The Modern Pantry – Finsbury Square with John White, 31 March 2016

John and I arranged this evening ages ago, without finalising time and location. It was John’s turn to choose and he opted for The Modern Pantry’s new venture in Finsbury Square. This was well located for both of us now John works in the City. In any case, we had enjoyed a fine meal at the Clerkenwell parent restaurant not all that long ago.

John was still smarting about my recent posting of the Hackgrass reveal story from June 1985, despite all the years he has had to get over it and despite the extensive cathartic rant he posted the other day, for some reason in the comments section of this unconnected piece about the 1984 Summer Ball. In his usual understated manner, John told me that I had ruined his entire life that day, 10 June 1985. In my usual unrepentant manner I suggested that he might be exaggerating more than a little and did not apologise.

In truth, we really wanted to talk about Pady Jalali’s impending visit, our families, leisure, work, UK politics, the Europe vote, the US elections, life, the universe and everything. Naturally, we talked about all of those things.

We even chatted about little speaker thingies you can now get for less than £20 that come with woofers, tweeters, the lot. I made the mistake of looking my gadget up on Amazon for John when I got home and I am now being bombarded by Amazon with spam and personalised ads for little speaker thingies. (Other sources of spam, personalised ads and speaker thingies are available).

The food at Finsbury Square was good without being outstanding, whereas we remember the Clerkenwell place being genuinely outstanding. The latter was a sort of middle-eastern fusion, whereas this new venture is more an Asian fusion idea.

John started with a smoked salmon sashimi (contradiction in terms but lovely dressing) while I had a soft shell crab starter in a sort-of Indonesian style. John had a very subtle monk fish main, which was tasty but not exceptional. I think I did a little better with a curried duck leg – again up-market sort-of south-east Asian style. John followed with some cheese, while I tried a black sesame cheese-cake which I rather liked  as it was not too sweet. I could see why the waitress said that some people love it while others don’t like it so much.

In truth, I would return to The Modern Pantry Clerkenwell but probably not to this Finsbury Square branch. If I have a crazy craving for Asian fusion, I think I’d stay closer to home and dine at E&O. Of course, Janie and I dined at the latter with John and Mandy years ago and had a great evening…

…as indeed did John and I at The Modern Pantry Finsbury Square. Always a treat to try these places and always a pleasant evening when John and I catch up.

An Afternoon At Lord’s, Followed By The Seaxe Club AGM and Panel, 30 March 2016

Janie and I have booked a series of wine tastings this spring, the first of which was due to be this evening, so I was disappointed when the Seaxe Club papers came through with 30 March as the AGM/panel date; I always look forward to this event.

Then a fortunate change to the schedule for the wine tastings; the 30 March one has had to be postponed. Equally fortunate was the opportunity to play real tennis that afternoon; originally a one hour gig which in fact turned into a double-header. I shall write more about my experience learning to play real tennis in the fullness of time.

On this occasion, the big thing I learnt about real (or indeed probably any form of) tennis was that two hours on the trot is an exertion too far for me nowadays. It didn’t help falling over on that hard slate floor half-an-hour into the session in a most inglorious fashion – while clearing balls from the net gully into the ball basket. Both knees and my left shoulder are still bruised 10 days later. But in any case, I’m no longer the lad who could play five-setters of modern tennis against the Great Yorkshire Pudding (for example) for hours on end with seemingly no adverse effects.

When I started my two-hour court session, England looked to be on the wrong-end of the ICC World Twenty20 semi-final, with the Kiwis only one down, with 60 or 70 on the board in about 8 overs. But when I emerged after two hours, England looked to be cruising on 100/1 or so off 10 with only 154 to chase. I resolved to change slowly and follow the end of the match on the wonderfully well-positioned TV in the changing room.

While following the end of England’s successful semi-final, I chatted briefly with a visiting squash player from the West Midlands and latterly with Paul Cattermull, a friend and colleague from many years gone by. I had no idea that Paul was a real tennis aficionado or even an MCC member until he entered that changing room. Paul and I had time both to catch up and for him to give me some useful tips about the game.

I also had time to watch Paul play real tennis for about 15 minutes before I needed to hobble round to the President’s Box for the Seaxe Club AGM.

