Saturday, 29 January 2011

Sing Along Sound of Music


Last night I finally got to attend the Singalong Sound of Music at the Prince Charles Cinema. It's been on my list for a long time but it's such an unusual thing to do that I've never got around to doing it. This week we finally organised ourselves and ABJ, VB and ML and I all turned up for the Friday night 7.30pm showing.

All I knew was that they showed the film, the audience sang along to the words on the screen and some people dressed up as nuns (and possibly nazis too). As it turns out there was more to it than that...

When we took our assigned seats in the packed cinema we found small "goodie bags" waiting for us that contained an assortment of things (small pieces of card, a party-popper, a small white plastic flower of edelweiss etc). Somewhat bemused by these we had no time to think before our host for the evening was introduced - a glamourous transvestite called Candy Floss. She came on stage and began to warm up the audience to get them in the mood for singing and being silly.

People celebrating their birthday were made to come on stage and be joked about, followed by people in fancy dress. The costumes (which included many Marias, nuns and a few goats - but no nazis) were then judged by Candy and prizes awarded.

We were then given a run-down of what to do with the goodies in our bags. At certain points in the film we had to hold up cards, or perform theatrical gestures, or shout, or hiss, or boo etc etc. At the time I felt that I wouldn't be able to remember the multitude of instructions but as the film unfolded it soon became second-nature.

After the audience was thoroughly warmed up the film began. In the opening aerial shots of Austria we were supposed to avoid boredom by making animal noises. The audience performed this task admirably. Soon enough, however, the film was underway and everybody began singing along.

The film was good fun and it was enjoyable to shout out silly things but every now and then I found myself wishing some of the audience would quieten down so I could follow the plot. The climatic moment where Maria and Captain von Trapp kiss was accompanied by the whole audience simultaneously firing off their party-poppers. This was a great spectacle in a dark room - seeing the fire from a hundred explosions all at once. Unfortunately it meant that the next minute or so saw the audience coughing from smoke inhalation.

By the end of the film everybody was singing along and had had a good time.

Summary: An unusual but fun way to spend an evening.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Old Bailey


Today I visited the Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey. I've long known that the public can attend court hearings by sitting in the public gallery but I've never got around to trying it out, until today...

In the morning I surfed the web trying to read up on the visiting protocol. First of all I was surprised to discover that the Old Bailey is not where I thought it was. I've often passed some grand-looking courts near Aldwych which I assumed were the Old Bailey but it turns out these are the Royal Courts of Justice. The actual Old Bailey is near St Paul's cathedral and, seeing it on the map, I decided I'd never been there during all my time in London.

On all the websites it was emphasised that no cameras or mobile phones (or radios, food, drink etc etc) were allowed into the public galleries and, in addition, there were no facilities to store such items at the courts. That being the case I left my phone and camera at home and set off.

The building is split into two parts - the old part and the new part. The old part has been there since 1902 while the new part was finished in 1972. I arrived at the public gallery entrance to the old courts on Newgate Lane at around 11am. After ringing a bell and patiently waiting the door was opened and I was told that the old court only had sittings from 2pm onwards and that I should try the new court. I went around the corner and found the new court entrance on Warwick Passage.

Soon I was scanned by security and allowed to go in. In what I write now I've decided to keep light on the specific details since I'm probably not supposed to write about them.

I came up to one of the courts and an usher outside asked if I wanted to go in. I asked what case it was and she said "Murder". After agreeing to stay for at least 30 minutes I went in and tried to silently take a seat in the packed gallery.

This public gallery overlooked a modern court room, recognisable from TV dramas. There was the judge sitting high up at the front and a number of barristers lower down speaking to him. The jury of 12 was on the far side of the room and the witness box was on the near side, at the front next to the judge. At the back of the room was a separated area which I assume held the defendant.

Having joined the hearing mid-way through a session it took me a while to understand what was being talked about.

While I was there the main barrister was questioning an expert witness about blood stains that had been found on the walls and furniture at the crime scene. They proceeded through the evidence very carefully, referring to labelled photos, diagrams of the room and typed-up accounts that the expert had given. The barristers and judge all wore ornate grey wigs which I came to like more and more as the time wore on.

Of all the barristers I saw, this first one was the best. He carefully proceeded through the evidence, clarifying the expert's statement and helping explain things in simpler terms. His tone wasn't patronising and he genuinely helped to clarify some of the jargon that the expert was using.

The judge in this court was good too. Although he looked old and senile - he wore glasses and had to use a magnifying glass to read some of his papers. But appearances were deceptive and his brain was sharp - he picked up an error / inconsistency in the experts report. The report talked about the Southern wall but the expert in the witness box was talking about the Northern wall. The judge pointed this out and asked which was correct. The barrister said "Ah... Yes, you're right, My Lord..." to which the judge replied "I know I'm right! But which is it? Northern or Southern?". After that I had more respect for him, despite his poor eyesight.

