30 May 2008

The great levels of sky and land

Above: Lincoln Castle's Georgian gaol, with Lincoln Cathedral in the background.

He talked to her endlessly about his love of horizontals: how they, the great levels of sky and land in Lincolnshire, meant to him the eternality of the will, just as the bowed Norman arches of the church, repeating themselves, meant the dogged leaping forward of the persistent human soul, on and on, nobody knows where; in contradiction to the perpendicular lines and to the Gothic arch, which, he said, leapt up at heaven and touched the ecstasy and lost itself in the divine.

- D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913)

Another bank holiday weekend had rolled across the United Kingdom, blanketing the nation with the opportunity, nay, the duty of citizens to disgorge themselves from the uniform rows of terraced housing and ex-council or still-council flats, and engorge themselves with a mighty feast of weekend breaks, Euro-hops and dirty weekends in the country. Not being in a position to engage in any of those forms of recreation, I had barely recovered from the feat of organising the last bank holiday travels, and so was faced with yet another opportunity for European adventurism gone begging due to a lack of prior organisation.

Resorting to the time-honoured technique of leaving things as late as possible and then organising things in a rush, I decided to stay in England and try to visit a part of the country I’d not been to before. One drawcard in favour of Lincolnshire aside from not having been there before was the prospect of visiting Lincoln Cathedral: there has been a swathe of cathedral architecture programmes on BBC4 lately, and it has featured prominently due to its impressive prospect, dominating the entire city from the slopes. So, Lincoln for the long weekend it was.

But before that, Saturday was spent on the vital cultural pursuits and general messing about in London. This involved checking out the Telectroscope, going to see Son Of Rambow (‘…skill!’) and watching the ever-unfolding yet strangely unmissable travesty of light entertainment that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Once upon a time there was a proud British tradition of cheering Cliff Richard, Sandie Shaw or Lulu on to victory in Europe. But these days the taste barometer has swung firmly eastwards, and no country west of the former Iron Curtain has won since 2000. The very few points offered to the doughty UK performer, Andy ‘Former Bin-Man’ Abrahams left his restrained 70s soul number 'Even If' teetering in equal second-last place. In fact without a ringing endorsement from the voters of first-time Eurovision participant San Marino (population 30,000), the UK would have been dead last. Nothing like a bit of politics amidst the cheesy pop songs to keep the crowd entertained.

Back to the travelling! The northwards train was scheduled to depart from King’s Cross on Sunday morning, and with the usual sense of decorum the entire complement of hundreds of passengers were queued in a massive snaking coil running around the entire radius of the station. With five minutes to go until the train departed for Peterborough and all points north to Edinburgh (don’t miss your stop, d'ye ken?) the platform gates were opened and everyone scrambled to wedge themselves and their lumbering wheelie bags on board the train. In a happy miracle of constructive chaos, everyone more or less reached their correct seat and more or less stowed their luggage away, and the train was able to set off on time.

After a little over an hour and two stops the train reached the bleak platform at Newark North Gate, which is famous for precisely nothing, and is where I clambered out and waited for a connecting service on the branch line to Lincoln. After ten minutes a little two-carriage train rattled up and took aboard a dozen or two passengers for the 45 minute trip through the flat pastures of Lincolnshire to the county town, halfway between Newark and the North Sea coast.

As the train drew closer to my destination it was plain to see why the Romans picked out the site for a settlement – the ridgeline on which the old town is built is a rare outburst of altitude that dominates the plains of Lincolnshire. The Church knew a good thing when it saw it too, because atop this prominent ridge lies Lincoln’s greatest treasure – the proud jutting towers of Lincoln Cathedral, visible for miles around and a visible beacon for the whole county.

I collected my bag and walked from the train station up the High Street past all the bustling Sunday shoppers. Soon the gradient increased and the High Street became Steep Street, with its two 12th century houses and conveniently placed benches to rest upon if pedestrians tire themselves out. Reaching the crest of the hill I passed the cathedral on my right and the castle on my left and walked on through the Roman arch at the north end of the old town. (William the Conqueror would’ve ridden through this gate on his return from visiting far-flung York during the early years of his reign).

I reached my destination for the night, the Good Lane B&B – a cosy place with friendly proprietors. I deposited my bag in my room and ventured back into the town for some proper sightseeing.

Lincoln Cathedral
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

The obvious first destination was the striking Lincoln Cathedral. William the Conqueror first ordered its construction, and with the later embellishment of a massive central spire it was reputedly the tallest building in the world from 1300 until 1549, when the spire blew down in a storm. It was never replaced, but the interior of the cathedral still tells the story of a town that was once England’s second wealthiest city.

Near the beautiful rain of colour of the cathedral’s east window in a prominent position lies the tomb of Eleanor of Castile, Queen of England, who died in nearby Harby in 1290.

East window
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Although Eleanor was buried in Westminster, the tomb in Lincoln Cathedral is said to contain her viscera (eww, etc.). It is from Eleanor that we have the name of Charing Cross in London, because her body was transported in daily stages from Lincoln to Westminster, and at each nightly resting place King Edward (the first; Edward Longshanks) erected a mourning cross. The last of these crosses was at Charing, which later became identified as Charing Cross, the notional centre of London.

