Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Review: A little country rock n roll band

Kane, 9 June 2007, Barfly

It's been a while since I last went to Barfly. In fact when I was last there it was The Monarch and Barfly occupied the top floor. This first-floor room is still where gigs take place and it hasn't changed much over the years. Painted black, dimly lit, a stage at the front, a small bar at the back and little else in between. It's the ideal place for an up-close-and-personal gig.

On the night of the Kane gig this empty space was filled with assorted fans - despite this being the band's second night (the first date sold out within hours, I know because I tried to buy my tickets at around lunch time and there were none left). Not bad for an unsigned, little-known country band from the US of A.

But of course Kane do have one big advantage going for them - the singer is one Christian Kane, famed for played evil lawyer-with-a-heart Lindsey McDonald in Angel. I'm sure many of the band's fans started off as fans of the show, but while they might come for Linsdsey, they stay for the music.

It was an all-acoustic night and first on was singer/songwriter Niall Quinn. Niall's particular brand of country influenced folk was reminiscent of Ryan Adams, and his tender voice is the perfect foil for his lyrically charged songs. For a selection of songs Niall is joined on stage by Katie Harnett, a singer whose voice sounds like it made its way here by way of Nashville.

Second up was David Arthur Jnr, another folksy singer/songwriter, this time with tinges of the Libertines. And this is where David fell down. He's got a great voice and the songs work, but the Pete Doherty shtick doesn't. When David lets his own personality get the better of him, things definitely improve.

And then there was Kane. Duo Steve Carlson and Christian Kane have got themselves a fiercly loyal following on this side of the pond. There were fans there who had been to every show of this short but wide-ranging UK tour. So, yes, Kane were playing to the converted, everyone wanted them to do well. And do well they did, despite some unexpected problems. A few songs in and, just as Steve was building up to a crescendo on his guitar, the sound went... wrong. There was a nasty screech and the note was lost in feedback. And try as she might, the sound engineer just couldn't sort it out.

But Kane weren't going to let something as trivial as a lack of mics stop them! They simply unplugged and played as God intended: just man and guitar. And you know what? It made the gig. Before, the crowd had been supportive, but now they were fully behind the band. The room was small enough that us at the back (I'm too old for all that headbanging at the front) heard every word sung and every note played. The Chase was a particular highlight. The crowd sang along, knowing every word, it was quite touching, and pretty impressive as the only CDs available are those sent out by the band's own fair hands. Then there was some fruity talk about One More Shag, which got the female contingent rather hot under the collar.

The gig ended with a bang: the engineer sorted the sound out and Kane plugged back in and finished on a high note. It was a great night, and reminded me just how much I like live music and small venues. Next time Kane are in London, check them out! I know I'll be there.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Ask the Lowdown

Inspired by my first 'proper' question, I have invented a new series of posts: Ask the Lowdown. Ask me a question and I'll answer it here. And here's the first one, from Anonymous:

  • Hey im going to london for the fist time, and only for ONE DAY! =( is taking the LONDON sightseeing tour bus more worth my money or just buy a day pass to travel around? Any idea?

Really it depends what you're interested in. The bus tours are a great introduction to London if you want to see a lot and you've only got a short time, or if you've got a week or so and no idea where to start. But if you're looking for something more in depth it might be better to choose three or four places you really want to visit and dedicating more time to them. Think about whether there's anywhere you've always wanted to see - if you can come up with three of these, visit them rather than taking a bus tour. Several places do their own tours, the Beefeater-guided tours of the Tower of London being one particularly good example, which are a great way of learning some little-known facts.

It's interesting you mention day passes. You can actually see a lot from the top deck of a double-decker bus. You won't get a commentary or see all the best sights but you can get some great photos!

Hope that helps!

Monday, 4 February 2008

Review: The first emperor

It's taken me a while to get round to reviewing this exhibition at the British Museum, but as everyone and his mother was reviewing it a while back I decided to give it a whirl. So I grabbed my own mother and hot footed it down to Russell Square. The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army explores one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century and the man responsible for creating this amazing site: Qin Shi Huang.

China syndrome: Qin (pronounced 'chin') gave his name to modern China

Qin Shi Huang is a remarkable figure. He became king of Qin at the tender age of 13 back in 247BC. At the time what we know as China was a collection of warring states, of which Qin was one. The soon-to-be emperor set about unifying these states, and due to a combination of superior numbers and advanced weaponry the disparate territories fell to the Qin one by one. One of the improvements Qin Shi Huang introduced was the mass production of weapons, all were made to a blueprint so that if a part broke in battle it could simply be replaced, instead of rendering the weapon useless. The Qin were also extraordinary horsemen, giving them an advantage on the battlefield.

Qin Shi Huang united China in 221BC. He had built a network of palaces that reflected the constellations to illustrate his leadership over the heavens as well as earth. He also invented a new title for himself: emperor, to show his eminance over the other kings of China. While all this building above ground was going on, Qin was also having created an underground necropolis to cater for his death.

