27 February 2014

LIKE 52: Content Strategy

It is a sign of a good event that I do not get to write it up until a few days, weeks or even months afterwards. A good concert I can describe immediately but an event that gets me thinking takes longer as I need time to let the new thoughts organise themselves/

That is why on 28 March I am writing up LIKE52 which happened on 27 February (that's the date I've posted it under).

The subject of the event was Content Strategy and as everything we write is "content" it is a useful area to have a strategy on. Other people thought so too and the meeting was packed.

We were back in the The Queens Arms in Warwick Way by Victoria where we had been in November. If this is to be LIKE's new home for a while then that suits me fine as living in south-west London I am a lot closer to Victoria than I am to Farringdon. Location apart, the new venue was much like the previous ones, a cosy room above a trendy pub.

Our guide for the evening was Lauren Pope of Brilliant Noise. She came well prepared with a presentation and exercises for us to do. She also tried some innovative technology to broadcast her presentation to our phones and tablets but the pub's wi-fi was not up to the task and we had to abandon that plan. The room was small enough for that not to matter.

Lauren took us through their framework for developing a Content Strategy. There was nothing particularly new in this approach but it looked sensible enough and pieces did fit well together.

The best part of the session was the way that Lauren gave a brief explanation of each step and then gave us an exercise to work on in small groups. We then discussed what we had done with the whole room.

This was a very effective way to embed and extend the learning.

As usual I tried to juggle participating in the discussions, taking notes and tweeting (though a search for #LIKE52 tweets suggests that I failed at the later) and then I played around with the notes as I wrote them up to give them structure and to add further thoughts.

I had a range of examples in mind as I did the exercises and these were the various small organisations that I have some content responsibilities for (usually maintaining their websites).

Purpose. This is a bit like a mission statement and explains simply what the organisation is trying to achieve with its content. It needs to be urgent and specific.

My example, the Kingston upon Thames Society wants its name/brand to be better known to encourage membership.

Principles. These are the rules of the game. The Government has ten including start with needs, do less, do the hard worked to make it simple, sharing is more important than control.

Mine were we have no secrets and members get more than the public.

Principles are good but how do you get people to follow them?

Platforms. These are the authoring tools, e.g. CMS, used to create the content and the publishing tools used to make it available.

In my examples the CMS is defined for each website and I use Twitter and Facebook to promote the content. I also issue press releases to the local newspaper.

Processes. Robust processes are needed to create, publish and evaluate content. They need to include archive and destruction as well.

In my case I have got a simple list of actions for publishing content which, for example, has me write the full version of the story for my personal blog, an edited and less opinionated version for the members' newsletter and a summary of this for our website. New entries on the website are announced on Twitter and Facebook.

People. This is the usual step of matching the process steps to the organisation so that everybody knows what their responsibilities are.

In my case the people part is easy, I am the webmaster and somebody else writes the newsletter.

Performance. This is about measuring success and is harder than it looks. Simple measures, such as Shares and Likes, are easy to count but are easy to distort and do not link directly to the original purpose defined in the first step.

Forrester's Engagement Framework is one way that this can be addressed but it still lacks the link between the Content Strategy and business outcomes. This is not surprising as advertising has always had the same problem.

In my case I am happy to use the simplest metrics, page visits etc., and to hope that these are an indicator of the impact of my content.

Summary. It was an excellent session and my brief notes do not do it justice.

Close. Then the food came and we moved to the next stage of the evening with more conversations and, in my case at least, more drinks to go with my meal. I managed to move around a little to catch-up with some people and also to congratulate Lauren on her presentation.

LIKE 52 was Classic LIKE with great content and motivated people.

25 February 2014

Big Ideas on Has Britain bankrupted its youth?

This was another Big Ideas event that did not especially appeal beforehand but which I went to on the strength of the Big Ideas brand and then had a great time.

I was working in Birmingham that day so the late start (8pm) suited me well. I got in to Euston soon after 7pm, was in The Wheatsheaf around 7:30 and was soon upstairs with my first pint and a sharing portion of Nachos (they do not do a smaller one).

The topic followed on from the previous one where we had discussed generations in general and this time we looked at the economic impact on one specific generation.

Our guide was Shiv Malik, one of the authors of the Jilted Generation.

He explained that young people are getting poorer and old people are getting richer. This had been a trend for a while and the post-crash austerity had accelerated it.

Middle-class parents were now giving birth to working-class children.

Of course this has to be balanced by some non-financial considerations and the young will live longer, have grown up without the threat of an European war and have much better technology to enhance their lives. We did not get a TV at home until I was about ten. That made such an impact on me that I can still remember that the first programme that we watched was Hector Heathcote.

In considering the causes we quickly reached the consensus (at least I think that we did) that this was all Thatcher's fault.

The neo-liberal approach to giving boosts to the current generation had led to fewer resources for the next one.

This largess had include selling off council houses, giving away revenue from the North Sea as tax cuts and giving home-owners mortgage tax relief.

This contrasted badly with Norway where oil and gas revenues had been saved to create a sovereign wealth fund that is helping future generations.

An impact of this is that the older generation (myself included) have a lot more capital than our parents did and we are looking for things to spend it on. Some of it now goes on university fees for our children but it also goes on assets like houses (buy to let) and football season tickets and this is pushing the prices of these up so that the younger generations without the same capital behind them struggle to afford them.

