31 March 2015

Big Ideas on Making the economy fairer

The economy is always a hot political topic ("It's the economy, stupid") and fairness is a term that politicians love to throw around to justify whatever it is that they propose to do so, as somebody who is politically interested, a Big Ideas discussion on making the economy fairer was obviously an attractive prospect for me.

To be fair, a Big Ideas discussion on the economy or on fairness would have been good enough for me, so good is my experience of Big Ideas discussions, so getting the two together was like getting two slices of cake.

Our guide for the evening was Sukhdev Johal who lectured at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests included how local authorities can promote economic democracy and rebuild local supply chains, which was one of the sources for the discussion. His main hypothesis was that Local Authorities could do more (if allowed by Central Government) to boost local economies and so help to counteract national trends.

Some of the following words are Sukhdev's,  most are mine, some are from the other people there, and any foolish errors are mine alone.

The problem is not economic growth, that is robust enough, the problem is the distribution of the benefits of this growth. For example, 40% of working households get more in benefits than they pay in tax, i.e. we have to subsidise work as many are not reaping the benefits of growth.

Labour raised the safety net for workers and business responded by lowering wages.

Also the majority of growth has been in the South East so there are large parts of the country that are losing out.

Some elements of the local economy remain strong because they are service we use every day and they need to be local, there is a limit how far somebody will go to get a pizza, shoe repaired or a newspaper.

If Local Authorities are to do more then they will need (some) more resources to do so. Land value taxes, e.g. a reform of the Council Tax or some form of a Mansion Tax, could be one source but there is an unwillingness to consider this for some reason. Another option is to leverage the power that LA's have through planning, e.g. if a new housing development is approved then a charge could be made against the local businesses that would benefit from this.

We struggled to identify other levers that LAs could pull and that may be a problem with the idea. And if those levers exist then why are they not being used?

The LAs do not have an unsullied history of meeting the needs of their citizens. They have been better at finding new ways of introducing charges and collecting fees than they have at providing new services. Similarly they have led the way on outsourcing and so devolving things like Health to LAs could be a short-cut to getting them privatised.

If LAs are going to take a greater role in locally then we need to think the democratic implications of this. Who defines what it is a locality needs.

A problem with localism is defining what we mean by local. For example, is it the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, the town of Surbiton or the village (?) of Tolworth.

This was a somewhat looser Big Ideas discussion in usual in that we covered a broad theme, the role of localism in the economy, which produced a range of ideas from hippy to Stalinist without settling on any sort of framework to assess these against. I believe in frameworks so, while I enjoyed discussing the ideas, I found the debate lacked direction. Of course, pub discussions do not have to have a direction or purpose, other than to air the issue, so I cannot really hold that against it.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh at RIBA

It was something of a luxury to visit RIBA twice in one day but I like to spoil myself.

I had wandered over there during my lunch break to see the The Future City exhibition and then I took advantage of the late night opening to go back again after work, this time to see the main exhibition on Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This had been on my must-see list since it opened in February and I was more organised than usual in getting to see it in the middle of its run rather than in it's last week.

Going to RIBA twice in one day was also excellent for my step count, something that I think about a lot these days!

RIBA, like the V&A, can seem to do no wrong with its exhibitions and I always find them interesting and informative even if the subject does not appear to be one that would naturally appeal to me. There were no such reservations with Charles Rennie Mackintosh as a topic so the exhibition delightfully combined great content with great curation.

It is also worth pointing out that RIBA exhibitions are free. I love free things not because they save me money but because their freeness means that people can pop-in for just a short while, e.g. in a lunch break, and can do so repeatedly. I think that a little and often is the best way to absorb culture.

The Mackintosh exhibition was in the (newish) main exhibition at RIBA, on the ground floor adjacent to the reception desk. It has the advantage over the other exhibition spaces in that there are no windows. I love the windows at RIBA but the light coming through them can play havoc with displays, as can still be seen on the first floor exhibition area.

The exhibition had plenty of drawings, as expected, as I was pleased to see quite a few models too.

The only slight gripe, and this applies to many exhibitions, is that putting the drawings behind glass meant that I was always juggling with reflections. This can be seen clearly in the top picture which has a reflection of one of the models on the left edge. If RIBA cannot solve this problem (at a reasonable cost) then I suspect that nobody can but it does seem strange that nobody has invented a combination of glass and lighting that solves this problem. At the exhibition I was able to get around this by looking at the same piece from several angles but a single photograph cannot so this.

The drawings were as detailed and as lovely as I hoped that they would be. The things that they were drawings of were lovely too.

This was a meeting of art and architecture and I could appreciate the buildings for their aesthetics as well as for the ingenuity of their design that created wonderful spaces to live and work in.

A surprise was how few buildings Mackintosh was involved in. I thought of him primarily as an architect but the exhibition informed me that he became disillusioned with architecture and turned his hand to watercolours instead. I was glad that the RIBA exhibition focused firmly on the architecture as that was what I was there to see.

The lack of buildings in quantity did nothing to diminish the quality of the works on display and I spent a long time peering at each drawing and model, and then I walked around them all again to remind me of the best bits and to make sure that I had not missed anything.

Obviously the Glasgow School of Art was a highlight and it was nice to see this complimented with several more modest buildings, though none of them were that modest. Rich people often like to commission edgy architects to build distinctive and impressive houses for them and architecture on this scale manages to be both grand and human, a combination that brings the best out of the best architects. That is why we remember places like the Red House and Villa Tugendhat and it was good to see Mackintosh's forays into this field.

I can always spend time happily looking at architects' drawings and models and when the architect is Charles Rennie Mackintosh it is understandable that I spent a lot of time and was very happy.

The Future City exhibition at RIBA

The RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) headquarters building at 66 Portland Place is one of my favourite places in London because they hold many good exhibitions there, the building is grand and attractive, and the little cafe is a comfortable place to rest and recuperate.

The building also has the advantage of being about 2.5km away from my London office so it is a place that I can pop into at lunchtime for a quick architectural treat while also getting some good steps in.

And that is how I found myself at The Future City exhibition on a Tuesday lunchtime.