While I explored the cathedral its choristers began practicing their hymns, sending ethereal notes wafting through the spacious environs.

Originally uploaded by eT le snap

I explored the chapter house with its impressive rose window, and the cloisters, where some suitably cruciform trelliswork caught my eye (see above). On the way out I was impressed by the rugged bulk of the Norman font adorned with carved dragons that was brought to the cathedral from Tournai in 1145. I’d been unable to get a close look on the way in because it was in use for a family christening, showing that Lincoln is still a busy working church for the local community.

Braving the ever-increasing showers of rain, I walked the short distance to Lincoln Castle, where according to Henry VIII’s courts, his fifth wife Catherine Howard carried on her affair with young courtier Thomas Culpeper. (This letter from Howard to Culpeper was later produced as evidence against them).

Roman cavalry archer
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Once inside its impressive 12th century encircling walls I noticed an Roman cavalry exhibition on the castle green, by the Comitatus Roman re-enactment society. Four cavalry officers in a variety of equestrian armour and ten legionary infantrymen were putting on a display of Roman cavalry tactics for the small and rather soggy crowd. In the wet conditions the horses could spook easily, and one cavalryman was thrown from the saddle and was lucky to avoid being trodden on by his mount. They put on an entertaining demonstration of mounted archery and showed how horses could be trained to push their way through human obstacles, which would’ve been handy when an officer was running late for a hot date at the Forum.

The castle has an even longer history than the nearby cathedral. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports this for the year 1067, the year after the Battle of Hastings gave William I the throne of England:

Then the king was informed that the people in the north were gathered together and meant to make a stand against him if came. He then went to Nottingham and built a castle there, and so went to York and there built two castles, and in Lincoln and everywhere in that district.

In one darkened room (absolutely no photos!) lies the castle’s most valuable possession: one of only four remaining copies of the original Magna Carta from 1215 (the other three are in the House of Lords, the British Museum and Salisbury Cathedral). This particular copy was on loan to the 1939 New York World Fair and was kept in Fort Knox for the duration of World War Two to keep it safe for future generations.

The castle served as a prison from 1787 until 1878, and at the heart of the Georgian gaol is the world’s only remaining separatist chapel. For a time in the 1840s and 50s inmates were not permitted to converse with each other at any time, and the chapel was constructed so that prisoners could only see the chaplain.

Separatist chapel
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

The emphasis of the separate system was firmly based on punishment rather than rehabilitation. The system denied the prisoners any human contact and male prisoners had to wear leather masks when outside their cells. They were also made to do endless tasks such as picking oakum (unravelling old ropes to make material for caulking the decks of ships) or cranking a screw within a bed of sand - prison warders got their derogatory name from this practice. Not surprisingly, many convicts went mad or attempted suicide under this regime.

Visitors to the castle can see the unique chapel in its original state - it did not change even after the discrediting of the 'separate system' in the 1850s. An ingenious arrangement meant that each prisoner occupied a seat contained by tall hinged screens. They filed into position one by one and then an officer could operate a mechanism that locked the screens in place, giving each prisoner a view of the pulpit and nothing else.

(Source: Lincolnshire County Council)

The chapel seats in each booth were even constructed at a 45 degree angle so the prisoners could not obtain any relaxation during the long sermons.

The castle was the site of many hangings, which were conducted in public until this practice was outlawed in 1868. One such case is reported in this flybill from 1822:

Perhaps Rogers was kept in this medieval cell before his execution.

Lincoln Castle
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

After the public hanging he may well have been buried atop the ancient and lonely mound of the Lucy Tower, where tiny gravestones now mark the final resting places of criminals executed on the castle’s walls.

After some more wandering around Lincoln in the rain I retired to the B&B to watch Walk The Line on my very own little TV. A nice way to round out the day.


Bank holiday Monday dawned clearer and warmer than the day before, and after a lavish breakfast at the B&B I headed back down into town for further exploration. It was a better day to capture the beauty of the cathedral against a fresh blue sky, for one thing.

It was also a good opportunity to visit the ruined Bishop’s Palace next to the cathedral. Construction of the palace began here in the late 12th century, and English Heritage sums up its importance:

Standing almost in the shadow of Lincoln cathedral, with sweeping views over the ancient city and the countryside beyond, the medieval bishops' palace was once among the most important buildings in the country. The administrative centre of the largest diocese in medieval England, stretching from the Humber to the Thames, its architecture reflected the enormous power and wealth of the bishops as princes of the church.

Ruined medieval kitchen
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

The palace fell into disrepair in the aftermath of the Dissolution and the damage caused by the Civil War. Nowadays an excellent audio guide talks visitors through the many chambers and unroofed halls. The actor playing a priest on the audio guide explains in fruity, mellifluous tones how the palace worked in its heyday. And it was a place of real power – both Henry VIII and James I visited here.

