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Attuned to June

Mercury

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National Trust, Waddesdon Manor / John Bigelow Taylor

Waddesdon Manor was the venue for our annual Staff Social day out. This plush country house in Buckinghamshire is the ancestral seat of those bankers, the Rothschilds. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style of a French chateau by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, it came in very handy for entertaining house parties and for showing off his fine collections of art.

Baron Ferdy originally bought it as a farming estate from the Duke of Marlborough (thanks to a hefty inheritance from his father) and he set about transforming the site with lavish gardens and an aviary.

The last member of this illustrious family, James de Rothschild, bequeathed the house and its contents to the National Trust and is one of their most visited properties.

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It was the hottest day of the year (Scorchio!) and the food festival was in full swing as our coach set down and set forth the staff. The cider tent was a particular favourite…

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Table

The hot weather continued into the following week, which meant our regular visit to the Aegon Classic did not involve as much scurrying to the beer tent whenever rain threatened.

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Svitolina to serve…

Thus we managed uninterrupted tennis on the first day and enjoyed four decent contests:

Naomi Osaka (Jpn) beat Laura Davis (USA) 6-1, 2-6, 7-6

Barbara Strycova (Cze) beat Yulia Putinteva (Kaz) 6-3, 6-3

Elina Svitolina (Ukr) beat Heather Watson (Gbr) 6-2, 5-7, 6-3

Naomi Broady (Gbr) beat Alize Cornet (Fra) 7-6, 6-0

 

Nature Notes Warning:

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Frampton Marsh The RSPB

Frampton Marsh was to be the venue for the season finale of the West Midland Bird Club.

Frampton is one of many coastal wetland reserves where seeing anything ornithological is merely a bye-the-bye bonus to accompany a brilliant walk. However, high vantage walks look out across the Wash and inland views take in reedbeds, freshwater scrapes and marshy fields. With a new digital camera making its juddering debut, I blurred fairly decent views of Corn Buntings, Avocets, Lapwings, Yellowhammers, Reed and Sedge Warblers and Spotted Redshank – plus a pair of loved-up Spoonbills.

There are some great photos on the official Frampton Marsh website, which I’ve included here plus my own meagre offerings and a classic photo fail!

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Yellowhammer

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Avocet

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Another One

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Spoonbills

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Fail

And if we are on the cute chick photos, we cannot fail to show these reed warblers (though they may want to improve on their toilet training!). Photo by Paul Sullivan

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And these photos are by Neil Smith:

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The parents are busy looking after their young. You don’t get more protective than avocets, who chase off things which might want to eat their chicks…

…and those that wouldn’t, but just get a little too close

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Transylvania

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In the nineties, Michael Jackson moonwalked out on to the balcony of dictator Ceausescu´s Bucharest Palace and addressed the worshipping throngs below him. The King of Pop held out his arms and squeaked:

“Hello Budapest!”

He wasn’t the only one. So many people mistook Romania’s capital city for Hungary’s, that Bucharest once launched a “Bucharest not Budapest” campaign to encourage visitors to learn the difference between the two cities. There was even a rumour that 400 Spanish soccer fans accidentally flew to Hungary’s capital for a Bucharest-based game!

At least the King of Pop got to address a crowd from the hallowed balcony, which was more than Nicolae Ceausescu ever did, having been overthrown (or rather, shot dead) before such an accolade could be accorded.

The Bucharest Palace has since been re-named the Casa Poporului – which means Palace of Parliament in Hungarian – sorry, Romanian.

A 90-minute guided tour of the palace reveals only a mere 3% of what’s available with 12 floors and at least another 8 underground levels (you also need to bring your passport to get in). The Palace is immense and plays host to the Romanian parliament, as well as providing ample room (it has 1,100 rooms) for various conferences, museums and theatres.

Incredibly, the person responsible for the construction process of the Palace of Parliament was coordinated by a mere slip of a girl – 28 year old Anca Petrescu.

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Palace of Parliament

The presenters from popular BBC show Top Gear once recorded a programme where they drove cars through vast tunnels hidden beneath the palace. These tunnels were originally designed so the cautious Ceausescu could do an underground runner to the airport in case of a revolution.

Check it out:

When the Romanian Revolution did start, Ceausescu and his wife Elena made their escape from Central Committee Building by helicopter. They didn’t manage to get far as the pilot dropped them off in the countryside where they were arrested and later shot.

There is a fascinating blend of turn of the century elegance and communist excess in Bucharest, which can be appreciated through its architecture. The city centre is a melting pot of Medieval, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings with blocky, functional communist-era architecture lumped in for good measure.

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Oana was our guide and she gave excellent potted histories to several landmark buildings during a walking tour of the capital. There were many interesting back stories to life under the exacting communist regime that Romania experienced after the Second World War. Shackles were finally struck off in 1989 and Revolution Square was an obvious place to begin our city tour. It was here where Ceausescu addressed the crowd from the balcony of the Central Committee Building, blathering on about the small matter of a recent uprising. He completely misread the crowd’s mood, which resulted in that emergency helicopter dash for freedom.

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Central Committee Building

After being shot, footage of the trail and execution was released in Romania and to the rest of the world. The moment of execution was not filmed since the cameraman was too slow – only just getting into the courtyard as the shooting ended. (There is a rumour that the cameraman had, in fact, gone to Budapest first).

Ceausescu whittled away at the national debt by exporting all the choice food abroad. Throughout the 1980s increasingly grim reports tumbled out about the Ceausescus’ “State of Terror”. Too much food was being exported to repay Western loans and many Romanians were starving.

“It was as if he sold all the best parts of a chicken – the breast, the leg, the thighs – and left the offal, feet and necks for his people.”