RIBA has various spaces in which it holds exhibitions, I can think of six, and most of these are spaces that were designed for other uses and which have exhibitions squeezed into them from time-to-time. Future City was up on the second floor spread along the corridor around the atrium. This is a space that is often used and while the space has obvious limitations it works well enough as an exhibition space.

Despite the restrictions, there was space for a townscape model and I always love to see townscape models.

The exhibition looked at how cities could evolve by considering themes like population and traffic.

The bulk of the exhibition, i.e. the thing that I spent most time looking at,  was the information boards on each theme that explained the history, challenges and some of the possible solutions.

This made it quite a wordy exhibition that was good for information value but less so for entertainment. I prefer models, maps and pictures as you can "read" then in any sequence you like and take as long as you like whereas text has a forced direction and a natural speed. I will also admit to being not much of a texty person, I have always preferred comics to novels and I very rarely read anything that it text-heavy these days.

It is no surprise, therefore, that one of the things that caught my attention the most was this cartoon on transport in the future. I like the visual impact of both the relentless tide of cars and the bleak blocks behind them. This is the sort of Future City that we do not want to see but which we may be heading towards.

This was only a fleeting visit and still it managed to tickle my intellect and spark some new thoughts. RIBA is a great resource and I should make more use of it.

Borderlands at GRAD was provocative and thrilling

GRAD (the Gallery of Russian Art and Design) is my sort of gallery. I have always found the exhibitions unusual and stimulating, and the gallery's location and size make it an ideal place to pop-in to during a lunch break.

And so it was that I found myself there on a Tuesday lunchtime.

The exhibition was called Borderlands and it looked at the boundary between art and political comment, something that the V&A has also been looking at recently in exhibitions like All of This Belongs to You, the difference being that this was from a Russian perspective and it is always good to see things from a different perspective.

The front of the exhibition space was dominated by a brick wall with wallpaper on one side. I've shown the wall paper side but viewed from the other side it was more obvious that the shape of the wall was that of Ukraine and that the section of bricks lying on the floor away from the wall was shaped like Crimea, the obvious point being that this part of the country had split away from the rest.

You could argue that Russia was in the wrong over the breakup of Ukraine, and many people have, so it was a provocative and brave act to include a piece like that in the exhibition. That was a good thing as art should be provocative and brave.

There was a series of photographs, displayed on lightboxes, of demonstrations in Moscow. These were made arty by the way that they were taken and presented. They were taken over a short period, 41 seconds apparently, and that gave them a smudged look as some of the elements of the picture smeared in dramatic lines.

Another effect, not that obvious here, was to squash parts of the photos along vertical lines in the way that things like Apple's Photo Booth do. In the big picture above this was done by the grey post on the left. I found the combination of the contrasting effects of smearing and squashing very effective.

The final element was the original scenes and and these were colourful and powerful because they were what they were, i.e. demonstrations with lots of people carrying banners in large public spaces.

I did not get the connection between these outfits and protest but that did not matter as I liked them anyway. I did get that these were not meant to be normal fashion outfits so there was a question there as to whether these were clothes, art, both or neither. I would call then Abstract Fashion in that they were Abstract Art produced using Fashion.

Treated as a form of Abstract Art it was easy to appreciate their use of shape and colour.

This was my fourth visit to GRAD in just over a year and I was thrilled every time. That's why I'll keep going there.

27 March 2015

One Man Breaking Bad at the Rose Theatre was just what the packed house wanted

I am still working hard to get on with the Rose Theatre and I am still finding it harder than I should. I get their regular emails yet I failed to notice that this was on, or if I did see it advertised then it was in a way that did not appeal to me. It was only a chance conversation in the pub that alerted me to this and spurred me to get a ticket.

Obviously lot of other people were fully aware that it was on and the theatre was almost completely sold out by the time that I came to make m booking. This was despite all three levels of the theatre being open for the event, something that does not happen very often. My lateness meant that I got a side-on seat right at the end of the second row on the upper deck, B68 which cost me a mere £19.00.

The view from there was fine and it was so good to see the place full.

The One Man taking us through the complete Breaking Bad was actor Miles Allen.

He relied on few props and brought the many characters to life with a few simple-looking mannerisms. It was fantastic to watch the way that he slid between them quickly and effortlessly between the roles and it was this that added most to the show's success. Miles could act.

It was a clever abridgement that took us through the highlights of each series in a way that we could all appreciate, i.e. it was an honest interpretation, and did so in a way to emphasise the humour.

This was an entertainment, not a drama, and it was very entertaining.

To give just one example, in one very quick scene Miles made a buzzing noise like a fly and then appeared to swat it in his hands. He then told us that he had just saved us 45 minutes and we all laughed because we all remembered Fly, the tenth episode of series three.

One Man Breaking Bad not only entertained a packed house it showed the Rose Theatre that it is possible to get packed houses with the right shows, and that probably means less mainstream drama and more of a focus on pure entertainment.

24 March 2015

Radiant Vermin at the Soho Theatre showed the charming side of mass-murder

I was a fairly late in discovering Philip Ridley, it all started with Ghost from a Perfect Place in October 14, but I fell in love with his writing very quickly and that made Radiant Vermin a must-see for me.

While the Soho is not one of my very favourite theatres, it lacks the front of house atmosphere for that, it is still one that I like a lot and it had the advantage of being well placed, in Soho funnily enough. It's location helped here as I had to be in Reading during the day and so had to rush back to see this. It's a routine that I am used to now and the only tricky bit was deciding which pasty to get at the station.

Queueing for the theatre at Soho is always awkward and people, myself included, hung around the door to the bar. Things got better when another show was called as that thinned the numbers considerably. When it was our turn I was well placed enough and alert enough to get a front-row seat.

There was not much to look at, apart from a white stage with a slightly raised white background. I was already liking it.

Then we met young couple Ollie and Jill who said that they had a story to tell us and that they were really nice people really but they had done some pretty terrible things. They did all this in a cheesy TV advert sort of way while wearing the sort of clothes that only people with no imagination wear, something like M&S but a little posher. Alan Partridge would have approved.

