Tuesday, December 4, 2012

. . . Now I'm 64!

Last week was my birthday. I have reached the marker set by the Beatles that says 64 is old age country. I read on Wikipedia that Paul wrote the words when he was 16, but he certainly got most of it right. I guess I'm kind of glad my grandchildren aren't named Vera and Chuck; Dave would be okay. And the cottage on the Isle of Wight every summer sounds pretty alright too.

Here in England, 1963 seems to be the year The Beatles made their splash. In the States we had to wait until 1964 for them to land and change our teenage world. What was it that made them so special? I guess because they were so cute — and of course never underestimate the power of an English accent, even in this case where the accent must have been Liverpool "Scouser" perhaps the nation's least favourite accent. Somehow there seems like some mystical symmetry between the dawn of the Age of the Beatles in 1964, and my being 64. Perhaps the mystery is just that never in my wildest dreams in 1964 would I have imagined I would be living in London when I turned 64. Living not too far from Paul in St John's Wood! There are always anecdotal reports of people seeing Paul on the bus so maybe I should pay more attention when I am on the 46 which runs between Hampstead and St Johns Wood.

My birthday was excellent. Besides the i-pad, Bob bought me the last two volumes of a series of books from Mainstone Press on a favourite English artist Eric Ravilious who is having a massive revival over the past few years. He died in 1942 when his plane was lost over Iceland while he was serving as an official British War Artist. There is all this wonderful British art from the decades between the wars, that seem to be completely unknown outside Britain, and hardly known here either. We, and the rest of the country, discovered Ravilious from an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum  nearly 10 years ago marking the centenary of his birth.

We met up with Susan and Cato at the South Bank Centre for supper — burritos from my favourite food truck. Mexican food is now very popular in London. There always were a few Tex-Mex places, but now there is a burgeoning number of places with "authentic" Mexican food. The dawn of trendy Mexican food was the opening of Wahaca — conveniently Anglicised to prevent mispronunciation! — by a young English woman who won the grand prize on a TV Masterchef competition and used the money to live in Mexico and learn to cook like the locals. I just read Calvin Trillin's New Yorker piece on eating in Oaxaca while visiting his daughter and family, including advice on the best way to eat grasshoppers (pull off the front legs). I doubt if our Wahaca serves grasshopper, but I can't say for sure. The American chains like Chipotle have recently moved in too — not sure if there is a Taco Bell.

England has also borrowed the German style Christmas Fair and the South Bank is lined with booths selling gifts and gluhwein and doughnuts, but no Lebkuchen or Potato Pancakes, so what's the point really.

Cato extracting a prize from a block of ice sponsored by Swiss Air.
He won a chocolate bar.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Thanksgiving Weekend

Thanksgiving Weekend which technically doesn't exist here because, well, because there is no Thanksgiving . . . but marketing is a globalised industry so Amazon.co.uk has been sending out Black Friday e-mail offers and promises the whole week long. My English friend Marian couldn't figure out why this was a good thing because didn't "Black Pick-A-Day-of-the-Week" events identify a day of financial despair — stock markets crashing, the English pound collapsing — that sort of thing. She still looked dubious at our explanation of fiscal health, "in the black" rather than "in the red" as the root of the expression.

My Black Friday was brightened by the delivery of my back-ordered i-pad mini in its bright red cover. My very first. Friday and Saturday were consumed with my new pretty toy. Of course its real use will be in the States when I take a thousand photos of my lovely grandchildren to flash around to everyone I meet here, there, and everywhere. Saturday plans were on hold because Bob came down with a 24-hour stomach flu, but the appalling weather of wind and rain meant staying home was the best plan anyway.  Around here, Saturday nights are special again because the latest Danish crime drama is back on the air. The Killing (Series 3) began last week, and we are already under the spell of Sarah Lund's new Faroe Island sweaters. The chevron is okay, but the traditional snowflake, in an untraditional white pattern on blue background, is my favourite. The kidnap/murder/political plot is pretty good too. We're here for the first eight episodes on four Saturday nights, but we will be in the States for the final two episodes! Canceling the visit to see our grandchildren is extreme, and we have great hopes that Barnz can wire something up for us.

