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.

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.

31 July 2015

The Spitfire Grill at the Union Theatre tugged at the heart strings deftly

And to think that I nearly missed this treat.

I had always intended to go to the theatre that evening but the question was which one? There were interesting sounding shows in other theaters that were ending their runs that week but I chose to go and see The Spitfire Grill at the Union Theatre instead, a decision based mostly on my previous experience at the Union and also its convenient location.

That location would have been more convenient had I managed to work in London that day as planned but a looming important deadline took me to Reading instead.

I managed to leave there promptly to catch a train to Paddington and then a couple of tubes to Southwark, arriving there at a very hospitable 6:45pm. That was plenty of time for a Chinese curry in Culture Grub, which was just as well as the pub opposite was not doing food that evening for some reason. I got back to the theatre just in time to get a latte before the doors opened.

The seats were oddly arranged in a "U" shape with the bulk of the stage above the U. The front-row seats at the base of the "U" were taken by the only people to get into the theatre before me (I had ticket No. 3) which happened to be a group of six and the first one in claimed seats for the rest of them. There were no props on stage to suggest how the space would be used and I settled for a front-row seat at the top of the "U" on the left side as that looked as though it would be the closest to the action. It was. And only £18 too.

All I knew about The Spitfire Grill was that it was a musical set in America so I settled down for an evening of surprises.

The story started with a young woman, Percy (!), contemplating her imminent release from prison after serving five years. A pretty picture of autumnal leaves in a magazine had given her the destination of Gilead, a small town in Wisconsin. There she was met by the local policeman who arranged for her to live at The Spitfire Grill in return for working there. The grill was run by a cantankerous oldish woman, Hannah, on her own.

We quickly learned some disturbing things about the small town and the people in it. The town was suffering from the closure of the local quarry and this had a particular impact on one of the men who felt lessened without real work to do. Hannah's husband had died soon after hearing of the death of their only son, Eli.

Once the scene was set things developed quickly both in the story and the characters. To make the two points with one example, when Hannah needed more help in the Grill following an accident she called on the help of the wife of the frustrated husband mentioned earlier and the wife grew new strength as a result and was able to stand up to the husband who had been used to telling her (and his gang in the quarry) what to do. He did not take that well.

The main story concerned a plan to raffle off the Spitfire Grill in a competition and other stories flowed around this. There was a love interest for Percy, more details of Percy's past emerged (in particular, the reasons why she had been in prison and then the reasons behind her committing that crime) and the husband and wife moved apart aggressively.

At the Beck's break it was hard to tell which way the stories would go.

There were more shocks in the second half and as this was a happy musical all of the plot lines nudged towards satisfactory endings but it was the mood of the piece that mattered more than individual events. Percy in looking at the town of Gilead through new eyes could only see its beauty and she helped others to see it too. There were lots of pretty songs about forests. All of the many conflicts were resolved (to some extent) through forgiveness, such as the town's people forgiving Percy for her terrible crime. There were lots of pretty songs about emotions.

Percy was at the heart of the musical but did not dominate it. Hannah was as prominent and as powerful, while the husband, wife and policeman also had major roles. They all acted and sung well. The songs were evocative and emotional with just the right level of repetition to give them the catchiness musicals need.

The Spitfire Grill was a beautiful musical with good characters and engaging stories. It was most definitely the right thing for me to go and see on that Friday night.

28 July 2015

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A had lots of stunning outfits but little information about them

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was one of those blockbuster exhibitions that every arty person was obliged to see and so many arty people wanted to see it that extra evening and night sessions were added. It was one of those evening sessions that allowed me to see the show less than a week before it closed.

The V&A closed for the evening as usual at 5:45pm and then opened just for the exhibition at 6pm. That sounds simple enough until I missed the bit, which I am sure they told me, about which entrance to use. I tried the main entrance, the tunnel entrance and the Exhibition Road entrance before finding the Secretarial Entrance (staff only) beyond the main entrance. I found it with a good five minutes to go before my 6:30pm entrance time.

