31 August 2015

My new Liberty shirt, and bag

I like to make a note here of my significant purchases just to remind me later how old some of my things are, both out of curiosity and as justification for replacing them.

I have been wearing Liberty shirts for just over 25 years. I started buying them in some number then, usually around four at a time, because I was working in an office very close to Liberty in Great Marlborough Street and I had the income to do so. My office location changed and the kids came along and while my purchases slowed they never stopped.

Over that 25 years some of my favourite shirts have died. Some are in the garden clothes pile and other are in the sewing pile in the hope that parts of them can be reused. Others have gone completely. There are currently 14 Liberty shirts in my wardrobe varying in condition from suitable for a special occasion to only to be worn in a dark pub.

To keep this range going I need to keep feeding the top end and I like to buy at least one shirt a year.

And this delightful pink thing is my latest.

The spur to buy this one was an online offer that gave a free Flowers of Liberty tote bag with orders over £100. Liberty shirts have crept up to £130 and so I qualified comfortably.

I am very happy with both.

26 August 2015

Accepting the Walking Challenge

I have always enjoyed walking both as a means for getting somewhere and also as a pursuit in its own right. I am not a boots and sticks sort of walker and I rarely venture into the countryside but I manage to clock up a few kilometres in urban areas while wearing a work suit.

I had no idea how much walking I was doing until I got my iPhone6 in November 14 and it started counting my steps for me.

With my phone constantly there to nag me I started to walk even more.

Some of this extra walking was just doing more of the simple things and doing more with them.

For example, when I am working at Kings Place I could take the tube to the nearest station, Kings Cross, or the one before that, Euston, but I get off two stops early, at Warren Street, to give myself more of a walk. When working at Leatherhead I walk the mile from the station to the office (and back) rather than take the shuttle-bus.

Similarly, I have changed the ten minute bus ride to the Willoughby Arms into a twenty minute walk. Allowing for waiting for the bus, walking is not that much slower and its much better.

I usually walk to the theatre in the evening too and several times I have walked from Kings Cross to one of the theatres south of the river. I have walked as far as Battersea and Kennington from Kings Place, that is around 7km. The theatre does not start until 7:30pm, sometimes a little later, and that gives plenty of time for a long walk as well as something to eat and drink before the show.

Initially I set myself the generally known target of 10k steps a day but that quickly proved to be unambitious and I upped this to 12k. More recently it has gone up again, to £14k steps a day which is about 100k steps a week.

I manage 14k most days and it is frustrating when I have a day where there is not much opportunity for a serious walk. I had one of those days at Glyndebourne last week and so desperate was I to maintain my averages that I went for a medium length walk, around 4k steps, when I got home at 10pm.

When the well-being team at work introduced a Walking Challenge I had to join in.

This was aimed more at encouraging casual walkers to walk a little more and so while it mentioned the 10k step guideline the target that it actually set was 35k steps a week, or just 5k a day. I do that many getting to work.

There is an online system where you can record your steps taken each day and it shows how your numbers compare to the average.

Two weeks into the four week challenge the average number of steps taken is 106, 548 and my total is 249,637, though I will caveat that by saying that not everybody will have recorded all of their steps yet. Even so, I have managed 145k and 105k steps in the first two weeks of the challenge (despite Glyndebourne!) and I am happy with that.

Walking at work has some challenges at some of our office locations. Kings Place is brilliant as it is on the canal and there are lots of interesting places within walking distance in every direction. Green Park in Reading has nice landscaping with a lake but there is only one route and that is not very long. Leatherhead and Birmingham are dreadful, both offices are at the ends of business parks and the only place to walk is out back past all the offices and once out there is still nowhere interesting to go.

Walking like this has had some obvious benefits to me. On the health front I have lost one stone just through the additional walking, i.e. I still eat and drink as much as I did before.

The time spent walking is never wasted either and I listen to a lot of podcasts and downloaded radio programmes. I get a few hours worth of podcasts every day and I need my walking time to keep up with them all.

Walking has also taken me to places and shown me things that I would otherwise have missed. These range from the Gagosian Gallery to the Cally Clock Tower to a garden stuffed with gnomes. Walking is its own reward.

Walking, except in the rambling sense, is a much undervalued activity and one that I am still learning to appreciate more as I do even more of it. Setting myself a walking challenge was one of the best things that I have ever done.