Sunday dawned with sun for once, and our last chance to see the British Museum's Cultural Olympiad contribution on Shakespeare's Restless World which closes today.  Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, did an excellent 20-part series for Radio 4 last spring that I listened to on a free podcast through i-tunes over the summer. I'm sure it is still there to download and listen to. Each episode is only 15 minutes. Based on his History of the World in 100 Objects, which I was not a fan of, he used 20 objects from the Museum to describe what the world of England was like during Shakespeare's writing career which spanned the reigns of Elizabeth, the last of the Tudors, and James I, the first of the Scottish Stuarts.  The plays are full of topical subjects. Discussing Elizabeth's successor was a treasonous offense, but plays about long dead kings and their heirs or lack of heirs was simply historical drama. James was Scottish and terrified of witches who he thought were trying to kill him, but a play about a long dead Scottish king driven mad by witches was also historical drama. Plays about foreign people (Jews! Moors!) are set in Venice because Venice was the exotic city of the day. People lived differently there. They used forks to eat, for example. And looking forward, Shakespeare imagined what the New World would mean to the Old World in The Tempest.

Sunday was also the last day for the North American plant installation by Kew Gardens in front of the Museum. Kew has been planting a regional landscape at the British Museum every summer for a few years. Australia was first; South Africa was last summer. Despite the end of the season, there were some bright flower displays and a few yellow leaves on a kind of miniature maple to make us nostalgic for the autumn we missed in New England this year.

Returning to Hampstead, we discovered this year's Christmas Fair had gone into overdrive. Our High Street was imitating the 'Appy 'Ampstead fairs of another century with giant rides, midway games, a steam organ, and even a reindeer.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving Week

Sometime late last week, winter crept in. Not the winter solstice true winter which is still a month or so away, but the London day when the sunset is edging toward 4 p.m. according to the BBC weather website, and at half past three I wonder if bedtime is near at hand. Then I catch myself and remember the day is still only half over, even if the daylight is over, and the electric lights are needed to take over. I take great joy in the turn of seasons, and for me the day winter arrives is the day I turn on the TV, guilt free, to watch whatever ancient series have been disinterred from US or UK graves for a long winter's late afternoon of knitting. At the moment, I am a week or more behind on Woolly Wormhead's Annual Mystery Hat Knit-A-Long (or KAL in knitter-ese jargon). Woolly is a woman who lives in a bus, is dogged by depression, and designs hat patterns, from the gossip I pick up on Twitter and in blogs (including her own tweets and posts). Apparently knitters wait all year for the Annual Mystery Hat. For a £2 payment, I have received three sets of instructions, beginning on 1 November, for the Brim, the Body, and the Finish. I haven't opened the final set of instructions because it took me an extra week to knit the brim, and now I am in need of an extra week for the body too. But with those long afternoons stretching ahead, a mystery hat will not take too much longer.

Tuesday - Wednesday
Thanksgiving Week isn't the same when the world is still carrying on around you as if there is no holiday on the horizon. I miss that moment when the world as usual holds its breath for a moment to concentrate on the ritual of the meal. Is there enough cream for the creamed onions? Do we always have to include Brussels Sprouts? Will one bag of Pepperidge Farm be enough?

This year we are doing Thanksgiving, but doing it a day early to celebrate two birthdays. Our friend Pam and Bob share tomorrow as their birth day. Bob will be 66, and Pam will be 95. Susan says a Thanksgiving Eve celebration is perfectly alright, so that's the final word as far as I'm concerned. On a positive note, when the holiday is not everyone's holiday, you can pick up the turkey when you are ready to pop it in the oven, and there is no fear of forgetting anything since the shops are open. Of course the guests who work are not granted a holiday, so the meal needs to be planned for 8 p.m. And on another positive note, that gives you extra hours to make the pies.

Our celebration was a success. The turkey was the best ever. The cornbread stuffing was excellent with apples and chestnuts and sausage and turkey liver, but no onions or celery to be kind to Susan. Sadly, Cato was feeling under the weather so he couldn't come because we all follow the rule that it's not good to hang with 95 year olds if you might be carrying extra germs. Susan packed up and took home most of the leftovers including the turkey carcass, so Cato at least had the best of the leftovers, which some people say is the best part of Thanksgiving anyway.


