Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Discover London – before it's too late

Leadenhall Market
Some years ago, just as I was getting interested in photography, I took to going on Sunday morning photo safaris around London.

Some were to the more salubrious areas, some to where visitors mass and others still to streets and alleys that will not be likely to find themselves on the tourist trail.

Quite a few of these came as a result of an informal online photographic project: each week, the person organising it would set a place as a subject and those who wanted to participate would go, snap away and then share their efforts.

It was interesting to see how different people saw and approached the same subject, and it also provided an opportunity to discover parts of the city one might not otherwise ever come across.

I hadn’t thought about this for some time, but was reminded of it this morning by seeing #DiscoverLondon trending on Twitter.

‘Yes,’ I thought: ‘discover London before it’s too late.’

Falkirk Street, Hackney
There’s not been a time since I moved to London in 1988 that there hasn’t been construction work going on somewhere. But in recent years, in almost every direction, the skyline has become a forest of cranes as development and redevelopment have surged ahead.

Now I want to be clear that I have no aversion to modern architecture per se – I’ve enjoyed quite a few rambles with the camera amid the steel and glass, but what’s happening now is not the stuff of good or interesting new building.

Crypt window, Christ Church Spitalfields
This blog has previously touched on the boom in high-rise towers that are soaring above us. Some of them are interesting buildings. Some – and I am thinking particularly about the ‘Walkie Talkie’ – are simply hideous.

But even that is not the point. The gentrification of London – and it’s happening elsewhere too – is getting dangerously out of hand.

There’s a human cost to this: it’s a form of social ‘cleansing’ that has been discussed far and wide. The cost of housing long since became ridiculous – it’s now a question of
St George's Garden
needing to find over £400k for a home in the capital.

In September last year, it was reported that the average cost of a home in London was £515k. It’s £272k in the rest of Britain, which is hardly cheap.

Wages have not risen to the extent that most people can get a mortgage for three times their annual income that will buy them such a home. How mortgage lenders are, therefore, getting around this, I do not know, but it can hardly be sensible and sustainable.

Off Middlesex Street
There’s another aspect to the gentrification, though: it’s producing a city where character is disappearing as fast as the developers move in.

Denmark Street – our Tin Pan Alley – is earmarked for replacement with the anodyne. Norton Folgate, in the City, is under serious threat too. Soho is having its soul stripped out.

Many other areas are going the same way.

In Brixton just this last weekend, there was a demonstration against whats happening there, with communities feeling that theyre being forced out by redevelopment and rising prices.

Change Alley
The situation is, however, complicated by
certain factors.

Broadway Market, just around the corner from me, has undergone a revolution in the last 12 years or so.

Moving into the area two decades ago, it was three quarters derelict, usually with hardly a soul around and not enough shops to buy the ingredients for a meaningful meal.

As illustrated previously, in a lengthy interview with one of the very few traders who had survived those desolate years, the growth of supermarkets had been a factor in that decay.

Pearly king at Covent Garden
A piece of local graffiti was memorable because it was accurate: “Broadway Market,” it declared: “not so much a sinking ship as a submarine.”

As the street started to revive, some locals complained. Yet apart from some dastardly dealings by local developer Roger Wratten by name rat by nature, it’s not been a case of losing much.

The street is always busy now – which also means it’s a bigger employer – is a darned sight more pleasant (even with the hipsters and more wheelie toys than Hamleys on a Saturday), and has enough of a range of independent shops that you can actually do most of your shopping there.

No, they’re not the same sort of shops, but since the majority of those who had abandoned the street for Tesco all those years ago had shown no sign of coming back, the shops are catering to a different, more middle-class market because that’s how they’ll survive as businesses.

Princelet Street
Those who complained that there shouldnt have been any market on Saturdays, on the grounds of gentrification, never had any alternative plans to revitalise the street.

Similarly, you see something similar when dozens of people suddenly turn up to protest against a local pub shutting, having not bothered to give it any custom for years, if ever.

In other words, the issue is neither entirely straightforward nor bad per se.