I think that, just for once, we got to some sort of conclusion, or at least I did. The real topic that we were discussing was economics and generations were just a way of showing the impact of failed Conservative policies.

24 February 2014

Humanist Debate: Ethical Consumerism

I had to make a mad dash back from working in Birmingham for this discussion and it was worth it. The three trains ran on time and I arrived just before the 8pm start with a pint in one hand and a dish of peanuts in the other.

Instead of the usual speaker, the discussion was sparked by a film of a conference where strong views for and against the fair trade model of ethical consumerism were presented.

Please note that when I say "fair trade" I mean all schemes that aim to improve the deal for the local farmers of which FAIRTRADE is but one example.

After watching the film from the side I was able to join a table in the main room for the discussion that followed. I started the evening thinking that fair trade was a no brainer but the discussion showed that it was a complex problem with many aspects to it.

As always I juggled participating in the debate with taking notes and tweeting some of them so what I managed to capture is just my partisan view of part of what we covered.

Fair trading requires intelligent and rational consumers. Which we're not.

Is our new found desire for fair trading White Guilt at how we exploited these countries in the past, and does it matter if it is?

Most of the arguments against fair trade are the much the same as those used to justify attacks on the benefits system here, e.g. taking a grotty low paid job is better than nothing, the money children earn helps their families, etc.

Fair trade is not us doing things to them (the farmers and their communities), not doing fair trade is us doing things to them. Not buying fair traded goods is as much a statement as buying them and if we must but something, e.g. coffee, then we must make a decision between fair traded or not.

Can we export our poverty and close our eyes? We stopped bad working conditions in this country, including child workers and health and safety, because we want better for ourselves and I think it is wrong to expect other countries to adopt a standard that we rejected just to provide us with cheap goods.

Can technology help people more than we can? Or is that just our excuse for dong nothing? This argument is also put for doing nothing about Climate Change, i.e. the scientists will sort it all out somehow before it becomes a real problem so there is no need for us to do anything about it. This may be true (we won't know until we get there) but there is a risk that it does not work and is it fair for us to take that risk when it is other people who will suffer more?

Government's have more power but that does not mean that we should not do what we can. Buying fair trade coffee is one small thing and while it is only a small imperfect step it is better than doing nothing. Do we need more, such as insisting that our pension funds are only invested in ethical companies, and are we prepared to pay the price for this in lower pensions? Sacrificing a few pence on a jar of coffee may be one thing that many people would be prepared to do but how many would sacrifice a few thousand pounds?

Economics is the real problem, again. By that I mean that money incentivises children to work and farmers in Kenya to grow flowers for us rather than food for themselves, etc. We are also encouraged to spend money on things that we do not need (and to borrow to do so) because that boosts the economy.

The root cause is that we have the capital. The local farmers need this capital to invest in their farms and their communities (schools etc.) so they need to sell things to us. And one of the reasons that we have so much capital is that we stole wealth from their countries.

I found the debate fascinating because starting from the simple concept of buying fair trade coffee we quickly got in to some much larger and more difficult subjects.

22 February 2014

Candide at Menier Chocolate Factory

I went to see Candide at the suggestion of a friend. I had heard of the show, obviously, and I respected the reputation of the Menier Chocolate Factory for musicals and so I went.

The Factory was arranged very differently from my last visit, to see Pippin in 2011, which surprised me. Then it was more-or-less a standard stage (though oddly shaped) and this time it was staged in the round and with a balcony too.

The seating, possibly deliberately, was a shambolic collection of short benches some with throws on. Mine was comfortable enough but the lack of arm rests and the overall quality were a poor return for the West End price that I paid (£40).

Though I had heard of Candide I knew nothing about it so that everything that followed was a surprise. I like it like that.

The musical tells the extraordinary tale of Candide and his journeys from Westphalia across Europe and on to the New World, before returning home.

In each city he meets up with his love (Cunegonde), her brother (Maximilian) and their ex-tutor (Dr. Pangloss). This co-incidence is the more remarkable because they often die in the misadventures only to reappear unscathed in another city. That is a nice device to rework the same characters in to completely different scenes and to allow horrible things to happen to them. It is just like one cast performing a series of short unrelated plays.

While the details of the story can be put aside for their deliberate silliness the recurrent use of the same characters and what they represent is more interesting and gives the story its point.

The music is clearly important too and I found Candide fine, if not exceptional, in that respect. There were some songs that enjoyed a lot at the time but the memory of them has dimmed. That is not that surprising as it would take a pretty good song to make a memorable impact on a first listening.

The acting and stagecraft were neat and functional with lots of little touches, such as some audience involvement, adding to the richness of the performance.

It was all very lovely but never much more than that.

20 February 2014

Improving cycling in Kingston

Cycling in Kingston has been a contentious issue in Kingston in recent years with pedestrians and cyclists not mixing well. I like to cycle and think that more should be done to encourage cycling so I  went to the public meeting that Zac Goldsmith, my MP, called on the subject.

Once there I learned that the point of the meeting was to help to inform Conservative Party policy ahead of the local elections later this year. I do not normally like helping Conservatives but by participating I was also helping cyclists so I stayed.

Zac opened the meeting by saying that his postbag is full of letters with strong views for and against cyclists and that is why he wanted to have a meeting on the subject.

Paul Drummond, Kingston Council's lead officer for transport, then said a few things to put the debate in context. He explained that the policy on mixing pedestrians and cyclists had changed over the years and co-mingling was out of fashion and segregation was back in. Some traffic features, such as the crossing outside of Kingston Station, had been redesigned more than once as fashions had changed.