The sun shone on that early evening meeting, making the field of play look an absolute picture and making that President’s Box the ideal setting for appetite-whetting for the new season.

Of course, the AGM bit of the evening is not the main draw for me; indeed I am slightly allergic to those sorts of meetings. There are two reasons why I really look forward to the Seaxe Club AGM evening.

Firstly, it is an early opportunity to see some of the lovely people who work tirelessly for Middlesex cricket in some of the less glamorous roles. Seaxe Club folk are a really nice bunch of people.

Secondly, the Seaxe Club always arranges a really interesting cricket panel for the second half of the evening. This second half should really be described as a symposium, as wine is available between the two sessions (and therefore during the panel) to help lubricate the discussions. I think of this Seaxe Club annual event as one of the best kept secrets in Middlesex, despite the fact that it is always well publicised. I have no idea why it isn’t better attended as it is always so interesting and enjoyable.

On this occasion, there was a slightly depleted panel, as the two younger players scheduled to attend with Angus Fraser were both a bit poorly that day.  Gus had press-ganged Dawid Malan into attending in their place, which was a coup. I chatted with Dawid during the “drinks interval” before the panel. He had no idea that he was about to sit on a panel – he thought he had just been asked along to show his face and have a drink with us. I warned him that the Seaxe Club audience was the toughest gig in Middlesex and that he might get some really challenging questions. But just looking around the room, he knew I was kidding him.

The panel discussion, as always, was interesting. It is usually oriented towards the younger players, as one of the Seaxe Club’s key roles is to help develop the next generation of players. This year the discussion was less youth oriented but still it was interesting to hear Gus and Dawid’s take on the preparatory work the squad has done for the new season and some more general thoughts about county cricket.

Given my exertions earlier in the afternoon, my gammy knees and my bags of kit, I decided for once to tube-it home rather than my usual method, to walk-it.

 

 

Janis: Little Girl Blue, 28 March 2016

I wouldn’t normally post about a movie we watched on TV, but we so nearly went to see this one at the cinema last month – only missing out because we returned from Nicaragua just as the movie came off the Curzon documentary screens.

So we resolved to try and catch Janis: Little Girl Blue, “when it finally comes around on the box”, so I was really surprised and pleased to see it listed for the Easter weekend. That’s “coming around” pretty quick in my book.

So, we set the Tivo on Good Friday and gained redemption of the recording on Easter Monday.

In truth, Janie and I both found the movie a bit disappointing. A little bit of Janis Joplin’s music goes a long way for both of us, but we both thought that a documentary about her life and early demise would be very interesting to us. As it turned out, a little bit of Janis Joplin’s back story goes a long way for us too.

In contrast with Amy, which left us feeling far better informed about Amy Winehouse’s  back story and increasingly sympathetic, we both found Janis Joplin’s story surprisingly one-dimensional and even rather irritating.

In short, we’re pleased we’ve seen this movie but are equally pleased that we did so at ease, in the comfort of our own living room on the day and time of our choosing. It wouldn’t have been worth the schlep to Bloomsbury or wherever.

“Esperar, Sentir, Morir”, Le Poème Harmonique, Wigmore Hall, 26 March 2016

 

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By the standards of a wet Easter Saturday, the day had been quite sporty and exciting. Daisy and I played tennis, despite the shocking weather – the rain holding off long enough for us to get our game in, merely through gloom and howling winds. Then we stopped off in Ealing to buy some sports kit supplies “while stocks last”. Later, we watched England play Sri Lanka in a must-win game of the World T20, which England did in the end win, but not without a scare or two.

As the drizzle and high winds turned to heavy rain and near-hurricane, we agreed that we would have abandoned a lesser outing, such as a trip to the movies. But we were very much looking forward to seeing Le Poème Harmonique at the Wigmore Hall, so it would take more than wind and piss to keep us from tonight’s gig.

It’s ages since I gave business to the Wigmore Hall CD stand, as it is usually a better idea to sample and purchase downloads of music in the comfort of one’s own home. But on this occasion we got to the hall well early (unnecessarily allowing extra time for the inclement weather ) and I wanted to read more than was in the programme as well as hear some more later, so I bought a couple of CDs:

The first is early Spanish baroque, much based on folk music, quite similar to some of the stuff we were due to hear. I’m listening to the delightful Briceño as I type.

