Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Card 2010

I have every reason to feel aggrieved by the weather. I had plans for this weekend. Plans which involved other parts of the country. Plans which were scuppered by the snow which fell for most of yesterday and made setting out in the car seem more dangerous than climbing Everest. Oh well.

Birmingham has had a make over to match scenes from the Christmas cards propped up indoors. Well it would match, if the post office were delivering Christmas cards to prop up, or indeed anything at all at the moment.

Let's focus on the positives. I had a wonderful walk through the park this morning and found these snowflakes iced onto the railings surrounding the frozen lake. There was the vandalistic thrill of ploughing a calf-deep path through pristine snow along an alternative route to that normally marked by asphalt. But for the crunch of my boots imprinting the pattern of their tread into soft powder, all was quiet. Infrequently worn clothes came into their own.

Tomorrow the snow will be compacted, icy, slushy and grey. More people will decide they have to dig their cars out from under the frozen candlewick bedspreads the weather has draped on them. The transport chaos whinging will become seriously boring and the snow will have outstayed its welcome. Today though, just for a short while, this corner of Birmingham was a winter wonderland. Happy Christmas.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Postcard from the stage

Birmingham's Symphony Hall has perfect acoustics. This means it's a fantastic venue for classical music. It doesn't mean pop music should not be heard there; although the plush auditorium can have a restraining influence on the crowd.

The last time I saw Chris Difford, he was playing an intimate gig in an organic garden centre/cafe. So to find him reunited with Squeeze in grand surroundings was quite a contrast. In a good way. All the classics (my photo captured Difford and Tilbrook during the nostalgia of 'Pulling Mussels from the Shell') and a few new songs made for a great gig. There's been yet another change to the line up and the fantastic Steve Nieve on keyboards, for me, stole the show.

The popularity of the old songs is testament to the quality of the songwriting. Living up to the reputation of Symphony Hall was testament to the musical talent on stage. Good things come out of Greenwich...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Postcard from Edinburgh

A belated posting this time; I was in Edinburgh back in August but somehow failed to add anything about it here. This picture I took came to mind again recently, for a couple of reasons.

These windows are on the side of the Scottish Parliament building and each is a little reading pod provided for the MSPs to use in quiet moments to catch up on briefings, emails, perhaps even paper backs. Having always had a weakness for window seats, I quite fancied one. Sunlit and secluded, what more could a reader require? One problem: I don't fancy ploughing through parliamentary briefings for the privilege.

Some places where I've recently attempted to concentrate on a book include Pendolino trains (no chance - makes me travel sick), a hospital foyer (too much life going on around me), and the sofa in a serviced apartment (chosen for style rather than support). So my own personal reading pod, equipped with comfortable seating, table placed for convenient positioning of tea, and natural light, would be a luxury.

Of course, a really good book will take me away from anything that's happening in reality. And reality was the other thing which reminded me of my visit to the Scottish Parliament. While there, I viewed the Press Photographer of the Year exhibition which was set up in the foyer. There was a sign warning visitors that many of the images were not suitable for children, but I found some of them so affecting, disturbing and thought provoking that they brought the news story home to me far more effectively than 24 hour rolling news channels can achieve. A colleague saw the exhibition in London recently and agreed with me that, hideous and shocking though many of the photos were, the photographers are doing an important job. Much though I love fiction, reality will intrude and should not be ignored. It's certainly a field where a single good picture can speak louder than words.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Postcard from GMT

Synchronise your watches. Greenwich Mean Time rules again and I for one am relieved. I understand the arguments about children crossing roads and farmers milking cows and how both activities would be best carried out in daylight hours, however; at my office all systems and data remain referenced to GMT year round. British Summer Time does nothing but confuse me.

This clock, at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, is where all time is controlled. It is Greenwich Mean Time. How powerful is that? The big orange ball sitting on the building behind rises to the top of its post just before one o'clock every day, and drops on the dot of one. That's one o'clock local time, not GMT - see how easy it is to get muddled?

