21 May 2007

All and sundry

Now that we've got an internet connection at Sanderstead I can report on the other day-to-day developments of recent weeks in London. Here's a lightning-fast and breathtakingly humdrum roundup...

One Monday night after work I went along to another recording session for the BBC Radio comedy programme Does The Team Think, hosted by Vic Reeves. The two most notable guests were the languid Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen of TV decorating fame and the best-loved incarnation of Dr Who himself, Mr Tom Baker. Baker was pleasantly avuncular, and focused his discussion on the three topics closest to his heart: old age, death and Tunbridge Wells. Reeves managed to blindside the panel with his query that if the nether regions of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears can be flaunted in public sans undies, why couldn't his? His panellists expressed the not unreasonable view that the police would have interesting views on the matter, and left it there.

I've recently finished reading Alastair Reynolds' sci-fi novel 'Revelation Space' - a strikingly good first novel. 'Revelation Space' is set in a a future century in which mankind has colonised other stars through the use of slower-than-light travel, but on one planet named Resurgam explorers uncover the archaeological remnants of a long-dead alien race. The question is, what wiped out the aliens, and who has hired an assassin to murder the chief archaeologist? As it progresses, Reynolds spins the story to greater and greater levels of innovative 'big-idea' science fiction. By the end I was sorry to have to put it down.

I've started my new job at the Competition Commission, and it's all going well. The building occupies one entire side of Bloomsbury Square, and it's close to the British Museum and Holborn tube station. It's been a bit of a crush getting in for a 9am start, so I've been trying earlier trains, particularly in the hope of avoiding the constricted shuffling required for a rush-hour interchange on the tube at London Bridge and Bank.

One TV highlight - well, sort of - was last weekend's screening of the 50-somethingth Eurovision Song Contest. Cheesy is the name of the game in this contest, and for years it's been a bastion of international rivalries as neighbouring countries vote for their mates. This is because voters are not permitted to vote for their own country's songs. Since the breakup of the Eastern Bloc there are dozens of countries sharing votes, so poor old Western Europe seldom gets a look-in nowadays. The hot favourite was the Ukrainian entry, an ultra-camp drag act performing a catchy nonsense techno number and dressed in far too much shiny tinfoil gear. Three nubile Svetlanas from Russia were also tipped for success, aiming for the tAtU market with their sub-Sugababes pop number. The German entry confused everyone by being sung in German (what were they thinking?) and because the singer was dressed in supposedly dapper whites with a matching trilby. (It didn't work for Taco, did it). Aiming for Weimar chic, perhaps. There were even a few proper numbers: Hungary's bluesy number 'Unsubstantial Blues' (video) was delivered with panache and wouldn't be out of place on many radio playlists. However, the winner was a stolid song called 'Prayer' belted out by a stocky poorly-coiffed woman from Serbia. (Britain's entry, the airline-themed Flying The Flag For You by Scooch narrowly avoided last place and the dreaded 'nul points').

I also took in the film Factory Girl (Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce) and can recommend it as a solid effort worth watching if you get the chance. The true story of beautiful socialite Edie Sedgwick, who became a focal point of Andy Warhol's Factory art studio in New York in the '60s, the film charts her rise to "it girl" status and semi-stardom, her affair with Bob Dylan (played indifferently by the too-smooth Hayden Christensen), and her descent into intractable drug addiction. The closing credits of the movie are interspersed with interviews with real-life friends and relatives of Edie, whose testimony gives credence to the notion that she was a star who burned out too soon. (And yes, if you were wondering, The Cult's song 'Edie (Ciao Baby)' was written for her).

This weekend we've been playing host to our former flatmate Kath, who is passing through London on her way to an academic conference in Sweden. Yesterday we took in the Borough and Camden markets, pausing a moment in between to photograph St Pauls (see below) and today we took it easy, reading the Sunday papers and looking at the shops in Croydon.

