Friday, 28 November 2008
As a sufferer of SAD (Seasonally Affective Disorder) who always feels like going into hibernation from November until early March, I find the whole season quite claustrophobic. We know that Christmas is only four weeks away, so why do we have to be reminded constantly by almost all of the media? All the hype only makes it more impossible for Christmastime itself to live up to expectations. It's not without reason that there is an increase (or, at least, a perceived increase) in suicides around the turn of the year.
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
I've been thinking for a while that it's time to upgrade my three year old Canon EOS 350D camera. I still like Canon and have no reason to change make, particularly as my three lenses are all Canon fit. Like most people, I'm not rolling in money and, while the 50D was tempting, it's also very expensive. Did I really need 15 million pixels? There were other plus points like the higher resolution display and improved weatherproofing, but the resolution means its photos take up considerably more storage space (particularly if you go for the quality option and use RAW format) and that's a problem. So I plumped for the 40D instead - 10.1 megapixels and, according to most reviewers, with marginally better image quality than the 50D. This saved me more than £300, coming in at about £520 after the £60 cashback.
I bought it in Newcastle on Saturday - no price advantage from buying online this time - and was immediately impressed. The whole thing feels solid, the viewfinder is much brighter and clearer than on my 350D and the large display is also an improvement - although it soon becomes clear that it's not as "high res" as the ones on the latest models. As the weather and light weren't ideal for outdoor photography over the weekend, I've been exploring the "Live View" feature by taking mug shots. You can see one here.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
John and I went to York yesterday for a day trip (an hour from Newcastle on the train) and confirmed my impression that it's a great place to visit in the colder months, because of the number of good museums.
The morning was spent wandering the old streets, and then we had a pizza at the rather good La Piazza restaurant in Goodramgate, in what looked like an authentic Tudor building. Looking round the town again, I was surprised to see that a number of buildings there seem to have survived from the sixteenth century: as far as I'm aware, Newcastle only has one or two (not counting churches or the Castle itself) and Gateshead has none.
In the afternoon, we went to the York Castle Museum, somewhere I hadn't been for maybe 20 years, and it was excellent - lots to see. I've only posted one photo on my Flickr pages so far, but I'll try to get my finger out and put one or two more on there.
Wednesday, 5 November 2008
A: Three. A left ear, a right ear and a Final Front Ear...
Q: How many ears has Davy Crockett?
A: Three. A left ear, a right ear and a Wild Front Ear...
These cheesy cracks (I won't dignify them with the title jokes) were inspired by a song that I can't get out of my head. It goes "Sa-rah - Sarah Palin. Queen of the Wild Frontier" to the tune of "Davy Crockett".
We're told we haven't seen the last of Palin, and that she'll be back. In days when the world is less and less stable, and we're all faced with annihilation in a variety of ways, this is not a comforting thought.
Surely the US electorate must be starting to realise that being religious, photogenic and a supporter of "the right to bear arms" are unbelievably feeble qualifications for people looking to run their country.
Following the very dubious election result in 2000 and his record of wilful ignorance and incompetence over the subsequent four years, it was astonishing to me (and, I think, many in the UK) that Dubya was clearly voted into power for a second term. Fighting terrorists who were happy to take their own lives using bombs and missiles? Yes, that was always going to work. And by invading a country with which they had no clear connection? Good thinking. The most depressing part of the saga was the enthusiasm with which Tony Blair followed the USA into the disaster of the Iraq War - making him, in his foreign policy, the biggest let-down in UK politics of my lifetime. The number of innocent lives lost in this misconceived exploit - and the complicity of the British government - was appalling.
In the 2008 election I'd like to think that US voters finally cottoned on to the fact that Bush and his party were doing their country no good, either at home or abroad. However, it could be just that they weren't confident enough about the health of McCain, a man in his 70s who had already had cancer. If he'd won the election but couldn't continue, the world would have had President Sarah Palin. Now that was a really scary idea...
Monday, 29 September 2008
I went shopping there this evening. There were no bananas (something I consider a staple) at all on the shelves. Empty goods trolleys used to stack the shelves seemed to be littered everywhere, most with no staff visible near them, making it very difficult to navigate the aisles. The fridges looked poorly kept, with lots of frost on the frozen food. I could not find any lower fat or chicken sausages more than a day or two ahead of their “sell by” date, making them no use to me, as I shop for food several days ahead.