Bucharest boasts many fine buildings besides the Palace of Parliament. The Romanian Athenaeum, an impressively columned concert hall, is just one of several landmarks in the city. Other impressive edifices include the Triumph Arch, the CEC Palace, and the National Museum of Art of Romania. Bestriding the square is the equestrian statue of King Carol, a German who became king (the Germans have a knack for this sort of thing). The Romanians fancied that a bit of monarchy would be just the ticket to spruce things up after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

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Romanian Athenaeum

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National Art Museum (former Royal Palace)

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Old Court Church (the Old Princely Church)

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Romanian Savings Bank (CEC Building)

The National Museum of Romanian History has a strange statue on the steps featuring a wolf being held up by a naked fella.

This is a statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan who conquered Dacia, the province located in Romania. He is holding a Capitoline Wolf, whose head is joined to the tail of a dragon.

When popped on its plinth, the statue was not exactly lauded by the locals, with some describing it as a “monument to Romania’s stray dogs.” Others wondered why the dog was levitating and why it was wearing a scarf while the emperor wasn’t even wearing any underwear.

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National Museum of Romanian History

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Trajan and his pet dog

The Memorial of Rebirth is another monument in Revolution Square, commemorating the struggles and victims of the Romanian Revolution that overthrew Communism. It also sparked spiky controversy when inaugurated for being too abstract and unrepresentative of the suffering and hardships of the revolution. Others suggested in looked like a potato on a toothpick.

Looking like a Giacometti figure having a bit of a sit-down, the statue of Iuliu Maniu pays tribute to one of Romania’s foremost politicians and former Prime Ministers who scorned the Russian influence and was imprisoned when the communists came to power. The statue is slyly positioned in Revolution Square, in front of the former Communist Party Headquarters.

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Iuliu Maniu

Somehow along the way, we managed to get trapped in the Stavropoleos Monastery, a small Eastern Orthodox Church for nuns. With a service in full flow and some impressive chanting from the black-clad nuns, there was some reluctance to push past the imposing bouncer on the door: a terrifying lady with a thousand yard stare. Fortunately, Oana rescued us.

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Stavropoleos Monastery (Fusionofhorizons)

After a decent walkabout, there were a number of bars and hostelries crying out to be repaired to and we summarily obliged.

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After which, we were all going on a bear hunt.

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The Carpathian Mountains bustles with bears – brown bears, which require a certain level of care when traipsing through their territory. Romania has a healthy bear population, over 40% of Europe’s ration, and this region is of key international importance in their conservation.

If confronted by a bear, do not turn and run and, if attacked, curl up in a ball and protect your face. There would be no ball-curling for me – I was just going to leg it as fast as I could and hope to overtake the slower members of our group.

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Bear tracks were clearly visible on the path as we walked through the woods, and then quietly tip-toed up the wooden steps to the hide.

The hide overlooked a small clearing in the forest, and already a large bear was snuffling around below us. Binoculars and cameras were cocked and ready. As dusk approached, more bears dipped in and out of the clearing with five bears showing up at one time; a couple more timorous beasts circled around and sniffed the air suspiciously.

It was all quite splendid.

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The Transylvanian village of Moieciu was to be our base for the next few days. The view from my room, one of sweeping hilly slopes with wildflowers and birds, was in stark contrast to the vista from my room in Bucharest, which was, basically, a wall.

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Room with a View – Moieciu

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Room with a View – Bucharest

The following morning, Romania did away with its natural modesty and decided to show a bit of leg.

A walk in the Bucegi Mountains up through forest and woodland brought us into a vast clearing with a Sound of Music backdrop. Dark mountains bulked against the sky and low cloud slipped across slightly snowy slopes; wildflower meadows rolled up to the curve of the hills.

It would’ve been rude not to have a beer with such a backdrop and a shack-like bar doled up the necessary refreshment.

Known as the ‘Pearl of the Carpathians’ because of its stunning scenery, Sinaia was a short drive away. Faced with such natural beauty, imported monarch King Carol felt compelled to build Peles Castle here – a Neo-Renaissance chateau crammed with ebony, ivory, Persian carpets, stained glass and all manner of curios.

There is a statue of King Carol overlooking the main entrance, presiding over a goodly amount of other statues aligned along the terraces.

In one corner of the terraced gardens is a statue of King Carol’s wife, Elizabeth, stoically setting about her embroidery. It probably wouldn’t have been her first choice when it came to the commission – surely striding majestically alongside a steed or brandishing an impressive breastplate to the elements would have done the job better.

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Queen Elizabeth – Giving it some welly

Pelisor Castle was within touching distance of Peles, an Art Deco/Art Nouveau creation of Queen Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Known as the Artist Queen, Marie set about Pelisor Castle with great gusto – and probably a paintbrush. Lots of oak-timber, a working glass ceiling that slides away when the weather’s good. An intricate spiral staircase loops up one side of the hall, and various other chambers lead off from the corridors. There is a ‘golden room’ with gilded walls and thistle decorations – a Celtic nod to her Scottish roots (although she was actually born in Kent).

There is, of course, another castle Transylvania is quite famous for – Bran Castle.

Yes, the family seat of Count Dracula, the notorious Nosferatu who liked nothing better than settling down in front of the TV with some Nachos and a pint of Rhesus Negative.

Not that Bran Castle was ever visited by Bram Stoker, the novelist responsible for bringing all things vampirism into the public consciousness when his book was published in 1897. However, Dracula was banned in Bran and throughout Transylvania due to the communists banning all vampire fiction until 1990.

Vlad the Impaler, the notorious 15th century ruler of Wallachia, never actually lived at Bran yet his fearsome reputation stoked macabre myths more monstrous than anything Bram could.

In modern Romania, dracul means “the Devil” so we can see where this is heading.

Stories about Vlad’s evil deeds began doing the rounds during his lifetime, and he was often described as a man of unheard cruelty and justice – the perfect personification for the creation of Count Dracula.

A lengthy poem about Vlad, the “Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia” deftly outlined a few of his more unsavoury pursuits. Vlad had two monks impaled to assist them on their way to heaven, and also ordered the impalement of their donkey because it brayed too much.

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In fairness, he was a rubbish lap-dancer

On another occasion, some Turkish messengers refused to take off their turbans when paying dutiful respect to Vlad. Vlad simply reinforced this custom by having the turbans nailed to their heads.