Then it got quickly got complicated and complex as we were sucked into a typical Ridley realm that blended typical family life with horror, mystery, humour and politics, and they were just the most obvious ingredients in a most delightful stew.

The basic premise was that they were approached by a Miss D., offering them the chance to get a new house for free. This would be in a run-down area and they would have to do it up by themselves. The aim being to encourage other people back into the neglected area by planting the seed of one restored house.

So far so good and plausible too.

Then an accident reveals a quick way to get the house not just restored but refashioned exactly as they wished it could be. The bad news was that somebody had to die but the less bad news was that this was a vagrant who nobody would miss. The story evolved quickly from there and the couple got the house that they wanted and they got better at killing vagrants.

That opened all sorts of questions, such as how much did the Government really know about this scheme (e.g. did they see the loss of vagrants as another benefit?), how many such schemes where there?, who or what was Miss D.?, did the scheme work by magic, science or was there a religious element?

As the couple sunk deeper and deeper into the horror (from our perspective), they remained resolutely charming, happy and nice. It was a bit like Helen Mirren calmly disposing of bodies in Red 2, and it was funny for the same reason.

The regeneration scheme worked and they gradually acquired a set of new neighbours of the aspirational class that the Government would have approved of.

The number of characters grew but the cast did not and the couple took on the additional roles effortlessly and seamlessly. In one superb scene, a BBQ, all the characters were on stage at the same time and were talking quickly to each other. This was exceptional quick-fire acting from Gemma Whelan and Sean Michael Verey and I was exhausted just watching them.

The brilliance of the piece was the way that it took an empty white stage, added two people (plus a little help from a third) and managed to conjure up something that exploded in many directions, any one of which would have been satisfying on its own. This is typical of Ridley and why I am such a fan of his work.

It was almost irrelevant that the cute Summer-frock wearing mother, Gemma Whelan, was rather better known as the woman warrior Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, though that did make me respect her even more as an actor.

22 March 2015

Art Miles at Chiswick House and Gardens

For some reason Chiswick House and Gardens had completely escaped my attention and not only had I not been there before I did not even know that it was there to go to. This despite it being just a couple of fairly easy bus rides away.

That changed with Art Miles, a fund raising idea from the Art Fund, which I have been a member of for several years. In this a few venues organised walking tours that included treats not generally available to the public. I chose to go to Chiswick House and Gardens simply because I had not been there before and it was fairly easy to get to.

It was a reasonably early start for a Sunday, the event started at 11am so I had to start travelling at 10am, which meant getting up at the very un-Sunday time of 8:30am. First there was the 65 bus to Richmond and then the 190 to Chiswick. The app I was using mislead me slightly and I got off a stop later than I could have but I had made good time and the compensation was a nice walk through part of the gardens to the front of the house where the walk was to begin.

I was not sure what sort of group, or crowd, their would be for the walk and it was definitely a crowd. I joined the queue to check-in and was pleasantly surprised to be given a goody-bag. The goodies were not that special but I'll always take a new cloth bag.

Once registered we were ushered into groups of around twenty to start the tour. I may have misunderstood the rules and joined the wrong group but it was a very informal affair so that did not matter.

Our guide started by telling us something of the history of the house, all of which I have since forgotten. History is not really my thing. But walking is.

We started walking along the river that cheered us all up despite the somewhat gloomy conditions. From there we crossed a steep bridge back into the heart of the garden.

Our group soon splintered as we were all walking at different speeds and some of us, including myself, were pausing frequently to take photographs. That did not matter as there were guides stationed at all of the interesting points to give us a little more of the history of the gardens.

The final part of the tour took us through the long conservatory with a prim dome in its centre. A photograph on the wall told us that the Beatles had been there too.

That ended the guided tour and that meant that it was time for lunch. Everybody else thought so too so it was bit of a scrum to get some food and a table to sit at to east it but I managed it and took the opportunity to recharge my batteries.

Part of the deal was that we had access to the house and most of the garden was open to the public anyway, there was one section that had been opened just for the Art Milers, so once rested I headed into the house.

The Summer Room, a later edition, was the most spectacular of the rooms and I broke the no photographs rule to take this picture of the ceiling.

The rest of the house was more interesting than grand, and I like interesting. It was not a particularly large house which suited me as I would much rather be walking outside.

The morning's gloom had been replaced by some afternoon sun so I retraced many of my steps from the earlier tour to revisit some of the prettier places in better light. Places like the crow's foot where one path from the house divided into three heading in straight lines towards eye-catching monuments.

The gardens were nicely varied as it seemed that every time that a new garden fashion had come along part of the garden was changed to adopt it.

I walked back along the river and this time the sunlight did the house proud. I liked the simple symmetry of it and the tidy rows of chimneys on each side. Beyond the main house is one of the extensions (other extensions had been added and then removed again) and this is the one that had the Summer Room.

The river started with some waterfalls that made just the sort of happy noises that waterfalls should make. They were pretty too. The main path ran between them and it too a lot of patience to finally get a photograph without anybody walking past or stopping to admire the water.

From there I took the raised path that led towards the West entrance, having entered via the East entrance some hours earlier. The main entrance was in the middle and I was happy to avoid that. From there it was a short walk to a bus stop where I caught the 190 back the way I came to Richmond.

Having discovered Chiswick House and Gardens it is now firmly on my radar and I should be going back there to see it in another season. I should also be going to see some of the other houses and gardens that I have been overlooking too, places like Syon and Osterley House and Gardens.

21 March 2015

More Broken Bones at the Fox and Duck

The last time that I saw Broken Bones at the Fox and Duck was only a few weeks ago and then I commented that I hoped to see their next gig there on 19 July so it was something of a surprise to see them pop-up there again in March. Still, it had been a busy day watching Wales being robbed of the Six Nations Championship and I really fancied a few beers while listening to some good music.

I also needed the walk there, so much so that I took a long route along Dukes Avenue, Riverside Drive, Ham Street, Sandy Lane and Petersham Road. That got me just above my 12k step target for the day and also enabled me to listen to a few of my ten hours worth of unplayed podcasts.