The second is later French baroque, unconnected with tonight’s concert but a recent recording by this ensemble and should be home turf for them. It is incredibly beautiful music, wonderfully rendered by this troupe on this recording.

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It came as no surprise to run into my friend from the gym Eric Rhode and his wife Maria, forming part of our baroque concert front row Mafia.

It was a wonderful concert; incredibly accomplished musicians all. Claire Lefilliâtre has a wonderful soprano voice, well-accustomed and suited to baroque singing. Mira Glodeanu is a baroque violin specialist; I’m sure we have seen her before with other ensembles.

The concert was a mixture of Spanish and Italian baroque blending “street dance music”, such as it was back then, with courtly song music. The title of the concert, “Esperar, Sentir, Morir”, means “To Hope, To Feel, To Die” and is the title of the “closing number”. There were three encores after the closing number, but you know what I mean.

For the courtly music, leader Vincent Dumestre deploys his theorbo, but for the “street” numbers, he plays a beautiful looking and sounding baroque guitar. The bass viol player, Lucas Peres, plays the bass viol “on his lap, guitar style” for some of the jauntier numbers. The bass viol is about the size of a cello. The invention of bass guitar must have come as a massive relief to jaunty bass viol players everywhere.

But it is percussionist, Joël Grare, (or as he describes himself, “self-taught child of rock and drummer-percussionist”) who hogs the limelight in the raunchier numbers. He has an extensive collection of percussive toys on the stage, together with a baroque drum being kept warm on an electric blanket. His percussion is a mixture of sound and movement – some of his castanet interludes included some sort of baroque tap-dancing. For one song, he and the soprano briefly engaged in some flamenco/tango style interactions. Joel deploys puckish head movements and facial expressions as he moves around and percusses.

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Checking out Grare the next day, I came across the album Grare: Paris – Istanbul – Shanghai, which I downloaded after a tiny sample and which Daisy and I have already enjoyed hearing several times. It is quite extraordinary fusion music and is absolutely delightful listening. I’m sure we’ll be listening to this relaxing music for many years to come.

So, not a cheap date in the end, but it was an exceptionally good one.

A Mini-Revolution in Hanger Hill To Avert Giant Wheelie-Bin Chaos, 20 March 2016

I was feeling quite cross after Janie and I were fobbed off last week when we got no joy when we phoned the Council and then were refused a reassessment on-line, ahead of the impending wheelie-bin regime here in Ealing.

The problem here is that our conservation guidelines for the Hanger Hill Garden Estate, quite rightly, do not permit bins at the front of the houses. But how terraced houses are supposed to bring giant wheelie bins to the front safely and hygienically is anybody’s guess.

I suspect that simply no-one has thought it through, as we have rear service roads here that should be able to do the job. After those unsatisfactory responses from the council’s regular channels last week, I decided to leaflet all the affected houses and e-mail same to the local big cheeses on Saturday.

As I went off to start my mini-revolution, Janie decided she needed an appropriately belligerent-looking picture of me. As I’m sporting one of my new Nicaraguan bandannas, she describes it as my “San-bin-ista look”.

San-Bin-Ista

Within 24 hours, I had received personal emails from the leader of the Council and from our local MP. The Director of Environmental Services has already been in touch asking for a meeting on site to discuss the sensible possibilities asap. Not bad on a Sunday.

If you want to see the note that kicked all of this off – here’s the very note, this is what I wrote: HHGE Wheelie Bin Chaos Prevention 18 March 2016 Version Sent

Meanwhile, a version of the above piece has gone down well on Facebook, with some friends preferring to describe the look as Wheelie-Bin Laden or perhaps Jeremy Cor-Bin rather than San-bin-o. Feel free to choose your own preferred name for the look. I’m more concerned about getting the right result. With so much progress in such a short time, I am quietly confident that common sense will prevail.

The Argument by William Boyd, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 19 March 2016

We love the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs. We love the upstairs too, of course, but we really have seen some cracking stuff downstairs.

