30 June 2014

Dark delights in In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre

I did not know much about In the Penal Colony before I booked it but the key facts are on the poster, it was by Philip Glass and was based on a story by Franz Kafka, which was more than enough for me.

It also appealed to other people and I got four tickets intending this to be an evening out for two couples. Then the women dropped out for good reasons and I had to draft the other son in as a substitute.

The Arts Theatre, just of Leicester Square, was a new venue to me. The travel proved to be messy and I just got there in time to collect the tickets and get a beer to take in with me.

The stalls (I was in seat E9) were dark, hot and packed but comfortable with a good view.

The music was provided by The Perks Ensemble who sat on the left side of the stage (leaving the front part free) in the dark wearing black. Which is my excuse for not being sure how many of them there were but I think that it was five including a conductor.

With a range of instruments to play with Philip Glass' music was more melodic than some of his pieces while retaining its familiar rhythmic heart. The movements were fairly short and the structure reminded me of some of his collaboration works which also have many short pieces, unlike some of his other works that I have seen recently which lasted for several hours.

The story, which I did not know, was simple and very dark. A visitor to a colony was treated to a display of a torture machine that he found abhorrent but which the guard was very proud of and saw as an important part of their local customs. The torture/execution took several hours and was heavily ritualised with the machine writing on the victim at one stage and there was a pause in the torture for reflection after three hours.

The key part of the complex machine was called the harrowing.

The execution that was planned was for a soldier who fell asleep on his job, which was to salute the Sergeant's door on the hour every hour through the night just in case the Sergeant opened it. He was convicted with out a trial and did not even know that he was about to be executed. This story appalled the visitor even more.

It was as the tale of the torture machine developed that I was glad that the two ladies had been unable to attend. It would have been like expecting them to watch Sin City.

Despite the deeply dark subject matter, and the deeply dark ending, this was a beautiful production in which the music triumphed over the subject matter. Making sure that this happened was the singing of the visitor and the guard which was delightful. Unfortunately I have no idea who they were otherwise I would tell you. Good support came from the other two singers/actors.

In the Penal Colony was probably one for the Glass (or Kafka) purists and those of us in either of those camps had a great evening which we recognised with much enthusiasm and energy; whoops and cheers were involved.

28 June 2014

Good friends and more at BCSA Garden Party 2014

The British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) Garden Party 2014 was every bit as good as I expected, and I had high expectations based on the previous years.

The only regret was that this was Jana's last BCSA event before heading back east to work in Vienna.

This year it was the Czech Embassy's turn to host the event and they did a great job, especially with the food and drink.

The format was much the same as usual but then why change something that works so well? The embassy opened up to the communal garden shared with the Slovak Embassy with most people congregating on the paved area. This was a wise move as it rained at times and so the shelter there was useful. The less brave souls stayed in the two large reception rooms inside.

The point of these events is to mix and talk, it would be called networking if this was a business event, and that is just what I did. I went with Richard, as usual, but we spent most of the afternoon off talking to other people, mostly people we had met at the monthly Get to Know You Socials.

I had had lunch before the Party and had no great desire to have an additional meal. I managed to avoid the temptation of the veggie burgers on the barbecue outside but the cheese on the cold spread inside just had to be eaten.

I also tried some warm Halušky, one of the national dishes of Slovakia, on Jana's insistence but was not convinced by potato served as though it were rice pudding.

The drink was more successful and the draught Pilsner Urquell went down very well. I knew that this was going to be a long day so I tried to pace my drinking with some success.

The raffle was another success for the event, if not for me. I best that I could to was to come within a couple of numbers of winning something that I am not sure that I wanted but some friends did win things that they looked pleased with.

There was a separate competition for teddy bears and I saw several happy children walking around clinging on to theirs. It reminded me of the year that I won one in the main raffle but was not paying enough attention to claim it and so Lady Burton cleverly called out the number of the ticket being waived desperately by a small girl at the font and my loss was the girl's gain.

The party was scheduled to finish at 6pm but a happy party crowd is difficult to disperse and it took some firm action from the BCSA Committee to shepherd us out around 6:30pm.

A sizable group of us simply moved across the road to The Champion, as we had done in previous years. It is also where I met Richard for a quick pint before the party.

