Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Well done Miss Wren

Sunday evening, and Liz and I were at my local theatre, the Arcola in Dalston. We were there for a presentation of five new pieces, produced by the Miniaturists, a group of theatre writers who stage regular evenings dedicated to bringing to life short but perfectly formed plays.

One of these was Keem, directed by Hannah, and written by Declan Feenan, who has had work produced at the Bush Theatre, London, the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, York, Belfast, and by Channel 4 and the BBC

Among several friends and supporters in the audience was the group below who were all at school together in Leeds, and who all now work professionally in the theatre. The class of 2000 was clearly something of an arts powerhouse, and credit is due to Liz Wren, Head of English and Drama, at Roundhay School.

l - r: Hannah Dickinson, Matt Noble, Josephine Besbrode, Sian Breckin

Friday, 19 March 2010

Transport for London - investigation

Old Street, 18th March

Fungal infection in East London

Are there any mycologists out there who can explain what these are about?

Contemporary classical music

I discovered the music of John Adams in the early 1990’s, probably on Radio 3. At Christmas 1994 Toby gave me a recording of Adams' work played by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. The disc includes the piece Harmonielehre, a 40-minute piece composed in 1985, which quickly became one of my favorites. I liked all the music but knew nothing of the composer other than that he was American, and very much alive. As the years progressed I listened out for his music, learnt a little more about him, and invested in more recordings.

There was a step-change in 2000 when I went to a performance of his opera Nixon in China at English National Opera in which my old friend Janis Kelly was singing the role of Pat Nixon. This was a revelation: modern opera, by a living composer, sung in English, on a contemporary subject – the visit in 1972 of the US President to China where he met Chairman Mao Zedong. Writing in The Times, critic Richard Morrison said “…..John Adams’s seminal “docu-opera” is still one of the most thrilling, funny, poignant and contentious music-theatre pieces written in my lifetime”. There is a full review here.

Over the following years I’ve been fortunate to get lots of chances to hear Adams’ music live, often with him conducting. His musical starting point is in minimalism, but it has developed very widely over the decades. He writes for solo piano, chamber pieces, tape machines, full symphony orchestras, and opera. I once counted 11 percussion instruments on the platform at one of his Barbican concerts.

In January 2002 the BBC Symphony Orchestra held its annual long weekend dedicated to the work of one composer, on this occasion John Adams. I soaked-up concerts, films, talks, and an interview with Adams by the SO’s boss Paul Hughes. This was a real “festival weekend” of all-things Adams.

In 2005, his second opera The Death of Klinghoffer was performed at the Edinburgh Festival by Scottish Opera (my old company). Again, Adams tells a true story, this one of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean by the Palestine Liberation Front. During the subsequent negotiations a Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer was murdered and his body dumped overboard.

John Adams has enjoyed a long collaboration with two London Orchestras: the BBC Symphony and the London Symphony Orchestra. His music has been programmed many times at the BBC Proms, often with him conducting. Last spring I was again at ENO to hear Dr Atomic, his latest opera. This tells the story of the development and testing of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in 1945.

This last weekend at the Barbican Adams conducted the LSO playing the European premiere of his own symphony City Noir. And it was announced this week that a concert version of his opera El Nino, the re-telling of the nativity, will open Edinburgh International Festival.

So, plenty of great music, to give story and meaning to contemporary events and issues. But Adams can also write, and write really well.

At Christmas Toby gave me a copy of Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life written by Adams. It is a very good book in which he traces his early years in New England, student life at Harvard, his later move to America’s west coast. It is about his parent’s musical influences, his days teaching in San Francisco, his development as composer and conductor, experiments with electronic instruments, and creativity in all the arts. For me, it lifted the lid on the dark and unknown art of composing. I’ve never known how a musician starts composing, where the ideas and influences come from. Some questions are answered as he takes us through his life and development, which range widely from Wagner to Frank Zappa, with nods to Brian Eno, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton and many others on the way. There is a long extract from the book here.

But there is yet more from this enormously prolific man. Sometime last autumn Lizzy Clark, my chum at BBC Radio Scotland, tipped me off about Hell Mouth. It turns out that this is the name of an excellent blog written by John Adams, as an adjunct to his own website.

I now receive it as an email, usually every week or so. This week there are three postings, one a 1600 word essay on Stokowski, the others on his concert in Paris with the LSO, again playing City Noir. It’s a lively, interesting blog, with lots of non-musical stuff about his life on the west coast: walking the dog, scouting for fungi; meeting neighbours at the farmers market, and full of cross references, links to other articles and to YouTube videos.

Finally, in a connected sort of way, there was a really great piece in the Guardian ten days ago by Lynsey Hanley. It took years. But I learned to love the riches of Radio 3. Minimalism, jazz, folk, classical – it all seemed impenetrable when I was hooked on the three-minute pop song

Thursday, 18 March 2010


It's a clothes shop - but I don't know why it has a calf outside.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Snapped in Suffolk

Last May I spent a few days walking in Suffolk, in 'John Constable country'. Much of the walking was over fields, on unmarked tracks, and single carriageway country lanes. Some photos from my walk are here. It is really beautiful countryside, nobody to be seen, just cattle, wildlife and birdsong. A car was so rare that I could hear this one coming well before it appeared, so stepped out of its way into a field entrance, and at the last second noticed it was a Google camera car. I've seen these in the city before but couldn't imagine what it might be doing in this quiet backwater. At this point I was on an unmarked lane, to the west of the B1068, a couple of miles north of the village of Nayland. I couldn’t believe it would be taking photographs but rather smartly I noted my position on the map. This morning, as Google launched Street View, I’ve been able to find myself – ‘unblurred’ as well (which I’m happy with).

I wonder what Constable would say, his beloved Dedham Vale and Stour Valley snapped for all the world to see on its pc’s – amazing developments.

You’ll find me if you click on this, and here as well.

News, 12 March 2009: Google has today launched its expanded Street View feature to cover “almost all” of the roads in the UK, 360 degree images of 238,000 miles of public road and thoroughfares, from Cornwall to the Shetlands. Google launched Street View in the UK two years ago, and has since been working to expand the service, stitching together more imagery collected by its camera-equipped cars. By increasing availability to cover 96 percent of the country’s roads and thoroughfares, the UK is catching up with Spain, France, Italy and the US, which already have nationwide coverage. Google deploys a fleet of cars and tricycles fitted with cameras. The pictures often include people, although Google employs special technology to blur faces and license plates in the pictures it captures.

A Google camera car, photo Daily Mail

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Who ate all the nuts?

Poor old Squirrel: that tree has been so well pruned there's no nuts for him.

Colourful cars

I have seen these cars a couple of times recently, raised up in the forecourt of the Classic Car Club on Old Street. All very colourful, but I wasn’t sure what the 'story' was.

Today, as I was on foot, I was able to look behind me and upwards, and there was the answer: an advert for the new Nissan Qashqai.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


The beginning of March, its officially Spring, and a beautiful day in London; time for a long walk. After what seems a long, wet and grey winter, flowers are showing in Haggerston Park.

A stretch of the canal at Victoria Park has been drained to allow maintenance work to the side walls, revealing dozens of parking cones, old supermarket trolleys, and tons of other junk. The wildlife appears a little uncertain about their new surroundings.