11 July 2014

A full and happy day at RHS Hampton Court

For many years all that the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show meant to me was long queues of traffic in the area which meant finding alternative routes to/from Kingston. Then I started going to RHS Chelsea and it finally dawned on me that I ought to give RHS Hampton Court a try. Not only is Hampton Court that much closer but the flower show is somewhat cheaper too.

Two short bus rides got me to Hampton Court but it was quite a trek from there to the flower show which was held in Home Park some distance behind the Palace. And having got in there was then another bit of a walk past the shops and over The Long Water to get to the first of the show gardens that were spread across the site.

I refused to pay a few guide for a guide just to get a map so I relied on the few maps posted around the site to find my way around. I also took a photo of one so that I could refer to that in case of emergency.

The garden above was one of the selection of smaller gardens all of which showed that you do not need a big space to make a big impression. The one above was my sort of garden with strong physical elements, water and bold planting.

Sometimes it was the little things that I liked, little things like these ducks.They were part of a childhood garden that had children's toys scattered through it.

By then the early rain had gone and that promised for the rest of the day slipped away making the umbrella in my bag somewhat redundant.The walking was starting to take its toll too and I took my first coffee break, with some cake of course. The site was well laid out in that respect with refreshment stall liberally spread and I chose one with seating as I wanted a rest too.

There was a series of larger gardens near the main entrance and these took advantage of the space they had to get very physical. I especially liked one made out of wooden packing crates as we could walk through it. The flowers and fruit were displayed in crates which was both structurally pleasing and also brought more colours in to play.

One of my favourite gardens was this one by Jordan's. Others liked it too and it won the People's Award after the judges strangely only gave it a silver. The wild flowers were fresh and vibrant and the grass paths made this a garden that begged to be explored. Some were allowed to while the rest of us had to settle for watching from the edges.

Across the main path more wild flowers did their best to hide a metal cow. I spent a long time walking around and looking at from different angles. In addition to the brilliant cow their was a large brick bridge and some bikes. The construction of the garden was impressive as was the detail of the planting.

Rusty metal featured in quite a few gardens and in three that I have featured here, though in the one above it was the damaged walls that had the most impact. Despite this dereliction the flowers still managed to make a very positive statement to show the power that gardens can have.

Another star garden was this one featuring a volcano that spluttered in to life from time to time and even threw out some water on unsuspecting passers-by. The lingering smoke added movement and interest but the eye-grabbing feature of the garden was the striking flowers, as it should be, with the colours and shapes vying to be the more distinctive.

More wild flowers and more rusty metal. It's not my fault that I love them both.

I had lunch somewhere around here somewhere. The queues were daunting and it was something of a battle to get a table but I managed to grab a posh sandwich and to find somewhere to eat it. This was just a short break as there was still a lot to see.

Alongside the competition gardens there were several that were there to promote commercial offerings. This garden was for Ocean Spray which is why the pond was full of cranberries. I loved the garden but refused the free samples.

I had more success with my cloth bag collecting. The best one was the Telegraph bag. At Chelsea I had to pay £2 for one and they gave away a copy of the Telegraph with it, but here the bag was only £1.40 and there was a decent jar of jam thrown in too.

Chelsea has just the one marquee but Hampton Court had several. I managed to see part of just one of them. That was not a problem as I had gone to see that gardens and that had filled five hours, after which I was happy to go home and to file my new bags with all the others.

RHS Hampton Court impressed me and there is a very good chance that I'll be going back, probably next year.

10 July 2014

Consulting on the future of the Eden Walk site

Eden Walk forms a significant part of Kingston's shopping centre so any changes there are of interest to anybody who cares about Kingston. Anybody like me.

The site currently is something of a disjointed mess and even the best bits look old and tired. The owners are aware of this and are consulting on making substantial changes. I attended their exhibition to find out what they are proposing.

I was pleased to see this map showing Eden Walk in context with the rest of Kingston. The blue areas are those that Eden Walk wants to connect to. Anything that improves the permeability of the centre of Kingston is a good thing.

The people running the consultation were keen to find out what sort of shops and facilities I wanted to see in the new centre and I had to explain that I rarely went there and could not remember when I last bought something there. That was another clue that Eden Walk needed a revamp.

The plans for the future were, I was told, very much up for grabs, including what could be demolished and/or built but there was an artists impression of the sort of thing that could be coming. The obvious features are that it was far more open and also taller.

Eden Walk is in a part of Kingston with little architectural or historical merit so, frankly, I do not care too much what goes there and I would much rather that tall buildings were kept to the centre than allowed to creep in to North Kingston.

It also looks as though Eden Walk will become another destination in the town, rather than just a collection of shops, and that is a good thing.

9 July 2014

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

When we started the BCSA "Get to Know You" Social several years ago we took a break in July and August because that is when a lot of people take holiday and then we decided that it was easier to keep to the Second Wednesday of the Month routine throughout the year and not to worry too much if not many people turned up sometimes.

The omens for this July were particularly ominous as two of the Socials' stalwarts (and good friends of mine), Ruzena and Richard, had given their apologies for absence beforehand. And it was Argentina v The Netherlands in the World Cup second semi-final.

In the end just five people came and we still managed to have a good evening. Typically we have about a dozen people there which means that we break up in to three or four separate groups but with just five we were able to have a single conversation with all of us joining in, though I joined in less when the others spoke Czech/Slovak.

What also helped the evening was that the other four people (three Slovaks and one Brit) were new to the Socials so we had plenty to talk about.

The rest of the evening went much to plan and I had my usual Smazeny Syr to eat eased down with a few pints of draught Pilsner Urquell, the first of which disappeared very quickly. Everybody else went for the sausage for some reason.

The football did curtail the evening a little, mostly at my assistance, but by then we had easily filled over two hours with our conversations. And this is what these evenings are all about.

30 June 2014

Dark delights in In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 June 2014

Good friends and more at BCSA Garden Party 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 June 2014

Imaginative and intense Lear at the Union Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 June 2014

LIKE 54: A tour of the Old Operating Theatre Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 June 2014

Orange Tree Theatre Festival - Programme 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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