There the party carried on much as it had before, except that we had to pay a lot more for our drinks. I also got to watch some of the football which was a weird experience in itself as the sound was turned off and most of the people in the busy pub were paying no attention to it.

My Oyster journey history tells me that I left the pub just after 9:30. By my reckoning that was seven hours of happy partying. I like days like that.

27 June 2014

Imaginative and intense Lear at the Union Theatre

The reason that I go to so much theatre, especially at the smaller venues, is that it is normally good and sometimes you get to see something as exceptional as this production of Lear.

Not for the first time I had Twitter to thank for seeing it. I had tweeted my disappointment at the National Theatre's King Lear when I got a reply telling me about Lear at the Union Theatre. It was the same play but with a female lead and so the slightly different title.

I had not been to the Union Theatre before but it was easy to find. Luckily I had allowed plenty of time to find it so the horrendous delay due to the temporary closure of Waterloo Station (person on the tracks) was not a significant problem, though it did reduce my evening meal to a takeaway pasty from the station.

At least I had time for a bottle of Becks at the theatre where the box office was conveniently situated in the bar.

As I collected my reusable ticket (I like theatres that do not give out throw-away paper tickets) I was told that the play was in three parts with two breaks and that we would be standing for the first fifteen minutes. I liked the sound of that.

As we entered the small dark space that is Union Theatre we joined a reception of some sort with Lear standing next to the piano which her youngest daughter Cordelia was playing. The other guests were standing around and we joined them.

As the drama opened the cast moved through us and I had to make room for the a couple of times.

At the end of the first scene we retired to the seats that ringed three sides of the performance area in single-file.

The dark space was used imaginatively and the only significant props used were the piano and a desk where the Earl of Gloucester worked.

Incidentally, the usual actor in this role had had an accident just a couple of days before and another member of the cast had had to step up to the role and he had to refer to the script occasionally. We were warned beforehand that this was the case and it is a testament to the quality of the performance that this did not matter in the least. At the curtain call Gloucester got an especially loud reception. It was well deserved.

Clever use was made of lighting too. The most memorable was at the start of the second session where Lear and her Fool were heading for Dover and the only lighting was the electric torches that they each carried.

It was all very intense and dramatic. And then it got even better.

As we entered the theatre for the third and final time we saw that most of the stage was given over to a large table (just as it had been at the National Theatre) and there were seats at it. I was lucky to get on in the middle. The seat next to me was reserved for Regan and she died sitting next to me while her sister, Goneril, sat opposite her delighting in the work of her poison.

A lot of the actioned happened on the table itself and a few people died just in front of me. Theatre does not get much more immersive than that.

A good script and good direction still needs a good cast to make the play work and this cast was excellent. Sadly the Union Theatre's website only lists the cast and does not put names to roles so I will just name a few roles that I especially liked. Edmund, Gloucester's illegitimate son, was brash, confident and nasty as he stepped in to the void created by Lear's insanity and Edgar rose magnificently to undo the tragedy wrought by Edmund.

And Ursula Mohan did what Lear has to do swinging through moods and delusions as first she sparked the tragedy, then railed against it and final succumbed to it.

Following close on the heals of a superb Hamlet, this magnificent production of Lear showed how dramatic and relevant Shakespeare can still be in the right hands. It also showed how imaginative and accomplished small theatres can be.

26 June 2014

LIKE 54: A tour of the Old Operating Theatre Museum

The London Information and Knowledge Exchange (LIKE) mixes in a few socials with its calendar of talks and I often find these as instructive as the (slightly) more formal events. There is usually an information and knowledge sharing aspect to the socials and I learned a lot from our visit to The Old Operating Theatre Museum.

The first thing that I learned was that the museum existed. I knew the area around London Bridge reasonably well having worked nearby and having socialised there many times. The frontage of the museum is small and nondescript so even knowing that it was there and actively looking for it I still managed to miss it the first time.

From the plain entrance one of the tightest spiral staircases that I have ever climbed took me up to the business part of the museum where other LIKErs were already gathered. Wine was offered and duly accepted.

We were then led into the operating theatre next door where our smartly dressed guide was ready to tell us the fascinating history of the oldest operating theatre in Europe (but no longer in active use).