But the problems don’t stop with regeneration. As has been seen across London, rising rents then further push the small independents out, to be replaced by franchises and chains.

Coronet Street
Think Leadenhall Market – a glorious building, tragically sanitised as hiked rents drove out the
likes of a fabulous fishmonger, a poulterer and a butcher.

Think Borough Market – revived to foodie heaven, but now becoming ever more a vastly over-priced stop on the tourist trail.

London is in danger of becoming simply a sort of theme park for those passing through.

So do #DiscoverLondon: look up above street level when you’re on foot: even Oxford Street is interesting when you gaze above the shop fronts. Look at the street art too – some of it can be fascinating and adds to some otherwise dour areas.

Postman's Park
Find out about some of the places where the photographs here were taken. Maybe even go and have a look at some of places they were taken in.

We have a fascinating city. So take a little time to discover beyond the bland and the corporate and the soulless.

And take any opportunity to look a little deeper, if you discover that an area is being scheduled for redevelopment.

Let’s all attempt to ensure that London – and all our cities and towns – are not rendered devoid
of any character by those who have no interest in them other than as money machines.

Look before it's all gone
And don’t forget that local businesses will only survive if we use them. Don’t go crying outside that pub or that butcher or that library when its shutters go up for the last time if you’ve never crossed the threshold in the past decade.

All photographs copyright.

• You can follow @londonerwalking, @SpitalfieldsT and @createstreets on Twitter to find out more about the city, its history, regeneration and development.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Marketing at its brightest – a food and drink special

A few weeks ago, my grocery delivery included in it a bottle of still water: a sample of a new(ish) product to try to induce me to buy more.

In this case, it was 850ml of ‘Glacéau Smart Water’, which proclaims itself to be: “vapour distilled water with added electrolytes”. “Vapour distilled” should be hyphenated, as it’s a compound adjective, but I’ll stop the grammar pedantry there (possibly).

It claims that it’s “smart because it’s made that way”. And just how is it “made?” you might ask. I mean, it’s Adam’s ale, for goodness sake.

Well, there’s no need to fret for long, as the bottle has a lengthy explanation.

“inspired by clouds

“clean, crisp taste [the absence of capital letters is their idea, not mine]

“sometimes the answer is right under your nose, and other times it’s floating above your head... in our case, it was the humble cloud that got us thinking.

“inspired by the water cycle, we vapour distil our spring water and then add electrolytes to deliver a distinctive, clean, crisp taste.

“smart because it’s made that way.”

The ingredients list – yes, this is a bottle of water, but there are ingredients – reads as follows: “spring water, electrolytes, calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium bicarbonate.”

It’s “Made in GB” and “bottled in Northumberland” – in spite of that “Glacéau” bit trying to give it a spot of Frenchified sophistication.

And reading down through the small print, “Glacéau smartwater is a trademark of Energy Brands Inc”. If you want to get in touch with them, you can write to “Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd, Uxbridge UB8 1EZ”.

So, how does it taste? Okay: it’s no better or worse than any other bottled water. And no better than the water that is ‘made’ by the filter jug I keep in the fridge.

At 80p for 850ml from the supermarket in question (or 56.8p if you buy a crate of 12 600ml bottles), that doesn’t sound too bad, until you realise that Volvic still mineral water is 60p for 1.5 litres, Evian can be had for 84p for 2 litres and Highland Spring for 33.3p a litre; Buxton Spring Water is available at 60p for a 1.5 litre bottle, Brecon Carreg at 30.6p per litre and the company’s basic brand for as little as 18.8p a litre.

‘Smart water my arse,’ as Jim Royle might put it: ‘smart’ only for global sugar merchants Coca-Cola, who will be laughing all the way to the bank when the gullible buy this new piece of hip marketing – because that’s what they’re buying.

This is water for people who are ‘smart’ enough to recognise the word ‘electrolytes’ from drinks marketed for those doing sport, and who will assume that they’re essential for health and, well, they probably need to ingest some more. They might be put off by buying something from Coca-Cola, which perhaps explains why that global icon doesnt make more of its name on the bottle.

