Yes, I know that the more traditional amongst you will have shuddered at the use of ‘n’ to represent ‘and’ in the title of this blog post.  But that’s how it was, down with the youf about 10 days ago, when Harry Baker and his friend/support act Chris Read came to perform at Norwich Cathedral.  Harry Baker is ridiculously young, having only graduated last year.  He now has the sheer brass neck to be earning his living doing what he loves, which is what exactly?  Well, it’s a combination of poetry and rap, written from the perspective of a maths nerd and performed with energy, verbal dexterity and naïve enthusiasm.  And strangely it works!


My husband and I went to see them last year and enjoyed it so much that this year we bought 4 tickets and invited my daughter and son-in-law too.  You know how it feels when you’re responsible for recommending the entertainment?  I started saying things like, ‘they were really good last year’ ‘we hoped you would enjoy them too’ ‘ they were so clever’.  Until I settled with ‘ let’s see how it goes tonight’.  Which we did.


Let’s rewind an hour or so before the performance started.  We pitched up to Norwich Cathedral with some old duvet covers to sit on (are we the only family not to possess the standard tartan picnic rug?) and our cool bag full of goodies.  There was a pop up bar selling very respectable Pimms and we soon spread ourselves out on the grass in the cloisters.   We motored through our sausage rolls, dips, fruit and cake as others arrived (with or without snacks,) until we were ready to be entertained.


The splendid venue was one of the modern rooms tacked onto the side of Norwich Cathedral.  Here, you get all the advantage of being very close to the flints in the ancient walls and you are able to see the cathedral spire from the window, while being in the ease of a light, airy, modern room with comfortable chairs.


When Harry Baker started a familiar poem I remembered how good he was and knew that it would all be fine.  His poem about the love life of Number 59, how odd he feels and alone, until he meets… oh no, I won’t tell all, but suffice to say that number 60 is just a bit too ‘perfectly round’ for him, whereas number 61 was ‘just as quirky’.  Often writing from the perspective of the outsider, Baker writes about unfashionable preferences such as playing Monopoly and being interested in dinosaurs and FIFA video games.  Chris Read played his guitar and sang, both on his own and also while Baker recited. It was very entertaining and very original.  Both young men retained a fresh, unpolished, studenty approach to being on stage.  They chatted easily with the audience and this helped us to see life from their perspective.


Luckily my faith in the HarrynChris show was vindicated and my family enjoyed the performance.  Baker said that they will be in Edinburgh next week.  Why not check them out?


Let’s celebrate!


What’s your favourite way to celebrate a birthday?  A cake?  A present?  An outing?


Last week I went to visit Kew Gardens with my husband and son. It was my husband’s birthday and we had arranged to spend the day at Kew, an outing being one of our favourite ways to celebrate.   The two chaps were already in London and I travelled down to meet them .  As the rail network was not working at its best(!), I joined them when Greater Anglia saw fit to deliver me to the capital.


After some lunch, we went first to visit the temporary excitement which is The Hive.  This is a sculpture which was commissioned originally for an exhibition in Milan but is now available to visit in Kew Gardens until 2017, although it seems so popular that I can imagine it staying for longer.


Have you ever thought about the patterns of activity in a bee hive?  No, me neither.  Well, The Hive sculpture is a huge metal framework, which represents the structure of a bee hive.  It’s so big that you can walk about inside it, looking out through the open mesh and up to the sky, through the circular hole at the top. Inside The Hive there are lights attached to many of the metal joints, and the lights are illuminated faintly or strongly based on the activity of real bees in a hive hidden away somewhere at Kew.  There is also a background sound of bee activity and accompanying sympathetic music, based on the same humming and buzzing sounds.


The sights and sounds of The Hive are subtle and you need to concentrate in order to listen and watch for changes.  In the lower part of the sculpture, I wondered if there was a hidden camera filming me as I followed the instructions to ‘pick a thin lolly stick, place it in your mouth, put the other end in a hole in the metal pole in front of you and listen to the pre- recorded sounds of bees, with your fingers in your ears, so that you hear the sounds through your ear bones, not your ear drums’.  I was waiting for the call of “surprise, gotcha!” to come, as I hunched over the metal pole, with a thin wooden stick in my mouth and my fingers in my ears!


