arthur Ranson makes it something special.

The level of detail in each picture is far more than you have any right to expect in a weekly British comic and the layout of the panels is imaginative without being fussy.

The familiar horizontal and vertical lines with clear borders between them are stretched in to irregular sizes that retains the form while allowing the art to follow the pace of the story.

I also love the use of colour and of shade. Some scenes, like this one, are bright with clearly defined lines and in others, when we venture deep in to some of the mazes, the pictures are very dark and the outlines of the shapes are made fuzzy by the shadows.

Mazeworld was originally published in three chapters each of which is a self-contained story using the same settings and main characters, not unlike the Narnia stories.

There is a bigger story that crosses all three chapters so it makes sense to read the whole collection in a single sitting.

Less obvious is the original structure of three or four pages per week. It is there if you look carefully but Alan Grant skilfully avoids the use of blatant cliffhangers each week and this gives the story a more natural pace that is dictated by the needs of the story rather then the demands of the publication.

This is one of the nice things about 2000AD. The weekly format of four or five stories allows each one to set its own mood and pace safe in the knowledge that the combined effect of the stories delivers enough thrill-power and suspense to bring the readers back next week. It works for me.

Mazeworld, like Meltdown Man, shows the strength of 2000AD and of the talent in the UK comic industry that denies the myth that comics means American superheroes.

20 March 2012

All New People at the Duke Of York's

I expected Eve Myles' character to be something like the sassy very-Welsh always-in-control woman she is in Torchwood. Instead she plays a timid and unsure English woman. That's what good actors do.

The play opens with her entering a grand Summer house on Long Beach Island. It's Winter and she is an estate agent trying to find somebody to rent it. She expects the house to be empty; it's not. Staying there temporarily to get away from it all is Zach Braff's character who we know nothing about.

Later they are joined by a drug-dealing and drug-using fireman (there are not many fire in Long Beach in Winter) and then by an "escort" sent there by the house's owner as a present for Zach.

Eve and the fireman are in some sort of relationship which means more to him than it does to her, and he sees it as casual. The escort proves to be an easy distraction.

It is quickly apparent that fate has thrown these four odd-balls together just to see what sparks will fly. They do. Everybody knows that the first stages of team building are Form and Storm and we see a lot of the Storm.

Only two of the characters know each other before hand so we witness five new relationships being formed.

Rough edges are nudged, soft spots are discovered and dark secrets are revealed.

Everybody has a reason for being there and not somewhere that they would rather be, such as in England in Eve's case.

The rough edges bring anger, the soft spots add humour and the dark secrets mix in healthy dollops of drama.

The play moves quickly around the several relationships and the various moods leaving you breathless and entertained as it does so. Eve remains at the centre of most as she nudges things along gently. She is in control but her lack of self-esteem does not let her see it.

The four wounded people struggle through and the play ends in a happier place than it started, though it would be pushing things too far to actually call it a happy ending. It's sufficient to say that nobody else dies though by then we can see all the skeletons of those that have.

You could be mistaken for thinking that as Zach Braff wrote the play and appears in it that it is some sort of vanity vehicle, and one review I glimpsed beforehand suggested just that. It's not. It's a funny and poignant play.

18 March 2012

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: March 2012

The Committee of the Kingston upon Thames Society deals with the management and administration of the Society as well as participating in current issues and this makes each meeting bit of a mixed bag.

On the management side we dealt with a social event planned for 18 July, articles for the next newsletter (I've written a very short piece about our group on Facebook), the programme of talks for the year, and a London City Walk on 23 May.

As usual the more interesting, and contentious, part of the meeting was the discussions on current planning matters.

First up was the proposed development of the historical filter beds at Seething Wells that is supported by the society but which is ruffling a few feathers with groups of people who supports boats, bats and restoration of the industrial archaeology.

