Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Spring has Sprung

I spotted this early Forsythia blossom on December 27th , as I walked down to the station. The south-facing wall and sheltered position helped it to an early blooming, no doubt. The weather has been dry and sunny for a while and there were more flowers on the same bush by the next day. Although the frost turned the rooftops white last night, it’s good to see the flowers again.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

White Christmas at the BFI Southbank

The washed-out visuals and muffled soundtrack of the trailer at Cineworld does this film no favours. Although my partner made approving noises, I put this down to his fondness for the big-band era of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, two of the stars. So I wasn’t expecting much, having arrived at the BFI too late for a Mamoulian film, when I settled for ‘White Christmas’ instead.

The BFI studio is the smallest auditorium at the South Bank venue, with only four rows, but the screen seems enormous. The digitalised Vistavision looked freshly minted and the sound was great in what they call their ‘state-of-the-art’ auditorium.

Bing and Danny Kaye play showbiz entertainers, who help a retired General save his Vermont hotel by putting on a show, aided by two showgirls and a troupe of extras. Clooney and Vera-Ellen play the girls. The talents of the lead players and the period interest prevent the film from being overwhelmed by huge dollops of schmaltz.

I was still recovering from the tedium of Baz Lurhmann’s antipodean epic a few days back; White Christmas set a cracking pace in terms of plot development, and flashed by in a whirl of colour. For me it veered too much on the side of dance in the balance between cavorting and plot/dialogue, and younger audience members giggled at the clumsy segues between dialogue and songs. Strange, when you consider no-one baulked at ‘Mamma Mia’s sometimes irrelevant outbursts.

Screening until January 1st

Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy

The Byzantines were heavy-handed with the golf leaf, as seen in the familiar icons, sacred figures emblazoned on wood panels. There were plenty of them at the excellent RA exhibition I visited with son D on Saturday. The show rooms were quiet so I assume potential customers were taking advantage of the post-Christmas sales, like R, who’d gone to buy an electric blanket. He’d seen the Byzantium exhibition with a crony before Christmas.

The £100 annual entry fee for two members plus two guests seems a lot, but since just one visit with pals could cost £40 it’s good value. Out-of-town friends really appreciate it. I like to make a few visits on my own to these big shows, one using a £3 audio guide. Maps and charts at the start show the size of the Byzantine Empire at different dates and explanatory notices are in all the rooms, but I’m too impatient to look at these on a first visit.

Gold was the signature motif, sometimes overlaying silver on jewelled necklaces, plates, bowls and boxes. Elaborate bas-relief figures covered chalices, some endearingly battered as if trodden into the mud of many an ancient battle-field. One was even said to be the original Holy Grail.

D raved on about techniques and materials. I remembered that he studied Art History before being sucked in by Computer Science.

My favourites were the ivory artefacts, small hinged pieces called triptych, depicting saints in little arched doorways. It was Jane Austen who said her writing was as if carved on pieces of ivory, but these reminded me she was thinking of detail. I like carvings anyway; usually jade so hard it has to be ground, or the crude lines of woodcuts. Ivory’s qualities permit exquisite detail, as in a bishop’s frown with lines scrunching his face as if his mitre was too tight.

The Friend’s Room at the RA is a treat, and a kind of extension of the experience, with well-heeled members making Bohemian fashion statements.

R joined us, miffed from having to unpack the ‘heated mattress protector’ so it would fit the dimensions of the cloakroom cubby-holes. D expressed shock at the price of £6.50 for a miniature quiche and tiny salad, but an accompanying glass of wine at £2 made it a bargain compared with the stand-alone price of £5 for the wine. The water's free.

After that we saw a small exhibition in the Sackler Wing D was keen on, a collection by modern artists. The main interest there was a wall of front covers of an art magazine but the extenuated statuary was agreeable, particularly one of a hound.

This page has some great links, including one to an article about icons, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury


Friday, December 26, 2008

Heathrow Christmas

‘This is known as the world’s biggest car park’, I said to Lu Weiyuan (Luke) as we sped round the almost deserted southern loop of the M25.