Are you good at identifying trees?  Ash, oak, lime?  We played endless games of ‘guess the tree’, as each tree at Kew has a metal identification label attached.  It is impossible to guess them accurately as there are so many special types.   Even the common ones are different versions e.g. large/ small leaves, softer/harder bark, taller/shorter tree.  The whole park is fertile ground for this game and I really enjoyed the tree top walkway where you could get up close to the top branches, leaves, fruits and flowers.  The walkway was substantial, wide and had plenty of room for the many people on it.  But it did have an unnerving tendency to sway – enough said, we didn’t hang about.


Has your conservatory been a bit too hot for comfort in this recent weather?  Then imagine a greenhouse built to house thousands of tropical plants. Hot and humid on purpose.  The Palm House at Kew is full of examples of plants from the tropical rainforest, which thrive in the heat and humidity.   It was a bit hot and sticky but we did see real bananas growing and some huge lily pads in a large pond, which were as big as an enormous paella dish and although flat across the middle, had raised edges which looked a bit like a pie crust.  See photo!



One of the other highlights was the Shirley Sherwood gallery, which you could spend an afternoon in, although we rushed through in under an hour.   It was jam packed with paintings of flowers, shrubs and trees, painted in the 19th century by lucky travellers who went all over the world.  There were flowers from Borneo, shrubs from Sri Lanka and trees from India.  A modern traveller would probably take digital photos and these were the Victorian equivalent.  There was an overwhelming number of accurately depicted plants, all labelled with their botanical names and place of origin.



I was filled with awe at the thought of the intrepid Victorian women, leaving home to journey into unknown jungles and villages.  They took their paper and paint boxes with them, cataloguing all the interesting and exotic flora they found.  There was so much to learn and then show others on their return.  Their painting skill was impressive and so was their get-up-and-go, especially in an age which consistently under-valued women.  I wondered aloud if it might have been exciting to live in Victorian times and discover new areas of the world and their treasures.  But my family were quick to remind me that while a privileged few went jaunting around the world, the vast majority of women were kept at home either sewing while they waited for a suitable husband or cleaning out coal fire grates for a living!


At home later, we had birthday cake to round off a memorable day at Kew Gardens and sang, Happy Birthday to Kyou, Happy Birthday to Kyou!!

Have you ever seen an opera?



Have you ever seen an opera?  I can thoroughly recommend it.  It’s like a good play but with great music too.  The music helps to bring out the emotional highs and lows of each character.  You can sit back and enjoy the scenery and the oh so clever props and costumes.


You may think that it’s highbrow but the plots tend to be more straightforward than many modern plays and still deal with the essential themes of life, such as love, fidelity, hope, despair, selfishness and revenge.  So, it’s not that you won’t be able to follow the plot.  In any case, the programme always has a little precis.


Opera is often sung in the language it was composed in, frequently Italian or German, which again, may make you think it’s too complicated if you are not a fluent linguist.  But in every modern opera house there are supertitles above the stage, which translate the words being sung into English, phrase by phrase.  No problem there then.


Tickets can be rather pricey but if you are prepared to sit further back, to stand or lean for the performance, then a seat can be yours for a mere £20 or so.  So what’s not to like?


Last week we went to an opera experience which was memorable on all fronts.  We arrived early and this is what we found.  Picnic hamper; check.  Table laid with white cloth; check.  Beautiful landscaped gardens with lake and bridge; check.  Husband, brother-in-law and his wife; check.  We had gathered to celebrate the birthdays of the two brothers, conveniently only 10 days apart.  The gardens were filling up with chaps dressed in black tie and women in fancy dresses long and short.  Glyndebourne has a reputation for being a very individual, quintessentially English venue for opera.  And it lives up to its reputation.


What do you think we did first having found our allotted table in the grounds?  We found a cup of tea that’s what!  How much more English can you get?  Although my American sister-in-law did have coffee…  We raided the picnic hamper for plates and cutlery and cut into the birthday cake I had brought along.  We sat in the sunshine, watching the procession of different dresses and evening wear parade through the gardens.  There were all sorts, from a short velvet dress, a halter neck long dress with a train, loose dresses,  fitted dresses or even trousers, with a jacket, wrap or stole for extra warmth.  The men rang the changes from a straight dinner suit by wearing a kilt, adding a cummerbund, white jacket or coloured bow tie.  In view of the warm weather there were quite a few panama type hats in circulation too.


