Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be

Here we have John Cleese representing Britain doing a Silly Walk over the edge of a cliff. It is a fitting image for the increasingly farcical - not to say threatening - situation here.  In fact, yesterday morning, I burst into laughter reading the latest news headlines on my phone.  "Someone," I said, "should write a play about this."

For those of you overseas, I'd say that here in Britain there has just been a national referendum vote to leave the European Union, a decision which will smash up much of our industry, devalue our currency, change our laws and, indeed, totally change all our lives.  All of us, no matter what we voted, are now reeling from the barrage of disturbing and unprecedented events in reaction to this.    It really seems as if the imps are in charge here, or perhaps those amoral and mischievous fairy free spirits of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. 

So, it is appropriate if I now tell you about the amazing performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" which T and I went to see on Sunday at the Globe Theatre, on the South Bank of the Thames. That's it in the picture below. As you probably know, it's a thatched and half-timbered reconstruction of the theatre that stood a few metres away in which William Shakespeare and his company performed his own plays.

The theatre is circular, with the centre open to the skies.  Pay £5 and you can stand in this pit for three hours and watch the play from very close.  In Shakespeare's day the lowly people who could only afford a cheap price were called "groundlings" - the richer folk sat in wooden galleries all around.   

It rained, (it has been raining almost non stop this month) and we draped ourselves in waterproofs, but believe me, it was worth it.   What an amazing production it was, a bit like a panto, a bit like a musical, with every single member of the cast most astonishingly talented at singing, dancing, comedy and, of course, declaiming Shakespeare. 

The stage is very splendid, the set and costumes a mixture of Bollywood (see the lady with the sitar at the top), rock festival and B movie. 

Beautifully performed though the play was, the production was not one for the purists. (in fact, I even noticed some lines from John Donne's "To His Mistress Going To Bed" slipped in towards the end, which certainly isn't in the play I thought I knew).   Yet, it surely must have felt like this in Shakespeare's day, I thought, as the audience rocked with laughter, shouted at the actors and clapped to the music - and once again I realised what a great playwright Shakespeare was. A few mysterious 16th century jokes and stretches of dialogue were omitted, and sharp modern references (usually wordless) were inserted in the production, but then Shakespeare would have wanted the audience to understand and get involved with the play.  

And they certainly did. Helena was re-imagined as Helenus, a gay Asian man, (played by Ankur Bahl)/  Titania, Queen of the Fairies, was wittily played by the fabulous cabaret singer Meow Meow, and attended by bizarrely painted half-animal fairies of both sexes, bursting with priimitive energy and an utter abandonment, which I feel is how those very un-cute fairies should be played. 

Rather than Athens, the play was set in London, at the Globe, in fact. A bookish, prim and bespectacled Hermia falls for Lysander, a beautiful hipster from Hoxton - one of London's coolest areas -clad in black jeans and a Jack Kerouac teeshirt and preening and posing with his guitar. 

"Night and silence! Who is here?
Weeds of Hoxton he doth wear" 

cries Robin as he finds them asleep in the wood, Hermia zipped into her practical blue nylon tent and Lysander sleeping outside in his underpants.

Out of courtesy for the actors, I didn't photograph during the performance, but here  is Oberon, (a masterly performance by Zubin Varla) smoking a pipe on stage just before the second half begins. 

 I am sorry to say that didn't get any shots of the Rude Mechanicals, who were played as staff from the Globe Theatre, laying aside their mops and brooms to put on some truly excruciating, and very funny, amateur dramatics.   My very favourite character was probably Katy Owen as Puck, solemn faced and pale, with little horns, glittery light-up trainers and a ruff,  leaping and cavorting so lightly that she almost seemed to bounce as she hurled herself about the stage.  

 Everyone was smiling happily as we left, and I realised why there'd been such a long queue for returns, because this really is one to go and see. If  you'd like to read more about the production, here's a link.     And so we returned back to equally crazy London, which did look rather good, with St. Paul's illuminated across the river.

It was certainly a good distraction from the rest of the chaos here. The Prime Minister has resigned, first refusing to formally trigger our departure from the EU.  The main opposition party, Labour, is also falling apart, so at present the country is effectively leaderless. The campaigners to leave EU have been forced to admit that most of what they told the public was pure lies, and that they have absolutely no idea what to do now because they never planned anything.   The stock exchange has plunged like a roller coaster on the downward slope, the pound's exchange rate fell to 1985 levels. Scotland planned to vote again to devolve.   Last night in the European Cup football, England* lost to Iceland (pop 323,000). And the tennis was stopped because of rain at Wimbledon. Then a huge crowd gathered outside the Houses of Parliament protesting against leaving the EU. 

