31 December 2010

A river walk to Richmond

On Christmas Eve, another in a series of chilly days in which the temperature hovered around one or two degrees above zero and the ice lingered on footpaths from the recent snow, I set out to stretch my legs on a long walk upriver along the Thames from my home in Southfields to Richmond.  As I used to live in Castelnau near Hammersmith Bridge, and with the early sunset before 4pm in mind, I omitted the loop of the river from Barn Elms round to Barnes Bridge, concentrating on the parts of the route I'm less familiar with - the stretch from Barnes Bridge round to Richmond itself.

I could've easily started with a bus trip down to Putney to shorten the walk, but I decided to allow myself only one bus journey, at the princely sum of £1.20 - the journey back from Richmond.  So I set out through Tibbet's Corner, known for its highwayman connections, crunched across a still icy Putney Heath and down Putney Hill.  I made my way, following my old jogging route from my two-month stint living in Putney, until I reached the eastern apex of Barnes Common.  There I paused to eat an apple whilst observing a gang of suburban dogs frolicking around a heaped mound of snow while their assorted owners looked on and ensured a semblance of good behaviour.  I noticed someone had speared an impromptu walking stick into the turf near my park bench, and took its picture to prove its resemblance to a cheerful moose:

Walking stick, Barnes Common

After my brief pause I resumed the westward walk across the Common, stopping only to admire the frozen pond in genteel Barnes village, which still retains an air of the rural community that it once was before the railway arrived in 1916.  (Didn't get any decent photos there though).  Emerging from the village high street, I finally reached the Thames.  Here's an HDR shot of Barnes Bridge from the east, showing the Thames at low tide with plenty of bird life:

Barnes Bridge

Stag Brewery
Following the Thames Path upriver, I passed the White Hart pub and paused to photograph the imposing Stag Brewery, which was founded in 1811 and used to be London's largest brewery until its closure in 2010.  Nearby I admired some river birds staking out some minnows, including a particularly fine grey heron:

Another kilometre or so upriver the apple was wearing off and I was starting to get really hungry, so I had to take a detour north across Kew Bridge in the hope of finding something to eat.  Clearly this part of the Chiswick High Road wasn't designed with human habitation in mind, because it was a sea of dingy shops cleaved in twain by a growling torrent of motor traffic.  I had to resort to buying a Kitkat from a faceless service station, queuing behind a geezer who put £50 of petrol in his Mercedes coupe and then repeatedly forgot his pin number, which generated a massive line of eye-rolling customers waiting for him to get his act together.  Such is the joy of the Xmas Eve customer experience.

Returning to the Thames Path fuelled by the chocolate hit, I set off on the most appealing part of the walk.  The remainder of the journey was flanked by the leafy expanse of Kew Gardens and the Old Deer Park on my left.  The cold weather meant that I was virtually the only one out walking, which was probably just as well because the paths were still covered in tricky ice and it was better that no-one had to watch my painfully slow progress.

Near the southern boundary of Kew Gardens I admired the view on the far side of the river as the beautiful Syon House hove into view.  Set in a 200 acre park, Syon is the London home of the Duke of Northumberland, and according to its official website, in the 16th century it was also the location of a notable royal event:

In 1547, King Henry VIII's coffin was brought to Syon on its way to Windsor for burial. It burst open during the night and in the morning dogs were found licking up the remains! This was regarded as a divine judgement for the King's desecration of Syon Abbey.

Syon House

A short walk upriver was the Isleworth Ait, one of the Thames' many small islands.  I took this photo nearby as the sun was reaching lower in the sky, lending a pale, interesting light to the scene.  The church on the right is the Isleworth Parish Church (All Saints):


Old Deer Park obelisks
I was now nearly at the end of my walk.  Passing the playing fields and strange obelisks (1778) at the fringes of the Old Deer Park, I was reminded that the nearby King's Observatory (1769) was once the site of the prime meridian, until it moved to Greenwich.  (The obelisks were set up as reference points for the observatory telescopes; the twin pair were directly south of the two main instruments).  As I entered Richmond town, there was just time before I left the Thames Path to photograph the splendid face of Asgill House, an 18th century Palladian villa, before I proceeded to the high street for a much-needed and very late lunch.

Asgill House, Richmond

When I boarded the trusty 493 bus for the much quicker return journey to my flat I could reflect on an enjoyable three and a half hour walk that had taken me 15.7 kilometres along the ancient Thames, and had provided me with an excellent excuse to indulge in some serious trifle and jelly consumption on Christmas Day!

Here's a map of the route I took, including the less than scenic detour to the Chiswick roundabout in search of sustenance:

View River walk to Richmond in a larger map

25 December 2010

My best and worst films of 2010

As 2010 is just about over and I'm unlikely to see any more new releases between now and the New Year, it feels like an opportune moment to share my summary of the year in cinema.  Naturally, it's a fairly hit and miss affair given that I generally fail to see the vast majority of new releases, in part due to general lack of interest and also due to the ridiculous price of new-run movie tickets in London.  Most of my movie viewing is at the excellent Prince Charles just off Leicester Square, where I can see a mix of second-run box-office films and a small-c catholic range of older and more obscure films.  The BBC's Mark Kermode's early tips for his just-announced best film of 2010 include two that I didn't see at all - The Social Network (which I really will make the effort to watch at some point) and Toy Story 3 - so my selection is necessarily from a piecemeal sample of the year's cinematic releases.

