Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Late Afternoon in Late Autumn

This was the scene that greeted me as I jogged into Regent's Park earlier today. Over dinner later at the hall, someone from the US commented that a friend of his who's based in Singapore had complained about the lack of changing seasons over there. I certainly understand that sentiment. Here, you do get a sense of time moving ahead. The weather has been rather mild for this time of year, but the days are steadily getting shorter. I am hardly a morning person, and barely hours after I rise, the sun's ready to set. It can get dreary. Is SAD all in the mind? Or is it a real, serious condition?

Midweek Murmurings

So it’s been a pretty harried and mixed past couple of days. The end of term is drawing near, and work is piling up, with various assignments yet complete. I’m still taking way too long to complete my readings, helped only by the fact that the exams aren’t due until next Spring, thereby making life a wee bit more bearable for now.

I managed as well to link up with someone from home who’s here on a graduate programme, sent by MFA. His fiancée was with him, and both of them were very nice. Given that I used to work there for some years, I was able to talk to him as a virtual insider. I know the lingo. I know the people. I know the policies. Unfortunately, that’s part of my past, although for him, it represents much of his future. I felt the contrast subconsciously, and a wistful sense began to emerge. I’ve been very fortunate thus far in landing very fulfilling appointments, but at this point in time, I have no idea where I’ll be this time next year…

On a much brighter note, a few of us from hall got together for a nice meal at the nearby Hare and Tortoise restaurant. It’s located in the Brunswick Centre, a recently refurbished shopping development about a five minute walk away. When I arrived in mid-September, many outlets had yet to open. Now, it’s much more pleasant, with several restaurants, an art house cinema, the almighty and posh Waitrose supermarket, and quite a few fashion retailers.

Hare and Tortoise sounds like a typically whimsical name for a local pub, but in fact, it’s a pan-Asian restaurant, serving dishes recognizable to many East and Southeast Asians. Get a glimpse of the mouth-watering menu here. I walk past the place many times a week as I make my way to school, and invariably, it’s crowded with both Asians and non-Asians. So, surely the food must be good?

And indeed it was, with generous portions to boot. I had a tasty ramen noodle soup, and also tried out someone else’s curry laksa. The prices are kind to students, and it’s definitely a place worth frequenting in future. But we got a sense of the less than satisfactory service on offer. And it seems that, judging from this review, we weren’t the only ones thinking that way.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Time For More Food

Another outing for good Indian food in London. There I was earlier this evening at the Malabar Junction with three lovely ladies from class - two of whom are core members of our Monday Night Dinner Club. Well, we don't gather every Monday. But when we do, it's always lovely to sit down, to try out new food together, and, simply, to talk.

Malabar Junction ain't that bad. It's centrally located, on Great Russell Street, near to the British Museum. It's said to specialise in cuisine from Kerala, but I just had to go for my biryani, and I added a cauliflower and potato curry to go with it as well. Yum. We're hoping to try out Mexican food the next time we meet.

My morning had begun with a presentation before my International Relations seminar group. It was a sobering start, as the marks for this session would count towards the final grade next year. The question under discussion - "Are democratic values univeral or culturally specific? Should actors in world politics work to promote democratization? If so, through which methods?"

I was tasked with arguing the case against democracy promotion. It's relatively easy to cite points in favour. Just take a look at what's happening in the Middle East currently. But this being a graduate class, it was imperative that all arguments advanced had to be grounded within some theoretical basis, whether empirical or normative. I don't know how well I've done. Countries can be democratic. Classrooms aren't.

Monday, November 27, 2006

As Good As It Gets!

It was campy, it was crazy, and it was delightfully funny. All in all, a very enjoyable and amazing Sunday evening. For many years, I could only imagine how marvellous the Last Night at the Proms might be. I think I got as close to the real thing as I could today, with an opportunity to stand up, to wave the Union Jack, merrily singing anthems such as Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory.

The evening had found me back at South Kensington again. A quick dinner first with with some friends from hall at Carluccio's on Old Brompton Road. Thereafter, deprived of even a quick cappuccino, we were off to the Royal Albert Hall for a 'Classical Spectacular' concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, accompanied this time by the London Philharmonic Chorus and the Band of the Welsh Guards. Our vantage point from Goodenough College's regular box was perfect.

And what was on the menu? A slate of some of the all-time most popular classical works out there. There were operatic hits, including arias from Verdi and Puccini, performed by a competent tenor, John Hudson, and a statuesque soprano, Natasha Marsh. Hmmmm. There were also rousing works, such as Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Ravel’s Bolero, Fucik’s Entry of the Gladiators, and Sibelius’ Finlandia.

No prizes for guessing which piece rounded off the evening. Yes, Tchaikovsky’s ever popular 1812 Overture, complete with musket and cannon fire, lasers, fireworks, and bells. How can these mere words even begin to convey the stirring, the exhilarating atmosphere that prevailed within the Albert Hall when it all came crashing in?

I saw the event more as a choreographed production, rather than as a serious musical performance. The audio had been amplified, resulting in a rather loud, rich and even oily sound. The tempo for individual pieces was rather fast, and I had never heard Pachelbel’s Canon being performed by a full orchestra, and not with much subtlety at that.