The interesting part of the discussion was the historical background behind the site. Chelsea Water Works (like the other London water companies) was forced by law to change their point of extraction of water from the Thames to somewhere upstream of the tidal reach, i.e. beyond Teddington Lock.

The rest of the discussion was less constructive and we seemed to be arguing between support for the proposal and strong support.

The consensus rallied around support and we responded in that vein.

Water provided the other hot topic with a consultation on the use and extension of moorings in Kingston.

To be over simplistic, our views varied between boats are a welcome sign of vibrant river life and they are a blot on the landscape. In the end the boats won but with a cautionary note that the Council need to manage them effectively to stop any problems arising.

The meeting closed with a round of news items. Work on the redevelopment of Bishop's Palace is due to start in September and seems to feature some sort of "Welcome to Kingston" sign that will almost certainly be ghastly. The two Olympic Cycling Time Trials will pass through Kingston, whereas the Road Races will pass near it.

17 March 2012

The Oresteia at the Riverside

I had not seen an original Greek Tragedy before and the deciding factor in going to see this one was that the translation was by Ted Hughes. It was not so much that I expected to hear echoes of his poetry, rather it was the stamp of authority given to the play by the fact that a former Poet Laureate thought it worth translating.

It helped that it was on at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, which is probably my favourite theatre as it manages to mix the best of the west-end (e.g. big names and good facilities) with the best of the fringe (challenging productions in intimate settings).

Hammersmith also sits nicely between where I live and Central London and that makes it easy to visit either by itself or as part of a larger day out. This time it was the later but spending longer than expected admiring David Hockney meant arriving at the Riverside having had the all-to-familiar evening meal of a pint and a packet of peanuts.

The Oresteia was staged in Studio 3, which is the small studio just inside the entrance on the right. I had been there a few times and I decided to break with established tradition and go for a seat in the third row rather than the front. I take risks like that.

Entering the studio we see the cast already assembles and standing still in the near dark in a simple set.

I was delighted to see so many people trooping in with me. Theatre is still very popular if you get it right.

Once assembled we get an overture as each of the cast recites a line or two that says something about who they are and the role that they will play in the story.

Or rather three stories as these were three separate plays originally, though, to be honest, the join between them was not obvious except I presume that the interval was taken at one of them.

The story is simple and tragic enough. Man kills daughter to summon a wind, man uses that wind to win a major victory and returns a hero, wife is not so understanding and kills him for revenge, son returns from exile and kills mother for revenge then asks forgiveness from the gods which is granted after consultation with the citizens.

It's a good story and that's why the play has lasted two and a half thousand years.

The Hughes verses flow easily enough, so much so that you hardly notice the form, and that's as it should be.

The acting is faultless too and each of the many characters is utterly believable and convincing. There are no stars and, again, that is as it should be in this play.

What makes the play stand out and turns it from the acceptable to the sensational is the staging.

Few props are used which makes them more dramatic when they are used, such as when Agamemnon is given a bath by his wife Clytemnestra using real water in a hole in the stage or when Orestes and Elektra visit their father's grave.

The movement on stage is remarkable. I do not know who came up with the idea of having Apollo slide across the stage on his back but it works. It really works. And for me that is the beauty of this production, it adds strange spices to the mix that manage to enhance the original flavour without detracting from or overpowering it.

Even coming immediately after the Hockney exhibition this stood out as something special. And that's all you need to know.

14 March 2012

David Hockney at the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy did an excellent job in their pre-publicity for this event and they managed to persuade me to buy a timed ticket before it opened despite me not being a great fan of Hockney or even a regular visitor to traditional galleries.

And so I found myself at the Royal Academy at 3:30 on at Saturday afternoon walking past the long queue and then fighting my way through the shop to get in to the exhibition.

Inside it is the familiar arrangement of rooms except that a few ropes mean that you can only pass through it in one direction. Rather like Ikea except with things you want in it.