It’s the same way that much else is marketed these days – not least if it’s to do with health. Some of the claims made for ‘detox’ products are, frankly, every bit as laughable as the description of this ‘smart’ water, but it doesn’t make supposedly-intelligent individuals hand over their hard earned in search of some sort of health nirvana.

There are plenty of products out there that are marketed at people who are trying to be healthy, which prey on that desire and an element of ignorance about health, together with the results of our general lack of a food culture.

Watching TV over the weekend, I was reminded of an advert that had previously earned my attention.

It’s for Bertolli spread.

“Farmers tried many ways to combine olive oil with rich, creamy butter, until they discovered new Bertolli with butter: a delicious blend with butter and olive oil, so tasty they fell in love with it,” claims an Italian-accented voice, over pictures of a happy, rustic Italian couple enjoying bread heaped with the spread in question, after he patently fails to get his cow to understand what an olive is.

“New Bertolli with butter: a delicious blend with butter and olive oil.”

I have previously asked Bertolli brand owner Unilever, via Twitter, for evidence of the claim that at least two farmers (since the plural is used) had tried to blend olive oil and butter before Unilever managed it, but I have never had any response.

But then, why would anyone try that?

The ordinary olive oil I buy (the one I use for cooking) is Spanish, with the following ingredient list: “refined olive oil, virgin olive oil”.

My butter has one ingredient: “butter”.

Ordinary Bertolli spread has the following ingredients: “Vegetable Oils in varying proportions (38%) (Rapeseed, Palm, Sunflower), Water, Olive Oil (21%), Sweet Whey Powder (Milk), Buttermilk, Salt (1.1%), Emulsifier (Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate), Thickener (Sodium Alginate), Citric Acid, Natural Flavouring, Vitamins A and D, Colour (Carotenes)”.

Bertolli Light is made up thus: “Water, Vegetable Oils in varying proportions (22%) (Rapeseed, Palm, Sunflower), Olive Oil (16%), Modified Corn Starch, Salt, Buttermilk, Emulsifiers (Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids, Sunflower Lecithin), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate), Citric Acid, Natural Flavouring, Vitamins A and D, Colour (Carotenes)”.

Is it any wonder those stupid Italian farmers couldn’t come up with the way to combine butter and olive oil? They forgot to think of the modified corn starch or the sodium alginate. Doh!

But hands up – why would anyone want to spread that on their toast and why would anyone think it healthier than olive oil or butter?

But while that’s one thing – and it’s the way in which big food gets away with marketing yogurt stuffed with sugar, by labeling it ‘low fat’, which is viewed as a synonym for ‘healthy’ – it’s another to wonder how companies are allowed to come up with such fantastical claims as this about farmers trying to blend olive oil and butter.

The marketing for that ‘smart’ water is actually quite clever: it makes no claims about any particular health benefits, including for consumption of its added electrolytes; it doesn’t say that it’s the best taste around or anything similar.

It relies entirely on a certain gullibility.

But then, Coca-Cola has been bitten before, when it emerged after the 2004 launch of its “pure” Dasani bottled water, that what punters were getting for their money was simply tap water that had been filtered three times, using “reverse osmosis”, and with ozone injected to keep it sterile.

Bertolli, on the other hand, is marketed partly via a fantastical claim for which no evidence is given, and on the back of an increasingly discredited belief that the saturated fat of butter is inherently unhealthy.

Its claims of contributing to “a healthy lifestyle” and its entire linking to a simpler, Mediterranean lifestyle, are what give it its power.

So there you have it: two sorts of marketing: two sorts of twaddle.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Gypsy really is the ticket to die for

Imelda Staunton with cute dog (Nessie/Scampie)
It’s not often that you can, with at least a modicum of justification – claim that some theatrical production or other is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event (the ephemeral nature of every single live performance apart).

But it’s not that great an exaggeration if we’re in the UK and talking about Gypsy, the 1959 show penned by Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (libretto), with a book by Arthur Laurents.

