Sunday, 16 December 2012

Listening to Lord Farquaad (or Lithgow Talks!)

I love my National Theatre Entry Pass – it provides opportunities for young people to access groundbreaking theatre at discounted rates. When they told me John Lithgow – the voice of Lord Farquaad – was not only starring in a show but also doing a Q & A, and I could see both for £8, I booked it straight away.
(Dinner at the National Theatre)

Lithgow was interviewed by Nick Hytner, Director of the NT. The first thing I noticed when he stepped on stage was how tall he was!  It was a memorable opening as Lithgow described being born in a prop box. Born into a thoroughly theatrical family, Lithgow spent his childhood summers with his Dad’s Shakespeare troop in Ohio, starting with the small bit parts and graduating up to the young leads.

Lithgow was no fool and secured a scholarship at Harvard. He describes himself as the ‘best actor in Harvard by osmosis’ only a small underestimation of his evident dramatic talent (!) and a time of prolific output – he featured in some 8 or 9 plays per term and his repertoire had by this time expanded from Shakespeare to encompass several Russian playwrights among others . On some kind of Erasmus swap Lithgow made it to LAMDA which conferred on him a love of London and a convincing English accent, he describes it as like ‘swallowing a horsepill of Englishness’.

Lithgow also passed comment on his lifelong profession of acting deeming it a reckless and stupid career path. He has done numerous other things on top of acting to fill the quiet season from writing children’s books to conducting orchestras. He does this he says to avoid the actor’s agony of ‘waiting to be wanted’.

With this backdrop I ran off to speed munch my dinner and then returned to the front row to see Lithgow perform the lead role in Pintero’s  Victorian farce, The Magistrate. Damien Lewis loved it - he was sat about 6 rows behind me, desperately trying to keep a low profile. The play was everything I’ve come to expect from comedy at the NT, riotous, professional, splendid and slightly mad. The script set the action firmly in London and with my local interests that really pleased me! As ever the staging was central to the success of the play, this time it both rotated and rose on expensive mechanical, silent sets. Lithgow provided some hilariously comic moments particularly when acting out being attacked by a dog who obviously wasn’t there! And I loved the song about trying to guess the age of a lady; it was suggested you might chop her leg off and count the rings!

The Magistrate is on until March, there are plenty of discounted seats available and I can’t recommend it high enough!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Merry Christmas Racist Santa!

As you will know from previous posts I’m a bit obsessed with Continental Christmas traditions. A couchsurfer from Holland visited me a few months ago, and I requested native foodstuffs as my gift. She brought a bag of Kruidnoten ‘gingerbread’ biscuits and the story of the racist Santa which I now present.

December 5th is the day that good little Dutch children get their presents from the benevolent St Nik. Whilst the commercial kids now leave stockings and bags for Santa, traditionally the children always left out their shoes. If the child had been good Santa would fill those shoes with sweeties; if they had been bad they would start a whole new adventure, in Spain.


Unlike other Santas, St Nik, patron saint of Amsterdam, has a time-share in Spain; he likes to stay warm whilst he’s making all those sweets and toys. He has a team of helpers, who look like Moors. The story I heard was that the naughty children had been engaged in slave labour for Santa, climbing up and down chimneys and acquiring black faces, as it turns out in bygone centuries Santa had a black servant called, imaginatively, Black Pete and it was he who adorned my pack of Kruidnoten, like the most unashamed, Gollywogg I’ve ever seen!

 Just so racist.

And because Santa has been living all year in Spain how is he supposed to get to Holland – by steamboat of course! None of this sleigh and reindeer business, Santa is a civilised chap, who rides a steamboat to Holland and then a white and noble steed! This being a tradition he probably borrowed from pre-Christian times when his name was Odin.

I am fascinated by all these borrowings from different times Santa from one culture has gained to form his fully-fledged expression in the 21st century. I wonder how Dutch Santa will translate again in another 100 years, will he catch up with modern transport and fly from Spain perhaps? Will he be less racist? Only time will tell.

Merry early Christmas everyone!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Offa's Dyke Walk: brought to you by the letter 'C'

Last month I went on a wonderfully reflective walking holiday along the Offa's Dyke Trail. Herewith some ruminations.

Offa's Dyke is an incomplete earthwork running the length of Wales on the border between England and Wales. It is attributed to the eighth century, Anglo-Saxon king, Offa and was turned into a National Trail in 1971. Both before and since Offa this land has been contested between the Welsh and other opposing groups. The landscape en route is varied; from mountain ranges to rivers, plains and forest. I walked from Kington to Sedbury, with the company of my Mum between Hay and Monmouth, it required walking boots and walking poles.

(The weather was er, interesting - Llanthony)

Conquerors and Chieftains
As previously mentioned the path follows the borderlands between England and Wales, an area that has been contested for millennia. As such there is lots to interest the budding archaeologist from Norman castles to Iron Age hillforts and the remains of Roman settlements. I frequently marched off piste towards mapped inclines in the hope of finding settlements.

Much of the route is rural and there were frequent occasions where the vista could have been Saxon, sheep, forest, stone walls and mountains. No cars, no houses, no tarmac. This meant that the path was not always easy, frequently muddy and occasionally impassable. I was only trying to walk 15 miles on any given day but progress up inclines and through mud was often slow. When I wasn't feeling like Bear Grylls I had increasing sympathy for the Roman soldiers based in this landscape (they had a settlement at Abergavenny they called, 'Gobannium' - great name!). Agricola's comment, 'Britain is cold, wet and difficult to traverse! Take me back to Tunisia, now!' (I paraphrase) seemed rather fitting. There were times a spa would have been very nice.

Castles and Churches as Community
Not only is the trail a beautiful natural path it also brings you into contact with lots of gorgeous old buildings. Some of these buildings are ruins (Llanthony and Tintern Abbeys, Abergavenny Castle, Monmouth Castle) others less so (Chepstow castle) and some still in one piece (St David's Church -1108, Abergavenny Tithe Barn, Hergest Hall).

The more complete buildings and the illustrations at ruins really helped me to think about churches and castles with their attendant communities. The castles and priory communities had gardens, storehouses and fireplaces in evidence for supporting real people doing real life. These were homes for communities of people; places tradesmen created wares, politicians made decisions, women infiltrated and caused scandals. For once the ruins weren't just romantic photo opps, they were also representations of communities passed.

(Llanthony Castle)
Cultural Conquest
The Dyke is in a liminal place, somewhere between England and Wales. It was interesting to compare towns culturally in modern day life.