He also said that Kingston Council had long been an advocate of cycling and he sited the cycle lane included in the widening of Kingston Bridge as an example of this. He also reminded the meeting that the K+20 policy document had included the now controversial pontoon along the rives.

Paul closed by saying the priority now was to complete north-south and east-west through routes.

The public debate then started, got off to an excellent start and then fell in to a cyclists v pedestrians debate. The first speaker made three simple, and very true, points; cycle provision is very disjointed, roads are blighted with potholes, and those responsible for cycling policy (officers and councillors) are not cyclists.

Rather than try to summarise what everybody else said I'll try to pull together my thoughts arising from the meeting.

Too much of the debate was about cyclists when we should have been talking about cycling.

Cars need to play their part in the solution

The real problem is cars, as they kill people and take most space, but the problem is always seen as cyclists versus pedestrians.

We should consider restricting, or banning, cars in areas where we most want to encourage cycling. An obvious place to do this would be near schools where young pedestrians and cyclists would both benefit.

The other obvious place to ban cars is Richmond Park. One speaker suggested that this should happen for a few hours on certain days and I would go much further and ban cars on some Sundays over the Summer with the aim of extending the ban to all Sundays and then on to Saturdays.

Not all the rules of the road should apply to cyclists

I am a terrible pedestrian. I wilfully cross roads when the red man is showing, walk diagonally across quiet roads and step on to zebra crossings without waiting for the traffic stops. Actually an awful lot of people walk like this as can be seem on Ham Parade on any Saturday morning. Nobody complains about this.

I cycle in much the same way and everybody complains about this. There is nothing wrong, per se, with cycling on pavements or through red lights.

Nor is there anything wrong with cycling at more than 20mph in Richmond Park. If a cyclist hits a deer then the deer is going to win.

Besides, most cyclists, including myself, do not have speedometers so we cannot know whether we are speeding or not. And having cycled up a steep hill I am not going to brake on the way down just to keep within a speed limit that has been set to protect deer from cars.

Do the simple things right

There is not that much that needs to be done to make cycling significantly better and these are all obvious things.

Cycle routes need to be connected and go to places that people want to go.

The routes need to be well maintained, pedestrians and cars are much more able to handle uneven and rough surfaces than bikes.

Legislation is needed to protect cyclists (and pedestrians)

Zac mentioned that Parliament had started to look at measures that could be introdcued to make HGVs safer. This needs to happen.

One of the reason that cycling works so well in Holland is that in an accident between and car and a bike, by law, the car is at least 50% responsible whatever the circumstances. Legislation like this is needed to force the change required on all drivers, just as it was for drink driving and wearing seatbelts.

19 February 2014

Open Mic night at the Grey Horse (19 Feb 14)

I like the atmosphere, and a lot of the music, at the Grey Horse Open Mic evenings so, when a meeting had me in that part of Kingston earlier in the evening, going on to the Grey Horse afterwards was an obvious choice.

The crowd there, participants and audience, was much the same as on my previous visit, which was fine with me.

I did not know a lot of the songs, which was also fine, either because they were originals or were folk covers and I do not know a lot of folk.

The artists were limited to three songs each so even in the few cases where I did not get on with the music there was not too much boredom to endure. And I always had a friend and a pint of Young's Ordinary for company.

Having managed to get to the Open Mic night at the Grey Horse twice in the space of a month or so it is now firmly on my radar and I'll be going more often. In some ways it's not that special but it is certainly a jolly enough night out and that is always better than a night in.

Kingston Society Public Meeting: New Quaker Centre

The Kingston upon Thames Society Public Meetings try to cover a wide range of topics relating to planning and development in the Borough and the topics that usually work the best are those relating to specific projects. This was certainly the case when we were told the story of the New Quaker Centre in Fairfield East that was nearing completion.

Three speakers told us about the history and design of the building, its construction and its environmental features.

The Quakers had been looking to improve their premises for some time and had drawn up earlier plans for their previous site in Eden Street and a proposed site in London Road. The plans for Fairfield East reused ideas from these.

Low energy usage had been a design requirement from the outset but the number of trees on the site meant that solar was not a realistic option.

The building is heavily insulated which is good for keeping it warm when the weather is cold but causes a problem with heating when it is warm and the building is full. This had been fixed by an innovative design that circulates cool air from below.

To fit in with its surroundings, the building has an autumnal colour theme with lots of brick and a patinated zinc roof.

The only access to the site is via Fairfield East which made the site clearance and construction challenging.

Just getting big vehicles in and out was an issue and then they had to protect the roots of the trees too.

They are trying to get a pedestrian access via the Cattle Market (especially useful for people arriving by bus) but this had not yet been agreed with the Council.

There is parking for 20 bikes on the site. Residents are concerned about on-street parking in "their spaces".

Comments were made about the lack of fit with the Victorian houses in the road but the Centre is also next to a car park and bus station so there is no dominant theme in the area. In effect it is something like a pavilion in a park and it is definitely better than what was there before.

The building aroused a lot of interest among the Society members present and consideration was being given to arranging a visit there once it is open. It will also feature in the Heritage Open Days in September.

One of the speakers gave this good summary at the end, the Quakers have swapped a poor building on an expensive site for a good building on a cheap one.