What I was sure of was that it was the perfect time to be in Greenwich Park. The trees are dressed in a palette from sunshine yellow to peachy pink. Squirrels are sneaking around to set up their winter food stash. And my watch is definitely reading the correct time.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Postcard from autumn

Autumn is aflame across Shropshire, where I spotted these glossy, plump berries.  As alluded to in the previous post, I do have a fondness for the season when leaves deck themselves in their party gear.

I wanted to come back to the theme of 'Red Leaves' to let you know how I got on with the Paullina Simons book I was sent by HarperCollins.  The climate confusion on the cover was down to artistic licence - the book is set in winter and the only red leaves are in the name of a building which plays a key role.  Slightly odd title to have gone with, I thought.

Sad to report, I didn't love it.  While the cover intrigued me, the prologue and first section were not compelling.  It perhaps had something to do with the US accent in the narrative, which, to a UK ear, can lead to some phrasing sounding odd. The details of basketball and Ivy League colleges passed me by too.  My main concern was that none of the major characters who appeared in the opening section were likeable though.  Yes, one was particularly enigmatic to make the reader suspicious, but it felt contrived.  I didn't get into the book until Detective Spencer Patrick O'Malley arrived on the scene and had all the charisma and appeal the others were lacking. Shame about the first 150 pages, the events of which we then had to revisit as Spencer investigated them.

The next book on my 'to read' pile promises to be much more gripping: Remix by Lexi Revellian.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Postcard from the bookshelf

I belong to a reader's panel run by HarperCollins.  They recently sent me a questionnaire about the author Paullina Simons and whether various cover designs and blurbs would entice me to look at her books.  As I'd not heard of her, I had nothing to base the decision on but the pictures and words presented. Writers may not like it, but cover design is critical to the process of a reader deciding to buy or not to buy.

I've now received the one whose cover most appealed to me; but the style was similar across the titles: young, thoughtful woman with partly obscured face and suggestion of outdoor background.  So it passed the first test of intriguing me enough to look further.  Nothing to do with the story - I'm a fan of autumn leaves and my first impression of the woman wasn't off putting as it may have been were she more glamorous.

There are a few differences from the version I saw in the online survey.  The author's name is plastered over this one in larger font than the title.  It's put me off a bit.  I don't know her, I don't know her work, it seems a bit presumptuous of the publisher to assume that it's her I care about.  It's not.  I want to know what that thoughtful woman's doing in among the leaves.  I'm having a bit of climate confusion about the snow covered ground and autumn colour, but it's set in the US so I'll put it down to my unfamiliarity. The little teaser sentence was 'Some friends are not what they seem' in the version I 'chose'.  A minor thing, but it had a slightly different tone. The lack lustre title and vague claim of 'International Bestseller' worry me.  The picture worked for me; the words so far don't.

I'm prepared to give the book a go now it's here, but the huge name might have been enough to make me keep walking past the shelf in the shops.  I'll let you know how I get on with the story. It's the bit which counts, after all.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Postcard from Winterbourne Gardens

Wild mushrooms can evoke unease. A sighting of a strange form blossoming forth when the spring and summer growing season is nearing its end, brings a slight frisson of fear that it may kill you. Unlikely; as I never pick them to eat, preferring to admire them in situ. Especially when they look so charmingly like discarded pencil shavings.

Winterbourne Gardens are lovely, the house delightful and the food in the tea rooms reassuringly edible.  Delicious, in fact. With such huge grounds to wander around, it's easy to justify eating both lunch and afternoon tea there. From a table on the terrace, the views of the walled garden, lawns, pergola and woodland are almost as tempting as the cakes.

My (very brief, internet based) research into the fungus pictured tells me it's a Coriolus Versicolor and is inedible. It is not, however, poisonous. Panic over. Time for tea.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Postcard from the park

Apologies for the break in service.  Several things have been going on, including completing the first draft of Park Life.  Edits are in progress and more postcards will follow.

