Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Thick of It

It is good to see The Thick Of It back on tv, and the move from BBC4 to BBC2 is recognition of its popularity. I know there will be some people, possibly lots of people, who will be troubled by the bad language, but I’m ok with it as used in this programme, and think it’s a great series.

The use of hand held cameras, and some improvisation by the performers, gives it what we believe to be a truthful and ‘dangerous’ air. The presence of Martin Sixsmith, an ex Downing Street staffer, as a script adviser will also help lend authenticity. I know they had some opposition MP’s in series 2, but I wonder if it will sustain a change of (real) government next year. Will the creator Armando Ianucci want to continue it and make a Tory version, or will we simply have to watch the re-runs?

The first series back in 2005 was shot inside an empty office building in west London but the landlord reneged on the deal at very short notice, leaving the production in a hole. I got a call asking if I could suggest any empty commercial premises in that part of town and asked why they didn’t use this building - the BBC’s own Media Centre. Part of the 2nd floor was standing empty and so they moved in. You can see lots of it being used in this current series.

I hear that forthcoming episodes are set and/or shot in The Guardian and in Radio 5Live.

Incidentally, when I was Technical Director of Scottish Opera, way back at the beginning of the 1980’s, actor Peter Capaldi (who plays Malcolm Tucker) was a student in Glasgow and worked evenings as one of our costume dressers. Hasn’t he done well.

Don't forget: if you missed the programme, you can catch it on BBC iPlayer

Friday, 30 October 2009

Jane Bown

If you read The Observer you’ll know about Jane Bown. If you don’t, then let me tell you a little.

Jane is a photographer whose work first appeared in that newspaper in 1949. Until very recently she still did occasional assignments for the paper even though she is now in her mid 80’s. She is probably best known now for her portraiture but her work over the decades has covered all fields, all types of news stories. She works almost exclusively in black and white, eschews modern technology, still working with a Rolleiflex and rolls of film.

Jane has donated the entire collection of her life’s work to The Scott Trust (which owns the two newspapers) and it is now archived at their new home. It is a huge collection, curated by Luke Dodd, who gave a most interesting talk last night to tie-in with the publication of a new collection of her work Exposures. A large exhibition of her work is on display at the offices of The Guardian and Observer at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London.

The exhibition runs until 21st November. Luke Dodd will be talking again about Jane’s work next Monday 2nd – if you can make it it is good to hear Luke’s talk and then view the photographs. If you can’t get to the exhibition do watch this video report by Nicholas Glass for Channel 4 News – very sweet, very moving.

Additionally, there is a wealth of background to Jane and her work here.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Underground Art

Sitting in the middle of London’s Southampton Row, at its junction with Theobald’s Road, is the entrance to the derelict Kingsway tram subway. If you’d been in the area last night you might have caught a small group of us dodging the rush hour traffic to get through the gates and down the long ramp into the tunnel, and then onwards to the long-disused tram station. This is the location for a site-specific installation Chord by artist Conrad Shawcross, which is in place for two months.

The idea to use the tunnel, and to commission the artist, came from Measure, whose producer Simon Day led our little group last night. We weren’t allowed to take photographs of the art itself. (Why is that the case in the UK? In the Gulbenkian Modern Art Centre in Lisbon I was allowed to photograph anything). However, there are some great photos on the Londonist blog here.

The Observer published a lengthy profile of Shawcross by Rachel Cooke here.

Measure is a non-profit arts organisation led by Simon Day and Jon Scott. Do read about their interesting work at:

Dan the fish

A text message from Hannah: "Dan the (gold)fish was flushed this morning due to ill health. Sad, but he'd had a good life"

You can see Dan here. He was six years old, and had enjoyed life in several parts of London.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Lisbon 6 - Sintra

My only trip out of the capital was to the town of Sintra, which is accessible by a cheap and easy 40 minute train ride from the restored Rossio Station.(Broadway Malyan Architects).

Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site, set in steep hills, with many fine old buildings, villas and gardens to see. It is topped by the Castelo Dos Mouros, the Moorish castle. There are buses serving some of the route. I chose to walk most of it, which given the midday sun may not have been the smartest thing to do and when you want a shop selling bottled water they just don’t appear – nor even a bar with a cold beer. However, the effort was well worth it, the remains of the castle fascinating, and the views from the top quite spectacular.

My photographs are here.

Lisbon 5 - Belem

I took a bus ride from the centre down river to the area of Lisbon called Belem, beautifully laid out beside the river.

This is the place from where the great Portugese explorers set sail, particularly Vasco de Gama on his journey to India, and the place is rich with history and commemorative plaques.