I think that it is fair to say that the exhibition starts slowly and the first couple of rooms have some interesting if not spectacular pictures that show us just a little of Hockney's history.

Then we enter a new gallery and everything explodes.

On one wall is a tight arrangements of watercolours and on another similar scenes in oils. They are all different but there are common features like hay bales and prominent roads leading you through the picture.

It is totally unrealistic to attempt to show the impact that they make by showing just one of them so just appreciate this one in its own right. Each picture is gorgeous and together they are sensational.

These are the last of the small pictures that we see. Most of the rest range from large to monumental. Each is consists of a number of canvasses that are mounted separately but together. Rather like a jig-saw puzzle for very small children.

Repetition is a common theme. In one room there are seven large paintings of a group of trees that were all painted from the same spot but on different days. Hockney starts to veer towards the abstract here and while the earlier landscapes used natural colours the later ones have vivid blues, yellows, purples and greens that are not natural but somehow look as though they should be,

And that brings us to the very large picture that has been chosen to promote the event. It's easy to see why you would choose it to do that.

As before, this is one of a series of pictures showing the impact of the woodsmen on the landscape. A tree stump is captured from several angles and in several colours and is joined by the recently cut logs.

This is a magnificent painting that, again, has to be seen in its full size to be appreciated.

But it is not my favourite picture. This one is.

The composition, colours and scale make this a breath-taking picture that both draws you to it to see the detail and pushes you away to see the, er, bigger picture. That detail includes the Spring flowers, fresh leaves, bold trunks and the whisper of more trees behind.

Exiting the exhibition after two stimulating hours it took a fraction of a nano-second to decide to buy the exhibition catalogue (I don't but catalogues) which has this picture wrapped around it.

The catalogue is sumptuous and does far more than just repeat the pictures for you, though it does that too. If you go to the exhibition you should definitely buy the catalogue and if you do not go then you should buy in anyway.

It is impossible to overstate how good the Hockney exhibition is. The pictures are stunning and are made the best of by the way that they are presented. It is easy to overlook curating as a skill and it takes a job as well done as this one to remind you what a different it makes.

Sadly I cannot afford to buy a Hockney, nor do I have the space to hang one, so I'll just have to console myself with the catalogue. That'll do.

12 March 2012

Willoughby Pub Quiz (March 2012)

I found myself volunteering to do the Willoughby Pub Quiz again as I did not have a decent excuse not to and I quite like doing them anyway, despite the disproportionate effort I put in to doing the questions.

The research is part of the fun and each round is unique to me. Thinking of the rounds is hard enough in itself especially when you try to get a balance of subjects. I usually do something that involves world politics (part of the aim here is to educate) and something on London or Kingston. After that it's anything that takes my fancy.

This time we had rounds on things I learnt recently from podcasts, London music venues, musical marches (it was the month of March), long serving world leaders, UK political scandals and characters from UK police/crime drama series.

It is traditional, but not compulsory, to follow the standard six rounds of ten questions with a picture round. For reasons that escape me, I've got in to the habit of doing two!

Stamps are a wonderful source of themed pictures because we have so many commemorative sets issued in the UK each year. I've used stamps many times now and that is one barrel that I may have scrapped dry.

I could use the old PG Tips picture cards but the one time that I used them before, British Butterflies, got memorably low scores and is still spoken of in unflattering terms.

For the last few quizzes I have done cartoon animals. Having done cats and dogs it was time for the mice.

Except there are not as many cartoon mice as I thought and I had to include rats and even then I had to include three Beatrix Potter characters.

I think that it worked though.

