Tuesday, 19 August 2014


This lunchtime I thought, 'I really fancy a healthy salad', and went salad-hunting. Given that I work in a predominantly office area (i.e. Westminster) you'd think that would be relatively easy. But it's not, at least not for a vegetarian. There are lots of chicken salads and tuna salads and sushi salads but a boring old no-dead-thing salad? O no. Then I found one that looked like it was full of carrots and felafel and chick peas and other healthy stuff, so I bought it. When I got back to the office I found it looked nice on the top - on top of a thick bed of lettuce leaves.

I've been a vegetarian for almost 40 years and I've lost count of the acres of lettuce I've eaten over those years. Lettuce has always been used to 'bulk' up salads, provide the base and sprinkle a few other veggies, fruit and pulses on top and that's your basic salad. Well, I'm fed up with all the lettuce. It's a cheap way to provide a bigger meal but I'm bored with it. I want more tomato, more cucumber, more peppers, more onion, more everything - and less lettuce. Ideally, no lettuce.

Imagine my joy at discovering a real Greek salad in Greece (Athens to be precise) a few years ago with no lettuce at all? Those intelligent Greeks had obviously realised that lettuce is boring millennia ago and banned it. How sensible. How wonderful.

Sadly, London Greek salads all too often still include a base of lettuce - except at The Real Greek, and I urge you to sample a Real Greek salad. I do every time I go there. Yum!

I disapprove of fields of lettuce - let the rabbits in, I say. I disapprove of whoever first decided to cultivate lettuce many millennia ago when we discovered farming and gave up hunter-gathering. I disapprove of the man (probably a man and probably Victorian) who first put lettuce into a salad.

If you like lettuce, then good on ya (and I don't understand that) but I'm with the Greeks on this one. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Frozen By Sight - Paul Smith & Peter Brewis

The new record from Paul Smith is available to pre-order and, naturally, that's what I've done. It won't be available until November but, when you pre-order, you can download three tracks: 'Barcelona (At Eye Level)', 'Mount Wellington Rises' and 'Trevone' which all soon good. According to Paul, each song is about a place or a journey he's made with his words set to strings by Peter Brewis from Field Music.

You can pre-oder (and download the songs) from the new website. Here's what the 'Frozen By Sight' website says:

Frozen by Sight is the new album from Paul Smith (Maximo Park) and Peter Brewis (Field Music). Drawing inspiration from disparate musical and poetic sources the two Mercury Prize nominees have come together in a playful departure from their respective bands, with Peter Brewis' chamber-band arrangements built up around text from Paul Smith's travel writing, creating a a restrained yet richly descriptive song suite.

First performed at the inaugural Festival of the North East in spring 2013, Smith and Brewis began work in early 2014 recording the album at the Field Music studio in Sunderland with David Brewis, Peter's brother, acting as co-producer. Integral to the sound of the record are the distinctive performances of the band: David's dynamic push and pull on the drums, John Pope's wandering, melodic bass playing, the precision and drama of Ed Cross' string quartet, and the sonorous palette of Andrew Lowther's tuned percussion. Brewis reinforces the arrangements with smatterings of piano while Smith features as a highly individual singer/guitar player.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Matisse Cut-Outs

I went to see the Matisse exhibition of his 'cut-outs' again at Tate Modern yesterday and loved it just as much as the first time I saw it. The simple joy of the kaleidoscope of colour and shapes is astonishing. To be surrounded by all this vibrant art is on a par with the transcendent experience of being surrounded by the devotion and belief of Fra Angelico at the Musee Jacquemart-Andree in Paris a few years ago.

Where does this beauty and joy come from? How did this old man in a wheelchair find the vision within himself to produce these astonishing works? What made him see a dragon or a snail or a leaf in these odd shapes or colours?

Thank you M. Matisse.

'Skylight' at Wyndham's Theatre

Yesterday Chris took me to see David Hare's 'Skylight' at Wyndham's, a theatre I've been in lots of times and will always make me smile with memories of 'Avenue Q' from years ago and those rascally and wise Bad Idea Bears. Anyway, back to 2014 and Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy being fraught and tense and funny in an ugly little flat in a sink estate in Kensall Rise in north west London on a freezing December night in the early '90s.