Eventually, after about half an hour, the court broke for a 15 minute break and everybody had to leave. When the judge stood up everybody had to "be upstanding" - including the public gallery! During all the time that I'd been there they'd just about established that something covered in blood had come down through the air and hit solidly against a piece of furniture, damaging the furniture and sending splashes of blood down to the wall. I'm almost glad I didn't have to hear the other parts of the case because even this small part sounded pretty gory.

After I left I switched floors and entered another court. This was another murder case and I quickly got a seat and tried to figure out what was going on. When I joined they were replaying a videoed interview with a teenage witness. This lasted around 20 minutes and then they turned off the video and brought up an image of the witness on the screens. The judge asked him "Can you hear me? Can you see me?" to test out the video link and then the judge told the witness that they were going to take a 10 minute break but then he'd be asked for his evidence.

We all left the court and I and hung around for the 10 minutes before re-entering the gallery. What I'd heard in the videoed interview was very interesting - an account of a stabbing that the teenager had witnessed from his bedroom window.

The barrister that questioned the teenager now was pretty patronising but proceeded in the same careful way that the first one had. He asked at length about the view from the teenager's window down to the street - was there a tree in the way? was he looking through his blinds? was there a van in the way? etc. He referred to photos of the street and diagrams of the area and really probed every aspect thoroughly. It ended up with the barrister repeating something back from the witness's sworn statement and then saying "Is that right?" to which he'd reply "Yes". I thought that this repetition this was pretty unnecessary but I suppose he was trying to highlight certain pieces of evidence. In being made to relive the memories of the event, at one point the witness, understandably, became upset and the barrister had to change his approach to be less intense.

In the end the court broke for lunch and we were again led out of the gallery. By this point I was hungry so went outside for lunch. When I returned I went to the old courts. The old building was quite different to the new one and the courts contained lots of carvings and ornate woodwork. The public galleries here were a lot higher-up than in the new courts which meant you only got a good view by sticking your head out from the front row.

The first court I visited here was only in session for about 5 minutes. There was no jury and the two barristers were just having words with the judge about whether evidence on the defendant's mental condition could or could not be used. I wasn't even sure what the charge was - there were a lot fewer ushers here which meant it was much harder to find one and ask about the cases.

After that session finished I tried my fourth and final court. This had three defendants looking moodily around, sometimes looking menacingly up at me in the public gallery! A barrister was questioning an expert witness about mobile phone records. They were all turning through pages and pages of annotated maps showing various phone calls that were made and which mobile phone exchange dealt with the call. From this they were trying to establish where the phones were at various times. Again this court broke for a break after about 30 minutes of this technical evidence.

At this point I decided I'd had my fill for the day and headed home. When I started I felt that I'd be too bored to stay for 30 minutes but with each case I became so engrossed that I only left when the courts told everyone to clear out of the gallery.

Summary: Very interesting, worth a visit.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Petticoat Lane Market


Today I paid a quick visit to visit Petticoat Lane Market. This East-End market has been going for hundreds of years in some form or another and I've heard about its "1000s of stalls". Hoping to see the market is at its largest I'd saved up the visit until today - Sunday.

I arrived at Liverpool Street station and easily found signs pointing down Middlesex Street.
Middlesex Street was originally called Petticoat Lane and has been the home of the market since around the 1750s. Apparently the road was renamed by the Victorians in 1830 to the avoid referring to ladies undergarments!

In retrospect I'm not sure what I was expecting from the market. Perhaps the charm of market stall holders calling out to advertise their wares, perhaps the chance of finding a magical assortment of goods on offer... What I found was not very impressive. Maybe it was the cold weather, maybe it was the time of year, or the time of day, but what I found was a sad spectacle.

The stalls that I first encountered mainly sold clothes. There were cheap suits and shirts, cheap shoes, cheap dresses etc. I thought "OK, maybe this is the clothes section of this enormous market... I'll continue on to the other areas!". I carried on down the road and saw the same goods on sale at different stalls, the same layout being used, the same frowning stall holders either silently watching the passers-by or aggressively barking out prices.

I made it all the way to the other end of Middlesex Street and all I found were clothes stalls, but with the occasional cheap electronic accessories stall, one or two hot-food stalls. At this point I was quite disappointed. The market didn't seem as large as I'd read and the things on sale all looked like they'd come from one or two distributors. For example there were lots of stalls all selling identically packed shirts:
To give them the benefit of the doubt I went down the market's other street - Wentworth Street. This again was mainly clothes, with a CD stall and a household goods stall thrown in. Pretty quickly I reached the end of the market in that direction and realised I'd seen it all.