This piece doesn’t really make the cut as “cracking stuff”. I enjoyed it more than Janie did; she found swathes of it irritating.

There’s not a great deal of plot. Young couple, compulsive arguers about nothing, fall out proper when the shrewish intellectual snob of a wife extracts a confession from the strangely timid yet BSD husband that he has been having an affair with some trollop through work.

Then wheel in the best friend of each spouse plus both of her parents and watch every plausible pairing (and some implausible ones) argue. Some scenes were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny; others were a little “smug sitcom” for our taste. What little plot there is progresses quite slowly and predictably.

It was good to see Michael Simkins (aka Fatty Batter – one of the funniest cricket books I have ever read) on the stage. Last time I saw him in person was at a county cricket match at Lord’s 10 years or so ago; he was with Michael Billington and we three chatted very pleasantly for a brief while.

Plenty of good acting on show, as is pretty much always the case down there at Hampstead. Indeed, in some ways it was the high quality of the acting that irritated Janie. The characters were all unlikable and the actors did a terrific job of projecting that unlike-ability. It is difficult for a play to work if you really don’t care much for any of the characters.

Still, we enjoyed our evening and in some ways the slight disappointment was based on the very high expectations we have now when visiting the Hampstead Theatre – what a huge leap forward from a few years ago when the whole place was in the creative doldrums. Edward Hall has done and is doing a cracking job there. We look forward to seeing the new Neil LaBute upstairs there in a few weeks’ time. I think we saw Mr LaBute himself crossing the Finchley Road while we were on the way to the theatre; quite possible as that upstairs show is still in preview. There’s another fellow we haven’t seen in person for a decade or so.

 

Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer, Wigmore Hall, 18 March 2016

Janie and I are huge fans of solo and small ensemble jazz at the Wigmore Hall; it sounds great in that place. We have encouraged “The Wiggy” to put on more of the stuff over the years and we were delighted when they came up with the idea of curated jazz series.

Wigmore Hall 18 March 2016

Double bass virtuoso Christian McBride is the latest jazz series curator. Based (or should I say bass-ed) on this concert, his first appearance as curator, he seems like a superb choice.

Neither of us had heard two double basses as an ensemble before. Should I call that ensemble a duet or quadruple bass? Anyway, the second bass player, Edgar Meyer, was also quite brilliant.

Both Christian and Edgar (you soon feel on first name terms) are composers as well as musicians, so we heard some of their own pieces as well as their take on some good bassy jazz standards. Occasionally one of them would take to the piano, but most of the pieces were double bass duets.

Between pieces, taking the copious applause, they looked like a bit of a mutual admiration society, each denying that the applause was for him and insisting that it was mainly for the other bloke. But that was the only slight irritation for us the whole evening. They are clearly good friends and have a wonderful understanding of each other when they play together, which is the important thing.

This concert was cool. Seriously cool. Elvis Costello was sitting in the audience about half way to the back of the hall and to the side – that’s how hot a ticket this cool concert was. I hoped to say hello to my old pal Elvis as we left the hall, but unfortunately his entourage appeared and grabbed his attention just before I got my chance.

Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill, Royal Court Theatre, 12 March 2016

A conversation with Janie back in January.

Janie: I’ve just heard Front Row. They were talking about an amazing new play by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court.

Me: (inquisitively) Yessss…

Janie: …so why haven’t you got us tickets for it?

Me: (nervously) Cripes – I’ll look into it. Leave it to me.

But of course, I had already bought tickets for Escaped Alone at the Royal Court. I’d bought tickets for the play so long ago, Janie and I had both forgotten about it. So long ago, that we hadn’t then quite worked out when we were going to take our winter break. I had, for that reason, booked for right at the end of the run, 12 March, to ensure that our holiday window was as wide as possible.

By the time we returned from our winter trip to Nicaragua, we were aware that Escaped Alone had received rave reviews from almost all the critics, that several of our friends had already seen it and that no-one seemed very able to explain what the play is about.

Thus we went to Sloane Square with a great sense of expectation; perhaps that in part explains why both of us found the play rather disappointing. Yet I didn’t find the piece quite as obscure and mysterious as critics (and friends) inferred. So, for those readers who wonder what this play is about, (even those of you who have seen and/or read it) here is my take on the work.