Particularly notable is the Monument to the Discoveries, a tall concrete memorial created in 1960. It is shaped into a prow of a ship and lined with statues of explorers.

One of the things you have to do as a tourist here is eat ‘pastéis de Belem’ the famous local custard tart made with flaky pastry. I have to admit I had one every morning with my espresso, wherever I was; standing at a bar, the two always cost less than 2 euros. How much do we pay for a coffee and pastry at Starbucks or similar places over here?

In the centre of the town lies the Cultural Centre of Belem, designed by architects Vittorio Gregotti and Manuel Salgado, and completed in 1992. It is a major arts complex with facilities for opera and ballet, conferences and exhibitions, and high quality art galleries.

For such a major complex, it is remarkably low-rise. I imagine the large volumes of the two auditoria and stages must be sunk well underground. From a distance I thought it might be concrete but close up you can see and appreciate the beautiful riven stone finish in many colours. I think it is very successful, although internally I could only view the art galleries, not the major performance spaces.

High up on the south bank of the wide river Tagus the statue Cristo Rei overlooks the river and the city. The bridge is the Ponte 25 de Abril. Photographs of Belem and surroundings are here.

Lisbon 4 - Expo Park

The next day I headed by Metro to the northeast edge of the city, to the site of the 1998 Expo (World Fair). This occupied a long strip of land of several miles, formerly redundant industrial sites, running alongside the river

You arrive at the new Oriente Station, designed by Santiago Calatrava, a huge transport interchange, and emerge to see the back of a pair of new towers which unfortunately will dominate almost everything else you will see on this extensive site.

By general acclaim the most important buildings is the Pavilion of Portugal, designed by Alvaro Siza. Rather frustratingly, it was undergoing some maintenance or repair work, which means my photos can’t do it justice, the ‘slung’ roof over the central ceremonial space being edged with safety barriers. It sits on the edge of a dock basin, is impressive, in a calm and quiet way, and it’s a shame that the more recent constructions around it have sought to be more showy.

At the very northern edge of the site is the spectacular Vasco de Gama Bridge, all 22kms of it – the longest road bridge in Europe. Designed by Armando Rito and opened in 1998 in time for the Expo it is big, wide, carries six lanes of traffic, but from my vantage point is very beautiful.

The photographs are here.

Lisbon 3 - Gulbenkian

Of course I wanted to see some contemporary buildings, as well as soak up the atmosphere of the old.

On my first morning I walked across the city to explore the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. This is a major private charity, founded by Calouste Gulbenkian, which works in the fields of education, science and the arts. In the UK it is well known for supporting and funding a wide range of arts-related activities, fuller details of which are here.

The buildings house the administrative offices of the Foundation, conference facilities, auditoria, and also some excellent art galleries and an art library. All these date from the late 1960’s, are set in quiet landscaped grounds, now grown quite dense and lush, and are really first class modernist buildings, beautifully designed and extremely well managed (often a problem with buildings from that era).

Additionally, at the south end of the site, is the newer (1983) Centre for Modern Art.

I was able to take photographs inside the Modern Art building but not inside the better 1969 buildings. If you are interested in architecture, and able to visit Lisbon, go and see for yourself. The photographs are here.

Incidentally, just last month the UK branch of the Gulbenkian relocated to new premises in Hoxton Square.

Lisbon 2 - The Wedding

The reason for my trip to Lisbon, and the high spot of the week, was to attend the wedding of my good friends and London neighbours Ana Cajiao and Tiago Correia.

Ana’s family and friends came over from the US, joining with a London contingent, and many others. Tiago’s family home is Lisbon and it seemed as if all his family attended too.

I noted people from Canada, USA, Finland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, UK, Peru, Colombia, Australia and Italy - what a cosmopolitan couple!

The wedding was held in the north west of the city, a traditional service in the lovely church Nossa Senhora do Rosario.

We then walked just a few hundred metres to the Palacio Frontiera, a fabulous setting for such a colourful event. Drinks and photographs on the terrace, the formal meal in the beautiful chamber. People stretched their legs around the gardens and follies before the cake cutting and dancing on the terrace.

A really delightful wedding, a wonderful family event, a most enjoyable day.

Lisbon 1 - Cityscapes

The absence of posts this last 10 days is because I have been away in Portugal – Lisbon to be exact. This was my first visit to the country and what a great capital city it is. Mid-October was a good time to go: fabulous weather, few apparent tourists, a city going about its business, quiet shops and galleries, and easy-to-use public transport.