‘Really? ‘This had been his standard response to explanations since our re-union the day before. His English is excellent and he has great curiosity, which is what I like most about him. His dry sense of humour is such that I can't always tell when he's being ironic.

With his suitcase taking up all the boot space and his wife Linda’s case jammed in front of the passenger seat, I’d had to leave R at home.

Sooner than risk the cross-London route to Heathrow recommended by Mappy.com, with one false move at Clapham and I end up in Kensington, I’d opted for twice as many miles but all motorway, starting with the A2 at Blackheath, I had to keep my wits about me at the Heathrow end with five terminals to choose from, but with no traffic I could at least slow down to read the overhead signs.

In 1990, seeking a language-exchange partner, I’d posted a notice on a board in Goldsmiths Library. MA student Luke responded and I’ve been involved with his studies more or less ever since. He’s a wild life photographer teaching in a university in Taiwan. Now he was in the UK for his PhD Viva in Durham. His email said he’d be spending a week in London, mostly while I was in Lanzarote. His return flight was on the 25th.

‘There’s no public transport on Christmas Day’, I emailed him.


So I picked Luke and wife Linda up from their hotel and we visited the dinosaurs on Crystal Palace Park on the way back.

It gave R and son D time to come round from the evening before, spent trying to find a pub in Blackheath where we wouldn’t be deafened by rollicking locals. After one stand-up beer in The Hare and Billet we’d ended up in the basement bar of the Clarendon where a sedate game of pool was in progress. No wonder it was quiet, with drinks at £15 a round for the free of us. As driver, I was on the lemonade.

The whole lunch, apart from the sprouts, had been cooking for hours. The pheasants had been in the electric slow cooker overnight so only needed a reheat.

The long roofs over the drop-off point at Terminal 5 resembled rows of nun’s headdresses, like gigantic angel wings. Quite Christmassy, really.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Back from Lanzarote

Scenery, food and weather were well up to the mark in Lanzarote, where cultural delights are mainly inaccessible except by car, so I passed the week in a daze: walking by the sea, reading and eating fish dinners.

The two-mile stretch known as the 'strip' alongside the main beach at Puerto del Carmen was undergoing repairs to pipelines. They were laying new ones , for all I know, a bit like central London.

It was weird coming back on a kind of ghost plane, with fewer than 20 passengers, all of us spaced evenly with an entire row of seats each. The pilot said it would equalise the weight.

Down to earth with a bump at Gatwick (literally - the landing approach was over-speedy, and the brakes were jammed on, jolting us foward.)

If I'd been wondering which country it was, exchanges with bad-tempered officials would have soon put me straight. At deserted Gatwick I remarked to the passport checker that it was very quiet. 'Do you want to make a complaint about it?' he snapped. I said that he must have had quite a few already that day. Fortunately, he was trapped in his glass box. so couldn't get out to arrest me and there were no spares about. I put it down to worries about pending unemployment.

We took the Victoria stopping train. A surly guard sold us singles to Coulsdon South, the outer-most stop covered by our Freedom Passes. He quoted £11 60 for the two of us, then got stroppy when R asked him if there were concessions for OAPs. He said he could charge us more if it had been later than 4.30am . R fronted him up, which is a bit unusual for him, and said in answer to his exasperation, 'The answer is 'No', then'. By way of aplogising, I suppose, the man grumbled that it was 1am, which we couldn't dispute. It was 1am for all of us.

The queue for the night bus was a mix of mainly foreign young men with backpacks, a few loungers and a couple of wasted-looking characters crouched on steps in shop doorways. The temperature was a balmy 10 degrees. We had an interesting half-hour journey in 'reserved for the elderly' seats -interesting because I read a thriller whilst listening to a young man with a guitar case, dressed in bright 70s clothes with a full 'afro' hair-do. He was talking to an older man about gigs they'd been to.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Journey to the West at the O2 Dome

The journey west from Lewisham to the O2 Dome is mercifully short via the DLR .