Caryl Churchill gives us, at the front of the play text, the quote “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” from the Book of Job (Job’s servant with bad news) and also from the epitaph to Moby Dick (Ishmael’s words). But I don’t think this clue leads naturally to the idea that Mrs Jarrett’s (Linda Bassett’s) dystopian speeches are supposed to be her describing actual experiences prior to visiting the garden and/or that the garden scenes take place while other aspects of the world are turning hellish.

The start of the play reveals that Mrs Jarrett knows the other three women only slightly when she joins them in the garden. The other three clearly know each other well; that familiar trio are given and use only first names. It is only Mrs Jarrett, the surnamed partial outsider, who steps outside the comfort of the garden to make dystopian speeches in partial, flashing light of the outer stage.

In the garden scenes, as the play unfolds, each of the three familiar friends makes a relatively lengthy speech in which they reveal their inner demons. In Sally’s case, it is the fear of cats. In Lena’s case, it is workplace-induced depression/agoraphobia. In Vi’s case, it is obsessive thoughts about her killing of her husband and the effect it has had on her life since. Mrs Jarrett doesn’t make such a speech within the garden – we have heard plenty about her demons in her dystopian speeches from the outside. So Mrs Jarrett merely says the phrase “terrible rage” many times over, when it is her turn to open up to the others with a longer speech in the garden.

The point is, I think, that all four women are describing inner demons; Mrs Jarrett only articulates hers outside the garden. We all have inner demons, which we can only really “escape alone”, or sometimes reveal to friends as personal dystopiae, because those worries are unique to us.  There is an interesting counterpoint here with Hitchcock’s take on inner fears (which in his case manifest as plot devices and ways of making the audience anxious) – fresh in my mind after seeing Hitchcock/Truffaut the previous day. Perhaps Churchill’s subtle focus on the notion that everyone has inner fears explains why Escaped Alone seems to have resonated so well with the critics (and perhaps also audiences).

Janie and I have seen a fair smattering of Caryl Churchill in our time. They are often short works, with an absurd, obscure and/or dystopian feel to some or all of the piece. This piece didn’t seem, to us, to add much to that Churchill oeuvre. Among the critics, only Billington (whose review was also very good) at least alluded to dystopia overkill and the use of similar ideas in earlier Churchill works. Blue Heart, A Number and especially Far Away all came to my mind while watching the play, prior to reading that Billington review.

Yes, Escaped Alone had a super set. Yes, the production had a superb posse of senior actresses, but the play/production simply didn’t resonate well with either of us, unlike many of Churchill’s earlier works.

The audience was ecstatic at the end of the show, but then it was a last night audience and the critics had universally told readers that the play/production was top ranking. Thus the audience went into critic-induced raptures at the “Da Doo Ron Ron” rendition by the four ladies in the garden, sandwiched between two of Mrs Jarrett’s dystopian speeches, soon after Sally’s cat phobia speech, just before Lena’s depression/agoraphobia one. An excessive response, in my view, to something that was a nice touch but not a coup de théâtre.

Similarly, the universal acclaim for this play/production seems excessive to both of us, although perhaps this piece does far more for people who have been less steeped in Caryl Churchill.

Hitchcock/Truffaut, Curzon Bloomsbury, 11 March 2016

We hadn’t been to the movies since our “Christmas break Curzon film fest”, unless you count watching movies on the plane crossing the Atlantic on the way to Nicaragua as “going to the movies.

The decision to put this movie shortage right came within minutes of the Curzon Spring brochure coming through the post. First on our list was Hitchcock/Truffault – see IMDb entry here. 

Good movie, this. Probably aimed more at aficionados and media studies types than at us. (Hard for us to tell who it was meant to be attracting, given the super-sparse late afternoon/early evening audience when we attended.)

Truffaut was a fan of Hitchcock and approached the great man in the early 1960s hoping to interview him. The resulting series of interviews became a seminal book on the art of cinematography. The relationship between the two directors also blossomed into genuine friendship for the remainder of Hitchcock’s life. Truffaut’s life was tragically cut short just a few years after Hitchcock died. Both of them died when I was at Keele, which gave the Film Society good excuses (if such were needed) to have mini festivals of their works.

