28 January 2008

Winter kept us warm

On Friday after work I met Raewyn and Mike in Southwark for a drink in a pub and dinner at the Young Vic. We chatted about Raewyn's new job in Dulwich, Mike's parents' new house in Whakatane and R & M's plans to return to New Zealand at some stage this year. I can recommend the Vic's Russian sausages - very tasty.

The next day the skies were sunny and cloudless, so I decided to venture out of town to take advantage of the good weekend weather. I took a bus to Clapham and boarded the express to Brighton to enjoy some bracing sea air. The train journey only takes an hour, and soon I was wandering down Queen's Road to the beachfront, noticing the lively mix of Brighton's Saturday shoppers, including plenty of studded and pierced students who flock to study here.

I enjoyed a stroll along the strand, watching council workers slowly clearing the stony beach of the hundreds of processed timber planks that floated ashore along the south coast after the cargo ship Ice Prince sank recently. Now the wood is stacked neatly like huge funeral pyres along the brownstone beach, and the work crews gradually cart more and more away to be sold. Here and there locals had used the planks to spell out their names in giant letters or to skid their skateboards along.

Wandering back through the town, I paid a visit to the town museum and gallery. Its collection includes a wooden 19th century Maori ancestor carving from a whare nui. Upstairs there were other curiosities, including an aged flybill for the Brighton to London horse-drawn coach service, a cast of the head and foot of the extinct dodo, and posters from the heyday of the Brighton Pier: 'Ronnie Corbett in The Corbett Follies! Dick Emery and the Barron Knights!'

I paused to take some photos of the splendidly elaborate onion-domes of the town's greatest architectural excess: Prince George's Royal Pavilion (1823) ... but I didn't go in again (I visited in 1997 during my tour of the south coast), because it costs ₤7.70 and they don't let you take pictures inside. Maybe next time. Instead I went to take some pictures of the West Pier, which collapsed in 2002 and now lies derelict, although there are plans - as yet unfunded - to build an impressive viewing tower nearby. Below is my favourite shot of the day - taken in Brighton station on the way back to London:

At home that evening I enjoyed watching 'QI' (Stephen Fry's clever panel show; it stands for Quite Interesting) and 'Green Wing'. Later BBC2 screened Woody Allen's Match Point with Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, so I gave that a go. While I can understand Allen wanting to work with Scarlett, the script of this film really wasn't sufficiently interesting: the stilted dialogue was unrealistic and the portrayals of the English aristocracy seemed superficial and cliched. When Rhys-Meyers' character - who is meant to be Irish - asks his secretary for 'two ahrspirins' I just about shouted at the telly in annoyance. No-one talks like that! Perhaps the chance to put Scarlett in two Allen-scripted movies at the same time (he also made Scoop in London with her) exhausted Woody's writing reservoirs.

Today was a low-key one, although it was another sunny winter's day. After a quick visit to the Fopp store in Shaftesbury Avenue to buy some cheap books and a comedy DVD ('Stella Street', the one with a load of impersonated celebs - Jagger, Caine, Nicholson, Bowie - all living in a suburban London street) I met Steve and Fiona for coffee at Sacred, where we discussed the possibility of meeting up on a tour of Russia this summer. Fingers crossed that it works out, because it would be a great opportunity to see St Petersburg and Moscow for the first time.

This past week proved to be a lively one for infrastructual reasons. On Tuesday the building I work in had its water supply disconnected, and the chief executive sent everyone home. But my team couldn't depart because we had an important paper to complete and distribute. Lucky the British Museum has excellent toilets only just around the corner! That night I got home to discover that our hot water cylinder had developed a fault, so we were without the central heating and hot water in the taps for two nights. The trusty hot water bottle was pressed into duty and staved off the chills, and fortunately the shower worked fine as it was electric rather than gas-heated.

And congratulations must go out to Bec & Hugh in Tawa, who are the proud parents of baby Isla Bernadette Foley. Well played, chaps!


'Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers'
- T.S. Eliot

p.s. No snow here, but plenty of tubers... mmm, chips...

21 January 2008

In praise of Once

After work on Wednesday this week I noticed that the Prince Charles was screening the Irish film Once, so I took the opportunity to see it a second time, having originally seen it with Craig and Claire in Shaftesbury Avenue a few months ago. On first look, the film is a tiny gem, a thoroughly enjoyable evocation of the simple beauty of great songs performed honestly with verve and passion. The second time around, Once impressed again - its two immensely appealing lead actors, Glen Hansard (of the Irish band The Frames) and young Marketa Irglova are both effortlessly talented and give likeable performances, there are ample opportunities to laugh at the film's low-key humour, and the songs they composed and delivered live to camera in the film are deft singer-songwriter material. Particular favourites include a swooping paean to lost love, Falling Slowly (see link below for a performance on Letterman: America has well and truly embraced Once) and the surging urgency of When Your Mind's Made Up, which we see being commited to tape in the recording studio. And life truly imitates art, because now Hansard and Irglova are a couple in real life. Aww.