17 February 2014

BalletBoyz at Richmond Theatre

For some reason I've dropped off the Richmond Theatre emailing list, despite subscribing with multiple email addresses, so it took the good will of a friend to alert me to the return of BalletBoyz who I had last seen there almost exactly a year before. She also did the hard work of getting the tickets.

We were well placed in the stalls, my seat was H8, and I was pleased that the offset seating gave me a clear view of the stage.

BalletBoyz were touring their theTALENT show which I had seen all or parts of twice the previous year. I was looking forward to seeing it again as dance, like music, gets better the more it is experienced as that allows the detail to shine through.

The first piece, by Liam Scarlett, was a series of connected short pieces that usually featured just a few of the eleven dancers. It was very episodic and the episode that stuck in my mind the most had the dancers in pairs performing a series of arm and head movements that looked as though they were fighting each other, but it was much prettier than that.

That quick-fire section of short delicate moves was something of an exception and the signature movement across the whole piece was full arm swings, a la Pete Townsend.

In the second half it was Russell Maliphant's turn to show us what he could do with the BalletBoyz. His approach was more collegiate, it started with all eleven dancers on stage forming two concentric circles, and more physical with plenty of lifting and climbing. He weaved patterns with his dancers that filled the stage with so much movement that it was hard to keep score.

My companion for the evening uttered a very audible "Wow!" at one point and I was forced to glare at her, though I could understand her reasons.

BalletBoyz show that male dance is no longer simply about leaping high and that physical strength can be used to more subtle and more beautiful ends.

16 February 2014

Kiss me, Figaro! at Riverside Studios

Last year's production of The Magic Flute (a story around the opera, not the actual opera) by Merry Opera was enough to convince me to see their new show Kiss Me, Figaro! when it came to the Riverside Studios.

How right I was to do so.

Kiss Me, Figaro! uses the clever device of telling the story of a travelling opera company to include songs from their performances, songs from their rehearsals and songs they sung when being themselves. So, for example, we had a beautifully staged except from The Elixir of Love (everything was sung in English), an awkward rehearsal of Your Tiny Hand is Frozen (from La Boheme) and a raucous rendition of Irving Berlin's I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.

Kiss Me, Figaro! calls itself a romcom, and that is fair. The amount of music, mostly but not all from operas, makes it a musical, of sorts. While it may be hard to classify it is easy to enjoy.

The romantic protagonists are the leading soprano (Daisy Brown) and tenor (Joe Morgan). These are also the actors real names which suggests the possibility of there being some truth in the story. They had been together and then he left her for another woman, just as she was having the final fitting for her wedding dress. He also left the company. An accident brings Joe back and having split from the other woman he is keen to get back with Daisy, but she does not want to so pretends that she is interested in the baritone George, played by James Harrison. Meanwhile one of the other singers has her eyes on Joe.

There are some other things going on with the cast and the company, including the comedic high-point just after the interval when they experiment (briefly) with a new thematic style which involved them singing Three Little Maids from School are We, from The Mikado, in outrageous costumes. That scene alone is worth going to see the show for.

There is just so much to like, and nothing to hate, about the production.

The large cast, eleven I think, all sang beautifully. I am used to shows like this having a few good voices and a few weaker ones but I think that this is the best overall singing that I have heard.

The two leads were magnificent and I'll also single out (possibly unfairly) James Harrison and that is partially because I saw him play the completely different role of a member of the Stasi in Tosca last year and he was very good in that too.

The acting was excellent too and everybody was always busy doing something. I'll highlight soprano Jenny Stafford, Daisy's understudy in the company, here for the faces she pulled behind Daisy's back and the way that she reacted to Joe's return by opening her blouse more at the top and leaning back seductively. This was echoed later in the performance from The Elixir of Love where Daisy was brilliantly over the top in trying to attract Nemorino's attention when he has stopped chasing her briefly because he thinks that the elixir will win her affection tomorrow.

The selection of songs was wonderful and, given the scenario, entirely appropriate. I even liked the mash-up of Pearl Fishers and the Flower Duet from Lakme which they sang at a gala.

Kiss me, Figaro! was highly accomplished in all areas and immensely entertaining in a way that would appeal to any lover of opera, musicals or theatre. It was a joy from start to finish.

There is always plenty to see at Kew Gardens

The main purpose of my visit to Kew Gardens was to see the orchids display in the Princess of Wales Conservatory but, as with every visit I make to Kew, I did some walking around and took in some more of the sights.

I have been to Kew Gardens something like forty times (so my phone tells me) so it is always a surprise when I venture somewhere new there and I managed to that this time.

I had never walked around the west side of the Princess of Wales Conservatory before.

There is not that much planting in the area to see, apparently there is a Winter Garden but I failed to find that, and so it is the building that attracted most of my attention. The shape of the Conservatory is nicely weird and this is enhanced by the paving around it that also varies in height to create interesting spaces.

I then went to one of my favourite places nearby, the Aquatic Garden in the north-east corner of Kew. As with the Conservatory is was the structure rather than the things growing in it that I was attracted to.

Here it is the first in a line of unusual structures that include the Alpine House as well as the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

From there it was but a short step to the Plant Family Beds and the Rose Pergola.

The Pergola was looking rather bare without the roses in bloom and so it also relied on its structure for its beauty. I especially liked the way the the brick pillars were decorated with tiles in the corners as if making steps.