But who cares! The point was not to judge the performance artistically. Rather, it was to hang out with friends and to indulge in a night of unashamedly populist partying, partaking in music that moved the heart. It was really inspiring to see the entire arena erupt in unison, flags in the air, when pieces like Jerusalem were played.

Yes, this is a piece about a country not mine, but William Blake’s haunting words have stirred me ever since I first read it years ago. When set to Hubert Parry’s hymnal music, it’s absolutely magical:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariots of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

We left the Albert Hall and walked into the dark autumn evening, merry in spirit, whistling, joking, sashaying, with a feeling of bliss. These are the memories, the moments in time that I shall recall fondly, when I look back one day to my one year here in London.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Casino Royale

Casino Royale is an utterly, spankingly brilliant movie.

And so I take back whatever Hokkien curses I had sputtered when the producers announced Daniel Craig to be the new James Bond. I think Pierce Brosnan was consummate in the role of 007, but he was let down by the how the previous two outings were conceptualised and directed.

Casino Royale, in comparison, seems an unconventional movie. It does stray somewhat from the standard Bond formula. No Moneypenny, and no Q. No computer-generated special effects, and – unfortunately – no catching theme song as well.

What we did find was a very gritty and human portrayal of Bond by Daniel Craig. He sweats. He bleeds. He gets tortured and beaten up. Yet he remains menacing, although occasionally betraying traces of emotion and tenderness. Craig pulls it off rather well. But what’s with the very beefed-up physique? A marketing ploy? Men have always been attracted to the Bond series – with the cars and the gadgets, the girls and the adventure. Women were perhaps more ambivalent. Eva Green in her role as Vesper Lynd was great. She’s really pretty. But this must be the first Bond movie I’ve watched where I think the man was being objectified, not the woman. All those lingering shots of Bond’s sweaty, sinewy muscles had little impact on me. I can’t say the same for some of my movie companions…

Where my heart did ache was the moment when Bond’s Aston Martin DBS was roundly smashed up. While swerving to avoid hitting Vesper Lynd, Bond caused the car to summersault and flip several times, breaking it into a million pieces. It was utterly appalling. What a waste of a fine machine…

I caught the movie with a group from the hall at the Cineworld multiplex in Canary Wharf, located in the London Docklands area. This is an urban regeneration success story. A generation ago, one saw disused and derelict warehouses. Today, it’s a thoroughly modern area, home to many top banks and investment houses, clean, sleek, and looking more like Raffles Place than central London.

A word about where we dined tonight as well – Browns Restaurant and Bar. It’s located on West India Quay in an old warehouse, and forms part of a chain with branches across the UK. I had a nice time there, and I think the Singapore Doctor did well in recommending the place for dinner. Very discerning of him. The setting was relaxed, yet not entirely casual. The food was an eclectic mix of cuisines. I had a very satisfying linguine in an interesting spicy tomato sauce which came even with cut chilli slices. Check out the complete offerings here. I need, surely, to go dine at Browns a second time. There’s an alluring Leffe Battered Fish and Chips on the menu.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Right to Watch TV

This is the right time to comprain, surely. I've just received the summons to pay my UK TV license. And the cost? A princely sum of £131.50 (SGD 393)! In contrast, the rate charged back in Singapore is SGD 110. Wah lau, don't they know I'm just a poor student?
In Goodenough College, we get to watch TV streamed directly onto our laptops. It's quite a neat set-up. Sitting at my desk, I can tune on to BBC Three on one window, for instance, while working on a presentation on another. We have access to all the mainstream terrestrial channels from BBC and ITV, plus a splash of other more exotic channels, including foreign language broadcasts.
For the most part, I've not found myself watching much local television. It gets too distracting, especially when I'm trying to study. Perhaps I've not really been paying apt attention to the schedules, but the offerings I come across never seem to be particularly appealing. Entertainment programming appears pretty low-brow. I tend typically to watch BBC News 24 or CNN International to stay in touch with all the crap that's happening in the world. And, of course, I need to check out the latest weather reports. You can't live a full life in London if you're not obsessed with the weather.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Channelling Vitaly Churkin

I am Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations. I've been representing my country in that capacity since the spring of 2006. I must say it’s been a pretty interesting few months. My foreign minister is Sergey Lavrov, and he was in New York in September, in conjunction with the 61st session of the UN General Assembly. My defense minister is Sergei Ivanov. We report collectively to the President, Vladimir Putin, who directs the general course of Russian foreign policy......

Well, of course, I’m not the esteemed Mr Churkin. But I’ve been assigned this role for a coming major policy simulation exercise, which concludes my international relations class at UCL. We’re planning to simulate a debate on the North Korean situation at the United National Security Council. The focus is not just on the theatrics of the occasion. In advance of the UNSC session, we can expect to see quite a bit of behind-the-scenes bargaining and negotiations between different delegations.