Kington screamed rural English village. I went to a pub where people spoke like they were the cast of Hot Fuzz, there were roasts a plenty of cosy fires.

Hay on Wye on the other hand was 'just inside Wales' as declared by a deliciously comic partnering between the 'Welcome to Wales' sign and the 'Beware Children. Beware Old People' signpost.

Llanthony was Welsh and very rural, Pandy was still Wales, Abergavenny had a strong Welsh identity. The Welsh dragon was everywhere, even in the priory choir stalls; they had a cwtch coffee shop and all signs were billingual. We heard a lot of Welsh spoken here too.

(Dragon carving, St Mary's Priory, Abergavenny)

Monmouth our next stop by contrast was adamantly English. There was clear overtones of Norman settlement and monied English inhabitants, even the shops Fatface, Joules etc. testified that English culture was truly settled here. This emphasis was further supported by the Habs boarding school also based in the town.

Abergavenny v. Monmouth was an interesting experience.

Chepstow castle was a study in this influence of nationality and fashion on communities in the borderlands. The castle is a very early Norman castle. See downright Mediterranean designs on the oldest part of the castle, reminiscent of the Tower of London and other early Norman fortifications. As design developed so did the castle, accruing round turrets and other architectural design. One room is decked out in Tudor design; it was gaudy to say the least. Other parts of the castle have been left without roofing. The buildings were used as a fortification for some 500 years and developed different emphases as the years passed. But always they had thick walls, doors and barred entry. As I walked the walls of Chepstow castle I realised that thick walls are about more than protecting one king, or magnate, its about the defence of a whole community. It must be a nightmare to preserve a space like this, which has developed over several centuries, in a way that pleases and educates all interests.

(Chepstow Castle, Tudor Room)

(Early Norman Chepstow Castle)

The Tithe Barn at Abergavenny is also worthy of note. Originally built in the 12th century to house tithe from the local community, it still stands today and has seen a number of uses including 17th century theatre and a disco in the 1970's! Each population used the space as seemed best to them. Today the tithe barn is a museum encouraging story-telling and Anglo-Welsh history. Each generation has put its stamp on the building, adding to it and taking away. I wonder what people will think of what we've done in 300 years time to our historical and current buildings.

Part of the path is preserved by English Heritage. Here the bank seemed at its steepest and the paths were well maintained as if the very trees were under control. Given that the purpose of Offa's Dyke is unclear, but one hypothesis is it was a military defence (to keep the Welsh out) created by Welsh slave labour, its interesting it is preserved by 'English heritage'. Given another 1,200 years I wonder what else will be deemed suitable preservation material?

As well as providing lots of pretty historical spaces this holiday gifted me a can-do attitude. Away from the computer screens and phone signal, the challenges were different - how do I outwit a crowd of angry looking cows, how do I climb up this muddy incline with no hand-grips? How do I get to the end of this path when there are gates and tree trunks in the way? It required a different skill set and ingenuity in often unused areas but I really enjoyed my trip in the time machine.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Skyfall: Bond of 2012

I recognise I break the tradition of varied comment but please find herewith my analysis of Skyfall, the latest Bond film. Anxious as ever to avoid plotline, essentially my argument is that Skyfall is tightly a product of 2012.

Bond: The Patriot

Although Bond films have often been about tradition in Skyfall unlike many of the previous films England is a real focus. M has a Doulton British bulldog on her desk, most of the action happens in London or rural Scotland. When Bond plays word association, in reply to 'country' he says 'England'. The strong sense of patriotism laced throughout the film can only have been released in the positive patriotism atmosphere of 2012. It has taken a royal wedding, a jubilee and the Olympics to make the English recognise their latent patriotism and it seems these events have enabled English film makers to join other artists (like Cath Kidston) to recognise their 'English' or 'London'ness (although these are very different concepts, not to be conflated!).

 Royal Doulton's British Bulldog

Bond: The Healthy

When you watch a Bond film you expect to see gratuitous violence, sex, Martinis and lots of gambling. Never was this more true than in Casino Royale (2006) which was mainly set in a casino (clue's in the name!). But Skyfall is quite different; there is some sex but it is limited and quite veiled. Whilst Bond does enter a casino he never actually places any bets. He does drink, and occasionally to excess, but this is viewed as part of his demise that requires rectifying rather than something to be idolised. Bond does kill in this film (and equates 'murder' with 'employment' in the aforementioned word association game); but violence is portrayed as the last resort, something that only bad guys do, the 'good' prefer detention. This reflects the health agenda particularly in entertainment; the idols must have healthy gym routines, may in fact be t-total and leave behind their complicated pasts. Being 'zen' is in, being ostentatious is out.

Bond meets Q at the National Gallery      Bond surfing the tube (neither are my images)

Bond: The Advertiser

There has been plenty of discussion about product placement in this film. The products advertised include: Sony (its a sony film though!), Range Rover, Heineken, Jaguar and Austin Martin. Some of the advertising is actually quite subtle, take Jaguar for example, its just the logo stitched into the headrest of Bond's car. There has been some upset that Bond drinks Heineken and not a Martini, I have to admit I missed this placement and I was looking for it! For what its worth, I think that product placement has always been a part of Bond films, in fact a work colleague told me just this last week that his watch was 'the same as Bond's'. Although the products, and the number needed to sponsor a film, may have changed the necessity of sponsorship is the same as ever - big explosions, wrecking cars and ensuring quality casting all cost money. And sponsors are really helpful in a recession.

Q: The youthful computer nerd

More and more the content of spy entertainment revolves around the impact of e-terror. During Skyfall I was much reminded of the last series of Spooks in which Tariq Masood the techno-geek played an increasingly important role in spy activity. This Bond's Q is the frankly gorgeous, Ben Whishaw, and he plays it modern geeky, he's got the cardigan and dark frames look going down, he is essentially an ethical hacker. His approach is quite different from Micheal Caine's, much younger and less about the gadgets, more focussed on the brain; 'Were you expected an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that anymore'. This shift away from the stuff, and towards the way in which we can use technology to help us achieve our aims seems reminiscent of the 2000+ world.

Ben Wishaw as Q (not my picture!)

As ever this Bond was high-octane, featured a surreal trailer, the words, 'Bond, James Bond', and a reference to Moneypenny. I really liked this Bond because of its focus on Bond as relational human as well as nation's superhero. Definitely one of my favourite Bonds; but then only the third I've seen at the cinema; possibly the last with Craig? See it!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

the perks of being a wallflower

I wrote this post on my phone: 2 weeks ago. Then I went on holiday. More on that in subsequent posts.