Honourable mentions must go to numerous other films that just missed out on the top 10, including Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon), Restrepo, A Serious Man, Tamara Drewe, The Illusionist, Gainsbourg and I Am Love.  And in terms of classic pre-2010 films I've seen on the big screen this year, there's been some real crackers - Metropolis, Rashomon, His Girl Friday, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), Five Easy Pieces, Black Narcissus, Once Upon A Time In The West, It's A Wonderful Life, The Maltese Falcon, Duck Soup and The General.

The top 10 list starts at the top and works downwards.  At the last minute I decided to be mischievous and bump Avatar out of the number 10 spot for something completely different.  While I was very impressed with the visuals of Avatar, and it's great it was a highly successful film at the box-office, there's no disguising that stinker of a script.  But returning to here and now, I predict you won't be particularly surprised by my choice of the best film of 2010...

1. Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)

That a film this audacious and ambitious should be so successful is a tribute to the vision of writer-director Nolan, but it's doubly impressive that Inception is a wilfully, almost perversely complex movie. It challenges audiences to keep up with its multiple layers of perceived reality and contains a scarcely believable amount of exposition that would sink nine out of ten other high-concept efforts. Its special effects are virtuoso but never gratuitous, reminding audiences of the time thought long gone when clever strings of effects made them think, 'how on earth did they do that?' The cast is excellent too, if a little over-powered (did they really need Michael Caine?)

Inception is this decade's The Matrix, but far more challenging of its audience. That it was so successful at the box-office is a ringing endorsement of the power of vibrant new material over the slew of remakes and sequels currently churned out by Hollywood. I'd just change one thing. (No spoilers!) The very last shot - the one that's led to so much speculation about the true meaning of the ending? (Google 'Inception ending' and you get 6.6 million hits). Lose the scene on the porch, then crash to black from the close-up just two seconds earlier. Now that would be my kind of ending.

2. Scott Pilgrim vs The World (dir. Edgar Wright)

In Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Edgar Wright (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) brought a fizzing package of 20-something slacker wit and cyber-age geekage to the big screen, and it's great, great fun to watch - ironic tongue in cheek or not.  Scott must defeat the seven evil ex-boyfriends, oops, sorry, 'evil exes' of Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, surely the embodiment of Avatar's 'unobtainium' in human form), the girl he seeks to woo, which is tricky given that he's played by Michael Cera, who is about as martial as an ice-cream sundae.

My favourite moment is hard to choose. The flaccid post-loo hand flaps that signify Scott's 'now dry your hands' moment when he's, like, totally bummed with existential angst about the hot ex-girlfriend who wrenched his heart in twain? The pleasingly pathetic anxiety attack when Scott realises that Ramona is impulsive enough to change her hair colour every week or two, so how long would she realistically stay with a pasty-faced dweeb like him? The stentorian count-in by girl-drummer Kim to every song by Scott's band, Sex Bob-Omb? Kieran Culkin's arch gay flatmate Wallace, replete with curt wisdom and Puckish troublemaking? ('Look, I didn't write the gay handbook. If you got a problem with it, take it up with Liberace's ghost')  The last-minute raid by the Vegan Police? The bit when Scott's teenage girlfriend Knives Chau utters the immortal words, 'You stole my boyfriend. Taste my steel!' No, I think in honour of its knowing sense of whimsy it has to be the ending, when Scott must face his Greatest Enemy... Himself (duh duh DAA!!) Oh, and by the way, if it's not clear from the above: Scott Pilgrim rocks ultimate!!

3. Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold)

If you've wondered what it's like to grow up on a modern British council estate these days this could be your chance to learn, and while you're at it you can also witness a top performance in this British film that shared the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes festival. Katie Jarvis, who was discovered arguing with her boyfriend at an Essex train station, is excellent as the unloved teen Mia, who finds that the unfamiliar praise and attention offered by her mother's new boyfriend is puncturing her hard-as-nails exterior. But is he just a friend, or is there something more?  A drama with plenty of rough humour, Fish Tank also contains two scenes brimming with tension and genuine uncertainty. Particularly affecting is a scene shot along the factory-flecked fields of the Essex coast east of London, which is almost unbearably tense as the viewer witnesses Mia about to make an awful mistake that could ruin her life and have fatal consequences for another. In another sequence there's a masterfully painterly shot of rare beauty amidst the urban grime, when Mia is framed in the gaping doorway of a massive Essex warehouse with a dozen lifter cranes arrayed carefully in the dusky sky behind her like a spindly alien candelabra. Throughout the film Rebecca Griffiths gets some good lines as Mia's younger sister, the foul-mouthed and hilariously rude Tyler, whose way of expressing affection for her mum's new boyfriend is to inform him, 'I like you - I'll kill you last'.

