1 October 2014

#DayofDredd

Today is the Day of Dredd when the legion of fans of the chisel chinned Judge from the pages of 2000AD raise their voices in unison to call for a sequel to the rather good 2012 film starting Karl Urban. I quite like the 1995 film starring Sylvester Stallone too but it is probably best not to mention that.

I have done my little bit to raise the profile of Judge Dredd today by tweeting with the hashtag #DayofDredd and by writing this blog post, which also gives me the opportunity to dig out a photo of me wearing the 30th anniversary t-shirt on holiday in Tunisia in 2007 when it was new.


22 September 2014

Holy Holy recreate The Man Who Sold The World joyfully at the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire

Bowie started his career with a succession of ground-breaking and totally different albums, including a pretty convincing heavy-metal inspired album The Man Who Sold The World in 1970. This was the year that Deep Purple gave us Deep Purple in Rock and Black Sabbath issued both their eponymous first album and Paranoid. Happy days.

Because of the heavier tone The Man Who Sold The World does not have the same general recognition as the mellow albums that came before and after it, Space Oddity (1969) and Hunky Dory (1971). I loved it though and have listened to it consistently over the years. I've bought it at least three times.

I am probably never going to see Bowie play live again but seeing some of the original performers do The Man Who Sold The World was a no-brainer. The two originals were bassist and producer Tony Visconti and drummer Woody Woodmansey. I still remember Charles Shar Murray writing that Visconti had cranked his bass up loud on the album and that was alright because it was a heavy metal album. I agree.

The logistics were bit of a pain as I had to work in Reading that day but I managed to get around that by wearing clothes to work that while they fell far short of our formal dress-code were both smart enough for the office and rough enough for the gig. I was not going to go there wearing a suit!

The other part of the logistics, the travel, worked well as the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire is a short-hop from Paddington which is where the train from Reading dumped me. In fact that worked so well that I got there much earlier than I expected, around 6:30, and rather than head for the pub I joined the queue. My original plan was to sneak in around 8pm but I reasoned that I might as well stand and have a beer in the venue as do so in the pub.



The queueing worked even better than expected as some of the other early birds headed for one of the other preferred locations, or the bar, and the front of the arena was not that busy. I managed to buy a beer and still bag a position fairly central in the second row, i.e. there were just the people against the barrier in front of me. I chose my space well and had a young lad and his short mum in front of me so I had a very good view, as shown by these photos.

Being early also meant that I had to endure the support bands but they proved to be OK, if not very distinctive. Tony Visconti's son, Morgan Visconti, was allowed an extensive run-out for which he was joined by another offspring, Jessica Lee Morgan. No I don't understand how they got their names.

The pending arrival of Holy Holy was signalled by some Beethoven music in the style of A Clockwork Orange and then we were off.

The other main players in Holy Holy were Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17) on vocals and Steve Norman (Spandau Ballet) on guitar and saxophone. There were others, lots of others, and the guest musicians were a major feature of the show.



I had only discovered a couple of days previously that these guests included Marc Almond. That was a special treat for me as I bought almost all of his albums between 1981 and 1989 when he recorded with/as Soft Cell and Marc & the Mambas as well as solo.

I expected Marc to do the title track, as Lulu had done, but he came out for After All, the quiet ballad that closed side one of the original LP.

By then I was singing along loudly to everything, as was everybody else. Music this good is infectious.

The Man Who Sold The World as received rapturously, despite its less well-known content.

Then we got a selection of more Bowie songs from around that era, though there were a surprising number from Aladdin Sane (1973). Marc Almond came back to do Watch That Man and there was a stonking version of fan-favourite Time.

Musicians came and went, but mostly came. I counted twenty people on stage at the end. The most prominent of these was Gary Kemp (also Spandau Ballet) who added his guitar to the three or four that were already playing.

The crowd were lapping it all up and the band seemed to be having as much fun as we were. There was a fair amount of interaction between us too with the audience joining in when asked (not that we needed much asking) and there was a loud cheer of shared joy and memory when Steve Norman talked about that Top of The Pops appearance on 6 July 1972. It changed many people's lives, including mine.

It was possibly the happiest concert that I have ever been too and even the eager photographers in the pit could not dampen my joy. This was an absolutely brilliant concert with excellent musicians delivering great songs that they had rehearsed with care and love.

The mood from the convert was so positive and uplifting that I hope that Holy Holy continue in some way.