We stood around the steep horseshoe as medics looking to learn had done almost two hundred years ago.

Then there were no anaesthetics or antibiotic and so surgery was a pretty brutal affair, though it was successful enough to continue as a practice.

The main way to reduce pain was to act swiftly and Martin was used to demonstrate techniques for cutting the flesh away so that a bone saw could be used to amputate the leg. The best that the Martins of the time could do was to bite down on a rag and it was not uncommon for patients to die from the shock.

In one of the more grim tales we were told how one surgeon had managed to kill three people in one operation, which had proved to be something of a career-limiting move.

Our guide was knowledgeable, fluent and entertaining. The tales came pouring out far to fast for me to note and I made the wise choice just to listen rather than miss something by truing to write at the same time. The one note that I did take was that Samuel Pepys had had a bladder stone the size of a tennis ball removed.

Having had our heads filled with medical history and some minor horror stories we went back to the herb garret to look at all the medical items on display there.

I had had enough of body parts and sharp objects by then so I took pictures that I found aesthetically pleasing rather ones with medical interest. That is why there are lots of bottles in my selection and no saws.

This was a social so after the tour we went to a pub and, given where we were, The George Inn was the obvious choice. This had already been there for a hundred years when the operating theatre opened.

It was raining when we got there, for which nobody had come prepared, so the hordes that would normally have been in the large courtyard were all inside. Despite that we managed to get served and to find a place to stand that was not too much in the way.

Eventually the rain stopped and lots of people went outside freeing up a table and some chairs so that we could sit and eat as well as drink. The chunky chips with dips were very popular. We never eat or drink in silence and the conversations flowed smoothly and richly.

And then we wandered home. It was another good LIKE event and I hope to go to many more like it.

25 June 2014

Orange Tree Theatre Festival - Programme 2

My final visit to the Orange Tree Theatre Festival was to see Programme 2 which proved to be the most mixed of a mixed bunch.

The evening opened with Four Days in Hong Kong which told the story of Edward Snowden's historic meeting with journalists that started the exposure of the dark deeds being done by western surveillance agencies.

I was aware of the main points in the story but the play went deeper than that and looked more at the motions and motives of the people involved. Obviously Snowden knew that he was burning several bridges but the journalists had concerns about their reputations too and there was a real possibility that they were being set-up.

It was all rather nicely done with a particularly convincing Snowden.

7 to 75 was one of those sort of pieces that I normally only see at try-out evening so it was good to see it as part of a proper show that I had paid to see.

Five women, aged 7 to 75, performed a piece that was somewhere between dance, gymnastics and mime that explored what it meant to each of them to be that age. With a nice twist there was some role-swapping at the end.

I am not quite sure what it was but I liked it and it was a gentle end to the first half.

I Dream before I Take the Stand started the second half aggressively.

This short drama showed a woman who was a victim of an attack in a park being cross examined forcefully by a lawyer playing the "you were asking for it" line by, for example, asking her questions about the colour of her underwear.

The theme of the playlet was no surprise but what lifted it in to something a little special was the crisp writing by Arlene Hutton and the masterful performances by David Antrobus and Heather Saunders.

Mobile 4 took a sideways look at modern art and artists. An artistic commune was threatened when one of them became a national star, so much so that he could even be bothered to come to the opening of his own exhibition and left the work to his colleagues, not all of whom thought that his stardom was deserved.

The ending was fairly predictable but the journey there was fun with lots of barbed interplay between the communal artists.

Programme 2 was a nicely mixed performance that succeeded mostly because of the variety it offered and also because it had the little gem I Dream before I Take the Stand in the middle.

23 June 2014

Tame Wolf Hall at the Aldwych Theatre

It may have been because I was tired, that certainly did not help, but I never got in to Wolf Hall and was struggling to see the point of it. Basically it was the play of the book of the story that we all know of Henry VIII's transition from his first wife to his second.

It did its best to entertain with a good cast and a reasonable set. Ben Miles led the way as Thomas Cromwell and did a fine job. Like many people I first saw Ben in Coupling in the early 2000's and I had also seen him on stage once in Pinter's Betray.

What troubled me were aspects of the script. Which was unexpected given that the play was based on the award winning book of the same name by Hilary Mantel. I can only presume that the quirks were added in the script and were not in the original book.