Although described as a ”demented psychopath, a sadist, a gruesome murderer, and a masochist” his brutality was probably exaggerated to some extent by some old adversaries – the Saxons.

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“Throw another shrimp on the barbie.”

In the curiously titled documentation “About a Mischievous Tyrant called Dracula” it was alleged that Vlad (old cove that he was) ordered some women to be impaled together with their babies. He was also not averse to boiling alive the odd dissident or two but impaling was really his thing.

It is doubtful the intended sequel to this document, “The Naughty Antics of Nasty Vlad” ever got published.

It is easy to see why Bran Castle was considered the home of Bram Stoker’s creation, allying its location and details with the jumbled descriptions offered up by the novelist: “Every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.”

The vast ruined castle being on the edge of a terrific precipice, at the bend of the Carpathians and looking triumphantly down from a rock, has all the hallmarks of Chez Dracula.

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Bran Castle by Florin73m

The castle is indeed perched high up on a tall rock, following an irregular outline with tall towers and trim courtyards. Inside the castle walls, narrow and low hallways lead down winding wooden stairs, through lobbies and chambers, bedrooms and corridors and out on to terraces. Much in the way of weaponry and armoury adorns the walls and spaces, with the odd wolf pelt splayed randomly across a floor.

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At night, under a fanciful full moon, it is hoped some bats would set the whole scene off nicely.

One of the most historic medieval cities in Transylvania is Brasov, a cluster of ancient fortifications where Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance influences abound around the narrow passageways, wide open squares and cobbled streets.

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German settlers originally founded Brasov to protect routes that threaded their way through the high passes of the Carpathians.

The Saxons built massive stone walls around the city that are still visible today with Catherine’s Gate being the only original city gate to have survived since medieval times. The town has a fine central square, claimed to be the spot to which the Pied piper led the children of Hamlin. The most iconic historical building in Brasov is probably the 600 year-old Black Church, which became known as such after a great fire blackened its walls. During its tenure as a place of worship, several permutations of different persuasions knelt down at its pews including Catholics, Lutherans and Protestants.

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Catherine’s Gate

The History Museum of Brasov is worth a look with rare exhibits and collections but on a bright sunny day, a visit should never be at the expense of a cable-car ride up Mount Tampa.

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Fringed by the peaks of the Carpathians, Brasov is known as the city at the foot of Mount Tampa. When our old Friend Vlad attacked Brasov in 1458-60, the citadel was destroyed and 40 merchants were impaled on top of the mountain. Nowadays, you can enjoy a leisurely cola and look down on the red-tiled rooftops of the old town sprawling out to meet stern communist blocks on the outskirts.

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A tasty traditional Transylvanian meal was waiting for us back at the guesthouse – bean soup, Tochitura – a sort of pork stew, with Sanmale (cabbage rolls) all washed down with some robust local wine.

All that remained was to toast the hospitality of Romania with the local firewater, Tuica.

As they say in Romania – Noroc!

Cheers!

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May days

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You wouldn’t have needed boots to step out with the fell-walking club this month: a droll Cotswold stroll in blazing sunshine.

Pushing through woods thick with wild garlic (as well as some fairly miffed garlic and some indignant bluebells) and up and over rolling hills and woody glades. From Broadway, the circuit took in the villages of Buckland, Laverton, and Stanton before (the only challenging bit) clumping up Shenbarrow Hill and onto Snowshill for a pint or two before back to Broadway for some suitable regard giving.

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It was Roy’s walk and here is his only slightly longer proposal:

Map: OS Explorer OL45 (The Cotswolds)

Start: Long stay car park Leamington Road, Broadway

GR: 101377

Walk through Broadway Village and after church though fields to Buckland and Laverton and then on to Stanton. Long climb to Shenbarrow (3 acre hill fort 700BC). Then descend to Snowshill for lunch at Snowshill Arms.

Then an afternoon climb past Brockhampton Farm due north and finishing through bluebell woods to Broadway.

Covering sections of Winchcombe Way and Cotswold Way, on mainly tracks and field paths. No mud!

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Buttercups

Breather

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Oilseed

 

A mid-week Stag-do at the Glee Club for Mark K’s forthcoming nuptials was a brilliant stage in which to celebrate in suitably boozy fashion at the Comedy Carousel.

Hosted by Andy Robinson – who provided some brilliant compering – was ably assisted by comedians Bec Hill and Sunderland’s Matt Reed.

It was a fun night with one of our heckling entourage being heckled by a heckler.

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The A-Team at the Glee Club

The final Flat Disc Society evening for the season was a trilogy of films taking inspiration from the 5th International Conference on Roundabouts in Green Bay, Wisconsin (naturally).

First up was a short film from 1943: Piccadilly Roundabout A British Council film in which a soldier in a Far Eastern post explains to his mate the special significance of Piccadilly to a Londoner.

Next was an edition of Roundabout from May 1963. Roundabout was a series of short, monthly promotional films created by the Central Office of Information for distribution across the Commonwealth. This particular edition features, among other things, the opening of the new terminal building at Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong (now closed, but still visible across Kowloon Bay).

Finally, the main event was The Magic Roundabout’s 1972 feature film Dougal and the Blue Cat. There’s a new arrival in the Magic Garden in the form of a blue cat called Buxton, which spells trouble for the gang. Some very strange things begin to happen and it’s up to Dougal to save the day (spoiler alert: he did!)

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And finally, a birding trip to that most dead brilliant of RSPB reserves – Ynys-hir, which is Welsh for ‘dead brilliant reserve.’

Crunched up in the Dyfi valley, Ynys-hir puts out saltmarsh, oak woodlands and wetlands in tantalising array and, with a cast of thousands amongst its fauna and flora, there is always a cameo or two to savour.

Best one was the Red Kite swooping in to take Oystercatcher chick, which it then started munching away on as it swept back up into its native skies.