I got to the Fox and Duck around 10:45 while the band were on their interval break so I could settle down with a Doombar before the noise and the dancing started.

I had called Broken Bones grungy before but they sounded more bluesy this time. That might have been their song selection or something to do with my mood. The songs that impressed me the most were certainly the longer slower bluesier ones like Sweet Home Alabama, Pleased to Meet You and Smoke on the Water.

There were some shorter faster rockier numbers too, numbers like Born to be Wild, Jailbreak and, of course, Ace of Spades. It was a good balance of songs and I liked the fact that they played some unusual ones as well as some of the more obvious crowd favourites.

Broken Bones finished on the stroke to midnight refusing the desperate please for another encore, using the completely reasonable excuse of the pub's curfew to do so.

That left me a little drinking up time to catch-up with some locals and I had some quick conversations on health informatics and the correct pronunciation of "Bosham" before walking home, taking a slightly longer route than necessary but a shorter one than I used to get there.

Another fine night at the Fox and Duck and just what I needed at the end of a gruelling day.

20 March 2015

Three Acres and a Cow - a folky history of land rights and protest

In many ways Three Acres and a Cow was not my sort of thing but it was my sort of thing in enough other ways for it to be a fun evening.

The main reason that I went was because it was a Green Party fundraising event and as Green sympathiser that appealed to me. The second reason was that it was held at the Vineyard Church Hall just off Richmond Hill. I had seen other events advertised there but it was a new venue for me and I always like collecting new venues. The final reason for going was because it had music, though I did not know what sort beforehand.

The hall was in a part of Richmond that I knew reasonable well, mostly due to its proximity to Raygun Comics which meant that I had walked past in many times on my way to or from the shop. Getting there was easy as the 65 stopped close by and I did not mind that almost all of the steps from the bus to the hall were uphill.

The hall itself was somewhat bigger than I expected though I was reassured by the general feeling of clutter verging on mess, so familiar from many jumble sales in my childhood. There was a smaller hall off this which was being put to good use selling beer. They had Twickenham Fine Ales' Naked Ladies so that was an easy decision to make.

Back in the hall I took one of the chairs in the front row and waited for the music. This came from Robin Grey and Rachel Rose Reid.

I am guessing a little here but it felt like being in a folk club. Obviously I have never been to a folk club but they spoke several times as though everybody there did. Sadly that meant an element of joining in and then my choice of a front row seat worked against me and I had no option but to try and sing.

Three Acres and a Cow was structured chronologically with key milestones posted on the washing line at the back of the stage as we came to them. Each milestone had its own story explaining how land rights changed and the reactions to this, hence the "protest" part of the show's title. Each milestone also had some music.

The music may not have been the sort that I usually choose to listen to but it was pleasant enough and the politics was of great interest to me. One of the classic political conflicts is between capital and labour and there is no better expression of capital than land. Unfortunately Three Acres and a Cow confirmed that capital still has the upper hand that it always had.

Despite the unhappy ending, Three Acres and a Cow was a jolly little show that was well crafted, informative, well presented and, above all, fun.

17 March 2015

Kevin Spacey's swan song with Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic

Occasionally I push the boat out and go for a west end production when my natural instincts are to live among the fringe theatres. Clarence Darrow was one such occasion and the clear reason for going was to see Kevin Spacey at his swansong as artistic director at the Old Vic. I has seen him as Richard III in 2011 and he had been brilliant in that.

Even so, there was still a limit to what I was prepared to pay for the experience and I went for a relatively cheap ticket (£35) up in the gods (Lilian Baylis Circle D15).

My expectations were given a little lift when I saw Twelve Angry Men a few days previously and somebody mentioned Clarence Darrow (the real person, not the play) in that.

On the day I worked in our Kings Cross office and walked the increasingly familiar road down to Southwark looking for somewhere to eat. I discovered Culture Grub, a small Chinese restaurant that seems to cater mostly for students and the poorer locals. The food was good, quick and cheap. I suspect that I'll be back there next time I am looking to eat before going to the Old or Young Vics.

My view from the gods was fine and my reasoning that the play would be all about the voice and little about the staging proved to be right. The stage, such as it was, consisted of a desk and a few cabinets in his office. Some unpacking and sorting out was going on but that was just an excuse to add movement to the play.

The other technique used to make the play more than just a speech was to engage with the audience in some of the exchanges. Nobody sitting in the front rows was ready for this and so it did not always work that well.

But that was just the froth on the top, the play was all about Kevin Spacey's delivery of Clarence Darrow's words. These fell into two camps, stories about his life and reenactments of court scenes. This approach worked very well and produced a variety of moods that a simple narration could have missed. In his personal life Darrow was funny, flippant and motivated and as a court lawyer he was passionate and loquacious.

And that was kind of the point, Darrow had his heart in the right place and he had the skills to help people.

Darrow explained several cases to us and, given the period that we were talking about, it is not surprising that these covered unionisation (a.k.a. communism) and race. Darrow was helping the people in real-life that Steinbeck was standing up for in his books. My sympathies were naturally with the people that Darrow was working for and that helped me to like him and, therefore, the play.

The mix of narration and re-enactment gave the play some mood changes while the pace stayed pretty constant with no twists or surprises. It was left to the skill of Kevin Spacey to breath life in to the words, and that he did. This was a fitting farewell for Spacey but more because it was a one-man show rather than because of the strength of the role. I'll remember his Richard III more.

14 March 2015

Counterfeit make a strong return to the Fox and Duck

I was lucky enough to catch the first ever Counterfeit gig, which was also at the Fox and Duck, in June 14 but the fates had conspired to make me miss their subsequent returns there. And it looked as though I would miss this one too and not only did I have a theatre date earlier in the evening but it was many miles away in Guildford.

Then a few things worked out for me. The play finished on time not long after 10pm and I got to the station with a couple of minutes to spare before the 20:20 train left, at Surbiton it was another short wait for a 281 bus to Kingston and there it was just two minutes before a 65 came along and took me briskly to Petersham. I arrived at the Fox and Duck just after 11:20pm which gave me forty minutes of music and enough time to drink three pints.