The tradition at Glyndebourne is to have one long interval between the acts and give everyone time to eat at one of the restaurants or picnic in the grounds.  You can buy their picnic or take your own.  It’s all super-organised, there’s lots of information on line to help you plan what to do.  Now I love going to the opera but you do usually have to eat really early beforehand and then you’re a bit hungry again afterwards.  So an opera which stops especially so that you can have some supper, is right up my street.


We had ordered a picnic and after the first act, it was waiting for us in a cool bag beside our table on the lawn.  We toasted the birthday chaps and then enjoyed our quiche and salad.     The description was more flowery than that but you get what I mean.  We were so lucky to have good weather and it was magical to eat outside in such beautiful surroundings as the sun went down.  Mmmm, I had been wondering what else I might like.  But the picnic providers had already anticipated my every need and provided coffee and a chocolate before we went back in to enjoy the second half.


Which opera did we see?  It was The Barber of Seville by Rossini, full of misunderstandings  which are resolved, so that the course of love runs true, in time-honoured fashion.  The cast and splendid orchestra were top quality.  The scenery was carefully chosen to evoke southern Spain and Rossini’s music was lively and demanded my attention from the first to the last note.


If you decide to try out an opera, not all come with picnic facilities.   But don’t let that put you off.  I dare you to try one.





Warning, spoiler alert!

IMG_1565She was lowered down from the ceiling, all skirt ruffles and tights, feet gently pedalling, “they usually clap at this point” she said wryly and we, the obedient and entranced audience applauded with gusto.


An actress with the unlikely name of Meow Meow, was playing the roles of Titania and Hippolyta at The Globe on Saturday, when we went to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I suspect that for a Shakespeare purist the production might have been rather shocking with its racy modern interpretation. However, for a keen but not very knowledgeable member of the audience such as myself, the production was a joy.  It was about 20 minutes too long (isn’t everything?) but other than that, it was highly entertaining.


There were some parts traditionally played by women which were played by men and vice versa.  Peter Quince became Rita Quince, who played the part as a sort of keen girl guide leader, ready with her clipboard and very hearty in her instructions.  She was part of the crew on stage as the audience settled in.   She announced information about no mobile phones, no filming and no sitting (for the groundlings standing around the foot of the stage).  She morphed easily into Rita Quince and the gender swap was painless and easy to reconcile.


The second change from the traditional cast, was that Helena became Helenus, a gay young man who falls in love and is in turned loved.  This piece of original casting, with a man instead of a woman, as Hermia’s friend, made it much simpler to understand the plot.  Helenus and his loves were easy to follow and easy to separate from the heterosexual partners in the mix.  You know Shakespeare, always game for a French farce of people mistaking others for someone else, kissing the wrong person and ending up with the wrong partner.  No question of course, that this is always remedied in the end and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief as the correct pairings end up together.


Puck although traditionally a male role, was played by a young woman, Katy Owen and she was full of zest and energy.  Her interaction with the audience and in particular the groundlings was a joy to watch.  With each speech she turned to all four corners of the auditorium and caught the eye of every member of the audience.  Then, in amongst those standing (three hours in total, stronger souls than me!) she addressed individuals, grinning from ear to ear as she tempted them to join in her mischief-making, gently poking fun at us all.  Her drive and vitality made the role her own; her childish jokes made us laugh and her pointed sense of humour kept us on our toes.


Aside from the gender-bending roles, one of the other remarkable elements were the nods to modern life, included at every occasion, which brought the text to life and made us remember our own contemporary context.  The young people were referred to as ‘Hoxton hipsters’ on several occasions; when an ‘almanac’ had to be consulted for phases of the moon, a mobile phone was produced and then put away ‘you know the rules, no phones’. There was a Bollywood style dance sequence and another based on Beyonce’s Put a Ring on it, as well as other references to modern music, which went straight over my head. The music itself, played from the balcony was full of original settings of the familiar Shakespearean text and gave the cast an extra dimension to their acting, singing and dancing throughout the piece.


This exuberant production of The Dream meant that I wasn’t sitting trying to work out what the text meant, as I could see it acted out clearly in front of me. It took out the hard work and offered me the play on a plate and I appreciated their efforts and the play all the more for that.