T. and I went for a walk into London, to the Guildhall, where we saw a fantastic display of photos by Martin Parr  He has an uncanny gift for simply catching people as the eat dinner, relax, go on holiday or dress up. They are not exactly artistic photos, but they are kindly and truthful, and often amusing.  Take a look at his website for some of his images, and here is a photo I took inside the exhibition - there was, I hasten to add, a sign saying "Photography Allowed"!.

They remind me of spies or something in a Peter Sellars film, and I love the statue on the right.

On the way home I checked my phone and found things had got weirder.So I will go to bed wondering what will happen next.

By the way, if you'd like to know what the news was that I saw on my phone, click this link from Buzzfeed.  It's not entirely serious. But believe me, you can't be serious about this situation. It is too frightening. I have never known anything like it in my life.  This is surely the biggest ever crisis to hit Britain in peacetime. If you don't laugh you might scream.

Have a good evening!

*thanks, Mike!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Canal Distraction

My older daughter's decided to ignore the EU referendum, since she feels her peace of mind is worth more. The torrents of emotive words cascading from  TV, radio, emails and the internet are quite disturbing, but thank goodness most people I meet face to face are fed up of it all too, so it doesn't get discussed much.      

Exercise is a good distraction, but the weather has not smiled on us - mainly dark clouds or torrential downpours - ah, the English summer!  But one day it was sunny and we got in a bike ride from Camden Lock to Hackney Marshes via the Regents Canal.  And how nice it was! This canal has always been full of quirky things to see, and has been rapidly changing of late.

Anyway, this time, the first new thing that met my eyes at Camden Lock was Amy Winehouse and God, (I suppose), who was directing angels to carry Amy up to heaven.

She looks relieved, I'd say.

She looks happy about it, which is good.      A little further down the canal, I reached a canal bridge.  The picture below was taken in 2010, and shows the view as it was then. These evocative gasometers were seen beyond the Camley St. wildlife park, with the pinnacle of St Pancras to the right.

In 2012 the same scene looked like this (below). The gasometers were gone, they were being moved over to the other side of the river  to have - yes - luxury flats, of course,  built inside them,  

And NOW, here's the photo I took the other day showing that those flats are complete. To me they seem to make nothing of the wonderful shape of the gasometers.  

However, a tiny circular park has been built inside one of the gasometers.  You're not allowed to sit on the grass - well, I hope THAT will change!  and it is surrounded by mirrored pillars and a pierced roof covering the path. I quite liked it but couldn't help wondering whose job it will be to polish all the mirrors after they've been out in the rain for a few months!

It's always fun seeing the narrowboats on London canals.  A nice thing about them is how you can use the roof as a sort of garden, like this blue haired lady relaxing with her book.

Maybe she got it from the boat bookshop

It has a cosy old fashioned feel to it, inside, and the books aren't expensive.

A bit further down, there was a mini garden for mini children, their tiny shoes were neatly ranged along the side, with a washable Astroturf lawn.

These plants were growing in boots and shoes. I was trying to decide what I'd plant in the ladies shoes on the right but then discovered that I don't actually like the idea of plants growing in shoes. I don't know why, really.. 

Had to smile at these kids, it was obviously their first time on the water and they were paddling themselves into walls and into the side of bridges, and into each other, but having a great time.  

They probably came from the Pirate Castle.  (this mosaic was snapped in 2012, I hope it's still there)

Their HQ is actually shaped like a castle..

There are some fabulous mosaics along the canal, but my favourites were always the Laburnum Rd School mosaics. When I first went down the canal, they were intact and glittering.  Over the years, they fell into disrepair, and the wall on which they were mounted has started to fall to bits and get overgrown. I've searched for photos of them in their prime - I know I took some - but even though my filing system is good, I can't find them.  I felt a bit like an archaeologist  uncovering the ruins of some wonderful civilisation.  These are two of the Laburnum Road kids, still just about visible.

The mosaic pieces were particularly beautiful, all kinds of shades and mother of pearl.

Trees have grown on top of these walls, so their roots run right along the wall, looking weirdly like the trees have feet....  or tentacles

like Kang and Kodos in the Simpsons...

At Islington, the canal goes through a long tunnel. 

Two narrowboats can pass each other in the tunnel with a few inches to spare.  In the days when the boats were pulled by horses, the boy that led the horse would lead the horse to the other end of the tunnel, and the boatmen would leg it through - lying on their backs on the top of the boat, pushing at the roof and/or sides of the tunnel with their legs. 