The flat belongs to Kyra and it has the cheapest and most awful furniture I've seen in a long time, spindly and formica, with a two-bar electric heater for warmth. Kyra lives in four small rooms and overlooks more flats outside her front door, layers and layers of flats, some with football flags in the windows instead of curtains. The whole place reeks of deprivation and, in her case, cheap because she could afford better if she wanted. Kyra is a teacher who chooses to live in a deprived neighbourhood in north west London and teach in a  deprived neighbourhood in east London meaning she spends most of her time commuting to school and then home again. By bus, of course. You see, Kyra has a social conscience. Or does she?

The story gradually unfolds, firstly through a random visit by Edward, the son of her former lover. And then by Tom her lover, millionaire restauranteur, who hasn't seen her for several years. She was taken in by Tom and his wife when she first came to London to work before going to university. On return she and Tom had an affair for six years before Tom's wife found out about it and Kyra vanished. Tom's wife died from cancer a year ago and he's finally tracked her down. What was it all about back then and what's it about now? That's the tale we're told in the freezing little flat with snow outside.

The cast were all great, all three of them! Bill Nighy was Tom, the self-centred successful businessman, a role he played 20 years ago when the play was first produced. Carey Mulligan was excellent as Kyra, controlled and in control of her life, with Matthew Beard as Tom's son, Edward, aged 18 in the play who has just left home after a blazing row with his father. Bill's rather mannered portrayal of Tom, endlessly pacing, endlessly challenging Kyra's life and decisions, was great to see with his comic timing and emphasising words in the text to create the next argument between them. And Carey's control and stillness at the centre of the maelstrom of passions, always pushing Tom to think, challenging his assumptions and one-sided view of their years together. And Matthew as Edward, particularly in the final scene bringing breakfast when he seemed to blossom into the character. I thought they were all excellent.

The set and lighting were also really good and I particularly liked how the windows in the block of flats outside the front door changed to reflect the time. And, of course, the play used smellovision to great effect. During the first half Kyra makes spag bol - and she really cooks it, chopping up veggies for the sauce and the smell of frying onion reached us up in the balcony. The cooker on stage in the ugly flat really worked and helped to warm up the flat but it was the smell of onions that made me hungry. This is, I'm sure, the first time I've blogged about the smell of a play!

I thoroughly enjoyed the play, from Bill's manic political and social rants and Carey's stillness. Some of the play has aged, like the references to rap music and the Poll Tax, but most of it is still relevant today. But the flat, please, do something about it - I don't remember the early '90s being that grim!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Literary Benches Around London

This years' theme for things to hunt down in London over the summer are benches, literary benches. Books About Town has commissioned a series of 50 benches about books with a London connection that are painted with an image associated with the book. The benches are all in the shape of an opened book and are surprisingly comfortable to sit on. The benches are dotted around open spaces (and some not so open) in four areas of London: Bloomsbury, Greenwich, City and Riverside (City Hall to the Globe). I've had an initial skirmish with the benches in the sun of a London summer and got burned and photographed the front and back of a lot of benches. I have more to collect.

I started off on the Riverside trail with the 'War Horse' bench in the shade of some young trees before discovering Alice in Wonderland and the Discworld bench with the Librarian. Walking along the river I discovered more benches, including one to Shakespeare outside the Globe Theatre. I prefer the back of this bench to the front for depicting the old London Bridge.

Over the Millennium Bridge between the Tate Modern and St Paul's Cathedral and another set of benches around the cathedral including 'Mary Poppins' and 'Peter Pan'. A bit further up in the 'Bridget Jones' bench. I couldn't find the Dickens bench and didn't have time to explore further in the City to find other benches so that's for another day

Another day passed and I went into Bloomsbury to find those benches in the grand literary squares. 'Mrs Dalloway' and (another) 'Peter Pan', Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes but the best of the lot is 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' in St George's Gardens. I loved this bench with Mr Tumnus and Lucy walking away from the streetlight and into Narnia with a large painting of Aslan on the back. So far that's my favourite bench. I've yet to explore the Greenwich benches so maybe one of them will become my favourite but it'll have to be pretty spectacular.

Anyway, here are some photos of benches for you to enjoy!

The 'Through The Looking Glass' bench:

The Discworld bench with the Librarian looking very orange:

The Shakespeare bench outside The Globe Theatre, front and back:

The 'Mary Poppins' bench, front and back, with skateboarder damage on the front (between the front door and the first cherry tree):

The 'Peter Pan' bench outside St Paul's, front and back, with the addition of sparkly things embedded in the bench for that extra glimmer:

The 'Paddington Bear' bench outside Southwark Cathedral, front and back - I like this since it's the same picture really, as if the bench is see through, and you can see Mr and Mrs Brown in the distance on the back.