My anticipated images of colourful characters and wondrous goods on offer had evaporated away. I stood looking at the other market customers. As well as the poor locals there were a few richer-looking tourists / students / middle-class onlookers who looked just as disappointed as me - where was this amazing market they'd read about?

I worked my way back through the market towards Liverpool Street. On the upside, I had seen a few friendly stall-holders who were calling out their wares and having a joke with each other. On the whole, however, these were lost amongst the other stall holders who stood silently staring out, often somewhat menacingly.My experience is perhaps best summed up by an incident I witnessed just as I was leaving the market. A Spanish woman tourist had unzipped a coat that was hanging on display at a stall. She then walked away without zipping it back up - no big deal really. The local stall-holder's response was to call her back to the stall and shout at her about how "If you downt zip it up it'll fall on da floor!". She started to helpfully zip it back up but the stall-holder grabbed it off her saying "I'll do it!". Understandably the woman left the stall and continued down the street but as I passed the stall-holder I could hear him violently muttering about "The type of people you get nowadays! Oh Gawd!". On my visit I'd felt just about as welcome as that woman...

Summary: A pale shadow of its former glory.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The British Museum


Yesterday, after my free Hare Krishna lunch, I visited the British Museum. I've visited the museum before but have never felt that I've seen very much of what's on display. This visit was an attempt to at least get an overview of its collections.

Part of the reason I wanted to visit the British Museum is that I've been listening to a Radio 4 series called The History of the World in 100 Objects. This is presented by the director of the British Museum and each 15 minute episode uses one object from the museum's collections to explain the history of some country or people or empire.

I felt the same sense of surprise as on my previous visits when I walked from the initial old-fashioned building into the modern geodesic-dome-covered courtyard:Even though I know this is what the inside of the museum looks like I always feel a shock - the courtyard and its roof look far too futuristic to be the 257 year old British Museum!

I quickly found a map and a guide to the 100 objects featured in the radio series. The 100 objects were spread all over the museum. This was both good and bad - good because it forced me to walk through displays I wasn't intending to see and bad because it made it very hard to see all 100 objects.

I set off to the first of the 100 objects - the Mummy of Hornedjitef - and found it in the midst of a busy room about the Ancient Egyptians. This was clearly a popular collection and lots of children were excitedly talking about the gory details of mummification.

My heart sank when I saw that the location for object 2 - a stone chopping tool - was a different floor at the opposite end of the building... At that point I decided I wouldn't be able to see all the objects and that perhaps I should just wander the galleries.

I took a detour to see a view of the courtyard and the roof from a high walkway:Dawdling through the galleries I came across some Babylonian clay tablets. I realised that, although I'd read about the Babylonian cuneiform writing system, I'd never actually seen any of it first hand. The first piece that caught my eye was a list of synonyms. I particularly liked the "ditto" marks that are used:Next to this was a piece which detailed the story of a huge flood with similar details to the Biblical flood story:
Pleased that I'd stumbled across something interesting I continued to wander aimlessly and found myself in a gallery about Roman Britain. This included an amazing "golden cape" that was found in a rich Roman's grave in Wales. There was also some very impressive metalwork from Roman times:
At this point I began to feel somewhat overwhelmed. More than that, I realised that this is what happens every time I visit the museum. I arrive in an optimistic mood, I see a few amazing and unique objects which trigger off all sorts of thoughts about the vastness of history, and then I start to feel overwhelmed and lose track of what era I'm looking at. Eventually I leave the museum feeling that I saw hardly any of the collection - I keep thinking about what other treasures I could have seen if I'd paid more attention.

Without following the dates I came across a pair of impressive drinking horns which I liked to imagine drinking from:I stopped taking photos at this point to concentrate on finding my way around. I passed through a whole room about the history of money, a glanced into a room all about clocks, a long gallery about the Ancient Greeks etc. At last I descended a grand staircase and saw that have items on display everywhere, even on the stairs:
When I emerged into a gallery again I was again in Ancient Egypt and saw giant stone sarcophagi, huge scarab statues etc.

By this point I decided to seek out a particular object I'd heard about on the radio show that sounded impressive. This was a double-headed serpent made by the Aztecs from around 2000 pieces of turquoise and shells! Having heard it described on the radio (e.g. how the red shells for the mouth were gathered by deep-sea divers) I felt I could appreciate it's beauty even more:After this I was completely done-in. I'd seen so many ancient and beautiful objects and each one had made me think about who had made it and how old it was and how they made it etc that I couldn't take in any more. I made one last dash through the "Age of Enlightenment" gallery back into the main courtyard. One last look at the postcards and I left.

Summary: A collection of historical artifacts that is exceptional in both quality and quantity. Definitely deserved several more visits.

Free Hare Krishna Food

When I first came to London I heard about Hare Krishna stalls that give out free food to university students at SOAS and LSE. Ever since then the student in my has wanted to find one and be given some free food. Yesterday I finally did it!