The Plant Family Beds are always worth seeing as there is always something going on there with different plants enjoying different times of the year.

They also serve as a reminder that Kew is a working garden and its pleasurable aspects are there to support its serious work.

The final part of my short journey through one corner of Kew Gardens took me through the Woodland Garden.

Here, despite being mid-February, flowers were out in abundance and they were also making the most of a fine day.

The north-east corner of Kew Gardens is the part most packed with different things to see and there is more to it than I covered on this little walk.

In other parts of the garden, especially the large wooded areas in the south and west, there are just a few different things, such as the Minka House, to provide a sudden change of scenery whereas this corner is packed with little gardens and features.

It this variety that makes the usual walk back from coffee at the Orangery to the 65 bus stop outside of Victoria Gate so interesting, as long as you avoid the main path that takes you directly there.

Orchids 2014: A plant hunter's paradise at Kew Gardens

The annual orchids event at Kew Gardens is a must-see event for season ticket holders and an attractive one for lots of other people.

It's popularity means that the Princess of Wales Conservatory is always full and just walking around it is difficult. Hence my cunning plan of being at Victoria Gate just before it opened at 9:30 on a fresh Sunday morning.

The plan worked well. There were only about twenty of us in the queue and not all of them headed straight for the orchids, though most did. A couple of couples got there before me so it was all but empty when I arrived with my camera ready to take pictures without other people in them.

I had not reckoned on the enthusiasm of plant lovers and while I got a little bit of quiet time in the conservatory it filled up quite quickly and within fifteen minutes the buggies and small children started to arrive bringing noise and chaos with them.

I like small children being noisy and chaotic (that is what they are for) but I am less appreciative of this when I am trying to relax and enjoy the flowers.

This was my fifth consecutive visit to the Kew Orchids. That it was five came as a surprise to me but one of the things that I use this blog for is to keep track of things like that and it assures me that I first went in 2010 which is before I became a member.

On my fifth visit I finally found out what an orchid is, which just goes to show what you can learn if you stop and read the helpful notices that Kew put up. I now know that orchids have three petals and sepals and the lowest petal is modified to allow pollinating insects to land on it.

Even when the orchids are not on display the pond in the centre of the conservatory is the most spectacular setting and is where most people congregate, especially the small one who like looking at the big fish in it. This day was no exception.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is not that big, though it is made bigger by its complex design of multiple zones and myriad walkways between and through them, and a normal visit there probably takes a quarter of an hour or so. Thanks to the orchids it took me an hour or more to see all that I wanted to see before the tiredness and growing crowds forced me out to seek a cup of coffee. Luckily the Orangery was close by.

There is every chance that I'll be back to see the orchids again next year.

15 February 2014

Bungles Finger at the Fox and Duck

I used to go to the Fox and Duck on a Saturday night if one of my favourite bands was playing, Echoes or Thin White Duke, then my list of favourite bands started to grow to include bands like Prezence and now I go almost every Saturday irrespective of who is playing.

I also wanted to see Bungles Finger because the lady behind it all, Louisa Biswas,said that it was one of the pub's favourite bands.

As is often the case, I had a theatre date first so I did not get there until 10:30 so I missed the start of their set but I still saw enough of them to learn what they do.

I arrived as they were playing Pretty Vacant, which was a pretty good start. I, of course, bought it the day it first came out in 1977 and it was good to see so many people who were not born then singing along to it.

Soon after that they played The Buzzcocks' Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't 've) from '78 and, for me, that proved to be the song that best described their sound.

But the nice thing about Bungles Finger is that they step well away from early punk and they play an outrageous range of songs including, while I was there, I Predict a Riot, Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting and Walk Like an Egyptian.

And they ended the evening with Andy Williams' Can't Take my Eyes off You. Unexpected and brilliant.

Bungles Finger were a great deal of fun. They played some great songs and they played them well. They are another band I've added to my favourites list. They'll be back at the Fox and Duck on 9 August and 29 November, and so will I. And next time I'll wear black like everybody else rather than a theatre-friendly flowery shirt.

In Skagway at the Arcola Theatre

I have seen two separate plays in a day a few times but I think that this was the first time that I saw two at the same theatre.

My day out in Dalston was planned around seeing two plays at the Arcola theatre, Punishment Without Revenge and In Skagway (originally called The Goddess of Liberty).

I saw Punishment Without Revenge in the afternoon simply because it was longer and that meant less time to kill between performances (I was in Dalston, remember) and that I would be home earlier (home being the local pub to see Bungles Finger).

In Skagway was downstairs in Studio 2 and I was first in to claim the same seat as last time (for The Shape of Things) in the front row of the central bank of seats just to the right of the middle aisle.

There I was confronted by the interior of a humble shack in an Alaskan gold rush town in 1898 where the gold had all but run out. Trying to make their living there were two middle aged women of Irish stock, Frankie and May, and May's daughter, T-Belle.

One of the women had had some fame as a actress until hit by a stroke that confined her to a wheelchair, the other older woman looked after her while her daughter went out prospecting.

The grimness of the situation, the period, the focus on ordinary people and also the Irish accents immediately reminded me of the Eugene O'Neil Sea Plays. This impression never left and that should be taken as a high compliment to In Skagway and to Karen Ardiff who wrote it.

There was also a similar plot line with one of the plays, The Long Voyage Home, but I try to avoid spoilers so I won't say what that is.