In case you are interested, here are the questions:

1. Odds and Sods (stuff I head on my iPod this week) - multiple choice:
1) Which Archer had a heart attack this week? Brian, David, Tony
2) Which TV show did Davy Jones NOT appear in? Corrie, Dr Finlay, Z-Cars
3) In September, which region won Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10 International
Trophy? California, Chile, China
4) When was the writing first on the wall? Belshazzar's Feast, Feast of King Solomon, Last Supper,
5) New railway line from South Sudan to the sea in which county? Kenya, Somalia, Sudan
6) When was the mass trespass of Kinder Scout? 1922, 1932, 1942
7) The co-founders of PayPal are knows as what? PayPal Four, PayPal Kids, PayPal Mafia
8) What is the colloquial name for a Basking Shark in Ireland? Silver Fish, Summer
Fish, Sun Fish
9) Schmallenberg virus attacks which animal: Chicken, Pigs, Sheep
10) Which iof the three previous Chelsea managers was not sacked? Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti

2. London Music Venues
1) Home of the English National Opera
2) Live album by Motörhead. In1981 celebrated which venue
3) Home of The Proms
4) Used to be called the Millennium Dome
5) Floral Hall a thrilling public arena, with bars and eating spaces in spectacular surroundings
6) Legendary rock venuw was at 90 Wardour street
7) Built in 1901 by the German piano firm Bechstein next to its showrooms on Wigmore Street
8) Rock venue near TCR demolished because of Crossrail
9) Largest of the 3 SBC concert halls
10) Located at 100 Oxford Street

3. Musical Marches
1) Wedding March
2) The Ides of March (1981)
3) Marche funèbre for piano
4) March, march march across Red Square
5) Known as "The March King" or the "American March King"
6) March of the Pigs (EP) 1984
7) Radetzky March, Op. 228
8) Prospekt's March
9) "Pomp and Circumstance Marches"
10) March Of The Meanies

4. Current ongest serving leaders
1. Ruler of Cameroon since June 1975
2. Sahrawi Republic August 1976
3. Equatorial Guinea August 1979
4. Angola September 1979
5. Zimbabwe April 1980
6. Iran October 1981
7. Cambodia January 1985
8. Uganda January 1986
9. Burkina Faso October 1987
10. Kazakhstan June 1989
Alphabetical Answers: Angola, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Kazakhstan, Sahrawi Republic, Uganda, Zimbabwe

5. UK political scandals
1) Horsegate's horse's name, who was it given to and who eventually admitted that he rode it:
2) British politician faked suicide in 1974
3) In October 2011 who "mistakenly allowed the distinction between [his] personal interest and [his] government activities to become blurred".
4) Faces prosecution over claims his ex-wife took his speeding points on
her licence in 2003
5) Affair with secretary Sara Keays resulting in a child (1983)
6) Resigned from the Coalition Cabinet after revelations that he claimed £40,000 of taxpayers’ money to pay rent to his boyfriend.
7) Resigned as Welsh Secretary after "a moment of madness".on Clapham Common
8) Sacked for his involvement in a Nazi-themed stag party in France.
9) Claimed expenses for a duck house.
10) Secretary of State for War, had an affair with Christine Keeler.

6. UK TV cops and robbers, which show?
1) PC/DC/DS/DI Andy Crawford
2) Frank Haskins is superior officer
3) DS Don Beech and Sergeant Matt Boyden
4) DCIs John Barnaby and Tom Barnaby
5) Gerry Standing, Brian Lane, Jack Halford
6) DI Joseph Chandler, DS Ray Miles
7) Inspector Jean Darblay, Inspector Kate Longton
8) Chief Inspector Barney Crozier, Charlie Hungerford,
9) Ray Carling and Chris Skelton
10) DS Tommy Murphy

11 March 2012

Kew Tropical Extravaganza 2012

The Tropical Extravaganza is, justifiably, one of the highlights of the year at Kew.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory becomes a colourful wonderland as the orchids take over aided and abetted by some exotic decorations.

The ponds are one of the main features of the conservatory and while most attention is paid to the largest pond one of the smaller ones has become the setting for a model village and assorted wildlife.

I suspect that these models, like the large yellow mushrooms on display elsewhere, are really there to entertain the many small children taken there by their enthusiastic parents but there is no reason for the grown-ups not to appreciate them too.