The grandchildren are at that in-between age for pantomime when they think it's for 'kids' , so I was resigned to 'Madagascar 2' and a meal at Nando’s for their annual Christmas outing. Then tickets for 'Journey to the West' came up at short notice. For me it was a bonus that the show is based on the Chinese classic ‘Journey to the West’, known to some from the TV series, ‘Monkey’.

The anarchic hero sets out on a quest for immortality with his strange companions. They include aptly-named Pigsy and a Prince who’s been changed into a horse. Journeying through places with exotic names, they meet a set of oddball characters who help or hinder them in their quest for immortality.

Children in the audience were entranced by the multi-media presentation, which had lots of acrobats, martial arts and characters flying through the air on wires. Nine scenes included ‘The Crystal Palace of the Eastern Sea', 'Heavenly Peach Banquet' and 'Volcano City' , all with fancy costumes and live music. There were subtitles for the Chinese dialogue, but most of it wouldn't have made sense to anybody who didn't know the story, and it didn't detract from the spectacle.

My adult companions whinged at the length of the performance and at the rip-off interval prices; with £2 for cokes as well as £10 programmes, they had a point . The green tea was a bargain, though.

The whole Dome ambience, with dozens of food outlets, a cinema at the top of an escalator and an artifical ski slope so you can watch people falling about, has a buzzy feel. ‘You know, Grandma', said 13 year old Gemma, ‘we could come to the Dome the next time we stay with you, even if we don’t see a show’.

(Oh, and I'm off to Lanzarote for a week, so no more postings for a while)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Deadline Thursday

I think everybody should know about the University of the Third Age. It’s open to people over fifty, and they meet in centres and in each others houses. There’s a wide range of subjects, not just academic but everything from meditation to mahjong. They even organise holidays and rambles. I’ve learned Spanish in the home of a Flamenco dancer and I once led a ‘Study Day’ on Chinese Film at Goldsmiths College, the South London Centre.

The annual fee is £10 and all the sessions are free, although there’s a charge for the online courses they also run. I’ve agreed to tutor the ‘Introduction to Chinese’ one, starting in September.

Yesterday I went to the end-of-term meeting of U3A writers’ workshop and was delighted to hear our anthology had raised £120 for the charity MIND.

Every fortnight eight of us get together to read our short stories and receive constructive feedback from the rest of the group. Next, our tutor gives us writing exercises. We generally work on them for about fifteen minutes then read aloud what we’ve written before completing them at home.

A selection of work, ‘Deadline Thursday’ was compiled by after we circulated and critiqued stories and poems we thought might be suitable, and the editor also organised the printing.

Find out more about U3A and a group near you:

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Odd, the things that motivate people. I’ve been encouraging R to take more of an active interest in the Internet recently. Even if he'd just look up and print off the Guardian Quick Crosswords it would spread the burden.

I took it as a sign of progress that he’d researched Christmas cakes online. The crit. recommended Asda’s ‘Extra Special’, and R located a store at Crossharbour, next to the DLR station. We’d call in en route to to see ‘The Changeling’ at West India Quay.

Fine, I thought. It would be a quick ‘in and out’ job and for once we’d leave early enough to get to the Cineworld in time to see the trails.

But no – although there were dozens of all kinds of Christmas cakes, not to mention stollen and mince pies and chocolate logs, the ‘Extra Special’ at £7.98 was not on the shelves.

As for ‘The Changeling’ it was almost as disappointing. The 1930s décor and costumes looked authentic enough, especially the telephone exchange supervisors on skates, but Angelina Jolie doesn’t look right as Christine, the heroine. Her surreal appearance suited Grendel’s mother in 'Beowulf' or Lara Croft, the cartoon-based character. As for her acting as an ordinary ‘mom’, even the LA street cars looked more authentic. In fact, given the general oddness of the performances, even the roller skates were more convincing.