The tomb covers approximately four square miles; it took 700,000 conscripts 36 years to complete the mausoleum, and many of them would have been buried alive with the emperor (just one of the ghoulish facts you'll learn at the exhibition). According to Chinese historian Sima Qian, writing less than a century after the emperor's death, the tomb was filled with rare jewels, money, a map of the heavens and a map of China, with mercury representing seas and rivers. Along with all these riches, of course, were the Terracotta Army - a 7,000-strong regiment created to defend the emperor in death.

Toy soldiers: the warriors were mass produced, master craftsmen then added individual features such as moustaches or plaits

The head of one of the soldiers was discovered by a farmer in 1974, spawning an enormous exploration of the area. The exhibition charts this discovery and gives an insight into how the army was discovered and put back together. It shows how the figures were made, with each individual soldier given its own 'personality'. The First Emperor combines artefacts and information about the tomb, how it was created and the contents. The heart of the exhibition is a collection of terracotta warriors, and it is quite amazing to see them in formation. Each standing six feet or above, they are intimidating, even though their weapons have long since rotted away, and the level of detail is breathtaking - from their plaited hair to their hobnailed boots.

The audio tour, at £3.50, is definitely worth the extra cost. It contains much more information than that given on the cards describing each artefact and helps give a more detailed picture of the emperor and his final resting place.

The exhibition is fascinating, the number of exhibits and the trouble the curators have gone to to give a huge amount of information is incredible. And the down sides? Well it was very busy. At times it was simply a matter of standing in line waiting to see the next exhibit. And with all those bodies it got uncomfortably hot. But that's no reason not to go. And you really should, before these wonderful warriors return home, I can honestly say it's an opportunity of a lifetime. The exhibition runs until 6 April 2008 and tickets cost £12. I recommend advance booking.

So was Sima Qian right? Well as yet no one knows - the actual tomb has not yet been excavated. But tests have shown the soil to have an unusual amount of mercury.

The British Museum

Monday, 5 November 2007

Lunch time landmarks: Circus Tricks

Apparently one in five workers in the UK don't take a full hour for lunch, and the average break is only 27 minutes (bbc.co.uk, 2004). Experts say that this can affect health and lower productivity, not only that research has shown that visiting art galleries during lunch time can actually lower stress levels (University of Westminster, 2006). And I'm sure what goes for art galleries must, to some extent,
go for all sightseeing.

It's with this in mind that I start what will become a regular(ish) series: Lunch time landmarks. The title's pretty self-explanatory really. I shall go to and write about landmarks that can be visited during lunch time. There are a few stipulations: the landmark must be in an area with a good number of businesses, so nothing too suburban or hidden away in a residential area; it must be easy to get to, with no wasting of time getting to hard-to-reach places; it must be free; and it must doable within an hour or less. Ideally it will also be close to a few cafes where our intrepid lunch-time tourists can grab a bit to eat. First up:

Piccadilly Circus

Or the statue and fountain that grace Piccadilly Circus to be more precise. In the heart of theatreland, Piccadilly Circus was built in 1819 to connect Regent Street (then under construction under the auspices of architect John Nash) with Piccadilly. Circus (from Latin, meaning circle) means a circular space at a road junction, so it seems this is one circus where there has never been animals. The space lost its circular shape in 1886 with the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue, so it's not a proper circus in either meaning of the word anymore.

But that does quite neatly lead us to the statue and fountain. The aforementioned avenue was named for one Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh earl of Shaftesbury, and the fountain and statue are a memorial to him. The earl was a big-hearted chap and the memorial is to commemorate his philanthropic works. The Shaftesbury Monument
Memorial Fountain, to give it its full name, was erected in 1892-1893, eight years after the earl's death.

Love God: Not Eros, and apparently not Richard Armitage either

The bronze fountain is topped by Alfred Gilbert's aluminium statue. This metal was somewhat rarer than it is today and the statue was the first in the world to be cast in it. This nude, butterfly-winged archer is popularly, though wrongly, called Eros. It was actually intended to be Eros's brother, Anteros, the god of selfless love and
much more appropriate to the charitable, and sober, earl than his more sensuous twin.

The statue was criticised as being in a vulgar part of town - theatres are full of wrong'uns you know. It was also considered too sensual for the famously repectable earl. It's from this that the statues other erroneous name comes from: to allay these objections the statue was renamed the Angel of Christian Charity. The new name didn't stick though, and neither did the correct name and the statue is known the world over as Eros.

Night light: Some of the world's biggest brands up in lights

Piccadilly Circus is one of the most visited sites in London, with scores of people meeting by the memorial. While you're here on your lunch time visit, and maybe pondering the appropriateness of a nude figure in such a public place as no doubt our Victorian predecessors did, take the time to check out the huge neon advertising boards, the Grade II listed Criterion Theatre, the London Pavilion and the huge Virgin Megastores at 1 Piccadilly.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Review: Shrove Friday?

My Old Dutch

Is it okay to have pancakes on any other day than Shrove Tuesday? This was the question that had to be addressed when I and four other lovely ladies met for lunch on a Friday. On my suggestion we went to My Old Dutch in High Holborn, which elicited cries of “Pancakes!” from some and “Pancakes? But it’s the wrong day!” from others.

It’s to the staffs’ credit that they remained remarkably unfazed by the appearance of five excited (and ever so pretty) young ladies on a Friday lunch time with no reservation. We were shown to a table immediately – one right next to the bar; I’m sure that had nothing to do with it not being my first visit. The table was fine, but we could have done without the manager whittering on about ghosts. I’m still not sure what he meant. Don’t worry though, the restaurant isn’t actually haunted.

With 15 savoury pancakes (including five veggie ones) and 10 sweet, plus make-your-own options, there’s enough battery goodness to keep even the most pancake-obsessed diner happy. Although as one of my dining companions pointed out, it is somewhat difficult to believe the toppings are the remnants of what the chef found in his cupboard.

Here’s the thing – the pancakes are huge. I wouldn’t bother with starters or salads. None of the starters particularly grab me anyway; they read much like an afterthought to the main event. But really it’s all about the pancakes. I went for my favourite creamed spinach with ratatouille. SM had the same, S la M had another veggie option, the Greek (feta, halloumi, olives etc), while NM went for smoked duck and DB chose smoked salmon.

The Greek was described as “too cheesy” so maybe one to avoid unless you’re a cheese fiend. The duck prompted NM to declare that she had been converted to the idea of pancakes on a Friday but DB wasn't feeling the salmon. And the spinach went down a treat. We all, literally, bit off more than we could chew though. Despite tactically not eating all our first course (except for NM who proved a real trouper), not one of us attempted a sweet pancake. But the waffles and apple pie are highly recommended. We were all given loyalty cards - get nine stamps and have your 10th pancake free.

I went with a friend to the Chelsea restaurant (there's also one in Ealing) only a week later and did even worse - I couldn't even manage a waffle! My plan for next time is to take someone who'll share a savoury pancake so I can did into a sweet one for afters! I also forgot my loyalty card. But I think the original question was most definitely answered in the affirmative: it really is okay to have pancakes any day of the year; and my American friends all agree.

My Old Dutch

Friday, 12 October 2007

Down on the farm

A cold, rainy day in September might not seem the best day for a visit to a country farm, but I wasn't going to let that deter me. It was my birthday and I wanted to see donkeys and that was the end to it. So equipped with waterproofs, walking boots and warm clothing, my partner and I headed off to Mudchute Farm and Park.

Animal farm: The park was originally a piece of derelict land created during the last century from the spoil from the construction of Millwall Dock

We had planned to walk there, the farm isn't far from our Greenwich abode and had the day been nice it would have been a lovely walk. But the rain gods weren't in an agreeable mood, so we jumped in the car. Luckily, unlike many places in London, the farm is easily accessible by road and there is plenty of parking, albeit the pay-and-display variety. The local Asda has a large carpark with a minimal cost to non-shoppers, there's even a gate into the farm from the grounds. Or you could combine your trip with the weekly shop and get the parking for free.

The park was established in the 1970s when the Greater London Council earmarked the area, which had previously remained untouched, for development. The resulting public campaign secured the site as a people's park for the area. In 1977 the Mudchute Association was formed to preserve and develop the area. Farm animals and horses were introduced and the area has become a haven of greenery in the city. It's free to get in, but as a registered charity, if you do visit please do keep in mind that they rely on donations.

The park is set in 31 acres of land, tended by a small team of professionals and a large number of dedicated volunteers. Once you get over the strange juxtapostion of this bit of countryside with Canary Wharf looming in the background, it is lovely walking around the park, even on a wet day. Although I would definitely recommend walking boots - by the time we had walked round there was so much mud clinging to our boots that my partner and I could have made our own mini-park. There's also plenty to see. There were a couple of llamas, looking regal and disdainful despite the rain, sheep, donkeys, a very vocal cow (I think she must have been demanding her lunch or maybe complaining loudly about the weather), some goats huddled in their hut, geese, chickens, a turkey and even rabbits and guinea pigs. There's an equestrian centre where the farm offers riding lessons and families should pop into the education centre.

Llondon llamas:
Apparently they're happy to keep you company during picnics, but probably not in the rain

On a warm day, it would be the perfect place for a picnic. For the lazy among us (myself included) and those who don't trust the English weather, there's Mudchute Kitchen, which serves breakfasts, lunches, snacks and afternoon teas. The cafe is ideal for families, with its play area for kids, high chairs and cheap meals. It was a runner-up in this year's Time Out Eating and Drinking Awards, Best Family Restaurant.

In fact, they've thought of everything. Except maybe a petting farm. I would love to stroke a few donkeys' and goats' heads, and it would be fantastic during lambing season. And I'm sure kids would agree.

Heavy petting: It would be great to be able to get our hands on the animals

Mudchute Park and Farm

Thursday, 11 October 2007

A little thank you

I'd like to thank everyone who has kept with this blog in the long weeks that I've not posted. As some of you know, I've been poorly and not up to writing. But I'm on the mend now and I plan to get blogging again. I've got a post almost ready and waiting which will be up in the next day or two.

So thanks again for sticking with it, and sorry for keeping you waiting. I hope I won't be away for so long again.