28 February 2009

The Big Gig

NME Big Gig
O2 Arena
26 February 2009

[Pic: NME]

Last night four acts performed a showcase for the NME Big Gig 2009, filling the O2 Arena with twenty thousand-odd pale-faced indie fans and a veritable convention of Edward Scissorhands-haired Robert Smith impersonators. These plentiful Smiths were in attendance for headliners The Cure, who had played the day before at the Brixton Academy to celebrate their NME Godlike Genius award.

First up, the strikingly catchy London guitar band White Lies played a quality set with an ability that showed why they are hotly tipped for greater laurels. I would've described their sound as 'Joy Division meets Interpol', except that was exactly the same description used in the first article I found about them. Their debut album definitely looks like one to investigate.

Following them, Toronto electronic group Crystal Castles performed an odd, largely impenetrable six-song set. Opening with a barrage of white noise like a warehouse full of car alarms, the band proceeded with admittedly catchy techno beats occasionally punctuated with the shrill, shrieking vocals of singer Alice Glass. A kohl-eyed indie waif with a cute black bob and the dress sense of a Gothic St Trinian's sixth-former, Glass pranced about the stage, flinging her limbs hither and thither, but it was unclear whether her discordant yelping was meant to be in tune or not. This proved not to be a problem, because the audience could seldom hear her at all due to 'microphone problems'. I had thought it a possibility that the sound tech had turned her microphone off to spare the audience. To be fair the group's founder Ethan Kath did point out that they were unused to big stadium gigs:

It was very, very strange experience. You know, we're a band that aimed to play basement parties. So to put that basement party band on a stage in front of 18,000 Cure fans was a strange and surreal experience.

After a brief interval Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand again demonstrated their deft command of live performances with a 12-song set studded with hits from their first two albums as well as a few from their new album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. Highlights included the extended opener, The Dark Of The Matinee, the storming up-tempo raver Michael (surely the best man-on-man disco rocker since John, I'm Only Dancing) and the pounding closer This Fire, which saw the whole band bashing frenetically at the drumkit.

Finally, it was time for The Cure themselves. Robert Smith ambled on to a genuinely affectionate response from the admittedly partisan crowd. Smith had told the NME that he had chosen to perform a set that highlighted different parts of The Cure's career, after the hit-laden approach at the Academy the night before. So it was six songs in before a fairweather fan like me recognised a song (i.e. a track from their Greatest Hits). But when it came along the stalking, moody rendition of A Forest was a welcome surprise. Then it was back into the beautifully performed but (to me) obscure album tracks - one for each of The Cure's umpteen albums. There was a brief pop boost with the back to back performance of In Between Days and Just Like Heaven, but by then I'd decided to leave at 11 o'clock, before the encore. Yes, I admit it, heretical though it may be to say it - The Cure bored me into submission. I guess they saw the O2 gig as a chance to put on a show for dedicated fans.

Aside from the music, one aspect of stadium gigs that has become increasingly prevalent with the onset of cheap tech wizardry has been the profusion of glowing camera and mobile phone screens bathing the auditorium with their eerie glow. This is fine at a distance, and even kind of likeable given the alternative is the smoker-encouraging waving of cigarette lighters. But it seems to be that a substantial proportion of the crowd at modern concerts in the UK will spend most of the gig photographing or videoing the gig rather than actually watching it. I can understand the desire to take a picture or two as a memento, and maybe video a particular favourite song. But this is a constant flurry of camerawork, which means that sightlines in the dark auditorium are constantly obscured by beaming screens held aloft. Certainly the Spanish guy sitting next to me was taking pictures and videos with his camera and Blackberry throughout the entire gig, and during The Cure's set he was attempting to video the whole performance, often getting in my way. Bad form, that!