There was a Blue Tit bathing in the flooded siding of the railway tracks, and a pair of Pied Flycatchers seeing off a Great Spotted Woodpecker, which we were initially alerted to by the squabbling woodpecker chicks in a nearby tree hole. Some tidy Redstarts also drew more than a cursory glance being one of the UKs most splendid birds, and there were also scrunched up views of some heat-haze blurred Osprey dots in the distance.

On the top end of the view overlooking the estuary, a not so young lady asked us if we had any sweeties or goodies to spare for her companion who was struggling a bit with low blood sugar. Unfortunately, we didn’t – and said as much – to which said lady whipped out a Tunnocks chocolate wafer from her rucksack and thrust it at him.

Well, you better have this then, she said.

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Finally, to finish off the month, there was a pleasant afternoon in London wade through.

Walked through Hyde Park, with its unnervingly tame waterfowl where even a Coot was confident enough to nest on the edge of the lake (actually on the pedestrianised area surrounding the water), and swans and geese seemed happier out of the water than in it.

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A couple of hours spent in the Natural History Museum is never enough but I managed to soak up the Creepy Crawlies gallery and the excellent Images of Nature exhibition.

Then it was off to the Thistle Hotel at Terminal 5 for a nice little chill-out before the morning flight to Romania…

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“April is the Cruellest Month”

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Showing at the Birmingham Rep: One Love – The Bob Marley Musical, a celebration of the rare man’s music legacy as well as dipping into more turbulent aspects of his life.

If you like this sort of thing, then it’s impossible not to enjoy such a buoyant festival of reggae and song, nicely crafted as it was alongside a few more of Bob’s colourful life episodes. The finale was a surprising mash-up of cast and audience getting down and jammin’

Here’s Lyn Gardner’s edited review from the Guardian.

Clearly made with love by writer and director Kwame Kwei-Armah, and received in the same spirit by a Birmingham audience, this musical inspired by the life and times of Jamaican musician Bob Marley may not be great theatre, but it’s undoubtedly a great night out.

That’s as much to do with the infectious pleasure of an audience hearing Marley’s many hits impressively delivered by Mitchell Brunings and a terrific band as it is with the show itself. In the programme, Kwei-Armah says that he wanted to avoid “sing-a-long-a-Bob”, but if that’s what he finally delivers in a clever final framing which casts us as the audience at the One Love peace concert in Kingston in 1978, during which Marley brought Jamaica’s warring political factions and gang leaders together, there is nothing to apologise for. Has there been a bio-musical that has sent an audience out of the theatre on quite such a high?

But while it’s satisfying musically, it’s often less sustaining dramatically. Marley deals with disputes within his band, embraces Rastafarianism and becomes a local hero in dangerous times. He was the target of an assassination attempt just before he was due to headline a free concert for the Jamaican people in December 1976.

He holes up in London, where he behaves like a womanising whiner while letting his music do the talking as he makes the album Exodus. The show loses focus and doesn’t always find a way to use the songs theatrically: Waiting in Vain/No Woman No Cry delivered as a duet between Marley and his betrayed wife, Rita (an excellent Alexia Khadime), is a rare exception.

If Brunings can’t ever quite flesh out the man, he always gives voice to Marley’s songs in a way that reminds us of a mighty talent whose music still speaks across the world, even if its creator remains stubbornly elusive.

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Pre-Bob Snack before hitting the Rep

 

Not far from the Rep is the Crescent Theatre, which offered some prime fare in the shape of Not About Heroes, an engaging piece about the uneasy friendship between poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as they convalesced at the Craiglockhart War Hospital.

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Some brilliant performances from Andrew Smith as a haughty but playful Sassoon, and George Bandy striking a more provincial pose with Owen.

Here’s a great review from the Little Miss Horton blog (edited a little bit): http://www.littlemisshortonblog.wordpress.com

Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori, penned Wilfred Owen, ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.’ Or is it?

The set, created by Dan O’Neil and Keith Harris, used a sombre backdrop of silhouetted barricades merging with the harsh red sky, a constant reminder of the bloody and violent fighting in France.

Not About Heroes, is a contemporary tragedy about the two greatest war poets of World War One: Wilfred Owen who died and Siegfried Sassoon who didn’t. Stephen Macdonald’s play details the friendship between them, when they meet at a military hospital in Scotland. Told through the medium of letters and poetry, the play paints a gruesome yet sincere picture of war.

Andrew Smith embodied the poet, Siegfried Sassoon; encompassing the pacifist, the lover of golf, the broken soldier and the grief-stricken friend all at once. His easy portrayal of the character grabbed me hook, line and sinker into the tragic story line.

As Wilfred Owen, George Bandy gives a thoughtful portrayal of the war poet. The progression of Owens’ character from the ‘coward’, to the man willing to go back to the front line was done masterfully.

George Bandy, whom I spoke to after the show, spoke on great length about his role, saying: ‘This was probably the most daunting project that I have undertaken. There is nothing quite like being on stage consistently for two hours, without an ensemble to back you up, but working with Andrew I could not have felt safer. Playing Wilfred Owen has been a challenge like no other, but I would not give it up for the world. I can only hope, to have done him justice.’

And I believe they have done a great justice for their stories.

Wilfred Owen’s Draft Preface:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

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The Flat Disc Society’s monthly offering was Wasteland, an Oscar-nominated documentary about rubbish, which was anything but. Jardim Gramacho is the world’s largest landfill, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. It follows the artist Vik Muniz as he creates portraits of the workers used from materials scavenged from the tip.

The title is a nod to TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland so here’s the first verse seeing as we’ve a poetry thing happening this post. Spookily, it also tips a wink to this month’s blog title so I’m really going for it:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

According to Eliot, who wrote these famous opening lines to “The Waste Land,” April is a bastard because it leaves you hoping and wishing that spring would come, but it never really closes the deal. It is a time of year when everyone’s sick of winter and wants the light and warmth again. April usually delivers a few sunny days just to tease us and then it pisses down the rest of the month, and the whole thing’s a big disappointment. It’s a bit like watching Aston Villa.