On Saturday night we spent the evening at the flat, and as Sam had a friend in the audience we watched the largely pointless but reasonably entertaining Any Dream Will Do. It's yet another Idol-alike competition - this time, it's to find a Joseph to play in that hoary old Technicolour Dreamcoat. Lord Lloyd-Webber is the prime judge. But there's also a panel of the usual 'celebrity' judges too - who are labelled on the website as 'The Experts'. Hmm. In any case, the highlight of the programme was one segment in which panellist Denise van Outen played a fictional scene with each of the six remaining would-be Josephs - a scene involving a lingering, romantic kiss. At least, it was supposed to be romantic, but apparently according to van Outen afterwards, several of the boys 'held back' during the lip-locking session, which earned a mild rebuke from the blonde former starlet. According to van Outen, the boys (one of them - the scarily long-necked one - was as young as 17) needed to put aside thoughts of their girlfriends and provide a proper tonsil-hockey session. How very Mrs Robinson!

Nothing too exciting there. This week I'll be trying to book another trip away for the coming bank holiday weekend. More hostelling, no doubt! Shall give my trusty earplugs a good rinsing just in case...


15 May 2007

Canterbury revisited

Ten years ago I spent a day or two visiting the beautiful cathedral town of Canterbury in Kent, the first stop on my backpacking travels in the UK and Europe. Last week I decided to revisit Canterbury to enjoy the sights again and to see if anything’s changed since then.

Canterbury in 2007 seems more up-market, busier, and is still full of the many tourists who have replaced pilgrims as the main economic driver of the town. The town's encircling walls and cobblestoned main street are now augmented by a smart new shopping precinct with an impressive range of shops. Hundreds of French schoolkids throng the main street at lunchtime, chattering noisily and swaggering around pretending to smoke chocolate cigarettes.

The main reason the French schoolkids and I visit Canterbury is to explore the splendour of Canterbury Cathedral. It’s been the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury since the sixth century, when the Pope sent a mission led by the clergyman Augustine to bring the isolated souls of England back into the fold of the Church. Augustine converted Aethelbert, King of Kent, to Christianity, and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. After his death Augustine was quickly beatified as a saint.

But the main reason Canterbury Cathedral is as grand and impressive as it remains today is the fateful violence inflicted by two knights at dusk on 29 December 1170. King Henry II had appointed his former friend Thomas Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury and assumed that he would be a compliant churchman. But he found that once appointed, Becket thwarted the king’s every move, which reputedly led Henry to utter the famous cry, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”. This royal outburst was taken to heart by two vigorous knights, who rode straight to Kent. There they burst into the Cathedral through the cloister door, surprised Thomas Becket as he knelt to say his evening prayers, and hacked him to death with their swords.

The martyrdom of the Archbishop galvanised English Christianity to a massive extent. Becket was swiftly beatified as St Thomas, and the Cathedral became a centre of pilgrimage for Christians across England and Europe, rivalled only by Santiago de Compostela in popularity.

Nowadays even the Cathedral gatehouse is an example of impressive artistic expression. At its centrepiece, a seated bronze Jesus is flanked by distinguished angels bearing coats of arms. Jesus himself has been fitted with anti-pigeon spikes on his shoulders, and this along with his gaunt face gives Jesus the air of a Goth deity or perhaps Edward Scissorhands.

Inside the Cathedral itself the soaring fan-vaulting of the nave still astounds, masonry fountains bursting into the heavens, bracketed by stunning stained glass windows depicting a myriad of Biblical figures or English saints and royalty. Fragments of history are liberally scattered throughout the interior. In the north transept an altar and bronze statue of lightning-flash sword blades marks the spot where Becket was martyred. In the Trinity Chapel lie the grand sculpted effigies atop the tomb of King Henry IV Bolingbroke (reigned 1399-1413) and Queen Joan of Navarre, and there’s also the grand military display at the tomb of the feared Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales (d. 1376), at whose pointy-toed armoured feet lies a carving of a most peculiar pig-like grinning dog.

Earlier less reverent pilgrims have left their mark on the Cathedral too – one soft stone pillar bears the clear mark, “Thomas Cray 1704”, three centuries after his vigorous act of graffiti. And to cap it all off, in the central quire at midday the young choir of St Thomas’ School in London performed, singing lofty spiralling odes in a truly angelic fashion.