After lunch I made my way to the train station for an afternoon visiting another Lincolnshire town – the former port of Boston. En route I was surprised to note that Lincolnshire children are remarkably well-behaved on public transport, at least compared to children in London, who are wont to caterwaul and litter whilst filling train carriages with the tinny ‘tsh-tsh’ of MP3s emanating from cheap mobile phones. Well, okay, Lincolnshire kids did the phone music thing too, but they were actually talking quietly amongst themselves while they did it. They used unheard-of words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when addressing each other! To quote Ben Elton in ‘The Young Ones’:

Neil's Father: Now why couldn't you be in one of those nice situation comedies that your mother likes. Like, uh, what's the thing called...?
Vyvyan: Grange Hill!
Neil's Father: Yes! That's the one.
[Scene changes to School Corridor. Two school boys run in.]
Ben Elton: So that's settled. We'll organise a protest against school uniforms!
Spaz: Great! We can use the banners left over from the last protest we organised, so that racism wouldn't be an issue in this school.
Ben Elton: Good idea. I'll get Mucka, Ducka, Trucka and Sucka, and you get Spaz.
Spaz: But I am Spaz!
Ben Elton: Oh. I better get him as well then. Come on!
[They run into a teacher.]
Spaz: Oh! Sorry, Mr. Liberal. We were just on our way to...
Mr. Liberal: Now wait a minute, you two. Don't you realise that the way you act is influencing millions of children to talk Cockney and be insubordinate?
Ben Elton: Oh, come on, sir. We're the only kids in Britain who never say f—k!

Well, okay, they did actually say f—k, but only once or twice, and only in quite a genteel fashion. Wait, where was I before I went off on a tangent? Oh yes, Boston

The town was once the second-wealthiest port in England after London, and it grew rich on the wool trade with Europe and the Baltic. Nowadays it’s a quiet country town of about 35,000, but it makes the most of its historic connections with America, because it was in Boston in 1607 that the men who would become the Pilgrim Fathers were tried and imprisoned. While this proved a major setback for their plans to emigrate to the New World to escape religious persecution, they were later joined in Massachusetts by economic migrants from the town, which gave its name to a settlement that would later become the metropolis of Boston (population approximately 4.3 million).

The town has preserved its old guildhall where the Pilgrim Fathers were tried, and it’s now decked out as an enjoyable small museum detailing the mercantile life of the town, its history as a courthouse and the brief appearance of the Pilgrims. On the ground floor there’s two small cells in which a plaque proclaims the Pilgrims were imprisoned, but it’s more likely they were banged up somewhere else in Boston, because some evidence suggests that the cells weren’t constructed until the 18th century. For an interesting backgrounder on the Pilgrims of 1607, see this article from the Smithsonian magazine in 2006.

The Boston Stump
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Boston’s other main noteworthy site is its impressive church, St Botolph’s, which is better known as the ‘Boston Stump’ due to its lack of a spire. It was built from the 14th to the 16th century, and still evokes the Bostonian pride of the town’s wealthier days.

16th century memorial
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

A memorial caught my eye – this stamped brass plaque to Richard Bolle, a former Sheriff of Lincolnshire who died aged 85 on 6 February 1591. This is probably the oldest memorial that I’ve seen in English – most of the earlier memorials to wealthy citizens are in Latin.

Soon enough it was time to return to Lincoln, so I boarded the train back to the town of Sleaford, where I waited for a tiny one-carriage train to trundle back up the line to Lincoln.

There I collected my bag and scoffed a quick bite of dinner at a Wetherspoon’s pub – my first visit to such an establishment since I’ve been back, if I remember correctly – and then began the journey back to the capital, having enjoyed explored a part of rural England rich in history and character.


p.s. Okay, I confess that I haven't actually read 'Sons And Lovers'...

25 May 2008

The fantastical Telectroscope

The Telectroscope
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
Initially foreshadowed by the appearance of a massive drill bit emerging from the flagstones outside City Hall, Paul St George's huge Telectroscope juts out of the South Bank and points directly at Tower Bridge. Its twin sits at Fulton Ferry Landing in New York, pointing at the Brooklyn Bridge. Each Telectroscope is supposed to be the end of a gigantic trans-Atlantic tunnel linked with a live video feed so passers-by can wave to each other across the Atlantic in real time. There's no audio though, so each end has a white-board and markers for notes to be scrawled on. If you're in London or New York, the installation is open 24 hours a day until 15 June.

21 May 2008

At the home of cricket

On Saturday and Sunday I went with friends to Lord's, the home of cricket, to watch the third and fourth day of the first test match between England and New Zealand. On Saturday I went with a large bunch of friends who were scattered around the lower Compton Stand, which is an area of cheaper seating in the northern corner of the ground. Tickets there cost a mere ₤40 (!) as opposed to the general ticket price of ₤60 in most of the other seats.

There's a reason for the price - the grey craggy bulk of the Compton stands looms close overhead cutting out any sunlight and creating a wind-tunnel effect that sends icy blasts whistling in from the Nursery Ground. But while the overall effect is akin to watching cricket from the vantage point of a 1950s East German bus depot, there's certainly nothing to complain about when you look at the view across the pitch - clear, unobstructed sightlines from third man with a good angle on the wicket.

