Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday, 29 September 2008

I've been tangoed..

I suppose it's a commonplace in a lot of cities that people who live there tend not to take full advantage of everything that's going on: daily routine takes over so easily, especially in London with its long commuting times.

I don't have that much of an excuse for never having been - in ten years - to a performance at our local performance space - a converted Presbyterian chapel - (since I've been to the café upstairs often enough). It's only about five minutes' walk away, but somehow nothing ever quite caught my eye there: until this weekend, when I saw (another advantage of going past on a bike rather than a bus) that there would be someone singing tango songs by Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla.

Years ago, I got the chance of a business trip to Buenos Aires. I'm not sure I'd want to go back again (the diet seemed almost entirely meat-based - a pasty for starters, a huge slice of roast beef for a main dish: by the end of the week I'd have killed for a lettuce leaf), but it was an adventure, and I was especially taken by the "proper" tango music. They even had a TV channel devoted solely to tango lessons and performances, and not the kind of ballroom tango that's been so easily sent up in TV comedies.

Of course, I'm far too English to imagine ever being able to dance it (it's quite enough to hang on to the idea of playing the spoons as my fantasy someday talent), but that doesn't take away from the enjoyment of listening to it. Unfortunately something about the performance (maybe the space and the acoustic, but probably trying to present them as art songs with just a voice/piano combination) didn't quite get the tension and emotion across last night. Maybe it all depends on the contrast between the bandoneon and sweet and swooping strings:

Friday, 26 September 2008

Tutu much....

My spendy mood the other week also led to my booking a theatre trip - to see the Trocks. I've seen them a few times over the last 20+ years, so I booked for the programme that seemed to have unfamiliar things. I couldn't resist something described as "The underwater scene from The Little Humpbacked Horse", but (shows how much I know) it turns out to be genuinely part of the ballet repertoire, a sort of pre-Nutcracker Christmas treat in Imperial Russia, with dancing jellyfish, no less.

You will gather that this is not for the entirely serious balletomane: a company of - sometimes quite hefty - male dancers performing en travesti to pastiche the conventions and formalities of (mostly) classical ballet. The tone is set by the opening announcements in a heavy cod-Rrrraahsian accent ("Pl-yease to turn aff your mobile ph-yones, or ve vill do it for you."): all the clichés and absurdities of the style are guyed, fixed smiles remaining firmly in place, even as a six-footer is paired with a minuscule support, dancers miss the follow-spot, tread on someone else's toes, steal each other's thunder and so on. But the point is, they do actually do the dance: they really do waft across the stage on point, or do umpteen fouettés (twice in the course of the evening, on this occasion).

The audience was not that different from what you expect at most high-culture events in London. Perhaps slightly more student-y (Sadlers Wells rather than Covent Garden) and a fair smattering of gentlemen who "dance at the other end of the ballroom", and some people who probably know exactly how some of the classics should be danced, to judge from some (to me) inexplicable laughter at some points.

Alternative programme or no, a (traditional) change of programme saw Madame Ida Nevaseyneva giving us her dying swan (again), but I've posted that Youtube clip before - so here's another example of what they can do:

Monday, 22 September 2008

Cycles, churches, courts and crime

You expect to have to work for your bread, but this weekend required some effort to take advantage of the circuses - the Open House weekend and London Freewheel.

Somehow, although I'm totally irreligious, the Open House weekend seems to find me visiting mostly religious buildings. Maybe they're just more visible, but this year I started out at Christ Church Spitalfields, now beautifully restored (and incidentally, where one of my great-great-grandfathers was christened - but I suspect that might have been insurance rather than zeal, since the "parish" was the only source of social security in hard times), and over the weekend also dropped in - since I was in the area - at St Clement Danes (the "RAF church", the old memorials to the likes of John Donne's wife being joined by those to many different units and groups of aircrew - and the people in occupied Europe who ran escape lines to get Allied airmen home), St Giles in the Fields and the Bevis Marks Synagogue (designed by a Quaker architect around the same time as the great Wren churches, it has a similar openness, lightness and sense of peace).