The other participants of the class have already be assigned to the different roles – whether as members of the Permanent 5 or rotating delegations, or as part of concerned parties such as North Korea, South Korea and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Some have had the good fortune of being tasked to play the role of luminaries such as Kim Jong-Il or George W. Bush. This should be fun. I think the first strategy we Russians should take, as always, is to gang up with the French and the Chinese and stiff the Americans. Heh, such are the realities of global politics.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Adam and Eve Redux

It wasn’t that long ago that I chanced upon Cranach the Elder’s iconic painting of Adam and Eve, hanging in London’s Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery. So it was rather interesting to stumble upon another strikingly similar work by the same painter in Brussel’s Royal Museum for Fine Arts. And here it is:

I wonder how many Adam and Eve depictions did the great master produce? Was it a favourite subject of his? What's the background to it? And how did it come to be that the version that Desperate Housewives used for their opening sequence was the one in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery?

The Cranach work was one of the many gems in the museum, which I visited this past Sunday. It’s an enormous institution, exhibiting art pieces from the medieval era right up to today. It had a huge collection of ancient religious art, and of works from Flemish and Dutch painters. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with that school, and as such, had a hard time digesting what must undoubtedly have been pretty significant offerings.

I was delighted, however, to find an entire room devoted to the works of Pieter Brughel the Elder – yeah, another one who fathered a successful artist son as well. He was one of the earliest noted artists to focuses almost exclusively on secular scenes, mostly centred around a peasant theme. In fact, works by Brughel the Younger were on display as well. But besides creating his own painting, he frequently reproduced copies of paintings by his father.

I had the good fortune of seeing my favourite Brughel painting in Berlin last year. Many of his other works have the same quality, with what I call a Where’s Wally type of representation. Instead of a clear focal area, one sees multiple points of action within the frame, each telling a bit more of the story. It’s fascinating and endlessly captivating.

Monday, November 20, 2006

But I Didn't Try The Mussels

No, I didn’t try mussels in Brussels. But I did have a splendid time in the Belgian capital over this past weekend with a couple of guys from the hall. We spent quite a bit of time too with our favourite Canadian Couple, who, by a stroke of coincidence, were in town as well. What did we get up to? Lots of sightseeing, lots of art and architecture and alas, lots of food and beer as well. The last time I was in Brussels was 10 years ago, and memories of those days have since faded. It was high time to renew my acquaintance with this charming city.

Brussels is not a London or a Paris – a mega metropolis packed with marvels aplenty. It doesn’t overwhelm your senses. It’s much more manageable, making it an apt destination for a relaxing weekend. Best to come hungry, too. The old inner core of Brussels can be negotiated entirely by foot, which makes it a perfect way to appreciate the splendid baroque and Art Noveau architecture that the city has in abundance.

We checked out all the standard attractions – the idiosyncratic Manneken Pis, the Church of Notre Dame du Bon Sécours, the Cathedral of St-Michel, the Parc de Bruxelles, and of course, the incomparable Grand Place. Surrounded by grand buildings on three sides and the exquisite Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) on the fourth, this square represents the geographical, historical and commercial heart of the city. It’s pretty amazing. You find yourself standing there, gazing in all directions, upwards and downwards, marvelling at the history of the place, the diversity of people around, and the magnificent facades that surrounds you.

We took some time out as well to check out the Centre Belge de la Bande Desinées, or Belgian Centre for the Comic Strip, located further north in a striking Art Nouveau building. One of the peculiarities of Belgium is that it has a flourishing comic art tradition, with famous characters such as Tintin and the Smurfs. I’m an absolute Tintin fan, and it was good to check out a museum that paid part homage to him and creator Hergé. The gift shop, however, was a disappointment. The Tintin character figures were all priced very high, and I had to make do with a nice soft toy of Snowy, his loyal companion and foil through all his adventures around the world.

So far, I’ve been mentioning most place names in French. However, Brussels is officially a bilingual city, with all signs in French and Flemish. In fact, Belgium is split between the French-speaking Walloons in the south, and the Dutch-speaking Flemish population in the north, who form a slight majority. There is also a much smaller German-speaking minority to the east. Because of these linguistic cleavages, the country has suffered from a lack of a strong national identity. At the same time, as the virtual capital of Europe, with key European Union institutions located in the city, Belgium also places much of its identity within the conception of a greater united Europe.

But that’s all the political commentary I’m going to make. What was particularly fascinating for me, as someone keen on issues of language, was that I found all the street signs in both languages. The Royal Palace is known both as the Palais Royal and the Koninklijk Paleis. The South train station is known both as the Gare du Midi and as Zuidstation. And so on. One language has its roots in Latin, with the other having Germanic origins. Wandering around the city, speaking neither French or Flemish, it was fun at times to try to decipher both languages.

So, after all the walking, where does one go for some good food? A place I would highly recommend is ‘t Kelderke (sic), set quaintly in the 17th century cellar of a building facing the Grand Place. Over an aromatic Leffe beer and a thrilling dish of stoemp – a hearty Belgian dish comprising mash potatoes with your selection of meat and cuts - you begin to wonder why the quality of food in London couldn’t be better. For the most divine desserts, check out the strangely named Drug Opera – a multiple part establishment carved out of a former drug store and opera house – where I had a dense and unforgettable crepe.

If you’re keen on resting your tired feet and watching the world go by, get a cup of coffee and park yourself at the Café de Vaudeville, located in the Galeries St-Hubert, an elegantly restored 19th century shopping arcade, offering not only haute couture but a series of delectable chocolateries as well.