It's soon obvious that this is not your typical New Zealand cricket ground either. The place is heaving with the monied scions of Eton, many of whom sport designer suits in fawn or brown with matching socks, while the older patrons who have outlived the 18 year waiting list to become a member of the MCC (founded in 1787) sport its garish circus-tent colours on blazers, ties and sometimes even trousers; for the particularly proud members it's even socially acceptable to wear all three, thereby necessitating dark glasses for any passers-by to avoid temporary blindness.

The polite and patient stewards have a hard time reminding some patrons that the ground has a different set of rules to most venues. For a start, no-one's allowed to re-take their seats during an over, so an orderly queue forms at the back of the stand and hopes that the bloody bowler gets it through quickly and doesn't bowl any no-balls. And in a pleasing glimpse of Luddite refusenik thinking, talking on mobile phones is barred from the stands. You can text if you like as long as the beeping doesn't disturb anyone, but Lord's is one of the few places in England where the all-conquering mobile phone conversation has yet to stamp its irritating authority.

As for the game itself, Saturday proved to be a damp squib. A happy gaggle of ex-Wellingtonians mustered for the occasion: Richard, Steve, Fiona, Felix and Gavin. Commencing the day's play on 68/0 in response to New Zealand's first innings total of 277, England were only able to bat for 53 balls - less than ten overs - in the first session before rain and poor light washed the rest of the day out, leaving the score at 89/0. For we spectators it proved to be a rather grim day of shivering underneath the Compton stand hoping against hope that the weather would clear up enough for play to resume. In the end perhaps it was fortunate that it didn't, because under the MCC's rules ticket-holders are entitled to a full refund if there is less than ten overs bowled during a day's play. So despite the miserable cold - breath condensing in front of our faces - and the lack of play, at least those who attended were able to soak up a little of the atmosphere of the famous ground without the irritation of being substantially out of pocket.

NZ sighting of the day: Former Speaker of the House Doug Kidd, waiting outside St John's Wood tube

England's openers, Cook and Strauss, emerge from the Pavilion at the start of play

New Zealand's Chris Martin returns to field at third man

Umpires Taufel and Bucknor confer with ground staff at 4pm. No play.

Sunday, the fourth day of the test, was much clearer and a full day's play was possible. It was still cold under the Compton though, rest assured. I was joined by former CC colleague Greg, who worked in the Parliamentary Library when I was in the SCO, and his brother Jarrod. For both of them it was their first time at Lord's.

As the day progressed New Zealand broke the England opening stand at 121 and then proceeded to chip away at the home side's batting, whittling down the opposition so that at one point with England 208/6 a first innings lead looked possible. But Vaughan knuckled down and played some fine strokes to make his 18th test century. When he perished for 106 going for a boundary, England had made 319 - a lead of 42 runs but it had taken England a long time to accumulate. Vettori had led the bowling attack from the front by taking 69/5, his 14th five-wicket bag in tests. Then the New Zealand openers were put under pressure in the remaining overs before stumps, but emerged unscathed with the New Zealand second innings score at 40/0.

NZ sighting of the day: Former NZ bowling star Gavin Larsen (wearing a Black Caps shirt), who I walked into the ground behind.

The New Zealanders emerge at the start of Day 4

19-year-old New Zealand bowler Tim Southee

Celebrating the wicket of Strauss (lbw bowled Oram for 63)

Vettori waxes lyrical

The bookie's odds for the afternoon session

The next and final day How would compile 68 and Oram would go on to collect 101 runs, his fifth test century, which saved the match and earned New Zealand a fighting draw, despite early predictions in the English media that it would be a walkover for the home side. England failed to assert control over the match and their statistically superior quality seldom emerged.

Despite the weather and the lack of play on Saturday, it was a real treat to have been able to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the civilised environs better known to the rich and famous (Mick Jagger was there on Day 1). Now all we need is some sunshine in the remaining matches and it will turn out to be an exciting series! And for the most optimistic of New Zealand supporters, an unlikely test win in one of the remaining two matches would be the answer to all our hopes.

Cricinfo: Scorecard & reports

p.s. Just in case you were wondering and getting a bit het up about it, there's definitely an apostrophe in "Lord's" - it's named after its founder, Thomas Lord.

19 May 2008

When Smokey sings, I hear violence

Here And Now Tour 2008 - The Very Best of the 80s
Wembley Arena
16 May 2008

The gold-suited 80s pop group ABC contributed to the genre of wilfully mis-heard lyrics with the above classic from 'When Smokey Sings' ("...I hear violins"), but on Friday night they also contributed to a revivification of long-relegated pop careers from the decade that Reagan forgot, the 1980s. ABC joined six other 80s British pop sensations for the Here And Now 1980s showcase gig on Friday 16 May. For some of the acts it was the first time they had played Wembley (well, the Arena anyway – capacity 12,750, not the much larger Wembley Stadium next door).