As usual, there were also a little short features to get us settled into the rubbish theme – British Transport Films: I am a Litter Basket, a quirky educational offering, and Isle of Flowers, a documentary following the fate of a spoiled tomato – that is, a squelchy tomato discarded by a middle-class housewife, not a tomato that is given too much pocket money.

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The annual birding visit to Devon came at the end of this busy first week – a few long, sunny days by the sea – the hottest so far of the year.

Before checking in, it was necessary – nay, essential – to saunter around Exminster Marshes to the Turf, a handily placed pub on the estuary where any obligatory twitching can be undertaken on the water’s edge with a pint or two of Avocet Ale.

Staying at our favourite haunt, the Langstone Cliff Hotel, in Dawlish Warren meant we were handily placed for several forays out into the Devonshire countryside. The splendid weather lasted as we checked out Berry Head (nice Ring Ouzel in the quarry), Labrador Bay (Cirl Buntings looking good against the red-turned earth), Dawlish Warren (stunning Cornish Pasty with an early migrant Magnum to follow).

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Sticking to the pattern of previous years, it was onto Bowling Green Marsh the next day, with Woodbury Common for Dartford Warblers in the afternoon. These birds are chirpy little things that only ever surface above the gorse when you’re looking the other way. A Stoat bounded across the path on the way up to a stand of pine, and Stonechats and a Wheatear kept us entertained between Dartfords.

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Pete and I stayed an extra day, which meant we could indulge in a bit of Somerset on the way back to Brum.

Visiting the reed-laden expanses of Shapwick Fen and Ham Wall turned up a Bittern, as well as the now regular sightings of Great White Egrets. A Mink swam across one of the pools, causing widespread panic amongst the ducks and grebes. I’d not seen such wholesale panic since the English fled Mel Gibson in whatever movie he made last.

 

Managed to get some footy in – the mighty Halesowen were taking on plucky Sutton Coldfield Town in a relegation battle. It only took several hours after the match finished to realise that it was, in fact, Sutton who had won 1-0 and not Halesowen (they also play in blue…)

 

The month was book-ended with another birding sortie – this time to Cambridgeshire. Not the greatest in terms of spotting stuff but two great locations visited.

First up was a stroll through Fowlmere Nature Reserve. Natural chalk springs bubble up and feed the pools and reedbeds, which are surrounded with hawthorn scrub and crack willow. Not a great deal of birds around but plenty of butterflies such as Orange Tip and Brimstone.

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And finally onto Paxton Pits, an area of active and disused gravel pits, but also a haven of lakes, meadow, scrub, grassland and woodland. Usually packed with wildlife, especially birds. There were plenty of Cormorants and Tufted Ducks, no small amount of pigeons either, and finches and tits but no sign of Nightingales or Turtle Doves this time. Kestrels and Buzzards provided the raptor element, as did a lone, hunting Sparrowhawk but it was the Hobby that took all plaudits with its scything falcon flights over water to grasp luckless dragonflies.

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March-ing On

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Common Lizard

A heady mix of gladiatorial passion and throbbing football was the order of the day with Tamworth downing high-flying Salford City 2-0 at the Lamb Stadium. Salford City had risen phoenix-like in recent years with the unparalleled wisdom and experience of Manchester United’s former poster boys investing in the club. Unphoenix-like but very in tune with the death throes of a stricken grouse on the Glorious Twelfth, Tamworth’s talons were unsheathed and, with little regard for mixed metaphors, felled the northern giants.

Rainbow

But enough of that.

The avian theme continued, however, with our annual pilgrimage to the Forest of Dean with the West Midland Bird Club.

To notch up Hawfinch, Goshawk and Great Grey Shrike before the day was done is always mightily pleasing. Added for extra vim, in the skies above the New Fairy Viewpoint, were a Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Buzzards and Raven.

Also warming up nicely along the viewpoint was a couple of Common Lizards, either very confiding or just too cold to move.

To complement, here’s a lizardy cartoon from the crow Collection:

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Its impossible not to enjoy a day out in the spring forest regardless of what may or may not be seen but there’s always something to gladden the eye. The Hawfinches were spied along the treetops at Parkend; the over-wintering shrike (there’s always one) put on an inhibited showing at Crabtree Hill and goshawks plied their distant aerial acrobatics at New Fancy.

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Great Grey Shrike – Marek Szczepanek (the photographer, not the Latin name!)

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Hawfinch – Mikils

 

The Commitments was on at the Alexandra Theatre, and we squeezed into the restricted leg-room seats to enjoy a hugely entertaining production based on the successful film, which was based on the successful book by Roddy Doyle, which was adapted for the stage, which whatever…

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Apart from the usual grumpy tirade about having to pay outrageous extra ticket fees on top of ticket prices and then getting hit by a stealthy transaction fee (for what? For why? For Goodness Sake!) it was surprising not to be subsequently charged an entrance fee at the door and a completion charge to exit at the end of the show!

Tirade over. It was a great show, as summed up by this review by Diana Davies of the Express and Star:

The Commitments, New Alexandra Theatre – review and pictures

These are things we learnt whilst watching The Commitments stage show last night.

Soul is politics, soul is the rhythm of the working people, soul is sex and sex is soul.

Well if soul is sex then I am certainly in need of a rest and a cigarette after watching that performance at the New Alexandra Theatre. That much soul can wear a girl out!

Watching this production of The Commitments is like your best night out with your craziest friends – or family!

Set in Dublin in 1986, young music lover Jimmy decides to form the ‘world’s hardest working band’ to bring soul to the people of Ireland and sets about recruiting band members.

What follows is a cacophony of people shouting and occasionally fighting, oodles of laughs and some fantastic classic soul tunes.

Andrew Linnie who delivers a solid performance as the ambitious young entrepreneur plays Jimmy but he is ultimately the ‘straight man’ to the many colourful characters in the band and the production.

The strangely charismatic, ageing musician Joey ‘The Lips’ who claims to have a musical CV to die for, is back in Dublin to spread the word and love of God – though he spreads the love a little too freely with the girl singers in the band.