Brussels’ prime restaurant alley can be found on the Rue des Bouchers, a brightly lit meandering cobble-stoned street barely a minute’s walk away from the Grand Place, and which intersects the Galeries St-Hubert. Different cuisines are on offer along the alley, but seafood predominate, with some of the most exciting displays to be found in the mounds of food stacked up in front of the individual restaurants.

It’s a very welcoming place, but somewhat touristy, as testified by all the touts operating there. We had dinner on Saturday along with the Canadian Couple at Le Bourgeois, where my two travelling companions proceeded to dig into about five thousand mussels. Or it could have been more. I had lost count. I settled for the lobster soup.

We spent much of Sunday in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts (Royal Museum for Fine Arts), which I may write about separately. Thereafter, after imbibing all the great art, plus an entirely optional piece of waffle, it was back to the area around the Grand Place, where a hedonistic process of shopping ensued. We returned to London tired and laden with truffles, chocolates and assorted bottles of good Belgian beer.

Yes, this Brussels trip will be remembered for my first introduction to Mort Subite, a delightful cherry beer, and to Chimay, and as the place where I savoured Leffe again. Before leaving, I got myself a Chimay three-pack, with accompanying beer glass. It’s known as a Trappist beer, first produced by the monks in the days of yore, and certainly carries a rich taste. The three bottles are now sitting proudly in my room, waiting to be opened one day when I shall wish to savour the memories of a most enjoyable weekend.
Travel notes: I travelled to Brussels on board the Eurostar, departing from London’s Waterloo station and arriving at Brussels’ Gare du Midi. The journey takes less than three hours. Accommodation was at the nearby IBIS hotel along the Rue de’Angleterre. Both transport and lodgings were jointly booked with STA Travel, which offered a pretty decent student deal.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Meanwhile in School...

I’ve not blogged much about school work, because…well…there’s not much that’s exciting to blog about. It’s definitely there. It’s heavy. It’s intense. It’s dreary. And sometimes, it’s downright mind-blowingly confusing. I’d sit there, pouring through the same formulas and graphs for my economics module, and nothing makes sense. Then, a dark sensation of déjà vu creeps in, and I am instantly reminded of those days when I used to do so badly for maths.

It’s certainly not a nice feeling.

The international relations module is more appealing, but very theoretically scoped. It makes for very dry reading. It’s not something that sets the mind on fire. Did I once really entertain thoughts of going into academia? After years of professional experience, I guess I have less patience now to plough through some of the worst examples of indecipherable academic writing. These are the kind of texts one would read to cure insomnia. But generally, it’s a pretty interesting course, and we have what promises to be a rather intriguing policy simulation exercise coming up in December.

My main concern is the economics module, which represents a core component of my programme. And it’s taught by faculty from the economic department. Most of us come into it without a firm background in the subject, and as such, I’m not the only one who’s struggling here. It's discouraging. And it’s surely not gonna get any better.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Cold

I’m sick. I’ve been feeling very crappy over the past couple of days. There’s a great temptation to cut off my leaking nose. I had a flu shot before coming here, but obviously, it’s not had much effect. Or perhaps I’ve been stricken by something else. The Singapore Doctor offered me some strong gin yesterday, which seemed to alleviate things somewhat – but only for a while. It’s definitely time for another glass.

And so, the mind’s not working well today. No finely-composed entry. Instead, here's a stream of consciousness meandering that pretty much reflects my murky thoughts this day…

…Fall leaves and colours everywhere not as bad as I’d expected but I don’t understand the seminar yesterday and the graphs on externalities and what pollution abatement is, and the food at the hall still sucks, with the roast lamb tasting like cardboard. I notice the faces on the wall will remain there. And what the heck was all that talk about policy networks about? Epistemic communities? More GST? She wasn’t around today. There’s an assignment on public goods. Friday at Tottenham Court Road, but where's the classoom? And who will come for the faculty dinner? Who will be interested? The tea today was bad. Pei pa gou is an acquired taste. But gin therapy surely is much better? Together with some chocolate. But no more turpentine. More Cornish pasties today, with sultana and muffins. ‘Ice on the sidewalk and brittle branches in the air’, and there’re some things too difficult to say, except that the plant continues to die…

That’s enough. Cough cough hack hack splutter splutter croak.

Autumnal Colours

Although it felt like an Indian Summer today, we're well into autumn. It's mid-November, and the visble signs are everywhere. Check out these images, captured around the neighbourhood, the final one being taken from my window, looking out to part of Coram's Fields. These are not exactly the most brilliant of colours, but I'll take what I can get...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Singapore Garden

My quest for good and authentic Singapore/Malaysian food continues. A few weeks back, I had my first such outing at the C&R Restaurant. They have two branches in London, and I found myself at the Rupert Court outlet in Chinatown, feasting on mee siam, beef rendang and kangkung belachan.

This evening saw me at the Singapore Garden on Fairfax Road in the Swiss Cottage area with three others from class. It’s located on a quiet residential lane, and the restaurant décor was more posh than I had expected. A very classy setting indeed.

But how was the food? Well, the reviews were right. It was a pretty good place. We started with chicken satay and kueh pai tee, both of which were eminently satisfying. I then had the laksa, which came with everything I had expected, except for a sprinkling of laksa leaves. But I gulped down the entire bowl. The evening ended with a nice giant chendol, the taste of gula melaka reminding me of how much I miss food from the region.