There were fewer people than I expected queueing up given that it was sold out. I suspect that the V&A were letting fewer people in than they had for other exhibitions as it was busy all the way around but never as busy as David Bowie is ... had been. Having slightly fewer people in made it much easier to move around the exhibition and to get close enough to the texts to read them.

I had heard of Alexander McQueen, obviously, but apart from one or two outfits that had appeared in other exhibitions I really had little idea of his work so was looking forward to learning something new rather than, as I had with Bowie, seeing some old favourites.

The V&A obviously thought that it had something to live up to in showing us Alexander McQueen and it was quite arty itself, probably over so.

There was a room that looked like an ossuary with walls made from painted bones. There were words of wisdom from McQueen painted on the walls, much of the lighting seemed designed for dramatic effect rather than to highlight the clothes and we were teased with different music in each room.

Despite the best efforts of the exhibition to get in the way of the content, the outfits were dominant, as they should be. There were many of them arranged in themes which sometimes, but not always, equated to collections.

My simple summary was that I loved the outfits but not the accessories. We were told that many of these were designed just for catwalk shows and were never intended for sale but, even so, some of the constructions were just weird, like the metal frame holding knees and elbows (you try walking wearing that).

There was a lot of exaggeration in the outfits, collars that rose to eye height and beyond, shoulders that ballooned or spiked, and skirts fluffed about with vasts amount of fabric. There was a lot of attention to detail too with some exquisite embroidery, neat and unusual fastenings and everything tailored precisely to the mannequins.

What was missing was much of an explanation for what it all meant, how it had been made, how his career progressed or who his customers were. The room texts were general, e.g. telling us that he liked Victorian Gothic, and the costumer texts just gave the show, the year and the main materials used. I suspect that this was all very deliberate as the V&A had a hefty book to sell.

I would have liked more words but even without them the exhibition took me 90 minutes to get around because there were so many fine outfits to see. My favourites were the Japanese inspired collection and those at the very end where digital printing on silk produced some extraordinary patterns.

21 July 2015

Accelerating change at Gurteen Knowledge Cafe with cultureQs

I had missed a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe or two thanks to my poor organisation and work commitments (I really must give up work soon!) so I was even keener than usual to get to this one. I even cut my holiday in York short to do so. The main attraction was that this was a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe, and all that means (i.e. process and people), with the secondary attraction that it was about Change Management.

One of the possibly over-simplistic statements that I often repeat is that the technology is the easy part and the difficult bit is the people. Change Management is often overlooked, especially by IT companies. I work for an IT company.

Being on holiday meant that I was travelling there from home instead of the London office only a mile away. I had had a quiet morning, walking very few steps, so I decided to leave the Waterloo train at Clapham Junction and to walk up to Westminster Business School from there. It was only 8km.

The walk was pretty uneventful, i.e. dull, apart from the Serpentine Pavilion that I took a quick detour into as I walked through Hyde Park. Despite having little to look at the walk was a success in that I got lots of steps in (around 10k) and was able to catch up on lots of podcasts.

This Gurteen Knowledge Cafe was slightly different in that we did not swap tables or form a circle at the end but it was essentially the same in that we had a facilitator, Eric Lynn, introduce the subject and then we carried on the conversation at our tables before summarising as a group at the end.

Eric introduced us to his invention, cultureQs, which he had developed over a number of years as a way of accelerating cultural change by getting people to share things about themselves. The game like format produced a neutral environment in which to ask and discuss some difficult topics.

I'll call cultureQs a game just because it is a short easy word and it looks like a game. In practice it is a technique with a tool.

Eric started by showing us his idea of the seven components of culture, e.g. ethnic, beliefs and organisation. I was surprised to see that he had age and gender in there but not class. Perhaps that is an English thing, but I doubt it.

After a brief introduction to the game we were left to play it on our tables. We had four people on ours only two of whom, Conrad and myself, knew each other beforehand.

The point of cultureQs is that the game format decides which questions to ask. We moved around the board using a die, as in Ludo or Snakes and Ladders, and the places we landed on determined which question was asked. The person whose go it was answered the question first and then the other three of us did.