The base but annoyingly-talented singer Deco is played by Brian Gilligan. If soul is sex then the velvety smooth seductive voice of Gilligan is the aphrodisiac. His performances of It’s a Thin Line Between Love & Hate and also Try a Little Tenderness send a tingle down the spine that sinks down to your very toenails.

And his irrepressible energy in such upbeat numbers as Proud Mary, Mustang Sally and Papa Was a Rolling Stone is stubbornly infectious.

Sadly Deco is an aphrodisiac that works only if you close your eyes, as the character’s personal habits are as detestable as his arrogance and vanity.

Kevin Kennedy – who for most of Britain will only ever be Curly Watts – brings a lot of laughs as Jimmy’s ‘Da’ despite a dodgy accent, while my favourite character was Mickah, played by Sam Fordham, as the excitable and somewhat menacing ‘security’ man.

The trio of backing singers are played by Amy Penston, Leah Penston and Christina Tedders who, as well as demonstrating some incredible vocals, play interesting, individual characters who have their own influence on the dynamics of the band.

It came as no surprise to see everyone on their feet at the end of the show singing and clapping along – we had been fighting the urge from the start of the show.

Bonus clip: here’s a little taster of the gang from their Dublin show on YouTube:

 

This month’s Flat Disc Society film, La Strada, is also doing the rounds at the Birmingham Rep this year. So this is the Rep’s own take on it, which, as usual, saves me a job:

Frederico Fellini’s Oscar-winning La Strada is one of the all-time masterpieces of world cinema.

La Strada ‘The Road’, a metaphor for life, is a deeply impassioned tale of love and loss. A journey into the heart of the Italian countryside where Gelsomina, full of the innocent spirit of youth, is bought by Zampano, a travelling street performer, to join his ‘strong man’ act. When the mismatched pair stumble across a ragtag circus and a daredevil tight-rope walker, Gelsomina finds herself caught between the two men, not knowing which way to turn…

Before the main feature, we were treated to a short film, The Vagabond, featuring Smethwick’s very own Charlie Chaplin!

Here’s some pertinent – and handy – photos from the Birmingham Mail website:

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Michael Chaplin attending the unveiling of a memorial to the Romany Gypsy community in Smethwick, where his father Charlie Chaplin is believed to have been born.

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The Black Patch in the 1850s.

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Black Patch Park in Smethwick, thought to be the birthplace of comedian Charlie Chaplin.

 

It was not too far a venture this month for our monthly walk as we nipped over the border to Warwickshire and stretched our legs around the Studley area.

Here’s Stuart with the particulars:

Map: Explorer 220

Parking: Sports Centre car park, off Pool Road, Studley. Free parking and there are “award winning” toilets a short distance on at start of walk.

Grid reference: SP070636

Post code for satnav: B80 7QU

The walk:

I haven’t pre-walked the route yet but my route will be roughly south towards Coughton and then north west to Sambourne for lunch at The Green Dragon pub. An excellent pub, which serves well-kept Hobsons and Purity beers.

After lunch it’s east and then north to follow River Arrow back to Studley.

It was a nice, flat walk – none of that hilly nonsense. The Green Dragon pub was interesting in that it was a regular haunt for Brummie comedy actor Tony Hancock – his Mom having been the licensee for a few years.

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Once more, I have plundered YouTube for this clip of Hancock delivering one of his more memorable skits: The Blood Donor bit:

 

Managed to catch the last weekend of the Francis Bacon exhibition – or rather last chance to see his painting, Two Figures in a Room, at the splendid Barber Institute. The painting was on loan from the University of East Anglia, and is the first ever to go on display at the Barber. Here’s the painting and the blurb from the Barber website:

Bacon-Gallery

This disquieting image from Bacon’s middle years features two naked figures, usually interpreted as male lovers, and was daring and provocative at the time of its creation, when homosexual acts in private between men were still illegal in the UK. Works by Matisse, Degas and Michelangelo have been suggested as sources for the two figures – and its display among the old master paintings of the permanent collection simultaneously suggests the debt and influence of historic art on modern painters.

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February Fun and Frollix

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After the quiet but very enjoyable heralding-in of 2017, there’s nothing quite like an Anthrax gig to open February.

The heavy metal/thrash band was in Brum at the Birmingham Institute and supported by equally impressive The Raven Age.

The Raven Age, an English metalcore band, provided a brilliant opening for Anthrax to follow with some scintillating guitar-shredding and bang-on drumming fronted by some dead-good vocal gymnastics (I’m awaiting a call from Classic Rock magazine anytime soon to review stuff).

Here’s some YouTube of The Raven Age:

…and here’s a musical cartoon from the Crow Collection:

ralphAnthrax were on form with a blistering set, as befitting a band whose reputation is already cemented in the big four quartet alongside Metallica, Megadeth and The Dooleys (actually, that last one may be Slayer).

Here’s an edited review from http://www.metalwani.com by Jack Toresen.

On February 9, 2017, I traveled the short distance to Birmingham to see Anthrax celebrate the 30th anniversary of their classic 1987 studio album ‘Among the Living’. The support act for the tour was The Raven Age, a melodic metal band featuring guitarist George Harris, the son of Iron Maiden founding member and primary songwriter Steve Harris.

The Raven Age audience enthusiasm and participation definitely started off relatively minimal and grew continuously as their set went on. However, for an opening band I feel that The Raven Age did an admirable job of warming the crowd up for what was to come, although in circumstances such as these it is difficult when you’re playing before a classic 1980s thrash band.

Anthrax performed a variety of tracks that included “Madhouse”, “Evil Twin” and “Fight ‘Em ‘Till You Can’t”. “Among the Living” came next – the title track followed directly by “Caught in a Mosh” which is one of the best 10 minutes of live music I think I’ve seen in a long time, played to a room of people who knew every word to every song.

Just under two hours flies by when the band’s technical prowess as musicians as well as their undeniable enthusiasm as musical performers draws you in.

To conclude, Anthrax’s performance at the Birmingham Institute was very, very good. The Raven Age was a welcome opener, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again with Iron Maiden.