But the orchids are the real stars of the show.

They come in a bewildering number of colours, shapes and sizes.

Every step you take reveals another flower that demands that you pause and take its picture. The air is literally thick with the click of digital cameras (why do people not switch the sound off?).

I did what I was told and took a photo about seventy times in an hour!

It was not part of any great plan but I found that my pictures had three styles of composition, the close-up of just one or two flowers, a slightly wider shot that included some of the leaves and wider still where I tried to capture the impression that such a density of colour makes on the conservatory.

This is rather unlike me as I tend to avoid the simple close-up as a) they are simple, b) everybody else does them and c) there is nothing about them that tells you that they were taken in Kew.

So enjoy these close-ups while you can as I might not be taking any more.If close-ups are what you like them the Kew Gardens Flickr page is full of them.

This is more like me.

I love the nicely shaped leaves almost as much as the flowers so it is only right that they should get equal billing.

Green is, after all, the dominant colour at Kew and it deserves to be celebrated.

I've also picked this example because the flower is purple and the previous two were pink and yellow.

And there are lots of other colours to choose from.

Returning to the large pond we see the centrepiece of the exhibition.

A helix of flower boxes climbs out of the pond with each layer crammed with pretty flowers.

The effect is almost overwhelming, but then it's meant to be.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is like a small boy's dream home with lots of hidden spaces linked by a maze of paths and steps. This creates a wealth of different zones with distinctive climates and vegetation. That makes it an ideal place to stage a horticultural exhibition as each corner turned reveals something new. Something surprising.

The Tropical Extravaganza is vibrant, joyous and a veritable feast for the eyes. Do I really have to wait a year before I can do again?

10 March 2012

Mathematics of the Heart at Theatre 503

I was quite impressed by my first visit to Theatre 503 in Battersea.

The location on Battersea Park Road is conveniently connected to Clapham Junction by more buses than I knew there were.

It's above the Latchmere Pub which is nice enough despite having ideas above its station that are reflected in the remarkably high prices for everything. And a distinct lack of vegetarian options on the menu.

The theatre is reached by a period staircase from the pub and that takes you to an unexpectedly large and modern reception area. This feels like a proper theatre.

When the doors open a few more steps are climbed in to the theatre and then a few more back down to the front row. There your bum is the same height as the stage and your feet below it, just like at the Chocolate Menier Factory.

We are sitting in the living room of Dr Paul MacMillan, the mathematician in the title. He is a professor of Chaos Theory with an interest in storm patterns. He is not married but has a steady girl friend, Emma, a lawyer, who has her own place.

Things look fine, if slow, until his father dies bringing two new things in to his life.

The first is his brother, Chancer, who is, to put it simply, a layabout.

He sings in a band but that seems to be more for the fun than the money and he puts little effort in to furthering his career despite talking about making it big one day.

The other is a boat.

Their father made model boats and was working on a full-sized one when he died.

The boat is the hook to get the brothers talking about their shared past and their different impressions of it.

One ship-in-a-bottle had been a turning point for both of them. Paul broke it accidentally and Chancer saw the opportunity to impress his father by mending it only for Paul to trump him by discovering a mathematical trick.

Another complication arrives in the shapely shape of research student Zainab. Chancer takes an immediate shine to her, obviously not the first time that he does done this, and his persistent and exaggerated wooing soon works.

In turning his attention to the boat and the past, Paul neglects his future and Emma who wants their steady-state relationship to evolve. Another turning point comes when she thinks that the next step is being taken but Paul is oblivious to this and misses the moment.

The play is both poignant and funny and Kefi Chadwick can be proud of what she has achieved here. I also loved the Andy Warhol dress that she was wearing. It was nice to be able to congratulate her in person afterwards.

I am never scared to criticise a play where I feel it is necessary and it's necessary now.