All in all, a very nice night out. The only gripe I have concerns the waiters of Singapore Garden, who lurked around my table a wee bit too obtrusively, like vultures. There was an obvious lack of discretion and tact.

Where next? London boasts quite a few Singapore/Malaysian eateries. There’s Shiok along Southhampton Row, and there’s Kiasu on Queensway – surely they could have been more inspired in selecting a name? I may also give Rasa Penang a try, although it's rather far from Central London.

With all the other fine food around, there’s so much to eat, and so little time…

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Fragmentary Thoughts

It’s a quiet afternoon here on Mecklenburgh Square. It’s cool outside, with little movement and little distraction, just the gentle rustling of the autumn leaves. The festivities and fireworks of yesternight seem long gone. The Queen is gone. The sun is fading fast in the edges of the sky. And I’m here at my desk, gazing outwards, with the soft minimalist tinklings of Philip Glass reminding me of the memories I never knew I had.

This has been a good week. A useful term break. There was food - lots of it - and there was company. But classes begin again on Monday, and this weekend have I set aside for some serious studying. Pages upon pages of impenetrable theory which just days ago seemed less relevant. They now take on a striking immediacy.

The changing seasons remind you vividly that time presses on, relentlessly. And yet sometimes, moments from the past continue to grip you, haunting you. So we just have to move on, ahead and ahead and ahead.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Goodenough 1, Arsenal 0

Goodenough College played host today to a most distinguished and regal visitor. Yes, the picture above tells it all. Her Majesty the Queen of England paid us a visit this morning in conjunction with celebrations to mark the College’s 75th anniversary.

I’m actually not too certain what formal association the Queen has with the College, but I do know that she comes here regularly, at rough five yearly intervals. Indeed, you see commemorative stones on the College walls marking all her previous tours, the most recent of which was in 2001. Whatever the case, I do realise I’m pretty fortunate to have arrived at Goodenough just in time to witness this visit.

We had known for some weeks that the Queen would be coming today. Whatever your inclinations, a royal visit just carries with it a certain mystique and magic, doesn’t it? The College Director, Major-General Andrew Ritchie had earlier quipped that a visit by the sovereign instantly transforms legions of republicans into strong monarchists. Looking at how excited so many in the college were, I believe he’s probably right!

But there was also some apprehension in the run up to today. Earlier, the Queen had strained some muscles on her back, and had been advised to scale down her public engagements, including cancelling her scheduled appearance at the opening of Arsenal Football Club’s new Emirates stadium. But she had recovered sufficiently since. So Arsenal had to make do with the Duke of Edinburgh. We still got the Queen.

And we couldn’t have asked for better weather this morning. It was pretty chilly, but the sun was out, and the sky was a brilliant blue. Everyone was out in their finest, with many appearing in their respective national costumes as well. At the dot of eleven, the royal motorcade pulled up, and a hushed but excited tone quickly settled among those of us gathered around, as she emerged, clad in a most dramatic red overcoat:

Part of Her Majesty’s tour of the College grounds brought her to the Great Hall, where groups comprising select members from different regions and countries were assembled for an opportunity to meet her. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have been presented to her; the Singapore Doctor was - what a lucky bum. Nonetheless, I did get picked to be in the “support group” of members who had to remain at a respectable distance.

In anticipation of her visit, a group from Singapore had worked on a banner representing our country, and the fruits of our earnest efforts can be seen in this following image:

Later this evening, celebrations for the College’s 75th anniversary will continue with a dinner feast, followed by fireworks over the college lawn. Decades of tradition and excellence. Stories aplenty of accomplishment. But for me, I’m just glad to be here, in the right place at the right time, for this most remarkable royal visit.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

To The Galleries Again

The morning found me unconscious in the Land of Nod. The afternoon, however, saw me wandering through a David Hockney exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery just off Trafalgar Square. And what a splendid show it was. On offer was a retrospective, spanning fifty years, of some of Hockney’s most famous portraitures – of himself, of his family, his amazingly-wide circle of friends, and even of his dogs.

Probably one of the most celebrated contemporary artists, Hockney came to prominence in the 1960s. Moving to California from his native England, he felt invigorated by the sunny optimism of his new home, and also began developing the bright and realistic style that’s come to characterize his works. Sleek lines, vivid colours, and uncluttered settings – all of which represent hallmarks of the Hockney technique. His paintings of the California swimming pool have almost become icons of the generation.

Of course, he didn’t confine himself to paintings and drawings, having also experimented with photography. Particularly captivating was his series of composite polariod portraits which bore more than a resemblance to the Cubist paintings of his idol Pablo Picasso. It wasn't particularly difficult technically to execute. No actual painting was required. It's one of those things which makes you wonder to yourself, "Hey, I could have done it too (and made lots of money!)" Except, of course, I didn't...

The portraits exhibited in the Gallery included some of Hockney’s most famous, such as Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, a large portrayal of the then couple Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell, along with a large white cat Percy. Recently, the work was even voted one of Britain’s most favourite paintings, although top position went to JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, hanging just next door at the National Gallery.