Last night I did that weird thing I sometimes do, I went to the cinema on my own to see a feel-good coming of age film, 'the perks of being a wallflower'. I was in for a bit of a shock.

The film is about a boy, Charlie (Logan Lerman) going to middle school for the first time and coming of age. Charlie doesn't fit in right away, but he's the most gorgeous misfit I've ever seen (Lerman is 20; that's almost not pervy!). Over time Charlie meets all the common characters of the high school drama, the jock (who is secretly gay), the design tech class noone can take seriously, the kooky oddball friends who turn out to be cool, and the teacher who 'like made your life'. Charlie also does coming of age things - he goes to parties, accidentally takes drugs, kisses girls, kisses boys and obviously, performs in rocky horror (!). But this story has some cruel twists which begin about half way in when his flashbacks start coming thicker and faster; what is wrong with Charlie?

(you fancy a girl so you help her with her homework - very 10 things I hate about you!)

So in an attempt to not give too much of the plot away I have decided as ever to talk about form (this is inspired by my good friend Dan Curtis). TPOBAW has good form. Set in the early 90's the cinematography has that bold colour with hints of fuzz which I remember from shows like 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air'. There was lots of echoes of other American teen films in it; in fact the dialogue that ends with Sam, 'I love the smiths' seems almost verbatim from '500 days of summer'. What does a love for the Smiths, Simon & Garfunkel signify for American teenagers of the 90's? - they'd fit right in on a Shoreditch night out!

Charlie is supposed to be an avid reader and one of the books his teacher recommends is 'The Great Gatsby'. Nick Carroway in Gatsby is often accused of being a helpless wallflower, perhaps Charlie too is a naive child initiated into adulthood. The visual scenes of party going and drug abuse in the film were reminiscent of the chaotic excesses in Fitzgerald's 'Tender is the Night' ('perverted as a breakfast of oatmeal and hashish' always being a memorable line).

 (Mad nights out - can't find any photos without old Watson in!)

So what was good? I really enjoyed watching Charlie find his freedom and the way he overcame his past and I really invested in him as a character; when sad things happen to him I felt sad. You can tell a writer of actual books has also been involved in the screen writing as the lines are poetic in places.

What was naff? Watson tries to play an American; I failed to disassociate her with harry potter and her accent was fleeting at best. Also the thing I really can't believe is that its a 12a. This certification may be because the references to sexual abuse, drug abuse and nudity are at least veiled but I will admit the film left me panicky and wanting my mum! Perhaps I've just lived a sheltered life although there was a point where I hid behind my hoody so this never will be a complete review.

All in all faithful cinematography, slightly scary plotline, generally good acting, won't change the world but a good thinking, reminiscing kinda film. I will give it 3/5.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

B road to Brighton

Last Sunday I cycled 54 miles, for charity from London to Brighton. It took me a long time – more than twice as long as my grandpa in 1939 who was on a single speed bike.

Grandpa's cycling medal - 50 miles in 2hrs 32mins

It all really began the night before, when my thighs were feeling chafed from too much fun; I was at my other grandfather’s house. No one had any moisturiser and it was 11.30 on a Saturday night. I would reiterate, my legs were really sore. So I traipsed downstairs, like a ninja, trying not to disturb my sleeping grandpa to apply my deceased grandma’s face cream to my thighs. I hope you will understand this as a funny story and not think I am a horrible human being.

The next day the alarm went off at 5.45, and after a bowl of Frosties and half a grapefruit we set off for Streatham Common in the car – as the sun rose over Sainsbury’s from whence we would depart, I was really starting to wonder whether this was a good idea. Thankfully it was at this point I met Melvin; encouraged by his smiley grin I set off.

Me and Melvin in Streatham at 7 in the morning! So chirpy!

Despite the pain in my knee which started pretty much immediately, the first 10 miles were actually alright. I cycled through Lambeth and noticed how quickly a city felt like country. As usual my obsession with London was reminding me of what a recent phenomenon the urbanisation of South London is. It was also very much a ride through my ancestry – starting with Purley and Croydon. I was peddling along quite happily, remembering that I needed to conserve energy, when I hit Chipstead – and the hills leaving London. Its not that the hills were high its just that they required energy and quite early on. I got peddling and soon reached the Dog and Duck – 20 miles. Feeling good I headed towards lunch – primarily uphill; and on one occasion nearly vomited from the effort of propulsion on those gradients.

Lunch at The Ark, 28 miles in and at just 10 am was delicious. They had put on a veritable feast and I enjoyed haloumi salads, ham, olives, tea and a massive piece of carrot cake. Back on the bike the next 6 miles were very conducive to digestion as they were all downhill – encompassing both my maternal and paternal history, through East Grinstead, past the Bluebell Railway, and through Guildford. From about the 30 mile mark the nemesis was visible; rising like the edge of a pudding bowl was Ditchley Beacon (830ft above sea level), it did not inspire great faith in my ability to finish. By this time I had added an achy lower back, painful ribs and an inability to breathe to my painful knee.

Lunch at The Ark

35-42 miles was killer. Despite taking numerous pauses for breath, imagine your alveoli have been put in a washing machine, I did keep pedalling. During one of my rest breaks a guy half got off half fell off his bike towards me yelling as he fell – turns out he only had cramp but we had a great conversation and its all part of the camaraderie. Later in the trip, when I was struggling he encouraged me too.

On the other side of the Beacon, which I admit I walked, the descent to Brighton was thrilling, the end so visible and the path so easy. The final miles along the pier victorious. The resting on the beach afterwards glorious and chip-filled. The whole trip a bit emotive.

Brighton - I made it!

I think I learn by doing and the first thing I learned was that I can overcome. It might take time, it might take me longer than other people, but I can complete things even when they are tough. I hope to take this life lesson into the rest of life - even when it looks like other people are taking short-cuts to where the fun is!

Secondly, I learned that success is defined in different ways. For some people their aim was to finish first, for other people it was to cycle the beacon, or to simply cycle as much as possible. For me my aim was to finish - which I did. As in life people will have different goals and different definitions of success. Your definition of success will define what sort of ride you have.