27 February 2009

Good Kate, he is no gentleman

The Taming of the Shrew
Royal Shakespeare Company
Novello Theatre, London
12 February - 7 March 2009

[Pic: Tristram Kenton, Guardian]

Last night I attended an excellent Royal Shakespeare Company performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Novello Theatre in Aldwych. I have to admit that I am no great theatre-goer, but was instead drawn in by that decades-old tactic of casting someone famous from the telly in a leading role. Michelle Gomez was brilliant as the melodramatic and put-upon footballer's wife Janice in The Book Group, and menacingly unapproachable in the hospital comedy Green Wing as the psychotic Sue White:

... a staff liaison officer employed to listen and respond to the problems of East Hampton's staff. However, Sue, a Scot, is perhaps the least suited person for the job. She is the most eccentric member of staff in the hospital; abrasive, cruel, foul-mouthed, obsessive and, seemingly, a sociopath. Her office is a place where the impossible tends to happen, and anyone who enters is normally treated with a mixture of verbal abuse and psychological torture. The only person she treats with any affection is Mac, whom she loves to the point of madness, but Mac, like everyone else in the hospital, sees her as beyond the edge of insanity. Anyone else who attempts to get involved with Mac is treated with contempt and hatred by Sue, in particular Caroline, whom Sue attempts several times to murder.

Unsurprisingly, Gomez is superb as the titular shrew, Katharina, from the zest with which she torments her poor sister Bianca and her suitor Petruchio, to the resigned and weary acceptance of her fate implicit in the famous speech at the close in which she entreats her fellow women to be obedient wives. This latter speech, its unalloyed subjugation still shocking to today's sensibilities, is performed straight without irony, and Gomez invests it with a clear and resolute power that would have been easy to undermine with a flicker of insincerity, given the anachronistic sentiments being expressed.

The advantage of seeing an RSC performance is the quality of the broader cast. Stephen Boxer is remarkably watchable as the contemptible Petruchio and even turns his hand to strumming a ditty on the lute late in the piece. I had recognised pretty Amara Karan, who portrays Bianca, from somewhere but I had to look her listings up to be reminded that she appeared in Wes Anderson's excellent The Darjeeling Limited - she is a name to watch for the future. I also recognised some faces from an RSC performance of Timon of Athens last summer, and was pleased to see their touch for comedy on display again, particularly Peter Shorey as Gremio - his witty performances are replete with top-notch timing.

The performance contained many enjoyably comedic devices. Keir Charles' Tranio displays a playful confusion of accents: the cockney servant drops his tees and aitches but then has to pretend he is his own lord Lucentio, so essays a Cockney version of a posh accent. Later, he has to mimic the Pedant who he has enviegled to pose as Lucentio's wealthy father Vincentio, who in this production is West Indian and speaks with a broad Jamaican accent - so it's a Cockney trying to sound both posh and Jamaican. When Tranio - who is pretending to be Lucentio - offers Bianca a 'small packet of Greek and Latin books' for her studies, his boy Biondello carries forth onto the stage a looming tower of tomes perhaps eight feet high with an internal wire holding them together so they can threaten to engulf the front rows of the audience (at which point Gremio mutters to the audience, sotto voce, 'Cheap joke'). There's also a bounty of licentious and bawdy by-play in keeping with the boisterous spirit of Shakespeare's comedies, particularly when Lucentio and Bianca consummate their lust (both fully-clothed, mind).

New Zealand readers might have noticed a recent story from the Independent, reprinted in its stablemate the Herald, about the opening scene of the production in which a roistering crowd of revellers perform a drunken version of Ka Mate, the All Blacks' haka:

[The play] opens with a rowdy stag party. As the men stumble out of a strip club (still clutching a blow-up sex doll), they perform a dance inspired by Ka Mate haka – as performed in all international matches by the All Blacks rugby team. In an unfortunate variation, the stage version ends with the dropping of trousers down and the audience being “mooned”.


Matiu Rei, a Ngati Toa spokesman, said yesterday: “That certainly isn’t an appropriate use of the haka. If it was just for effect and used in a gratuitous manner – which it sounds like it was – then I would be very disappointed. I’ll consult with my chiefs and we’ll see what they decide on what further action to take.”