25 August 2015

Humanist Debate on the Refugee Crisis

I had not managed to get to a South West London Humanists discussion meeting for a few months mainly because the move from Mondays to Tuesday gave me a clash with Big Ideas but that had gone dormant (or had finished) so the SWLH meetings came into the reckoning again. That did not mean that I was certain to go, it needed a reasonable topic too.

The refugee/migrant crisis was a topic I was keen to discuss having done so many times on Twitter while listening to Any Questions on Radio 4. It's a subject I feel passionate about for the same reason that I am a Humanist. These are real people dying and suffering severe hardship and they have as much right to a decent life as anybody else. They are not numbers and being foreign does not make them less important.

The logistics should have been good as Richmond is easy to get to from home and easy to get back to from working in London or Reading. Unfortunately on the day I was working in Leatherhead which means a long walk to the station to catch a train to Clapham Junction and then another one out again to Richmond. I got to The Cricketers soon after 7pm and while the others started to troop upstairs for the socialising I stayed down to have a spicy bean burger and my first pint. Both were good.

I got myself a second pint and went upstairs to join the others. Just in time it transpired as, with fifteen minutes or so to go until the start of the discussion almost all of the chairs was taken and I gratefully grabbed one of the last ones.

The debate was kicked-off by our chairman, Jeremy Rodell, who presented a few slides of numbers taken from the ONS etc. The introduction finished with some more numbers, this time from the Radio 4 programme More or Less. The technology failed so I stepped in and found the programme using my iPad (connected to the pub's wifi) and we plugged it into the speakers to listen.

We then took to table groups to have the discussion before coming together at the end to swap our main points. What follows is a mix of my notes from the time and some subsequent comments mostly things I tweeted during Any Questions a few days later when this topic came up again.

There was consensus that governments should work together both to try and resolve the situations in Syria etc. and to address the refugee problems arising from these conflicts. We do not help these countries or their people by building barbed wire fences in Calais.

But this will take time and I suspect that some countries (ours?) are hiding behind the need for mulit-country agreement as an excuse not to act now.

There was less consensus on what we should do about the immediate problem of the boats crossing the Mediterranean and refugees walking through Turkey. The UK is taking far fewer refugees than most European countries, especially when taking into account our relative population and wealth, and we should take more immediately.

Much as we have with foreign aid, I would like us to commit to being in the top-quartile of refugee takers in Europe. That would be leadership, which is sadly lacking at the moment. We claim to be a compassionate and rich country, now is a good time to prove it.

I was a little surprised, and somewhat disappointed, that a lot of the discussion was about the impact on us and largely ignored that refugees are dying in large numbers. Even if taking in a few refugees made things a little worse for a few people here, and I am not sure that it would, then surely that is a fair exchange for saving lives and giving people a second chance at a decent lives. Surely that is what Humanism means.

The headline from all this is I am deeply ashamed that so many people in this country, including the Government, are willing to watch many people die rather than have the possibility of suffering any discomfort themselves.

22 August 2015

The Invited at the Arcola Theatre was beautiful, haunting and tragic

I only discovered the Grimeborn opera festival at the Arcola Theatre a few years ago and then it was a companion to the Tete-a-Tete festival with both showcasing new operas and sometimes sharing works. More recently Grimeborn has got a little more mainstream with more established works and so I have been going less often.

I might have missed Grimeborn 2015 altogether if not for The Invited.

I first came across the team behind The Invited, the Opera Room, at Tete-a-Tete when they presented the delightful All to Play For, an opera about football, and through that managed to get to see The Invited at one of its first performances in St Paul's Church, Covent Garden in November 2013.

I had seen more Opera Room productions since then, such as the fabulous Flat Pack, and had the opportunity to speak to composer Richard Knight, librettist Norman Welch and stage director Neil Smith a few times and at some length. Most of these conversations were me struggling to explain why I liked their operas so much when I lacked the musical knowledge and vocabulary to do so.

When I learned that The Invited was being performed at Grimeborn 2015 then the only question was which of the two performances would I go to and as the first clashed with a Glyndebourne date I had booked that was a question soon answered.

I chose to make something of a journey to the Arcola and did some exploring in Hoxton, Haggerston and Dalston. I did that as I was hoping to help Howard to buy a flat there. I'll tell that tale once it is safe to do so but at the moment I am trying to keep vendor and estate agent happy. It was nice to have an opera to look forward to in the evening.