Thirdly, I learned about motivation. Being a charity cycle people had all sorts of different motivating factors for doing their cycle - some had lost family members, others had been affected by other kinds of loss of sense, of dear pets, of rights. At the top of the Beacon I saw one lady with 'for my little angel' and her deceased daughter on her t-shirt. I nearly cried. The whole thing was so emotive. What makes humans push to their last? Experience, the opinions of others, needing to prove themselves, boredom? I was also fascinated by how doing spin for 2 years has conditioned me and helped me reach the finish line. During a spin class one cycles to the RPM of the track in question not to one's energy levels. That is what pulled me through the 35-42; music with a fairly fast RPM; that and knowing that was the only way of getting back home, plus the threat of you lot being disappointed.

I imagine you're wondering how I'm getting on now - actually OK. It seems cycling sustainably, eating two portions of chips and hanging out with a good friend afterwards is a recipe for health and satisfaction. Thank you for your sponsorship and encouragement! See you soon!

Friday, 14 September 2012

Why bother with Plan B? (review illManors)

In May, when Ben Drew (Plan B)’s single illManors came out I compared him to Shakespeare. Now I’m back with a critical piece on his whole album of the same name; which has had a massive impact on my life.

As illuminated by the singles that he has released so far; illManors, Lost my Way and now Deepest Shame this album is very vocal. Drew is attempting to tell stories from his childhood and from the culture of Forest Gate in the late 90’s, ‘I’m a social commentator, socially commentating, what I say is verbatim’ (I am the Narrator); the stories which cover drugs, prostitution, assault, murder, newspapers and society, are based on real experiences of people from East London.

Due to the form and content of this album there is an interesting discussion to be had about a) what Drew is trying to do and b) whether it is any good.
a) Drew’s latest single release has involved Radio 1 playing Deepest Shame most days. The song tells the story of Michelle, sexually abused as a child who turns to drugs to numb the pain and then prostitution to fund the habit. By being played on the radio Drew is bringing the reality of generational poverty to all sorts of kitchens and living rooms!

The lines here between music as entertainment and music as protest are getting a little blurred. Drew said he wrote illManors as a response to the riots of last summer, as an attempt to be a voice for those unheard. He samples vocals from protest-punk poet John Cooper on his album (he performed at Music for Miners in 1984 and has a strong link to socially conscious music).

Drew makes several bold statements both to those he views as outsiders, ‘sorry mate, these ends are in a sorry state, you can’t relate’ (Falling Down) and to his own, ‘We aint no different from them, honestly. Luck is the only reason they weren’t born into poverty’ (Live Once). Yes, there is a degree of advocacy of the poor to the rich going on; see Kano’s rap in ‘Live Once’ but there is also an attempt at balance, illManors criticised both dependency on benefits and the Government’s economic policy, and a desire to educate – he gives a brief history of cockney and its uses in ‘Live Once’ and to challenge kids from the estates not to become self-fulfilling prophecies. I would argue that this authentic voice of Forest Gate is producing a voice from the street, for the street. There is far too much swearing to make government pay all that much attention; it is too easy to dismiss these words as those of an angry man who is out of control.

b) Is it any good? Yes, at conveying the violence and the struggles of the underclasses. But I would also like to suggest that Drew’s music is well crafted. Drew is unafraid of fusing high culture with rap; during ‘I am the Narrator’ he samples St Saën’s Carnival of the Animals, behind his rap he reclaims the high culture for everyday use. His narrative tale, Mr Drug Dealer, borrows extensively from the epic genre, taking each verse as an episode in Chris’ life – we follow Chris and the twists and turns almost as they play out in front of us. I saw significant parallels in form between Drew’s album and Perfect Strangers; both use the device of starting with a complete scenario and working backwards to explain how this circumstance came to be, like Drew’s lyrics, its clever. Clever literary devises of the lyricist, good use of sound from the poet and harmony from the musician; all from one man.

Several of my friends disagree with me that Drew’s work is art worth appreciating. I think there are a number of things that affect people’s appreciation of the work – language is a big one, style is another and definition of vulgarity also makes an impact. Essentially the question is, ‘Can a piece with violent content and explicit expression be artful, can it be beautiful?’ This question is actually one Drew addresses himself  ‘sorry mate…you can’t relate …you can’t appreciate how this artist paints’(Falling Down). I think there is objective quality in the art Drew creates; after all I did compare him to Shakespeare.

My encouragement to you would be listen to the record, with open ears and consider what you can learn about life, East London, and even yourself through it.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Adventures in Europe III - Hamburg then home :)

I had been very excited about the trip to Hamburg as we had planned to take the ICE train; but it was cancelled as it pulled into our station, so we rode a slow inter-city train from Budapest to Hamburg. It was really hot and Dad mischievously pulled the emergency brake on the first class door-close mechanism ensuring we all got to share their air-con.

When we eventually arrived at our accommodation for the night we were disappointed. It had taken a long time to get there and our ‘twin chalet with garden entrance’ turned out to be a converted garage by the bins. Worse, the room had not been cleaned! Having had the train ride from hell, I was not OK with the situation. I marched to the reception and demanded the receptionist do something about it. He looked scared and needless to say we were upgraded. To be fair to them the room price was maybe a third of Industrie Palast but we had got used to a superior service. 

New room moved into we headed to Hamburg Harbour which was having some kind of noisy festival. Our oasis of calm was a little Portuguese riverside restaurant that offered food at 10pm on a Sunday night. Dad marvelled that any restaurants were open after 6 (this was not how it was in Austria in 1987!) and I enjoyed the most amazing John Dory and veg I’ve ever had!

(Hamburg Rathaus)

With the reassurance that Hamburg could do good food, even if it was Portuguese, we set of the next day hopeful. We headed straight for the Rathaus because I had recently learned my Granddad had been stationed there in the war, we took lots of nice photos and enjoyed the posh bits of Hamburg, all the big designers were there.

Dad and I found somewhere we felt much more comfortable, the St Nickolas Memorial Church. One of the highlights from my Lonely Planet Guide to Central Europe, the memorial is thoroughly reminiscent of Coventry. The church was totally flattened by the Allied forces during campaign Gomorrah and only the steeple remains. The church building area is slowly filling up with various memorials, I liked the one with the hands, and the emphasis is on world peace rather than German victims. As before there was a lift to board and Dad and I enjoyed another view of another German city from the air - this one looking completely unrecognisable from its pre-war city. This led Dad and I to several discussions on what constitutes ‘Just War’ and bravery. The museum at St Nickolas is also worth a visit for the photographic collection.

Hamburg from the air looks distinctly like a city that does not look back, it does not renovate, it innovates.