It’s truly truly amazing to be in a city with so much great art.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

From the Khyber Pass

Dinner at the Khyber Pass restaurant was a real delight. We had fragrant biryani chicken, with succulent lamb madras and spicy prawn curry. This was followed by coffee and gelato at the Oddono’s Gelati Italini (“Life’s too short to eat bad ice cream”) a short walk across the road. Outside, there was a light drizzle. Inside, a warm atmosphere prevailed.

I was back in South Kensington again. The late afternoon was spent at the Victoria and Albert Museum, known colloquially as the V&A, where objets d’art from across the world are presented. I had never been there before, and was simply bowled over by the sheer magnitude of the Raphael cartoons and the monumental edifices in the two Cast Courts.

Yet it’s neither the food nor the art that will remain with me. Rather, it’s the conversation we had through the cool evening hours that I shall recall. We talked, and we talked, and we talked. It’s been great meeting new people in London and one day, surely, I shall return home enriched, enlivened by these wonderful new friendships.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I Had Spaghetti, Wine and Tiramisu

Ooo, here’s another quick food-related entry. Ciao Bella is an Italian restaurant barely three minutes walk away from Goodenough College, located on the quaintly-named Lamb’s Conduit Street. I’ve walked past it many times, and invariably, it’s very well patronized. The rule is very clearly established - dine where the locals gather. Good reviews here, here and here.

So, a few of us decided to take some time tonight to try the place out. And indeed, it was a yummy evening. The place was packed, with tables tightly spaced, and it was difficult holding private conversations, but the entire atmosphere was rather jolly. I was disappointed that the crab soup I ordered wasn't available, but the spaghetti and tiramisu were quite deftly prepared, without being too rich.
Tomorrow night, I'm off to check out more good food, probably at an Indian restaurant. *Burp*

A Pause in Time

I got together last evening with my old boss and another former colleague for some after-dinner drinks. They were both in town for an official trip which would also take them to continental Europe. Over glasses of aromatic Belgian Leffe beer, we talked about developments back home and back in the office. They don’t seem that far away. But I’ve not been in London for very long. And for a while, just a while, it seemed as though I was back in my old role, discussing issues and people around whom my work life once revolved.

I had a good time in that position, with interesting work, a few fantastic colleagues, and I'd add as well that I had a very supportive boss, who backed me up firmly in my plans to head to London for this sabbatical year. Under him, I had lots of latitude to run things on my own, and that was certainly very liberating. For that, I’m very grateful.

But things change, don't they, and while I settled into my old identity rather easily last evening, I’m conscious that those days are in the past. That’s what you learn in life. Nothing is cast in permanence. There’s some uncertainty as to what awaits me at the end of this stint in London. For now, though, it’s early days yet, and I intend to enjoy myself fully here in this wonderful city.

Monday, November 06, 2006

In Search of the Hospitallers

The Maltese Cross and the Maltese Falcon. The Knights of Malta and the Great Siege of Malta. Those were among the brief, scattered impressions I had of the country before I headed there over this past weekend. I didn’t know much, but I did know that Malta had a fascinating past that I wanted to learn more about. Plus, the prospect of a couple of days under brilliant skies, away from gloomy British weather, appealed to me tremendously.

A small country situated just south of Sicily in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta comes replete with history, and is one of those proverbial places that sits at the crossroads of empires. It was settled by the ancient Phoenicians, conquered in turn by the Romans, the Arabs and the Normans, overrun later by the French and then colonized by the British. This island nation – there are actually three main, inhabited islands – finally attained independence in 1964, became a republic in 1974, and has been a full member of the European Union since 2004.

The Maltese are an interesting people. Latin in background, Catholic in belief, they speak their own language, Malti, which, in its written form, appears to me like some impenetrable Southern Slav tongue, but it’s in fact most related to Arabic. Nonetheless, virtually everyone speaks English – the visible legacy of British rule, along with red phone boxes and blue police lamps.

But I had gone to Malta principally in search of something from further back in time. I had gone in search of the fabled Knights Hospitallers, whose footprints are all over Malta. They were also known variously as the Knights of Malta, the Knights of St John, or, to give them a more elaborate title, the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem.

So who were they? It’s an amazing story, really. Formed during the time of the Crusades in the 11th to 12th Centuries, the Knights Hospitallers comprised noblemen from across Europe who were pledged with helping sick or infirm pilgrims on their long journey to the Holy Land. In popular culture, some be more familiar with other orders, such as the Knights Templar – courtesy of Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code – or even with the Teutonic Knights, who became famous for their exploits in Europe against the Poles and the Russians in later years. But the Hospitallers offer a gripping thousand year long tale of charity, conquest and creation.

The Knights of St John started by operating hospitals and caring for the sick. From this core mission, they soon began providing protection and escort duties, and in time, they developed a strong military wing. While they retained the charity element to their cause, the Knights Hospitallers emerged as a formidable armed force, fighting against foes such as the Bedouins and the Saracens - dedicated, as they saw it, to defending Christendom.