Karl Burrows, a Maori living in the UK, runs a company which promotes the tribe’s culture. He was furious yesterday about the RSC’s casual use of the sacred ritual. “Everybody from our culture would resent that because it’s just not appropriate. When we see our haka performed in a way that’s disrespectful it hurts us as a people.

At the performance last night there seemed little that could give offence. Certainly, the haka is performed by drunken characters, but the verse is clearly audible and seemed accurate enough, as were the gestures performed to accompany the chant. A couple of the actors did have their trousers hitched down to display their boxers but didn't moon the audience. It was reminiscent of many a pub scene in London with inebriated males putting on a display, and it's not as if many New Zealand males haven't done the same thing in the same situation. (Not me though - shouting is bad manners! And as Daniel Vettori said, 'skinny white men with glasses shouldn't do hakas')

Foreigners are not familiar with the reverence Maori imbue in the haka; indeed, many overseas observers perceive it as slightly comical. They cannot be judged by the same standards as we New Zealanders, who know the importance of the ritual. This rendition is not exploitative or gratuitously inaccurate, and those who are quick to take offence where none is meant should bear that in mind. My opinion of the hasty dash to take offence is to offer the famous Oscar Wilde epigram: 'the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about'.

24 February 2009

They Shoot Actresses, Don't They?

'They Shoot Actresses, Don't They?' Filmic Depictions of Female Skin and Neosexual Capitalist Theory

Here's the moot: that artistic value judgements about Hollywood depictions of female nudity are governed by social class as well as artistic merit. Okay, so I did seek a little inspiration from the Postmodernism Generator for the title, but bear with me - I'm going somewhere with this.

We've just had the Oscars. (You may have noticed.) In the ceremony, two very different actresses received nominations for their portrayals of women who, for varying and justifiable reasons, happen to take their clothes off during the course of their films.

In Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, Marisa Tomei received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as Cassidy, the stripper who becomes faded wrestling star Randy The Ram's confidant and will-they-won’t-they love interest despite the club's strict rules about fraternising with customers.

In Stephen Daldry's The Reader, Kate Winslet was nominated for and won Best Actress for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz, a lonely German woman who has an affair with a much younger man, only for him to discover several years later that she stands accused of war crimes as a concentration camp guard.

Both Tomei and Winslet disrobe for their roles. Indeed, Tomei's turn as Cassidy, the aging stripper with a kid to feed and bills to pay, contains a surprising amount of pole-dancing action: more than was strictly necessary for the advancement of the plot. Perhaps Aronofsky would argue that in showing Tomei's minimally-clad gyrations he is placing equal weight on the toil Cassidy must undergo to make her way in the world and the batterings faced by Randy in the back street wrestling rings. And there's certainly no denying that she looks good for her age.

In The Reader, Winslet's love scenes with young German actor David Kross involve nudity, but that's no surprise given that Winslet seems comfortable with disrobing on camera if the plot demands it. Many of her films feature it. Speaking at the German premiere of The Reader, Winslet said:

"It's not something one particularly enjoys, but it's an important part of the film. It wasn't difficult doing the love scenes with David at all. He's 18, a professional, and absolutely brilliant in the film. It's just part of the job so we just get on with it."

It must be a bit new for Kross though: filming of the love scenes had to wait until his 18th birthday.

In the end Winslet won her Oscar, but Tomei lost to Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In a way, I was glad that Marisa Tomei didn't win Best Supporting Actress for The Wrestler. Not that she wasn't good in the film: she was. Her character is believable and her gradual warming to Randy, allowing him into her life outside the strip club, is a touching ray of hope for the addled former star. But seemingly half of Tomei's screen time in The Wrestler was spent stripping. Don't get me wrong, she's quite good at it, but that's beside the point. If she'd won, it would've been an Oscar awarded for stripping! There weren't that many lines where she had all her clothes on.