(St Nikolas Church)

After a nifty little lunch at the Crobag and an amusing incident where Dad was determined to ask for an ATM by showing his card to strangers, in full knowledge I knew how to ask in German, followed by several iced drinks we headed for the old harbour. Dad found a massive model railway, luckily for me it was the wrong gauge for him, and then I got an exciting missed call from an old friend, you know who you are and I’m really happy for you. Buoyed by the knowledge a good friend was very happy Dad and I boarded a boat on the lake at Hamburg. It was a glorious day and I’ll admit its a middle-aged past time but we enjoyed the German boat-tour, trying to guess the detail and occasionally checking with a Lithuanian girl who had the tour in English and was trying not to fall asleep.  The lake was pretty and I enjoyed watching sailors of different ages master their crafts.

(View from the boat, Hamburg Lake)

After this leisurely tour, some paddling, and some envy over a paddle-steamer on Dad’s part, we discovered a quite different boat-tour. Down at the harbour our rail-tickets were also valid for the boat taxis. These little boats zip about the harbour at speed throwing spray in the faces of anyone mad enough to stand on deck, like us, doing our best Reepicheep impressions. Although I was hungry and a bit sleepy by this stage, I did feel very alive and I got a great view of the futuristic Elbe Philharmonic Hall. On our return Dad reminded me of the poignancy of the area we had just jetted about, the U-boat harbour. Over dinner, at the Portuguese place we thought about our trip and all it had entailed, the things we had learned, the reasons we were grateful and the memories we’d keep forever.

(Elbe Philharmonic Hall from the Harbour)

By the Tuesday we returned home, from Hamburg to Southend, we were getting quite used to long periods of time on trains and the thought of the slow train from Osnabruck was actually alright. I listened to tunes and stopped Dad snoring too loudly, drank cheap off the trolley coffees and made the most of the spare seat spaces for napping. The trip across the channel takes literally half an hour, there isn’t really even time for the loo sign to come on, but I did manage a celebratory gin and tonic. Within an hour and a half of landing, my sister had already dragged me out to our Zumba class and things were definitely back to normal! But I really enjoyed Europe, especially speaking German, eating tasty things outdoors and lots of sunshine!

Monday, 3 September 2012

Adventures in Europe 2 - Berlin

Part II of III of my inter-railing adventure with my Dad.

Entering Berlin with a spring in my step I quickly found our hotel the wonderfully welcoming Industrie Palast right near Westkreuz Station. Housed in a recently converted warehouse the Palace is vibrant and high-tec, serving both hostel and hotel budgets and featuring lots of high ceilings. I dropped my stuff and headed off on adventure. 

I saw the East Side Gallery which uttered yet more truth and made me think of Marika Rose’s theory of Joy, ‘In the beginning there was freedom’, noted the shrapnel damage on the Berlin Library (and thought of Gabe Moshenska), rode the U6 and marvelled at how the Berliners could convince the playmobil to fix their trains, ate my first Currywurst in Charlottesburg and wrote some postcards with my back to the Berlin Wall, watching the setting sun. 
It was a good day and a great introduction to the Garden City.
(Berlin Underground Playmobil Pixies! & Berlin from the Oberbaum Bridge)

 Waiting for my now half deaf dear little daddy to return, on the other hand, was a bit nerve-wracking and I was glad for such distractions. Shortly after 11, having made passing references to Waiting for Godot to my sister and having just ordered a latte, dear little Daddy arrived.

After an in-house breakfast Dad and I hit Berlin in the blazing sunshine. We walked the round about way to Checkpoint Charlie having checked out some little harbours on the way. And once again ruminated on how Dad’s current affairs is my history lesson. After a little snack we walked past the site of Hitler’s bunker, passed the British Embassy, and along Unter den Linden, laughing at all the little boys having their photos taken near posh cars, by the same token dodging the Turkish ladies ‘raising money for the disabled’.

We stopped for lunch at the Hackescher Markt, where I sat in a funky 70’s hanging seat and ate my second currywurst of the trip, and persuaded Dad to do the ‘Berlin Beer Bear’ pose for a photo. We were surrounded by all kinds of artisan goods are available for the right price, which was slightly out our price range. 

After the market we headed back to Untern to eat icecream and then do the Reichstag Tour. The Reichstag Tour was recommended to me and is genuinely one of the best things in Berlin. You do have to book in advance, but its free to book online, and you will be subjected to an airline style security check. Once inside and carefully herded in your group of 20 you climb the height of the Reichstag in a futuristic silent lift. Armed with your in-ear headpiece you are then free to climb the elegantly designed Reichstag Dome. The audio-guide keeps movement round the dome regulated, the information was relevant and detailed to just the right level. Joan would be chuffed at all the ways they tried to make it eco-friendly and it offers great views of Berlin on a sunny day like ours was. Although you cannot escape history in Berlin, the Reichstag Tour celebrated significance in a way that was really thoughtful. Also its free!

(Reichstag Tour - note cloudless sky, awesome walkways, German flag)

After the tour I wanted to visit the Holocaust Memorial because I learned lots about it last year on my MA and was interested to see the way people interacted with the space. From what I saw I imagine the purists would be angry along similar lines to Diana’s park. I visited the Holocaust Museum at the park anxious to find out more about the history of the memorial.
 I didn’t find out anything. 
But the exhibition is very moving; as with everything in Berlin its on a mammoth scale, and makes the most of multiple media to make its point. I really didn’t like the dark reflective rooms. But they have done well to create room for reflection and also for people to come together for positive change.

(Brandenburg Gate on a summer's evening)

On Sunday we discovered more of Berlin, we had a go at Museum-Island, but having booked little in advance the queues just seemed too long. Appreciative of the pretty architecture instead we plumped for Berlin Dom. Being built in the early 20th century might put people off visiting the Dom but having an interest in German Cathedrals (from last year) it seemed like an obvious choice. There was an audio visual guide which seemed to be a programme built on Nintendo handsets – an interesting choice when I was thinking about PR at Aachen Cathedral. Dad discovered the iPad whilst seeing people taking photos on them. I remembered what it was I liked about both Luther and Christians. And we had yet another opportunity to get up high on the Cathedral Tour. This time there was nothing between us and the sky on yet another glorious Berlin summer day. I enjoyed seeing all the green spaces but my feet hurt and it was really hot so we quickly made for the cafe at the bottom, complete with ‘Heaven Cake’ which was heavenly!

Tune in on Wednesday for Part 3 - Hamburg then home!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Adventures in Europe 1(of 3)

Locations: Southend, Amsterdam, Berlin, Wolstyn, Poznan, Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Southend.