In Skagway is the story of decline for both the town and for the women though they all struggle through it with some optimism and good humour to balance the lurking desperation. This is striking in the women with May being eternally optimistic even when horrible things happen (and they do) while her daughter T-Belle is more pessimistic/realistic about the diminishing gold and the approaching Winter. Frankie, meanwhile, strains to make herself understood at all as she is limited to featureless groans and uncertain pointing.

There are some flash-backs that explain a little about how the women came to be there having left Ireland together and Frankie having, eventually, found some success as an actress. The reason that the play was originally called The Goddess of Liberty is that was the performance that Frankie did that May talked about the most. It also reappears at the end of the play but in a rather different form.

What won me over to the play wholeheartedly was the atmosphere it generated; the grimness, the optimism, the poverty and the weather. It was like spying on a different world that was hard to understand when viewed from the comfort of modern-day London.

It took good acting to maintain that atmosphere and all four women (they had a visitor) were spot on. I also liked that they were all women too as they seem to be strangely absent from most frontier town stories. Men do get a mention (including T-Belle's lover) but they are only talked about and never seen.

The ending was anything but good but still the sense of optimism lingered as the next chapter in the women's lives lay there waiting to be opened.

In Skagway was a slug of pitiless hardship delivered with care and love. I liked it for its honest portrayal of the bad times and the uplifting feel of the good ones.

Punishment without Revenge at the Arcola Theatre

Punishment Without Revenge is one of the three plays in the Arcola Theatre's Spanish Golden Age Season. All three looked interesting and I chose to go and see this one simply because it was the one that was playing on the day that I decided to be in Dalston.

Originally called El Castigo sin Venganza in was written by Lope de Vega in 1631. To put that in context, The Tempest was written in 1611.

I went to a Saturday matinee and it was very popular. The audience was full of older people like me, obviously seasoned theatre goers, rather than the more mixed and overall much younger audiences that I am used to at Arcola.

One outcome of this was that an orderly queue started forming well before the doors opened and this soon stretched all the way to the front door and started to curl back toward the bar. I got in line by the front door and feared for an unaccustomed seat some rows back. Then one of the helpers announced that they would also be using a second entrance to the theatre and I found myself at the front of the queue for that and so was able to claim a seat in my preferred front row in the short back of seats at the front of the stage.

The view of the stage that I took from there was not very illuminating as all it showed was a dark wall of black panels and gold borders. It looked something like an antique Japanese lacquered cabinet.

This wall started its life in the play as row of houses in the city of Ferrara (in the north of Italy) where the Duke, disguised in simple robes, and his two companions were looking for a little fun of the female kind. We discovered that the Duke has long played around with women but is about to be married to the Duchess of Mantua, for political reasons, and that his step-son and apparent heir, Federico, was at that moment on his way to collect her.

We then met Federico and is small entourage as they rested among some willows while on their way to meet the Duchess.

A scream alerts them to an incident nearby and they go to help. A carriage has crashed and they rescue two ladies from it. These, it soon transpires, are the Duchess and her maid. Federico and the Duchess fall immediately and deeply in love and this forbidden love drives the story.

The Duchess marries the Duke, a Marquis escorting the Duchess peruses a lady of the Duke's court who, in turn, has hopes (and expectations) of marrying Federico and the Duke goes off to war to fight for the Pope. Other threads are woven between the players and a complex situation develops where it is difficult to see an easy way out of.

It does not end well. In fact it ends much worse than expected by some way.

The ending was dramatic, unexpected (by me at least) and tragic, and the journey there was at times humorous, at other times emotional, and always compelling. This was fantastic drama.

The cast were all wonderful, even if the Duke (William Hoyland) looked rather too much like Donald Sutherland for comfort. He was very commanding, as a Duke should be. The Duchess (Frances McNamee) was at times meek, accepting her role as wife to the Duke, and other times wracked with emotion as she fought against her illicit love for Federico and Federico (Nick Barber) spent most of his time in despair at his hopeless position.

Among the courtiers, Simon Scardifield stood out as Federico's aide and he added many of the touches of humour to the play. It was good to have a few quick words with him afterwards to tell him that.

Punishment without Revenge was an imaginative, engaging and beautiful play. I was so impressed that I booked to see the other two plays in the series.

A quick visit to Geffrye Museum

I only found out about the Geffrye Museum of the Home recently (to my shame) and arranged my first trip there to coincide with a trip to the Arcola in Dalston.

Apart from the short walk from the station to the theatre, this is a part of London that I do not know at all well and I was keen to fill in some gaps in my knowledge on this trip so I did the last leg down the main street, by bus, passing through Haggerston and then arriving in Hoxton, two places I had not knowingly been in before.

The point of the Geffrye Museum is that it has a series of rooms furnished and decorated in the style of a period together with information on how houses were arranged at that time, what was driving the fashion and how some of the objects were made.

This room is in the style of a parlour in 1695.

There are eleven display rooms plus others that give information about them. I took pictures of all of the rooms (I always like museums that let you take pictures) and had a bit of a struggle to pick just a few for this post. I've gone for what I think are the prettiest, like this one of a drawing room in 1830.

One of the things I found interesting was the was that the use of the main room in the typical domestic house changed its use, formality and name over the years.  The result of this is that while parlour has fallen out of fashion that still leaves drawing, reception, living and sitting as valid room names.

This is a drawing room in 1890 which I chose for the tiles around the fireplace and the colourful pots on the mantelpiece.