Knitted my favourite angora booties for a baby boy born yesterday in Michigan to Susan and Cato's Best Man and his wife.

Went to see a new play in the West End with lots of buzz. A two-hander with Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall in Constellations, which was supposed to have something to do with theoretical physics and quantum mechanics. Events (and dialogue) repeat with different outcomes, but they all end with a brain tumour and a clinic in Switzerland. Also a one-act-er that lasted barely an hour. I was not impressed, but great reviews. The young playwright wins awards, so I am irrelevant.

We have seen such great theatre this autumn, my standards are impossibly high. The Judas Kiss with Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde destroying his life with his obsession for the beautiful boy Sir Alfred "Bosie" Douglas played by Freddie Fox, of the extensive Fox acting dynasty, who is also one of the most beautiful boys I have ever seen. A fact which added a layer of comprehension to Wilde's tragic demise. Also at the Hampstead Theatre, we saw 55 Days, an amazing drama leading up to the execution of Charles II with confrontations between Royalists and Oliver Cromwell's supporters on how to justify regicide. Interesting side note, the person sitting next to me in the theatre was the national treasure Alan Bennett!

We saw King Lear with Jonathan Pryce that was amazing and very bloody.  Also at the Almeida, a fascinating new play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky about the English poet Edward Thomas who was encouraged to write poetry by Robert Frost. The Frost family lived in England for 3 years, and Robert published his first two books of poetry while in England. The men became friends when Thomas reviewed the books favourably. Thomas was a difficult man, depressive, sometimes suicidal, and against his wife's wishes he volunteered for the war, and was killed in 1917 at the Battle of Arras. The play explores the difficult relationships between Thomas, his wife, his father, his close friend the Hampstead children's writer Eleanor Farjeon, and Frost. Superb intelligent theatre. The kind of evening where you come away enlightened, but wanting to know still more.

Finally, last week, in a stroke of luck I hit the website of the National Theatre at the moment when two tickets became available for the completely sold out until the end of the February run of the new hot play The Effect, by Lucy Prebble who wrote Enron which we loved, in the little Cottesloe Theatre at the National. Billie Piper and Jonjo O'Neill play participants in a drug test for an anti-depression medication. The doctor who runs the pharma trials is an advocate of drug treatment. He hires a former lover to handle this trial because he feels guilty about leaving her because she was a depressive who refused treatment with pills. The issues raised are compelling, and the play is gripping, especially since our seats were on the sofas that ring the stage, making us part of the set.

And I haven't spent a minute knitting my funny looking hat, so now I am at least two weeks behind!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bunking off to York for the Day

Saturday, 4 August

It's a small country, and high speed rail lines will take you pretty far in a reasonable length of time. Writing about British theatre a few weeks ago reminded me of a recent advert announcing York would be producing its Medieval Mystery Play cycle again this summer. York is only two hours, non-stop, on the East Coast Line.

I booked seats on the 9 a.m. train out of Kings Cross, and we were on our way. When I came up with the plan to spend the day in York, I had not known today would be Golden Britain Day at the Olympics. It's hard to believe when I booked the tickets a few weeks ago, a thought had passed through my mind that we might be well sick of London and the Olympics by this weekend and looking forward to a good day away! Instead we had a tinge of regret at leaving the excitement of Olympic London.

Nevertheless, the journey was a reminder of the depth and popularity of performance in this country both in athletics and on stage. The train was packed with young adults on their way to Edinburgh, our train's final destination, for the Edinburgh Fringe's first weekend. Many carried bulging suitcases suggesting they would be there for the month, part of the huge roster of productions which serve as the cultural incubator for future talent. Every young performer (and middle-aged hopeful) "takes their show to the Fringe." The statistics are phenomenal. According to a press report, this year there are 2,695 shows with 23,000 performers, and that number doesn't include the uncounted Free Fringe events, nor the official Edinburgh International Arts Festival, the Edinburgh Book Festival, and the Royal Military Tattoo events that carry on simultaneously. Edinburgh is the place to be in August, and I admit we have never been. Too crowded; too complicated; just too lazy.