4. The Ghost (dir. Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski wins plaudits here for making a film featuring Ewan McGregor that isn't as irritating as hell. McGregor is fine as the titular ghost writer who is brought in at the last minute and finds out more than he wants to about the mysterious death of his predecessor.  But part of the reason the film works is the casting of the usually overlooked but reliably excellent Olivia Williams as the wife of Pierce Brosnan's Blair-alike ex-PM, who is holed up in a New England beach house to write his autobiography with the aid of the titular ghost-writer. The Ghost is a pleasingly old-fashioned thriller, much of which is set on a gothic coastline garlanded with glowering stormclouds and steely grey winter surf (France had to double for the US due to Polanski's extradition issues).  And it concludes with a perfectly staged dramatic payoff that evokes something of the cynical spirit of Chinatown.

5. The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

At times the tension is almost too much to bear in this unpredictable and unsentimental depiction of a US Army bomb disposal team in Iraq, with a great lead performance by Jeremy Renner as Sgt James, the fearless and perhaps slightly unhinged bomb tech. While some of the military decision-making seem a little contrived in order to advance the plot, The Hurt Locker generates enough surprises to overcome this. Director Kathryn Bigelow was the deserved Best Director winner at the Oscars, and special mention must go to two artfully crafted scenes: the Barrett rifle shootout in the desert, which evolves into a spirit-sapping long-range siege; and the petrol tanker bombing scene with its dense and clamorous wall of conflicting sounds assailing the dark Baghdad night.

6. Nowhere Boy (dir. Sam Taylor-Wood)

A treat for Beatle buffs, Nowhere Boy fails to be overshadowed by the later news that photographer turned director Sam Taylor-Wood later shacked up with and got pregnant with the baby of her very young lead actor. Tabloid prurience aside, this is a quality early days bi-pic of John Lennon that boasts plenty of strong acting performances, particularly from the ever-stellar Kristen Scott-Thomas as Aunt Mimi and Anne-Marie Duff as Lennon's mother Julia. While the family drama of secrets and lies is compelling, it's also a small joy to see the admittedly predictable Beatles prehistory set-pieces: the be-quiffed Quarrymen playing the Woolton village fete; John's too-cool-for-school pose momentarily punctured by 15-year-old Paul's strikingly proficient busking of 20 Flight Rock; and the studio session to record In Spite Of All The Danger. As the movie closes with a cocksure John setting off for Hamburg to become a rock star, Nowhere Boy makes the perfect companion to the Reeperbahn diary that is 1994's Backbeat - surely a cinema double-billing made in rock heaven.

7. The Brothers Bloom (dir. Rian Johnson)

After his debut film, the effortlessly cool highschool noir flick Brick, Rian Johnson's second feature was always going to be eagerly anticipated. And in The Brothers Bloom, Johnson brings together a perfectly-chosen cast (Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and the ever-lovely Rachel Weisz), a Wes Anderson-alike quantity of exotic Eastern European filming locations, plenty of deft sight gags and a nimble story of two brothers (Brody and Ruffalo) pulling off the ultimate con on a lonely and slightly batty heiress (Weisz). Perhaps it's a trifle overlong, but I suspect that when you've made a low-budget film filled with this much onscreen spark and wry humour, you just don't want to call it a day. By the time the end came I certainly didn't.

8. Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion)

You don't have to like poetry to appreciate Bright Star.  The quality of the acting performances aside, the real star of Jane Campion's recounting of the doomed love of the poet Keats and Fanny Brawne, is the remarkable imagery. So many scenes beg for a pause button so you can sit back and admire this artfully constructed film. The heady bliss of young love in springtime is richly evoked by the beautiful Cornish in particular, but it is Campion's inventiveness that seals the deal with a flurry of memorable vignettes, from the perfect opening macro shot of a needle being threaded, to the riotous colours of the English woodlands in full bloom, to the inevitable sombre procession through the deserted streets of Rome. For those who found The Piano a touch too melodramatic or are reluctant to see a film featuring poetry, banish your fears, because this one's a real winner.

9. Four Lions (dir. Chris Morris)

For the most part Four Lions is brilliant slapstick comedy with a dark edge, as its foolish jihadist loons compete with each other in the idiocy stakes. The one cool customer, Omar, manages to hold things together despite the dangerously low IQs and the raging ego of his main rival for the group's leadership, the megalomaniacal Muslim convert Barry. Of course, the ending in a film like this is always going to be challenging, and I won't give it away. But it was certainly laugh-out-loud in parts, sometimes in an awful way.  And as the Guardian pointed out, Four Lions is ultimately 'brutally unimpressed with the moral idiocy of suicide bombing and suggests that the only sane response is derisive laughter'. Remember, this is a Chris Morris film, so you probably know not to expect cuddles, right?