This photo was taken during a reading, writing and painting workshop based in Cannon Hill Park during July.  The inspiration came from Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders, as well as the park's own trees.  Some tree related imagery has worked its way into Park Life.  The setting remains in Birmingham rather than Wessex though, and the characters are somewhat less romantic than Hardy's.  As for my paintings, well those are probably best turned into mulch with the now falling leaves.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Postcard from Eden

Cornwall's climate is benign compared to the rest of Britain.  The sheltering walls of a former quarry pit make the Eden Project's site even more plant-friendly.  The grounds showcase Cornish habitats as well as containing a lovely display of British flowers and vegetables intermixed with some foreign species coping just fine in the warmer temperatures.  Inside the domes though is where things get really interesting.

It may look like temptingly poppable bubble wrap from a distance, but the special covering retains heat and moisture while letting UV light through, meaning that Mediterranean-type and rainforest habitats can be recreated in south west England.   It's quite an experience to wander from Cornwall to Greece and on to Malaysia all in the course of one afternoon.

I loved seeing all the fruit and veg, from papaya and pineapples to nectarines and strawberries, and couldn't resist walking past beds filled with colourful salad ingredients into the cafe.  It would have been rude not to indulge in the Cornish cream tea after all.  I needed the energy to get me to another of Cornwall's special environments and an evening stroll along miles of golden sands.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Postcard from the poppy field

There are very few sights which make me genuinely gasp with astonishment, but this was one of them.  When driving through Worcestershire you pass plenty of perfectly lovely views - as green and pleasant as you could wish for.  But red is not a common colour in the English countryside, and it's the first time I've seen an entire field washed red as if by an Impressionist's watercolours.

I had a tip off it was there and managed to visit while the poppies were at their peak, on a quiet day and in glorious sunshine.  A warm breeze made the glossy, tissue paper-thin, pleated petals bend and flip so they seemed alive.  Bees were trying to find a foothold on the moving flowers to pick up some of the dusty, dark pollen.  The uniformity of colour made the whole thing more astounding.

The field is on a farm recently acquired by the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust who had ploughed the sandy soil, then left it fallow.  Which was obviously the cue for the dormant poppy seeds to burst into life.  They'd normally be considered a weed on arable land.  Here though, they're magnificent and are providing a home for nesting skylarks.  The birds were quiet, but the Severn Valley Railway passes nearby and provided a steam-driven soundtrack of hoots and chugging.

There were plenty of photographers hunched over tripods beetling about the place, but of course poppies aren't just picturesque.  I didn't have a Wizard of Oz moment and fall asleep in the field; but I do wonder what will happen when all that remains is the seedheads.  In Tasmania recently (the world's biggest legal grower of opiates - who knew?), there were reports of wallabies breaking into the fields to gorge on seeds, get high and dash about destroying the place.  I can only hope the skylarks behave better.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Postcard from the Design Museum

In every day life good design goes unnoticed.  Only when an item's not quite right is it detected, cursed and improvements desired.  The Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum in London has selected a collection of items and concepts which make significant or radical improvements to life, or will once they are translated into products.

You'll be wondering how a tank full of plastic pandas fits into this.  They're old style WWF collection boxes - the type which used to gather dust on shop counters.  Largely ignored.  Well, this installation of them can't be passed by.  The pandas are mounted on sensors which know where you are.  They detect the presence of an observer and swivel to look you in the eye.  The photo shows them in the process of turning to look at someone approaching from my left.  The iconic logo of the WWF interacts with you and demands your attention.  Forget charity collections by students with clipboards on the street, the pandas' stare cannot be ignored.  Charity donations - as improved by design.