The characters were all one-dimensional, and coincidences notched up the melodrama. Saviour Malkovich arrives just as the asylum nurse is about to throw the switch on the electric shock machine and even worse, when Christine faints at seeing the headlines in the street, he's there on cue to catch her. Maybe the director Clint Eastwood thinks the past just was more melodramatic, or that ‘women’s films’ should be.

Meanwhile R seems to be going great guns online. He’s located the Bose European centre and arranged for the wonky radio to be collected. My own research showed ALDI’s Holly Lane cake as best value and R thinks the other report may be from a previous year. So he’ll be ringing the Catford ALDI before calling in on the way to his bridge game.

Christmas cake report


The Changeling reviews


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Plus ça change...

I'd only called in at the National Portrait Gallery to use the loo. After choosing Christmas cards in St Martin's crypt I had an hour or so before I was due to collect tickets , in Covent Garden. In the downstairs hall, though I spotted one or two people waiting for the doors of the lecture room to open. ‘Conversation Pieces in Georgian Society’ sounded promising.

They turned out to be a type of eighteenth century paintings the speaker had been researching. Slide examples showed well-dressed families in elaborate costumes dealing cards, drinking tea, playing the harpsichord, etc. Sometimes they were in rural settings. These paintings, she said, were not so much about reality as about aspiration: 'exemplars' rather than ‘examples’ of polite society at the time. The pictures were as much about costumes, leisure pursuits and furniture as about the people, she argued and their function was much like that of today’s Sunday supplements – a kind of showing off of the aspired-to ideal. They were very keen on all that - there were best-selling books telling men how to stand in a drawing room. The one in the picture shows the:

‘relatively bare settings of Arthur Devis, which emphasized restrained good taste, in contrast to William Hogarth's more lavish scenes of refined consumption…Such settings were not intended to represent specific spaces. Rather, like the interiors of Hogarth's modern moral subject paintings, they were to be understood as signifiers of abstract virtues—‘

Hmmm. I'd certainly recommend these free talks. There was a big screen for the slides and a steeply raked auditorium with comfortable seats. Well worth dropping in for. I can recommend the loos, too.

More about the speaker and her subject:

Friday, December 05, 2008

House Full

I’d found a left-over theatre voucher in a drawer so decided to treat myself to a 3pm matinee at the Old Vic. I still had the programme from ‘Living Together’ a few weeks back. Sadly, the House Full sign was up, and all the box office could offer was a ‘standing ticket’ for £10.

‘Not what you’d expect on a Wednesday afternoon’, I whinged to the woman standing behind me in the ‘returns’ queue.

‘You’d never know there was a credit crunch on’, she agreed. She was older than me and wore a woolly hat, but apart from that we were twins: short and round with northern accents. We were well down the queue.

‘It’s the schools, too’, put in a pink-faced man on my other side. Back against the wall and buttoned into a navy overcoat, he looked like the youth who visits his gran in the Catherine Tate show.

The woman frowned. ‘When I was at school, we went to see Shakespeare, not to comedies’ She’d travelled from Chertsey, so no wonder she was cross.

‘Student groups are more likely to have returns, though’.

‘Yes, but I went to see ‘The Doll’s House’ the other week’, I said, ‘and teenagers in the row in front were a right nuisance texting one another, with the teacher telling them off.’

Then we chatted about plays and theatres and prices until a woman in a fur hat came up and offered the young man a spare ticket. ‘Oh, no, you don’t have to pay!’

Soon after, an usher in black, waving a walkie-talkie, made his way along the queue and said there were standing places with restricted views for £7.50.

‘What’s the point of that?’ said my companion.

I decided to walk to Piccadilly because I'd read that ‘The Day the Earth Stood still’ was being screened at the Cineworld at 4pm. The late afternoon sun turned office blocks to gold as I crossed Hungerford Bridge at dusk, and a five-strong band, including accordion and trumpet, played ‘Kalinka’

‘That film only starts next week’ said the girl at the cinema, so I watched ‘Zack and Mirri make a Porno’ instead, which was silly and very rude but had me and an audience of a dozen laughing out loud. It had an attractively grungy look.

