Our Edinburgh Fringe Weekend

As usual our Edinburgh Fringe weekend started with breakfast at London Kings Cross Station. We’d heard about a new fast food joint in the refurbished station called Kiosk and the idea of a breakfast roll made with Gloucester Old Spots bacon, Portobello mushroom, Cumberland sausage and black pudding (£5.75) to kick off a weekend of comedy, beer and decadent grub in our favourite European city  sounded too good to miss. As it happens it was pretty good, but next time I have one I will ask for it without the grilled tomato, since it makes the bread soggy and eventually fall apart.

It didn’t come as any surprise to discover that our train was delayed arriving because of ongoing engineering works over the weekend, but to give East Coast trains credit, they suspended the normal irrelevant ticket checks and just opened the automatic barriers so when it arrived at 10.20 the passengers were disembarked and we were in our reserved seats and off by 10.29. I suspect that in the twisted world of lies and privatised railway statistics this meant that our departure fell inside the window of being close enough to the advertised schedule to count as not being late.

Aside from an obnoxious stag party who boarded the train at Doncaster and got off at Newcastle it was a fairly unremarkable journey. People often remark about how as you get older time seems to fly past ever quicker, but the hour and half we spent in the company of those idiots ably demonstrated to me how to drag time out to the extent that immortality could come within humanity’s grasp.

Somehow East Coast managed to make up the time lost on the journey and we got into Edinburgh early. Amazingly when we got to Dr Caligari’s Travelprison

they let us book in early and we didn’t have to ask for towels, mugs or toilet paper, although judging from the massive great crack in wall by the bed the previous guest had been Wolverine.

So on to the shows. we kicked off with Ed Byrne’s Roaring Forties. As the title suggests Byrne turned forty this year, but the show also includes some wry observations on politics. I particularly liked the notion of how following Scottish independence Ireland, Portugal and Greece would have to club together to buy an embassy in Edinburgh and then let it out to Jason Manford for the festival. Here’s the bit about Ski holidays.

The following Sunday we woke up to find Edinburgh swathed in mist, a bit like a Hammer Horror movie. After a good breakfast at the Circus bistro in Mary Street,

Circus bistro

Circus Bistro

we took the free gallery bus from outside the Scottish National Gallery in Princes street to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art which is on the west side of the city in Belford Road. It was the first time we had been to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and we had been drawn in by the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition (£7.00) that was running there. Sadly no photos were allowed inside the exhibition but some interesting material by artists ranging from Durer and Goya to William Blake, Frederick Sandys and Paula Rego.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

We’d only found out about the exhibition because of an article in the Fortean Times that one of us was reading on the train on the way up and now we have discovered that free bus I think we will pay another visit to the Gallery to see some of the regular exhibits over the two buildings on either side of Belford Road. I did get a sneaky peak at the reconstruction of Eduardo Paolozzi’s Sci Fi collection on the ground floor before we left, it’s always good to discover that someone famous is a bigger nerd than you are!

Earth and water ground sculpture, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh

Earth and water ground sculpture, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh

Back in town we had lunch at the Auld Hoose in St Leonard’s Street, This is a great little boozer if you like punk, metal or goth (there were some confused looking tourists amongst the regulars), it has real ales, Czech lager and a great value menu.

Monster Chicken Burrito at the Auld Hoose

Monster Chicken Burrito at the Auld Hoose

My chicken burrito (£7.50) was massive and packed with good-sized chunks of chicken while the tower of onion rings (£5.00, including dips) was huge,

The Onion Rings of the Auld Hoose

The towering Onion Rings of the Auld Hoose

so it’s just as well we had a brisk walk across town before taking in some more comedy.

First off was Stewart Lee at the Stand Comedy Club. Unlike Ed Byrne’s stadium gig at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre the Stand was a sweaty little room below a hotel, ideal for Lee’s observations on the Torys and UKIP. sure they were easy targets, but still very funny.

following Lee’s gig we traipsed back out into the street to queue in the sunshine for Alexie Sayle in the precise same sweaty little room. Sayle was brilliant, the 17 years between this and his last stand up gigs have not mellowed his material, brutally funny stuff about Alastair Campbell, the Millibands, Ben Elton and a wicked parody of Michael MacIntyre. I couldn’t find a recent clip of Alexie’s stand-up so here’s the pet Bishop sketch from his TV show

Leaving the show the daughter says to me ‘he’s just like you’

As an old sweary fat bloke with a beard I took that as a compliment!