10. Easy A (dir. Will Gluck)

While Easy A isn't quite in the league of the great teen comedies of the 80s that it lovingly references, it certainly stands head and shoulders above many other run-of-the-mill contemporary efforts. Emma Stone is consistently charming as the quick-witted and well-meaning Olive, the line-toeing high-school girl whose white lies about fictitious promiscuity (told in a good cause) snowball into a viral ostracism of epic proportions. Paralleling Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, which is the set text of her English class, she dons a red letter 'A' ('adulterer'), but in Olive's case it's to cock a snook at the ludicrous school moralists who gang up against her for the sins they believe she's committed. This catapults Olive to a momentary thrilling notoriety, but matters take a darker turn when she is accused of distinctly discreditable behaviour and has no way of refuting the lie, or, for that matter, of ever attracting the attention of the boy she really does like.

Stone carries the film with great aplomb, and never fails to light up a scene with her deft comic timing and wry, husky drawl. Amanda Bynes is often hilarious as the cartoonishly puritanical schoolyard god-squadder Marianne, who leads an obsessive bitch-hunt against Olive; one memorably over-the-top scene sees Marianne grinding a series of pencils into dust while Olive mercilessly eggs on her rival's impotent fury. (Sample dialogue - Marianne: "There's a higher power that will judge you for your indecency". Olive: "Tom Cruise?") H
onourable mention must also go to Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive's open-minded and supportive parents, whose witty banter with their brainy daughter never descends into parody or cliche.

There are few quibbles in this solid work. Olive is supposed to be a social nobody with no boyfriend in sight, which is a little hard to swallow given how stunning Stone clearly is. In one scene Lisa Kudrow's school guidance counsellor character has to react to some terrible news and is given very slightly sweary dialogue to fit into the PG-13 guidelines, but the words simply don't ring true given the scale of the event she's reacting to. And for a film that harks back to the great teen films of the 80s, the carefully presaged big random musical number near the end doesn't come off as a show-stopper and lacks the believability of the rest of the film. These are tiny niggles though. All in all, Easy A is a thoroughly enjoyable film that can be savoured by anyone with an appreciation of strong comic performances and the continuing power of the high school rumour mill to make and break a young woman's reputation, even if the rumours aren't true.


And now for the five films that failed to set my world alight in 2010.  They're not all bad, naturally - often it's just a case of missed opportunities leading to disappointing results.  So, in reverse order from the least worst to the epitome of actual badness, here's my bottom five films of 2010...

5. Alice In Wonderland (dir. Tim Burton)

Alice in Wonderland is quite a let-down after expectations were raised by Tim Burton taking the reins. Here's a film with a lot of potential: top director, great talent and a classic story. Yet it emerged a confused, scattershot mishmash, with a last-minute conversion to 3D not helping proceedings at all. (I saw the 2D version). Johnny Depp's all-over-the-place performance as the Mad Hatter is occasionally irritating, and even Helena Bonham Carter's revivification of Miranda Richardson's Queenie act from Blackadder, which surely was ripe for a winning performance, descends into cliche with one too many repetitions of 'off with their heads!' Oh well. At least Burton managed to feature a stretch-limbed George McFly (aka Crispin Glover) fulfilling his 'density' as the Red Queen's evil henchman Stayne.

4. Crazy Heart (dir. Scott Cooper)

While Crazy Heart boasts a good cast and contains some reasonable performances from Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film's Walk The Line-meets-The Wrestler vibe is also obviously a calculated case of lazy Oscars-by-numbers thinking. It's a pity, then, that nothing much of note actually happens in this May to September romance to drag it above the level of telemovie fare. But probably its worst failing is that despite Jeff Bridges' strong singing voice, the songs he's given to perform aren't particularly memorable. From T-Bone Burnett, who gave us the excellent music of O Brother Where Art Thou and Walk The Line, this is a sub-par effort.

3. The Lovely Bones (dir. Peter Jackson)

Saoirse Ronan is very good in her role, but the reputation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones as an almost unfilmable book seems intact. Despite the talent and experience of Peter Jackson & co. being brought to bear on this project, it fails to rise above its turgid voiceover (the dead apparently talk... REALLY... slowly...) and implausible plot. Most irritatingly, there are seemingly no real-world clues that lead Susie's family to her murderer, which is both sloppy and inexcusable for writers of such quality.  While there are occasional moments of impressive CGI inventiveness, they fail to compensate for an ill-thought-out and less than compelling narrative.

2. Greenberg (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Ben Stiller enjoys playing damaged goods - witness his quality performance in The Royal Tenenbaums. In Greenberg he aims for the wounded fragility that Steve Carell managed with aplomb in Little Miss Sunshine, but as the newly out of psychiatric care Roger Greenberg, all he can do is prove that the character he's playing is really quite unpleasant and relentlessly self-absorbed. Greta Gerwig's performance as the much younger love-interest is likeable although far-fetched, and it's pleasing to see the former Super Furry Animals singer Rhys Ifans in a decent supporting role as an old pal of Greenberg's. It's a black comedy, but I only laughed once: at a party full of college kids Greenberg puts Duran Duran on the stereo because 'it's great coke music', only to recoil in entirely justifiable horror when all they want to do is listen to Korn. Kids these days, what do they know?