But does this mean I have double standards, what with Kate Winslet getting her gear off in most of the films she does? I didn't find Winslet's nomination at all unusual, despite there being a fair amount of her skin on display. You may remember the scene in David Mamet’s lovely film State And Main in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s starlet character protests about the topless scene in her contract, but the crew wonder what all the fuss is about: after all, America has seen her bosom plenty of times before –

Scriptwriter: ‘They know what her breasts look like…’

Director: ‘Know? They could draw them from memory’

And I'm no great prude, either - in both films the nudity was in context, and although I thought Tomei's stripping was a little, um, over-exposed, it didn't detract from the film at all.

There's certainly not the same fixation on male nudity in the cinema - largely because male cinemagoers often respond poorly to it. But for male actors the nervousness generated by a nude scene can be just as palpable as for their female colleagues. Here's Alan Bennett in his 1994 book 'Writing Home', on the Liverpool shoot for his TV film about Kafka, The Insurance Man:

In the scene, Robert Hines, who plays Franz, has to stand naked on the podium under the bored eyes of fifty medical students. As the day wears on the extras have no problem simulating boredom, often having to be woken for the take. I never fail to be impressed by the bravery of actors. Robert is a striking and elegant figure, seemingly unselfconscious about his nakedness. Did I have to display myself in front of a total stranger, let alone fifty of them, my part would shrink to the size of an acorn. Robert's remains unaffected. I mention this to John Pritchard, the sound supervisor. 'I see,' he says drily. 'You subscribe to the theory of the penis as seaweed'. It later transpires that Robert's seeming equanimity has been achieved only after drinking a whole bottle of wine.

But back to the women. Here's a theory then: perhaps I'm prejudiced against working class nudity, and only tolerate bourgeious exhibitionism. Under this theory, Tomei's stripper bares her skin in a proletarian context, a seedy strip bar populated by truck-drivers, roading contractors and former wrestling stars, and these exposures and gyrations are deemed unseemly. But Winslet gets her gear off in a tasteful middle-class piece with arthouse written all over it, and that’s okay?

But let’s be realistic here. Whether a film is lowbrow, highbrow or something in between, subtracting clothes from female actresses helps to sell a picture. You can argue about the challenging moral position that places film producers in, but I don’t expect you’ll find many film producers losing sleep over that. You can certainly make the point that it places young actresses in an invidious position – none of the old-fashioned sense of mystery remains, and these days it’s often a case of disrobing to advance your career. It sends signals to young women who see these movies that women are, in part at least, objectifiable commodities in a way that male actors seldom are – because film directors and producers are mostly male, and make their films from the point of view of the male gaze). But ultimately, it comes down to cold, hard cash, and that’s the language and the raison d’etre of Western cinema.

You just have to hope that the skin doesn’t overshadow the rest of the production, or become the driving force behind the film. Unless you want to be Russ Meyer, that is. At least he was honest about it!

Guardian interview with Kate Winslet, 19 December 2008
Matthew's Best Picture round-up
State And Main trailers

23 February 2009

Shinin' just like gold

Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf, performing his signature blues classic, Smokestack Lightning, on a 1964 TV broadcast. I love the contrast between his bottomless vocal growl and the Pied Piper call of the falsetto 'woo-hoos'. And man, that's a snappy suit!

Howlin' Wolf was a hugely influential figure in American blues whose career was revitalised when British rock bands with a passion for the blues conquered the American charts in the wake of the Beatles. The Rolling Stones, in particular, were huge Howlin' Wolf fans and had already recorded a well-known cover of his track Little Red Rooster (which was actually written by bassist Willie Dixon, the bassist to Wolf's right in the video).

The Who also counted themselves as big Howlin' Wolf fans. In this recording they perform Smokestack Lightning in a brief medley with Spoonful, another Wolf song written by Dixon:

While this performance isn't up to The Who's usual high standard, there's an explanation. During this 1973 gig at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the first performance in The Who's Quadrophenia tour of the US, Keith Moon passed out twice due to ingesting a frighteningly large amount of tranquilisers. Trying to give the audience what they'd paid to see, Pete Townshend called for a drummer from the audience to fill in. Nineteen-year-old Scot Halpin was plucked from the crowd and sat in for three numbers with The Who - surely one of the most sought-after opportunities in rock history. Here's a longer extract of the concert footage showing Moon's two collapses and Townshend's apologies to the audience.