I must confess that I have always been fascinated by Hitchcock’s films, although his movies are not really “my type of films”. I should also confess that I have never really “got” Truffaut. I know that I was supposed to like Jules et Jim, which on paper is my type of film, but I didn’t like it.

Still, what I did like was this Hitchcock/Truffaut movie about Truffaut’s interviews and resulting examination of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Some fascinating additional notes/appearances by modern directors such as Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese add somewhat to the “meeja-studdies” feel of the movie, but joking apart also add a great deal of sensible and interesting comment on why Hitchcock’s work and Truffaut’s examination of same were so important to the development of the art of movie making.

If nothing else, if you have never seen the very best shots and clips from Hitchcock’s movies, this is a great way to see most of those in one short sitting. If you have seen them before, you know you’ll relish seeing lots of those clips in one sitting.

German Skerries by Robert Holman, Orange Tree Theatre, 5 March 2016

The questions Daisy and I debated over our Spanish dinner at Don Fernando after this short play were “why?” questions. Primarily, “why on earth did Paul Miller choose to revive this particular play?”

Yes, the Orange Tree rubric  about this play – click here – says that Simon Stephens reveres Robert Holman. Any friend of Simon Stephens blah blah…

…but this play, which won awards and all sorts in the late 1970s, must have either come from a lean year (1977? – I don’t think so) or simply aged badly, as some plays do. It simply didn’t resonate for either of us.

Some of it felt like writing by numbers to me – the birdwatchers spot a cormorant impaling itself on some stray wire, presumably the wire is there because of the industrial activity out by the skerries. “Oh dear”, I thought, “one of the characters is going to cop an industrial injury before the 80 minutes is up.”

Cormorants on Lake Nicaragua skerries
Cormorants on Lake Nicaragua skerries

It didn’t help that I have a slight cold (or do I mean man flu?) on our recent return from Nicaragua – from 30 Centigrade to 30 Fahrenheit overnight is a bit of a shock to the system. I did a pretty good job of stifling the sniffling and coughing, despite the cast members smoking pretty constantly and the smoke machine designed to make the night scenes seem misty being located right by my seat! Thank goodness for the trusty bottle of water when you need it most.

We had other why questions; such as why did the young man stay up by the bird watching hut leaving his young wife to take the injured man to hospital alone? There was a bicycle in the hut which seemed to have been left there for a purpose (perhaps that purpose) but the bike was ignored when crisis struck. Perhaps a change of heart from the writer, left hanging like…

The subject matter had the ability to resonate – ordinary folk in Teeside, caught up in the late 1970s industrial changes and disquiet…but by gosh this is a slow and dull piece. The play had only the faintest echo of the power possible in similar small northern town microscope pieces, such as Stockport by Simon Stephens. Yes, I can see where the influence on Stephens might have come; yes I understand that the industries that were controversially established on Teeside in the 1970s are controversially shutting down now. But 40 years on, leave it to Stephens…or revive a Stephens, don’t try and revive this dated and clumsy piece.

Michael Billington and his good lady were in the house tonight sitting opposite us. Billington is a great supporter of the Orange Tree but I suspect he’ll struggle to give this piece a favourable review – it will be interesting to see what he writes about it.

Daisy struggled to stay awake and was fearful that she might have nodded off while the young man character was bird watching in our direction through his binoculars. I don’t think she nodded off at those particular junctures, nor do I think that Michael Billington nodded off at the times when the binos were pointing his way, although I cannot vouch for the wakefulness of Billington’s whole evening.

We too are long-term supporters of the Orange Tree and think that Paul Miller’s tenure so far has had more rock than a massive outcrop of skerries, but this play missed the mark for us by a long way. We know that financial pressure is a major factor, so these joint productions are doubtless the way. Perhaps this piece will work better in Northern towns (although frankly I doubt it).  But in any case, I’d prefer to see more risk in joint productions – better the odd miss that has given a young writer or an emerging theatre troupe a chance, than a revival miss that leaves us simply asking, “why?”.