I've always liked old forgotten places, and I'm fond of this mostly derelict group of houses as you approach Hackney.  

The bow fronts of the ones on the right show that they were once part of a bow fronted Regency terrace

It would have looked a bit like these houses (they're not in London but are built in that style..)  I think they'd have been charming in 1825. Very Jane Austen. Now the place is a coach depot. I think it's beyond rescue, though there is always hope (and pizza)

We left the Regents Canal at Victoria Park, Hackney.  It's a good park, but I'll write about the onward journey some other time.  We did spot someone settled in for the day in the park with his laptop, papers, phone and in fact entire office. He said that he preferred working in the park to being inside.

And just where we left the canal, I spotted a moorhen flying along with a large orange carrier bag in its beak. By the time I'd go the camera out, it had returned to the water. It busily dragged the bag behind a boat and left it there.  I don't suppose moorhens really have a litter patrol, so  wondered what it thought it was doing!

I'll leave you with some music by Bela Fleck. I have a really ambivalent feeling about this music. I honestly don't know if I love it or hate it, so it suits my mood of uncertainty at the moment. I'll certainly be very glad when the referendum is over, so we know what we will be living with.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Spring is Here!

Why haven't I been blogging in the last month or so? I think it's because I've been enjoying the outdoors as much as I can - this is my favourite time of year.    Here are a few snapshots of what I've been up to while getting out and about.

Everyone has been posting photos of bluebells this year, it must be a good year for them. Mine was taken in beechwoods near Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire. Got up very early and so those long shadows are early ones.  It was wonderful to be out at the start of a promising new day.

We had the chance to stay at a friend's cottage in Suffolk for a week, and collected stones on the beach at Dunwich.  The stones on the shore are always interesting and I have collected a few eye catching ones in my time. I live in hope of finding one whose markings look exactly like Elvis's face, so I can sell it for a fortune on eBay.

Dunwich is very interesting because most of it has been swallowed up by the sea.  If you ever go, there is a first rate little museum which gives the curious history of the place.   Here's a picture of what it used to look like.   At the bottom is an aerial view of Dunwich today. Above that is the beach, and above that is medieval Dunwich, before it was consumed  I suspect that some of the stones we now find on the beach are originally part of medieval houses, worn into smoothness by the sea.

Just across the border in Norfolk I came across one of the fascinating stained glass windows I ever saw, made of fragments of glass of different ages and styles.  Assembling the glass was a kind of hobby for the original owner, an eighteenth century archdeacon, and the result is in the local church.. Here is just a part of the window, and if you can enlarge you'll see the detail. If you are a glass buff,  you might notice just from the look of it that some of the class is many centuries old.

Back in London a beautiful cycle ride through Hyde Park took us to the V & A Museum. They're having an Art and Engineering season,  and this surprisingly beautiful canopy was in fact created entirely by a robot, which is stored in the plastic enclosure in the centre. The project is called the Elytra Filament Pavilion, and you can see the robot building more filaments on 17th and 18th June - just check out the V & A's website.

We also saw their show about Botticelli, which had some arresting images, particularly those by Andy Warhol.  You can see one in the background of the picture below, with a dress fabric in the foreground and an Asian style Venus further away.

Thankfully it is now nice weather for cycling, so we headed along the Grand Union Canal and saw this house extension (below). I love the idea of a glass extension, but everyone passing on the towpath could see everything inside, except in the rooms where the owner had completely pulled down the blinds.  I was tempted to take a closer picture, actually, but didn't because he was sitting at his desk, looking out of the window right at me..  A charming location, though.

A little further along the canal I spotted some horses drinking, I thought what a peaceful scene it was, the like of which you could probably have seen centuries ago.

Always fun looking at the residential canal boats, which are often occupied by individualists, artists and craftsmen..  How is this for a guard dog? Although actually it looks quite friendly to me.

I had a lovely birthday picnic

But we lost our teapot when someone decided to see what happens when you throw teapots over the edge of the balcony. 

Out and about in London, I passed a shiny golden Maserati parked in the street.  What I specially like are the L plates. When the kid has passed his driving test in this old thing, he can graduate to something more expensive, I suppose.....

 I even went to the theatre. We're lucky to have the Tricycle Theatre near us in Kilburn.  Although it is only small it punches way above its weight and I've seen so many good plays there.  The current one is called "The Invisible Hand" which at first I thought sounded like a Sherlock Holmes story, full of London fogs and middle class Victorians.  It couldn't have been more different. It was an astonishingly gripping and well acted look at how a talented banker held hostage by Pakistani militants offers to invest his way to amassing a $10 million ransom.  You could watch the play on several levels.  It was extremely gripping, and I had no idea how it would work out, but it was full of twists, turns and shocks, and ended up making me think very hard.   The play's writer, Ayad Akhtar, has won a Pulitzer Prize and you can see why. 