It was so good to see that they got the recognition they deserved on that night. If you’re seeing Anthrax this year, and especially on this tour, you’re in for a treat.

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Anthrax proved to be a gentler emotional interlude than going to see Birmingham City beat Fulham 1-0 as part of Dave’s ongoing 50th celebrations. Dave was the half-time guest of honour and presented with a signed football shirt and stuff on the pitch. (Never mind Classic Rock – I should be writing for Four Four Two).

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For my own more modest birthday celebrations, a crawl around the Jewellery Quarter did the trick, gathering in the Rose Villa Tavern and ending up with a highly-recommended Black Shack Chicken in the Church. That was lunch in a pub, not a sacrifice at the altar…

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The February film on offer from the Flat Disc Society’s Film Club was a Swedish teenage lesbian romp, which garnered great reviews from Rotten Tomatoes website with a 90% liking on the Tomatometer and an unusually large club attendance on the night. The Critics Consensus: a naturalistic depiction of teenage life, Show Me Love has a charming, authentic feel.

Here’s the blurb from the Tomatoes: This coming-of-age comedy is set in a sleepy little Swedish town called Åmål — the most boring place on Earth according to adolescent Agnes. Agnes is not able to make friends at school. She’s in love with Elin, but no one knows about it except her computer.

A short film, Talk, preceded the main feature: Birger is old and retired from work. Still, he goes back to work since he has nothing else to do. Back home he gets a rare visitor: a girl from Hare Krishna recruiting new members. But his need for human contact proves to be overwhelming for the girl.

If my Aunt Florrie had called instead with her bible, it would have been a different outcome, you can be sure…

 

Which left a final weekend for a bit of a ramble in Mamble.

Mamble is a village in Worcestershire in the Malvern Hills district, somewhere between Bewdley and Tenbury Wells. It was also in the lower division of the Doddingtree Hundred – not a football league but a huge slice of land carved up during William the Conqueror’s day and handed to his standard bearer as a reward for bearing his standard during the Norman Conquest.

Nice work, if you can get it – a nice chunk of land for waving a flag.

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All penned in

The poet John Drinkwater penned a poem about the village of Mamble, spookingly called Mamble:

I never went to Mamble
that lies above the Teme,
so I wonder who’s in Mamble,
and whether people seem
who breed and brew along there
as lazy as the name,
and whether any song there
sets alehouse wits aflame.

The finger-post say Mamble,
and that is all I know,
of the narrow road to Mamble,
and should I turn to go
to that place of lazy token,
that lies above the Teme,
there might be a Mamble broken
that was lissom in a dream.

So leave the road to Mamble
and take another road
to as good a place as Mamble
be it lazy as a toad;
who travels Worcester County
takes any place that comes,
when April tosses bounty
to the cherries and the plums.

The walk itself was brutally muddy but, in the tradition of all great rambles, it was bracing! Dragging ourselves through mud and sludge, over stiles and across fields, petting ponies and carrying little dogs. We trampled our way through the endearingly entitled little village of Neen Solars which, according to Wikipedia, boasts a phone box!

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Gary to the rescue

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Liz often needed a good defibrillating

 

A welcome lunch awaited at the 17th century Sun & Slipper Inn. No song set alehouse wits aflame but the excellent bill of fare had many cooing with delight – slabs of roast beef dinners and salmon steaks stuffed many a gill.

 

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Remembering September

A staff industry update residential by the Business School@UCB tagged Liverpool and Manchester with the onerous task of keeping us informed and entertained for a couple of days.

Armed with Enterprise, Regeneration and Digital Innovation themes, these two major cities ticked all the boxes for our team building and bonding sessions.

First up was a tour of the Auto Trader premises, which followed a talk on the challenges of running an online commercial business.

 

The Auto Trader magazine was published weekly in a number of regional editions with circulation peaking at 368,000 in 2000 but soon dropping down to 27,000 by 2013. It was in this year, 36 years after it began, that the final magazine was printed before the company concentrated on its online business.

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First and Final editions

 

Autotrader.co.uk was launched in 1996 and is the UK’s busiest automotive web site with over 10 million users per month.

So many stats and numbers so here’s a little unrelated fun fact: the founder of Auto Trader in the UK was John Madeiski, who went on to take over Reading Football Club.

After a presentation, we ventured through the offices, spread out over wide floors with shiny cars scattered everywhere and not one in need of a polish.

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In accordance with its adoption of agile ways of working, Auto Trader’s offices include hot desking spaces, informal breakout areas, walls that can be scribbled on, touchscreens, and ‘war rooms’ for teams to attack various problems.

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Some walls were decorated with graphics from the well-known Haynes manuals, which could be coloured in if the mood took anyone but the most striking element were those cars – a series of iconic vehicles that were chosen to represent different decades in Auto Trader’s long history.

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Before these were brought into the offices, staff were given the opportunity to drive the cars around the old offices as a tribute. Afterwards, the engines were removed, and the cars coated with a special paint allowing them to be written on. Some were also adapted into little meeting dens – making them the perfect jotting pads!

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Lunch was scheduled at Pokusevski’s, a Mediterranean style deli in the heart of Media City. Suitably shored up, the team took a tour of Media City, part of the recently regenerated Salford Quays and home to a whole host of BBC channels and programmes such as Match of the Day, Blue Peter, A Question of Sport, Mastermind, BBC Breakfast, Radio 5 Live, CBBC, and BBC Sport, to name but eight.

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bbc

group

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Sian with Dave and Derek the Daleks (Dave always stands on the left)

The team was treated to an exciting interactive radio drama experience with all participants performing impressively. Four of them were immediately signed up for the next series of Downton Abbey.

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Visits to the BBC Breakfast studio, Radio 6Music studio (where Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe were jabbering away) and the BBC Sport studios were next up.

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The team were given the chance to see and take part in innovative digital broadcasting channels and there was no shortage of volunteers with several of the team stepping up to read the news, forecast the weather and play Question of Sport.

