22 February 2015

Alluring Orchids at Kew Gardens 2015

I do not need much of an excuse to go to Kew Gardens but if one were needed then the annual orchids display is as good as they come so I made sure that one of my regular Sunday morning visits happened while it was on.

Previous experience of the orchids had told me that it would be very busy and that it would be hard to take distance shots without hordes of loudly dressed people in them, which meant that I made a special effort to get there for 9:30am when the gardens opened.



And the plan worked!

The 65 bus arrived at Victoria Gate on the stroke of 9:30am and I was one of the first to get in. That allowed me to take this picture of the Palm House as I walked past. It looked even better than usual because it had nobody in front of it.



The Palm House was quickly forgotten as I headed to Princess of Wales Conservatory and the orchids. One or two people had beaten me there but, apart from them, the place was empty but not quiet. The absence of chatter allowed the noise of the water to take its rightful place in the tropical environment.

I immediately set about my task of taking close-up photos of the more attractive orchids, which was almost all of them.



The layout of the Princess of Wales Conservatory was still a mystery to me despite my many previous visits. It was a confusion of rooms, steps, doors and paths. If there is a simple way to go through it seeing everything only once then I have yet to find it.

The upside of that is that I got to see some of the displays more than once and from different angles. This is where the varying heights are useful as each step climbed offers a new perspective.



The orchids display was complimented by some colourful animals made from flowers and trees. There were bees flying over the pond, a beetle crawling along a branch, some butterflies and two very colourful humming birds.



There were a few formal arrangements of orchids too. The floral archways on the path above the pond were there again but the display that impressed me the most was hanging above one of the paths.



The orchids made rather a point of showing off by thrusting their flowers well forward from the foliage so that only they would be in focus. A clever trick and it worked. Normally in Kew Gardens I make a point of taking pictures of the gardens rather than the plants in them but here I had no choice other than to take lots of close-ups.

I have left the main display until last. This is the large pond in the middle of the main section of the conservatory. This is where most people congregated, especially the children eager to spot the fish, and where most photos were taken. This year there were also easels and paper for those who preferred to take their pictures the old-fashioned way.



The Princess of Wales Conservatory is not that large but it still managed to trap me for over an hour before the call of coffee and cake was finally heard over the siren song of the orchids.

That then was enough of Kew Gardens for me on that visit and I headed out of the main gate on to Kew Green but not before I had a good look at the International Garden Photographer of the Year Exhibition in the Nash Conservatory by the main gate. I liked some of the photos, thought others were dull or pretentious and was surprised that none of them was taken at a jaunty angle.

The orchids exhibition was a great success, as always. I have been every year for the last few years and I hope to carry on doing so.

21 February 2015

Bungles Finger quickly back to the Fox and Duck


Having seen the New Year in at the Fox and Duck, Bungles Finger were soon back for another night of superb music.

Not for the first time I had to miss the miss the first half due to a theatre date and I got to the pub just after 10:30pm when they were just into the second half of their set with a selection of punk songs, starting with Teenage Kicks. I slipped into the left side of the bar (a common spot to find me) and ordered my first Doombar of the evening.

I loved the familiar punk songs and was very satisfied with the more recent songs which I mostly knew from covers bands, but the highlight of the evening was the closing medley of easy-listening songs Can't Take My Eyes Off You (with some new lyrics!), I'm a Believer, and Delilah. And in recognition of the group of men dancing vigorously to all these they closed with Gay Bar, which was danced to with equal gusto.

Another great night that demonstrated the magic that live music can bring to a pub.

Grey London still sparkles


I was in Southwark for a theatre date and chose to walk along the south bank of the Thames, something that I have done many times, for the sheer joy of it. I wanted a coffee (and cake) and was very disappointed to find that all the cafes along the Thames Path belonged to bland chains, so I avoided them all and headed for Tate Modern instead.

There are several cafes in the Tate and I thought that my best chance of getting a quick coffee and a seat would be the Espresso Bar on the 3rd floor, and proved to be a good plan.

Coffee and cake consumed I went out on to the short balcony there to take in the view. Most people were looking straight ahead at St Paul's and the Millennium Bridge but I looked to the far right where three of the City's icons stood guard over quiet offices.

The sky was an ominous grey and the light was  fading quickly which made the lights stand out but not yet dominated. I had seen this view, and others very like it, many times and still it had the power to captivate me. London is good at doing that.