Firstly there were some uncharacteristic attempts at humour in the Carry on Henry style. These were silly little things like Cardinal Wolsey complaining that he was so busy he even had to work on Sundays.

And secondly the f-bomb was dropped a couple of times. I would not normally call it the f-bomb but when it is used so unexpectedly and so out of context as it was here then it warrants the bomb comparison.

Other than that the play drifted along without much passion, drama.or interest. It just told the story which I already knew. It was not actually bad and it did enough to keep me awake in trying circumstances. I just failed to see what the play thought that it was there to do.

22 June 2014

Pretty things at Ormeley Lodge (June 2014)

Ormeley Lodge is another of the local houses that opens its gardens as part of the National Gardens Scheme and which I go to at every opportunity because it is so pretty.

It is also vast with lots of different sections so it takes quite a while to get round it all. It takes even longer if you stop for a cup of tea and a biscuit.

As expected, I took dozens of photos and had a hard time sorting them out for the various places that they got posted, e.g. Facebook, Flickr and this blog. For the final selection, i.e. this blog, I have chosen my favourite photos. These show just small parts of the garden and, deliberately, say nothing about the way it is shaped or constructed.

I chose the first one not just for the neat Box hedge but also for the glimpse of the house behind it.

The garden is divided in to sections by large hedges. These are attractive in themselves and they also form a pleasant background to more colourful plants, such as these Sweet Peas in the vegetable plot that runs alone the right-hand side of the garden.

At the back of the garden is the wild orchard. I took more pictures here than anywhere else and picking just one was maddening. So I picked two. I chose this one because of the sheer variety of the flowers and grasses.

This is the back of the house and here it is the combination of the different materials that I like and the way that the flowers bust out of the pot to show that life can exist among the stones.

The large lawn at the back of the house is surrounded by a thick border of mixed flowers and, behind this, a tall hedge. A gap in the hedge leads to the wild orchards and then to the back gate. Once this gave access to Richmond Park but now there is a golf course there.

The second picture of the wild orchard features the rhinoceros. The rhinoceros always gets featured in my photographs of Ormeley Lodge and there is no reason why this trip should be any different.

One of my favourite objects in the garden is hidden away. It feels as though it should be basking in Battersea Park rather than sheltering next to the tennis court.

Back to the lawn and a solid old table. This year it was joined there by an old dog, one of several that had been added to the garden since my previous visit.

Orange Tree Theatre Festival - Lunchtime Plays

I managed to squeeze the Orange Tree Theatre Festival Lunchtime Plays in to the middle of a garden sandwich that started with Kew Gardens and ended with Ormeley Lodge.

That made it a fairly busy day and it somewhat interrupted the normal schedule which meant that meals were replaced with snatched coffee and cake breaks. I'm used to that.

The lunchtime session was shorter than the two evening ones and had just two short plays. They varied in mood immensely but both relied on one actor to carry the performance which made them good bedfellows.

Non-Essential Personnel, a new play by new playwright Caitlin Shannon,  was on first.

This was the dark play.

A newly widowed mother talked to her geeky teenage son about what had happened to them.

The most recent thing was that she had been sent home from work because there was a bomb alert and she was deemed to be one of the non-essential personnel. This got her thinking about her worth and that led to other things.

The dialogue was crisp and emotional but while I can recall the structure and mood of the piece the specifics have gone (I should have written this much earlier!) and there was no discovery or twist for me to centre the piece on.

I do recall that I enjoyed it though and one of the nice things about having a less than perfect memory is that I can go to see things again. I'd go to see this again.

The Actor's Nightmare was a true tour de force by Paul Kemp who has made many a fine night at the Orange Tree.

The actor arrived backstage at a theatre to be warmly greeted by people he did not know who expected him to go on stage to perform in a production that he knew nothing about. Things got even more complicated when different people had different expectations of him, from being Hamlet to being in a Private Lives.

This was mostly all the actor (Paul) reacting to what the others said to him but there was one nice cameo from the support with a wonderfully over-acted Horatio.

There were several theatre jokes and references thrown in and I was glad that I had seen Hamlet recently as that helped me to get some of them.

