Spring shoots

Today is the May Day Bank Holiday in the UK and after a basking in some long overdue Spring sunshine yesterday, it’s time for me to keep my word and share my last two months of gadding about (which, with Mum’s 3-week visit smack-bang in the middle, pretty much disappeared before I knew it).

There have been a few highlights of the stage-and-screen variety since February starting with a ‘goosebumps all-over’ moment as Glenn Close filled the London Coliseum with her performance of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The BBC ran a gripping six-part adaption of John le Carre’s The Night Manager that starred Hugh Laurie – in fine and menacing form – and Tom Hiddleston which had me transfixed on Sunday nights. (For those of you who don’t know Hugh, think House and Black Adder.)

And I saw a couple of really great movies – Spotlight and Eye in the Sky, the latter being a charity screening at my local cinema, The Phoenix. In his pre-film talk, director Gavin Hood explained that the technology featured in Eye in the Sky is real and out there as we speak. Mind-blowing stuff.

There were also some things I expected to love more than I did. The Maids at Trafalgar Studios was edgy and well-acted but a little too crazy for me and Immortal Tango contained patches of thrilling Argentine Tango but was brought low by too much tinkering with the quintessential drama and passion of the dance. Based on how much I loved The Night Manager, I had another stab at reading le Carre’s novel only to remember how convoluted and unwieldy I find his writing. And reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was spoiled by knowing ‘who dunnit’, having seen it on TV earlier this year (another brilliant adaption from the Beeb).

There have been some firsts as well.

I attended my first political debate on the EU referendum at the London Palladium. It was chockers with people and points of view and while it didn’t really help me to make a more informed decision, I did leave with my view of politics and politicians intact – grandstanding and emotive argument just don’t do it for me.

However what did do it for me was Painting the Modern Garden, an exhibition featuring artists from Monet to Matisse (and many in between) on my first sortie to the Royal Academy.

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I also visited Poole, site of the second largest natural deep-water harbour in the world (after Sydney).

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Dorset Quay, Poole

Last but not least, April alone has meant birthdays galore. It started with my two favourite little dudes turning 3 with Mum, Seattle-A celebrating a week later. And on the 30th, my good friend of more than 15 years, Swiss-S, finally turned 40 on the same day that high school friend, Aussie-J, marked her slightly more advanced passage through life (although she’s still younger than yours truly).

And the great Bard himself, Shakespeare celebrated his birthday on April 23rd, the same day as he popped his clogs 52 years later. There’s been much ado about this and for my part, this Bard-themed week has been book-ended by  Shakespeare Live! last weekend and a Shakespeare’s London walking tour on Saturday just gone with the Museum of London.

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Memorial to John Heminge and Henry Condell, the two actors who published Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623 in St Mary Aldermanbury’s Garden.

In other news, I was very excited by the Monopoly-themed loos at Marylebone Station…

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I had to wait for everyone to leave the loos before taking these pics so no-one thought I was being weird or creepy (she says, posting them for all the world to see.)

…my fabulous new shoes…

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…and that fact that Spring finally ‘sprang’…

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Delicate Spring flowers  lined my street for about two weeks before they dropped to leave leafy green boughs behind them.

And I think that’ll do. Just as well that the month ended with a 3-day weekend…but the batteries are recharged and I’m ready to go again…

…come what May.

(Geddit? I just couldn’t resist a play on words.)

January’s bucket list

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. My resolve tends to scatter across the year and is generally underpinned by my penchant for exploration and variety. However I do love moments, snatches of time when I am completely caught up – and sometimes out – by intense feeling, largely a mixture of delight, wonder, melancholy, outrage and curiosity. I carry this image of a bucket in my mind and I often imagine putting a particular moment into it. Somehow they all combine into a life that inspires me.

I was checking something in my calendar earlier and it occurred to me that while I share about particular experiences, I don’t often reflect on all of the things I’ve done. Fellow blogger, author and longtime Gidday follower Jack Scott commented recently “you do get about” so I thought that it would be interesting – for me anyway – to end each month this year by checking out what’s ended up ‘in the bucket’.

So here goes.

This month it all started with a new chapter in an old story and I absolutely loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I then moved into a Kenneth Brannagh double bill: All On Her Own, a maudlin 25 minute 3-stars-from-me soliloquy, and the hilarious 4-stars-from-me farce, Harlequinade.