After a quick internet search I found the above website which details when and where the Hare Krishna volunteers distribution their food. Outside of term-time I found the best option to be van distributing food between 1pm-1.45pm in Camden. Now, as far as I understand, the purpose to the free food scheme is to give "Food For All". At SOAS and LSE this essentially means poor students, whereas at other locations in the city it usually means homeless people.

I turned up to the Hare Krishna van at around 1.30pm and found a few men and women strung out on the pavement eating from paper plates. Most of the people looked hungry and homeless but a few looked like nearby office workers who had popped over for lunch. When I queued up at the serving hatch I felt that I probably looked more like the former than the latter.The woman inside asked if I'd like a plate and I happily agreed. She reached back and scooped up rice from a huge tub behind her and then ladled on some stewed vegetables. By the time she was done she was presenting me with a huge portion of rice and potatoes etc. I grabbed myself a paper cup of a purple soft drink and then stood off near the wall to eat my feast.The food was filling and hot and I wondered what I looked like shovelling it into my mouth next to the industrial curb-side bins. It was a bit of a struggle to finish everything but I didn't want to waste any so I ploughed through it like a machine. When I was done I threw away the plate and cup and went on my way calling "Thank yooou" through the serving hatch.

Summary: A very generous enterprise...

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The list (number nine)

Here's an updated list with a few items crossed-out:
  • Tour round Buckingham Palace
  • Go up the BT Tower for the view
  • Cycle around Richmond park
  • Sneak into the fancy hotels - Hilton, Savoy etc
  • Go to all the museums in London
  • Go to all the major art museums in London
  • Have a drink in the ice-bar off Regent Street
  • Do the sing-along sound of music at the Prince Charles cinema
  • Watch a film at the Electric cinema in Notting Hill
  • Watch a film at a Leicester Square cinema
  • Watch an IMAX film near Waterloo
  • Go to a casino
  • Explore the new O2 centre at the Millennium Dome
  • Tour round the BBC TV centre and BBC Broadcasting House
  • Watch a live, well-attended debate in Parliament (e.g. Prime Ministers questions)
  • Go out for an artsy night out in the east-end.
  • Shop at Petticoat Lane market
  • Go on the rides at the London dungeons
  • Sit in on a Sotheby's auction
  • Eat at a traditional pie 'n' mash shop
  • Tour round Lord's cricket ground
  • Tour round Wembley stadium
  • Go to the London wetland centre
  • Visit Chelsea Physic Garden
  • Get into London fashion week
  • Tour around City Hall
  • Tour around Tower Bridge
  • Go to the tennis at Wimbledon
  • See some plays
  • Ride home in a rickshaw
  • Eat at some famous restaurants
  • Visit the hidden-away nature reserve behind St. Pancras station
  • Visit a big mosque, big synagogue, other big places of worship
  • Use an "isolation tank" near London Bridge
  • Get a free Hare Krishna vegetarian meal
  • Go to the the Jazz Cafe in Camden
  • Go to some jazz club I've heard about in Soho
  • Eat a meal in one of the touristy Leicester square steak houses
  • Tour around Battersea power station
  • Explore Heathrow Terminal 5
  • Tour round Albert Hall and Albert Memorial
  • Tour round Chiswick's Fuller's brewery
  • Tour round Wandsworth's Young's Brewery
  • Eat at the restaurant at the top of Tate Modern
  • Visit an exhibition at Earls Court and Kensington Olympia
  • Visit a city farm
  • Tour round Thames barrier
  • Visit a talk at the Royal Geographical Society
  • Buy some food from a roadside taxi cafe
  • Visit the London library at Piccadilly
  • View a trial at the Old Bailey
  • Visit Highgate cemetery

Tour around City Hall


Last Saturday ABJ and I visited City Hall, the home of the Greater London Authority. The building was part of the OpenHouse weekend in which hundreds of buildings across London open their doors to the public.

We arrived to have a look around and waited in the queue for the security check. Everything was surprisingly well-organised and once we were through we dodged the queues at the lifts and walked up a slowly sloping ramp that wrapped around the edge of the building and led us up to a large discussion chamber:From here we could see the main architectural feature of the building - a spiral staircase which rises up through its centre:We tried to climb the staircase but were turned away and told that people could only follow it in one direction. We hopped in the lifts and went up to to the 9th floor to look at the views of London.

There were good views, including the nearby "Scoop":as well as views across the river:
as well as Tower Bridge:and the landscaping nearby:After seeing the views we walked down the spiral staircase and enjoyed seeing everybody taking arty photos of it, as well as looking into people's offices.

At the bottom of the building is a giant aerial photo of London. We joined the crowds in locating our house on the map and discovering any recognisable landmarks near to it.Summary: Interesting modern building.