Not waving but swimming



Swimming cap pulled on tight, smoothed down to keep out the water.  Goggles adjusted and dipped in the water to ensure against fogging, I would put on my nose peg and dip into the pool.  It required steely determination… well a dose of self-discipline anyway,  to make myself get up and out, early in the day.  After I had stopped earning a living, I felt that I needed to counteract my natural propensity for long lie-ins and so I set about swimming regularly.  No excuses, there’s a council pool within a mile of my house and I decided to learn how to swim more efficiently.  At school I had always been an endurance swimmer, not one designed for speed or sleek efficiency. I was encouraged to use my breaststroke to pass the life-saving exams and I was pretty good at picking up a brick from the bottom of the pool, if I say so myself.  If ever I see a brick in need of saving, I will be the first to volunteer to save it, as long as I have my nose peg with me.


Over two years I managed to increase the number of lengths I could swim in each session and even worked out how to swim the crawl, using You Tube tutorials to get the all-important alternate breathing technique.  As you can imagine, breathing is key to the whole process!


The reality of swimming regularly was that the swimming hat was difficult to get on and off and still left my hair in need of washing and drying each and every time I swam.    The body de-hairing process was never-ending and after each session you had to get rid of the clinging smell of chlorine, which was also a reminder that you were swimming in a chemical in order to counteract swimming in other people’s germs.  Eeugh!


You may not be surprised to know, that my swimming phase lasted only two winters.  I enjoyed the tone of my muscles but not enough to force myself into the water several times a week.


Fast forward then to 2016 when I strained my neck and then my back in quick succession, I can’t even remember how.  Gardening probably.  The strains were minor and only lasted a  week at the most but they reminded me that I was becoming less flexible and could look forward to more aches and pains unless I did something about it.  I get most of my exercise walking and cycling but neither help much with flexibility.


This is how I ended up last week clutching two tins of chopped tomatoes, swinging them about in front of the tv.  They were in lieu of weights, for my sculpting Pilates routine and although a bit lighter than recommended, I figured that less is more as they were to hand and I don’t possess any 1 – 2 lb weights.  My Pilates DVD is an old friend from a previous phase and is split into five 10 minute sessions.  I am now working on my core muscles, building up the muscle strength, hoping to guard against further strains and sprains.  The only limitation this week, is that my knees are black, blue and an attractive hue of yellow after falling off my bicycle last week.   Still, onwards, ever onwards!

5 uses for a coat hanger


5 uses for a coat hanger:

  1. Hang up a garment!
  2. Untwist and poke down a blocked drain/hoover
  3. Use two to make a mobile.
  4. Use the hook to fish for something that has fallen down the side of the fridge.
  5. Wrap a coat hanger around a plant pot, secure it and then use the hook to hang it up.

You may have heard of or tried any or all of these ideas but one of the things you might not have thought of, is to make a sculpture out of wire coat hangers.  See?  That’s original isn’t it?  And it was that creative thought which meant that on Friday afternoon I was looking at a sculpture of a deer’s head, antlers and all, made out of coat hangers.  I was at the Summer Exhibition in the Royal Academy and the variety of pictures and sculptures was amazing.  I met up with my husband at the end of the day and we set out to see the exhibits created by famous and unknown artists alike and chosen for exhibition by a panel of experts each year.  From the thousands of entries, only about 1,200 are picked and it is a great boost to anyone who has their work chosen.  They gain a much greater audience and most of the artworks are for sale.


We started up the stairs, looking forward to our visit and fresh with enthusiasm.  The first room has only 8 or 10 larger pieces, including a fossilised fuel pump and the word, ‘forever’ up in bright lights on the wall.  We stopped and considered, took a few photos and looked around carefully.  The next gallery included a bar and many gallery-goers were glass in hand as they progressed around the exhibition.  This created a relaxed atmosphere combined with the buzz of the viewers calling each other to, ‘come and see’ or ‘look at this’.   That blend came from arty types who knew what and importantly, which artists to look for, and also from the regular art lovers, who like us, were there to see the tremendous variety and were trying to work what to make of it all.  It soon became obvious that with gallery after gallery of paintings and exhibits, you either had to spend 5 hours there or be a bit pickier about which things to stop and look at.  My feet were already killing me and we had only been there about 45 minutes, so we changed our strategy and walked confidently past many pieces, stopping only at anything which was too interesting to ignore and believe me, that was still lots and lots.


There is a theme of collaboration which runs through this year’s Summer Exhibition and there were several famous pieces by artists who manage to work together, (full marks to them, that can’t be easy) for example Gilbert and George and Pierre et Gilles.  One of the memorable exhibits was a low table with a whole heap of charred bones, I’m not sure if they were real or not but as a Momento Mori it was full of the agony and anguish of death.