There's almost as religious a feeling about the Royal Courts of Justice (that was apparently the intention), the pre-Disney Gothic-turreted fantasy in the Strand. I worked nearby for over twenty years and never realised just how open to visitors they are. They'd laid on mock trials, visits to the cells and a prison van (this required a degree of queuing I didn't fancy), an amusing talk by a judge's clerk about mostly the ceremonial robes but also about the daily work of a judge, as well as other talks and displays. It's a warren of corridors and courtrooms doors off mysterious half-landings up and down winding staircases. The courtrooms are surprisingly intimate, but this is hardly surprising, given that much of the business here is to do with private civil disputes and criminal appeals on points of law, rather than the grand public dramas of TV and movie trials.

From one end of the justice system to the other: the Thames Police Museum is a volunteer-run collection of all sorts of memorabilia crammed into the former carpenters' workshop at the headquarters of the river police in Wapping. Models of boats, old equipment, photographs of great events, uniforms, flags, paintings and documents all jostle for attention as you squeeze your way between the cabinets. There are some fascinating stories here, but they're a bit buried: and the reality of the work, as shown in a recent TV series, can be grim (the river is so murky that divers mostly have to locate what they're looking for by feel alone, whether it's a body or an abandoned weapon).

As for the Freewheel event - last year I wondered if I should get a bike, and this year I was able to join in (no need to register - I don't want a free bib advertising Rupert Murdoch, thank you very much, and certainly not to go on one of his mailing lists). And a great day was had by all, notwithstanding some shocking bad manners by some cyclists (what else is new):

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Gently remove the postilion from under the horse...

This is one of the handy phrases offered by Mme de Genlis, tutor to French royalty, in her 18th century guide and phrasebook for travellers in rural France, as quoted in Graham Robb's Discovery of France, a book I'm loving.

The book is the story of how "France" developed from a society in which people had little experience of anywhere, let alone of any authority, outside their own immediate pays, where excise duties were required as goods moved from one part of the country to another, where families could - for no obvious reason - be defined as a caste almost of "untouchable" status as in India. It tells how the country was mapped, how transport was developed, how people migrated - a fascinating mix of global trends and piquant local detail. As for example, what Mme de Genlis's choice of phrases tells you about the state of the roads at the time. And did you know that bands of dogs were trained to smuggle goods past the excise officers - without being led by humans? Or that the "Tour de France" was a term for apprentices' travels to learn their trades around the country?.

The book closes with the development of both national identity through national education (and national military service) in the nineteenth century, and at the same time of regional/local identities to encourage tourism. Paris, by the way, hardly features.

Well bless my soul

Thanks to Cécile Quoi de 9, I discover there's a variety of fig in France known as "couille du Pape" - as demonstrated by a display of jam on the occasion of the Pope's visit to France.

That is to say, in France you can buy a kilo or a jar of - that of which the Pope, of all people, has no functional need. Well, it makes a variation on "Cobblers* to the Queen", I suppose.

*[For readers not familiar with British English - this is the punchline of an old joke relying on London rhyming slang. Cobblers stands for "cobblers' awls", which rhymes with...?

Sunday, 14 September 2008


Sunday turned out to be a late attempt at summer, so it was out with the bike again. An hour or so's ride got me to the British Library for the last day of the Ramayana exhibition - beautiful miniatures, from mostly 17th century editions of the great Indian myth, with material exhibiting its influence elsewhere in south and south-east Asia - different forms of text and image, dance, wall hangings, shadow puppets.

It's a long - very long - legend of good and evil, how a king in exile pursues and destroys the abductor of his wife (with the aid of Hanuman the monkey god, Garuda the eagle and an army of monkeys and bears), she restores his (and public) faith in her virtue and loyalty by agreeing to sacrifice herself (but is saved), and they return to resume the throne and inaugurate a golden age. There are shape-shifting gods and demons, miraculous cures, battles, moving mountains, wicked stepmothers, brothers and wives both loyal and disloyal, and a great many other things familiar from folk myths and legends throughout the world.

Many beautiful details in the paintings: here's the online version on the BL's website.