(Postscript: Halpin died in February 2008, aged 54)

19 February 2009


Londoners are ever ready to cast aspersions. When they're not busy trying to make fun of the Welsh or the Scots they sometimes direct their derision towards the supposedly irredeemably provincial and backward denizens of Norwich, who are apparently all in some way related. Comedian Marcus Brigstocke has a line in his routine where he asks the audience if anyone's from Norwich; if he gets an affirmative, Brigstocke cries 'Hey! Gimme six!'

Despite these casual Norfolkist attitudes, I decided to visit Norwich to see the place for myself. I'm already part of the way there working in Chelmsford, and I took the train up through Essex and Suffolk to Norwich on Friday night. The B&B I'd booked turned out to be on a busy road and didn't have double-glazed windows, so I had rather sleepless nights even with my trusty earplugs in.

On Saturday morning I set out for Norwich Cathedral, which was the highlight of my brief visit. Construction of this beautiful Romanesque building was begun in 1096 and completed around 1145, and it's a fine example of the period. The needle-sharp spire is the second highest in England after Salisbury Cathedral's, and in the cathedral treasury you can still see some of the Norman wall paintings.

After admiring the vaulting in the nave and the high altar I enjoyed photographing the adjacent cloisters, which featured in a scene of the recent movie, Dean Spanley - the bit where Peter O'Toole's curmudgeonly old character mischievously trips up a little boy running past. It's a great location, and you can easily take in the centuries of history in the structure.

Close by the outside wall at the cathedral's east end is a small grave marked with a memorial cross. Buried beneath is Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed by the Germans in Belgium in 1915 for assisting Allied prisoners to escape captivity. This act of cruelty galvanised the British war effort and Cavell became a well-known war martyr, with a prominent statue of her erected outside the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square. As a result of the incident 'Edith' also became a popular first name for French and Belgian girls; Edith Piaf was probably the most famous example, as she was born not long after the event.

I also visited Norwich Castle, which is a square keep situated in a striking pose atop a mound in the centre of the old town. Like the cathedral, this is an original Norman building: construction began in 1067, the year after the Norman Conquest. While the original medieval stone facing of the keep was replaced by 'tidier' stonework in the 19th century, the sheer dominant bulk of the castle looming over the town is still undeniably impressive. Now in addition to holding the town's museum the castle also acts as Norwich's arts centre, with a strong collection of local paintings and artefacts, including the beautiful Harford Farm Brooch, a Saxon work of art from the 7th century, which was buried about 700AD. A small piece of the brooch was repaired before it was lost or buried, and we might know the artisan's name, Luda, because it was scratched in runic text on the back.

Back at the B&B that evening the traffic noise was compounded by the arrival of a posse of Englishers who had been out on the turps. They arrived back at 3.30am and proceeded to shout and sing in the corridors, banging on doors now and then. Not impressed! Perhaps they had been to a salubrious establishment I had passed by earlier in the day. Outside the Mercy nightclub a sign advertised this classy entertainment:

Traffic light party
Wear RED: NOT available; YELLOW: Buy me a drink and I'll think about it!; GREEN: I'm Gaggin' GO GO GO!

I liked how they decided that spelling 'gagging' out in full was probably too formal.

25 random things about me

(Cross-post from Facebook)

1. When I was 12, I went with my class to the old Auckland District Court and sat in the small public area to learn about the legal process. By coincidence the day we visited was one of the most important in the court's history. We saw the arraignment of Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart, the two French secret agents caught in the aftermath of their despicable bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior docked in downtown Auckland.

2. I've been on TV a few times. In 1991, I was on two episodes of Mastermind, and was the second youngest competitor they'd had on. I got through to the last eight. Three years later I was on two episodes of Sale of the Century (when it had moved to TV3). I was 'carry-over champion' for one night. Won a trip to Wellington. And some placemats.