There was lots of agreement on the first question about good managers, and so we learned little from this. There was less agreement on how to work with business partners and I was the odd one out here as my company has a very formal approach to this, partially dictated by fairness and anti-bribery legislation.

I felt that some of the questions were too formulaic, like answering a Prince2 exam. and others were on generic topics, like equal rights, and so did not reveal much about us as people.

I wondered why the questions were set as a game when they could, for example, have been asked randomly just by shuffling the pack and each person taking the next card. I also wondered what the point of the game was, i.e. how it ended. I was able to ask Eric this in the group session at the end and he said that the game format with the board gave the players a focus and that the game had no end, it would just be stopped after a set period of time, around 70 minutes, but being a game meant that the players stepped into game mode and were more prepared to answer the questions.

We decided that the point was to get us to find our more about each other and that the blue rootQs were best for those so we ignored the board and the die and just answered those instead.

The other tables liked the game more than we did which may have been due to the way that we worked as a group or to the questions that came up in the short time that we played the game.

As a way of learning about people, I was reminded of two questions that Robert Elms asks his Listed Londoners, You have a day off, what do you do? and Where would you take a visitor? If I was setting the questions then I would include these two.

I was not convinced by the implementation of cultureQs but I could see the merit of asking these sorts of questions when getting teams to try and understand each other better and of asking them in a controlled manner in a neutral space. It is also fair to point out that I played the game for about half an hour in an artificial situation (we were not colleagues who had to work together), that the game was developed over several years of use with clients and has been used hundreds of times since being published.

The Gurteen Knowledge Cafe again proved itself to be a good way to explore these ideas and it was also good to catch up with some Gurteen regulars (e.g. Keith, Conrad, Sally-Ann and Noeleen) as well as meeting some new people too. It was another good evening spent stimulating new ideas with interesting people, and that is what Gurteen Knowledge Cafes are all about.

16 July 2015

Sonia Delaunay and more at Tate Modern

I took a week's holiday in July to use up some of my annual allowance and to give me something of a break before my main holiday in November. I had no plans for the day other than to do something in London.

As it happened, I had to pop into our Kings Cross office to collect something that I had printed so I set off for there first. On the train I checked the Arts Fund app for somewhere to go and it suggested the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Tate Modern. So I had a plan.

The first thing to do was to walk to Tate Modern from Kings Cross, a modest trek of around 4km. The suggested route would have taken me over Blackfriars Bridge but I was on holiday and so I took the slightly longer route and crossed the Thames on the Millennium Bridge which lifts my spirits every time that I use it. The novelty had not yet worn off and was showing no signs of doing so.

I knew absolutely nothing about Sonia Delaunay beforehand and relied on the exhibitions popularity as the reason for going. I quickly learned that her works were all about colours and the way that they work together. This preoccupation with form rather than subject mean that her works usually had the feel of abstract art even when they were of specific things.

The style of her work changed little over her long career (and there is nothing wrong with that) but there were significant changes in form and the exhibition included paintings, fabrics, posters that varied in size and completion from character sketches for a ballet through to three very large murals for an exhibition, one of which is shown below.

I never know how long an exhibition is going to take me so I first went around the eleven rooms at some speed to gauge what was there and where best to spend my time. I then went back to the beginning, not a great distance in a straight line, and went through it all again looking in more detail at the displays that had caught my eye the most the first time round.

It also enabled me to focus my surreptitious photographing on just my favourite objects thus reducing the risk of being caught and, in the worst case scenario, being forced to delete the photos I had taken (it happened to me in a theatre once).

My main problem was the guide seated in the gap between the final two rooms, both of which had things that I wanted to photograph. I hung around there for some time and eventually took the picture above of designs for magazine covers when somebody conveniently engaged the guide in conversation and stood between us while doing so.

There was much to like in the exhibition. My favourite room was that covering her work with fabrics and fashion which included a bow-tie that I would be very happy to wear. My favourite piece was in the room before it and is the picture at the top of somebody trying on some of Sonia Delaunay's clothes in her front room which she had also decorated.