20 February 2015

Hidden Ham

For eight years now I have been compiling the Ham Photos blog. This basically consists of me walking around the place that I live and taking photos of the things that I like.

I do a lot of walking and I take a lot of photos and so far just over 2,000 photos have been added to the blog. I once thought that I would run out of things to photograph but that is clearly not true and there are enough changes happening for me to find new interesting things.

Thanks to this blog, I was asked by the Ham Amenities Group (HAG) to do a presentation on Hidden Ham. The title was their suggestions but I liked it as it gave me a means of selecting photos. I took a wide-definition of the word "hidden" and used it to mean things that are hidden because they are out of site, in plain site but easily overlooked or are now gone.

It took me a little while to decide on the precise structure of my presentation but I liked the way that it developed, I started with a few slides explaining what a blog is, what I am trying to do with Ham Photos and the mechanics of producing it. Over the eight years I have used three cameras so far.

I then did a quick-fire run through of eighty of the photos with brief stories of why I took each one and where it was before opening it up with a quiz of twenty more photos.



One of the early photos was of these elephants and I was very surprised that several people in the room did not know about them. They were pretty well hidden but were so unusual that I just assumed that word of them had spread everywhere.

Normally the only way to see them is from the top deck of a 65 bus where they are still heavily obscured by trees but I was so desperate to get a picture of them that I held my camera above the front gate and took the picture blindly.



I picked this photo because I liked the story that went with it.

I assumed that the unusual box-like structure was part of the chimney and said so when I posted the picture. Then, much later, I got an email from the man who used to live there who explained that he had built the structure to house a water tank. I duly updated the description.

One of the nice things about running the blog is that I get emails from people who have moved away from Ham or who had family who lived here and who are delighted to find photos of the place. Usually it is the common things that they like, things like shops they used to go to, rather than the grand buildings.



This anglo-dutch sign was in the quiz and I was not surprised that nobody recognised it. The sign is quite small and is around knee-height so is very easy to miss.

I enjoyed producing and giving the presentation and I was thrilled with the reception that it got. The meeting room at Ham Library was full and there were many comments and questions as I went through the 100 photos.

I've posted the presentation on slideshare and it has had a few reads already.

I could be tempted to do something like this again. I just need to take another 2,000 photos first!

18 February 2015

Matthew's Manifesto for the Kingston upon Thames Society

When I took over as Chairman of the Kingston upon Thames Society in January I agreed to give a talk to one of our monthly public meetings about what I wanted to do in my new role and circumstances dictated that I would do this at the very next meeting in February!

This was challenging for a couple of reasons, it did not give me much time to get my thoughts together and I had already committed to giving another talk a couple of days later that also need quite a bit of preparation.

I managed to find an afternoon to work on this the weekend before I had to give it and after some juggling with ideas I was pleased with the structure that emerged. I knew most of the things that I wanted to say but the trick was to say them in the right order (and in the right way) to make a coherent and relevant story.

I started with just a few words about myself that were relevant to my new role, followed that with a few examples of places and building that I liked (a good excuse to dig out some holiday pictures) and then a few comments on what I found good, bad or indifferent about Kingston. Having set the context I then explained how I saw the role of the Society, how this could develop and what we would need to do to achieve that.

As is my strong preference, my slides had few words and as many pictures as possible. They were more there for my benefit, to remind me what to talk about, than to give the audience something to look at.

So, using the simple prompt "I moved to Kingston in '87" I was able to talk about why I chose Kingston, why that area and that house, and how I came to be a member of the Society soon after moving here.

I explained that a big influence on the way that I plan to operate as Chairman is my work, training and natural inclination for the structures approach of Management Consultancy, and this presentation was an example of that. Later I would say more about People, Process and Technology.

I made the section on some of the places and buildings that I like a little quiz and asked the audience is they recognised the places. There were a lot of correct shouts for Bruges and Portmeirion but nobody knew the amazing Python Bridge in Amsterdam.

The point of this part of the talk was to highlight the things that I like to see when travelling that could be applied to Kingston. I like exploring cities and finding little squares with fountains, or well designed public square or quirky buildings, and I like trams.

As a resident of Kingston I wanted to be able to have the sort of day out there that I have had in places like Hannover, Antwerp and Girona. That meant lots of interesting places well connected to each other.