Music: New Season (Luke Leighfield), Best of the Lighthouse Family (Lighthouse Family), ill Manors (Plan B)

Accomodation: Lalo CaladoWolsztyn train house, IndustriePalast (Berlin), Hotel Budapesterhof (Hamburg).

So this summer my father and I bought some interrail passes and set off for Europe. The aim was to get to Wolszytn, Poland where we had booked a steam-train experience for Dad and to see some cities and museums for me. We did well at achieving both these aims.

We used our local airport, London Southend, an anachronism as its in neither London or Southend, which was really helpful seeing as the flight was early and it was the end of the Olympics. The flight was speedy and soon we arrived in Amsterdam and grabbed some much needed caffeine next to a sex museum which offered to ‘tell you the history of sex throughout all time’ for the small some of 4 euros, needless to say we declined.

(Even Mona gets thirsty!)

A long rail journey to Berlin followed, our first brush with the slower pace of interrail travel, feeling we stopped at every hamlet between Amsterdam and Berlin, but appreciating the countryside nonetheless. After a brief mix up, we got off the train at ZooGarten instead of Hauptbahnhof, we met the lovely Lalo Calado who had made us hand-drawn maps and found us some metro maps. A very gracious host had prepared a spacious room, complete with German flat-mate to await us. We had a swift Italian near his house and I ordered all the food in German, colour me smug!

The next day after an incident that I can only call miraculous, Dad and I did a quick swoop of Berlin before heading for Poland. Dad stood by the Brandenburg Gate looking at the site of the Berlin wall for a full five minutes just saying, ‘wow’. My Dad was 12 when the Berlin wall was constructed and it was still standing when I was born; he felt the full weight of ‘history as current affairs’.

The train to Wolsztyn was a definite upgrade on the day before, only an hour and a half and in compartments. Acknowledging Leighfield’s truth, ‘you are quiet but you are there, you are whispering through the world’ (Whispering) I really enjoyed our trip into the unknown. Poland struck us immediately with its flat immenseness. A land very much under-construction, but still featuring tractors on the highways. We were picked up by a slightly dubious chauffeur, who knew you could text and drive at the same time (!), and driven to the village.

Dad was in heaven, surrounded by Prussian steam engines and free to roam the engine shed. We enjoyed getting to know the little town of Wolsztyn with its cheap eateries, newlyweds taking their wedding photos infront of engines and complimentary wifi (in the middle of the lake – something makes me think they were trying to get rid of the teenagers!). We made the most of the Goulash soup (cue, ‘its never Goulash day!) and the local beverages.

(One of three couples I saw posing near the hulking beasts!)

The next day, having had our original steam plans thwarted by a ‘fault’, we got the modern train to the local city of Poznan. On the train we were travelling through ‘Great Escape’ territory and it struck me that you would have to have run a long way before you were safe in that flat, agricultural land. It was also on the train we heard about Claire’s A level results and Dad noticed, with much nostalgic sadness, that the stations were in disrepair.

(Station Demise)

Poznan is a city on the move, it is expanding all the time. It has got a very pretty town centre dating back centuries and  including a picturesque town hall (16th century), the main feature of which is a pair of rams which butt-heads at 12 noon. We enjoyed some pretty looking coffees in a garden cafe but I got bitten to shreds. We visited two museums in Poznan, the first was a traditional town museum at the Town Hall, think Cologne or Dusseldorf Statt Museum but less interactive. The second museum blew our minds. It was hidden in the base of the new cultural centre at Poznan and concerned the Poznan Uprisings particularly, 1956 when many people lost their lives in the protest. There were two things that struck me about the exhibition, the first was that neither me nor Dad knew anything about it, and the second was how effective the museum was; it featured a variety of media from propaganda museums to mock-up cells and original artefacts. All of the audio was available in four languages including German and English and the layout was imaginative making use of old tram cars and hiding speakers in blocks of concrete. Made the single use of my ‘Polish’ app in order to ask the lady where the toilet was and took a rather emotional father back to the railway station. Poland is not England, heath and safety does not exist, so when we needed to change platform to board our train the only thing to do was jump off the platform, cross the tracks and climb the other one, quite a feat when you’re wearing a dress! Returning to more depressing news about the ‘train fault’ I wondered whether we’d been fooled into a con; we made conversation with our host who had lived in Great Wakering, this would not be our last brush with Essex in Poland.

(Poznan Town Hall)

Despite the initial problems Dad did get to drive his steam engine in Poland but not until Friday afternoon; impatient to meet Berlin in more detail I went on ahead. On the platform I was nervously waiting for the train in the Polish lady, making conversation with the lady (phew!) who had driven me to the station. A hopeful, tired man and his bike rolled towards us asking, ‘Do you speak English?’. This man turned out to be Mel, he’s a teacher in Southend who was cycling from Southend to St Petersburg who’d had a bad run of luck. We spent most of the trip to Berlin praying we were on the right train (the station commander only spoke Polish) and marvelling at the small size of the world; even the train had gone through Sopot (twinned with Southend!).

Tune in on Monday for Part II. Berlin.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Perfect Strangers - Footlights Review

I have really been enjoying the good weather lately, afforded us by the Olympic weather gods in London. In the space of one week I’ve done Camberwell, the South Bank, St Katherine’s Dock and Little Venice.
I went to Little Venice to watch a sketch show by Footlights in a little theatre above a pub; productions above, or below, pubs are often my favourites; there is something authentic and intimate about performances above pubs. My pub meal was both affordable and delicious by the way (see below).

(my dinner at Canal Club*Perfect Strangers*Paddington Basin)

The Footlights are celebrating their fiftieth year at the Edinburgh Fringe. Fifty years ago an intrepid troop comprising; Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, Ian Lang and John Cleese, produced by some guy called Trevor (Nunn!) headed for Edinburgh. Next you will need a bit of Cambridge context. In Cambridge freshers are invited into ‘families’ for their pastoral care in the opening weeks of their time. Surprisingly comedy runs in my Cambridge ‘genes’ as both my Cambridge ‘Dad’ and my Cambridge ‘grandson’ are Footlighters and current comedians in their own right; perhaps I was just the carrier?! My Cambridge grandson was in this year’s quartet of genius.

This show is funny. It features excellent writing, wittily combining a number of story lines into subtle but evident themes – I think Ryan O’Sullivan will go far. All the funniest tropes, aliens, politicians, daughters, husbands, and neurotic mothers were present. The comedic value in scenes often relies on wordplay and context, the jokes work twice – once when you only know some context and three times as funny when five minutes later, you understand the backstory – a tactic often employed by Sheeps a Cambridge alumni comedy troop. The show was directed by Abi Tedder and Jonny Lennard; the former’s impact on the performance was evident as the style of the comedy was thoroughly reminiscent of the ADC pantomime 2009 which she co-wrote (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves). 