This weekend I was fairly out-and-about, having resolved to be more proactive and to take advantage of as much as possible in this busy city. On Saturday I took in the open day at the Middle and Inner Temple, two of the ancient Inns of Court of London (Chaucer wrote of them in 1381). Normally closed to the general public, the Inns had cast open their doors as part of the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the royal charter granted by James I. Of most interest was the Temple Church with its stone effigies of knights rising from the stone floor, and the Middle Temple Hall, its dark wood panels decked with hundreds of family crests of former members, and a gigantic portrait of King James (from the school of van Dyk) holding pride of place at the head of the hall.

After the Temple I took the Tube south of the river to the Imperial War Museum to explore the war posters exhibition, Weapons of Mass Communication. Some were familiar - 'Daddy, what did YOU do during the Great War?' - while others were more contemporary and comical, like the Blair-baiting Make Tea, Not War.

Today after perusing the shops in Hammersmith and availing myself of a pastry from Marks & Spencers I went to Greenwich to have a quick look at the exhibits (mainly the artworks) in the National Maritime Museum. There was time afterwards for a quick visit to Steve and Fiona's apartment two stops down on the DLR before I headed home to prepare for the week ahead.

Before I go, I can report that I've now booked my next two trips to the Continent. On Friday night I booked my week off in February - I'll be heading to Andalucia in southern Spain to explore and take advantage of the (hopefully) warmer weather. A month or so later I'll be zipping down to Naples for Easter, to take in the marvels of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and maybe Capri and the Amalfi Coast if there's time.


16 January 2008

Creatures and curiosities

Last week I ventured up to Holloway in north London after work with Felix and Gavin to a small low-ceilinged theatre for a Radio 4 recording of a new series called The Museum of Curiosity. It was hosted by the gently whimsical John Lloyd – producer of the legendary Blackadder series and the current Stephen Fry panel show, QI – and the quizzical bearded multi-media phenomenon that is comedian-musician Bill Bailey. The premise of the show is that the presenters are curators of a notional radio-based museum devoted to odd and interesting ideas, and each week they invite intriguing guests with big brains along to spin some ideas and propose appealing new curiosities to add to the museum’s exhibits.

The guests in our recording, the first of the series, were lecturers drawn from the sciences: a chemist, a mathematician and a physician. All three were excellent story-tellers and inspiring thinkers, but of the three it was a particular treat to see Dr Jonathan Miller, who is an eminent medical doctor, but who also attained renown in a sideline as a comedian with the groundbreaking Beyond The Fringe comedy troupe in the late 50s and early 60s – the same troupe that spawned the huge comedy careers of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (and Alan Bennett too). Miller’s nominated exhibit for the museum was a set of 14th century alabaster sculptures, which he described in glowing tones as a pinnacle of religious artwork, purified and amplified in a way by the slow decay and disappearance of their original painted decorations, and now a pristine angelic white. The chemist (who was also a physicist in his spare time) nominated the 18th century hypothetical substance known as ‘phlogiston’, which scientists of the day believed was the all-pervasive substance responsible for combustion, until the theory of oxygen replaced it. And the mathematician came up with ‘the monster’, a grandiloquently named conceptual mega-dimensional structure with several hundred thousand dimensions (as opposed to our usual three). This latter proposition enabled Bill Bailey to wax lyrical on the topic of 25-dimensional greengrocers, which is probably a first for Radio 4.

On Saturday I took the train into town (taking a slight detour via Wimbledon to avail myself of a traditional weekend Cornish pasty repast) to meet up with Richard, Sam and Otene in Soho for an authentic New Zealand cafĂ© experience at Sacred in Ganton Street. While I’m not really a coffee devotee, places like Sacred and its East Soho cousin, Flat White in Berwick Street, cater for the fussy Antipodeans who abhor London’s mass-production coffee barns. And it was nice to have a Lemon & Paeroa alongside my coffee too. We did a bit of catching up and later perused the shops in Carnaby Street while the winter sun lit up the clear blue skies.