1. I’m Still Here (dir. Casey Affleck)

On the plus side, the poster's not bad.  I'm not quite sure what Phoenix and Affleck were thinking when they planned this mockumentary. Maybe they'd been watching Extras and wanted to emulate its knowing insider take on show business. But whether it's meant to be spoof of self-obsessed superstar egos or the vicious overexposure of the celebrity universe that sees ghoulish attention devoted to famous people going through mental breakdowns, that's beside the point because I'm Still Here is often profoundly tedious viewing. Phoenix's pot-bellied, grimy-haired, drug-addled star caricature is such an obnoxious asshat that there can be little sympathy as his foolish dream of releasing a rap album goes down the toilet. The only scenes that raise a smirk are the presumably unscripted appearance on Letterman (for which Phoenix and Affleck later apologised) and Sean Combs' deadpan (scripted) interviews with Phoenix as he is forced to listen to the rubbish material he's come up with. As the film draws to a close Phoenix is reduced to starting spurious punch-ups at live performances in order to compound the idiocy of the character he's playing.  One of the few movies I've seriously considered walking out of.

17 December 2010

I lost my hair in the service of my country

Yes, Prime Minister

Gielgud Theatre

Shaftesbury Ave

DSC00003 (7)Last night I met my quiz-teammates from the Bank of Friendship Thursday night pub quiz to attend the stage production of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s famous 1980s political sitcom Yes, Prime Minister.  The TV version, now regarded as a modern comedy institution, solidified the fame of Paul Eddington, who appeared as the hapless Minister (and later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker, and gave rise to a classic comedy performance by Nigel Hawthorne as the archetypal Whitehall mandarin, Sir Humphrey Appleby.  With much residual goodwill from the success of the TV series, would the stage version live up to the high standards of the earlier incarnation?

The play updates the characters to 2010 with a quick nod at the current coalition environment, and throws in a Blackberry joke or two.  But it’s the same grand game of indecision and obfuscation that viewers enjoyed onscreen 25 years ago.  Hacker is still alarmingly less on top of the political game than he should be; Sir Humphrey is still effortlessly disarming and fond of lengthy and verbose orations signifying absolutely nothing; and the long-suffering Bernard tries to skirt the perennial middle course between the two competing worldviews of his political boss and his bureaucratic boss.  A new character is introduced, Claire, the PM’s special adviser, to feed Hacker handy hints to undermine Sir Humphrey’s machinations.

The stage performance is enjoyable, and there’s plenty of humour inherent in the continual ramping-up of crises onto Hacker’s shoulders as he flails for a solution to all his many problems.  Chief among these is the general economic downturn and the impending failure of a European summit that he has called, but which is spiralling to failure.  A dodgy Central Asian oil deal might rescue matters, but comes with plenty of strings attached.  The oil deal contains what is perhaps the best visual joke of the play, when the pan-European solution for an oil pipeline route is displayed on a huge projection screen, with the route snaking endlessly through every single EU nation, thereby ensuring plenty of pork-barrel political dividends for all concerned. 

The cast does a good job with the material, if seldom attaining the polished excellence of the TV cast.  Henry Goodman is appealingly smooth as Sir Humphrey, and pulls off his signature soliloquys with aplomb.  Experienced theatre actor David Haig, perhaps best known for his small role as Bernard the groom in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is very different in delivery to Paul Eddington, offering a more frenetic portrayal as the pressure mounts, but as a bald man he does get to utter the treasurable line, ‘I lost my hair in the service of my country’.  RSC actor Jonathan Slinger does well with the betwixt-and-between Bernard, and acts as the moral compass of the piece.  He has a moment of delightful physical comedy when the PM instructs him rather firmly that ‘we’re all casual here’, and Bernard reluctantly swings his suit jacket over his shoulder and pretends to be relaxed.  (Sir Humphrey refuses to go even that far; he merely pops his pocket handkerchief down in his suit pocket, out of view, in the merest concession to informality).  Emily Joyce, who appeared opposite Ardal O’Hanlon in My Hero, is assertive and striding as the political fixer Claire, offering Hacker the confidence and know-how he seems to lack.  Claire’s lack of moral scruples is a useful if potentially risky counterpoint to Bernard’s comparative morality.

The substance of the play follows the same story arc as the TV episodes conformed to, with the smokes and mirrors of policy-making and political horse-trading to the fore.  But while the TV series wore its cynicism lightly and benefitted from a skilled comic touch that imparted sympathetic qualities in all its main characters, the 2010 version of Yes, Prime Minister, is darker fare.  The central dilemma that Hacker must decide upon is the demand of the Central Asian republic’s foreign minister for an under-aged girl for the night, which is a subject matter far removed from the spirit of the TV version.  Perhaps the writers have become more cynical since the 1980s, or perhaps they have been influenced by the brilliant if nihilistic portrayal of the political sphere of The Thick Of It and In The Loop, in which anything goes and matters of right or wrong are eternally fluid, particularly if you can get away with something on the QT.  I’m not so naive as to believe that this sort of political crisis doesn’t happen in real life, but its inclusion paints a much bleaker picture of the characters than the TV series, and ultimately undermines the ability of the audience to sympathise with them.