I found the exhibition very enjoyable and I was grateful to Art Fund for pointing me to something that I would otherwise have let slip past.

The main exhibition took me something just over an hour to go around and then it was time for some coffee and cake. The usual argument that the profits went to the Tate kicked-in and justified the cake.

I had plenty of time left in the day so I decided to wander around some of the free exhibitions.

I walked around these even faster looking for things that made an immediate impression rather than trying to take it all in. I love free museums and galleries precisely for this reason.

I was delighted to see the Russian posters back. A few years ago they had been in their own space, Red Star Over Russia, in Room 11 on the fifth floor but the last few times I had been to the Tate they were not on display, or were well hidden.

Another nice surprise was the little room of architectural oddities by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. I felt that there was something of Philippe Druillet about them in their scale and oddness, at least that was the closest reference point that I had. Most of their works were posters and there was this one wonderfully industrial model.

The surreal exhibition surprised me in two ways; I learned that I do not, as a rule, like surrealism when I thought that I did and I also learned that I like Picasso when I thought that I did not.

Hence this photo of a Picasso piece.

One of the obvious things to like about the Tate and that is the scale of the place. It would be fun to walk around even if there was no art in it. But there was art, and lots of it.

In a fairly random stroll across the floors that seemed to have free exhibitions I saw some classic works by Warhol and Lichtenstein and collections of things that I presume was sculpture.

I also ventured out on to the smokers' balcony for its views of the City. A lot of people had the same idea that they really ought to designate this a photographers' zone and ban the smokers!

On the way out I looked at the model of the new extension and then ventured outside to see it taking shape. Actually the shape had been taken and it was now being finished and filled. It was originally due to open for the Olympics in 2012 but the best guess I can find on the internet for the actual opening date is "2016". Let's hope that it is worth the wait, my guess is that it will be.

I have been to the Tate Modern many times, sometimes just in passing or in a lunch break, and it has excited me every time. That is why I keep going there.

11 July 2015

The Bite at the Fox and Duck do something a little different and do it well

I do not need much of an excuse to go to the Fox and Duck in Petersham on a Saturday night but, as excuses go, The Bite were a pretty good one.

I was not impressed to have to work over the weekend and was determined to not let work ruin things completely so when I hit a natural break-point in work around 10pm I headed for the pub rather than for bed, which may have been the more sensible option. Or I could have watched the end of TED which is a great film.

I had not done many steps, less that 9k, so I walked the long way to the Fox, following the 371 bus route though Ham. That took me just above my target 12k steps and got me to the pub around 11pm.

The main reason that I made that effort was the band's published set-list on LemonRock. There are many rock cover bands on the circuit and songs like Sweet Child O' Mine get played a little too often for my taste but The Bite promised songs like Lazy (Deep Purple) and Next (Sensational Alex Harvey Band) which are far more interesting.

The promise was soon kept. I got to the pub just as they started the second half of their set and they were soon into Faith Healer, another SAHB classic. This was followed by the likes of Radar Love and Hocus Pocus both of which I love immensely. This was clearly a band with good taste in music, i.e. close to mine.

They closed with Bohemian Rhapsody which, as they said , everybody knows the words to but I was possibly the only person in the pub who knew it from when it was first released in 1975. Similarly with their first Encore song, Delilah. It was clear from the band's movements that this was the SAHB version rather than Tom Jones'. A quick conversation with the bassist afterwards confirmed this.

Their final song was a request, from me. As I said above, I had seen Next, originally by Jacques Brel and later by SAHB, on their set list and I called for this when they were looking for one last song to play. Luckily they had not played it in the first half so they could play it at the end. I loved to hear it again for the first time for a while and it was good to see that other people in the pub recognised it.

The Bite were a new band for me, and for the Fox and Duck, and they did enough on their first visit to make me want to see them again.