The range of items on display was surprising.  From commodes to concept cars, there is no aspect of life which escapes the designers' attention.  The winning design was for a folding plug - as slimline and lightweight as the laptop it's carried with.  That wasn't my favourite though.  I liked the political commentary such as the Cafe of Equivalent Cost, where a bowl of soup which would cost a farm worker in Mozambique twenty cents was sold to London bankers for £111.  Trouble is that while that cost shocked me, the city boys probably lapped it up; literally.  What I really loved though was Sugru.  It's a fabulous new material which you use to adjust, amend, fix and generally make the products you have better suit you.  It's cheap, it works on everything and it could change your life.  If you're the sort of person who's always swearing at your tin opener, that is.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Postcard from the Spring Thing

Book festivals can drag on.  Week after week of literary celebrities hawking their wares and pretending they weren't just asked the same questions down the road at Hay/Cheltenham/Oxford/insert name of bookish town.  Birmingham book festival usually happens in October and follows a similar template, but their Spring Thing - a festival in a day - made a refreshing change.

Apologies for the photo, but literary events aren't really visual are they?  So we'll have to make do with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy signing a book.  And yes, that stage would be better suited to an orchestra mainly because we were in a concert hall.  So the acoustics for the readings were very good.  As was the poetry and prose read out and discussed.

The other benefit of the short programme meant no concurrent sessions, so I went to everything and was exposed to a lot of authors I hadn't previously read.  The first session saw two authors of historical fiction (Judith Allnatt and Clare Clark) talk about the opportunities their research opened up and the liberties they took with it. Then a panel discussion between Amanda Smyth, Samantha Harvey and Aifric Campbell explored common themes of loss in their work and whether this is a modern narrative trend as opposed to the 'making good' of some classic works.  Stuart Maconie perhaps has it easy; no research or imagination required, his personality is his device and with the material of all England to comment on, there was plenty to laugh at.  England as a theme appeared again in one of Jo Bell's poems which comprised the results of a text/email poll of her friends asking them to define what England meant to them.  The poem's refrain of '...and pubs, and rain...' was apparently what everyone said when they were done with their unique take on the English condition.  Wonder why?

Jo's other poems were equally entertaining, as well as emotional or surreal. Which made her readings a good partner to alternate with a disturbing, if amusing, short story in four parts by Nick Walker.  Carole Ann Duffy headlined, reprising some of her poems about wives of famous historical figures and presenting some new work; including painful reflections on the death of her mother.

Writers are a nosy bunch and justify a habit of eavesdropping by claiming it as research.  Well, prick up your ears on the 1st of July for a spot of creative eavesdropping.  See for a writing project everyone can get involved in.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Postcard from the parade

Elephants are  parading across London this month.  These two were livening up an otherwise tastefully muted South Molton Street.  The concept of using large models as a canvas for designs isn't new of course.  I think it all started with a herd of illustrated cows, but since then I've seen massive painted dogs in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (who knew the Canary Islands were named after big dogs, not little birds?) while in Liverpool everywhere had Superlambananas.

Of course the elephant visit is for a good cause as well as a bit of fun.  Asian elephants are on the brink of extinction and the sculptures will be auctioned to raise money to fund the work of the Elephant Family charity.  Whether Asian elephants can be saved is a difficult issue.  Sadly, the streets of London are not their natural habitat and humans are moving in to the places they prefer to call home.

The sculptures are so charming, I almost wish the real things were suited to the urban environment.  I definitely can't help wishing we humans were a little less destructive when we stepped onto elephant territory.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Postcard from mac

mac (the Midlands Arts Centre) has reopened after being closed for refurbishment for far too long.  It's been worth waiting for.  Smarter, brighter, and bang up to date - the building feels revitalised.  It's largely the same layout (a labyrinth), but the atmosphere of grim has been dispelled.

The opening day crowds were testament to how much mac has been missed; and the welcome was warmer than ever.  Studio doors were thrown open for people to try out art, dance, music and craft workshops.  The galleries were so packed I need to go back another day to actually see the exhibits.  The theatres are refitted and the cinema reupholstered.

mac has never been a place to visit only when a specific event or performance attracts you though.  Now the hoardings are down, it's once again fully integrated with Cannon Hill Park.  Even if none of the varied programme would convince you to visit, the cafe and bar will always offer tempting refuge from the rain.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Postcard from Singapore

Moving on from the occasionally outlandish architectural and design choices made in Melbourne, it was a surprise to find that the otherwise staid mix of traditional and corporate buildings in Singapore have been joined by a boat.  A big boat.  Hoist to the top of three curved tower blocks (indicating a wave) and planted up with palm trees.  As roof gardens go it's certainly different.  Still looks as if a container ship has run aground 50 floors up though.