Remarkably, it took 14 years for it to see the light of day on the London stage in the first place (with Angela Lansbury), and has now taken a staggering 22 years to earn a revival.

Possibly it’s suffered from being so closely associated with Ethel Merman – she of ‘plants her feet, leans back and hits the back row of the auditorium’. How can you compete with such an icon? Who do you cast in that amazing role?

Of course, that’s all bound up with the legend – including how Merman didn’t get the role she created on stage when it was filmed in 1962, with the plum part of Rose going to Rosalind Russell.

I’d suggest that most British musical lovers who didn’t see that 1973 London production are mostly familiar with the show from either the recording of the original Broadway production or the film. In my case, it’s the former.

Yet setting all this aside, what makes Gypsy’s absence even more of a mystery is the place that it occupies in the musical theatre canon, being widely considered to be one of the greatest musicals ever written – if not the greatest.

So now that this Chichester transfer has landed in the West End we have an opportunity to assess the vehicle itself, together with a production that has itself garnered massive praise last autumn.

Both have a question to answer: is the hyperbole fair?

For anyone who doesn’t know, the plot – based on a true story – sees Rose, the apotheosis of pushy showbiz mothers, trying to drive her two daughters to vaudeville success.

But vaudeville is dying, the act is nauseatingly bad and, when the ‘talented’ one of her daughters – ‘Baby June – quits, everything looks over for Rose’s dream.

She cannot give up, though, and pushes on, replicating the same act, but with her other daughter, Louise, now taking centre stage.

And when she forces Louise to fill in for a missing performer at a down-at-heel burlesque theatre, you know that it’ll end in tears.

But the tears are not Louise’s, who is ultimately liberated by the experience, learning that shes a sexy, grown woman, instead of the clunky, talentless child that she had been lulled into believing herself to be.

With daughter freeing herself from her mother’s smothering grasp and embracing stardom for herself, it is Rose that is left to realise that she has lost everything.

Rose is a magnificent creation in the tradition of the classic tragic hero. Deeply flawed, she’s been described as a musical theatre answer to Lear, but there are also valid comparisons with Brecht’s Mother Courage: since both see their children as commodities, and both lose them as a result.

Is Rose really utterly selfish, trying to live her own thwarted dreams vicariously through her children or is she a genuinely loving mother, or somewhere in between?

And there you have an illustration of the complexity of Rose. Thus the audience cannot see her simply, but has to engage with that character and with the story on a different level to that of many musicals.

Peter Davison and Imelda Staunton
Not that the creative team neglected the smaller roles. Herbie, who becomes both an agent for the troupe and also Rose’s lover (on a promise to become husband number four), has depth about him too.

And then, of course, there is Louise, who becomes the eponymous Gypsy of the title, and who has to develop from gauche tomboy to sophisticated stripteaser.

Indeed, what do you expect when that team included a Sondheim? No other writer – as composer, as librettist and as both – has ever, so consistently, created works of musical theatre that address real human emotions and flaws to the degree that he has.

There are some stonkingly great songs here: Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Let Me Entertain You and Together among them. Styne came up with a perfect Broadway score – a blessing, perhaps, of Merman saying she’d refuse the role if someone as unknown as Sondheim was allowed to write the music.

Given that Sondheim had already been asked to do precisely that – and had accepted – this could have been disastrous. Fortunately, his mentor, the great Oscar Hammerstein II, convinced him to work with Styne as lyricist.

And it paid off, because the lyrics are superb.

But now to look at this production specifically.

Jonathan Kent’s direction is top-notch, while Anthony Ward’s work on set and costumes is also excellent.

On the performances, first, a mention for Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand as the three strippers who explain to Louise that You Gotta Get A Gimmick. It’s a brilliant, funny routine – retaining, indeed, the original Jermone Robbins choreography.

Lara Pulver is excellent as Louise: utterly convincing both as the clunky child and the sophisticated stripper.

Peter Davison is a fine Herbie, giving some grounded warmth to proceedings. No, he’s no great singer – but neither were Jack Klugman or Karl Malden in the original stage production and film.