It was a riotously funny play with Paul winning our sympathy and admiration, helped immensely by the rest of the cast.

The Pagoda and more at Kew Gardens (June 2014)

The Pagoda in Kew Gardens is one of the main sites in the gardens but for all the years that I have been going there it has only been possible to look at it from the outside and to wonder what views it has to offer. But now it is open for the Summer.

The narrow staircase of 253 steep wooden steps and the limited space on the 10 levels meant that entry was strictly controlled with small groups allowed in for thirty minutes at a time.

The Pagoda opened at 10:00am and I was in the first group. I got a little bit of extra walking in as I had to go back to Lion Gate, where I had come in, to buy my ticket. They were not on sale at the Pagoda itself.

It was a tiring 253 steps and I stopped off to look at the emerging view a couple of times on the way up. Health and Safety dictated that all the windows were kept firmly shut and finances dictated that the glass was not very clean Despite those physical restrictions I was quite pleased with the pictures that I managed to take.

The view to the west looked over the Japanese Garden towards Syon Park on the other side of the Thames. Brentford started to stick its ugly oar in on the right.

Central London was on the east side. Even at that distance several of the shapes on the skyline were very recognisable, including (from left to right) the Cheesegrater, Walkie-Talkie, London Eye and Shard.

The best view of Kew Gardens was looking north along the Pagoda Vista that leads to the Palm House and runs past the Temperate House to do so.

Water dominated the rest of my visit to Kew Gardens.

From the Pagoda I walked along Cedar Vista that heads towards the river.

Along the way I paused by the Waterlily Pond (above) that always looks pretty.

Arriving at the far end of the Lake I followed it round as it turned towards the Palm House.

Just to the west of Sackler Crossing I paused on one of the many benches to watch the birds go about their daily tasks, among them a swan and her four cygnets. Despite the people crossing the bridge nearby the setting was peaceful. it was also shady and that made it the ideal place to sit and relax for a while or two.

Rested, I continued on towards the Palm House only to veer north at the last moment and to head for the Waterlily House instead. This is one of my favourite places in Kew Gardens and I usually pop-in to it when I am in that area.

The only problem with it is that it is small and always busy so it is impossible to take pictures that show the shape of the building without having lots of distracting people in it. So I usually just take pictures of the waterlilies instead.

I had other things to do that day and so it was almost time to leave. There was, of course, time for a coffee and some cake in the Victoria Plaza cafe. Walking there meant passing the Palm House Parterre, which is always a good idea.

The Pagoda was the main point of my visit and it lived up to expectations. The other delights of Kew Gardens just made the day even better.

21 June 2014

Orange Tree Theatre Festival - Programme 1

The Orange Tree Theatre Festival marked the end of Sam Walters' long and glorious reign with ten plays across three programmes. Due to other commitments I ended up seeing all three in five days.

All three had a mix of formats and lengths which gave them something of the same feeling as the try-out sessions at Theatre in the Pound. I liked the changes in styles and moods but seeing ten performances in five days and then writing them up some time later has meant that some of the experiences have faded slightly. As a rule, I prefer to give shows time to settle down in my memory before trying to load more things to think about on top of them.

The first playlet was Skeletons, a new play by David Laws. This suffered a little in my appreciation by being the first of the the ten and by being a "normal" story, though the characters were far from normal. There is nothing remotely normal about a middle-aged man living at home with his mother and spying on a woman in a neighbouring house using a high-powered telescope. At least I hope that is not normal.

The social vignette was both funny and troubling. The small cast were excellent and I enjoyed it a lot.

The second show, Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch was something quite different.

Duck and Death were puppets who were joined by a narrator to tell a short story about a duck who becomes friends with Death until the inevitable happened.

I liked the piece and it was good to see something so different. Normally I only see things like this at try-out evenings. 

Closing the programme was Closer Scrutiny, a new play written by Adam Barnard.

It started off normally enough with a daughter talking to her father until the doorbell went and she asked, "Is that me?. And it was. The version of her that we saw first disappeared and then she came through the door with her son, oblivious of the previous conversation.

The play developed neatly from there with the young woman facing a life-changing career move and rebuilding her relationship with her father as she did so.This was a stunning performance mixing some simple ideas on family relationships and some mysterious goings on possibly involving time-travel and/or ghosts.