Tapping into the 30-something flashback zeitgeist of classic hits radio, School Disco franchise club nights and Guilty Pleasures kitsch-worshipping, it’s suddenly possible for the people with money in their pockets and baby-sitters on speed-dial to re-live their youth by seeing the favourite pop bands of their school days live on stage. The quid pro quo is that faded artists with relatively limited pulling power and back-breaking mortgages to pay have been able to club together to perform highly lucrative and surprisingly popular concert tours many years after the pop spotlight has shifted to younger, prettier targets.

Wembley (…Arena) was heaving with around ten thousand largely female Friday night concert-goers. Many were on hen nights and so therefore sported the regulation hen night uniform of plastic bunny-ears with multi-coloured disco strobe light effects playing up and down the ears, a look guaranteed to deck legions of marauding epileptics in one fell swoop.

The running order was devised on the basis of minute-by-minute chronology (‘Rick Astley to take the stage at 22:07’) and a hierarchy loosely based on the number of record sales and top 40 hits each artist had scored. (Perfect for a pop trainspotter like me!) So the first half of the showcase featured four pocket-sized pop bands, while the three heavy hitters were reserved for the second half. A well-rehearsed band provided the backing for all the acts, while a curiously undynamic MC provided the introductions. You’d think a billing pulling in about ₤350,000 might warrant a bit more razzamatazz from the man up front, who came across as if he was a lighting technician asked to step in at the last minute to introduce the acts.

The first act, Cutting Crew (two UK top 40 hits), warmed things up with their full repertoire. They performed both their hits and then sodded off, presumably keeping their contractual arrangements by not hanging around a minute too long. Fortunately, both their well-known songs are actually worth remembering: the blaring synths of (I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight, which hit the top of the charts in the US and Canada in 1986, and the cheesy romance of I’ve Been In Love Before.

In their day smartly-dressed Johnny Hates Jazz (four UK top 40 hits) aimed for the cool end of the pop spectrum, if there is such a thing. Unfeasibly-named singer Clark Datchler fronted them at their peak, but left the band in 1988, illustrating the fractured line-ups of many of the acts performing. But the 2008 version of JHJ put in a strong performance of three of the singles from their catchy 1988 album ‘Shattered Dreams’ – I Don’t Want To Be A Hero, Turn Back The Clock, and the smash hit title track, which reached #5 in the UK and #2 in the US. They claimed that this was not only the first time that they’d played Wembley (…er, Arena), but it was also only their third gig ever, which raised eyebrows. And, to illustrate the ruthless setlist selection policy, they didn’t play the jazzy Heart of Gold, presumably because it was the lowest-charting of their four UK hits.

Next up was the splendidly-named but daftly-titfered Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot, formerly the lead singer of Curiosity Killed The Cat (three UK top 40 hits). If Curiosity was a sensation then it was one sensation that largely passed me by, but V-P must’ve had friends in the right places because he got a surprisingly long five-song set to fill with his pre-Jamiroquai funky pop interlinked with rambling stoner burbling. It seems V-P had the right street cred, because not only did their first video Misfit feature Andy Warhol re-enacting the card-flipping motif of the film for Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues (see the video below, at 3:10), but the recurring chorus of their 1989 single Name And Number went on to greater fame in De La Soul’s Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey): ‘Hey, how you doing, sorry you can’t get through – why don’t you leave your name and your number and I’ll get back to you’. In V-P’s set Name And Number was first up and the set closed with his cover of Johnny Bristol’s Hang On In There Baby, which was pleasant enough but veered close to being an unsubtle crib of You To Me Are Everything by The Real Thing.

The last act of the first half was a real highlight for me, a proud owner of The Lexicon Of Love CD reissue: the Sheffield synthpop romantics ABC (ten UK top 40 hits), fronted by shiny-suited Martin Fry, a cut-price Bryan Ferry with a knack for dramatic vocals and writing quality pop. Things started to get more professional here – ABC even brought along backing vocalists to flesh out their sound. Leading with the dead-certain floor filler, Poison Arrow, ABC were on top form. Moving from the exultation of the opening song to the solid Tears Are Not Enough and All Of My Love, the band saved its best for the end – the ringing brass stings of the Smokey Robinson tribute When Smokey Sings, followed by the tremendous intelligent pop classic from 1982, The Look Of Love:

And though my friends just might ask me
They say Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love
I say maybe, there must be a solution
To the one thing, the one thing, we can’t find

That’s the look, that’s the look
The look of love
That’s the look, that’s the look
The look of love!

After the intermission the stage was handed to clean-cut, formerly mulleted white soul boy Paul Young (14 UK top 40 hits), who entertained with his still-strong voice and some deft mic-stand twirling. Opening with the cod-African beats of Love Of The Common People and following up with Come Back And Stay, Young then forced an unwitting audience to endure his duet with Italian singer Zucchero, Senza Una Donna, which matched the Italian’s name in its sickly-sweet romanticism, and the rather anodyne I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down. Better was to come, with a graceful yet crotch-endangering slide across the stage and a proper quality ballad to finish his set with: 1985’s Every Time You Go Away, which would’ve been a lighters-aloft moment in the 80s, but now due to health and safety regulations it’s probably only a mobile-phones aloft moment, which doesn’t have quite the same effect.