My favourite room was the living room from 1965. Part of the reason for this is that some of the features are in fashion again, like the solid flooring and the light furniture, as we have moved out of the era of shag pile carpets and chunky armchairs.

I am not usually interested in furniture, carpets or curtains but the Geffrye Museum did a fine job in convincing me that domestic interiors can be fun and it also persuaded me that I ought to go back there in the Summer when the gardens are open.

14 February 2014

Donkeys' Years at the Rose Theatre

I tried to like Donkeys' Years but despite some good laughs we never really got on.

I went to see it as part of my concerted campaign to fall in love with the Rose, I've been 17 times but not managed it yet, which meant buying tickets for four shows in the current season. The first, Fallen Angels, was brilliant.

I was in almost the same seat as the last time, A35, which meant a good central view of the stage. Row A was again preceded by four rows (AA to DD) so my front row seat was some way away from the stage.

Donkeys' Years tells the tale of an Oxbridge 25 years reunion. The scene is set very slowly as each of the former students arrives at the college in turn and talks for a while with the porter who was there in their student days. We also meet the young (academic) doctor who lives in and supervises the student house and the wife of the master of the college who was a student with the group having the reunion.

This is a mixed group with, amongst others, a junior cabinet minister, a senior civil servant who works in the same department, a journalist, a research biologist, a surgeon and (possibly) a vicar.

After the slow start the characters were my second problem. They were all fairly shallow and exaggerated, almost stereotypical.That was a disappointment but not necessarily a great problem as farces do not usually rely on complex characters for their laughs.

The jeopardy that defines the farce is the master's wife's attempt to pick up on a relationship from 25 years ago but he does not come to the reunion and she find herself hiding in the minister's bedroom instead.

And that was my third problem, a good farce needs some real jeopardy and being found with a woman in your bedroom during a reunion never seemed serious enough.

That said, once the situation was set, there were a lot of laughs albeit from fairly simple and obvious sources. At times it felt a little like an old ITV sit-com in that there were jokes that you could see coming but they were still jokes and jokes can make you laugh despite your better instincts.

Of course Donkeys' Years is quite a bit cleverer than an old ITV sit-com but it never quite escapes the farce-by-numbers feeling. The happy feeling generated is ephemeral and I left thinking that I had enjoyed myself but with no interest in seeing the play again.

On the plus side, the acting was wonderful. Jemma Redgrave stood out from the crowd, possibly because she was the only woman and she was certainly the most complex character, but whatever the reason, she sparkled.

To try and summarise all this, Donkeys' Years was funny but I expected something more from a play written by Michael Frayn and with an established cast.

12 February 2014

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (February 2014)

I missed January's social due to work (I was helping to prepare a bid and that always means long hours because we are not as good at them as we should be) so I was keen to get to February's. I was even prepared to battle through the tube strike to do so but that was cancelled just beforehand so my travel was easy.

The evening went much as they always do; a few pints of Pilsner Urquell, some smazeny syr to eat after toying with the idea of trying something else for a change, a bottle of Zlaty Bazant to end the evening and plenty of good conversations along the way (and one mad one).

The rest of the Czechoslovak National House was busy (because the Czechs were playing ice hockey in the Olympics) but quiet (because they were losing).

A personal highlight was meeting Zuzana again having been sat next to her at the BCSA Annual Dinner, and this gave me the opportunity to find out more about her PhD thesis which has a strong Knowledge Management element and that interested me.

The bad conversation was towards the end and was on the often unrewarding topic of politics. In this I was told that I should be shot for supporting Labour! Bad conversations are very much the exception and this little foray with the Mad Right did nothing to spoil the evening for me.

Also there were some people working with Depaul that it was good to talk to having done a little work with the charity a couple of years ago, also relating to Knowledge Management.

Another fun evening and only a month until the next one.

11 February 2014


Today we fight back against internet surveillance by the NSA and GCHQ etc.

If you are unsure of what this is all about then read this Guardian article.

10 February 2014

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: February 2014

February's meeting had no significant planning matters to deal with so we spent most of the time looking at our internal affairs which is best summarised with the phrase our Chairman used in the meeting, "We must sharpen our game".

Learning lessons

We had a long discussion about how we operate following some recent planning decisions; Vicarage Road has been approved when we objected to it and student accommodation in South Lane/High Street (13/12980) and been rejected when we had supported it whereas the residents and University had opposed it.

This led us to question all aspects of how we handle planning applications, e.g. how we decide which ones are of interest, how we come to an opinion about them and how we should campaign on the major decisions where a simple letter to the planning department is insufficient.

This was quite a wide ranging discussion and I think that it is fair to say that we did not reach any substantial conclusions. I hope, and expect, that the improvements that we talked about will be firmed up as we go through our next few planning applications, it is a shame that we had none to consider at that meeting.

Some of the ideas that were suggested, and that I agreed with, included:

  • Do not formally support or object to an application, just provide comments on the aspects of the scheme that we like or dislike.
  • Run a proper campaign on the schemes that we have strong feelings for. This could include, for example, lobbying councillors, working with residents' associations.
  • Liaise with RBK planning officers to ensure that our views are properly include in their reports and also to understand the key strengths and weaknesses of the application so that we can modify our campaign accordingly.
  • Track RBK committees carefully so we know when applications we are interested in are coming up for consultation or decision so that we can inform that part of the process.
  • We need to find out more about "Student Accommodation", e.g. what is it (if the term has a specific meaning in planning terms) and what rules apply to it, e.g. to ensure that the occupants are students.
  • We need to be clear what our Aims and Objectives are to ensure that all our publicity is consistent with this.
We will be discussing some of this with our Members at the public meeting in April.

Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL)

RBK was in the final stages of the consultation on their CIL. This was a very specific proposal and we left it to Howard, who has experience in this area, to review the RBK document and to suggest a response.


Our next visit will be on 25 June and George is working on the itinerary.

Heritage Open Days (HODs)

The small grant application had been submitted on time and we were waiting for a decision. The lead Councillor for heritage had been lobbied.

It was agreed that we should try to promote the Kingston Society more at HODs but it was also recognised that this is difficult when the event comes under the national banner operated by English Heritage and, locally, RBK pay for the publicity so their logo needs to be prominent.

Any Other Business

Work was due to start on the Kingston Station platform extension soon and that would require some night-time road closures.

John Lewis is 150 years old this year and will be running some events to celebrate this.

The new market place is due to be opened on 24 June.

8 February 2014

Broken Bones at the Fox and Duck

Broken Bones describe themselves as a heavy rock 3-piece, which is the sort of thing that I like, so I went to see them when they came to local pub the Fox and Duck.

As is often the case, I had a theatre date beforehand so I missed the start of the band. Luckily the bands start quite late, usually around 9:30, and they go on until almost midnight (with a break) so getting there around 10:30pm meant that there was still plenty of time to enjoy the music.

Broken Bones were a little the same and a little different from the other rock covers bands on the circuit.

The set list had a lot of the classics (Smoke on the Water, Paranoid, Highway to Hell, Born to be Wild, etc. etc.) but it also had a few unusual choices, such as Black Night and Sweet Home Alabama.

The other difference was their sound. I thought that they sounded like Crazy Horse (Neil Young's backing band) and my mate thought that they were grungy, which amounts to much the same thing.

As we used to say in the seventies, the band were altogether and were an impressive unit. Ed (lead guitar) provided most of the vocals and I liked the way that Smiffy (bass) did a few songs to change the sound a little.

It was a Smiffy sung song, Ace of Spades, that closed the evening on a very high note. The set list had more songs on it, including the not-so-short Freebird, but the midnight bell beat them and they had to leave the remaining songs for another day.

I've now marked Broken Bones as one of my favourite bands on Lemonrock so that I can keep track of them and I've already put their next two Fox and Duck gigs, on 19 July and 11 October, in my diary. They are well worth going to see.

It Just Stopped at the Orange Tree

I tweeted after the show that It Just Stopped was the sort of play that if I had seen somewhere else I would have said that it is the sort of play that the Orange Tree should be doing.

I enjoy the Middlemarch Trilogy and its ilk but I feel that the Orange Tree can veer towards the safer older works rather than trying something riskier and newer. Of course they do do some new plays but I would like them to do more, though given that the average age of the audience is comfortably above sixty then it is perhaps understandable why they don't.

I go to everything at the Orange Tree (an excellent habit heartily recommended) so that was the main reason for seeing It Just Stopped but I would have travelled further to see it. Firstly it sounded different and interesting and I like different and interesting. Secondly the promo for it described it as "a funny and piercing allegory for our times", which sounded good. And finally, I had seen one of the actors, Joseph Kloska, in two excellent productions at the Arcola in 2013.

It Just Stopped is the story of Franklin and Beth (pictured above) and what happened to them when everything stopped working; electricity, water, mobile phones, everything. That sounds a bit Survivors or 28 Days Later, and some of the publicity suggested that it was too, but this is not a post-apocalyptic story, rather it is a story that is triggered by an apocalypse.

Franklin and Beth are both doing well in their jobs, though they both have some issues there, and are fairly happily married though they have some issues there too. Those issues are the grit from which humour flows and the story starts as an honest look at what life is like for a lot of people.

Then things stop working.

The immediate impact is that Beth cannot get the lift down the 47 stories of their block to get to work and she cannot phone work to let them know that she will be late. Then things started to get a little worse as the scope of the apocalypse (if that is what it is) and the possible consequences start to become clear. The structure is rather like a JG Ballard novel where a sane world ends up mad but it is unclear where it flipped; much like boiling a frog.

The arrival of a rich couple from upstairs then takes the story into even darker places and the first half ends on a bomb-shell.

Having dropped the bomb the second half of the play spends more time assessing the worth of Franklin and Beth and even they concede that neither of them does anything very important, one works as a radio producer and the other as a writer.

As the situation becomes more complex, without ever leaving the flat, Beth asks the question, "Are we dead?" which had already occurred to me, was never fully answered but was almost certainly not the case.

In a final twist, events take an extreme turn and something very unusual happens. This had also happened at the start of the play so the suggestion was hanging that it was the same event and so we had not seen a chronological story.

I was enthralled and captivated from start to finish. The bizarre situation, the convincing characters, the uncertainty, the humour (there was lots of humour), the excellent acting all gelled together to make something truly astonishing.

The richness of it all defies my amateur attempts to categorise or describe it and the best I can do is thrown in some more similes like Lost, High Rise, The Shadow and No Exit, to show the variety of ideas and concepts used. And do not forget that it is funny too.

It Just Stopped is exactly the sort of thing that I like to see at the theatre and that my local theatre chose to show it was doubly good for me.