Our day in York was delightful. There was enough time to stop into the York Museum, to have lunch in a garden café, to pop into the Minster, then head to the Abbey Gardens for the Mystery Play matinée, and back to the train station for a quick pint of excellent vanilla-damson stout, before boarding our train back to London.

The choir screen at York Minster with the Kings of England

The West Window

The Mystery Play has been a summer theatre staple in York since 1951 when the Cycle was revived as part of the Festival of Britain's northern England programme. The performances were held on a stage set up in the city park where the ruins of York's medieval St Mary's Benedictine Abbey formed the backdrop. Since 1988, the plays have been performed in the city's Royal Theatre or outdoors using hand carts that move around the city, as the medieval plays were performed, and as we saw them done in 2006. This year, as part of the celebration of the 800th Anniversary of King John granting York a City Charter in 1212, the performance was moved back to the Abbey Gardens with a new script which joins most of the individual tales into a coherent drama of good versus evil.
The ruins of St Mary's Abbey built in the late 13th c;
closed and demolished in c. 1539

The Garden of Eden, Stanley Spencer style
The production was superb with professional leads and 1000 community volunteers for the chorus, the stock characters, and the many crowd scenes. Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Ben, played God/Jesus brilliantly; a popular TV-soap villain played the Devil, as an urbane snake-in-the-grass. The production design's vision was inspired by the paintings of Stanley Spencer, one of our favourite British artists. A true eccentric who saw Britain as an apocalyptic Garden, much in the manner of William Blake's poetry.
For Spencer, the Last Judgement would take place in his hometown of Cookham in Berkshire.
The Resurrection Cookham is in the Tate Britain's collection
The costumes were recreations of the clothes worn by Spencer's villagers in his paintings done between the 1920s and the 1950s. The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham has a website with links to most of his work. He was deeply affected by his experiences as a medic in Macedonia during the First World War, before he served in the trenches. His most famous work is the Burghclere Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, with a cycle of wall painting sometimes compared to Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua. His other masterworks are the Glasgow Shipyards painted as an official war artist during the Second World War.

I have very few photos of the production because they requested that no photos be taken during the performance, and I had only taken one before I saw the notice. In the theatre erected for the production, the seating has cover, but the stage does not. During the afternoon, the weather was variable moving from rain, to sun, to clouds, to very hot sun, to an apocalyptic thunder and rainstorm — which began during the Gethsemane betrayal! — that flooded the stage, and shut down the play when the electrical equipment stopped functioning. The soaking wet performers returned after the Deluge, to finish the end of the story.  Lots of photo ops were promised for the end, but the soaked players, many wearing plastic ponchos did not make much of a picture. However, the York team have provided a trailer that doesn't miss much.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Our Last View of the Olympic Park (For Now)

Friday, 3 August

Our last set of tickets from the random ticket lottery were for Diving this afternoon, giving us one more chance to visit the Olympic Park. Today was a big day for the Olympic organisers. The main stadium which holds 80,000 people has been closed since the Opening Ceremony, until today, when the Athletics events began. Until today, the transportation, the security, and the hospitality has functioned like a dream. The big question has been whether the transport and facilities could accommodate an additional 80,000 visitors. And the answer is yes.

I'm so glad we visited yesterday when the Park was crowded, but an extra 80,000 does make a difference. For example, we didn't try to buy food or beverages, but the queues to enter the souvenir shops were very long indeed! Bob will have to secure a T-shirt another way.

Water Polo Stadium to the left; Aquatics to the right

The weather remained sunny and warm, and we took the opportunity to wander along the river walks lined with wildflower meadows.

A bridge covered sheathed with reflective panels

Gloriana, the Queen's Row Barge that led the Thames Jubilee Parade
and carried the Olympic Flame down the Thames 

The Aquatics Centre. The wings on each end provide seating for the Games.
They will be removed leaving the curved roof pool area in the middle
to be used as a community swim facility.

Arriving at the Aquatic Center, we presented our Diving tickets, chosen by us (cheap) and allocated by the lottery, knowing full well our seats might require an oxygen infusion after we climbed up to the top of the top of the top of the stadium's seating wings. And then the nice man said, "Would you like some better seats where you don't have to climb stairs?" And he led us to the front row at the side of the Diving Pool at the board end! We were sitting behind the judges' backs!
This is what the front row looks like!