Later on in the middle of town I had a quick look around the Canterbury Museum, an odd arrangement of historical detritus and bric-a-brac. Apart from the obligatory Becket-themed paintings from the Victorian era, the highlight for me was a curious pair of ultra-thin chicken-skin gloves of uncertain age, along with the walnut shell they were stored in. Another wing of the museum is devoted to the infantry regiment known as the Buffs. In it, a scrap of paper bears a strikingly personal note from the Napoleonic Wars. It is the sombre last note of Capt Joseph Fenwick, written in his own blood:

I am shot thro the body and arms for God’s sake send me a surgeon English if possible if I do not recover God bless you all

There were no surgeons able to reach Fenwick before he died in Spain, in December 1810.

As the afternoon drew to a close I paid a visit to the site of St Augustine’s Abbey, which was founded in the 6th century. Little remains of the original buildings, and even the remnants of the 12th century Norman abbey are limited, so the audio guide is important to understanding how the history of the abbey is reflected in the site. Four kings of Kent were buried here, and to the side of the nave lie the gravesites of the first four abbots, starting with St Augustine himself, who died in 609AD. The main culprit to be blamed for the fragmentary nature of the abbey is Henry VIII of course, because by the 16th century St Augustine’s was the fourteenth richest abbey in England, and in the huge campaign of the Dissolution the abbey was stripped of its wealth and turned into a soon-forgotten royal residence. By the 1840s the overgrown remains of the abbey were used by a publican as a beer garden, which led a Victorian MP to organise a campaign to buy back the site and begin the process of restoring it into some shadow of its former splendour.

While the quiet abbey grounds were a pleasant relief from the busy cathedral, the park setting of Canterbury Castle, a 13th-century square keep just inside the city walls, was even quieter. Now just a shell of rugged walls open to the elements, the Castle is close to the man-made hill in Dane John Gardens where its wooden motte-and-bailey predecessor was built by William the Conqueror formerly stood. The gardens’ name is derived from the conquering Normans’ name for the keep, the donjon.

That evening I was reminded of the perils of staying at YHAs in Britain, because the angelic voices of the school choir I had seen in the cathedral that day had been transformed into squawking excitability and the elderly dwelling rang with the stampeding footsteps and serial door-slamming that is the hallmark of eight year-olds everywhere. As it turns out, they quietened down reasonably quickly after about 10.30pm, but the less said about their rowdy 6.30am start, the better…

On my second full day in Kent I bought an all-day bus pass to venture further afield. First stop was the pretty village of Chilham, perched on a gentle slope about 25 minutes west of Canterbury. Its pretty street is very sensibly named ‘The Street’, and features plenty of Tudor houses with obligatory rose gardens and ivy. There’s a pub at the bottom and another at the top, on the village square. This presumably was once a traditional village green, but is now paved and used as a carpark. At one end of the square is sweeping grounds and the stately home known as Chilham Castle – a family dwelling not open to the public. At the other end of the square sits the peaceful medieval St Mary’s Church with its 18th century gravestones, and carved inscriptions on stone arches above the church doors reading “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength” and “thou Lord hast never failed them that seek thee”. One gravestone is crowned with two morbid skull-and-crossbones symbolising mortality, and marks the resting place of Elizabeth Luckett, who died aged 29 in January 1729. As I stepped between the ragged tombstones the church clocktower struck midday, the peals ringing out across the village.

After taking the bus back to Canterbury, I hopped on another service to the coast to see the seaside town of Herne Bay, namesake of the moneyed suburb in Auckland. Unfortunately the grey skies and blustery chilly weather failed to enhance the rather drab atmosphere and grim architecture. Two observations on Herne Bay: it has a shop seemingly selling only imperfect duvets; and the town streets exhibit a strange profusion of dachshunds. One saving grace for the town was the vintage car and motorbike fair that had taken over the town’s pedestrian arcades for the day. About ten English-made Panther coupes sparkled from hours of polishing as proud owners sat in canvas deckchairs, basking in the envy of car fans. A superb swoop-backed 1948 Cadillac in pearly white glammed it up alongside a picture-perfect pale yellow Packard Eight roadster with brown running trim.

Then it was a 15 minute bus ride along the coast to the fishing port of Whitstable, which is much more likeable than Herne Bay. Stretching along the beachfront east of town is the town’s famous collection of brightly-painted wooden beach huts, row upon row of candy-striped holiday shelters, some with little balconies and overhanging porch roofs to protect from the sun or the occasional English summer rainshower. In the centre of town is a working fishing port replete with seafood stalls and sailing clubs. I passed an English family daring their young daughter to eat an oyster whole – as I walked past she tilted her head back and tipped the oyster in her mouth, and then quickly spat it back onto the plate, giggling wildly. After exploring the town I headed back to Canterbury to round out the evening listening to an excellent radio adaptation of George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ – tales of urban poverty and deprivation that put my gripes about noisy hostel kids and the ubiquitous dormitory snorers into sharp relief. Mind you, look what it did for George Orwell.