And then we come to Imelda Staunton as Rose.

Polish the awards right now.

This is a stupendous, electrifying performance.

The Other Half said that he’d never seen a theatrical denouement as powerful since seeing Glenda Jackson do Mother Courage at the Mermaid – and that’s a long time ago and a massive compliment.

Lara Pulver and Imelda Staunton
She ranges from the wheedling to the fun-loving to the victimised to the angry and the self-deluded with consummate ease. The breakdown scene at the end is utterly gut-wrenching.

This reading of Rose is a phenomenally subtle, detailed and powerful one.

Vocally, Staunton can do everything from the gentle right up to the belters. She’s hardly new to Sondheim – having played the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, (1990-’91) as well as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd just three years ago. Indeed, it was after seeing that performance that Sondheim himself told her that she had to play Rose.

She takes the show and makes it absolutely her own – just as Gypsy demands.

Rarely will you see a standing ovation even before the piece has entirely finished, but as the final note of Rose’s Turn  dies away, it is impossible not to rise.

This is musical theatre with knobs on. And then with gilt on the knobs.  And then with gilt on the gilt. The run has now been extended until November – if you haven’t got the clue yet, let me put it simply: get a ticket if you possibly can.

And in the remote case that I haven’t made myself clear: Gypsy is one of the very best things to arrive in the West End for years, so go and see it!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

We love to go a wandering

The way ahead
After a day’s rest for the feet, further studious study of the weather forecast revealed that Thursday and Friday were set to see precipitation of one sort or another.

That meant one thing: if we were to undertake another proper walk, it would have to be on Wednesday.

Helpfully, The Other Half – who had spent weeks studying online maps for precisely such ends – had just such a walk planned. So off we went, having this time remembered to take bottles of water with us but, unfortunately, no Kendal Mint Cake. I should have taken a slab to Bavaria on principle.

Our destination was another small Alpine lake, the Alatsee, and the start of the walk took us through the park at the back of summer palace of the bishops of Augsburg before we crossed a small, wooden bridge and climbed gently upwards onto a wooded ridge.

Germans, as I’ve mentioned before, care passionately about forests – it’s an essential part of the national psyche. Woods are so central a part of German life that, when it was discovered, in the 1980s, that the woods were dying from pollution, there was a united commitment to doing something.

Woodland delicacy
That the country is now a major producer of renewable energy is, in part, a result of that – and also an indicator that green politics is not seen as overtly as ‘left’ in the way it is elsewhere, not least in the UK.

For British townies in particular, we have, in general, long lost that sense of connection with nature.

But in Germany, no town or city is far removed from a wood or forest in which to spend time.

And these are maintained and looked after with great dedication, as are the footpaths that wend through them.

My mental musical theme for the week – with the exception of a burst of Wagner when at Neuschwanstein – was The Happy Wanderer.

Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann, to give it its original German title, was originally penned by Florenz Friedrich Sigismund (1788-1857), while the tune we’re familiar with was composed after WWII by Friederich-Wilhelm Möller.

Wood – smelling beautiful
A 1953 performance of the piece by the Obernkirchen children’s choir at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, broadcast on BBC radio, saw the song become an instant hit and staying in the singles chart (a top 12 at the time) for 26 non-consecutive weeks.

As we wandered through woodland, for a long while, with the sounds of the traffic of Füssen intermittently drifting upward to us, yet already in a different world, it drifted into my head again and even, quietly, from my lips: a song from childhood memory, suddenly taking on a new life.

Away from it all
We stopped to inspect tiny flowers alongside the path; to listen to the birds around us; to watch as a small deer sprung away through the trees, glancing back over its shoulder to check us out.

It wasn't a busy road
The process of maintaining the woods means that some trees are felled. Clearly there had been recent work done in this department, as we saw logs stacked neatly between pairs of standing trees.

Walking past one such stack – clearly very recently cut – the smell was astonishing. Forget those ghastly ‘air fresheners’ in cars and elsewhere: this is what trees smell of and it’s intoxicating.