Obviously I cannot comment on the whole set as I only caught part of the second half but what I did hear was a slightly and refreshingly unusual mix of songs that included Pinball Wizard and Purple Rain as well as the more common Whole Lotta Love.

As before the musicianship was excellent from all four band members and even the slight technical difficulty at one point did nothing to spoil the infectious good mood. Just look at the grin on Dave's face in the photo above. I was smiling too.

The cause of the extra smiling at this point was lead guitarist Julia Kurzeja's jaunt into the bar area for her shoeless solo. She tried the table first but that seemed a little risky so she settled for the chair instead.

It was an invigorating and uplifting end to a busy evening and that is all that I could have hoped for. Counterfeit are flagged as one of my favourite bands on LemonRock and I hope to catch another full show before too long.

A confident and assured Twelve Angry Men at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

To be honest, I do not think that I would have considered either the play or the theatre were it not for the offer of cheap tickets through work. But there was enough to the reputation of the play and the temptation in trying a new theatre for the offer to sway that balance.

The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre was a nice walking distance from Guildford station so that meant getting there was fairly easy and I was able to spend a lot of time at home catching up with things before heading out to the theatre.

The play started at 8pm and I arrived in Guildford just after 6pm planning to eat first. Unfortunately everybody who had been shopping in Guildford that day had the same idea and all the restaurants were packed so I went on to the theatre in the hope that they had something. Luckily they did something snacky that I liked in the bar and I was there early enough to get a seat.

As the tickets were booked through work I had no choice in the matter and I was pleased to find myself fairly central about half-way back in the stalls. I was even more pleased when the couple in front of me did not show so I did not have a tall person's head to contend with. My view was excellent, as the photo below shows.

The plot of Twelve Angry Men was simple, jurors had retired to consider a case with the aim of getting a unanimous verdict but they started split 11 in favour of guilty and 1 against. The deliberations towards the final outcome were pertinent but the point of the play was the twelve characters and the way that they reacted to each other.

Twelve Angry Men was actually a very misleading title as only some of them were, or got, angry and there were a lot of other emotions on show. In particular, the Tom Conti character, he who started off by saying not guilty, was cool and calm throughout. Others were aggressive, timid, disinterested, phlegmatic, bigoted and other things besides.

The ending, the final verdict, was never really in doubt but the steps to get there were interesting enough while the conversations between the group were the core of the play.

A play about emotions needs good actors and this one had plenty. Each of the twelve jurors had a distinctive and believable personality. Tom Conti was in the staring role but all the other characters had their time in the limelight as we learned more about what they thought and why they though it, which was often based upon something that they had experienced. I was particularly pleased to see Robert Duncan on the stage as I had watched him for many years in Drop the Dead Donkey.

Twelve Angry Men never had enough in the plot to be stunning but it was certainly good enough and this was a confident and assured production which entertained with ease.

13 March 2015

A different and daring Hamlet at The Cockpit

My Shakespearean encounters continued with another Hamlet, this time at the Cockpit and with a woman playing the lead role, though, unlike Lear, she was playing it as a man.

But first I had to get there. The theatre came at the end of a long day with an interview in the morning and a feast of wedding dresses in the afternoon. Getting from the V&A to the Cockpit, not that far apart as the crow flies, was not simple and I opted for the 46 bus which took me a lot of the way but left a reasonable walk at the far end.

It was a tiring walk on a tiring day so I rested for a while at the Lord High Admiral at the end of Church Street Market which was at the final stage of closing for the day. This was one of those pubs that time forgot and had been unchanged for decades. There was no chance of any food or even of real ale. I had a pint of keg Worthington Smooth, territory I had not trodden for many years, not since beer was re-invented.

I was resigned to surviving the evening on peanuts (not for the first time) and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Cockpit had some Lebanese vegetarian pasties so I had a couple of those. And a Budvar.

When summoned by the bell I went for my usual spot in the front-row on the right side of the entrance. This cost me £29.50 which, by my standards, was a little on the high side but anything under £30 required little justification.

This Hamlet was set in a school and that reminded me of Rinaldo at Glyndebourne. Hamlet was one of the school boys in an small class and Horatio was a teacher. The other classmates were Laertes, Ophelia and Rosencrantz. The only other members of the cast were Hamlet's mother and stepfather.

This Hamlet was also heavily abridged and one of the victims of the cuts was the opening scene with the ghost of his father. That took a little getting used to at first but did nothing to harm the flow or coherence of the story.

As with the adaptation of Hamlet that I saw at the Riverside, this version focussed on one aspect of the play and this time it was the core theme of Hamlet's thirst for revenge and the violent consequences of that. Even strimmed down to this core, this Hamlet ran for over an hour and a half so it was by no means slight. The bits of the play that were left were thick with emotion, both Hamlet's and the other people's reacting to his.

The staging was physical without being distracting. The movement flowed across the full gamut of the stage making the most of staging it in the round. The movement also climbed on to the tables and chairs to give height as well as width and depth. Apart from the furniture, sparing use was made of props so when they did come into play they made more of an impact. There was a memorable scene where large red, blue and white handkerchiefs (the sort magicians have) were used in quick succession to represent blood, tears and semen. That got a laugh; one of the few.

It is hard to go wrong with Hamlet and they didn't. The drama built solidly towards the known tragic ending that managed to remain dramatic despite being known. It was a thoroughly engrossing and imaginative production that was delivered assuredly.

I hung around the bar for a little while afterwards hoping to catch a quick word with some of the cast (I love theatres where you can do that) and was delighted to speak to Hamlet him/herself who looked very different in her post-show shocking red lipstick. A perception testing end to an intelligent evening.

Wedding Dresses at the V&A

I will admit that wedding dresses is not the obvious thing for me to go and see an exhibition on but this was the V&A and they do exceedingly good exhibitions on fashion.

I had intended to go to see Wedding Dresses for many months, the exhibition started in May 14 and I knew that it was coming before then, but, predictably, I finally got to see it just two days before it closed in March 15.