21 September 2014

The Last of the Summer Flowers at Kew Gardens (September 2014)

For various reasons beyond my control I missed out on Summer at Kew Gardens being unable to get there for a couple of months. When the opportunity came to get back there I leapt at the opportunity, though at 9am on a Sunday morning it was a rather leisurely leap.

There were some striking autumnal reds and oranges and oranges near where I live so I headed to Kew looking for more of the same. That meant entering at Lion Gate because that is the end of the garden that most of the trees are.



I quickly discovered that the trees were stubbornly green and that many flowers had taken advantage of the warm and dry September to keep showing off their colours.

From the Pagoda I took the long path towards the river, Cedar Vista, and that lead me past the little Waterlily Pond where I found this clutch of flowers making the most of the sunshine.



I cannot walk past the top of the lake without taking a picture of the view back down it, and this time was no exception. That's the Sackler Crossing in the distance.

It was about then that I remembered that the grasses would be out and so I changed direction and went down Syon Vista along the other side of the lake and back towards the Palm House.



I avoided the Palm House and went to the nearby Waterlily House instead which was impressively protected by an army of pink flowers. This shock of pink against the white and grey background was enough to make anybody pause to wallow in the scene.



Inside the Waterlily House was as pretty as ever. I took lots of pictures of the lilies but I have shared many of those pictures previously so this time I have selected one of the plants on the edge of the greenhouse that looked all the better, I felt, for having the rhythmic construction behind them.



The big surprise came when walking along the Broad Walk from the Waterlily House to the Orangery, where I was aiming to get a coffee and some cake (there are rules about these things).

The kidney-shaped beds on both sides of the wide path were thick with colour with each bed having its own theme. I came to Kew Gardens looking for falling leaves and found bright flowers instead.



I loved the planting of the beds. The thematic colours revealed the hand of man but the, apparently, haphazard arrangement gave them the appearance of wild gardens.

There were several such beds along the Broad Walk and I stopped to admire, and photograph, every one of them. Eventually they ran out and I was at the Orangery were I had my expected coffee and cake. A treat within a treat.



From there it was just a short walk to the unimaginatively, but accurately, named Grass Garden.

This is one of my favourite places in Kew (there is stiff competition) but it always seems to me that it does not get the attention that it deserves as it is somewhat out of the way in the south-east corner beyond the main path that links the main attractions. I do not mind that it is quiet there as it makes it more peaceful and makes it easier to take photographs but its still a shame that it is often overlooked.



From there I took the route through the walled garden with the Plant Family Beds; you can just see the top of the wall above the mysterious orange plants.

The final step was to try and leave the gardens at Victoria Gate. This was harder than before as the system had been changed to force leavers to exit through the shop rather than heading straight for the gate. I am not sure that this was a good idea as all it did was frustrate me a little and the short-cut through the cafe misses out most of the shop anyway.

I have ceased to be amazed at how good Kew Gardens is every time that I go there and have given up on expecting familiarity to breed contempt. Instead I just accept that it does not matter when I go there or where I walk when I do, there will always be plenty there for me to see.

16 September 2014

Lots to see in and round Somerset House

I was in the Aldwych area for an afternoon meeting which meant that I could go to the theatre nearby in the evening and could fill the time in between at Somerset House.

It was London Fashion Week which meant that the courtyard was full of strangely dressed people taking photos of people even more strangely dressed. I was wearing a suit with a Liberty tie (as always) so I felt very comfortable amongst the hipsters and weirdos. I even had my photo while having a coffee and cake in Fernandez & Wells, but that was just by a student so I do not expect to find my face on the cover of Vogue. I would not know if it was.

After the coffee I headed to the southern section of Somerset House, i.e. the bit next to the river, as that is where the small galleries were kept. I had no idea what was on and was very pleasantly surprised to discover three very different exhibitions next to each other.

I would not normally have gone to an exhibition called Time: Tattoo Art Today but I had the time to kill and it was free.



The exhibition was of specially commissioned pieces by tattoo artists on the subject of time. The only rule was that they could use their usual materials, i.e. skin.

I went in expecting to walk around quickly and then straight out again but I was struck by the drama in many of the works and I fell in love with several of them, despite their sometimes bleak character. Having to choose just one photo for the blog I eventually settled on a traditional dragon neatly draped over a shoulder.

The exhibition occupied just a couple of medium-sized rooms and was time very well spent.