The combination of playlets worked well together providing a good solid start, something different in the middle and a very strong ending. It was an excellent start to the Festival.

20 June 2014

Brutal and brilliant Hamlet at the Riverside

Something about this production appealed to me from when I first saw the listing but it got caught up among many other things and I was only able to see it in the last week of its run and then I had to escape from work in Reading promptly to see it.

It had been a busy week with a heavy commute and come late nights (and early mornings) and I was a little worried that I might struggle to pay full attention throughout. How wrong I was.

This was a brutal and brilliant version of Hamlet that ripped the guts out of the original, trimmed them a little, moved it to today's Liverpool and added some colloquial language. That may sound like a strange thing to do but it was pure genius and I loved every second of it.

The tone was set from the beginning with Hamlet being strip searched on entry to prison. The language was modern day and even made reference to England's elimination from the work cup that had happened that day. Reclotherd in prison greys Hamlet then spoke of his mother's quick marriage to her brother-in-law on the recent death of her husband, Hamlet's father. This was told in Shakespeare's and a Scouse accent.

Setting the play in a prison made the violence (there was a lot of it) more natural and also more brutal.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were a particularly nasty pair filling the stage with swagger, violence and strong language.

The villain of the piece, Hamlet's uncle Claudius, was equally superb in his suave malevolence. He was every inch the criminal big man from something like Layer Cake.

And Hamlet (Adam Lawrence) was everything that Hamlet has to be, moody, vengeful, loving, violent and despairing. It was a masterful performance.

Everything about the production was wonderful and made the familiar story even darker and more visceral. But this was not Scum because it was still very much Shakespeare.

This is the sort of Shakespeare that school children should be encouraged to see.

19 June 2014

Sparkling version of Under Milk Wood at the Ashcroft Theatre

My Dad is Welsh and my childhood included healthy doses of both Dylan Thomas and Max Boyce. In maturity (!) my interest in Max Boyce has slipped away but Dylan Thomas has stayed with me.

The star in the firmament is, obviously, Under Milk Wood and that star burns brightest in the 1963 BBC Radio version with Richard Burton as narrator. I have this version on CD and have played it many times.

When I heard that a new production was on tour the only question was when and where to see it. I chose the Ashcroft Theatre, part of the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, on the grounds that it was significantly cheaper than the closer Richmond Theatre (I was buying four tickets) and I chose the 19 June because it was a free evening. I had not added the World Cup fixtures to my calendar at that time ...

The transport was very bad to me and both trains that I caught, from Reading to Clapham Junction and then to East Croydon, were delayed and what should have been just enough time to get a beer became a few minutes late and I had to miss the first scene before being allowed in to the theatre. My seat was near the front (G10) but I had to watch the first half from the back of the front stalls, which was fine.

I was captivated from the start. This was mainly due to the narration of Owen Teale which had the same timbre and tone as Richard Burton's. He gradually introduced us to the rest of the large cast as they slept and dreamt and revealed much about themselves as they did so.

If Dylan Thomas' words were the bedrock of the production then the magnificent cast were the solid foundations and they were the people who brought the words to vivid life.

All were good but I only have space to mention a couple.

Steven Meo I recognised immediately from his leading role in BBC Three's Grownups though he was probably better known for his guest appearances in those other Welsh dramas Torchwood and Dr Who. He was the clown in the piece and even had the other cast members laughing at his antics on the toilet.

I also recognised Hedydd Dylan immediately but it took longer to work out where from and then I was embarrassed to realise that it was from the three excellent Spanish Golden Age plays that I saw at the Arcola Theatre just a few months previously. She even starred in one of them. Here she played Polly Garter whose song about a lost lover (one of many) was the most moving part of the play.

The simple stage accommodated all of the cast and gave them the space to take their turns in the limelight as the story moved through the village. Above the stage a neat model showed us the village and the passage of the sun through the day.

This production of Under Milk Wood was beautiful. It let the words shine through and the acted scenes complimented the changing moods neatly, unlike the film that did more than was necessary and so lost contact at times with its heart.

Under Milk Wood was well worth missing England v Uruguay to see.