A trip back in time with the Museum of London and a tour of an old Roman fort inspired my historic sensibilities so much that the Museum became a new Friend. Five days later I joined hundreds of women at the Central Methodist Hall in Westminster to listen to the Women’s Equality Party and left non-plussed and suprisingly uninspired: lots of valid and important messages but the whole thing was a bit ‘rah rah’ for me.

A decidedly French tone emerged in the second half of the month with the NY MET’s performance of Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers and the National Theatre’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) being live streamed at the Phoenix Cinema just a ten minute bus ride away. When I was raving about the latter in the office the next day, I was informed by a young French colleague that the book continues to be part of the literature curriculum in French schools and is considered “a classic”. By the way, both productions were ‘magnifique’.

I’ve also read six books this month and rated three of them a mighty 5-stars, an excellent 50% hit rate. March Violets by Philip Kerr and A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute were my first dip into these respective writers and my return to Stephen King (and introduction to his criminal mastermind Mr Mercedes) was the recommendation of another Gidday follower, author Charlie Wade. (Thanks Charlie!)

In between all of this I embarked on some new cooking adventures with a foray into pastry (albeit frozen) as well as ‘cooking with beetroot’ and I managed catch up dinners with three different friends, one long overdue.

I also inadvertently fell across London’s Lumiere Festival on the face of the Abbey…

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…and delighted in the lighter mornings on my walk to work.

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Speaking of commuting, this gem really lifted my tube ride home one night.

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It also snowed…

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…and I celebrated twelve years in London.

So Jack was right and January was full to the brim with moments that were both planned and completely surprising. (And that’s doesn’t include what happens in my job.)

In any case, I’ve quite enjoyed this retrospective approach to bucket list-ing and am curious to see what reflecting on February might bring.

What would a look back at your January moments yield?

The Pearl Fishers

Let me start by saying I am not an opera buff. I had never been when I lived in Australia and up until about a year ago, I had seen only The Magic Flute and Tosca in the 11 years I’d lived in London. I did enjoy them (more so The Magic Flute) but did not really fall in love with opera and the high ticket prices made me question whether I was really up for exploring more.

However opera has gotten savvy and has been reaching out to woo new audiences with Live Screenings. Streaming from the English National Opera at the London Coliseum or Glyndebourne on England’s South Downs, local cinemas have become the new place to experience opera and at a far more accessible price. Aside from getting a fantastic ‘close-up’ view, there are usually introductions to the story, interviews with the stars and creative team and subtitles throughout so it is a gently educational experience as well. I’ve become a bit of a fan and have enjoyed Mozart’s The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, a Ravel double bill – L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortileges – and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Last night I paid a visit to my local cinema, The Phoenix in East Finchley, and added another to my repertoire: The Pearl Fishers. Les Pecheurs de Perles was composed by Frenchman Georges Bizet and was first performed in Paris in 1863. It’s a love triangle set in ancient Ceylon (now Sri Lanka): The story of two pearl divers, Nadir and Zurga, and the consequences of their love for the priestess Leila. Bizet had some public success when this opened but critics were not so enamoured – in fact, Bizet struggled to reach any sort of critical acclaim in his career until Carmen, which opened ten years later.

Last night’s performance was by the MET Opera in New York. It was beautiful – a visual feast with an intricate tiered set, spectacular lighting and video effects and cast with a clamour of ‘villagers’. The opening score was accompanied by the most breathtaking ‘underwater’ sequence…two pearl divers, swimming in soft blue and lit from above to replicate the sun on the water – this stunning piece of choreography really set the tone for the rest of the production.

Musically it was glorious too. The score washed over the auditorium, ebbing and flowing much like the waves lapping the shores of the village, and voices were exquisite. The three lead roles comprise a soprano (Leila), a tenor (Nadir) and a baritone (Zurga). The Friendship Duet sung by Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) and Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga), the pearl fishers, was full of poignant promise and as Leila, Diana Damrau played her soprano more like an instrument than merely a voice.

During the intermission, there were interviews with the three stars and the conductor as well as a look at how the stunning opening sequence – those underwater pearl divers – was created including a chat with the divers themselves. In the past, I’ve felt a bit put off by opera’s diva reputation but the interviews revealed passionate, everyday and extraordinarily talented people.