Oh, and did you know that Orlando Bloom comes from Canterbury? Fancy that.

01 May 2007

Professional absurdism

Last week I enjoyed a brief glimpse into the cosy UK celebrity circus, when Richard and I attended a very enjoyable evening recording session for the BBC Radio 2 comedy panel programme, ‘Does The Team Think’. Recorded at the University of London Union theatre, the programme is hosted by 90s comedy stalwart and professional absurdist Vic Reeves. His guest panellists, whose job it is to respond to the ‘Does the team think…’ queries of audience members, had a strong comedy pedigree too. The elder statesman of the team was Paul Whitehouse of ‘Harry Enfield’s Television Programme’ and ‘Fast Show’ fame, now appearing on TV again on the entertaining (but feebly-named) sketch show ‘Ruddy Hell! It’s Harry and Paul’. Likeable bald geezer Andy Parsons, sweet-natured fabulist Lucy Porter, muso media radio type Rowland Rivron (formerly of the louche lounge act called Raw Sex on ‘French & Saunders’), and hyperactive posh comedian Michael Mcintyre all provided quality material too. The nonsensical conversations covered the joys of misleading American tourists, the danger of wearing stiletto heels near lazy cats, the lack of upper-class footballers in the Premiership, and how young people should refrain from playing tinny music on buses, and instead sing church madrigals to entertain their fellow passengers.

On the bus back to Victoria after the show a severe-looking mother with three little kids was having trouble keeping them in order, and proceeded to shout down the bus aisle at an errant daughter. “Blaze!”, she cried. “Get back ‘ere!”. I wonder if Blaze will ever become Prime Minister with a name like that.

On Thursday night I ventured into the wilds of the ultra-trendy and knowingly down-at-heel Hoxton for a flamenco guitar recital with my boss Anne and her husband Bob. Melange, the cafĂ© where the recital was held, contained an arty mix of stylish Continentals, who were all enthralled by the playing of the maestro, Tony Rowden. His style of playing was more subtle than the appealingly vigorous jams of Rodrigo Y Gabriela, and generally focused on classical guitar pieces by composers like Scarlatti, detouring briefly into the 20th century to feature some Ennio Morricone. The performance was accompanied by a carefully-chosen blend of tapas and a series of wines hand-picked by an American sommelier with platinum-blonde hair like Aimee Mann’s. Alas I had to depart before the end, so I was unable to enjoy the artisanship of chocolatier Isabelle…

On Saturday I encountered the rare treat of watching Australia batting in a one-day international but actually being able to enjoy it, because New Zealand wasn’t on the receiving end. It was the World Cup Final against Sri Lanka, and Adam Gilchrist’s insane batting masterclass was brutal and audacious. As it turned out, I was glad to have missed the second innings that led to Sri Lanka’s eventual defeat, given the shambolic umpiring that occurred.

On Sunday I went into Pall Mall to photograph some of the supercars lined up on the starting grid for the Gumball Rally charity race across Europe. Not to be content with Ferraris and Posches, two highlights for me were the brushed-aluminium Lamborghini with Arabic plates, and the ludicrously powerful Bugatti Veyron with its shark-mouthed air intake and 400km/h top speed: a snip at a mere £750,000.

Later that evening I took in Clint Eastwood’s WWII film, Letters From Iwo Jima, the Japanese-perspective companion film to the American view portrayed in Flags Of Our Fathers. Based on a story by Japanese writer Iris Yamashita, the film benefits from strong performances, particularly from the versatile Ken Watanabe as the commanding general on the island. The cinematography also impresses, with washed-out colours highlighting the alien environment of the isolated island and counterpointing the grim violence inflicted by both sides. This is a more conventional war tale than Flags, but this is no criticism. Ultimately, the two films complement each other perfectly, combining to create a well-rounded picture of a ruinous and bloody junction of the Japanese Empire’s dying days.