Perfect for lunch
As we made our way, the road sounds drifted away entirely: the tranquillity was wonderful and eventually the tinkling of a beck made it’s way up to our ears.

Having discovered (the hard way) the result of the lack of contour lines on Google maps, we made a decision after some time to take a path down the side of the ridge to meet a road that then went on to the lake, rather than take what looked to be a harder path that would take us back up before coming down near the lake.

I say ‘road’, but I don’t recall a single vehicle passing us as we strolled along it, the metal points of our walking sticks now striking the tarmac surface.

Brilliant beer ....
The trees to our left eventually fell away, leaving us with views of Alpine pasture filling the space between the ridge we come along and the rather higher hill side opposite.

We made it to the lake for around 1pm – perfect, since the hotel there also has a restaurant and The Other Half had fully factored this into his plans.

With the temperature ludicrously mild, we sat outside the chalet-style building and ordered drinks while scanning the menu.

The beer was a caramel-coloured dunkel from the Aktienbrauerei – the oldest existing brewery in Kaufbeuren, first mentioned in 1308, a whopping 208 years before the Reinsheitsgebot – and was the best beer of the week, with an absolutely wonderful taste.

As we sipped, we could hear the sound of The Other Half’s schnitzel being beaten out in the nearby kitchen. Oh, this was going to be freshly cooked.

... and fabulous fodder
For myself, I had leapt at the opportunity to try spätzle for the first time. A sort of soft egg noodle from the south of Germany (and areas to the east), I knew it by legend alone.

It came as the bed on my (large) plate, dressed in melted butter and with a vast mound of gloriously crisp and wafer-thin fried onion rings atop a piece of absolutely superb beef that had been cooked to perfection: beautifully seared on the outside and melting to very pink the further in I got.

It was the perfect illustration of how good food doesn’t have to be haute cuisine. This was perfection.

Sated, we sat awhile, quietly taking in the view.

The Alatsee spread put in front of us, with a snow-capped
Austrian berg soaring beyond the wooded ridge that marked the border, and the wooded hills around the lake split in one place by a wedge of pasture.

The Alatsee
It was still largely iced over, although where the thaw had set in, the water was that rich malachite green again, and crystal clear at the edge, creating a perfect mirror to reflect its surroundings.

It’s apparently a meromictic lake – meaning that it has layers of water that do not mix, which in turn means that it can include within it radically different environments for organisms.

Snow ahead
Such bodies of water were only really named in the early 20th century. They may occur where the basin sides are unusually deep and steep compared to the lake’s surface, and where the lower layer of the water is highly saline and denser than the upper layers.

The Alatsee is 868m above sea level, with a surface area of 12 hectares and a maximum depth of 32.1m. There are such toxic organisms living in the lake that they’ve been blamed for a number of divers have died or disappeared in its waters.

And as if this were not enough, it’s one of the (many) spots that’s alleged to be hiding ‘Hitler’s gold’ – although Lake Toplitz in Austria beats it for plausibility, given that forged British banknotes were found by divers in chests, together with a printing press, in 1959.

You see – travel broadens the mind: or at least the knowledge base.

The Obersee
Eventually, we set off again. This time, the intention was to walk back along the valley floor on the opposite side, along the Faulenbach and passing the smaller Obersee and the positively diminutive Mittersee before reaching Füssen.

This route had been less exposed to the sun, meaning that snow several inches deep still lay in patches over the path. Those walking sticks were proving very handy.

There was evidence of winter tree fall from the steep, rocky ridge now to our right, and also where the local forestry management teams had come in and removed the section of a tree that had fallen across the path, leaving the rest where it lay.

Looking back from the Obsersee
Again, the sounds of trickling water and bird song were the dominant ones, leaving city natives to feel almost out of kilter at the absence of urban drone. It’s a long time since I spent so long away from the sounds of traffic.

The Obersee was almost completely iced over, with reeds rearing up to tell you that there was marshy land beneath the frozen white.

And so we continued toward the town; another satisfying walk under our belts – another day gazing at this extraordinary landscape and feeling awed by it. Happy wanderers indeed.