After two and a half hours, I made my way home feeling completely delighted by the whole experience. The Pearl Fishers has become my favourite opera and I would never have discovered it if the only route open to me was the traditional, opera-house visit. It put me in two minds, the first being wanting to see more and so this morning I booked to see the MET’s live screening of Elektra in April. But the second is that last night has inspired me to visit the traditional – I would love to experience The Pearl Fishers live.

So opera – by making access to its artistry local and affordable – has managed to tap a potentially richer seam in this patron’s future pockets.

Clever, clever opera.

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A fitting venue …waiting for the show to begin at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley

Our Strength Is In Our Roots

Our strength is in our roots and what we cling to.


It’s a quote from a book I received from Mum at Christmas – a photographic panorama of Melbourne by Ken Duncan. The quote sits next to a picture of the cottage of James Cook‘s parents in Fitzroy Gardens, dismantled and transported – much like many of Australia’s forefathers – from Yorkshire in 1933 to be reassembled as a testament to this English explorer who first made landfall in Botany Bay on 29th April 1766. In any case, the pictures are wonderful and remind me of the unique character of this city on the other side of the world that I used to call home.

I’ve just returned from the Phoenix Cinema where, on this wet grey afternoon I watched The Butler, the story of one man’s life throughout the enormous changes of the 20th and 21st centuries. Having seen 12 Years A Slave a couple of weeks ago, I was interested in this alternative take on the slave movement and the role of black people in society over the past 100 years. And while ’12 Years’ was a great (and brutal) movie, I loved how The Butler spanned generations in time, crossing the eras of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, apartheid and the election of Obama as America’s first black president in 2008.

 

Well today is Australia Day and I have found myself quite reflective about my feelings towards my native country. Australia Day actually pays tribute to the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove, eleven ships filled with convicts and a small contingent of freemen and soldiers who would settle the harsh and distant land. There remains much controversy about this, particularly around the role of the indigenous people in this pioneering ‘tale’ but while there might be parallels with the American tale, it’s only meant as the starting point rather than the purpose of this post.

It was an interesting thing to do on my national day, go to the cinema and watch the history of another child of The Empire unfold. And it took me back to last Wednesday night when I saw Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap (The Book Nook #40 – 2011), interviewed by The Guardian’s John Mullan. This controversial novel, set in suburban Melbourne, for me lays bare the legend of the lucky country. 

When I read the book back in 2011, I felt both shocked and vindicated by its truthfulness – that beneath the laconic veneer of suburban life might lie a sense of seething resignation and resentment. I was also unprepared for Tsiolkas, a thoughtful and perceptive Greek Australian who talked openly about wanting to write about modern Australia as it truly was (and is). We are close(ish) in age so grew up in parallel Melbournes, chasing teenage dreams across the 80s, traversing (even if only figuratively) the realities of adulthood in the 90s and finding our respective ways into the new millennium so despite not being Greek, so I could relate to his reference points.

Tsiolkas talked about a grasping and selfish society and lamented a pervading sense of unkindness (although I would say that is not something that is limited to Australia’s sandy shores). He also mentioned that multiculturalism has become less overt Down Under, the veritable babel of past playgrounds full of ethnic variety a distant memory. I remember a conversation with a visiting Irishman in Young & Jackson’s (pub) in 2003 and how indignant I was that he would even suggest that Australia was a nation of racists.

Little did I know how the rest of world ‘out there’ looked and how it would all appear now I look from the outside in.

But there are many wonderful things about being Australian to cling to. Our willingness to chip in and lend a hand, our ironic sense of humour, our ‘everyman’ classless-ness. The sense of exploration and willingness to play beyond our current backyard – after all there are almost half a million Australians living in the UK alone. Our laid-back optimism and our sporting obsessions. Our outdoor lifestyle and our foodie culture. Our coffee – great, great coffee. And our vast open spaces. Sharp blue skies, stark landscapes, sparkling coasts and ‘architectural’ landscapes – wonder after wonder shaped by Mother Nature herself.

So as Australia Day in this part of the world draws to a close, it’s a big Aussie cheers from this Australian abroad who, despite finding food for her soul under the grey skies of London, still finds her heart – and her roots – Down Under.

Image Source: www.kenduncan.com

Ye Olde Bucket List…Part One

It’s been a busy few days since my last post and I’ve been having a rather splendid time enjoying some of what the English do best…namely Shakespeare and sporting banter. So you lucky, lucky Gidday-ers get two posts.