At the till, I pointed out that I had four bags to reuse from previous visits but, when I checked my receipt, I found that the cashier hadn't given me my clubcard points. I then had to queue at the customer service desk. After bypassing the last customer of a queue who were all buying lottery tickets and cigarettes, I walked on to what used to be the Customer Service desk. After being ignored by three staff for five minutes, I was then told I was in the wrong queue. If I was meant to queue at the till for lottery tickets and cigarettes then this was not clear, and means another drop in service standards. Baffled, I told the member of staff “You’ve lost me” and left.
Tonight was not an isolated incident. In a time when some of Tesco’s goods such as margarine are 80% more expensive than last year, I increasingly doubt whether it gives value for money. I’ve written to Tesco about the “trolley clutter” problem before but, despite the suggestion on the slip that I would get a reply within a week, I had no reply at all.
If goods are out of stock, it’s difficult to get around the store, staff are not helpful and prices are higher, wouldn’t I and customers like me be better off just going to Netto?
You might be able to tell from the above that it was originally intended to go directly to Tesco themselves. Since they don't even seem to allow the public to contact them by E-mail, and evidently don't reply to the small slips you can pick up in the store, you're getting to hear this instead...
I'm on the way back from another trip to London, which included a very enjoyable visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum. John and I were impressed with its vastness, the elegance of the building and the sheer number of curios and treasures there. What makes London so fascinating to visit is the richness (in more senses than one) of the culture there.
When you consider that the V&A is just one of London's museums and that there's also the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery - to name just a few - then it starts to dawn on you how many hundreds of millions of pounds of public money have been (and continue to be) lavished on London, to the detriment of other parts of the country. I know that London has its grim Council Estates and higher property prices, but the arguably greater social problems and higher gun and knife crime than the North must, if anything, be evidence that money spent on a region doesn't automatically "trickle down" to the poorest people and bring a higher quality of life.
In these circumstances, you have to ask if the billions spent on London (again) for the 2012 Olympics wouldn't be better spent somewhere like Bristol, Manchester or even Newcastle. Never mind the utter tripe of the recent "Abandon the North" proposal by "Policy Exchange" and the complete non-sequitur that seemed to be its basis - isn't it time that taxpayers up north got a fair share of the country's wealth, in a genuine attempt by politicians to decentralise wealth and power from London?
Monday, 25 August 2008
Traditionally, the August Bank Holiday marks the end of summer - or at least, of summer holidays. As August often seems a lethargic, almost stagnant kind of month, I'm not usually sorry to see it go. Like last year, though, the summer seems to be ending before it's even properly begun. We've had a few days recently when the temperature has approached the usual August values but overall, the last couple of months have been cold and extremely wet.
Watching a TV programme that showed that plants coped less well with waterlogging in summer than in winter - the opposite of what you might expect - makes me wonder if that's why the monardas (bergamot plants) in our garden haven't made an appearance this year. For the first couple of years they were great - two to three feet high with unusual, spiky red flowers. Apparently they like boggy ground and seemed very happy in our clay soil with so-so drainage. By last year they seemed to be taking over, having divided into about eight plants (from the original three) and, at six feet tall, towering over most of our other flowering plants. They had reached the point where we knew we'd have to dig them up and plant them further back, possibly against the fence, just to stop them overwhelming other things in the garden. This year - nothing. We were really surprised and disappointed that there was no sign of them. Maybe the wet weather did for them. If any keen gardeners have any ideas, please let us know where we went wrong.
I've included a photo of these plants as they used to look. Incidentally, does anyone know how to give Blogger photos a proper caption?
Saturday, 12 July 2008
While I agree that the two-and-a-bit percent pay offer is not enough with the way the cost of living is increasing - and everyone knows that government figures in no way represent "real world" inflation - I voted against striking.
This is because I don't think the strikes will achieve anything. The employers are unlikely to increase the offer in a hurry, and how long will it take us to earn back the two days of lost pay - let alone the money lost from any future strikes, if the dispute drags on?
Sunday, 29 June 2008
Our holiday has moved on to the south coast now. Our initial impression of Brighton wasn't great, as it was cool, grey and windy when we arrived, and the hotel was in a rather run-down square with peeling paint, surrounded by tower blocks and a ruined, burnt-out pier. Of course, it's not all like that. It's turned out to be a very colourful town, a strange mix of elegant and tacky, often in the same street - a bit like London crowded into a much smaller space.