The deer’s head made of coat hangers was remarkable. Created by David Mach, it uses an everyday object to create the familiar form of a wall-mounted hunting trophy but then you look more closely and realise that the deer looks tormented and distressed.  Why has it been killed?  For ‘sport’?  The metal in the coat hangers looks raw and reminded me of the hooks and barbs used in fishing, as well as the suffering of an animal killed as a prize.


Another of the arresting pieces was a cabinet of colourful vases, labelled as ‘All the fish in the sea’.  The smooth shapes were set in a cabinet with a mirror behind them, giving an impression of twice the colour and the number of the amphora-like forms.  Once I had seen the label, I could understand that the shapes were fish-like and although not intended to look like real fish, the variety of colours and patterns did reflect the many species and types of fish in the oceans of the world.  Is the cabinet intended to suggest that we are only happy to consider fish if they conform to how we see them?  The colours are very bright and artificial, is this the only way we are prepared to look at fish, like in a Disney film?  Maybe these are the total number of fish in the sea and once they’re gone, they’re gone?  It also reminded me of what people say to when a relationship ends, ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea’, what an annoying and useless phrase that is and in ecological terms may be less and less true.



I had no idea at the time but it turns out that the fish work is by the same artist, David Mach.  Considering that my aching feet restricted the number of pieces we looked at, quite a high hit rate for his works.  It took some time afterwards to process what we had seen as I found the exhibition quite overwhelming, with so many different artists and styles to appreciate. A few days later and I’m more sure about which works made an impact on me and those I shall remember for some time to come.  My top recommendation if you go to see the exhibition:  Have a good long sit down before you go



Luckily our neighbours are elderly and not prone to complaining about the sounds which emanate from our house.  This afternoon it was the painfully slow sight-reading of the Toreador’s song from Carmen, being picked on the ukulele and with an accompaniment on the tin whistle.  There’s the counting to four business, to keep in time and then there are the notes.  When one of us found the right note, the other was inevitably ahead or behind, what a cacophony!  Still we have several weeks yet before we have to get up to the right speed.  So we shall practise our parts separately and then put them together, going slowly over each section until it is ready and then finally speeding up the tempo.


The BBC’s mission is ‘to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.’  This music-making of ours comes firmly under the educate umbrella as it is part of the BBC’s Get Playing campaign.  I read about it online and having looked at the website, wondered if I should be leaving this to the kids.  But no, I found a caveat which says that you must be over 16, for which I more than qualify, as does my husband.  Hooray!  Finally something interesting which is aimed at my age group and one of my interests.  The idea is for amateur musicians, playing a huge variety of instruments from bagpipes to sitar, to download the music, practise at home and then record their contribution, keeping in time with the conductor (the world renowned Marin Alsop).  The techhies at the BBC will then put together all the video recordings, presumably balance out the sounds in case there are 5,000 violins and no double basses, and then the three minute sequence of virtual orchestra will be played as part of the Last Night of the Proms at the end of August.


I think it’s a splendid idea and I would much rather take part in this way than take part by voting in the X Factor or The Voice.  It seems that every programme you watch or listen to nowadays is begging you to get in touch.  Whether it’s Springwatch, the weather or Womans’ Hour on Radio 4 all they keep nagging on about is, ‘get in touch’ by email, tweet or facebook.  Quite frankly, when I’m watching TV or listening to the radio, it’s downtime and the last thing I want to do is get in touch with the presenters or the programme makers.  I just want them to entertain me, is that OK?  On some shows they even spend time reading out comments that have been sent in.  What a waste of time.  If a section of a programme has already dealt with a topic, then I would assume that coverage has been thorough and even-handed.  What I don’t then need is further comment from Joe from Manchester, to hear what he thinks.    And, while I take seriously my responsibility to vote in general and local elections, please don’t ever ask me to vote about anything at all on the television.  ‘The box’ is for my pleasure and entertainment, not for me to hear two pennyworth of opinion from all and sundry.  It’s just laziness from the programme makers which encourages this pretend ‘let’s involve the audience’.

That said, I think it will be fun to get involved in Get Playing by practising and may be eventually recording a contribution.  Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, believed in public service broadcasting and this will involve us directly in musical activity and connect us to hundreds or thousands of like-minded people.   I look forward to watching the final combined performance as entertainment, where I sit and watch and the BBC entertains me, even if I did play a tiny part in the music-making. Just don’t ask me to vote for the best player/musical piece/recording!