13 February 2008

Nowhere so busy a man as he

The past week has been quite hectic here - one of those periods in which you start looking forward to an easy night indoors even. Like tonight!

On Tuesday last week it was pub quiz night out in Stoke Newington. It was film & music night, so I was really looking forward to it. The questions were rather challenging! For example, I knew that Harry Secombe played Mr Bumble in Oliver!, but having never seen it I had no chance of knowing four other key players. Luckily the chaps displayed an eidetic memory and pulled us through. Another stumper was the simple true or false question: during WWII the Academy awarded Oscar statuettes made of plastic - true or false? (Answer at the bottom of the post). In the end despite a distinct lack of knowledge of the works of Craig David we still managed third place, taking home a king's ransom of a fiver each. Thinking of turning pro soon.

On Wednesday I went to see Control, the Ian Curtis / Joy Division biopic with Felix & Gavin. As befits a film made by the legendary rock photographer Anton Corbijn (who photographed Joy Division in their heyday), every shot was artfully composed and the rich black and white film textures were sumptuous - everything looked like a shot from the best photo studio. The young actor playing Curtis, Sam Riley, looked the part and did a good job of conveying the difficult psychological arc of the character, and of course the music was tremendous - a real evocation of the raw directness of the Factory talent. But on the down side, the script felt a little join-the-dots in places (when they all pile into a Cortina to play their first gig in London and one of the band members is nervous, another character says, 'He's just nervous because we're playing our first gig in London'. Yeah, we get it. At times the strength of the music threatens to overwhelm the story and render the film a mere string of tastefully accurate Joy Division music videos. And while Samantha Morton is a top-notch actress and gives a good performance as Ian's wife Debbie Curtis, it just didn't feel 100% authentic - she was just a bit too old to play the character. Still, for fans of the band or the scene it's a must-see complement, particularly if you've already seen and enjoyed 24 Hour Party People.

It was turning into something of a movie week, because the next day after work I met Craig, Claire and Craig's mate Ivan in Shaftesbury Avenue to see the much-talked-about Coen Brothers film, No Country For Old Men. On the one hand I can see why it's been so popular and been nominated for eight Oscars. Javier Bardem is superb as the vicious psychopathic criminal, and all the other cast members give pitch-perfect performances - particularly Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff and Josh Brolin's rugged chancer taking on the unstoppable killer. And I did enjoy wee Scot Kelly Macdonald and her perfect Texan drawl as Carla Jean (well, it sounded great to me). And the broad Texan vistas were stunning on the wide screen too. But... I guess thrillers aren't really my cup of tea, and this one in particular was just too violent for my tastes - I preferred the old fashioned approach they used to take of keeping the grisly stuff off-camera to heighten the drama. Depicting the gore unflinchingly might win points for honesty but it also drags an intelligent film like this too close to the slasher genre that is rightly regarded as a B-movie genre. In any case, the movie got us all discussing its positives and negatives after we emerged, so we went to the nearby Cambridge pub on Charing Cross Road to carry on the debate.

The weekend turned out to be an absolute cracker in London - astonishing blue skies and balmy sunrays the whole time. On Saturday I went up to Hendon in north London to visit the excellent RAF Museum London to look at its selection of aircraft exhibits ranging from flimsy WWI fighters to modern jet fighters. I think my favourites would have to be these two - the sole remaining example of the graceful Supermarine Stranraer flying-boat and a rugged-looking Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer that saw active service designating targets for RAF Tornados and Jaguars in the first Gulf War.

At home that evening I watched an interesting BBC2 doco on the Dead Sea Scrolls. On Sunday I took advantage of the weather and went for a run along the Heath, went to Hammersmith for a haircut that turned out to be a tad shorter than I'd envisaged, and then headed into the West End. Town was heaving with people who had come in for the Chinese New Year parade that had finished half an hour before, and many of the streets were pedestrian only. I stopped in at the National Portrait Gallery to see the Photographic Portrait Prize 2007 exhibit, and then weaved through the crowds in Leicester Square to watch the fireworks display at 6pm. It was good fun and ear-pummellingly loud. (I took a couple of short videos to give you an idea: (clip 1) (clip 2), and here's a reasonable picture).