3. My alarm goes off at 6.33am on workdays: not 6.30 or 6.35, but *6.33*. I never hit 'snooze'.

4. I flew a plane before I drove a car. We went on a beginners' flight out at Ardmore Aerodrome in 6th form and I piloted a Cessna through a quick take-off and circuit back to landing.

5. I didn't actually get my driving licence until the age of 27. I'd failed my test when I was 17 and didn't try again until I was back from my first OE in Britain. And I didn't bother to sit my full licence test until I was 33.

6. Rachel Weisz, since you asked. Those eyes...

7. I don't have a middle name.

8. I've been to 31 countries, if you count New Zealand.

9. When I was little, I thought America and Australia were the same place.

10. We moved around a lot. I lived at 13 addresses before I was 13.

11. I was dux literarum of my intermediate school. That was the pinnacle of my educational career; it was all downhill from there :)

12. I've seen Goldenhorse live four times, which is the most I've seen one band play. I've seen Crowded House thrice: Auckland Town Hall in 1993, Western Springs in 1995 and the IndigO2 in London in 2007.

13. I wanted to change my name when I was about 10, but it was too expensive. I wanted the initials 'A.J.' like the cool one in Simon & Simon.

14. The Tuckers arrived in New Zealand in 1841 on the William Bryan, the first settler ship to arrive in New Plymouth. My father's ancestors, the Chilmans, were on the same ship, but they had their own cabin.

15. I lived in Wellington for seven years, and defended the weather against the depredations of snide Auckland critics for a good five or six of those years.

16. In November 2007 I visited Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium with friends and paid my respects to my grandfather's uncle Eric Tucker, who died at Passchendaele. I think I was the first Tucker to visit.

17. While I like corresponding by email, I also enjoy writing proper letters and sending them by conventional mail. It keeps alive a connection to centuries of tradition.

18. I've been to quite a few places now, but unlike most of my friends I've never been to Melbourne. I know it's cool; I just never got around to it.

19. I'd like to write a screenplay or a novel, but I think my style of writing is more suited to non-fiction.

20. I wore the same Doc Martens boots for 11 weeks straight on my Eurobus tour of Europe in 1997.

21. Fidgeting people give me a headache. Seriously, I have to look away.

22. I played indoor netball for four or five years in Wellington but wasn't much good at it. I once scored a three-pointer from twice the distance of the shooting circle though. Wasn't actually aiming for the net at the time, but still, pretty damn cool.

23. I have over 1200 CDs. Most of them are in 13 boxes up at Bruce's farm, waiting for me to listen to them again one day.

24. My favourite movie is probably Wim Wenders' Wings Of Desire, but I've only seen it once. I worry that re-watching it might spoil the memories of seeing it at the cinema and being overwhelmed by its beauty.

25. I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up.

14 February 2009

What an old dog can teach us

New Zealand director Toa Fraser's new film, Dean Spanley, is a gentle, whimsical comedy that deals with one of the abiding fascinations of earlier ages: the notion of past lives and reincarnation. It is a low-profile New Zealand-British co-production that deserves a much wider audience outside the realm of film festivals.

New Zealand film fans may recall the mean-spiritedness surrounding the funding arrangements for the film, with critics of its New Zealand Film Commission backing arguing that the film had nothing to do with New Zealand aside from its director and one of its lead actors, Sam Neill. Perhaps the critics have a point, although parts of the film were made in New Zealand. But when a film is this good, it seems that this might be a case of a decision that works in practice, but not in theory.

The story of Dean Spanley is taken from a short novel by the Irish author Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany, which describes a meeting with a clergyman with a taste for an impressively rare Hungarian imperial tokay. Upon consuming said wine, Spanley mysteriously reverts to a previous life - as a loyal and adventurous spaniel.

Sam Neill's performance as Spanley is perfect, in that it could so easily have been played for cheap laughs. Instead, his restrained performance ensures that the fantastical plot remains believable. The legendary Peter O'Toole is excellent as the elderly Scrooge-like figure of Mr Fisk, snapping at his frustrated son, Fisk the Younger (played by Jeremy Northam), who is compelled to push him around town in a bath-chair. Bryan Brown, who seemed omni-present in the 1980s but later faded from prominence, is well-cast as the humorous Australian fixer Mr Wrather.