I really enjoyed the threads too of my Cambridge experience; the cast features two Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic graduates (no mean feat when the average number of ASNACs in a year across the university is 25!) and similarly two out of five cast (three if we’re counting crew!) were alumni of Homerton, my dear alma mater. It was good to feel so connected to a show that amused me in an hour, featured my own Cambridge relatives, was preceded by good food and good beer and gorgeous weather. Also did I mention it was good value for money.

The good news is you can still catch this show. I changed the habit of a life time and caught the show at the start of its run rather than the end. ‘Perfect Strangers’ is showing at the Pleasance Dome at the Edinburgh Fringe between 2nd and 27th August, then tours America from 4th – 22nd September (catch it if it comes near you Tommy!), British schools (25th-29th Sept) and then returns to Cambridge for Freshers’ Week (2nd -6th October). Genuinely, this was funny and did not feature any ‘student’ references – you’ll love it. Go!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

High Profile East End

I don’t know if its because the Olympics are just around the corner but the East End is everywhere at the moment!

It all started a few weeks ago with a BBC programme on the changing character of Billingsgate Market (an East End fish market). It profiled how the changing demographic and economic climate in East London had affected the market and its patrons through the eyes of real people whose lives were affected by the change. It was interesting to see how national and international phenomena (fish stocks) affected the individual.

In the newspaper I read that the Cockney sparrow is now near extinct from competition in East London, and the number of real Cockneys (born within the sound of Bow Bells) has also declined severely because noise pollution in the city means the sound can barely be heard beyond Shoreditch Market (read it here). If the East End were a UNESCO site they might be about to lose their funding for failing to meet its cultural definitions! I guess this means we have to look for new definitions of an ‘East Ender’ based on our modern spatial markers, like within sight of the Gherkin, something increasingly difficult to do when we are less spatially distinct. Although I did hear someone say on the Tube the other day that ‘London is still a number of separate towns’; the districts of the City are still indeed distinct but summing them up into one statement of their cultural identity would prove difficult. The districts of London continue to fascinate me.

I have also read a book about the East End recently called, ‘The Sugar Girls’. It was about a group of girls who all worked at the Tate and Lyle factory in Plaistow, not so far from Billingsgate. The book was based on a memory project carried out by the authors, Barrett and Calvi, in Old People’s homes and Community centres, noting down ladies’ stories. It was interesting to see the patterns that pervaded throughout the book for the women of the factories relating to independence, careers, love and friendship . Whilst recognising that things had changed with technological advances and immigration to the area the women retained a great fondness for their area and the friends they had made. The book made me keenly aware of the CSR function that factories used to have towards their own workers; taking them on holidays to the seaside and ensuring women under intense pressure took paid leave to recuperate. The authors also did humour really well in their storytelling.

Somewhat tenuously I wanted to add my trip to see Sweeney Todd into this blogpost. The story of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is expertly told at the Adelphi Theatre; Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton were good but my major support goes to Gillian Kirkpatrick who played a mad woman excellently. Although theoretically Fleet Street is w1 it still just about meets East London and the portrayal of London culture in the musical was really interesting, Mr Pirelli perhaps being the Victorian East London archetype, and provoked much internet searching as to what a ‘Beadle’ was. Even the bustle of the streets as portrayed in the musical is reminiscent of much of London life, all that shouting and a fair deal of coarseness, street food provided because there is no time to sit down, running because there is no time to walk and lots of smoke; this came into its own in the smog last week, I finally understand why it is called the ‘Big Smoke’.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Rain, Bicycles and Storytelling

As per usual I have really taken my time putting this together but this is not a reflection on the performances; they were so good that they are still impressed on my memory 3 weeks later.
I had the great pleasure of being invited to TailSpin's, ‘Night of the Storyteller’ at The Miller Pub, London. It is held on a monthly basis and features storytelling from a number of actors musicians around a central theme; this time it was rain and bicycles (that most common of themes!). Being a little early I popped round the corner for some food and discovered the joy of, AbStarv but that is a story for another time. The Storyteller venue is upstairs in a pub enabling that most wonderful combination of, food delivered to table and excellent entertainment to combine in glorious harmony; I know that sounds like hyperbole but it is the truth. I sat eating my mini-carrot cake in anticipation, admiring the ‘rain’ and intrigued by what would follow.
(photo credit: B. Sherlock)
First up was Seán O’Shah who told us a tale of epic proportions, of a brilliantly gory princess forced into marriage. I really loved the playful way Seán interacted with the trope throwing in some gritty and downright hilarious realism to boot. I think more heroines should be built like Seán’s; she would have been most at home with Sanders’ Snow White.
In the interlude there was musical entertainment covering the contents of one’s mind whilst thinking in a conservatory during the pouring rain, and we were straight on to story 2. Another epic tale this time of a princess locked in a tower. Nothing unusual about that I hear you cry, but does your maiden have; an unexpecting poor man fall asleep in the carcass of a bull, who is then carried to the tower, and the pair fall immediately in love much to the horror of her royal father?! Yeah, I didn’t think so!
The real pièce de résistance was the story of Anansi the West African spider performed by the magical Cat Gerrard and Bel Sherlock. These two have got great imagination in the way they produce pieces and they are so entertaining, Cat’s story-telling education is patently obvious. Bel and Cat brought a cast of spiders to life on stage; and you know I could actually see this Trickster-spider, his wife and the fields where they waited for rain. What really stood out for me was the multi-sensory experience, they danced, they sang, they jumped and they even played a bicycle. Yes, you did read that right, Bel used a bike as percussion; everything from the thudding of inner-tubes for rain to knocking on main-frames. The bike, which Bel uses every day to get to work, was well and truly explored; I am quite intrigued to know how she discovered the under-side of her bike made such noises! The use of common instruments for extraordinary use in this production was reminiscent of Young’s adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea.
(my photo of Bel and bike, 'Trevor')
This night was great entertainment and good value at just £5, the next Night of the Storyteller is Thurs 21st June - its going to feature cross-dressing Norse gods, needless to say it is going to be entertaining, and it is in my diary!

Monday, 28 May 2012

Shakespeare and Plan B - liminal artists and easy bedfellows?