I was in London for something else that morning and had taken a day's holiday to take in an exhibition in the afternoon before going to the theatre.

I got to the V&A at 1:30pm and joined the short queue for a timed ticket. The exhibition was clearly busy but was not sold out. I opted for a 2pm ticket to give me time for lunch in the cafe first. After a very leisurely lunch that featured some sort of butternut squash pie, I went in to the exhibition around 2:20pm expecting it to take about an hour which would leave me just about enough time to get to another exhibition at RIBA that was also due to close shortly.

The exhibition was busy but following the slow queue around the outer circle of the lower floor allowed me to see everything and in chronological order too. There were a few other men there, just not very many.

The displays were of typical wedding dresses of the middle class (mostly) and it was interesting to see how the shapes, styles and colours changed over the years. It was also interesting to learn that wedding dresses used to have a life after the big day, much like a smart lounge suit work by a bridegroom today has.

One of my favourite dresses on the lower level was a fairly simple purple dress that looked just like the sort of thing that one of the smart ladies in Lark Rise to Candleford would wear.

Upstairs was a completely different affair and introduced the exotic world of contemporary designed dresses many of which were worn by the rich and famous.

The first of these was the full purple dress worn by Dita Von Teese on her wedding to Marilyn Manson in 2005, as seen in the photo above. Photography was banned in the exhibition (they had a book to sell) but I was able to take this one from outside when sitting among the statues in the long corridor on the ground floor.

A few of the dresses were outrageous, one even upset the bridegroom because of its revealing nature, but most were very pretty and a few were just stunning.

The star of the show, in my opinion, was 'Flower Bomb designed by Ian Stuart which, conveniently, was at the back of the exhibition and so could be viewed clearly from the metalworks section on the first floor.

My objective measure of how much I like an exhibition is the amount of time I spent in there and for Wedding Dresses I expected to take an hour but took almost two. And given that it was not physically a very large exhibition that meant a lot of time looking at and reading about each dress.

The one disappointment that I had with the exhibition was the lack of context. I presumed that most of the examples on the lower floor were typical but those on the upper floor clearly were not so I left not knowing what wedding dresses look like today or what they cost. None of the exhibits had any prices on which surprised me.

It was a fairly exhausting two hours too so I had no option but to go back to the cafe for a pot of tea and the first scone of the season.

That the V&A could make wedding dresses so interesting to me is a testament to their curating skills and reinforced my determination to see more of the same, starting with Alexander McQueen which had just opened.

Why I am not working for the London Borough of Hackney

There was enough going for the Senior Business Analyst / PM position at London Borough of Hackney for me to take a shot at it. I liked the idea of being based in one location in central London, it was a job I had done before at Lambeth and so I knew that I could do it well in my sleep, the London Overground goes directly there from Richmond, it would put me in walking distance of the Arcola Theatre and Hackney is a part of London that I fancied learning more about.

The application process was not that painful (unlike LB Merton) and so I went for it and was not in the slightest surprised to be called to an interview. The email invited me to Hackney on 13/03/2015 09:30 at Robert House, 6-15 Florfield Road, Hackney, London, E8 1DT for a morning that would consist of a presentation (full brief and preparation time will be given on the day), a face to face interview followed by a technical test. The entire process will last approximately 3 hours.

I had to take holiday to go but that seemed a fair investment and, besides, it would give me the afternoon do so something useful, like go and look at wedding dresses.

The travel worked as well as expected and I was there in good time. Time enough to find the place and maybe to have a coffee to.

The problems started with finding the venue. This was clearly the address though there was nothing to say that this was Robert House or that the ICT department had offices there.

I went around the other side of the building looking for the main door. I did not find that though I did find a couple of smokers who explained that this was indeed the front door and they told me that if I looked carefully at the small hand-written labels on the door bells that one did say "ICT".

It would have taken just one person with a little pride in working there to have printed an A4 sheet and laminated it.

Once inside I was greeted nicely and given a cup of coffee while I waited. While waiting I had a look at the notices around the entrance. One promoted some rather bland corporate aspirations. The poster was dated 2005.

I was tempted to leave at that point but I had nothing else to do that morning so I thought that I would go along with it.

For the first hour I was left in a dark room with some flip-chart paper and pens to prepare a presentation. I know how to do presentations so that held to fear for me but the case study that I had to work on did because it reminded me too much of the mistakes that we made at Lambeth almost ten years previously, the mistake of thinking that using CRM and Biztalk gives you business transformation. The project was to move one specific type of call, missed waste collection, from the department to a contact centre. Nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes, but to call it business transformation was fanciful, not least because missed waste collection is not a business process itself, it is dealing with the failure in the business process of waste collection. What Hackney should be doing is looking to eliminate missed waste collection calls, not to handle them better - doing something wasteful efficiently is still wasteful.

Hackney's lack of understanding on real transformation, and change management which is a key part of it, became more obvious during the interview. I decided to take an arrogant and slightly aggressive approach because if I was going to work there then I had to be sure that I would be allowed to make the changes required. I was slightly surprised that the person attempting to interview me on change management had such a little grasp of the subject and I had to lecture him on continual process improvement at one point, much to the amusement of his colleague. I also had to remind the interviewers more than once that I had published papers on business transformation on slideshare.

The interviewers also made the common mistake of forgetting that they were being interviewed too and they had a job to do to convince me to come and work at Hackney. They did not even try.

The last hour was the most bizarre.

I was left alone in another room, this time with an A4 bad, some biros and a set of questions that seemed designed to have nothing to do with the job whatsoever.

If there was ever a set of questions drawn up by a committee then this was it. The questions ranged all over the place and varied from the simple yes/no type to those that required a longer answer.

I was applying for the position of Business Analyst / Project Manager and was being asked questions on EU procurement rules, ITIL and technical architecture.

Funnier still, some of the questions had simple factual answers, e.g. ITIL definitions, and I was alone in the room with an iPhone. Cheating would have been all too easy. My final comment on my answer sheet was to point this out.

There is no way that these questions could have had a meaningful impact on the recruitment processes and it worried me greatly that Hackney thought that it could.