Final gig was Omid Djalili at the Assembly Rooms.

Another very funny show from the British-Iranian comic with plenty of  gags about cross-cultural misunderstanding which rounded the weekend off perfectly.

Saturday on the South Bank

London’s South Bank has moved on a long way since I were a lad. Back when everything was in black and white it didn’t really matter that the Brutalist structures of the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth hall and the Hayward Gallery (which were about the only leisure developments on the south side of the river) were a drab grey. It sort of matched the monochrome world of the early sixties. Forget about the Beatles, David Hemmings and the Shrimp, this was the London of decaying warehouses and bomb damage.

It’s much more fun now, so with a few spare hours I took a wander down from Waterloo past the South Bank Centre, the National Theatre and the Oxo Tower to the Tate Modern.

The Tate Modern

The Tate Modern

I have said before that for the architects of the modern era power stations fulfilled the role of the cathedral in terms of grandeur and spectacle. The Bankside Power station that now houses the Tate Modern’s collection is no exception to that, despite being designed as late as the 1950s. Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott had a bit of previous here, he had designed Liverpool Cathedral and the rather magnificent Battersea Power Station that is finally being redeveloped a bit further down the Thames. Scott who also designed the classic red GPO phone booth, died in 1960 so he didn’t get to see the building he designed finished. Power generation ended here in 1981 and I do think that the idea to convert the old temple of power into a modern temple of art was really quite brilliant.

I was toying with the idea of visiting the Lichtenstein exhibition that had just opened there, but the queues were so massive that I think I will put that off for another day, maybe midweek to avoid the crowds. The galleries were still pretty busy, with Guardianista parents allowing their little Brunos and Kumquats, who are evidently bored stupid, to express themselves  everywhere. Still I had a good wander around enjoying the Dalis, Ernsts and the odd Gilbert and George. I didn’t bother with any photos as the reproductions in art books are so much better, but the view over the Thames from the coffee shop terrace is pretty cool.

St Paul's and the wobbly Bridge from the Tate Modern

St Paul’s and the wobbly Bridge from the Tate Modern

There is a fancy restaurant on the top floor overlooking the Thames which I must try sometime.

Having had my fill of art I wandered back towards the South Bank’s Wahaca to meet, Mab, the Captain and the Powder Monkey. By the National theatre I discovered this bronze statue of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet. Having just written an article about his tempestuous relationship with the lovely Vivien Leigh I had to take a snap despite the poor light.

Laurence Olivier by Connor

Laurence Olivier by Connor

And best of all he didn’t want a fiver unlike the living statues who were frightening the kids further on down the bank.

The South Bank Wahaca has been built out of old shipping containers  and provides a welcome splash of colour against the drab concrete of the National Theatre.

Wahaca South Bank

Wahaca South Bank

The menu is a bit more limited that the branches in Soho, Fitzrovia and Docklands, but we still had a great meal. The only things that let this branch down in my opinion were the lack of the usual tortilla chips and salsa garnish with the main courses and the fact that the Reza Lasagna from the specials board, despite being very tasty came in a positively tiny portion for something that cost over a fiver.

Pre-Raphaelites, Spies and Vin Diesel – Saturday in London

On Saturday we took a trip into London to visit the Pre-Rhaphealites Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition at the Tate Britain. I find the Pre-Raphaelites a very interesting group of artists, who have to my mind been somewhat sidelined by art historians in favour of what was going on over the channel in France during the 19th century. What the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) did was to reject the view that Raphael represented the pinnacle of artistic achievement, they looked back to the bright colours and truth to nature of the Italian art that preceeded him. Mind you the colourful personal lives of Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Lizzie Siddall, William and Janey Morris were in many ways just as interesting as the PRB’s subversion of the Victorian art establishment.

Having studied the Pre-Raphaelites  for my undergraduate degree I really enjoyed seeing so many of their paintings together. I particularly liked William Holman-Hunt’s The Shadow of Death. This was the first time I had seen this work in person and I was surprised its sheer scale. I suppose being more familiar with Hunt’s smaller paintings like The Awakening conscience or The Light of the World I was expecting something a bit smaller. Yet the thing that struck me most forcefully in this study of Christ in his fathers’ carpentry shop was the detail of the wood shavings on the floor. I was also pleased to see that the decorative arts produced by Morris and Co. got a good showing alongside the paintings. I highly recommend this exhibition.

Having arrived in Pimlico (nearest tube to the Tate) about an hour before our show slot we decided to have a wee drink at the Morpeth Arms first.