10 July 2015

The Fall Of The House Of Usher, and more, produced an exciting evening at the White Bear theatre

There is so much cultural stuff going on in London (obviously) so it is hard to find out about it all, let alone see anything but a small fraction of it all. One of the ways that I find things to see and do is to track a relatively small number of venues, about twenty, through their email newsletters. One of these venues is the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, which is how I found out about this performance The Fall Of The House Of Usher.

I knew the story of The Fall Of The House Of Usher and had seen the 1960 film starring Vincent Price price many times, often as part of horror seasons on BBC 2 in the 1970's. However, I had no idea that there was an opera version and even less of an idea that something like this had been concocted by Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator, despite having bought several VdGG and Peter Hammill albums along the way and having seen VdGG in concert several times. The picture above is of the album cover.

Seeing The Fall Of The House Of Usher was obviously mandatory.

Also mandatory is going The Dog House, a pub close by, for something to eat and a beer beforehand. The White Bear is a pub too but they do not do food there so my usual routine, i.e. I have done it twice now, is to have a coffee on arrival at the White Bear and then a beer, an "Ordinary", in the interval.

The White Bear Theatre is something like a cave behind the pub that is entered via a narrow door in a dark corner that first takes you into the box office area and then into the "P" shaped stage (the "P" actually faces the other way). There is seating along the two straight lines of the "P".

The Fall Of The House Of Usher started with the sound of a guitar but no guitarist. Eventually one appeared through a stage door dragging the long guitar lead with him. This was Jamie West the adapter and main performer of the piece.

The guitar proved to be just the overture and Jamie played all the rest of the music on a piano almost hidden at the back of the low lit small stage. That music reminded me of VdGG with its thick chords and Jamie's vocals had the same tone as Hammill so this was familiar territory for me. That was understandable as VdGG always had a good touch of the Gothic about them and I suspect it was that which had led Hammill to Usher originally.

Jamie West was joined by Aliyah Keshani who sang the role of the buried alive Lady Madeline on a couple of songs.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher was dark, brooding and magnificent. Exactly like I hoped it would be.

We then had an unexpected interval (time for that beer) before seeing two more performance. By "unexpected" I mean I had not looked at the event listing close enough to work out what was going on.

Claire Dowie gave us a couple of comic songs and comic monologues in her energetic and engaging style.

One of the monologues, Arsehammers!, addressed the topic of Alzheimer's as seen through the eyes of a child, hence the title. The other, Random Subject, poked fun at Facebook in a subtle and somewhat disturbing way comparing friending people on Facebook with following them on the street and going through their bins.

Monologues are not a form that I was that familiar with, despite having grown up with Joyce Grenfell on the TV, and I was pleased with how well they worked. When so much of comedy thrives on one-liners and others see that as an extended form it was good to hear long pieces that were laugh-out-loud funny and also very human.

The final piece was another monologue, this time from Martin Stewart, who does not seem to have a website!

This was long and strange story called Peter and the Actinoids, inspired by the last group of elements in the Periodic Table. These start with No. 96 Actinium which is where they get their name from; they are also called actinides.

The story was driven by its strangeness and was helped by some repetition, particularly of the names of the actinoids, which gave it almost a song structure, but that would be to overemphasise a point.

Several of the comments made during the telling of the story (or were they actually part of the story?) suggested that editorial suggestions had been made during rehearsals and that these had been ignored. I agreed with the artist more than the editor and I thought that all of the ideas worked, though obviously some worked better than others.

Martin's performance style also suggested that this was something of a try-out session but, again, I suspect that this was more act than fact.

An argument could be made for saying that Peter and the Actinoids was an inconsequential and incoherent story told incompetently but from my perspective it all worked very well and I loved it.

I think it is fair to say that it was the least approachable of the three acts, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with difficult acts, so while I would not have changed anything in the act I would have changed the order of the three acts putting this on first and Usher in the middle to separate the two monologues, but all this is just me personal preferences and the whole evening was very enjoyable the way it was.

The summary of all that is I went to see an opera that I knew nothing about and also ended up seeing two performances that I did not know that I had booked and I enjoyed them all immensely.