I know. Two for the price of one. That’s got to be an offer you can’t possibly refuse.

Macbeth came first.

To provide a little context for this rather tragic inclusion on ye olde bucket list, all of that ‘double double toil and trouble’ stuff has been running around in my head since High School when I studied the play as part of the English curriculum in Year 11 and then revisited it in Year 12 English Literature.

And the fun didn’t stop there. Lo and behold, Macbeth was also the Shakespearean text in my first semester of literature at University. That’s three times in three years. The Merchant of Venice the following term was a breath of fresh air.

Anyway I’ve never actually seen the play. Ever. Not even a movie adaptation.

So on Saturday night I settled into my seat at The Phoenix Cinema (my lovely local) and watched a live transmission from the Manchester International Festival. Kenneth Branagh co-directed (with Rob Ashford) and took the leading role with Alex Kingston (of ER fame) as Macbeth’s lady wife by his side.

The set wasn’t a theatre but a deconsecrated church so the live audience sat either side of the central aisle and watched the action unfold…on the grassy verge in the middle. The rains came down, battles were won and lost, murder most foul committed and vengeance served in the end.

It was absolutely brilliant, Branagh was breath-taking…

…and Macbeth finally got ticked off the bucket list.

But the weekend wasn’t yet over.

Tomorrow I’ll let you know what else got ticked off.

From The Cheap Seats…

It would appear that my first 43 years on the planet have been so bereft of cultural pursuits that, as I am wont to do after a birthday, last weekend found me looking around for a new thing(s) to experience. Two years ago it was baking, last year it was polo (the pony kind).  And this year it’s opera.

Opera has been one of the few ‘Arts’ that I have not readily subscribed too. I love classical music but the combination of singing I don’t understand and high prices has been a particular deterrent. That’s where a bit of community clever-ness came in from my lovely local The Phoenix Cinema.

Being an independent arthouse cinema, The Phoenix doesn’t need to subscribe to the wants and desires of a head office and experiments with its schedule to inspire the local community. In partnership with Glyndebourne 2012’s Opera Season, it’s running two live screenings of the performances there this weekend. Tomorrow is a double bill of two 1 Act operas from Ravel. The other – Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro – was screened last night and that’s where I was.

As cinema lights dimmed, the camera lit on the empty stage with its ‘Moorish Palace’ backdrop, the familiar strains of the overture began and soon the space was filled with hustle and bustle, music and colour…and a vintage red and cream Austin Healey.

Glyndebourne’s re-telling of this famous tale is set in the Seville of the swinging 60s. If you don’t know the story, it follows the trials and tribulations of Figaro and his lady love Susanna as they plan their wedding. There’s lots of hi-jinx and trickery, cross and double-cross in the tale (a bit like a Shakespearean comedy such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night) and with the aid of English subtitles, the familiarity of the music (I love Mozart’s music and it wasn’t until I sat through this that I realised how much of his musical bounty I had actually heard before) and the captivating performances, it made the whole experience a really enjoyable one – although as an opera neophyte, I could not tell you one aria from the other.

So in short, I loved it. And I paid £13.00 and was home 20 minutes after I’d left the auditorium.

I am sure that experiencing opera live, and especially in the gorgeous surrounds at Glyndebourne, is fantastic. But for someone who wasn’t sure it would all be worth it, getting a taste from the cheap seats was a perfect way to dip my proverbial toe into the water.

The other thing to say is this: I really admire Glyndebourne (and some of the other companies that will feature over the coming months) in their vision of bringing opera to the masses. While I’m a known champion of the written word (and quite frankly anything that promotes it), having access to art in all of its myriad expressions is such a wonderful opportunity and one of the things I love about living in London and more specifically, the ecclectic and fabulous Finchley.

The Marriage of Figaro actually follows on from the story in another Mozart opera, The Barber of Seville – the protagonists have grown older by the time we see them in 60s Seville and rather than lead, form backdrops (and a few barriers) to Susanna and Figaro’s impending nuptials – so you can guess what I’ll be keeping an eye out for in order to dip my other toe.

And as ever, I’m hopeful that my search will all turn out in the end – just like the marriage of Figaro and Susanna – with a joyful celebration and me drifting off into the warm and hazy night, humming a little Mozart to myself on the way home.

Wired For Sound…

This weekend I was back at the lovely Phoenix Cinema for another From The Archives screening, this time to celebrate this particular local’s 100th birthday on May 9th.