On the way home, I realised I was near Bunhill Fields, the old cemetery for nonconformists, which I've never visited. So by way of light relief, I stopped in to pay my respects at the graves of Bunyan, Blake and Daniel Defoe - and the imposing tomb of Dame Mary Page (died 1728), with the inscription:
In 67 months she was tap'd 66 times, had taken away 240 gallons of water, without ever repining for her case, or fearing the operation.

Clearly an example to us all.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Feast on the Bridge

This was the weekend of (among many other things) the Thames Festival. I've been less aware of it in the past than of the Great River Race, which passes where I live - but I don't think I could find anything different to say about the race this year. Instead, on Saturday I took the bike and rode into town to have a look at the Feast on the Bridge.

Part farmer's market, part harvest festival and community fete, this takes over Southwark Bridge. There were stalls selling Sussex beer, Essex oysters, "street food from the Silk Route", burgers, sweets and cakes (including cakes and jam from our own local city farm), a stall for children to make their own gingerbread men, a giant pumpkin for them to be photographed with, folk rock and morris dancers, and two tables running the full length of the bridge for people to enjoy their food with a view. On the north side, there were free chocolate samples, and a cosy arrangement of sofas on the pavement for that homely touch.

I managed a good ride around central London and home again, but I still haven't quite got things organised. I need to find some way to carry my weekly shop home on the back, the best place to fix the lights, and I'm sure the brakes are binding a bit.

Hang on, it's all coming back to me: that's why we have bikes: let the tinkering begin!

A grand night out

I do seem to have been in a spendy mood this week. I broke the habit of a lifetime and booked (shock!) to go out of an evening (horror!).

Suddenly realising that this was the last week of the Proms and that I hadn't been in person for decades, I had a look to see what was still available, and surprisingly, there were seats. Of course, if you've the time and stamina to queue, you can get into the standing places in the arena and topmost gallery quite cheaply, but for me it's enough of an adventure to get myself there at all. Best of all, there were still reasonably-priced seats for the Beethoven Choral Symphony, one of the traditional regulars of the Proms: and my seat was beside the organ, facing the conductor across the choir and orchestra.

The Albert Hall is a grand amphitheatre in red and gold; it can hold 5500 people, but my first thought was how intimate it can feel, with the arena audience and many of those seated being very close to the performers. Hence, no doubt, the proprietorial nature of the traditional prommer, those people who regularly queue for the standing places and maintain the rituals of decades, chanting messages from arena to gallery, shouting "heave" when the piano lid goes up, and all the nonsense of the Last Night: but of course, rapt and knowledgeable silence while the music is playing, and usually a generous response - if they liked the performance, they let you know.

The size of the audience has to be taken into account if you visit, by the way: 5500 people, with the lights and all the exertions on the stage, generate a lot of heat, and it rises. The Proms take place over the summer, and even in one as dull as this has been, it can become quite clammy down on the ground, and more and more unpleasant in the higher tiers and the gallery. It's a Victorian building without air-conditioning. A practical top tip is to go to the loo at the start of the interval: there might not be time if you wait till after your ice-cream.

Being at a live performance allows you to hear a lot more detail in the range of both pitch and volume than you get from hearing (considerately-played) broadcasts or recordings at home. My seat gave me a slightly unbalanced sounds, being right behind the brass and percussion (it felt almost like an open-air acoustic), but there was so much more to hear than I'd ever really been aware of before.

It also gave me a performer's view - the screens at the front of the stage to let the soloists see the conductor (who would be behind them), just how many hammers the tympanist had to choose from, and some sort of electronic device on his music stand (a decibel meter?) and the extraordinary self-devised notation for the equally extraordinary Penderecki piece (exactly what people think of as modern classical music, strange slidings, swoopings, tapping, slapping and plucking in no conventional time pattern: the sort of thing that sets the mood for in a sci-fi horror film, but it seemed to fit in the context of this programme).

I could also, of course, see what the choir and orchestra see of the conductor.

By chance, the scheduled programmes and the recordings I've been catching up on have been Beethoven-heavy, and it had struck me just how playful Beethoven is with rhythm, and how much all the different conductors were letting the music dance. Tonight, we certainly got dancing, on the podium as much as in the music.