Then it was a short stroll to the Prince Charles to see my third film in recent days, the Wes Anderson India comedy travelogue The Darjeeling Limited. The three bickering brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Jason Schwartzman) are endearingly petty fractured souls searching for their mother who has rather advanced personal space issues. There are no profound stories at work here though - it's just a chance for some appealing comedy and a lot of stunning Indian scenery and local colour. Anderson is quite the internationalist, always highlighting exotic influences in his off-kilter films - the Portuguese-singing ship's crewman in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Seu Jorge) being another example. Definitely a film worth watching, particularly if you liked Anderson's other works, and perhaps like me felt that Zissou (etc.) was a little bleak.

And finally on Monday night I met a few pals (Felix, Gavin, Craig, Claire and Helen) at the 5th View cafe at the top of the Waterstone's bookshop in Piccadilly for some wine and nibbles in commemoration of the first anniversary of my departure from New Zealand. The year's gone quickly! Roll on the next one; the first major occasion of which will be my trip to Andalucia, which begins on Saturday.

Before I go, I seem to have got into the habit of posting videos, but apart from the fireworks I've got none of my own this week. So instead I'll give you this clip of Irish comedian David O'Doherty performing his signature tune, 'FAQ for the DOD'. Al, Will and I saw his act in Wellington during a comedy festival a few years ago and he was great fun to watch - a laconic chap with a good line in self-deprecating humour and silly songs on his miniature keyboard.



Nowhere so busy a man as he than he, and yet he seemed busier than he was.

- Geoffrey Chaucer

(Pub quiz answer: True - the Oscars during WWII were made of plastic! I got that one SO wrong...)

04 February 2008

The week that was

The week's been fairly quiet in London - not much in the way of gallivanting to report.

On Monday I watched a brief doco featuring Alex James, the former bassist from Blur. Now a cheese-making farmer living a life of rural; idyll, James famously spent many thousands of pounds on drugs and booze during the height of his music stardom. Having desisted from the hard stuff, he received an invitation from the government of Colombia, which offered to show him the coal-face issues at the heart of the drugs trade. So, quicker than you can say 'Devil's dandruff', the floppy-fringed James was meeting Senor El Presidente and talking about how the drug trade was a curse on Colombia. So far, so good.

But things got interesting when James and his hopefully well-insured camera crew went on a military coca-plant eradication mission in the Colombian jungle. Helicopters such as the one they flew in are often shot down, and the plantations they visit are sometimes laced with landmines to maim the anti-drugs forces. (The aircraft pilots were all Americans 'with a military bearing', by the way - but unsurprisingly no-one would answer questions about that!).

Having survived the jungle mission, and returned from visiting a poverty-stricken village where he learnt how growing and processing coca is the only way the villagers can feed their families, James headed back to the cities for some brushes with the business end of the drugs trade. He met a pixellated drug dealer and his coke-headed bodyguard, and in a chilling scene later on, interviewed a local mafia hitman, who startled the former popstar by whipping out a concealed Glock pistol. (Over the programme end credits, the producers added that the hitman was killed in January). James emerged from his visit to Colombia duly chastened and hopeful that his experiences might help convince British party-goers to stay away from cocaine. He might have a long way to go if this article about the evidence of cocaine traces on UK banknotes still holds true.

On Tuesday I received confirmation from the High Commission that my application in the ballot to attend the Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in July had been successful. So I've got a few months to brush up on my small talk and find a morning suit to wear. I might need to go trawling through the Oxfam shops in the posher parts of London.

After work that night I met up with Kirstin's friend Fay and her pals at the Rose & Crown in Stoke Newington for its pub quiz. I'm not a regular attendee because the weekly quizzes finish at 10.30pm or later, which means I'm usually not home before midnight. I was able to help with the history and music questions here and there, and we were lucky to come 1st equal, winning a bit of petty cash. Next week the theme is film and music, so I'll definitely try to make it again! I'm also learning the ins and outs of the question-setter: one question asked the name of the planet in the solar system furthest from the sun, but it turned out she hadn't heard about the down-rating of Pluto to 'dwarf planet' status in 2006.