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An exhausting but enjoyable day saw us depart Manchester for Liverpool where we booked into the Nadler Hotel. This unique hotel – once a warehouse and print works – is situated in the centre of Liverpool’s authentic, urban cool Rope Walks village.

Dinner was taken at the Old Blind School, a restaurant that had previously served as a school for blind children, a police station and a trade union headquarters.

Drink was taken at the Philharmonic Dining Rooms, which is slowly becoming my local, it seems.

With a continental breakfast to help us on our way (a paper bag with muesli and yogurt neatly stuffed in the fridge), our first call was the Museum of Liverpool.

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waiting

A presentation was given by Tracy McGeagh, the Director of Marketing Communications, on Innovative Digital Practice and Audience Engagement.

A swift tour of the museum followed and then it was off for a ferry across the Mersey.

An Indian festival joined us aboard the ferry, making for a lively cruise along the river, which offered sweeping views across Liverpool’s iconic cityscape whenever the blustery wind wasn’t keeping our eyes closed.

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Afternoon tea at the Hard Day’s Night hotel rounded off an excellent couple of days, with cakes and sandwiches being served in the Blake’s Restaurant (Peter Blake being the sleeve artist for the famous Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album).

PS: For more about Liverpool and some sunnier photos, just scroll down to last month’s post (Robust August)…

 

Nature Notes Warning

Having done Manchester on Thursday and Liverpool on Friday, I did Norfolk on Sunday – a full weekend and more! It was the start of the birdwatching season and we made our way to Titchwell.

It’s not always necessary to see stuff when visiting this reserve – just enjoying the wide expanses of water, reed beds and sandy beaches under blue skies generally does the job.

titchwell

However, amidst the usual array of Titchwell specialties, there was a new tick – a couple of Black Terns flying low over the sea.

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birding

Otherwise, it was business as usual with Ruffs, Yellow Wagtail, Little Stints, a Garganey, Whimbrel and various ducks, grebes, geese, swans, plovers, snipe, waders and whatnot milling about to confirm Titchwell as a truly premier reserve.

 

Then there was the fell-walking club’s not-quite-fell-walk around Hopesay in Shropshire. This walk also turned up about six Red Kites, picking through a recently ploughed field for wormy delights.

Here’s Paul with the details, in case anyone fancies doing a gentle amble through some fantastic countryside – weather helps, of course, and it was fantastic on the day too!

Map:  Explorer 217 The Long Mynd & Wenlock Edge

Start Point and Parking: 

Stokesay Castle. The car park is to the rear of Stokesay Castle and the church. It is An English Heritage car park and you pay at a machine.

Grid ref: 435817 – Postcode for SatNav: SY7 9AH

The Walk:

We follow the Shropshire Way via Sibdon Carwood to Hopesay Common. This gets the climbing out of the way and is worth it for the wonderful views from the top. We then descend to Cheney Longville and cross the River Onny to Wistanstow for lunch. The pub is the Plough, which is the tap house of the Woods brewery, an independent brewery since 1980. Probably best known for Shropshire Lad.

Following lunch, we head SE crossing the A49 and the Quinney Brook, then S along the Onny valley, back to the start.

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To conclude the cultural element of the month, the Flat Disc Society fired up a new season with a screen showing of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

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This little blurb from the Michigan Theatre Facebook page pretty much sums it up:

This influential German science-fiction film presents a highly stylized futuristic city where a beautiful and cultured utopia exists above a bleak underworld populated by mistreated workers. When the privileged youth Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) discovers the grim scene under the city, he becomes intent on helping the workers. He befriends the rebellious teacher Maria (Brigitte Helm), but this puts him at odds with his authoritative father, leading to greater conflict.

This film was the Giorgio Moroder restored version, which threw in a synth-rock soundtrack including Freddie Mercury, Bonnie Tyler, Pat Benetar and Adam Ant and is, quite possibly, the first ever disco remix of an entire movie.

 

Finally, to round off October – an enjoyable evening was spent at the Birmingham Rep to see Dead Sheep, a play about Geoffrey Howe’s bloodless revenge on Margaret Thatcher.

Here’s the poster from the Rep, and a review from Birminghampress.com by Richard Lutz:

To put this play and its title in context: Labour heavyweight Denis Healey once hilariously called being attacked by Tory politician Geoffrey Howe akin to “being savaged by a dead sheep”.

Howe, Maggie’s right hand man, was indeed placid, quiet, monk-ish and he maybe deserved the quip from the sharp-tongued Healey as they sparred across the Commons back in the eighties. But this play is about when Howe turned from dead sheep to a wolf. When sidelined by an increasingly rigid out of touch Thatcher more than a quarter of a century ago, he resigned from government and delivered a vicious attack on the flailing anti-Europe Prime Minister. She resigned soon after.

Ex BBC reporter Jonathan Maitland re-creates this episode, throwing in the delightful sub plot of Howe’s liberal wife Elspeth tangling with Maggie every time they met – like “two wasps in a jam jar” quips louche MP Alan Clark at one point. She comes across as half Lady MacBeth, half St Joan.

Paul Bradley pulls off the humbled figure of Howe to a tee – even when he wakens from his subservience to launch his fatal assault. Carol Royle is Elspeth Howe… assertive, in love with her cowed husband and still an enigma as to what part she actually played in perfecting the fatal verbal blow against the woman she detested.

As for the Maggie herself, here’s a surprise. It’s taken on by Steve Nallon who voiced the Spitting Image Thatcher three decades ago. He/She comes across as a bit of caricature, the face rigid, humourless, the gait stiff and awkward, the voice perfectly pitched. But sometimes it is a panto dame in what is a fine dark comedy play coloured by superior acting.

A trio of actors valiantly portrays some of the main players from that era: the aforesaid Alan Clark, Neil Kinnock, Downing Street spokesman Bernard Ingham, Ian Gow, Nigel Lawson and even an hilarious impression of Brian Walden, the TV front man who never could pwonounce the full wange of the alphabet. Too bad, though, there was no Denis Thatcher (only an offstage voice) or the Tarzan-cum-elephant in the Tory room, a certain Michael Heseltine.

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