The penultimate act of the night got the female audience positively cooing with excitement – it was the original ladette pop combo, Bananarama (24 (24!!) UK top 40 hits). Named after a Roxy Music track (Pyjamarama) and exhibiting all of their shambolic former karaoke-style glory, the group is now a mere duo, but realistically there’s not a great deal required to put on a good Bananarama show. Exacting standards of tunefulness or spring-limbed dance moves are not really necessary. All that’s needed is a Stock Aitken Waterman backing tape on the synths and a couple of giggling lasses to belt out the hits. And they do a pretty good job too, ably assisted by camp-as-can-be boycandy dancers who do the hard work of hoofing around the far less mobile lasses. Cruel Summer is followed by their first hit, a collaboration with Fun Boy Three, Really Saying Something, and then it was onwards to the Stock Aitken Waterman zone, with Robert De Niro’s Waiting and the matching pair of I Want You Back and Love In The First Degree. Funnily enough, the latter’s chorus goes down quite well with the girly audience:

Only you can set me free
'Cos I'm guilty (guilty)
Guilty as a girl can be
Come on baby can't you see
I stand accused of love in the first degree

To close their set the lasses claim that they’ll perform ‘one for the girls, then one for the boys’. Their penultimate song is their world-straddling humungous hit, the Stock Aitkin Waterman-magicked cover of the 1970 hit Venus by the Dutch band The Shocking Blue. Here it’s possible to see the wizardry of the SAW production, which extracts every hook imaginable from a simple pop song and disguises the rather average vocal abilities of its performers to good effect (Wikipedia puts it politely: 'They are known for their unique vocal style which features all members singing in unison rather than three-part harmonies'). But, strangely, the last number Bananarama perform is the chant-driven Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye. End on a high note, girls – finish with the superior Venus, even if it is a cover! All in all Bananarama definitely entertained the crowd and put on a good show, proving that you don’t need to sing like an angel to become a pop star. In fact I can truly say they’ve probably never sung better. (…If you get my meaning).

Then the clock struck 22:07. The audience fell into a hush, punctuated only by the occasional drunken hen party cackle. The auditorium was illuminated only by the hypnotic pulsation of dozens of battery-powered neon-lit bunny ears. He was here. Ladies and gentlemen, Mister Rick Astley! Yes, the duffel-coasted high-trousered fresh-faced lad of the 80s is now a sharp-suited fresh-faced middle aged man of the 2000s. His fame duly re-buffed by the Rickrolling viral meme that has seen at least 25 million unsuspecting net surfers view his biggest hit video, Astley (nine UK top 40 hits) topped the bill and charmed the audience with a mix of cheesy showmanship (‘ladies, you look bloody goooorgeous’) and pleasing northern wit (‘the last time I played Wembley […ahem, Arena] garlic bread hadn’t even been invented!’).

As befitting his newfound fame, Astley closed the night’s entertainment with a whopping eight-song set, which is fully five or six songs more than I ever knew he possessed. Opening with Together Forever (which could easily have been performed by Kylie and Jason), taking in She Wants To Dance With Me, Hold Me In Your Arms, a gloopy cover of Nat King Cole’s When I Fall In Love, and Cry For Help all flitted by, perhaps reminding us that the 80s instrumentation at times left many songs sounding perilously alike, despite the talented vocals. Soon enough it was the allotted minute for the big finale: in 1987 Never Gonna Give You Up was #1 all over the world and probably on the far side of the moon too. It gets the crowd singing along and waving their arms aloft, and it caps off a night of shameless yet guiltily entertaining musical enjoyment. Seldom has such an unabashed exhumation of the long-buried yielded such glittering rewards.

(Fan vid)

Now all they have to do is edit the superfluous apostrophe in Here and Now: The Very Best of the 80’s, and then in the words of ABC’s Martin Fry:

Like a bird in flight on a hot sweet night
You know you’re right just to hold her tight
He soothes it right - makes it outta sight
And everything’s good in the world tonight!

Thanks to Felix for spotting the gig announcement and having me along! For more details on the tour and some thinly-veiled sarcasm, see this Guardian profile.


15 May 2008

Wonder and astonishment was loudly expressed

On the first May bank holiday weekend I spent three nights staying in Bristol, exploring and revisiting the area, and taking the opportunity to get out of the big city for a few days. Unsurprisingly, everyone else had the same idea, so on Friday night Paddington station was packed solid and the 1845 train to Swansea even had people standing in the aisles for the first three quarters of an hour. Luckily I had made a beeline for an empty window seat and could enjoy the view of the passing countryside in comfort. Well, the view of Reading isn't that enjoyable, but after negotiating a series of grind-to-a-halt stoppages the train did emerge into the proper rural splendour of English farmland.

After two and a bit hours I arrived at Bristol Parkway station on the outskirts of town, and took a bus into the centre, along with a crowd of gabbling and hoicking local youths gearing up for a massive night on the town. Their wardrobe of choice for the evening's revels was the timeless askew baseball cap underneath a hoodie combo, with extra added cheap bling jewellery.

