Thursday, 23 June 2011

It's raining, it's pouring...

Ok, so I know it rains everywhere, but right here in London, when we do rain, we really do rain.  Right now summer appears to have been postponed.  It has rained for the best part of three weeks, just as we all let ourselves dare believe that the freak 5 day heatwave we had in April was not the only summer we were going to get in 2011.  Summer clothes have been resigned to the back of drawers and wardrobes as us Londoners revert to our winterwear.  I am fantastically pleased I ignored the Accidental mother's raised eyebrow at my suggestion I bring my Hunter wellies to London; once I stomped across muddy fields in these green monsters, but now I use them to pound the pavements of the soggy city.  And very dry and cosy my feet are too.
As most cities are, London is made of hard surfaces.  Heavy, solid, impermeable concrete and tarmac.  Water slides off or over it, rather than seeping away quietly through it.  Pouring rain sluices down gutters and rooves, along streets and pavements, hurtling down any slick channel like a Splat-the-Rat down a drainpipe.  Raindrops bounce back up off the ground into the sky from whence they came.  Pavements become even less passable than usual, as Londoners go about their usual routines clutching the handles of cumbersome, drippy umbrellas.  Eyes are at risk of gouging, ankles in danger of being spiked.  I had a brand new pair of tights ruined before I'd made it into work last week thanks to the errant velcro strap on an unfurled umbrella on the bus.  (I can't remember who first referred to them as "portable death-tents" but never was a nickname more apt!)  Tourists never seem to bring umbrellas with them on holiday, so they instead shiver beneath those god-awful, crackly plastic ponchos handed out by tour-operators.  Particularly harsh downpours force pedestrians to huddle beneath scaffolding or hoardings (which always amuses the hard-hatted builders) or in the doorways of shops or offices, like rain-refugees.

But it's summertime.  Where are the blue skies and harmless white fluffy clouds?  We should all be sitting out late in the balmy evening sipping Pimms and planning weekends spent having boozy picnics in the park.  Instead we're inside sat on our sofas, watching The Apprentice and dreaming of summer holidays in places where the weather does what it should this time of year.  Is this London's most disappointing summer ever?!  Wimbledon has just begun beneath ominously grey clouds, where it usually guarantees hot weather and sunburn.  What is going on?  Of course it rains for Glastonbury which kicks off this weekend; it's as traditional as the sunshine over Wimbledon.  Although so far the festival's fields are already waterlogged and the action hasn't even started!  But here in London?  How can mud get into the middle of a city?!  However, the tiny wee silver lining which accompanies these big black rainclouds is that whilst it's pouring down outside I find it a lot easier to closet myself in the library to work away at my dissertation.  So sorry everyone, whilst this summer's dreary weather may be cramping your fun plans, it may just be the reason I'll finally complete my degree.  I actually hope it continues...

*of course, now I've written this we're guaranteed a heatwave.  (Here's hoping!)

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The 'Black Swan' effect: a visit to Covent Garden's Royal Opera House

The release of the film, 'Black Swan', earlier this year has a lot to answer for.  As one slightly irrate ballerina complained in a recent Sunday newspaper magazine, it did little to portray professional ballet dancers as more than psychotic hysterics.  It also robbed the truly fantastic Jennifer Lawrence of the Oscar for Best Actress, which she thoroughly deserved for the perfect 'Winter's Bone'.  Worst of all I could not bear to look at the ballet pumps perpetually worn upon my own feet without feeling utterly creeped out and expecting feathers to start bursting through my legs at any minute.  On the other, more positive, hand, the film has also inspired more of the general public to go to the ballet.  Although the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden apparently became fed up of the endless calls by people keen to book tickets for Natalie Portman's 'Swan Lake'.  (It was only a made-up story, people.)

For fans of opera London boasts two principal opera companies, of which the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, is one, along with the English National Opera, based at the London Coliseum on St Martin's Lane.  However the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is possibly better known for being the city's home of ballet.  Originally built in the nineteenth century, the current ROH is the third building to occupy the site, and was heavily rebuilt, refurbished and modernised in the 1990s.   
Entering by the columned entrance you pass into vast Paul Hamlyn Hall with its huge barrel roof, all metal and glass and plush carpets.  You can even enjoy an pre- or post-show meal or drink in this lovely, light, yet enormous, space.  Alternatively in the interval you can enjoy a restorative plate of smoked salmon sandwiches and a cold glass of champagne in the Amphitheatre Bar at the top of the building, reached by a very long, high escalator.  A popular interval haunt, the bar opens also onto a refreshing terrace, with wonderful views over the centre of the city.
The main auditorium is lined with red velvet seats and opulent boxes for the wealthiest of ballet or opera fans.  But if you're a student, or not sure you want to commit a lot of cash to a trip to the ballet, or just a tiny bit broke, you can get a bargainous £5 ticket to stand at the back of the hall, high up above the ranked seats.  With many performances you can have just as much fun up at the back, and although the action seems far away the excellent acoustics ensure you hear every perfect note.