Wednesday was the quietest day of the week. On my morning walk down to the tube station I spoke to Bruce to wish him a happy birthday. Naturally I was careful to finish our conversation before boarding the tube, as that would've made me something of a hypocrite, given the regularity with which I think evil thoughts about people who carry on private telephone conversations on public transport. That evening I enjoyed watching an old Comic Strip episode: the slapdash spaghetti western 'A Fistful of Traveller's Cheques', which is still entertaining more than 20 years later (see this brief clip, if you can tolerate the poorly-spelt title).

On Thursday after work I spent an hour in the British Museum, shifting from room to room depending on the relative volume levels. It seemed that Spanish and Italian tourists had the loudest 'museum voices', i.e. talking non-stop as loud as possible, with predictable results in the long echo-prone galleries of the museum.

Afterwards I met Helen who had arranged tickets for a performance by Welsh stand-up comedian Mark Watson, having heard him on Radio 4. We were just settling into our seats and wondering when the show would start when a chap in the row in front of us leapt to his feet and started loudly addressing the audience. Turned out this was Watson; cue mild but ever-increasing sensation of disquiet caused by having a comedian standing right in front of you, because they always seem to like a bit of audience participation. Which is why I don't sit in the front row! But we were safe, as he explained he didn't really go in for embarrassing his audience members, and he soon restored himself to his proper place on the stage. Watson's a likeable chap with a good line in observational humour, such as his running commentary on everyday events including fat businessmen running to catch a train, or the contents of a fellow diner's lunch. And his momentary glimpses into the world of stardom (he's appeared on TV a few times) provide the opportunity for a bit of surrealist hypothesising about the creeping inevitability that seems to attach itself to the very worst ideas. For example, on 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks' he was on a team with pop star Jamelia and couldn't help wondering, "What would happen if I... killed Jamelia? Y'know, not because I want to, but just because I could". My guess is that he'd probably not be invited to appear on the programme again, at the very least.

Here's a couple of stand-up clips of Mark Watson. Some of the language is NSFW though - be careful.

Arriving home after the show at about 10.30pm I passed by a lively scene near my building. A parked van had been clamped by the authorities and the driver and a mate were attacking the triangular wheelclamp with a circular saw, sending a curtain of sparks jetting over the narrow street and making a real racket to boot. When I checked out the window a quarter of an hour later the van was gone. I suppose you could admire their 'can-do' spirit, but I wonder if it occurred to them that a vehicle's licence plate would always be recorded when it's clamped...

The end of the week loomed quickly, and while the work day felt quite slow, at least it was capped off with work drinks for a few of us at Pagliacci on Kingway. It's a lively bar on Fridays, but the volume levels are high from all the excited chattering and the bar is too small for the size of the premises: it takes ages to get served.

My Saturday was very low key - a tram trip out to the shops of Purley Way, and an evening spent watching Green Wing and playing Baldur's Gate II. Today I went further afield, taking a walk through the monied streets of Chelsea, including the historic Chelsea Physic Garden and the trendy King's Road. Here's a picture of the Physic Garden... or at least it's the wall outside. I'm not paying 7 quid to go in!

The main purpose of the visit was to explore the National Army Museum, an under-visited free attraction not far from the throngs of South Kensington. The Army exhibits were of a high quality, particularly the impressively life-like mannequins kitted out in period uniform and weaponry. (Mannequins are usually rubbish). Highlights aside from the expected collections of arms and equipment included Capt William Siborne’s massive 170-year-old scale model of the orders of battle at Waterloo (1815); the mounted skull of a regiment's mascot tiger, the animal having been brought back tame from Bengal; and the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse, Marengo. One major drawback of the museum was its ‘no photography’ policy – ‘no flash photography’ I could understand, but no pictures at all is just inhospitable.

On the way home I decided to be a real tourist: I took a video of the District Line train to Wimbledon arriving at the platform at Sloane Square. While this did naturally bring on an acute sensation of dorkiness, I reasoned that it would be nice for those poor unfortunates who are exiled from London and who miss the crotchety, somewhat unreliable and occasionally grotty Underground:

Plans for next week include attending a couple of movies and putting the finishing touches on my plans for Andalucia in mid-February.