Noseda had a gesture and a move for every mood and detail he was trying to evoke: stern, dreamy, nonchalant, decisive, precise, straining, imploring, a hand outstretched at thigh-level as though supporting the sound, a chop or a double-handed backhand or a thumb-to-index circle indicating the degree of emphasis he wanted from a section, sometimes the fingertips crumbling pastry or spinning threads in the air, sometimes seeming to shoo invisible pigeons away, his shoulders raised and his feet moving as though through treacle, or arms raised and hands floating, his feet almost on tiptoe as he swayed the rhythm. And all at a take-no-prisoners tempo. No wonder he looked exhausted at the end.

That's not to everyone's taste (though the audience can't see most of it); there's as much to admire in the way, for example, Colin Davis just stood back at moments, stopped even beating time and let the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra play Sibelius); but this was a fabulous performance with the customary response, and special cheers (three separate calls) for the choir. "Roar of applause" wasn't just a cliché in this case.

As I came out, Prince Albert was glittering in his floodlit memorial. He might have been surprised to see just how much good has been done from the profits of his Great Exhibition, perhaps that the Hall is not only still standing but thriving - Sunday jazz brunches and all, and perhaps shocked by some of the music; but, musically capable as he was said to be, I think he would have approved.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Well, I've been and gorn and done it

I've bought a bike. Having ridden it all the way home from the shop, I reckon I could get to and from work in about the same time as I spend on public transport. So we shall see.....

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Still here

I'd be surprised if anyone ever really thought the LHC experiment at CERN might lead to the end of the world. Maybe I'm just naively trusting of people in white coats.

It all looks very James Bond meets Dr. Who, and frankly that's about my level of understanding: so it's even less of a surprise that this morning I was most struck by the Guardian magazine's take on the whole thing (if they're going to have more giveaway posters, this is a much better candidate than some of their other offerings - click on the image to see it full-size):

Saturday, 6 September 2008


Hooray for a poet!

A schools examining board - acting on just three complaints - withdrew this poem from its syllabus:

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets
I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.
I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something's world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.
I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
For signing on. They don't appreciate my autograph.
There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he's talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

Today, the poet, Carol Ann Duffy, published her comment:

You must prepare your bosom for his knife,
said Portia to Antonio in which
of Shakespeare's Comedies? Who killed his wife,
insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch
knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said
Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?
Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt's death?
To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark - do you
know what this means? Explain how poetry
pursues the human like the smitten moon
above the weeping, laughing earth; how we
make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:
speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

Wit is the best response to idiocy.

By the way, is anyone asking about the recruitment policy that appointed the original complainant an examiner?

Friday, 5 September 2008

Is there anything more exhausting...

..than doing nothing - or rather, having nothing to do (or, at least, nothing that really demands immediate attention)? Apparently the office was busy while I was away - and, heaven knows, people seemed to be clearing a lot of stuff to dump on us just before my break - but this afternoon has really dragged.

At home, on the other hand, there's been a lot of catching up to do. Did I mention I got a hard-drive recorder to go with my shiny new TV? It has that "series record" facility - so I came home to find it full of all sorts of things I'd idly clicked on, chiefly a whole batch of Proms concerts. I've still to work through them all, but the range so far has stretched from classical-jazz crossover music, to Vaughan Williams (it's an anniversary year this year: and we didn't just get the floaty-mimsy-Edwardian early music but his stark and angular 9th symphony, from just before he died) to the Bach St John Passion, to a wonderful evening of the Beethoven Violin Concerto (elegant and fun - it adds so much to be able to see the players smiling at each other and obviously making a conversation out of the music) and the Sibelius 2nd symphony (one of the first major classical pieces to engage me as a teenager, and this performance was all flood and fire).

And to bring the tone down, there's an agreeably daft new series Lost in Austen, where a modern young woman who adores Pride and Prejudice and longs for the imagined elegance of the time suddenly finds Elizabeth Bennet in her bathroom, having found a door from the attic at Longbourn, and they end up swapping places. I can just hear the pitch to the schedulers at ITV: "It's Bridget Jones meets Life on Mars - with bonnets!"