The next morning I was due to meet up with Felix and Gavin again at South Kensington for a visit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. I left home in plenty of time, but then my District Line train was mysteriously switched from the city line to the Edgware Road branch, and in order to reach the museum in time for the entry time printed on the tickets I had to throw caution to the wind and jump in a black cab to whisk me from High Street Kensington to the museum. It got me there in time but ended up costing as much as the exhibition ticket! The photos themselves were excellent, displayed on individual lightboxes to highlight the remarkable colours and the clarity of the images.

The most dramatic image was a Russian photographer’s shot at water level in a remote Kamchatka stream:

“I’d been so busy taking pictures of the salmon in the Ozernaya River in southern Kamchatka, east Russia, that I didn’t notice the bear until it was a metre away. It was a terrible shock. I kept calm enough to take the picture, and only later did I realise how serious the situation was” – Sergey Gorshkov

The photo is of the half-submerged adult brown bear staring down imperiously into the puny photographer’s lens, his jowl dripping with rivulets of river water. A truly remarkable picture. There was plenty more of that quality too:

• An Italian songbird was pictured perched atop a bending flower stem adorned with a dew-covered spiderweb, its beak open in early morning song, and above its little head the condensation from its breath formed perfect tiny smoke-rings in the air.
• An adult and baby meerkat in the Kalahari Reserve in South Africa are transfixed by the prospect of breakfast, as a hornet crosses between them.
• An aerial shot of a dozen male grey narwhals feeding in a hole in the sea ice near Baffin Island, displaying their huge unicorn-like tusks.

But my favourite was probably Ari Tervo's picture from snowy Finland, in which a pure white stoat was snapped trying to lug away a small slice of bread left by the patient photographer. The stoat’s determination to make off with its prize is palpable, but the winning touch to the photograph is the two dagger-sharp incisors peeking over the top of the slice: “this is my lunch and I’m not letting go!”

This excellent photography exhibition is just the sort of thing that sends you scurrying into the camera shops in your lunchbreak to look at expensive cameras and lovely lenses…

01 January 2008

London's maritime heritage

In the spare days between arriving back from France and going back to work on the 2nd I decided to take advantage of my temporary house-sitting location to see some of the local attractions. On Saturday I took the DLR up to West India Quay in the heart of the Docklands to see the Museum in Docklands, which had free entry in the Christmas-New Year period. It focuses on the history of the Thames and its port from Roman Londinium through Saxon Lundenwic, medieval trade and the inhabited London Bridge to the present day. The highlights for me were the ship models, like these two - the first, a medieval river barge known as a 'shout', and the second, a Tudor cargo ship called the Susan Constant, which left Blackwall in 1606 as one of the three ships carrying the colonists who founded the Virginia colony in North America.

There were also a selection of photos from a Docklands shoot with the Beatles in Wapping, July 1968. The pictures were taken the day before they recorded 'Hey Jude'. Nice to see George at the front for once.

Yesterday I took a walk along the Thames in Greenwich to enjoy the architectural spectacle of the Old Royal Naval College and the Queen's House (1635). The twin neo-classical wings of the College are split by a grand promenade to allow the river views from the Queen's House, and they provide a beautiful setting for a stroll:

Inside the College's spectacular Painted Hall diners were surrounded by the most remarkable paintings on both the roof and walls, which took 19 years to complete. In 1806 the body of Horatio, Lord Nelson, lay in state here amidst this artistic splendour before his funeral in St Paul's Cathedral. The paintings are a joyous reminder of Britain's unparalleled maritime heritage.

Across the promenade in the College Chapel a choir trilled prettily. Near the door I noticed this memorial to events in faraway New Zealand, which resonated greatly for the residents of the Naval College - the February 1863 shipwreck of HMS Orpheus on the Manukau Bar in Auckland. The loss of 189 lives had a profound effect on the young colony, and was a big story when news reached London some five weeks later. Many of those who died were buried in the Onehunga Church cemetery that I used to wander through as a child.

Walking past a temporary icerink bedecked with skaters, and crossing Romney Road, I approached the entrance of the Queen's House. Nowadays it displays the art collection of the National Maritime Museum, with many excellent naval works. Here some of the works of Cook's expedition artist William Hodges depict some of the earliest European encounters with New Zealand, including the famous painting of four Maori at Cascade Cove, Dusky Bay, in 1775.


p.s. I should mention that on an expedition to the massive Asda hypermarket at Crossharbour on Christmas Eve the in-store radio station announcer read an hourly news bulletin that included the 'and finally' story about the drunken Santas in Christchurch who disrupted a movie screening. Finally, lasting fame for our national achievements.