Similarly, an outburst of curious climate-scepticism from Sir Humphrey is unquestioningly treated as gospel, when the writers are clearly aware that such theories have little scientific merit.  It’s convenient as a plot point, so for the purposes of the play global warming is a hoax.  Which is taking something of a liberty with the facts!

Fans of the TV series will welcome the opportunity to delve back into the world of Yes, Prime Minister, and as one of those fans I can recommend it as an enjoyable evening’s entertainment, despite my qualms.  Perhaps, despite the stated inclination of the writers not to go through the TV writing process again, the play will even generate enough interest to spawn another incarnation of the sitcom on British screens.  Certainly the public’s view of the political environment is every bit as cynical as it was in the 1980s, so audiences may be receptive.  If it does, perhaps Jay and Lynn would do well to remember that the original series worked so well because it was in essence an affectionate behind-the-scenes portrait of the political environment, rather than a cynical critique.

See also:

Notes to the Principal Private Secretary (Sir Humphrey blogs)

14 December 2010

Anish Kapoor: Turning the world upside down

Kapoor1Almost a year ago I discovered an art installation consisting of clutches of reflective spheres in the courtyard of Burlington House on Piccadilly.  This turned out to be a piece called Tall Tree and the Eye by Anish Kapoor.  Fast forward to the present; I was wandering through Hyde Park at the weekend when I noticed a sign mentioning a series of installations by Kapoor dotted around Kensington Gardens, collectively known as Turning the World Upside Down.  It wasn’t great photography weather, but the artworks were appealing and one in particular was built on an impressive scale.  Here’s a few pictures with a map at the end (which was on a park sign that was a bit muddy, hence the splotches).

Sky Mirror [2006]

Emerging from Lancaster Gate tube station, enter the park and pass to the right of the Italian Gardens with its four shallow pools, each conveniently sporting a wooden ramp so ducks can extract themselves from the water when the levels are low.  Pass the Peter Pan statue on your right and walk alongside the Longwater for a few minutes, and then you’ll come across this:


The huge reflective disc is slightly concave from this side, and is tilted back on an angle like a giant incongruous satellite dish.  I’ll have to go back on a day with a nice blue sky!


Walking around to the other side of the lake allows a closer look at the disc and gives a better idea of the scale – its diameter is over 10 metres.  There must be a whole lot of concrete holding that up.


Non-Object (Spire) [2007]

The next installation was a short walk to the west, at a junction of walking paths near a well-known equestrian statue known as ‘Physical Energy’.  The three metre tall spire was my favourite Kapoor installation, despite having to listen to a self-confident American dad explaining to his family in a loud voice that this one was the least impressive of the four – he said it three times!  It hints at complicated mathematical formulae, and I loved the unpredictable reflections of the trees.  In practical terms, as the smallest of the four installations it was the easiest to photograph without other people getting in the shot. 


SONY DSCI was particularly interested in the spire’s own reflection near the base, which resembled a vortex in a glass of water when you stir it vigorously.  Here’s a treated close-up, which gives an idea of its slightly alien otherworldliness.


C-Curve [2007]

A short distance to the south, the eye-bending C-Curve is a distorting circus mirror on a grand scale.  The exterior of the 7.7 metre curve displays an expanded panorama, while on the inside the view is compressed and inverted.



Sky Mirror, Red [2007]

Perched in the shallow Round Pond near Kensington Palace like a goose’s umbrella, the slightly concave 2.9 metre red mirror has the advantage of the most scenic backdrop.  It’s not clear from the photos but the pond water further out from the edge is frozen; I saw one family deploying a rescue ring to try to recover their dog’s tennis ball that had bounced out onto the ice.  






11 December 2010

A Sassenach in the snow

SONY DSC [Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street]

Two weeks ago at the end of November I spent a long weekend revisiting Edinburgh.  It had been far too long since my last visit to Scotland – more than three years in fact, and that was a trip for work so I didn’t have much time to explore on foot.  Seeing as ex-Wellington netball teammate Fiona lives there now and kindly offered the use of her spare room, I thought it was high time to return and renew my connection with Edinburgh’s sights and attractions. 

On the Friday evening a minivan trundled me slowly from West Brompton and around the M25 to Gatwick, with the crisp night air outside displaying all the hallmarks of the cold snap that was sweeping over Britain.  Indeed, as the Easyjet plane climbed out northwards from London the pilot revealed that the temperature at Gatwick was actually colder than that in Edinburgh.  Snow was forecast, so I was looking forward to a white weekend.  But I didn’t quite expect the volume of snow that was dumped all over Scotland, which had a major impact on the weekend’s activities.