Who on earth decided that a professor of mathematics should have a copy of Enid Blyton's Island of Adventure on his bookshelf? I have this edition myself and recognised Kiki the parrot immediately!

That intriguing blemish apart MOTH was a superb experience on all fronts; script, staging, acting and setting. Yet another example of why small theatre can be so much more rewarding than the sometimes canon fodder theatre of the West End.

Theatre 503 is a little gem that sits alongside the likes of Arcola and Jackson's Lane. This is why I live in London.

7 March 2012

Battersea Park and Beyond

I had walked briskly through Battersea Park a couple of times previously and then a theatre date locally allowed me the time to explore it more fully in a race against the quickly fading sun.

It still retains the traditional promenades from a long-bygone age, one circles the park and another cuts through the middle.

The south-west corner likes to think that it is wild with unkempt trees scattered around irregular ponds. This is not quite Richmond Park but this is Zone 2 so it will do.

On the centre on the north side is my favourite section that is as eccentric and whimsical as Portmeirion.

The Tea Terrace is outrageous in scale, shape and colour attracting your attention from some distance. It is impossible to resist its siren call and it rewards you well with its exquisite design.

The same attention to detail is given to the railings that guards the grass and flower beds nearby.

The bright pink is as unsubtle as the brash orange, especially when contracted against the green grass behind it.

The pink would be enough of a delight by itself and the uneven heights of the railings and their ball tops only make things better.

All this tomfoolery is to prepare you for the Fountain Lake, sadly without working fountains today. Instead the lack of moving water creates an eerie stillness and reflects the park back at you.

Again the attention to detail matters here and the little islands decked out in Manchester City colours are just gorgeous.

A little boulevard takes you from the lake to the river. Along the way there are some silly (in a nice way) boxes with flame designs on the sides and balls on the top.

But the seats are even more interesting.

The asymmetric curved back is cute and so is the one arm rest.

I am a big fan of benches but there are generally too few of them and too many chunky wooden ones. Other parks and open spaces can learn from what Battersea has done here in combining practicality with beauty.

Hitting the tow path brings you to the park's most famous feature, the Peace Pagoda.

Completed in 1985, permission to build it was the last legislative act of the Greater London Council. One of the many things Londoners can thank Ken Livingstone for.

It's not very large but it is pretty and it is, as it's name suggested, peaceful. Even the river flowing gently past respects its purpose.

Walking upstream the next monument is rather more flamboyant.

Albert Bridge, little more than a hundred years old, the bridge has had a chequered history that leaves it too narrow for easy passage, with disused toll booths (a timely reminder that it had to be taken in to public ownership when the private business failed) and with warning signs to trooping soldiers to break step or risk breaking the bridge.

The fairground colours and lights are a more recent addition and are there to make the bridge more visible at night. I'm not sure that they had to go quite as far as that though. Still, it's pretty enough so I am not complaining.

Continuing upstream the river bends slowly round to the left and reveals some of its history as it does so.

There are so many flash apartments and offices along the river that it is easy to forget that it was a working river until not that long ago and some of the commercial legacy is still there on more remote stretches, i.e. away from tube stations.

I am sure that developers have their greedy eyes on these sights but I am glad that they have been frustrated so far.

5 March 2012

Long Day's Journey into Night at Richmond Theatre

I had not been to Richmond Theatre theatre for a couple of years or so and it took something unmissable to get me back. And this was unmissable.

It became unmissable when I was on my way to the Old Vic Tunnels to see Eugene O'Neill's Sea Plays and I saw the adverts for Long Day's Journey into Night plastered all over the ticket barriers at Richmond Station.

The hint was duly taken and the tickets bought. This is pre-West End and in preview yet it still cost just over £40 for a decent seat (front row of the Grand Circle). That's probably why I do not go there very often.

On the plus side, the theatre is pretty enough (not that I care what theatres look like from the outside) and is well positioned on the Little Green just off the town centre and close to the station.