The balconies and awnings which still line Boat Quay are easier on the eye, not least because, when sitting under an awning, you can't see the generic skyscrapers.  Mostly generic.  Those built by Chinese companies do sometimes incorporate gaps through the upper floors or are angled to accommodate the principles of Feng Shui or folklore.

My photo of the boat building didn't quite work out, so I'll share this one of the symbol of Singapore: the Merlion.  This fantastical animal is half lion, half fish.  In the tradition of offices the world over I brought back biscuits for my colleagues which claimed to be Merlion flavoured.  Worried by this, a vegetarian scanned the ingredients list.  Turns out that Merlion flavour is mostly vanilla with a hint of custard powder.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Postcard from Melbourne

This is the view from the Eureka! Skydeck on the 88th floor of the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere.  To my ear, it rather spoilt the boast to have to add that ' the Southern Hemisphere' qualifier.  I liked the view and don't think Melbourne has any need to justify itself by defining its terms.

Like all Aussie cities it's a fairly new looking place where some, um, innovative ideas in architectural design are being indulged; as are some quite strange ideas for public art.  The square cow stranded upside down in a tree didn't add much to the dockside promenade for me.

It's what's going on in Melbourne that matters more though.  From hidden away but buzzing rooftop bars, through exhibitions to international sporting events, there's loads happening.  No need for any qualifiers - I had a great time.

ps Congratulations to Team Flotsam for completing the Oxfam Trailwalker Melbourne 100km challenge.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Postcard from the Mill Garden

There are some brave splashes of spring colour in evidence in the chilly Midlands, but spring has not yet sprung with conviction.  In the absence of abundant floral displays, the backdrop of the Castle made for the most dramatic photo opportunity on a recent visit to the Mill Garden in Warwick.

I do like to be contrary though.  And Warwick Castle does just fine without me hyping it.  So this view may be the most dramatic, but wasn't my favourite.  That honour goes to the vista from the Mill Garden summerhouse looking across the mill pond and ruined bridge - best enjoyed whilst some welcome sunlight warms your face and the rush of water over the weir provides a soundtrack.  You have your back to the castle but the natural charms of the riverside make up for it.

Forget visiting the Castle dungeons - the garden boasts its very own set of stocks.  And I'm too old for playing at princesses.  Let's face it: it's more likely that most of us would have been working for the folk at the castle than living there.  So hanging out at the Mill Garden makes far more sense.  The thought that the tiny entrance fee goes to charity, rather than lining the castle coffers, just adds to the delight.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Postcard from Smithfield

I spend some time each month working in central London. My office lies just outside the boundary of the City itself but sometimes I become one of the few overnight residents of the Square Mile.  So the landmarks I note are perhaps different from those the daytime population might navigate by.  By night, the offices are dark and quiet, the pavements no longer crowded by suited commuters.  Something different is going on.

Smithfield Market is one of the oldest markets in London, and it's still trading.  By the middle of the evening, when I'm wandering towards my bed for the night, lorries are congregating outside.  As I sleep, the meat they carry is unloaded and sold - the entire operation concluding while I sleep so that, when I'm on my way out again, all that's left is the clean up operation.

I cross the road here: where a line of black, red and white bollards mark the City boundary from the rest of London, and I'm back in the world where I work - a nondescript office block (from the roof of which regular readers have seen the sun rise).  The medieval heart of London could generate a million postcards but I preferred to show you this: the bit where some real work goes on, even if I'm often fast asleep just round the corner.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Postcard from the arena

Elvis, the ultimate showman, is still wowing the crowds.  Many of the musicians playing in Birmingham this weekend were members of Elvis's original band, but obviously centre stage was bare.  The star of the show made his appearance via archive footage from the early seventies and even in 2D his charisma filled the arena.  The fact that the projection of him is about 4 times the size of the figures on stage helps I suppose.