18 June 2014

Kingston Society Public Meeting: RBK issues and challenges

The Kingston upon Thames Society Public Meeting in June saw Viv Evans, the recently appointed Head of Planning and Transport at the Royal Borough, give us his views on current issues and priorities.

After a good and well received talk he then spent a lot of time answering the many questions from the floor. There were some arguments over some of what he said but there were none on his knowledge, honest statements on how we saw things or his willingness to engage with the audience. It was an excellent session, even if we did not always like what he said.

What follows is a mix of stuff from the talk, the Q&A and my subsequent thoughts. None of this is attributable to Viv, RBK or the Kingston Society. The mistakes are all mine.


Kingston wants to remain a top retail destination. It is currently one of the top thee retail destinations in London and one of the top ten in the country. It faces threats both from new centres, particularly the Westfield coming to Croydon, and from the ageing and tired looking parts of Kingston, e.g. the Eden Walk Shopping Centre. Doing nothing is not an option while other centres, e.g. Guildford and Woking, are making improvements.

There are several major opportunity sites that are due to be developed in the next year or two and most of these are close to Kingston town centre. RBK is trying to address these as one programme under the Kingston Futures umbrella.

Consultations on Ashdown Road (The Old Post Office) and Eden Walk are due to start in a few weeks.


Kingston is dominated by the car. This means that busy roads bisect the centre and that pedestrians and cyclists are always given a lower priority. This makes it harder to move around the town. This despite the fact that cycling is more popular in Kingston than it is generally across London, though this may be distorted by the presence of Richmond Park.

Mini-Holland is bringing in a minimum of £30m to improve cycling facilities across the Borough. Most of the attention has fallen on the proposed pontoon, which most people hate but I like, but it is important to remember that this is just one of many schemes in the project.

A major traffic and transport study is under-way.

Planning policies and procedures

Some town plans are getting out of date, the are around 6 years old and a lot of changes have been made nationally in that time.

RBK has no policy on building heights and does not have a dedicated conservation officer, though some staff have had training in this.


RBK aims for 60% affordable housing, usually gets 35%, sometimes only 16%.

Most of the new student accommodation is used by students who commute to universities in central London. Some people seemed to find this troubling but that is to ignore the fact that most of the family housing in Kingston is used by people who commute to jobs in central London.

My view

My view, which I put at the meeting, is that Kingston is continuing to push two main themes; large prestigious retail developments that pull in shoppers from far and wide plus more housing and transport to get people to live here when they work elsewhere. What is missing was much consideration of what sort of Kingston is being built for residents who spend a lot of time here not working or shopping.

Kingston needs public spaces (the refurbished Ancient Market helps but we need much more) and more leisure facilities (not just cafes!), and these all need to be easy to get to and between on foot and bike.

Lots of European cities show what can be done, e.g. Hannover, Antwerp, Bremmen, Malmo, to name just a few, but I am not convinced that Kingston is heading in that direction.

15 June 2014

Finding colours in St Michael's Convent on Ham Common

I run two blogs, this one is about what I do and Ham Photos is about where I live so whenever I do something locally there is an overlap and I have to decide what to post where. When I visited the gardens at St Michael's Convent on Ham Common, just a few minutes walk away, I decided that in Ham Photos I would show something of the shape and construction of the garden and here I would show the more artistic/pretentious pictures.

The first shows a colourful collection of flowers in the border along the far end of the lawn next to the house..

Next to the house, and alongside the lawn, was a kitchen garden in productive use and filled with a variety of plants. It was that combination of broad-leafed vegetables (I presume!) and small flowers that I took this picture for.

Daisies have never been a favourite flower of mine, despite Mum teaching me that you can eat them whole (which I did), but I have always liked old brick walls and even daisies look exceptionally pretty when posed in front of them.

Another vibrant clash between the natural and the man-made attracted me here. The greenhouse was also in the kitchen garden and the fact that I have chosen three pictures from that one section, only a small fraction of the whole garden, shows just how much I liked it.

Finally back to the flower borders for another diverse collection but this time it is the different shapes and shades of greens that attracted me. The few spots of colour helped.

There was a lot more to the garden than this and it took me an hour to see it all before getting the obligatory cup of tea and a slice of cake, all in the aid of charity.