When I walked through a very crowded Leicester Square afterwards I heard screaming and saw a screen had been put up to show the front of the Vue cinema. Girls were hanging over barriers, waiting for the stars of a film called ‘Twilight’ to appear.

So altogether it was a good afternoon, even though I didn’t get to the play.

About the Aykbourn Trilogy at the Old Vic


About the film:


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I went to Shanghai to buy a Hat

Guests crowded thestairs leading to the basement of the Italian Bookshop in Cecil Court, and no wonder- the guest speaker was from the ‘ministro’. Or could it be he was the ministro? I couldn't quite catch it, although classmate Bamboo tries to keep my Italian up to scratch. The talk was about Sino-Italian relations, all in Italian, and it sounded like one of those political speeches delivered at some low-key venue that's headline news next day. He gesticulated a lot, so sounds from the hand mike came and went and his talk was punctuated by protests from people in the one-and-nines at the top of the stairs. Bamboo had persuaded someone to bring one of those kick-steps for me to sit on.

It’s not long since I reviewed her last book, ‘Blue China’ for the Dimsum website. The daughter of an Italian diplomat and Chinese opera singer who met in Shanghai during the war, she moved to Italy when she about ten years old and I admire both her elegance and her industry. She lives in London with her English husband and entertains me when she sits next to me in the twice-weekly Frith Street Chinese class.

Most of the speech went over my head so I admired the elegant dresses, footwear and hairstyles in the audience. The bookshshop manager, a tall woman in satin velvet printed with a kind of muted Mondrian pattern, made graceful arm gestures at the throng and at the speaker. Bamboo began to talk and soon had everone laughing at her anecdotes about Shanghai. I remember how well she compared with Xinran, no mean speaker herself, at the Asia House launch of 'Blue China'

The latest book, whose title is a quote from a Marlene Dietrich film, is autobiographical too, but with a focus on the city. Even the post-talk snacks were stylish - ciabatta squares filled with piquant cream cheese and cooked sliced courgette and mushroom. I didn’t stay for wine, although tempted by the cosy atmosphere of the upstairs shop, as I faced a cold train journey home

My Review of Blue China:

The Italian Bookshop website:

Monday, December 01, 2008

Family Flops
I find films about 'eccentric' families hard going, especially American ones. (Not counting 'The Addams Family', currently satirised in the best-yet Orange ad.) I don’t just mean 'Meet the Fockers’ which I once saw by mistake in Barcelona, because the Spanish title was nothing like that I’m one of the few people I know who didn’t like Sam Mendes’ 'American Beauty' because of the 'quirky family' theme. Last Friday, though, I thought an antidote to John Boorman's harrowing 'Deliverance' on TV was in order. 'Four Christmases' was about the only light comedy at Cineworld that we hadn't seen.

One advantage of paying £14.99 a month for as many films as you can watch, apart from saving on heating costs, is you don't mind the odd 'turkey'. That's just as well.

‘FC’ had Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn play a loved-up couple fog-bound in their home town of San Francisco at Christmas. An airport TV interview blows their cover so they have to visit all four sets of their divorced parents. In a way the constant shifts are good because each set of in-laws is more unfunny than the one before. Some of the scenes were amusing, such as the one where the couple are forced into playing Mary and Joseph in a nativity play at a revivalist church and the husband lets his luvvie instincts take over. Otherwise it is so bad it makes you long for a nice slow French film where the families may be dysfunctional but at least the house décor is tasteful and there's a bit of obscure philosophising.Come back, then, 'I’ve Loved you so Long', even with unnaturally genial (and silent) grandfather and false-bonhomie dinner table scene. All is forgiven.

Come to think of it, 'Summer Hours' wasn't bad.

The Addams Family:


Deliverance :


Summer Hours: