Royal decree, number 1

London

Two streets away, the thumping annoyed. One street away it reached intolerable. Once the source was in plain view it got no louder until I was close enough to understand; the backing track for a steel drummer standing outside Boots.

Appreciator of steel percussion I may be, enjoyer of banging beats played loudly in public I am not.

When I’m king we’ll have no more of this. I’m all in favour of street musicians – even the ones I don’t like – but standing on the street playing recorded music on an amp doesn’t make you a street musician. It makes you a public nuisance.

This is true, only more so, in tube stations. I understand TfL carries out auditions for those keen to express themselves musically on the underground network. I can’t imagine what this consists of, but can I suggest that they establish whether an applicant can actually make music? Or is it considered a sufficient skill to plug an iPhone into a battery powered amp?

There would be an exception written into my royal decree though: for electric guitars. It’s an instrument, after all, that doesn’t make much sense without an amp. Then you must allow electric violins, I hear you all cry. No. The electric guitar is a distinct instrument from the acoustic, with a separate repertoire. Let that be the criteria. Your king has spoken.


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It’s Strephon

London

No stranger to the Coliseum Theatre is your correspondent, and while I by and large enjoy the English National Opera productions, many of which are superb, I’d never seen any of the quintessential Gilbert and Sullivan. That changed the other night.

G&S, as I’m now qualified to call them, inhabit an uncomfortable slice of the opera spectrum, with a reputation as being middle-class, middle-England, and middle-of-the-road; one foot in the lifeboat of political satire and the other on the dwindling iceberg of frivolous entertainment. Enough with the metaphors.

I’m making ‘entertainment’ sound beneath contempt, which isn’t my intention; being simply entertaining is a great skill, and indeed this production of Iolanthe achieved it – and a lot more besides.

Also refreshing to see the Coliseum full. It’s a large house and I’ve seen great performances of Mozart and Puccini, Strauss and Delibes, playing to two-thirds capacity. Perhaps back-to-back G&S is what the ENO’s needs to end it’s constant flirtation with financial disaster.

Hardly the youthful audience the ENO dreams of though; I’m in my mid-fifties, and it’s unusual that I lower the average age of any gathering, but this was certainly an exception. The assembled snowbirds didn’t necessarily get what they were expecting, judging by the reaction of the stony faced couple next to me who seemed determinedly unamused. A dancing peer-of-the-realm falling spectacularly off the roof of a full scale stream train: not a glimmer of a smile. An irrelevant pantomime cow wanders across the stage and joins in the chorus: nothing. Another peer with a badly behaved terrier glove-puppet (memories, for me, of Spit the Dog): nada.

Even my favourite gag of the night, the Fairy Queen’s constant mispronunciation of the leading character’s name ‘Strephon’ as ‘Strapon’ – which if you ask me got more hilarious every time – didn’t crack their granite expressions.

Nonetheless, you can now count me as a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. The skilful combination of wit and charm, especially in the hands of such an accomplished company, nailed it.


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Enough?

London

Pulp Fiction is a film of doubtless quality – it’s certainly among my favourites – but it has limited ambitions. Those ambitions are fulfilled perfectly; this is an intricately planned and beautifully made entertainment.

Many at the time criticised this. The violence should have more context, it was said. The vacuous, hedonistic life of the protagonists should be shown to have negative consequences. They missed the point, I think: this is entertainment.

But it’s not a film you’ll walk away from with any abiding questions. You’ll marvel at the plot, revel in the supremely quotable script, copy the style, wonder at the characterisations; but you won’t be asking yourself about the world-wide political crisis caused by the end of the Cold War, the end of apartheid, war in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, or any other contemporaneous events.

Why should you? This is entertainment.

It isn’t always that way though. Landmark films of previous decades did manage to entwine entertainment with relevance: Taxi Driver, Casablanca, The Public Enemy…


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Unraveling

London

Storytime. A man visits a young boy and presents him with his fathers watch, fulfilling a promise.

Early one morning, twenty years later, two gunmen walk into an apartment and kill three young men while narrowly avoiding death themselves. They leave, taking with them a briefcase belonging to their gangster boss, and another guy, who they accidentally shoot in the car.