I said some more about this in a quick summary of my thoughts on Kingston though my score on the good, bad and indifferent at 5, 2, 1 was probably more positive than I felt about the town.

Again the pictures allowed me to say more than just the words on the slide so when saying what I did not like about Kingston Station I mentioned the lack of routes and the way that the station is surrounded by the relief road so getting to or from it any any direction requires crossing several lanes of traffic where the lights are all phased to ease the flow of traffic to the hindrance of pedestrians.

Having set the context, I then talked about the purpose and activities of the society. I said that I think the Society is here to: Protect the things we like about Kingston, Celebrate them so that they can be appreciated by more people, which in turn helps their protection, and Enhance Kingston to make it a better place to live.

I had evolved the Protect/Celebrate/Enhance framework some time ago and this was the first chance that I had used it in anger and it lived up to the task. I used it to structure the activities that we already did and to show some of the additional things that I would like us to try, e.g. protect more through listing Assets of Community Value, celebrate more by arranging more visits and enhancing more by supporting relevant community projects.

Identifying things to do was the easy part, the hard part was working out how to do them, and the only way was to use more resources from within the Society or from other organisations.

The Management Consultant in me wanted to use the word "stakeholder" but I think that I managed to avoid it.

Having identified the main groups of people that we deal with I then went through each of them in turn suggesting how I thought we could work better with them. For example, we could do far more with our members than send them one email a month and invite them to one meeting. I said that I would like us to have more meetings of more sorts in more places, e.g. a semi-formal meeting in Tolworth to review plans for the former government offices site or a social gathering in New Malden to discuss local issues.

People was a large part of my manifesto but Process was significant too.

I closed the presentation with the summary, Matthew’s Manifesto means building our own capacity and using that of other groups so that we can do more things, improving our ways of working so that we can do things better and, above all, it means communication, dialogue and co-operation.

You can read the presentation on slideshare.

We then went in to an extended Q&A session that, I felt, worked very well. The questions showed that the members had understood what I was saying and were broadly supportive of it while understanding that it would be difficult to achieve. The questions were mixed and detailed and I enjoyed answering them, or rather participating in the conversations that followed.

I went into the lion's den confident on what I wanted to say but with some trepidation on how it would be received and I was delighted with the response that I got. I know it is not going to be easy making these changes to the Society but at least I know that a good number of our members are happy with the direction I am taking.

My next "state of the nation" address will be at the AGM in January 2016 and it will be interesting to see how much progress has been made by then.

16 February 2015

Islands at Bush Theatre was compelling, political and weird

Island told me that it was going to be a play about tax exiles and so it was, sort of. It turned out to be more than a play and to be about more than just tax exiles.

But let's start at the end, jump to beginning and then fill in the gaps in the middle.

A couple of days after seeing Islands I came across The Guardian's review of it on one of my RSS feeds and the headline was, "grotesque drama about tax havens avoids the real issues". I did not read the rest because of the conceit of the reviewer in stating that they knew what the "real issues" of the play before. I have read too many reviews of good plays that I have seen where the reviewer has criticised the play for not being what they wanted it to be, rather than for what it was. That is one very good reason not to read reviews.

I had chosen this Monday to go to the Bush on the expectation that I would be working in central London but it proved easier to work from home so I had the easy trip up from Richmond to make. I was still very much counting my steps so I got off the tube at Goldhawk Road and walked the last leg through the empty Shepherd's Bush Market that follows the tube line up to the station that it shares its name with.

I still got there earlier and anticipated and settled down with a leisurely coffee. The queue, of one, had already formed by then but I remained seated until just before the doors opened by which time the queue had grown to about five and so I was still one of the first ones in.

Once again the Bush surprised me with its layout. This time the main part of the performance area was a rectangular pit with seating close by on the two long sides and a little further back on the short sides. I grabbed a seat in the front row on the far side.

For reasons that totally escape me, The Bush has more people looking out for photographers per audience member than any other theatre that I have been to and they take their job seriously so I was unable to get a view-from-my-seat shot but it was not unlike this one that I found on the internet.



The picture also tells you an awful lot about the play and why the adjective "grotesque" was used earlier. The characters and the set made Islands feel like a crash between Rocky Horror and Jerusalem, and that had to be a good place to start.