At home, I have spent too much time obsessing about the Brexit debate. This will probably be of most interest to UK readers, although Americans (and the rest of us) also have to think about the big political decisions in the US before too many months have passed.  Recently many countries have swung to what would once have been seen as extreme views. I've found this disturbing, and I think it is dangerous, so I've been wondering why. 

I'll spare you my thoughts on this, though, and instead will finish this post with a hopeful picture. 

 Yes! I found the end of the rainbow! Please keep your fingers crossed that a pot of gold will now appear in my life  - in fact, if the picture is correct, there might be two pots of gold.    If it does, I'll share it with everyone who has commented on my posts so far this year.  Maybe it's a sign I should go and buy a lottery ticket.....  

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Looking round Orlando.

Florida.  It seems like a year ago we were there but actually it was about six weeks.  You might enjoy this Floridian scene below ....

....well, once you realise where it is supposed to be.  If you have watched the Harry Potter films you might recognise Grimmauld Place, N.1, the ancestral home of Sirius Black and family. And you know what, forget about Florida, it really could be London. There are hundreds if not thousands of houses that look just like this in London. 

Grimmauld Place is part of the Harry Potter area at Universal Studios, Orlando, which I visited for the first time in many years.   

In the years I've been away, Universal has improved so much. Like in that old Avis car ad, you get the feeling they are trying harder simply because they don't want Disney to call all the shots.  There's such care and detail in the landscaping and buildings.  The rides are excellent, and merchandise and decor of the shops (specially in the large Harry Potter area) are such fun. I liked this collection of wizardy writing instruments snapped through a window in Diagon Alley. 

There are two parks at Universal, linked by a Hogwarts Express ride.    The  elaborate"Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride takes place in a towering Hogwarts itself with a fabulously gothic interior. You almost feel you're riding with the characters -  although I'll be honest and say that all that swooping around on broomsticks made me feel seasick. But T and Young A loved it so much they did it all over again, and would have done it a third time except that they ran out of time.

It is not all Harry Potter, of course. There's a colourful Dr Seuss section for younger kids, among many other things,  and as a Simpsons fan I was utterly thrilled at the chance to play in the Springfield funfair, drink in Mo's tavern and gloat over merchandise in the  Kwik-e-Mart, where I was tempted to buy this chocolate bar for Young A's big brother back in London.  I didn't, but you know, the boy's growing fast and eats anything and... it genuinely has bacon bits in it.  Wonder if he'd have eaten it.  

So Universal was a big success.   Young A recommends everything to do with Harry Potter, including the uncannily realisticl Hogwarts Express which takes you on a mysterious trip between the two Universal parks. We all loved the hilarious Minions virtual ride, the Simpsons rickety rollercoaster ride and the De Lorean car and train from "Back to the Future."   And I was keen on creepy Knockturn Alley, with its Bellatrix Lestrange animated "Wanted" posters.

As well as this, Universal has plenty of  places to sit and people-watch, imaginative play areas where  kids can let off steam, good places to eat, a sensible fast pass system and wasn't nearly as crowded as Disney.  

Oh yes.... Disney.    

Now, I always was a Disney fan. For about ten years I wrote about so many aspects of Disney in all kinds of magazines. At one point, I was spending so much time there that the Magic Kingdom started to feel like my second home.   I love Disney and have some incredibly happy memories. But....

....this year, for the first time ever, I didn't enjoy it.  It was just so stressful.  First, long lines because the entry gate system was flaky, then reduced transportation links so we queued for 3/4 hour just to get inside the park. A fastpass system helps you skip long ride lines, but it only does three rides a day, unless you plan carefully in advance via smartphone (which we had no chance to do).   Several rides were shut, there were many hoardings up.  By noon, I'd had two of my fast pass rides, but the last one wasn't for another eight hours!    The sun was beating down, everything was packed, and the prospect of little else but hours standing in lines stretched ahead.  

 Disney was always so good at handling large numbers of people without making them feel like cattle. But this was frankly awful, and park entry is very expensive, too.  Major Toy Story and Star Wars experiences are opening fairly soon, and will probably offer better value.  But really, if it is like that offpeak, now, I shudder to think how it must be at busy times.  

Oh dear!