I had been to Somerset House many times but had managed to learn nothing of its history before. I fixed that by visiting the exhibition on the lower level. This was so obscure that I had never noticed it before and even now it is hard to find anything about it on the Somerset House website.

It was a long, narrow and space with some posters and artifacts on one side and a boat on the other. The point of Somerset House when it was built was that it had one foot on the Strand and the other in the Thames, thus linking two of London's main thoroughfares. All that changed when the embankment was added and now a hideous main road separates the house from its natural home.

Somerset House is a large and extravagant building today and the exhibition helped to show how much larger and more extravagant it must have seemed when imposed on medieval London in 1547, that's pushing 500 years ago!

Filling one of the many entrance halls was a collection of photographs of Nick Cave.

The exhibition, A Little History: Nick Cave & Cohorts 1981 - 2013, was of photographs by all taken by Bleddyn Butcher.

Clearly the most interesting thing about the photos was the way that Cave's appearance changed over that time and through all those changes his hair remained an entertaining feature.

I was also interested to see that several of the photographs had been taken in fairly modest clubs in London. I have never seen Cave live, despite buying quite a few of his albums, but I assumed that he had always headlined at big venues.

Exiting by Victoria Embankment I walked up the steps at Waterloo Bridge and then crossed it heading towards Southwark and my theatre date.

The view from Waterloo Bridge is one of THE views of London, as evidenced by the number of people who select it as their favourite on the Robert Elms show, and it still enthrals me even though I have crossed that bridge many many times.



There are good views in both directions but in recent years I have tended to look eastwards towards the City simply because there has been so much change there. When I worked in the Nat West Tower in the late 80's it was the only tower there, now it is just one of a growing cluster.

14 September 2014

The good and the bad of modern architecture in London

Sitting on the top deck of a bus heading up Borough High Street toward London Bridge gave me a good opportunity to see three of London's new iconic buildings from a different viewpoint.



I like the Shard and it looked good from this angle too, rising majestically above the low brick Georgian buildings of Borough. I suspect that the design of the Shard took account of this view as its gentle angle matches that of the church in front of it.



A little further up the road and things took a turn for the worse.

I like the Cheesgrater (on the left) too and it looks fine from this angle. The villain of the piece is the Walkie-Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) on the right. This is a monstrous building that appears to tower over those in the foreground, despite being on the far side of the river.

12 September 2014

The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd at the Orange Tree theatre was more of the same

With a new artistic director, Paul Miller succeeding Sam Walters after forty years, I was both expecting and hoping for more change than was apparent on the first production of the new season.

Changes had been made to the bar area with stools replacing the long bench, to the booking system with numbered sets replacing free-seating and to the theatre with a fresh coat of paint and a raised stage. I do not know if the raised stage was just for this show or whether it is a permanent feature but I am fairly certain that I do not like it because of the need to look upwards and the restricted foot space.

There was no change to the programme, however. The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd was a little known play by DH Lawrence set in the Nottinghamshire mining community in 1914. There is nothing wrong with historical plays per se but when the point of the play is comment on the then current times then this does not always translate well to modern times.

I started to struggle with the play in the first minute when Mrs Holroyd appeared with the washing and started to load the clothes horse. She was clearly not used to doing so and made something of a mess of it, something that should have been picked up by the director during rehearsals.

Mrs Holroyd was a much put-upon wife who was left at home to do the skivvying while her husband was out drinking and wenching. An admirer was floating around but she stuck to the social rules.

I spent some time working in Nottingham mining district (not in a mine, obviously) and so had some familiarity with the accent, which is not unlike the way that a Yorkshire accent is usually presented. That helped me to understand Mr Holroyd and the two children.As this was a small community I would have expected everybody to have the same accent but some of the cast struggled with that and there were even touches of Brum in the mix.

The play was very much in two halves, and deliberately so. In the first we saw the hard life led by Mrs Holroyd and they way she was dominated by her husband. They argued loudly and often but there seemed to be no hope for Mrs Holroyd and all our sympathies were with here.

After the interval came the expected Widowing of Mrs Holroyd with Mr Holroyd being killed in a mining accident.

The mood of the play changed too. We got new perspectives on Mr Holroyd from his colleagues and mother. They might not have excused his behaviour towards his wife but they came some way towards explaining it as we learnt more about the harsh and brutal life of a miner.