The Morpeth Arms

This is a nice traditional boozer selling Young’s Ales right on the Thames riverbank. We carried our drinks upstairs to the Spying Room. I don’t know whether Kim Philby or Anthony Blunt used the Morpeth, (there are pictures of famous spies in the stairwell, including Mata Hari who I know didn’t sink pints of Young’s Special here) but from the upstairs window you do get a great view of the MI5 headquarters on the the opposite side of the Thames.

James Bond’s office London

After leaving the Tate we headed up the Thames embankment for Westminster tube only to discover a whole mess of overturned trucks, smoke and fire engines on Lambeth Bridge,

Mayhem on Lambeth Bridge

‘What all this?’ I wondered, it turned out to be a film set for Fast and Furious 6, not a sign of Vin (the unthinking man’s Jason Statham)  Diesel though.

‘Where’s Vin Diesel?’

Moving on we took a walk through Victoria Tower Gardens where we came upon this rather lovely piece of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.

Buxton Memorial Fountain, Palace of Westminster in the background

This is the Buxton Memorial Fountain. It was commissioned in 1865 by the MP Charles Buxton to commemorate his father Thomas Fowell Buxton who, along with William Wilberforce and Thomas Babington Macaulay was instrumental in the emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire in 1834. The fountain was designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon. I’d never seen the fountain before, it’s finding this sort of unexpected thing when you wander around this great city that makes living in it so interesting.

As Big Ben struck five,

Boing (five times)

We descended into the tube station. Our destination was Butler’s Wharf (nearest tube Tower Hill) on the Southbank where we had a table booked at Brown’s. Our good fortune held and we got a table outside overlooking the river as the day drew to a close. I plumped for the Brown’s Burger (about £12) which came with chips and a small dish with gherkins, fried onions and ketchup accompanied by a proper Vespa Martini made with Lillet vermouth and a twist of lime (£7.25). It was the perfect way to end the day as the Sun set over the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

Canary Wharf after dak

As we walked back to Tower Gateway Station and beheld Tower Bridge lit up in all its glory, I could not help but reflect on what a fantastic city London is. Despite living here for 50 odd years I am constantly discovering new things about the place.

Tower Bridge

Thames Delta – Southend-on-Sea

Seeing that Belfast has George Best Airport and Liverpool has John Lennon Airport, last year I started a campaign to have Southend’s Airport named after the late great Dr Feelgood vocalist Lee Brilleaux.

Dr Feelgood painted by former Kursaal Flyer Paul Shuttleworth

Coincidentally Thames Delta which opened on Saturday at Southend’s Focal Point Gallery is an exhibition all about the south east Essex music scene that gave birth to such bands as the Feelgoods, Eddie and the Hotrods, Procul Harum, Depeche Mode and the Kursaal Flyers.

One of the artists involved with the project, Lucy Harrison, has  put together an installation of called The Feelgood Collection made up of handmade tributes to the band ranging from tattoos (photographs of not the actual skin!) to the poster she designed for the Lee Brilleaux Airport Airport campaign, so I was delighted to accept Lucy’s invitation to come along to the shows launch.

Me with Lucy Harrison - campaign poster designer

Thames Delta will run up to 30 June, so if you are in the Southend area please go and have a look. The Focal Point Gallery can be found at Southend Central Library which is just around the corner from Southend Victoria railway station in Victoria Avenue .

In conclusion here are Dr Feelgood in their prime from 1975 from a show called the Geordie Scene, believe me once you get past the cake wielding idiot it’s worth it.

Amsterdam – Historisch Museum

Just like the Artis Zoo, Amsterdam’s Historical Museum is one of the places that we had missed on previous visits. Originally the site at Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 359 was a convent then in 1580 the building became an orphanage. Rebuilt in 1664 by Jacob van Campen, the orphans were evicted in 1960 and in 1975 the museum moved in. However the room the orphanage governors used to meet in (the Regent’s Chamber) has been preserved complete with period furniture, chequerboard flagstones and Flemish paintings, opposite the cash desk.

Regent's Chamber

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and with its benefit, it might have been useful to my understanding of Amsterdam to have visited this place some time ago, as it does present a pretty comprehensive history of the city and it’s institutions from its early days under Spanish rule through independence, empire, Napoleonic and Nazi occupation to the liberal city of decriminalised prostitution and cannabis cafes of today, that in my opinion most other European cities could learn a lot from.