I have to give a black mark to Brighton Museums. Although they charge £8.50 admission to the Royal Pavilion for tourists, they say "Filming and photography within the Royal Pavilion is not permitted anywhere in the building. However, access may be agreed for professional projects." There are already unofficial restrictions on photography in many public places (because of illogical fears over terrorism and child protection) and the last thing we need is for museum administrators to take a mean attitude. Visitors are obviously going to want to take photos and this arbitrary restriction suggests to me that they're only after our money.
On the positive side, admission to - and deckchairs on - the remaining Brighton Pier are free, and there were no restrictions on taking photos there.
Wednesday, 25 June 2008
I'm back in Torquay again, having last visited 32 years ago. Obviously, looking at the number of years that have passed (already) since I was last here tends to make me feel old, but it's also been an opportunity to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. When I last came here I'd only just left school. It was my first proper holiday (without the parents). My companions were two old school friends, one of whom I'm still in touch with and the other sadly not, as he now lives in a far-off country.
Amazingly enough, the place doesn't seem to have changed much since August 1976 - the year of the big drought. Although the harbour area is still looking slightly down at heel, most of the streets are very well kept and attractive, and the coastline is just as spectacular as I remembered. We had a great coastal walk today from Daddyhole Plain to Anstey's Cove, with views as fascinating as the names. We also found a good hotel and an excellent restaurant, and the weather has stayed dry, if a bit cool. I'll be rather sorry to leave when we move on to Brighton on Friday.
Saturday, 7 June 2008
It's nice to see that some rain and (at last) some warm weather have brought out the best in parks and gardens. I'm pleased to see a healthy number of bees buzzing around our garden, and that the local tits are keen on my nuts (fnarr fnarr) - although they don't seem to be nearly as enthusiastic about the seeds put out for them. See more (perfectly respectable!) photos on my Flickr pages.
Thursday, 5 June 2008
My feeling is that we have much more to complain about than users of the London Underground: infrequent, crowded and dirty trains (my 11 minute wait today at 10.30am on a Saturday is not unusual); frequent interruptions of service (part of the system has been off, I believe, every Sunday for the past several months); ticket machines that still don't take notes and very often don't work; and vandalised, graffiti-ridden stations where the No Smoking rule is regularly ignored. As the Metro system was only built in the 1970s, it doesn't have the excuse for poor service of Victorian tunnels and stations. About the only respect in which the Metro scores over the Tube is that the stations are smaller and easier to navigate than the Tube.
So why is this?
I reckon the answer is in how the Metro is managed. In the early years a couple of short-sighted and naive decisions were made, and we're all suffering for them now. 1) Having no customer services staff at any stations. Obviously this was done on cost grounds, but it may have backfired in the extra vandalism and fare dodging that has happened ever since. 2) Removing ticket barriers. How the Management could have failed to see the consequences of this is beyond me: an epidemic of fare-dodging. From anecdotal evidence and seeing how many people have tickets when inspectors come onto trains I reckon that, despite the official figures, fare-dodging is probably running at around 40%. Hence the honest ones are made to pay for the dishonest ones and the failure of the Metro management. There was a Press Release some time ago announcing that new barriers and ticket machines are coming, but without any details. So just when will we get these? Sadly, this lack of information is symptomatic of the disregard that Metro management often seems to have for its customers.
Friday, 16 May 2008
Sunday, 4 May 2008
My opinion of Ken has nothing to do with him representing the Labour Party once again. I admit I found myself unable to vote Labour for the first time in my life during Blair's latter years, on account of his unforgivable behaviour over the Iraq War. Although he seems to be an inferior politician, I see Gordon Brown as more sincere and certainly preferable to Blair in that respect and voted Labour again in the recent local elections. I concede that Labour probably did deserve to do badly in these elections. Regardless of that - to me, the battle to be Mayor of London was (or should have been) much more about the individuals, and Boris Johnson seemed so obviously clueless that even Brian Paddick would have been preferable as the winner.
There seem to be some parallels with the USA. Sadly, it seems the electorate of London (as in the USA) were stupid – or self-interested – enough to vote in a right wing buffoon as their leader. It’s also said that, just as Dubya is the figurehead for some cleverer (but extreme) men to get their far right policies enforced, Boris might be steered behind the scenes by Tory right wing extremists. I hope that idea isn’t true.
Monday, 21 April 2008
Anyway, to get off my hobby horse, the piece of music was Herbert Howells' Harp Prelude. I particularly liked the story in the CD sleeve notes of a young harpist playing the piece to Howells in old age, and of him having no memory of it. Although I'm not a Christian, I like to think of him going to Heaven when he died, hearing his own piece being played on a cloud somewhere and asking "What is that music?"...