I didn’t arrive until relatively late on Friday night, so the only mission of the evening was to head for Fiona’s digs in Portobello, which is a sea-side suburb east of the city centre.  I took the convenient airport link bus into Princes Street in the middle of Edinburgh, and from the bus stop outside Jenners department store and across from the Walter Scott Memorial I boarded another bus for the journey out to Portobello.  There I caught up with Fiona and heard about her life in Edinburgh and work at the University, and we reminiscing about Wellington and the travails of Top Shelf indoor netball games.


SONY DSC Saturday morning arrived with a healthy layer of snow outside and a temperature hovering just below freezing.  Our initial plan was to take a daytrip out to Stirling to see the castle there, but upon arrival at Edinburgh Waverley station we discovered that there were no direct services and the next indirect service had been cancelled.  Stirling was put in the too hard basket, and instead we walked up to the Royal Mile to admire the heart of old Edinburgh.  After venturing inside the graceful St Giles Cathedral, we trooped along with the crowds to the top of the Mile to visit Edinburgh Castle (pictured above). 

There were large crowds milling about, and it turned out this was due to free entrance for St Andrew’s Day weekend.  We enjoyed the spectacular views over the whole of modern Edinburgh, and a side-trip to the National War Museum of Scotland, which contained some interesting exhibits on Scottish martial exploits, including some pleasingly old-school recruiting posters and a Scottish royal standard once flown by Otago troops in the New Zealand defence of Crete in 1941. 

The grand hall in the old inner sanctum of the castle was the meeting-place of the Scottish Parliament until 1639, and its refurbished interior impressed with its bright stained-glass windows and the original hammer-beamed roof, painted in a bright and cheery shade of red to liven up the long winter days. 


[Arthur’s Seat from Edinburgh Castle]



[Clockwise from top left: Seaforth Highlanders regimental recruiting poster; stained glass windows in the Great Hall; New Zealand Otago infantry Scots royal emblem from the Battle of Crete, 1941; hammer-beam ceiling of the Great Hall] 


We also took a detour to view the Scottish crown jewels – a crown, sceptre and sword, which were lost for over a century after Union of 1707 and not rediscovered until 1818.  This proved to be an mixed blessing, because while the regalia was interesting to behold, the relentlessly slow and winding queue for the small viewing room took an age to snake its way through stuffy, poorly-ventilated chambers.  A set of replicas in a larger, more comfortable gallery would have sufficed.

After the castle we returned to the new town across the gardens, where we met Fiona’s friend Rebecca.  After pausing at an Italian cafe for some coffee and cake we ventured back out into the chill and into one of the outdoor German Christmas markets that have taken the UK by storm in the past decade.  Fighting our way through the crowds, we supped delicious gl├╝hwein and admired the lights of the winter funfair in the park beside the Walter Scott Memorial.  Don’t think I’d be keen to ride on a Ferris wheel when it’s minus five degrees, no matter how warmly I’m wrapped up!



SONY DSC The next morning the snow was even thicker, and there was plenty more forecast to fall through the day.  I was determined to visit Stirling, so we decided to try our luck at the train station.  The trains turned out to be running despite the weather, so we set off from Edinburgh Waverley for the hour-long journey inland to Stirling, home of a famous castle that rivals Edinburgh’s own for its spectacular site.  The countryside was blanketed in a thick layer of snowdrifts, and during our visit the sky was seldom without a fresh batch of flakes fluttering down. 

SONY DSCStirling Castle sits atop a crag overlooking the town, which affords it commanding views over the surrounding plains and contributed to its position as the strategic heart of medieval Scotland.  Hold the bridge at Stirling, it was said, and you control the kingdom.  We made our way up the slippery hill, pausing to brave the blustery hilltop wind to admire the beauty of the thick drifts covering the churchyard of the medieval Church of the Holy Rude (pictured right and below). 



The castle, which has been besieged at least eight times during its long history, was just a short step away.  Upon clambering the remaining short distance to the gatehouse we were impressed with the splendid views over the surrounding terrain, but less than impressed by the firmness with which the castle gates were shut.  There was no sign of life within its walls, no note pinned to the gate, and no cars cluttering the carpark.  Disappointed, we paused to admire the view of the famous sites beneath the castle.  The site of the old Stirling Bridge over the Forth River was the site of a stirring victory by William Wallace over the English in 1297, and overlooking it is the Wallace Monument, a spindly Victorian Gothic tower erected in 1869 to honour the Scottish national hero.  A short way to the south, the village of Bannockburn was the site of a notorious Scottish defeat at the hands of Edward II in 1314.

Stitched Panorama

We traipsed back down the slippery road to town, and thought to pay a quick visit to the nearest pub to ask if they knew why the castle was shut.  Here we discovered the castle staff, who had settled in for a Sunday drink seeing as their workplace was closed.  We were told that the castle was shut ‘for health and safety reasons’, and that it was the first time the castle had failed to open in seven years.  Just my luck to visit on that day!  Although I wasn’t particularly impressed with the castle attendants’ fortitude.  If we Sassenachs (well, I’m one, anyway) could get up there safely on foot I don’t see why they couldn’t open the place up.  