Architecturally, much of the city feels reminiscent of central Paris: impressively wide boulevards planted with serious trees for shade from the heat, and lined with small gardens, fountains and benches. Where they have been restored, there are stone pavements with ornate decorations. Yes there is traffic but it seems so light compared with London – and it keeps moving: from the airport to my central hotel took just 16 minutes by taxi.

Off the main streets are smaller, tighter roads and closely packed alleyways. People live here, small businesses exist, families sit outside their doors, and tiny bars will sell you a glass of beer for just one euro. The city is built on seven hills, some surprisingly steep, which you can either climb on foot or use one of the quaint elevadores (funicular railways). Trams are still operated too, and not just for tourists. And of course the whole city is set on the side of the river Tejo (Tagus), which is central to its history and indeed to Portugal’s place in the discovery of other continents and expansion of its empire and economy.

There is everywhere a sense of a city which is aware of its heritage and charm, and trying hard to preserve it all, whilst probably not having all the necessary funding. This of course may be a blessing: unlimited pots of money have often led city fathers to tear down all the old and replace with new and charmless.

I was really taken with the beautiful colours used on building facades, and these are coupled with the extensive use of tiles. These aren’t occasional one-offs, or heritage buildings; they are everywhere, in their thousands, on every street. The tiles are sometimes simply strong plain colours, others may be elaborate floral designs, yet others will pictorially represent the business carried on within.

Elsewhere you can see some wonderful shop fronts, which I believe are originals, not reconstructions, and some wonderful old graphics and sign writing. Noticeable was the absence of street advertising, posters, flyers, neon signs, hoardings and all the other clutter we see in so many cities.

On the hill behind my hotel I found the newly restored terrace garden at Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcantara. From here there is a panoramic view across the centre of the city to St George’s castle. Also in these pretty gardens is a tiny wine bar – operated by architect Tomas Lima, assisted by Maria Allen with whom I spent a pleasant couple of hours on my last evening.

I have many more photographs of Lisbon Cityscapes here.

If you are looking for a break in a European city, only 2.5 hours flying time from London, I'd certainly recommend Lisbon. I've really enjoyed my time here.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Gag on Guardian is lifted

The gag on the Guardian reporting MP's Trafigura question is lifted

Within the past hour Trafigura's legal firm, Carter-Ruck, has withdrawn its opposition to the Guardian reporting proceedings in parliament that revealed its existence.

And there is a supplementary piece on how Twitter couldn't be gagged.

The Guardian gagged

Picking up my copy of the Guardian this morning I was shocked to see the front page headline “Guardian gagged from reporting parliament” which is quite chilling. You can read this piece here, but in essence it is that: 
The Guardian is prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds;
The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question;
The Guardian is prevented from saying what the question is;
The paper is prevented from saying which government minister might answer it, and where the question can be found.
The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament.
It takes less than two minutes on the web to find further details – reported by a site other than the Guardian -  and a link to the official parliamentary website which lists today’s parliamentary order paper.  Here you can find the four questions being raised by Paul Farrelly MP, the Labour member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. See questions nos. 60-63
The key word in those questions is ‘Trafigura’ and that leads right back to the major story the Guardian reported earlier this year. Trafigura is a company trading in energy, including oil.  The following is extracted from a longer piece in the Guardian 14th May 2009
Documents have emerged which detail for the first time the potentially lethal nature of toxic waste dumped by British-based oil traders in one of west Africa's poorest countries.
More than 30,000 people from Ivory Coast claim they were affected by the ­poisonous cocktail and are currently bringing Britain's biggest-ever group lawsuit against the company, Trafigura.
The firm chartered the ship, Probo Koala, which transported the cargo to Ivory Coast in 2006. An official Dutch analysis of samples of the waste carried by the Probo Koala indicate that it contained approximately 2 tonnes of hydrogen sulphide, a killer gas with a characteristic smell of rotten eggs.
The documents have been obtained by the BBC. One chemist told BBC Newsnight last night that if the same quantity and mixture of chemicals had been dumped in Trafalgar Square: "You would have people being sick for several miles around … millions of people."
Trafigura, which claims to be one of the world's biggest independent oil ­traders, originally issued statements in 2006 denying the tanker was carrying toxic waste. It said it merely contained routine "slops" – the dirty water from tank washing. Executives of the company lined up to specifically deny that the waste contained any hydrogen sulphide.
The full story, including internal emails, letters and video reports from Ivory Coast is here:   Having prevented the Guardian from reporting the story (or indeed, the story about the story) it is now all over Twitter and the wider web.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Fourth Plinth 2

Anthony Gormley’s One&Other in Trafalgar Squaremore commonly known as The Fourth Plinthcomes to the end tomorrow.  Some 2400 people should have participated over the 100 days it has been running, although there have been some ‘no shows’.