The event was the Women's 3-Metre Springboard Preliminary with 30 divers doing five dives each in order to whittle the field to 18 divers for tomorrow's semi-final.

These amazing seats gave us an opportunity to see behind the scenes of scoring and televising events.

Canadian diver Jennifer Abel who came in 4th today being interviewed by
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Jennifer won the Bronze Medal
in the 3-metre synchronised diving earlier this week. 

Chinese star diver Wu Minxia being interviewed by Chinese  TV .
She placed first today, and won the Gold in the 3-metre synchronised diving.
We were certainly sad to leave the Olympic Park, but next year the park will reopen as Queen Elizabeth Park with sports facilities available to the public and open space use. The athletes' accommodation tower blocks will be refitted with kitchens, reconfigured as flats, and sold off. Other housing blocks are already under construction. The huge Westfield Mall is in place. A huge transportation hub has been built connecting Underground, Overground, Docklands Light Rail, national rail lines, and even an International Eurostar station. If Stratford's regeneration is as successful as other recent efforts in London — Canary Wharf and Kings Cross for example — then the neighbourhood will become a major urban hub of Northeast London. In a perfect world, these projects would serve residents across the income spectrum, but that is always the rub in a world that is not perfect.

### Diving Update, Semifinal Results, Saturday, 4 August: Wu Minxia held onto 1st place, and Jennifer Abel remained in 4th place.
*** Diving Update, Final Results, Sunday, 5 August: Gold for Wu Minxia; Silver for He Zi of China; Bronze for Laura Sanchez Soto of Mexico

Our First View of the Olympic Park

Thursday, 2 August

Today was the day of our first visit to the Olympic Park with tickets for Handball this evening. Susan and Cato entered in the early afternoon, followed by a set of ecstatic Facebook messages from Susan, so when Bob and I entered later in the afternoon, I was primed and pumped. And wow, it is overwhelming. So overwhelming I forgot to take photos. When I took stock of what I had on my camera, most of the photos were of fields of wildflowers (spectacular) and of one building (the Velodrome). Oh well, I have one more chance tomorrow. The park is huge. It sweeps around in curves, and suddenly you look back and realise how far away from the entrance you are. The River Lea winds through the site with walkways verged by wildflower meadows.

Scenic walkways, wildflower gardens,
and the Olympic Stadium in the distant left.

Wildflower meadows were chosen as a Green Olympic measure.
The months of soaking rain have made them a spectacular choice.

The Velodrome in the back, and the little egg in front is a bandshell for entertainment

The Basketball Stadium
The world's largest McDonalds. Griping in the press led us to believe it was the only food venue available.
In fact there was a very good food kiosk area where we had an excellent dinner of
stir fried prawns served at a very reasonable price.
Nevertheless the only beer available is Heineken. Sigh. 

Our sporting event was a Men's Handball Preliminary. Like Beach Volleyball, a sport I have no familiarity with. Susan pointed out it was much like basketball with a football goal and lots of physical pushing and grabbing. The first match was Denmark and Serbia, with lots and lots of Danish support in the seats. Denmark won narrowly, but the game wasn't very exciting. The second match between Sweden and Iceland was much more interesting. They were both very fast and aggressive, with the lead passing back and forth regularly. Iceland clocked up a few extra points near the end of the game, but Sweden came roaring back, and nearly tied it up, but Iceland was still ahead by one point when the clock ran out.

A beautiful breezy evening greeted us as we left the Park at 11 pm.

Yes, that is a full moon adding an extra light in the sky
The BBC still at work in their media centre

The BBC interview/commentary studio. Can you see the Olympic Flame on the screen to the left.
There is a controversy over leaving the Torch inside the Stadium so only visitors with tickets to
Stadium events can see the legendary Flower Petal Torch.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bouncy Stonehenge Comes to Hampstead!

Wednesday, 1 August

There has to be a day to do laundry, keep up with the dishwashing, evaluate the food stocks, and even make supper. But this is the Cultural Olympics, so today the fun came to Hampstead Heath.

Click the link for more information