I first became interested in the history of the Knights during a trip I made with a friend to Syria last year. North of Damascus, we found the awe-inspiring Krak des Chevaliers – a full scale Crusader castle which once served as the headquarters of the Hospitallers. Sited on top of an imposing bluff, the castle afforded the defenders a sweeping view of the entire region. I remember walking along the castle fortifications, imagining the action which would have taken place there eight or hundred years ago. What was also interesting for me, moreover, was that in the Krak, one saw a piece of medieval Europe essentially transplanted into the Middle East, with much of the structure designed in a gothic manner.

So what has all this to do with Malta? Well, around the year 1291, the Knights finally lost possession of Acre, their last remaining territory in the Holy Land, and consequently sought refuge in Cyprus. Thus began a long journey over many years that would take them steadily westward across the Mediterranean. After a short sojourn in Cyprus from 1292 to 1306, they sailed to Rhodes and settled there for the next two hundred years.

With its lush terrain, fertile plains and mild climate, Rhodes proved to be a luscious Garden of Eden for the Hospitallers. But in the early 16th Century, after frequent skirmishes with the Ottoman Turks, the Knights were forced to abandon Rhodes, their home for two hundred years, and they remained without a permanent physical base for the next seven years, wandering around Europe. By now, they had also acquired a remarkable naval flotilla.

In 1530, however, the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles V of Spain offered the Knights the territory of Malta as a fiefdom, under the lordship of the Viceroy of Sicily, with an annual fee of a single Maltese falcon, to be presented to the Viceroy. And so, for the next two hundred plus years, the history of the Knights Hospitallers became synonymous with that of Malta. The eight-pointed Cross that the Knights adopted as an emblem also became known in time as the Cross of Malta.

Their early years on the barren island were difficult. Life in Malta was much tougher than Rhodes, and the threat from the Turks did not cease. Indeed, the Knights endured through a great siege from Ottoman forces in May 1565, who were then ruled by the legendary Suleiman the Magnificent. But under the astute leadership of Grand Master Jean de la Valette, the Knights pulled through, and in 1566, they began laying the first stones of what they hoped to be a new, fortified capital – Valetta.

Devoted ostensibly to the service of God, the Knights Hospitallers nonetheless built themselves an impressive temporal edifice in Valetta, which they maintained and expanded over the coming decades of comparative peace. The powers of the Ottomans declined, and the Knights never saw major action again against non-Christian forces.

As capital cities go, Valetta is tiny. Eminently accessible on foot, it measures about only 1 km long by 600 m wide, but what a host of architectural and historical treasures can be found within the city limits. Narrow streets, with saintly statues on most corners, fading paintwork on balconies and walls, and churches galore. The highlight must surely be St John’s Co-Cathedral, which functioned for many years as the Knight’s conventual church, and whose austere and plain external facade obscured the exquisite treasures within. I stepped in early on Saturday morning, and was instantly bowled over by the sheer richness and opulence of it all. The Hospitallers, indeed, were very well endowed. This was definitely high-Baroque, and on display was even a genuine Caravaggio, The Beheading of St John the Baptist.

Near to the Co-Cathedral was the Grand Master’s Palace and Armory. It was built in 1571 and has served as the seat of political power since then. The few State Rooms which I visited provided a visual feast for the eyes – portraits of past Grand Masters, priceless furniture and furnishings, and dramatic frescos. Two opposing rooms on the ground floor contained a trove of medieval armour and weapons, including impressive cannon pieces.

Beneath the Grand Master, the Knights of the Order were grouped according to different langues, or national groupings – Auvergne, France, Provence, Aragon, Castille, England, Germany and Italy. This was a truly pan-European order. Each langue maintained its own auberge, or hostel, and many of the fine old structures remain in Valetta, a few of which have since been converted into government ministries.

While in Valetta, I was also able to tour the Sacra Infirmeria, or Holy Infirmary. This was a huge hospital operated by the Knights, and on display there was an exhibition on the history of the Knights, including many of the medical advances their pioneered. Another exhibition, The Great Siege of Malta and the Knights of St John, located near the Library, also provided a gripping retelling of how the Knights came to settle in Malta.

But who drove them out? After two hundred years of comparative peace in Malta, it appeared that the Knights had grown soft, even decadent, excelling more in business and diplomacy than in warfare. When Napoleon Bonaparte delivered an ultimatum to the Knights, demanding their surrender, they meekly acquiesced. Perhaps they had lost much of their fighting spirit. The Order left, and the British turned Malta into a Crown possession in 1800.

But of course the Order never ceased to exist. They are based in Rome today, and while they no longer retain a military role, the charitable and caring duties that they began with still continue. The romance of the Knight’s tale lay, I guess, in how distant it all seems. To modern sensibilities, the idea that a private grouping could exercise political control over a territory appears quaint. But we were then in an era before the rise of the nation state, and the concept of feudal lordship was more common.

While in Malta, I took the opportunity as well to familiarize myself with other aspects of the country’s history. Malta withstood intense bombardment during the Second World War, mainly from Italian forces, during what some had term the Second Siege of Malta. The War Museum located at the tip of Valetta, next to Fort St Elmo is worth visiting, as is Fort Lascaris, site of the wartime control room used by British and Maltese forces.

I headed back in time as well by touring Mdina, the ancient capital of Malta which pre-dated the arrival of the Knights of St John, located in the middle of the island, and also checked out Mosta, site of the Mosta Dome – a gigantic domed church surpassed in size, it’s said, only by St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome.