One of my favourite exhibits is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

The Anatomy Lesson

I believe this is a copy of the 1632 Rembrandt original, which is in the Hague’s Mauritshuis. Now the reason I think this is an important work is because it shows how Amsterdam was a centre of scientific learning at a time when such knowledge was frowned upon by many religious factions.  Even so city anatomist Nicolaes Tulp was only allowed one public dissection a year and it had to be the corpse of a convicted criminal, because obviously he was going to Hell and would not need a fully functioning body come the resurrection. In this case it was Aris Kindt who had been hanged for armed robbery on the morning of January 16 1632. It was a similar absurd attitude to the scientific use of bodies that led to the murdering spree of Burke and Hare in 19th century Edinburgh.

Other highlights of the historical Museum for me were the 16th century Civic Guard’s Italian Armour and the reconstruction of lesbian biker Bet van Beeren’s Cafe ‘t Mandje, the first openly gay bar in Amsterdam and possibly the world, when it opened in 1927.

My only bitch about the museum is that I think the entry price of €10 is a bit steep.

A Quick Look Around Leeds

It seemed like we had only just got back from Edinburgh before we were back at Kings Cross station waiting to board a train to Leeds. Now I have only been to the city a couple of times for boring stuff like conferences and never really had the opportunity to see much of it, so while my better half did the conference thing this time, I had a nose around. After leaving the station the first thing I noticed was this marvelous equestrian statue of Prince Edward, the Black Prince in the city square.

The Black Prince

This statue by Sir Thomas Brock was a gift to the city by former Lord Mayor of Leeds Colonel Thomas Walter Harding in 1903. Pure coincidence that the King at the time just happened to be called Edward too! Incidentally Brock also designed the Victoria Memorial just outside Buckingham Palace. Nearby are eight rather lovely bronze lamp bearers cast in the inimitable mode of Victorian soft porn. These are the work of Alfred Drury.

Victorian soft porn lamp bearers

Moving further into the city I was impressed by some of the monumental buildings, mostly I suspect the result of newly rich industrial civic pride of the Victorian era.

Here is Leeds Town Hall.

Town Hall Leeds

This was designed by the architect Cuthbert Broderick and completed in 1858.

Next door I found the City Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute.  In fact there is so much Henry Moore stuff that it overflows from the Henry Moore Institute into the really rather small art gallery.  Once you get past all the Moore stuff there are a few remarkable Victorian paintings including Holman Hunt’s study of Christ casting the shadow of the cross in his carpentry workshop The Shadow of Death, Elizabeth Thompson’s rather wonderful panorama of the Scots Dragoons charging at Waterloo  Scotland Forever, Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallot, Evelyn de Morgan’s The Valley of Shadows and George William Joy’s huge Death of General Gordon. Moving into the 20th Century there are also some nice works by Percy Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon and Paula Rego.

The art gallery took about two hours to see everything so next stop was the Leeds city Museum in Millennium Square. This is quite a small museum which doubles up as a conference centre.  The most interesting part is the second floor gallery which tells the story of Leeds from early settlement right up to the Sisters of Mercy and the Kaiser Chiefs. The temporary exhibition on the Spice Girls (Mel B is from the town) is quite fun too with everything from stage costumes and gold discs to the Pepsi cans and Walkers Crisp packets that were used to market the band. It’s an interesting study of a global phenomenon even if, like me, you hated the music.

Avoid venturing into the basement if you don’t want to see some ancient stuffed animals stuck behind some funky graphics about climate change, but do take a look at the lovely bronze statue of the enchantress Circe in the gift shop. It is another work by Alfred Drury. Again this is a small museum, so two hours is about enough to see everything.

Slightly more substantial is the Royal Armories located in Clarence Dock over the River Aire. I spent the best part of three hours here looking at armour, guns and other weapons (I know but I am a boy). Particularly interesting were the Asian horse armour, the 19th Century revolvers and machine guns, and the exhibition of weapons used by James Bond. Like all the places mentioned so far admission to the Royal Armories is free and I could quite easily have spent longer there, but time can be a harsh mistress.

As I mentioned before Leeds is full of splendid examples of Victorian monumental building and on the way to our hotel I found this rather nice example with Moorish styling in Park Square.

A northern Moorish palace

This is St Paul’s House and it was originally a warehouse and cloth cutting works. It was designed by  Thomas Ambler and completed in 1878. The front entrance is particularly splendid, shame about the bent bit of pipe in front of it though.

Moorish gateway

That evening we discovered a quite fabulous restaurant, more on that later.