After half an hour the bus arrived in the concrete centre of Bristol and I made my way the short distance to the YHA right on the dockside. Bristol has been sprucing up its waterfront area for years now, and these days it's loaded with bars and cafes alongside the launches and yachts. The YHA is located in a tall narrow brown-brick building in which I’d stayed briefly in the distant days of 1997. My only two memories of the place were a dormitory chat with a young chap who turned out to be a filmmaker and a Young Conservative (I got him interested in Merata Mita’s film Patu about the 1981 Springbok tour), and the night-long rowdy noise from a boisterous queue outside a nightclub behind the hostel. Luckily the dormitories are on the other side of the building now! And as is the way of things, the first person I met in the dormitory was a chap from Karori. We get about, you know.


After an early breakfast in the hostel cafĂ© I took the 9.19am train from nearby Bristol Temple Meads southwest to Exeter St David’s station. As opposed to Exeter Central or Exeter St Thomas; quite why a rather small city like Exeter needs three railway stations is beyond me. Anyway, after the hour-long journey through Somerset and Devon, I walked through the Exeter streets thronged with Saturday morning shoppers, and made my way to the centre.

The main purpose of my visit was to enjoy the morning tour of the beautiful Exeter Cathedral. Like most English cathedrals, it has evolved over the course of several centuries: this plan outlines the stages, from the 12th century Norman transept towers, the 13th century Chapter House, to the 13th and 14th century quire and nave. The cathedral boasts the longest uninterrupted vaulted nave in England – others have longer naves but they’re broken by central towers, like that at Ely – and a huge Ptolemaic clock in the north transept that’s over 500 years old.

The longest unbroken nave in England
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

After admiring the huge 14th century wooden canopy for the bishop’s throne, the cathedral guide told us about an odd Bishop after whom the wooden statue of St Peter was modelled. The Right Reverend Lord (Rupert Ernest) William Gascoyne-Cecil was Bishop of Exeter from 1916 to 1936, and was quite the English eccentric. He was popular with his parishioners despite frequent bouts of odd behaviour. It was the days when most bicycles looked fairly identical, and he was so forgetful that he always took the first bicycle he saw, taking it to be his own. (People didn’t worry about locking their bikes up back then). The townsfolk of Exeter worked their way around the problem by finding the bishop’s own bicycle and painting it bright yellow so it’d be easier to remember which one was his. His forgetfulness also led him to forget what he was doing at times. On one occasion he arrived by train at Ilfracombe on the north Devon coast, and immediately sent a telegram to his wife, Lady Florence, in Exeter:


Now Bishop William is fondly remembered in a plaque near the bishop’s canopy, and by the slightly forgetful air of the carving of St Peter, which looks down from the crest of the canopy with an air of bemused distraction.

Bishop's throne canopy
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Elsewhere in the cathedral I particularly enjoyed the wood panel paintings in the eastern chapels, including the one of St Apollonia, the patron saint of dentistry, holding a wicked set of pliers with a molar clamped in their iron jaws.

Flanking the Lady Chapel at the far eastern end of the cathedral are two tombs of medieval Bishops of Exeter. One, Bishop Walter, who held the post from 1257 to 1280, still boasts its original 15th century paintwork. The other, of Bishop Edmund (1395 to 1419) has been scored all over its length with a myriad of pilgrims’ initials as a mark of their journeys to Exeter. In some places they have inscribed the date of their visit along with their initials, such as the intricately carved initials of ‘A.T.’, who visited in 1601 (the year in which the former favourite of Queen Elizabeth, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was beheaded for treason), or that of ‘M.Z.’, who passed through in 1616 (the year that Indian princess Pocahontas arrived in London with her English husband, James Rolfe). The inscriptions even cover the face of the bishop’s carving. One can’t help but wonder how people got away with this kind of vandalism – perhaps at evening services when the light was much dimmer?

Soon it was time for lunch, so I purchased a superb pasty from a local bakery, to enjoy whilst sitting in the sunshine in the cathedral grounds. Everyone else had the same idea, but the grounds are spacious and there was plenty of room for hundreds of people to sit and pass the time.

Exeter Cathedral
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

After a little more wandering around the town, and discovering that the town's museum was closed for refurbishment, I decided to take the train halfway back to Bristol to the town of Taunton. It’s the county town of Somerset, and despite the blue skies and sunshine filling the streets with merry locals doing their weekend shopping, there wasn’t that much to see. I did enjoy the sight of this fellow waiting patiently outside a fish and chip shop for his owners to emerge.

Just waitin' for my man
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

After an hour or two surveying the high street shops, and having ascertained that the county cricket ground wasn’t hosting a match that afternoon, I made my way back to the station for the next train back to Bristol. (At the station I noticed this advert – I wonder if you’d see something like that in New Zealand?)

Back in Bristol I walked around the town for ages looking for something suitable for dinner, but in the end I had no other choice than to opt for a particularly greasy cod and chips. Afterwards I returned to the hostel and listened to the dilettante Russell Brand’s Radio 2 show on my mobile phone’s headset.