Every From The Archives follows a theme and as The Phoenix was the first cinema in the area to show a ‘talkie’ – The Singing Fool starring Al Jolson – in 1929, this afternoon’s theme was the advent of cinematic sound.

The first clip set the scene – a ‘trailer’ for The Jazz Singer. Not a trailer as you and I know them but rather an earnest young man describing and then cutting to footage of the film and the opening night itself. In that day and age, cinema goers were astonished – the man’s lips moved and his words came out! Extraordinary stuff when you put yourself in those shoes.

The second film was Walt Disney’s first foray into sound and his introduction of the world’s most famous mouse. I had read about Steamboat Willie a couple of years back as part of a biography on Disney – the movie is only 7 minutes long, but features Mickey and Minnie and big cheerful dose of that irrepressible Disney magic.

And then it was time for the main event, the completely joyous Singin’ in the Rain. For those of you who have been living under a rock (and shame on you if you have), the story revolves around the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 and the scramble of the major studios and their leading men and ladies to survive the rise of the talking picture.

But it is the combination of wonderful music, show stopping routines and the chemistry of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor that has you leaving the cinema humming ‘Good morning, good moooorning!’ and generally feeling that life is a pretty wonderful place to be.

And all of this for free.

Finally as part of the nod to 100 years of local cinema history, we had our photo taken in the auditorium before the show to be put in a time capsule for future generations to find. Just imagine what someone might think of us in 100 years’ time!

And since I have been to three Phoenix freebies now, I decided to put my money where my feel-good is and become a Friend.

It’s just a whole lot of unmitigated feel-good really.

Afternoon Delight…

Today, I was all set to post about other things. Not Mother’s Day mind, as ‘mine’ happens in May (but am wishing all Mums celebrating today a fab day just the same). But I had a few ideas from the week and following on from my two part ‘danger mouse’ thriller, I was keen to change the rhythm and tone again to keep things fresh and interesting for all of you lovely Gidday-ers.

But I’ve had the most delicious couple of hours and I just HAD to tell you about it.

I’ve been to the cinema.

So what? I hear you say.

No I’ve been to THE cinema, the delightful Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley.

It’s what I call a proper cinema with old fashioned, theatre style seats, lots of leg room  and a shiny, swishy gold curtain at the front.

Purpose built in 1910, it’s a single screen cinema, and was actually saved from the wrecking ball in 1985 by the formation of The Phoenix Cinema Trust, a charitable organisation that runs the theatre for the community, reinvesting its profits both in education and maintaining this wonderful tribute to cinematic history. 

I used to live close by a similar independent cinema in Melbourne (The Classic in Elsternwick for any Melburnites reading this). My old home-town has quite a few thriving independent cinemas and it’s something I had missed a little while living in South West London. On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I used to love wandering down and submitting myself to a screening of something I’d choose simply by standing at the Box Office and seeing what was about to start.

Anyhow, The Phoenix is not far from the new Gidday HQ and this afternoon there was a ‘From the Archives’ screening of Imitation of Life, a ‘legendary Hollywood melodrama’ (which I’d never heard of) about racial identity. I thought it seemed a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The story centres firstly on Lora, a young widow chasing her dreams to be an actress who is supported by her black housekeeper, Annie in the raising of her daughter Susie  alongside Annie’s own  ‘light-skinned’ daughter Sarah Jane. Lana Turner plays the ambitious and glamorous Lora and, along with the marvellously good-looking John Gavin as her love interest and a perky Sandra Dee as Susie, provides much of the froth and bubble as well as a little wry humour throughout the film. But as things unfold, it is the relationship between Annie and Sarah Jane which gives this story its real potency.

This film was made in 1959. It would have been quite a daring affront to the ‘seen and not heard’ issue of black and white America but more importantly, the film shows that there’s more to the world than merely a black versus white view and Susan Kohner’s rebellious and then bittersweet performance of Sarah Jane captures this better than any words I could write here. And the industry obviously thought so too with Kohner winning a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress as well as an Oscar nomination (along with Juanita Moore for her portrayal of Annie).

Two and a half hours flew by and before I knew it, I was sitting contentedly on the bus coming home filled with absolute delight at my new discovery. 

At the venue or the film? I hear you ask.

I can’t decide.

Visit The Phoenix. See Imitation of Life.

I’d recommend both.