Apart from the courtesy of the smokers and the lady who looked after me during the morning, nothing about Hackney suggested professionalism. I had not quite finally decided to let them sink on their own as I thought that, given a chance and some support, that I could help them to get things moving in the right direction.

Then I got home and saw the email that they sent me during the morning.

The next stage in the process is Occupational Assessment on Wednesday 18th March 2015. 

I attach…

·         An invitation letter
·         Venue details
·         Guidance sheets for the assessments you will be taking
·         Practice Leaflets for the tests you will be taking (electronic copies released under licence from SHL April 2013) Please see information in Invitation Letter and in 'speech bubble' on each Practice Leaflet as to which tests apply
 If you have any special needs, which might affect your performance in an assessment or interview, please contact the Assessment Team before the day so we can agree what might be done to support you. Please do NOT assume that we will have been given any information about special needs that you have explained on your application
Please confirm that you have received this message and that you will be attending
I look forward to seeing you on the 18th  

The summary of all this was that I was being asked to resit the 11+ by somebody who thinks that using three colours, two forms of highlighting and no fullstops is the way to write an email.

I had a quick look at the test questions and they were as simple as I feared, they were very much at the 11+ level, an exam I passed almost fifty years before going to pass exams at O Level and higher in English and getting a degree in Mathematics. I had also been work at Principle Officer level for thirty years.

In my application I had mentioned things like being Chair of Governors for a school for several years and having articles published in several journals so I had already given them the evidence of my capabilities by giving them facts that were in the public domain and easily verifiable.

I was deeply insulted. It was rather like asking a seasoned F1 driver to take take the standard driving test to prove that they can handle a car. If you do that then then good drivers will recognise the insult and walk away and only those that find driving a little difficult will be prepared to take the test. Hackney has a recruitment process that is designed to deter the best and appoint the mediocre.

I immediately decided to give up on Hackney as a lost cause and I let them know that I would not be taking the tests. We had spent some time in my interview talking about identifying waste in processes while they were oblivious to the considerable waste in the recruitment process that they were using.

Even if I had taken the tests (and more holiday to do so) then that would have told Hackney nothing. Obviously I would have passed impressively but so should everybody else who had been shortlisted. They would have spent time and money to learn nothing, a clear example of waste.

And this was the worst type of waste as it actually destroyed value. The point of the recruitment process is to find good people so doing something that pisses them off is beyond silly.

Finally, at no point during the process was I asked what I thought about it and, as I had had to explain to them during my interview, feedback is vital in making processes better. Their recruitment process is remarkable awful but if they do no ask candidates about it then they will never find out.

Hackney said that they wanted to transform but nothing in their behaviour suggested that they have the slightest idea what business transformation is or what they need to do to make it happen.

10 March 2015

My last look at Ghent took me to museums and gardens

My last day in Ghent, a Tuesday, had to be a part-day as I was booked on the eurostar to catch at 6pm and that meant being back in Brussels around 5pm to allow time for the connection, a cup of coffee and some contingency.

That still left me with quite a few hours to play with and rather than wander the streets again I thought that I would go and see some things and I started with the City Museum (STAM). I chose this as I have generally found city museums (i.e. those that tell the history of the city) to be interesting and not too large to be daunting.

The museum was just the other side of the waterway that I had walked along on my first day in Ghent so it was both a short walk and easy to find.

I did, however, fail to find anything that looked like a decent cafe for my breakfast so I was delighted to find one at the museum itself. The section of the modern building with tables and chairs in the picture below was the cafe/restaurant and the rest of the new building and the old one behind it were part of the museum.

There was some sun that day, unlike the day before, and so it was good to get a table next to the large window overlooking the water. It reminded me, obviously, of the canteen at West Burton Power Station.

There was a set route through the museum and the first room was dedicated to a large model and satellite photograph of the city. The photograph was on the floor (it was all of the floor and part of one wall too) and I had to put on overshoes before going into the room.

The model was in the centre of the room and showed the city centre. The photograph started where the model ended and showed the rest of the city and its immediate environs.

The tall building half way down the left side of the model is the one that I photographed in its half demolished state. Rabot is just to the right of it and the castle is in the direction of 2 o'clock just before the small triangle of water. The heart of the old city is in the middle near the top and is distinguished by several tall buildings and the open spaces around them.

In contract, the section of the photograph that I have chosen shows the docks and is heavily industrial.

I like models and I like maps so I spent a lot of time in this room. A good start.

One thing that consistently confused me was that maps of Ghent were show with west at the top and I referred to my own map several times just to check this again (and again). The unusual orientation of the maps made some sense as the layout of the city best suited a landscape view and there may have been a historical reason for the choice; maps have not always had north at the top.

The rooms were laid out chronologically and each room had its own digital map of that period with options to zoom in and read details of the landmarks.

Ghent had an interesting political history having been part of many empires and countries, Belgium gained its independence as recently as 1830. Its importance waxed and waned too and there was something of a highpoint in 1500 when Charles V, who became Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, was born there.

Most of the exhibits covered the social side of history and showed how people lived. One room that I especially liked had hundreds of posters from the early twentieth century.  I could have chosen to share one of the Marx Brothers or something in the constructivist style but the beauty of art nouveaux won the day.

The museum seemed small, just fourteen modest rooms, with not much on display but this was deceptive and it took me a long time to get around it all, and I even deliberately avoided the separate exhibition that was on.

Part of the reason that it took so long to get around was because there were videos to watch and things to play with (as well as the interactive maps). One of my favourite toys was the virtual tour of an exhibition site. It covered a large area and the virtual tour went well beyond the gates. I had a happy time navigating out and then trying to find my way back to the centre again.

I was tempted to play with the Lego on the way out too but I was running short on time for the rough plan I had for the day. The next stage in that plan was to return to the museum cafe for a late lunch and a rest.

After lunch I walked east across the city to Citadelpark because I like parks and I had not been to one in Ghent yet.

I entered at the north-west corner and walked anti-clockwise, which was something of a mistake as the museum of modern art (S.M.A.K.) that I was looking for  was just a short distance away walking clockwise. I walked all the way around the park, which was a good thing to do, and then decided that I did not have enough time to see another museum, especially one that charged a noticeable entrance fee. If it had been free I would gave gone in for half an hour or so.