Already, before it has run the curtain down, we have the reflections, the comment pieces, debating on whether it’s been a good idea or not; whether it counts as art, or just summertime fodder for the masses. 

If you’ve seen it in the Square you’ll have your own views.  You might have caught it via the webfeeds (technically very accomplished, with sharp pictures and fairly clear sound) available here.   I wrote about it back in July (doesn't that seem a long time ago).
Sky have also been running a round-up programme each week on Sky Arts 1 on Friday evenings.

The Guardian’s critic Jonathan Jones got in early, giving his views at length in the paper last Friday under the headline The fourth plinth: it was just Big Brother all over again’ which attracted almost 100 comments on the website.  It’s fair to say that Jones didn’t like it, and other critics agree.

The public seem more optimistic, perhaps more open minded, with 7.3 million hits on the webstream and nearly 700,000 people logging on for an average of more than nine minutes.

There is quite a lot of criticism of Gormley. (Why are the people who post on these things so aggressive?  Why can’t they express their counter-views with some decency?).  Here is a small flavour of those views:

“It's time Gormley's luck ran out. The plinth was obvious. The Angel of the North is obvious. It just happens to be big and obvious”.

“What you appear to be saying, Mr. Jones, is that you don't get it, therefore it is not art”.

“After all, can anyone REALLY define once and for all what art is/is not/should be? It seems that if someone points to something and says: "that's art", then it IS art whether you like it or not.”

“Anthony Gormley's a fine artist and shouldn't waste his time on this kind of nonsense either”

“In my opinion, someone being manky and disgusting in their bed and then putting it in an art gallery is a complete waste of space, but Tracey Emin managed to get away with it, and get paid.”

“Antony Gormley has actually created an opportunity for individuals to create or be in their own piece of art. The fact that many wasted that opportunity and revealed themselves often to be quite artless is down to them not Gormley.”

“I thought it was a nice thing to do. The question about art is irrelevant.”

“Overall I'm glad I did it. It's an experience that only 2399 other people can say they've had and I can now (arrogantly of course) point to the plinth and say "I've been up there".  But hey, what do I know, all I did was throw paper planes, tell bad jokes and phone my Grandad to tell him I love him.”

“Surely 'the plinth' would normally be called street theatre?”    
I find myself in agreement with that: although of course street theatre is very much “art”

And finally: Basically Everything is art. Or Nothing is. You decide!”


Saturday, 3 October 2009

Tall buildings

April 8th                                                           October 2nd

Two photographs of the same building, 26 weeks apart. It is hard to count accurately from ground level, but I think they have constructed 26 floors in that time: that’s pretty good going.

This is the Heron Tower at the junction of Bishopsgate and London Wall. When completed it will be the tallest building in the UK – but I’m sure an even bigger one will come along in the following years. Designed by architects Kohn Pedersen Fox it currently it stands 36 floor high.  Completion is due in 2011 when it will provide the City with a further 400,000 sq feet of office space.

I’m quite positive about these tall buildings as long as they look good and work well.  In my part of the world, and I’m sure right across London, there seems now to be a real affection for the Gherkin

Indeed, some people are unhappy that their views of the Gherkin are disappearing behind taller buildings which just don’t look as good.  Most often cited is the new Broadgate Tower, by architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.  Personally I can’t find anything attractive in it, whether at long distance view, or close-up at street level.  It seems to have no good side, and I imagine it must be quite frustrating to work inside, with views out obscured by all those chunky diagonal braces running across the office windows.

Ian Tomlinson

In the noise and bustle of the City it is easy to miss this: the location where Ian Tomlinson died during the G20 demonstrations last April.

This poignant little scene is in Cornhill.

“Ian Tomlinson was attempting to find a route home from work through the protests when he was struck by police near the Bank of England. Video footage revealed that he had his hands in his pockets and was walking away from lines of police”.

The Crown Prosecution Service has said that the case remains under review and a decision on whether to prosecute for manslaughter would not be taken for a few months.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Steve Bell's cartoons

Steve Bell’s cartoon in the Guardian today neatly responds to the news that Murdoch’s Sun has now removed its support for Labour.  I can’t reproduce it on this post, but you’ll find it here.  Take a close look.

Steve Bell’s work has been a feature of the Guardian for almost 30 years. If you can spare 3 minutes then click here and see a short video where he shows how he devises and draws the cartoon which appeared in yesterday’s paper

And there is a generous archive of several hundred pieces of his work right here.