Startled, they drive the car to a friend’s house where, with the help of a well dressed fixer, they clean up the blood and dispose of the car, and the body, and go to breakfast in a diner. While they eat, a later-day Bonnie and Clyde hold up the diner at gun-point. They escape again, minus their wallets but with the briefcase, and go to meet their boss in a nightclub. He’s busy bribing a boxer to fix a boxing match, but they wait and give him the case.

Later one of the gunmen, after a stop to visit his heroin dealer, takes the boss’ wife out to dinner, at the boss’ behest. She accidentally overdoses on his heroin and he drives her to the dealer’s house where he administers a shot of adrenaline direct to her heart. She survives.

Later again, it’s the night of the big fight. The boxer has double-crossed the gangster. Instead of taking a fall he bets on himself, knocks out his opponent – unintentionally killing him – and runs to a rendezvous with his girlfriend in a motel room, planning to abscond the following day and disappear. She brought his belongings, but omitted the most crucial thing – his father’s watch, given to him twenty years earlier, compelling him to return to the apartment he knows will be watched by the gangsters.

He returns, collecting his watch and killing a gunman. While making his escape he’s recognised and shot by the gangster boss, who pursues him to a pawn shop where they are captured by a psychotic rapist and his friend. While the gangster is being raped the boxer escapes and, to his own surprise, returns to rescue him.

In return, the gangster forgives the boxer’s double-cross.

Heard it before? I didn’t make it up; it’s the plot of a legendary film. Rightly legendary too. It is an astonishing piece of work, ground breaking and shocking in it’s day, and it confirmed the auteur as a great film-maker. Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino.

Almost twenty-five years after it’s release it still feels contemporary; a film I can sit through again and again, relishing it’s affect on first time viewers.

But I’ve always been curious how it was plotted. On screen the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time, and I wanted to see if I could iron out the wrinkles, lay it out flat, and examine the story to see if it still works.

I think it does, don’t you?


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The unforgivable sin

Brussels

There must be people who can speak with authority about railways. State owned? Private? Build more? Subsidise fares? Rip them all up?

I’m not one of them; all I can offer is opinion. Although clearly my opinion would be more important than anyone else’s.

But one thing is obvious: without exception privatisation has led to visual cacophony. Each company tries to out-dazzle the last and the result is the only unforgivable sin: crafted ugliness.

I had the privilege to stand in the concourse of Brussels Central Station this morning. A beautiful piece of modernism from, I assume, the 1950s – several squadrons of British and American bombers having conspired against the previous building. In its proportions, scale and fabric; a building of stature. A confident building, proud of its purpose and of the railway it represents. Built to last by a company thinking of the long term, not of the next quarter’s balance sheet.

And beautifully free of garishly competing corporate identities.


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Knowing

Brussels

I bought a pair of gloves today. From a glove shop. That would seem unremarkable enough, but it’s an impossibly in London.

Specialisation has disappeared from most aspects of life now. Retail workers are not employed for their knowledge of merchandise – in fact any understanding of what they’re actually selling appears to be irrelevant. I recently asked for a polar-neck jumper in a clothes shop on Regents Street only to be met with a blank, slightly frightened expression from the South American teenager purporting to work there. He was pretty enough, which seems to be enough to get the job. That and a willingness to work for minimum wage.

But strolling through the grey insistent rain in Brussels, feeling the chill breeze and remembering I needed new gloves, I wandered for all of 10 minutes before finding what I suspected I would: a shop that sold gloves.

Just gloves: masculine or feminine. Staffed by a woman who knew about gloves, about the relative merits of the various leathers available, the different linings, who could tell my glove size just by looking. A professional.

Not gloves with a logo; there’s no branding involved here. No labels to be seen. Just knowledge, understanding, humour and polite efficiency.

I was close to tears.

On the other hand, central Brussels is devoid of cafes. Seriously. Kebabs and pizzas I could have had surfeit of; but a good old cafe, with tables and waiters? You’d have better luck in London.


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