Overall, Dean Spanley is a pleasure to watch, and it is to be hoped that a film with this much character and genuine straightforward appeal succeeds in a wide range of markets. It's just been picked up for US distribution by Miramax, so here's hoping they promote it smartly. The film benefits from a solid story with literary pedigree, pleasing touches of humour, and a strong collective performance from its ensemble cast. Special mention must also go to the film score by former Mutton Bird Don McGlashan, who has created a deft blend of music that enhanced key scenes while not seeming out of place in the film's Edwardian setting.

10 February 2009

The rise and fall of Sergeant Skinner

Yesterday after a stroll through St James' Park I visited the Guards Museum, which is devoted to the long and colourful history of the famous British Army Guards regiments. The five regiments of Foot Guards (the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, and the Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards) and the two regiments of the Household Cavalry are all celebrated in the museum's displays, from the earliest 17th century battle orders consisting of musketmen protected by pike-wielding infantry through to modern coalition operations in southern Afghanistan.

It's not a particularly high-tech museum: most of its displays are simply medals, weapons and paintings of famous battle scenes. It doesn't need to be high-tech because it contains plenty of interesting tales from the long history of the regiments. Aside from the usual heroism of the much-feted officer class, I was particularly taken by the story of Sergeant J. Skinner who was a member of the King's Company, First Guards during the ill-fated Walcheren expedition of 1809. In this expedition the British hoped to secure the Scheldt estuary in the Netherlands and destroy the French fleet located upstream at Flushing (now Vlissingen). But it soon turned to disaster as the low-lying terrain was flooded by the defenders and thousands of British troops were lost to a virulent and highly contagious fever.

One glimmer of hope for the British Army was the actions of Sergeant Skinner. When the Army took Fort Batz from its French defenders, the fort's 12 artillery pieces had been 'spiked' to render them unusable to the enemy. However, Skinner volunteered to repair the guns, and devised his own tools on the spot to carry out the task. All 12 guns were returned to service and trained on their former owners. For this feat of engineering Skinner was awarded a distinguished conduct medal, which would probably have been paid for out of the pockets of his officers, because the Army did not issue service medals for bravery at that time. Skinner's medals were on display in the museum (see picture, bottom of p.33 of this document), along with a fine-looking portrait of the man. He was later promoted to the role of recruiting sergeant.

It was in this role that Skinner's star waned. Less than a decade after his heroics at Fort Batz, Skinner was convicted of defrauding the Army by amending three £5 cheques to read £15 - a most serious crime of embezzlement. He was given 300 lashes and broken in rank, becoming a private soldier once more, and presumably cursed his greed and foolishness for the remainder of his Army career.

Another interesting aspect of the Guards' history was the long-standing tradition known as the Bank Picquet (picket) in which Guardsmen secured the Bank of England against ne'er-do-wells. This was first ordered in response to the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in June 1780, and the nightly task continued for nearly two centuries until it finally ceased in 1973. This report from the New York Times of 28 March 1880 records the spectacle:

One of the most curious "guards" in London is that which is termed the "Bank Picquet", and which proceeds to take up its nightly quarters inside the Bank of England every evening at 7 o'clock all the year round, remaining there until 7 the next morning. It is an officer's guard and consists beside of a drummer, two Sergeants and over 30 men. Each man receives a shilling from the bank authorities immediately on his arrival, the Sergeant's share being 2s. The officer is allowed a dinner, laid for two, with three bottles of wine, and is permitted to invite a friend. The guard or picquet is comfortably housed, each man being "served out" with a watchcoat and a blanket; and the sentries are posted during the night at the bullion vaults and the counting-house parlor.

Three bottles of wine! Now that's what I call a tough billet.