No one in the band even tries to outperform him; they just stick to what they do best: playing great music.  Several audience members had a go though.  Sales of quiff wigs must have shot up last week.  Eager to join in with the experience of the many girls the footage showed Elvis bending from the stage to kiss, one woman yelled out in a brief quiet spot 'I luv yow, El-vees!'  The man himself may never have toured the West Midlands in his lifetime, but he was made welcome here last night.

I normally hate gigs in huge venues because the distance from the band destroys the atmosphere.  So a show which makes a virtue of the fact you have to watch events on the video screens is an interesting alternative.  Of course, it takes a performer of Elvis's star quality to pull it off.  No need for a phone vote to tell Elvis he's got the X factor; the fact he's still packing arenas more than 30 years after his death says it all.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Postcard from St Pancras

In the 1960s there were plans to demolish St Pancras station.  The big idea was to replace it with something modern, something less hideously old-fashioned.  Times change; and so do tastes.  It's unlikely champagne will ever go out of fashion though.

A couple of years ago, the Victorian gothic splendor of St Pancras was refurbished.  As part of the new, slick station facilities the longest champagne bar in Europe was built.  How long?  Um, about the length of one of the Eurostar trains that pull in alongside to deliver passengers arriving in London from Paris and other points European.

Sipping champagne on a draughty platform might not sound immediately appealing.  Wait though: the booths are heated - press a couple of discreet buttons and the seats begin to warm.  Pink champagne was the decadent choice while the tartan blanket provided by the attentive (and feeling the chill himself) waiter gave a uniquely British twist.

Literary connections are essential for any station intending to make its mark.  King's Cross next door has the magical Platform 9 and 3/4.  Paddington has Paddington.   As you sit alongside the Eurostar, nestled in your warm blanket, the arched roof naturally draws the eye, as it did for John Betjeman whose statue, caught gazing up in wonder, stands nearby.  The experience is almost sublime.  Almost.  If only the platform announcements were for Paris, rather than imminent departures for the East Midlands.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Postcard from Exeter

I am assured that, on a sunny day, Cathedral Green in Exeter is full of people sitting, eating, walking, talking, and generally enjoying themselves.  Here's what it's like on a grey and cold day.  What a lovely bit of evening sun that's just caught the windows of the medieval-looking building in the far corner of the square though.  Shame the sun didn't show its face earlier.

The people of Exeter were still sitting, eating and talking though; they just did it indoors.  For example, Michael Caines' restaurant (not "my name is" Michael Caine's) in the Royal Clarence Hotel behind the lamppost here was enticing people in with "The Best Sandwich in the World".  They have an award from a competition held in Paris to back up this astounding claim.  Vegetarians: look away now - the world-beating filling is Devonshire beef.

It does sound good but, unwilling to part with £10 when I was only looking for an afternoon snack, I tried a different Devon speciality: scones.  It may not have been the best scone in the world, but I can confirm that the eating opportunities around Cathedral Green do not disappoint!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Postcard from Ferry Meadows

I can only apologise for the 'frozen lake' theme I've adopted in recent weeks.  The weather is entirely to blame. Although, both recent photos feature winter sunshine: a phenomenon which is always worth celebrating.

Ferry Meadows is on the outskirts of Peterborough.  As the city expanded in the 1960s, a smart solution to both the problem of how to use land which formed the floodplain of the Nene, and the desire to leave some areas undeveloped for wildlife and recreation, was found in one place.  The lakes were left over after gravel extraction, and now attract plenty of wildfowl.

Most importantly, the park makes a great venue for a new year's day walk: plenty of crisp, clear air to freshen the mind, good exercise as you make a circuit of the lakes, and great cakes at the rowing club cafe.  OK, so the cake consumption might have negated the healthy bonus of the length of the walk, but on a day that cold it was impossible to resist!

Happy New Year.