Falstaff was playing in Studio 1 upstairs while we were in the basement Studio 2. I've been there often enough to know how that works and so I got my preferred seat in the centre of the front row.

The Invited is a slow brooding piece in which lots of things are suspected but little is certain. The setting, a world at war, is real but are there really Greek gods in the trees?, is one of the sisters pregnant?, is the ex-housekeeper a witch?

These possibilities were explored in a series of long conversations. These were mostly between the two sisters with the ex-housekeeper forcing her way in sometimes. The conversations were intense and passionate which made the music intense and passionate too. There was always something interesting happening musically as it kept changing pace and melody. Within that the music kept to the constant tone of despair, loss and misery that the story demanded, punctuated with a few moments of hope that the gods will return and make things better again.

It is the memory of the mood that persists with me. It was not unlike Tristan und Isolde in that respect, not much actually happens but it happens beautifully. The exception was the ending which was dramatic, It answered some of the questions but tantalisingly left many of them still as questions.

A story about passions needs passionate performers who can both sing and act their emotions convincingly and poetically. All three performers, Emma Häll, Sarah Minns and Miriam Sharrad, were excellent.

Again my lack of musical knowledge and vocabulary mean that I struggle to describe just how good The Invited was. What I can say with absolute certainty is that I loved it again and I loved it even more than I did the first time I saw it.

15 August 2015

LoudShirts at the Fox and Duck were a lot of fun

I do not write about all the bands that I see at the Fox and Duck simply because I do not have the time to do so and also while most of them are entertaining enough some of them do not offer much to write about. LoudShirts were different.

They were an unknown quantity to me, otherwise I would have gone earlier, and I did my usual thing of turning up around 10pm for the last couple of hours. As I approached the pub I could hear them playing Deep Purple's Mistreated, a song I love but probably had not heard for thirty years or more. A great start to the evening with what turned out to be the last song in the first half of their set.

The interval gave me the chance to say hello to a couple of the Fox and Duck regulars (e.g. Lynsey, Dave and Sue) and also to a couple of new people (Tracie and Cherylanne). I took the opportunity to quaff a few quick Doombars as the walk there had made me thirsty and they were on good form that night.

The second half of LoudShirts' set was as interesting and lively as the first with songs ranging from the Mighty Quinn to Play that Funk Music. There were a few more of my favourites too and, I hate to admit it, the combination of the good music, the alcohol and the lively atmosphere got me dancing to a few of them. I am even sadder to admit that one of my new friends though to celebrate this by taking a photo. I am not going to admit where you can find it online.

It was an evening of simple pleasures, friends, music and beers, and it was a great evening too.

1 August 2015

Sylvie Guillem's Life in Progress at the London Coliseum

Sylvie Guillem's Life in Progress was her world-wide farewell and while it was sad to see her leave the stage after so many years it was also a worthy celebration of a great talent that still shone brightly.

I wanted to go because I have loved her dancing ever since I was a season ticket holder at the Royal Ballet in the late 80s. It was my last chance to see her and my last chance to say "thank you" by being there.

It was billed as a Sadler's Wells event but was staged at the London Coliseum, presumably because it was bigger. I surprised myself by being able to get a front row seat in the Balcony (the uppermost of four levels) for the bargain price of £20. I chose the seat not for the price but for the view, it was some distance from the stage but for dance (and opera) I prefer to be able to see the whole stage, not just the front of it.

I was not sure how much Sylvie I was going to see and was deliriously happy that she did so much. It was easy to forget that she was fifty years old, especially when she did her trade-marked vertical leg trick.

The performance was also pleasingly longer than I expected. Some dance that I have seen recently has been something like two 25 minutes half, understandable given the physical effort involved, so I was delighted to see four pieces.

The evening opened with a Sylvie solo performed with live musicians on stage half-hidden behind netting. It was poetically choreographed by Akram Khan. The next piece was strange, and I like strange, but was a duet with two men and I was there to see Sylvie. The third piece was a lovely duet with Sylvie and Emanuela Montanari, the first piece she had ever done with another woman. This was choreographed by Russell Maliphant so it was no surprise that I liked it.

After the break came the biggest and best surprise of the evening. Syvlie performed Mats Ek’s solo piece Bye which I had seen her do two years previously on her 6000 Miles Away tour. I loved it then and I loved it (at least) as much this time. It was a fitting end to a fantastic show and a glorious career.