Back on the Amphitheatre Bar terrace at half-time you also begin to get a sense of how large the Opera House really is.  As a visitor you can quite easily flit between your seat in the main performance hall, known as the Floral Hall, and the bar at interval time, without being aware that below street level is a cavernously deep basement.  And up above the stage are a further four levels!  The ROH's basement stores numerous stage sets and scenery collections in large wire containers, which slide around the floor like a giant puzzle game.  Entire play-worths of scenery wait in the wings of the main stage, alongside racks of costumes.  A rehersal stage, almost as large as the main stage, allows full trial performances for an imagined potential audience.
Backstage are hundreds of carpenters, lighting engineers, designers and scenery-shifters buzzing around like black-clad bees in a hive.  They swarm up above the stage as well as over and behind it.  High above the stage are the flights - the areas from where the lights and backdrops are controlled - narrow, floating platforms covering in snaking cables; furiously hot during a performance due to the hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of bright lights.

But beyond the stage are scores of offices and store-rooms, unseen and probably unconsidered by the majority of those who go to see the ballerinas leap about the main stage.  There are wardrobes of lace and trimmings, with floors covered in scraps and exquisite costumes on headless mannequins.  On the top floor of the building, not so far from the Amphiteatre Bar, are rehearsal dance studios, where many a dancer has practiced their steps for hours on end.  The studios are walled with mirrors, whilst their floors are excitingly sprung - perfect for bouncing about upon.  For any top ballet dancer in London, nay the UK, the Royal Opera House is a highly desired stage upon which to perform.  Look up in the narrow street that runs alongside the threatre and there is a beautiful faceted bridge high up in the sky, linking the nearby Royal Ballet School to the Royal Opera House; its name is the Bridge of Aspirations.  Within this extraordinary building, where so much is hidden behind the scenes, it is no wonder that so many long to explore its secrets.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Did you know I've just got back from Ghana?

So, I don't know if I may have mentioned I've just been to Ghana?  Oh, I did? I banged on about airports and Accra already?  Oh, ok then I'll not mention it again.  But just in case there is anyone who still wants to hear what I got up to on my Accidental holidays, you can read about me searching for elephants here, on the wonderful Travelbite website.
And here are some baboons that we also saw...they had vicious little teeth and liked to rip things apart (lizards, sticks, the contents of the washing line) but we don't have them in London so we thought they were quite cool! 

Ok, ok!  I'll be quiet about holidays now...back to gloomy, grey, un-June-like London...

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Little Venice - waterways and watery homes

Famed for its canals, gondoliers, and beautiful buildings, the Italian city of Venice is one of the world’s top tourist destinations.  As a nod to the popularity of this place, Las Vegas has even built its very own city replica, inside one of its gaudy hotels.  But Britain got there first.  London’s Little Venice was first named back in the late 19th century, by poet Robert Browning who lived in this area of central West London for over 20 years.
Today "Little Venice" (a pocket of Maida Vale, W9) is home to some of the richest Londoners.  An Accidental colleague claims there are also a lot of arty types about, but less of the starving-in-a-garret ones, more of the exhibiting-in-galleries-in-W1 types I would imagine.  Vast Victorian stucco-ed mansions, that require a pricey re-painting every three years, line wide streets down which carriages once clattered.  Even one of the very first gas lampposts still stands in the grounds of a slightly dilapidated mansion near Warwick Avenue.
The star resident of the area is the winding canal.  In fact, two canals meet in Little Venice; the Regents Canal and the Grand Union.  Once a transport route for the city’s many heavy industries now little moves up and down except tourist barges and the odd canal-boat moving between moorings.  Along its length are a number of other boats that go nowhere at all.  Permanently moored, these are floating homes, and some of the most prestigious addresses in the city.  (In terms of boat residences these are on a par with the luxurious floating homes of Chelsea.) 
Whilst many bricks-and-mortar London properties have little or no garden or outside space, some of these houseboats have alloted gardens on the stretches of riverbank opposite where they are moored.  Despite the fact these green spaces are often tiny and very narrow, with a towpath splitting each garden from its boat, the owners tend them proudly and with a certain horticultural flair.  Here a gazebo draped in trailing wisteria, there a pair of deck-chairs with a recently abandoned cup of tea and paperback book.
Where once heavy horses stomped dragging laden barges, the towpaths are peaceful now.  Boat pets come and go.  Residents sunbathe and chat.  City visitors barge noisily, and unthinking, through these properties.  For the owners of these extraordinary homes, some days it really must be like living in touristy Venice.
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