My favourite so far, 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' with Mr Tumnus and Lucy walking into Narnia on the front, polar bears on the side and Aslan on the back.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

'Medea' at the National Theatre

I suspect Euripides would recognise the new version of his blood-soaked play despite the 21st Century language. The anger, passion and revenge are all there and the only thing missing are Zeus's thunderbolts splintering the stage. Yes, we saw 'Medea' this evening.

Medea follows Jason (leader of the Argonauts) to Corinth with their two children but he leaves her to marry a princess of Corinth and Medea swears vengeance. She is a witch queen, after all, and what she swears she will deliver. The play takes place on the day of Jason's marriage when Medea successfully kills the bride and the king (her father) and then, to strike directly at Jason's heart, kills her two sons. O yes, there is blood to spare in this play but that's not what it's about. Not really.

Medea is an early feminist, a woman with a mind of her own and the determination to make her wishes come true. Is that witchy magic or something else? She states that she would rather face battle with men than give birth again. She has been betrayed by Jason and will not put up with it - he will suffer in every way she can conceive up to and including killing his children. But that also rebounds on her since she gave birth to them in rivers of blood and their deaths push her into madness.

The play is only 90 minutes long but it's quite draining. The emotion the cast drag out of the audience is impressive and attested by the number of people delivering a standing ovation, particularly for Helen McCrory as Medea. And she deserves it - how can you deliver a performance of that intensity every night? I was drained by the end.

I wasn't entirely on-side with the set. The stage was the living room of Medea's house, the background was a woods and upstairs was the wedding reception room? What's that about? I sort of see what it was about but I'm not sure why it was needed. Trying to be all things to all people is fine so long as it works but it just confused me. Is what's going on upstairs important or just filler? Where am I supposed to be looking and what am I supposed to be looking at?

Whatever, I thought it was an excellent production and I left thoroughly drained. I'm still mulling over the feminism from two thousand years ago and how it's still relevant today. Euripides was a visionary. Go and see it.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Monk's House at Rodmell

After going to see the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery we went to visit the last house she lived in, Monk's House in the village of Rodmell in Sussex. The Woolf's bought the house in 1919 and upgraded it each time they published a book so it was where they moved to from London to escape the Blitz when their house was hit by bombs in the Second World War. It's hardly the luxurious place you might expect and it's a far cry from the drawing rooms of Bloomsbury but it had a 'comfortable' feel about it.

It's train journey out of London Victoria through Surrey and into Sussex. Then a change at Lewes to the hourly train to Southease, a station that is only a platform and nothing else, and then a walk into Rodmell village, a tiny place with only one pub (that in itself is quite telling). Then down a narrow lane to Monk's House.

Someone lives in the upstairs rooms so you can only go into the ground floor rooms, the living room, dining room and kitchen and the extension that was Virginia's bedroom. Uneven floors and low headroom characterised the house and it was odd to see the furniture the Woolfs used, their chairs and tables surrounded by the art of their family and friends. I liked the chairs with 'VW' embroidered on the back, the colourful tiled tables created by Duncan Grant and the paintings on the walls.

The entrance to the house is round the back and through the built-on greenhouse full of plants and flowers. This was a sort of preparation for the extensive gardens. Just as they upgraded the house with each successive book publication, they also bought more land for gardens and I loved the gardens. Wandering along trails full of blowsy flowers and fruit trees, other areas looking out over the Sussex downs and other areas being allotments for fruit and vegetables. I actually preferred the gardens to the house which probably puts me in Leonard's team rather than Virginia's. I *loved* the gardens. I want gardens like those when I grow up.

In the garden under a tree is Virginia's writing 'lodge' - or shed with windows, handmade desk made by Leonard on which her glasses rested, and a comfy chair. We were lucky that the place had sufficient volunteer guides that day that meant that the lodge was open and we walk in and suck up the atmosphere. Each room had a volunteer guide who were happy to talk about the house, what was on display and how the Woolfs lived on a daily basis. They were very knowledgeable. Also in the garden is the skeleton of Leonard's greenhouse that has recently been bought and will be restored (see the sign).

The ticket office and shop is in what used to be the garage and that lends added poignancy when you know that the Woolfs considered using it to commit suicide in the event of a German invasion in the Second World War since they were on Hitler's hit list. I also inadvertently found the side door out of the garden that Virginia used on her last walk to the Rive Ouse.

It's a lovely trip out of London and it really is in the depths of the countryside. The tamed countryside of Sussex rather than the wild countryside of the North but it's still the countryside. And, to prove it, here are some lazy cows.