SONY DSC In lieu of a castle visit we enjoyed a walk along the woodland paths around the castle crag, and admired the fine wooden statue adorning the nearby John Cowane’s Hospital, which was opened in 1639 ‘for the entertainement of decayed gild brethren’ (pictured right).

Returning to town with a little more time on our hands, we visited the pleasant Smith Art Gallery & Museum, which allowed me my closest glimpse so far of a red squirrel (yes, it was stuffed, in a glass case), and contained an exhibit of the world’s oldest football, which was accidentally kicked up into the rafters of Stirling Castle at some point in the 1540s or earlier and then walled up until the 1970s.


Finally we made our way back to Portobello, where we watched Antiques Roadshow, Garrow’s Law and even a bit of Strictly, so now I can say I’ve actually seen Ann Widdecombe’s admittedly hilarious dancefloor atrocities with my own disbelieving eyes.


Monday morning dawned with yet more snow falling.  Do you sense a theme developing?  Fiona headed off to work, and I made my way to town on the bus a short while later.  Edinburgh buses, or at least the ones I travelled on, take ages to get anywhere because there are a simply astonishing number of bus stops peppered along the route.  Edinburghers must hate walking!  On one straight stretch of the 26 bus route, the one running from Portobello to the city along Portobello Rd, Piersfield Tce and London Rd, there are (I think) 21 bus stops over a distance of 3880 metres – that’s an average of only 184 metres between stops.  Every time the bus pulled over I had to resist the temptation to look out the back window to see if the rear wheels were still alongside the previous stop. 

When I finally reached Princes Street I made my way up to the old town, where I visited the National Museum of Scotland, which opened in 1998 and is very much in the ‘new museum’ style of Te Papa in Wellington.  As I explored the exhibits there were few other visitors, due to the challenging conditions outside, so I had plenty of room to wander.  The historic collections were appealing, particularly in the medieval section.  This boasted the tiny Monymusk Reliquary, the 8th century casket that was reputed to hold relics of St Columba, and was regarded as the sacred battle emblem of Scottish armies.  A selection of the famous 12th century Lewis Chessmen were also displayed.  These were intriguing but also noteworthy due to the relatively poor condition of the specimens in comparison with those held by the British Museum in London.  Whatever their state, the shield-biter pawns still raise a smile after eight centuries.


The rest of the museum dealt with Scotland’s rich modern history, and I among the many exhibits I particularly enjoyed seeing the lyrics of ‘Letter From America’, signed by Craig and Charlie Reid of the Proclaimers.  But I also found some of the display methodology a little irritating.  In the museum’s quest to be inclusive and non-intimidating to younger visitors, it has shifted from displaying facts about interesting objects towards displaying what young people feel about the objects, with observations from members of the museum’s youth board alongside (and therefore reducing the space available for) the historical blurbs.  And the fondness for nebulous spiritualism in the form of po-faced poetry excerpts attempting to illustrate thematic points could probably be done without too.  But don’t let me put you off visiting the museum – it’s free after all.

SONY DSCAfterwards I ventured across the street to the famous Greyfriars Kirkyard, where the iconic canine Greyfriars Bobby pined at his master’s graveside for over a decade until his own death in 1872.  The real attraction on the day I visited was the beautiful rolling snowdrifts, which were almost pristine.  Well, until I traipsed through them to get my pictures, that is.  The sun shone from the crispest of blue skies, lending the scene an almost filmic quality. 

SONY DSC DSC08426_7_8 Stitched Panorama 


Not long after sunset (which is around four o’clock in winter-time) I collected my bags from Fiona’s place and made my way back out to the airport.  There had been plenty of flight cancellations but the Easyjet website had no up-to-date information on whether or not my particular flight had been cancelled.  I decided I had to try to reach the flight, even if the chances of travelling were dwindling.  Indeed, on arrival at Edinburgh airport it took less than five minutes to determine that the flight, and all other flights scheduled for that evening, was indeed cancelled.  I collected a refund claim form and made my way back to Portobello for an unscheduled fourth night in Scotland!


SONY DSC The next morning I renewed my goodbyes and made my way to Waverley station, having booked a one-way train ticket back to London because there was little chance of the airport re-opening.  My 9.30am train was cancelled but as luck would have it the 9am train had yet to leave, so I bounded aboard and secured a window seat for the journey back to King’s Cross.  This was scheduled to take under four and a half hours, but in the end took over six hours due to snow delays on the line and a missing driver in Newcastle (!).  The countryside views were superb, but I cursed the lack of space in my cabin luggage, which meant I hadn’t brought my noise-cancelling headphones.  So for six long hours I had to put up with Loud Scottish Businesswoman honking into her Blackberry every ten minutes, a noisy pair of Norwegian guys who talked as if they were seated ten metres apart instead of next to each other, and the young Spanish kid in the seat behind me whose mother seemed content for him to make farty noises with his palm for at least 45 minutes.  Yes, if I learned one thing on this trip, it’s that I should never travel without noise cancelling technology again!