The point of the play seemed to be to explain how it was grim up North and while that may have been news when the play was written it was not to the Richmond audience and I think that made the play sort of pointless.

In its favour, accents apart, the acting was of the usual high standard and there was plenty of meat in the vigorous dialogues to chew on. The play was gripping and emotional, and that made it entertaining, even if it did not really go anywhere or say anything.

10 September 2014

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

I was not sure how many people were going to turn up to the regular British and Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) social in September as Facebook was still refusing to let me invite everybody in the group to the event, there was another event on at the Slovak Embassy that night and we were still just bout in the holiday season.

And when I got there I was on my own for a little while and then it was just one person who joined me. Luckily (for me) that was somebody who I knew and we had a good chat while waiting for others to join us.

And others did join us. It took a little longer than usual but we got to the dozen people that we usually have at these events. It was also the usual mix of old and new people and that is a good combination for getting the conversations going.



Sonia wanted me to take this picture of her and her Romanian friend but I have no idea why, or of what the newspaper says. At least it makes a change from my usual picture of my smazeny syr and Pilsner Urquell, both of which I had, as usual.

This was another excellent BCSA Social with the familiar good humour and refreshing Czech/Slovak food and drink. Only the people and the conversations were different.

5 September 2014

Stella cast for The Crucible at The Old Vic

The Crucible at the Old Vic was one of the "must see" plays of the Summer (the other was A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, just down the road) and I duly bought my ticket some months in advance. I was not entirely convinced though and I balked at paying anything like the top price and so I went for a seat (B26) in the Lilian Baylis Circle, i.e. the top level. Even up there I had to fork out £30.

It was another work in Reading day but the transport worked well (the main risk was the time it can take to get from the office to Reading station by bus) and I got to Waterloo in good time to try another tasty West Cornwall Pasty before diving in to The Pit Bar for a beer.

Fed and watered I trudged to the top of the building to take my seat. It was comfortable enough and the view was fine.

The stage was arranged differently from my previous visits being almost in the round with a few seats to the side of the stage and a few more at the back. To be honest I am not sure that the arrangement worked for everybody as it was a fairly static performance, it's a play of words not actions, which meant that some people would have spent some time looking at the back of the person talking. I had no such trouble up in the gods.

For all that Arthur Miller was a big name playwright I had never seen one of his plays before and had little idea of what to expect. The running time of over three hours, with an interval on top of that, was something of a clue that this could be a long smouldering American drama in the vein of Long Day's Journey into Night or, more recently, Dances with Wolves. And so it proved to be.

The Crucible told the story of the Salem Witch Trials where a bit of fun, girls dancing in the woods, leads to accusations of witchcraft and this is then blamed for everything bad that happens and suspicious eyes were turned on any behaviour deemed unusual. Behaviour like reading.

A group of honest villagers got caught up in this and were unable to protest their innocence against a tide of supposition and superstition. It did not end well.

As the poster at the top shows, this was billed as a vehicle for Richard Armitage and his appearances in Robin Hood, Spooks and The Hobbit had pushy mums bring their precious children by the truckload. They must have wondered why.

Armitage, as the main hero John Proctor, was convincing enough but he played it a little too close to his other roles, particularly his Spooks character Lucas North, for my liking as he was swept along by events and was powerless to stop them. Perhaps it was because of this type-casting that he was chosen for the role.

William Gaunt, who will always be super-powered secret agent Richard Barrett in The Champions to me, was superb as John's friend who was also entangled in the allegations and who faced them with steely determination and also acceptance of the inevitable.

The story turned when a senior cleric arrived in the village to investigate the witchcraft stories and this was a turning point in the production too. Jack Ellis was absolutely brilliant as Deputy Governor Danforth and, for me, stole the show. He was certain, strong and ruthless as he barked out his instructions. He was the enemy that the villagers had to fear despite his good office. He became the centre of the play that had been a collection of disparate narratives.

The rest of the cast deserve a mention too because, frankly, they were all good.

The Crucible told its long story with some style and would could have been a three hour trial for the audience passed by ridiculously quickly. The ending was a little obvious and was made the weaker for happening off-stage, shades of Chekhov there, but the point of the play was the journey, not the destination, and that was taut, tense and terrifying.

I enjoyed The Crucible a lot, and felt exhausted by the ride at the end, but somehow, as with Streetcar, it did not quite reach the heights that I expected of it and so a good performance ended up feeling a little disappointing.