Inside it is much as you would expect, old, dowdy and lacking in facilities.

Luckily these facilities do include a small bar by the Grand Circle.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that your first check-in to the theatre on FourSquare gets you a free drink.

Waiting in the bar I try to assess the audience and decide that they are Daily Mail readers whereas a few days earlier the Young Vic was decidedly Guardian, and younger.

Soon the seven o'clock bell tolls and we are summoned in to the theatre. This looks to be full, which I always like to see.

Long Day's Journey into Night takes us in to the Connecticut home of the Tyrones, a late middle-aged couple and there two grown-up sons.

The scene is normal enough but we soon learn that there are deep issues in the family that are not helped by their addictions to drink (three of them), women (two) and drugs (one).

We follow the Tyrones for one day from just after breakfast until early the following morning. In between those two times there is a lot of talk, conversation, argument, discussion, reflection and drinking.

The mood ebbs and flows with some light moments that bring laughter from the audience and many more dark moments where we learn more about the troubles within the family. These include, in no particular order, jealously, consumption, misspent opportunities and deceit.

There is love there too and that is one of the things that keeps the family together.

The characters are never still. They come and go from the one room of the house that we can see and when in it they are rarely still. They are animated, passionate and restless but never busy. Some work does get done but it is either done by other people or happens off stage. The nervous energy in their perpetual motion heightens the tension.

Having praised the set and the direction it only remains to praise everything else about the play because it is fantastic.

The acting is excellent. David Suchet is the big name draw and lives up to the billing but this is far from a one-man show. All four of the main actors are superb and totally believable.I especially liked the subtlety slightly slurred behaviour of the mother after her first touch of drugs that day.

Long Day's Journey into Night is seen as Eugene O'Neill's master-work. This production shows why.

2 March 2012

Why I hate Cameron

This poster would be funny if it were not true.

This one simple phrases sums up what the Conservatives are doing to all public services. One of the most notable example is Education where national rights and standards are being eroded away by Free Schools and Academies.

The other half of the plan is the Big Society. This gives us two levels of service; the profitable areas will be run by private companies and where they cannot make a decent profit it will be left to the Public Sector and volunteers to fill the gaps, or they will be cut altogether.

Vicious cuts are being made to disabled benefits etc. simply because a profit cannot be made from these.

Privatisation is being sold to us as a way of improving efficiency by bringing in competition. The argument goes, if Private Hospital A can do the operation cheaper than NHS Hospital B then we should use the private sector and save money. This looks simple but it masks the real difference between the public and private sectors that makes the argument false and misleading.

The sole reason for the public sector is to provide services to the public. Efficiencies made, and they are made all the time, are fed back in to the system to provide more/better public service. The sole motive of the private sector is to make a profit.

However you look at it, when the private sector provides public services it takes money out of the system.And this is often a lot of money.

One example to make the point. The board of E-Act gets paid around £2m to run just 16 schools (even a small local authority like Kingston has over 50). This money goes on flash cars and holidays rather than books and school trips.

I could also mention Emma Harrison payment of £8m for chairing A4e. All of that money came from the public purse but was spent on personal gain.

Cameron is deliberately dismantling the public services that define us as a country. In doing so he is going further than Thatcher who only dismantled publicly owned services that had a commercial basis (though we can now see what a bad idea even that limited privatisation was with energy companies making huge profits at our expense). Cameron is destroying Britain.

And he's dong it in a way that is hard to fix. It is fairly easy to renationalise British Telecom and National Rail as they are single companies but regaining control of thousands of independent health providers and schools will be a lot more difficult.

I can see why he wants to do that, he's rich and is helping his rich friends get richer but, for the life of me, I cannot see why the Lib Dems are supporting him in this outrage.

Joni Mitchell once told us "you don't know what you got till its gone." In a few years time we will be saying that about our health service, schools, parks, legal system, ...