The next morning I left the hostel after breakfast at 9 o’clock to explore harbour-side Bristol. By 10am I was in position to be the first visitor of the day at one of Bristol’s prime tourist attractions: the dry-docked SS Great Britain. When it was launched here in Bristol in 1843 from the same dry-dock in which it now resides, it was the world’s largest ship. It was also arguably the first modern ocean-liner, in that it was primarily driven by steam engine rather than by sail, and it had a screw propeller at the stern rather than paddle boxes at each side. On 11 August 1845, the day it first arrived in New York, the local newspaper the Evening Post wrote:

This magnificent steamship, so long expected at this port, has at length arrived. Thousands rushed to the Battery, and every other spot which would afford a favourable view of her… wonder and astonishment was loudly expressed as they saw and comprehended her vast proportions and beautiful sailing qualities.

After many years as an Atlantic liner and then as a colonial transport ferrying settlers to Australia, the Great Britain ended up forgotten at the bottom of the world, anchored in a bleak cove in the Falkland Islands. It was brought back to Bristol by a tug in 1970 and opened for public viewing in 2005.

The dry-dock in which it rests has been sealed with a glass ceiling halfway up the hull of the vessel, to minimise rusting of the lower hull. A thin layer of water atop this glass artificial ‘sea’ provides the illusion that the ship is afloat, and enables visitors to clamber underneath the hull and examine the propeller, keel and bow.

SS Great Britain
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Inside the ship it was interesting to see the tiny first and second class cabins, and to compare them to the even more cramped steerage quarters, in which the poorest passengers had little space, privacy or natural light. In its days as a settler ship the passengers would spend 60 days afloat en route from Liverpool to Melbourne. The lucky passengers with first or second class tickets could mingle in the lush and spacious saloon and the grand dining room, but for the steerage passengers it must have been a lengthy ordeal.

Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Next to the Great Britain there’s also a replica of the Matthew, the Bristol ship that took the explorer John Cabot (who was actually a Genovese, Giovanni Caboto) across the Atlantic to discover Newfoundland in 1497, five years after Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Caribbean. The replica had arrived in Bristol with great fanfare back in 1998 when I was travelling in the West Country with my mother and aunt. But while I could get a good look at the little ship from the dockside, it appeared my luck had not improved from the day before, because the Matthew was closed for refurbishment during my visit.

After exploring the Great Britain I made my way to the station again for a 10 minute journey eastwards to nearby Bath, one of the most beautiful towns in England. I had enjoyed visits here in 1997 and 1998, but the lure of its superb World Heritage Site architecture and the sights of the town had drawn me back. Set on an imposing hillside that sweeps down to the site of the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey, much of the city is built from creamy local stone, which gives the town a style of its own that has ensured it has remained a popular tourist destination for centuries.

First I walked up the hill to admire again the beautiful houses of the Circus (built 1754-68) and the Royal Crescent (built 1767-74), both sweeping ranks of stylish townhouses built to shelter the wealthy elites of England when they visited to take the waters and be seen in society. The video of the Circus is taken from the grove of trees at the centre, while the picture is from the circumference. One day I'll go back to Bath with a wide-angle lens so I can get a good shot of the Crescent!

The Circus, Bath
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

A third 18th century edifice is the just-so arches and shops of the Pulteney Bridge across the Avon, with its ornamental waterfalls guarded by smartly turned-out armies of river ducks.

Do you like my profile?
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

I spent half an hour visiting Bath Abbey, a large Gothic church in the middle of town, best known for its splendid front upon which great ornamental ladders reach up to Heaven, with platoons of winged angels climbing up to salvation. It is said that the idea for the design came from an Abbot’s dream.

Afterwards there was time to wander past the Bath Cricket Club, where a black and white cat was calmly watching a girls’ match from the vantage of the boundary wall, and take in the lovely books at an independent booksellers, where I noticed this striking display of Ordnance Survey maps.

The summer game
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Ordnance Survey
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Then it was time to return to Bristol. At Temple Meads station I passed TV stylist Gok Wan hurrying to make his train back to London, and then I found the dockside area heaving with hundreds of locals, in town to watch some big football match on TV. I took a detour around the various arms of the riverside docks, and spotted this furry security guard on the prow of a dilapidated barge - on the lookout for fish thieves?

Pirate kitty
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Noticing the number of police around the football revellers – I saw 12 PCs within a 100 metres – I decided to stay out of the way in the hostel with my earplugs in!


The earplugs worked well and it seems the night passed without a major hitch, because there were no chalk outlines of revellers’ corpses on the dockside when I emerged in the morning. There was time to amble through Bristol’s town centre in the morning, admiring the fortitude of the thousands of townsfolk who had turned out for a 10 kilometre fun run through the closed-down streets. I took in the views of Bristol Cathedral and the steep hillside park crowned with the 19th century Cabot memorial tower.

Then soon enough it was time to head back to collect my bag, and make my way to Temple Meads again for my train back to Paddington. It had certainly been a good bank holiday weekend away in the West Country.