Tuesday, 15 April 2008
Sunday, 6 April 2008
The second half (Dvořák's Cello Concerto) exhibited all the qualities I dislike in "classical" music - to me it was stuffy, old-fashioned, stylised and full of 19th century musical clichés. The cello can be a beautiful instrument but, here, it simply wasn't. Every time it had a chance to shine, it seemed Dvořák undermined it by adding something distracting or downright tasteless (such as a saccharine flute accompaniment) in the background orchestration. This was only emphasised by Ralph Kirshbaum's encore, a Bach Partita (we think) for solo cello that really showed what the instrument can do.
The people I spoke to all seemed to enjoy either the first half or the second half, but not both.
This makes me question (not for the first time) the logic of the Sage's programming: why couple such widely diverging music together? Incidentally, I have written to Simon Clugston, the classical music programme compiler for the Sage, suggesting that the repertoires need a shake-up and that they should play more twentieth-century music like Debussy, Holst and (of course) Villa-Lobos. He didn't reply.
Thursday, 20 March 2008
The two-stage flight (via Amsterdam) went smoothly and comfortably, although I have to admit that it's not very green. Easyjet used to fly here from Newcastle direct, but now it's apparently more of a money-raiser to fly direct to Krakow. I know there are a lot of Polish people in the UK these days but I still find this puzzling: I would have thought Berlin was a much more popular destination, for all sorts of reasons.
Sadly, the weather forecast for the weekend is awful both in Germany and the UK. If the weather isn't too horrible here tomorrow we're off to Berlin Zoo, so here's hoping...
Saturday, 15 March 2008
As it's mid-March, I'm just starting to come out of my customary winter hibernation, and looking forward to a trip to Berlin over Easter. There's a transport strike there at the moment, and the news reports today are rather confusing. Apparently the talks today have broken down, but the strike will be suspended anyway. I think this is good news, unless I've misunderstood it, or it's been misreported. My German isn't very good, but reading it in German seemed to be easier than in the mangled Google Translation. Thankfully, we're staying in Schoeneberg - a central location - so if the strike is still on, getting to most places we want to see should still be possible, if awkward.
Sunday, 2 March 2008
Eccentric, original, clumsy, haphazard, funny, noisy, stunningly beautiful - his music is all of these things at different times. I see him as rather like an eccentric old uncle who, when you first meet him, you dismiss as just weird. Once you get into his music, it's incredibly loveable. He wrote a huge body of work including seventeen string quartets, at least three of which are masterpieces, five piano concertos and nine Bachianas brasileiras (Brazilian Bach-pieces), twelve symphonies and fourteen Chôros, including two sadly lost. Obviously, not everything he wrote is brilliant, but he's a master of musical development.
I first heard Villa-Lobos' music more than twenty years ago. This was when recordings of many of his works were only just starting to appear. Thanks to the Marco Polo and Naxos CD labels, people now at least have the chance to hear many of his works, but he really doesn't seem to get the recognition he deserves, either in concert repertoires or in public awareness. The first work I heard was the Bachianas Brasileiras No 5 for soprano and cello ensemble - one of his most popular but (as is often the way) also one of his more ordinary. It was a few years before I was really hooked, when I heard his Piano Trio No 2 (piano, cello and violin) and its sublime Berceuse-Barcarolla.
To my mind, so many 'classical' composers (including the frustratingly canonised and over-recorded Mozart) manage to make everything sound light and elegant and totally lacking in emotional depth. I can't think of any other composer but Villa-Lobos who can take a theme and at first make it sound pedestrian or perhaps vaguely pleasant, and then suddenly transform it so that it glows with joie de vivre, like the sun coming out, or grabs you with its poignancy, like a spectacular sunset. There are works that don't sound vaguely Brazilian, and yet the rhythmic element is usually vital and other pieces are quintessentially "Latin American". Elegant is not the word for many of his works, but if you think he's incapable of that quality, listen to the Piano Trio. (Unfortunately this rather purple prose doesn't do the music justice: words have failed me.)
To hear him in lyrical vein, try String Quartets 1, 12 and 17 or the Piano Trio Number 2 (all available on the Marco Polo label). For a taste of all the qualities mentioned above in his orchestral works, try Chôros No. 12 or Forest of the Amazon. For the lighter side of Villa-Lobos, listen to his 'musical adventure' Magdalena, created in collaboration with the same people who developed Kismet from Borodin's music.