Don't let me put you off Disney if you have never been.  If you can visit in low season, it will still feel amazing, and it has some awesome rides and much pretty landscaping.  And the four theme parks are only a tiny part of the resort.  There are water parks, nice restaurants, shops, entertainment and sports, while the Disney hotels are lots of fun for families.  Families, after all, are what Orlando is about.    

I've always thought, though, that one of the best places in Orlando is not a family-style attraction but the rather cultural Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. It is devoted to the life and works of Louis Comfort Tiffany, interior decorator and creator of the famous Tiffany glass, and it sits in N. Park avenue, in the centre of the classy, cobbled-street suburb of Winter Park.  A large and illuminating  collection of  rescued Tiffany material, it is also a poignant reminder of how much has been lost.    

This is Laurelton Hall, the Long Island mansion Tiffany built and lived in as a celebration of his life's work. He intended it as a permanent education centre to offer help and inspiration to future generations of applied artists. Sadly, it didn't work out that way.  Financial problems meant that it ended up deteriorating, and it was eventually consumed by fire, destroying most of its astonishingly lavish and imaginative interiors and decorations.

The museum's unrivalled collection of photos, art and artefacts fills in so many of the details of Tiffany's life.  It has his early sketchbooks and much material on his fascination with flowers and the natural world. You see how he built his business and worked to translate his obsession with nature into glass, and you learn, too, exactly how he created some of his pieces.  

.  Parrots lend themselves very well to Tiffany windows, I think.

and some of the windows show Tiffany's genius at creating extraordinary effects of light.

He was originally an interior designer, and I wondered what became of the millionaires' mansions he designed, surviving here only as black and white photos. However,  parts of some interiors have been  painstakingly reconstructed - here is a section of a chapel which caused a sensation in the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.  It is almost entirely made of fragments of glass.

There is also a surprising amount of jewellery.  I'd kill for some of this, though I'm not sure I would actually wear it.

The museum building is plain, elegant and modern, a good contrast to Tiffany's ornate style. If you have the slightest interest in the decorative arts, or in Tiffany, it's very well worth taking the trouble to visit the Morse Museum. 

From Winter Park, we drove on to Maitland.  Maitland itself is run down but it's home to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, a fascinating place if you're into wildlife.  Docents and conservationists are there to tell you anything you might want to know about, and you can get very close up to the birds, mostly ospreys, kites, bald eagles, and various falcons and owls. Most of them are rescued or unable to live in the wild.  And if you don't feel like looking at more birds, you can always sit peacefully in in the gazebo and just look at the waterlilies and butterflies.. 

By the way, whatever I might say about Disney World's stress, crowds and fastpass system, the fact is that the Audubon is one of the organisations quietly supported by Disney's Worldwide Conservation Fund - read about their work here.

On another evening we drove to Kissimmee and saw Medieval Times.  I know it's a franchise, and you can see it at other places than Orlando, but it was new to us and we all thought it was very good. Basically, it's a riding display presented as a kind of musical story, and is both eyecatching and curiously magical at times, as when the horses gallop out of the mist. 

Both riders and horses are beautifully dressed, as you might be able to see below. I  could have done without quite such a hard sell on the photos and souvenirs, but perhaps the profit on the souvenirs goes on the terrific costumes. Anyway, we had a very good evening immersed in an action packed event that completely involved everyone watching, and, most importantly, it got the thumbs up from Young A.

On another day, we revisited Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, one of the region's biggest attractions.  A little hint: as soon as you go in, head for the bus tour, because the final bus tour each day seems to depart very early, and it would be a shame to miss it.  Volunteers drive you round a flat, weird, gator-filled natural landscape full of historic NASA buildings and then drop you in the huge Apollo/Saturn 5 hall, from which you can progress to all kinds of interactive technology areas or see IMAX space movies, explore a rocket playground or even go on a simulated shuttle launch. You'd have a job to fit it all into just one day.

Our trip was marred by getting food poisoning in what must be the worst catering I've encountered since... well, since the last time I went to the Kennedy Space Center, actually. In fact, I'd give their catering one of my special Black Knife Awards for terrible food, except that there was so much to see, and it was so cool to be in the actual shuttle control room and Space Shuttle Atlantis was so evocative that, well,  I'd just say take your own sandwiches and enjoy the place, and don't even let the idea of buying their food cross your mind.

On the way back from the space center we stopped at the place below, which played a large role in our visit to Florida. Publix is just an ordinary supermarket for people who live there, but to me it seemed to be full of interesting and exotic foodstuffs.   Young A soon got to know his way to the hot chicken and chocolate icecream sections, which was all he felt he needed to know.

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