[Pic: Guards Museum website]

09 February 2009

Shanghai Pudong

Returning from New Zealand to the UK last month I stopped for a transfer between Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic in the relatively new Shanghai Pudong international airport. That's the one that's famous for its frighteningly expensive and hyper-modern maglev train linking the airport with the nearby Pudong city in next to no time. While I didn't have time to examine the super-fast train, I did glide over the polished floors and admire the swooping curves of the wave-like and lofty ceilings. It's an impressive structure, and it exudes confidence.

One aspect of passing through the airport was less than high-tech, however. International transfer passengers were required to have their passports scrutinised twice - once at the regular admissions desk and again in a back room, where presumably strange and mystical methods were used to determine whether or not we were reputable enough to stay on Chinese soil for three and a half hours. The problem was, all of these passports had to be returned by hand to a crowd of a hundred or more passengers who were corralled into a confined space in the massive immigration hall.

Each of the polite young Chinese border officials tasked with returning the passports as they emerged from the back rooms one by one had to call out the names of the passport holders and check they were returning the right passport to the right owner. This was less than straightforward because not only was the mass of transit passengers making a fair bit of noise in conversation, but the Chinese officials were not blessed with loud, stentorian voices - more of a half-apologetic squeak, in fact. And of course many of the names they had to read out were incomprehensible to them, so the names emerged in a garbled fashion. Some helpful Antipodeans assisted by shouting out some of the more challenging pronunciations - the Chinese officials couldn't cope with Maori names, for starters! Luckily everyone took the delay with a dose of wry humour.

After my passport was eventually returned unscathed I exited the scrum and took a couple of sneaky photos of the 'holding pen' - those still held hostage to bureaucracy. Hopefully they all made it out alive!

05 February 2009

Tarnished gold

The footage of New Zealand batsman Neil Broom's dismissal (see below) in the first ODI at Perth last weekend is notable not only because Australian wicket-keeper Brad Haddin's eagerness to claim the wicket was so palpable and because it threatened to disrupt the New Zealand run chase. As you can see in the replays, it's clear that the ball hit Haddin's gloves before the bails were dislodged; indeed, if his gloves hadn't been encroaching in front of the stumps the bails would never have come off and the batsman would never have been given out. As Haddin's gloves were in front of the wicket the delivery should have been no-balled and the batsman should have continued his innings.

What the incident and the Australian team's public comments in the next few days showed is that the Australian team, which is under pressure due to its string of home defeats, is also in danger of losing its self-promoted reputation as straight talkers and honest dealers. Ricky Ponting's attempted mind games, in which he made the erroneous claim that New Zealand's captain Daniel Vettori had apologised to Haddin after the wicket-keeper took offence at his integrity being questioned, indicate that Ponting is under pressure in a period when the Australian team's former invincibility is being undermined.

While a certain degree of gamesmanship is acceptable in cricket, both on the field and in the media, Ponting's actions run the risk of alienating his most important stakeholders: the Australian cricket-loving public. Sure, it's commendable to back one of your players when they're criticised by an opponent. But to do so in the face of overwhelming evidence and to then make mischievously misconstrued statements? Unless his team starts winning again very soon, Ponting's reputation will suffer a quick decline. Australians have little sympathy for poor sports.

04 February 2009

A winter's tale

I know, you've probably heard - there's been plenty of snow here in London. The biggest snowfall in 18 years, apparently - a special present from the Russian Arctic. London ground to a halt on Monday as the Tube, train and bus networks all fell over. There's so little snow in the capital that when a decent amount falls it paralyses everything. Transport services were half-running yesterday - you could get around the city but it took longer than usual and involved numerous detours and slow buses instead of speedy trains.

On Monday morning I struggled for two hours to get to work before I gave up and trudged back up Putney Hill to work from home. I took these pictures down in Putney at about 9am. St Mary's Church near Putney Bridge looked pretty in the dim morning light, while the row of buses parked on Putney High Street were going nowhere because of the slippery roads. The shot of the motorbike near Tibbet's Corner at the top of Putney Hill gives an idea of the areas that hadn't been disturbed by pedestrians: lots of pretty, fluffy snow. Now it's all turned to treacherous ice and London is hoping that the second wintry wave approaching on Thursday and Friday doesn't redouble the disruption.