Incidentally, I wonder how many classical music lovers know that, if you're a member of Gateshead Libraries, you can have full access to the Naxos Music Library and Classical Music Library just by going to http://gateshead.naxosmusiclibrary.com - or go to http://www.asaplive.com/ExploreMusic/Home.cfm and click on Our Resources. Lots of these works including the Piano Trio No 2 are on there, provided by the saviour of the classical music CD market. If reading this has piqued your curiosity, go and have a listen - the quality isn't hi-fi but you'll hopefully get an idea of how brilliant the man was. If you don't live in Gateshead, check out your own public library - it may well subscribe to one of the on-line music libraries which will let you sample the world of classical music.
For more information on Villa-Lobos and his music, there's the Villa-Lobos Museum's web site. I also spotted another blog (with which I have no connection other than as an enthusiast).
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
I thought the book was good value, and an appropriate end to the series. I've now read them all, of course, and enjoyed every one with the possible exception of number 5 (The Order of the Phoenix). Books 1 to 4 were all great fun although - as many viewers have pointed out - the darker side got more prominent as Harry grew a little older. Phoenix may have coincided with the peak of J K's wealth, or a feeling of security, complacency or whatever - or it may have just been that her publishers got so overawed by her success that they didn't dare prune 30% off the book's length. The consensus (with which I agree) seems to be that drastic editing was what was needed. Anyway, she seemed to be back on form with number 6 (The half-blood prince), which had some interesting twists and turns and was quite effective in "killing off" a major character.
Unlike some others, I didn't find that Deathly hallows "sagged in the middle". I found the interaction between the characters genuinely moving at times, and having an occasional minor character die at various points brought it home that, as this was the final book, all the characters were dispensable. Towards the end, there are some surprises around the motivation of a couple of characters, which at times struck me as unnecessarily convoluted and made me suspect that Ms Rowling has read too many Agatha Christies!
If the climax didn't work 100% for me, this is probably because the author was hampered by having to make things very literal at times, to avoid readers (particularly children) complaining that they didn't understand what happened. So, while saying "So and so was dead" falls a little flat in terms of prose, it was probably necessary. Again, without giving away the plot, let's just say that the series is brought to a fairly definite conclusion.
Overall, I would have to recommend the Harry Potter series to anyone who loves books - not just children and young people. While the books don't have the philosophical depths of (say) Philip Pullman, they're just as readable and almost as entertaining.
Friday, 15 February 2008
Being a twentieth century classical music lover (rather than any kind of music student) for the past thirty-odd years, I was surprised to hear of so many musicians who dismissed RVW's work as second-rate. I'd heard Constant Lambert's comment about "a cow looking over a gate" but hadn't realised such views were as widespread as the film would have it.
Palmer definitely had a biased agenda when making his film. He seemed determined to portray RVW as a tortured man whose anguish was shown in his music. To this end, he chose mainly dark and tempestuous extracts from a repertoire that, to me, hardly ever comes across that way. I was surprised to hear the Tallis Fantasia described in that vein: although it's an emotional and melancholy piece, I've never thought of it as dark or despairing. Surely any composer worth his salt has a full emotional range? One of the reasons I've never liked Mozart (and am branded a musical heretic for the opinion) is that his music always comes across to me as too light and frothy - lacking any depth.
One of the likeable things about Palmer's film was the almost universal praise for Vaughan Williams for his humility, his generosity of spirit and his charitable work. If he was really so saintly, I'm sure we can forgive him for having been bad-tempered.
It was nice to see and hear a lot of people who actually knew Vaughan Williams (including his widow), still alive and kicking when the film was made. As RVW died fifty years ago, several of them must have been in their nineties. I was surprised to find that even Michael Kennedy, who seemed to be in his late sixties, is over eighty! Encouraging for those of us who are well past 21...
I've been taking a few photos of the Gateshead town centre car park (often referred to as the Get Carter car park), not because I like it but because it's soon to go, and I think it's important to commemorate what I've long seen as a blot on the landscape. Even if it's replaced with something bland, it's almost bound to be an improvement.
I get quite annoyed at people who say "You must keep it", because of some misguided feeling that it's of architectural importance. These people almost invariably live in other parts of the country: I've never heard anyone who lives in Gateshead and has to look at the thing every day argue in its favour. Anyway, the argument is academic now, as the structure has deteriorated beyond repair - it has to go. We're still being told that demolition will start soon: since this has already been postponed once, it would be comforting to have a definite date. I'm expecting Gateshead residents to organise a party to celebrate!
Hopefully, a new and improved Trinity Square will start to appear soon.