Instead I went to the botanical gardens situated next to the park on its south-east corner.

The botanical gardens were very modest when compared to Kew, as most botanical gardens that I have been to are, which was fine as I did not have that much time left before catching my train. It did have some nice greenhouses to walk through and so that is what I did.

It almost felt as if I was not meant to be there, despite all the welcoming signs saying the opposite, as there were so few people there and almost everybody else that I saw was working there. The advantage of the quietness was that I was able to take lots of photographs without having to worry about people spoiling them with their colourful clothes, something that is a persistent problem in Kew.

From the gardens it was a short walk back to Ghent station, via my hotel to collect my bag. The travel from there was easy and uneventful, not least because I had bought a eurostar ticket to/from any Belgian station. I even had time for one last coffee in the rather lovely cafe in Ghent station (the one next to Starbucks).

Ghent had surprised me and in a good way. I had thought that it might struggle to entertain me for the best part of four days and that I might have to seek pleasures in Antwerp but Ghent delivered the goods.

9 March 2015

A full day in Ghent following waterways to find stones and art

Monday was the one full day that I had in Ghent for exploration (I had travel on both Saturday and Tuesday, and the opera on Sunday) and I was determined to make the most of it.

I had seen some places that I wanted to visit on previous walks around the city and had identified some others simply by looking at the tourist map.

I had a fair way to go that day and while I probably could have walked all of it I thought that I would save a little effort and a little time by taking a tram part of the way to the first place that I wanted to see.

The tram conveniently dropped me off next to a bright baker shop and that was breakfast sorted. I had to wait a fair while for the two women police officers to get served, and they must have been buying things for the whole station, but I was in no rush and I was just pleased to find somewhere nice to eat in a part of town that looked somewhat seedy compared to the other parts that I had seen.

Once fuelled, I walked the short distance around the corner to the Begijnhof, where a small community of nuns lived. I went for the architecture, not the nuns, as I had at similar places in Amsterdam and Bruges. There were pretty white cottages and cobbled streets around a grassy square with a church.

From there it was a short walk to Het Rabot, a small castle built to defend the canal that ran under it. This dated from 1488 and had seen much change since then, not least the main road that now runs past it.

It was only a small castle but a castle is a castle and this one had the decency to look the part with two round stone towers.

It was not what I had gone there to see so it was a pleasant surprise to stumble across a tower block on the other side of the main road that was in the process of being demolished. In the process what was left of the interiors was exposed. The painted walls made it look like a work of art (I've seen worse) and I almost regretted that it was being demolished.

I followed the canal protected by Het Rabot back into the city where I found the main castle that I was my next planned destination, having walked around the outside of it the day before.

I just about managed to get my ticket for it ahead of the large party of school students and was able to find a quite route around without having to deviate from the official plan too much. There were about a dozen stops on the trail and I skipped the first and then did it as my final stop on the way out.

It was not the biggest castle that I had been to but it was a proper castle made with proper stone and there was something reassuringly atavistic about that. Grown men like stone in the same way that very young ones like sticks.

Climbing the prescribed route through the castle took me up to the battlements and that gave me some good views across the city. The weather was particularly unhelpful, it was a thick muggy grey all day, and my camera had problems finding any colour or detail to make something of but I was pleased enough with the conditions as it remained dry and was not that cold, which made it ideal walking weather.

The camera could cope better when taking pictures of closer things, simply because there was less water vapour between it and the object, and I took this one because I liked the juxtaposition of the rugged stone castle and the traditional looking buildings next to it.

A quick visit to the tourist information office alerted me to the Concrete Canvas Tour of street art. This was similar to the comic book tour that I did in Brussels the previous year in concept though the art was very different and, because it was not from comics, it was unknown to me.

I liked the art and I also liked the way that the tour took me to parts of Ghent that I would not otherwise have seen. In this case it was across the north side of the old town. There I had the same luck that I had in the morning and found a very nice cafe for a somewhat late lunch in a part of town that seemed devoid of such things. It probably helped that this one was opposite what looked like an art school.

Continuing east I hit another waterway, as the map assured me that I would. This was the Dampoort area and was the start of the main industrial port where the waters got wider and started to be flanked by cranes and warehouses.

It was still charming though this was one time that i wished there had been at least a little sun to make something of the colours of the buildings.

Colour was not a problem for this young woman listening to music while resting over the canal wearing just a pair of boots. She sat by the impressively named Slachthuisbrug (Slaughterhouse Bridge) but does not seem to have sat there for very long as I have been unable to find out anything meaningful about her on the internet.

Also next to the bridge was a little amphitheatre looking north up the river/canal. A more successful google search suggests that it is there for events like firework displays.

From there I headed west and south following the path of a canal that had been partially filled in at some point and which looked as though it was going to be opened up again. In the middle of this section a stretch of water lay landlocked and abandoned.

I soon rejoined a main waterway and I followed it west as it ran across the south of the old city. On the north bank were familiar buildings like the opera house but this was the side of themselves that not many saw and so they did little to make themselves lovely. That did not work on me as I find industrial views lovely too.

This section of the waterway was sunk a few meters below street level so it was pleasingly private, almost secret, and that is the sort of exploration that I love. It feels much more like proper exploration if there is nobody else there.

All to quickly the secret waterway joined one of the main ones and I was back in the heart of the city, just a few hundred meters more-or-less due south of where I had started my tour in the morning. It had been a long day with lots of walking so it was time to head back to the hotel for a rest.

I stirred up some energy later to go to Greenway for a nice vegetarian meal. The small cafe was full of students and that gave it a friendly buzz. The food was good too. Walking back to the hotel from there I made a short detour into Café De Karper (a pub!) for a Leffe. This was even livelier (I learned later that there was a party about to start) and was made more interesting by some unusual cycling memorabilia and a DJ playing an odd mix of even more unusual 60's and 70's songs, including Neil Young's Hey Hey, My My. A lovely ending to a lovely day.