Over the last couple of weeks I have been considering the role of artists (verbal, musical, theatrical, sculptural etc.) in society and specifically their ability to criticise politics.
Traditionally artists were kept on the edge of society, as travelling minstrels at Medieval courts or Elizabethan theatre players, or secluded artists, like Picasso, they formed micro-communities with their own social rules. They are citizens of their own countries but they are also uniquely placed to comment on society, as quasi-strangers in their own lands.
Throughout time the Arts have had this function, in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare comments on Elizabethan social reform resound throughout Romeo and Juliet, where the Prince proclaims new rules and the protagonists fall foul of a system that cannot understand,  ‘What, ho! you men, you beasts/That quench the fire of your pernicious rage/ With purple fountains issuing from your veins’. In Hamlet Shakespeare similarly puts up a mirror to the Jacobean approach to monarchy (The King and the Playwright).The ability to critique contemporary government and society did not end with Shakespeare, at the Queen’s Jubilee arts evening Hockney said, ‘I don’t think we can quite rely on governments to see the bigger picture so we need the Arts’. Interesting that the Arts can say things that politicians or people in other contexts can’t.
The social commentary in Romeo and Juliet (when the men are brawling on the street) came to mind recently when I was listening to Plan B’s ‘ill Manors’. Music has long been the refuge for protest music; the Sex Pistols released the controversial  ‘God Save the Queen’ in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Plan B uses his song to critique the current government’s policies impact on the poor to widespread acclaim. Showing the foolishness of Cameron’s hug a hoody, ‘He’s got a hoodie on give him a hug...on second thoughts you don’t want to get mugged’, the Olympics, how the poor can take advantage of the benefits system and accuses Boris of ‘rob(bing) them (Londoners) blind’. He can be quite clever with his wordplay, ‘We’ve got an eco-friendly government; they like to preserve our natural habitat’. His song can be summed up in his satirical play on the Conservative statement, ‘There’s no such thing as broken Britain, we’re all bloody broke in Britain’. These statements would be very weighty coming from the mouths of the protester but somehow from the mouth of a pop singer it encounters no such censorship. It has been played on all the major music channels and has been bought as a pop song by thousands, entering the UK charts at number 6. What is so special about the medium of song that makes that kind of commentary acceptable? (you can watch the video here)
Like Shakespeare, Plan B walks an interesting line here. Plan B samples Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, which just sounds like ‘classical music’, getting into bed with Conservative values, but the classical piece was created as a reaction to Nazi militarism, what does that suggest? Shakespeare counted the royals amongst his patrons but what does his generous portrayal of Henry VIII say to a Stuart court? And is Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part I an attempt to boost patriotism or a stern critique of it, just as England is fighting off the Spanish Armada?
What do you think the role of the ‘artist’ is in society? Do they even have a place? I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

North Rhine Westmania!

Wrote this piece for Doppelpunkt. Thought I'd share it with you guys.

I had some holiday to use at work so I decided to spend a week and a half in North Rhine Westphalia. Although I made brief forays into other countries; namely Holland and Belgium the main focus of the trip were three German cities, Düsseldorf, Aachen and Cologne.

I flew into Düsseldorf from London on a warm Monday evening. The airport felt really big but I think this was mainly because I couldn’t find my host. Once reunited with my friend the first exciting thing about my return to Germany was my first ride on a double-decker train. I imagine, if you live in Continental Europe, the thought of a train on two levels is not that unusual but in England they don’t exist; between that and the Sky Train I was quite enamoured of the German rail system.

Düsseldorf, like the airport, was bigger than I expected. I particularly enjoyed the old town, complete with Schneider Wibbel immortalised in music and metal, little town squares and gorgeous waterfronts. Their rich heritage in Persil and other soaps is celebrated in the town museum which boasts a large collection of artefacts and trilingual signs. The other wonderful part of Düsseldorf to visit is the harbour. Like much of the rest of Europe, the old industrial parts of the country have been salvaged through architectural innovation. The arty office blocks make for an interesting view but if nature is more your thing there is also a really nice Rhine walk in this area complete with little beaches. Like many German cities Düsseldorf’s public transport is comprehensive...but one word of warning, don’t trust the station names. Getting off the train at Düsseldorf Zoo Station will not lead you to Düsseldorf Zoo but an ice-rink, the zoo was destroyed in the Second World War.

Stroking Schneider’s Nose. Düsseldorf.

For the majority of my trip I was based in Aachen, staying at a backpackers hostel. I was taking a bit of a leap because usually I only stay in HI hostels; but I found the backpackers hostel to be much friendlier, more homely and, importantly for a girl on foot, more central than its competitor. Aachen is a great German city to visit; it has got impressive regional, national and international transport links. The old town has some lovely places to visit; Charlemagne’s Cathedral, a UNESCO site with an impressive treasury, the Town Hall, again Carolingian in origin and now featuring an impressive multi-sensory museum, and lots of pretty little streets with a surprising amount of remaining architecture for a city that was 80% blitzed. It is hard to verbalise my love for this city but one of the things I really like is how truly international it is; the last big city before the border with both Holland and Belgium it is not unusual to hear at least three different languages at once. Several of my shopping experiences have started in German and ended in English via French! This attitude is echoed in everything from the architecture to the food and the music that I’ve heard in Aachen. That and the ice cream from a little parlour called Del Negro is the best I’ve tasted outside of Italy; they’ve got loads of flavours, the portions are huge, the prices are small and they even let you do half and half!

Amazing Aachener Eis!

Finally I wanted to write a little about Cologne. It took me a while to visit Cologne because of the loyalty I felt to other parts of Westphalia. The rivalry runs so deep that to ask for Kölsch in an Altbier region is really quite offensive! But Cologne was lovely. The riverside at Cologne is much photographed and with good cause. A similar size to Düsseldorf but very aware of its historic context, where Aachen is built in circles, Düsseldorf builds in squares and lines. Nowhere is this more evident than in comparing the Cathedrals of both towns. Aachen circular and Carolingian, Cologne is tall, gothic and towered. The city museum showcased just how aware the people of Cologne were of their cities relevance. The town had, for a long time, been able to harness all the local resources, and become a powerful independent city. That power had been seized on occasion for good and for very bad uses but I felt the museum dealt with this subject gracefully. There was lots to do in Cologne even on a national holiday; I reckon I could have spent more days there and still not have been bored.

In sum then, I really enjoyed my return to West Germany; the challenge of communicating in foreign languages, walking through foreign climes and discovering new cities. I hope you will consider visiting North Rhine Westphalia and discover its charms for yourself.