I returned to London late on Sunday evening, tired but enriched, overwhelmed by history, and happily clutching a foot-high figure of a dashing Knight of the Order of St John clad in full armour – a silly little tourist souvenir from a most sublime and intense ancient island.

Travel notes: I flew to Malta with Ryanair from London Luton airport, and got myself good deal at the Victoria Hotel in Sliema, a short ten minute bus ride away from Valetta. Good cheap eats can be found at the Café Barrakka, located at Castille Place, near to the Upper Barrakka gardens and the Auberge de Castille, which serves as the office for the Maltese Prime Minister.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Mood in November

I'm cold - finally. After an extended summer, temperatures across the UK plunged downwards significantly this week. Even in London, we're getting single digits at night, and barely double digits during the day. Tonight, we're expecting that the mercury will dip below freezing. Coincidentally, the cold wave this week came just after the clocks were set back over the weekend. So the mood has definitely changed now. By 5.00pm, it's dark everywhere. On the streets, everyone's wrapped up and surly. When we get to the winter solstice in mid-December, I'm sure it will be much worse.
Meanwhile, my room's freezing. I don't know why it's taking such a long time for the heating to be turned on. I've placed an order for a space heater on - purveyor of everything consumerist. I hope to pick it up tomorrow.
Fall in the US - where I spent a few good years - was spectacular. Screaming bright orange and red colors, with cheerful pumpkins and gentle breezes. In contrast, autumn in London is decidedly less pretty. Miserable yellow leaves and equally miserable looking squirrels. Perhaps I need to get out more - or at least beyond the hall and the school. But so far, it certainly doesn't feel like a season of mist and mellow fruitfulness over here.

At the Albert Hall

Last evening, I attended a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Albert Hall with someone from class. We certainly had a nice time there. On the menu were selections from Grieg's Peer Gynt Suites, plus Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, and Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World." These were three very popular and accessible works from the classical repertoire.
The Albert Hall was amazing. It's probably one of London's - and perhaps the world's - most reognizable performance venue. I had only seen its resplendent interior on TV, and this was my first time stepping into it. Red was the predominant colour, and the interior furnishings still retained its essential Victorian character.
Indeed, the area around the Albert Hall - South Kensington - was home to many great Victorian era institutions and buildings. Opposite the Albert Hall was the Albert Memorial, dedicated to the Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. Nearby, one could find august institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, Imperial College, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Geographical Society.
Last evening also represented my first foray into learning more about London's rich orchestral offerings. I may be somewhat familiar with classical music, but knew little about the orchestral music scene in the city. Besides the RPO at the Albert Hall, London's also home to other top-ranked full orchestras, including the Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, both of which are based at the Royal Festival Hall, the London Symphony Orchestra, based at the Barbican, plus the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which performs each year at the famous summer Prom concerts. What a thrilling cultural line up. And this even excludes the other chamber and operatic groups out there.
I felt all three works last evening were executed pretty competently. It wasn't exactly a revelatory performance, but I guess you'd get that only once in a lifetime. The Rachmaninov Variations was given a pretty lyrical rendition by pianist Alain Lefèvre, who was also technically very accomplished. Playing from memory, he didn't get a single note wrong.
But there was something else from the performance that troubled me. No, it wasn't the incessant coughing that came from assorted audience members. Nor was it the less than overwhelming volume of the music - a problem to do with the acoustics of the hall. In general, I did enjoy myself thoroughly.
Rather, there was this strange habit of audience applause in between the movements of a complete work. Incredible. Has the convention changed? Shouldn't we clap only when the entire work has been completed? We began with four short extracts from Peer Gynt - each lasting for at most four or five minutes, and they were all followed by enthusiastic clapping. There was clapping after each of the Dvořák movements. There was even some attempt at clapping after one of the variations in the Rachmaninov work.
I found these moments of applause entirely inappropriate and somewhat irritating. You're meant to enjoy a work in its entirety, and not interrupt the orchestra with your commentary until they have finished their delivery. This wasn't a comedy routine or a speech, where you'd punctuate the delivery to signify your approval.
I have my own theory as to why we saw what we did. Of course, it's totally unscientific, drawn only from my inductive observations. But I think the habit of clapping in between movements reflects two trends; first, the move towards a compartmentalization of classical music, where we now take in these great works of the past in bite-sized bits, rather than as sublime, sustained masterpieces. (The Classic FM station in the UK has been charged with helping to lead this movement.) This in turn reflects, perhaps, the steadily dwindling levels of patience we now find in modern life.
Second, the clapping habit could also be a function of increasing self-focus and self-absorption - which is also related to modern living. The sensibility that proclaims, "Look, I've paid for this ticket. I'm here to enjoy myself. If I like the music, I'm going to clap, and there's nothing that should stop me. Wait till the very end of the 45 minute work to applaud? You've gotta be kidding." So out goes notions of convention, class or decorum.
In any case, we left the Albert Hall at about 9.30pm, and found out way to Old Brompton Road by about 10.00pm, where we had dinner at nice restaurant Bella Italia - probably one of few places that was still accepting diners at that late hour. It was a very convivial evening, with pasta and coffee. Good food, good conversation, and wonderful company. All in all, a very nice night out.