Islands was more a fusion of ideas and themes to than a story. The elements included strange characters in strange costumes, moving around and through the audience, words and songs, the Garden of Eden and old news recordings. To use just one example, there was a short interval which was announced by the lead character, Mary, by saying that the cast were going to have a short rest, which they did while remaining on the stage.

Tax exile was the theme of the story (though the story was only one of the many themes of the play) which had Mary (played by Caroline Horton who also wrote it) and her two helpers, apparently called Agent and Swill, on an island of land floating just a few feet above the mainland. Mary ruled this land with arrogance and disdain and made slaves of two people, Adam and Eve, captured from the mainland.

The play was about the mood it created, a mood of strangeness, surprises and surrealism. It was a mood that I found engaging and enthralling. Whatever Islands was I liked it, and I liked it a lot.

14 February 2015

Bad Penny at the Fox and Duck


Bad Penny describe themselves as a classic rock tribute band and that is plenty good enough reason to see them play. I thought that I had seen them before but I cannot find any proof in my blog so perhaps I am mistaken. They are certainly the sort of band that I should have seen play before.

I missed the first part of their set due to being at an opera recital (as you do) and so the pub was already full and lively when I arrived sometime around 10:30pm. It was good to see some familiar faces there, especially one of the younger ones who could tell me what some of the more recent songs were. I had no problems recognising Neil Young's Rocking in the Free World and resisted all caution to sing along to it. And some other songs that I knew too.

It was a very pleasant night spent listening to good music, played well in a nice pub with a friendly and lively atmosphere. That is what Saturday nights at the Fox and Duck are all about.

13 February 2015

Very disappointing Three Men in a Boat at the Rose Theatre

This should have been a sure-fire hit but it was not because they made the simple mistake of forgetting the book.

I do not normally have much expectation of the plays that I see as by the time I get to see them I have forgotten what it was that made me want to see them but there was no chance of that happening with Three Men in a Boat because it is a book I have read a few times and loved every time.

Their journey along the Thames started at Kingston so it was an obvious thing to go to the Rose Theatre in Kingston to see it. In my keenness to see it I booked early enough to secure a seat I have probably been in before A28 for the perfectly reasonable price of £18.

The evening got off to a bad start as I ran out of time to eat beforehand and the cafe at the Rose does not do evening food, apart from cake which does not really go with beer. Somewhat frustrated I joined the frustratingly long queue for the bar for a bottle of Czech lager (I forget which one, they sell two) and the all too regular packet of peanuts.

The mood was lightened by bumping in to Richard Stickney (who knows a thing or two about boats on the Thames) and by spotting Steve Punt.

There are several ways that a book can be turned in to a play from straight narration to full reinterpretation and this fell somewhere towards the narration end, much as I had seen First Love done. There was a set that was a bar most of the time in which the three men acted out some of the scenes and narrated some others in the "do you remember the time that?" style. A simple approach but there is nothing wrong with that.

The first major sign of a problem came when they were packing for the trip and in suggesting things to take one mentioned an iron and when asked "which one?", replied "any old iron". Queue the bad pun and the song intro. The joke was lame and unsubtle when compared to the gentle nature of the book and the song, the first of several, just did not fit in to my idea of three idle young men drifting along the Thames.

The scenes that I liked the most were those that I remembered from the book but even these had their faults. The Hampton Court Maze story was shorn of much of its detail and the Tin of Pineapple Chunks story must have been very confusing to anybody who did not know it as the written punchline was lost in the visual translation.

I was not a happy bunny at the interval though it is fair to say that the show picked up considerably in the second half and I chuckled a little and even laughed out loud when the pianist got shot. You do not remember that from the book?, well that is my point - the play was reasonably entertaining but that owed little to the genius of the original work. I was hoping for something that captured the mood and the style of Jerome K Jerome's writing but, instead, I got something that veered toward period pantomime. Obviously pantomime has its points and most of the audience around me seemed to be having a jolly time and I heard several of them saying how much they had enjoyed it afterwards.

But not me, I was judging the play against the book that I love and on those grounds it fell well short.

At least I got the chance to have a very quick word with Steve Punt afterwards, even though that amounted to little more than me admitting to stalking him in various radio studios and John Lewis. They say that you should never meet your heroes; that's why.