Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Place Of Pleasure

And there it was! One of Britain’s most spectacular and idiosyncratic buildings, the Royal Pavilion. I’ve long heard about this amazing creation by renowned architect John Nash, and headed to Brighton on this most glorious summer’s day to see it for myself. As always, when visiting these great historic monuments, you run the risk of having the edifice covered in scaffolding because of ongoing restoration works, so these close-up pictures are the best I could manage, without actually revealing the bits which were obscured.

The Royal Pavilion is intimately linked to the Regency period of British history, when, in the early 19th century, the fun-loving Prince Regent – and later King George IV – came to spend an increasing amount of time in this seaside resort - for health and for amourous reasons. On the site first stood a farmhouse, which was then converted into a neo-classical villa.

Later on, the Prince Regent commissioned John Nash, one of the era’s greatest architect, to remodel the building, which Nash then transformed into a most amazing complex in a Mughal-inspired Indo-Saracenic style, with lavish onion domes and minarets. Clearly, cultural influences flowed both ways in this age of empire.

But while the exterior was Indian, the interior was Chinese – or more accurately described as Chinoiserie – a craze for decorative oriental designs which swept the fashionable of Europe as early as the 18th century. We see within the Pavilion Chinese-inspired decorative elements, such as dragons, created by contemporary craftsmen who had probably never set foot out of England.

It was a shame that no cameras were allowed inside the Pavilion, for words cannot describe the sheer opulence of the two greatest rooms within – the Banqueting Room, with its one ton chandelier with a dragon and palm leaves on top, and also the even more resplendent Music Room, with dragon and snake motifs throughout, and a red color scheme pervading the entire hall.

A short walk away from the Royal Pavilion is the famous Brighton Pier - venue for fun and frivolity. And what better time to come here than in high summer, without a cloud in the sky, to see people out and about, enjoying themselves, especially after the dismal weather over the couple of months. I walked past the amusement centre, the many ice cream stalls, and the outdoor rides, before stopping for a meal at the Palm Court restaurant for some posh nosh – Cod and Chips, followed by Spotted Dick.

After a few appropriate post-meal burps, I ventured inland again, towards the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, where an eclectic array of exhibits was on display, ranging from art to local history to design, and then wandered up and down the meandering narrow lanes of an area prosaically called The Lanes, dating from Brighton’s earliest days, now bustling with cafes aplenty.

What a nice afternoon away from London. And in just over an hour on the train, I was back in the capital. A very delightful journey this certainly was.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Back in South Ken

My tour through the great museums and galleries of London continued apace today. Acting on an earlier recommendation by the Swinger, who dazzles next door at Imperial, I ventured to the South Kensington area again, this time to check out the Science Museum.

Nestled next to the illustrious Natural History Museum and opposite the eminent Victoria and Albert Museum, it appears like a poor cousin, it wouldn’t be fair to think of it in that way, especially when I stepped in and became overwhelmed almost right away by the sheer breadth and depth of the exhibits on offer. Even Bob the Builder was there, but I didn't get a chance to see him.

It was mind-boggling. I stayed for no more than two hours – barely scratching the surface, yet making sure I grabbed a fridge magnet from the gift shop – and left feeling pretty impressed by brilliant scientists and engineers. I don’t think I will have the time or occasion to return, so here are some nice memories of a mentally torrid afternoon.

Day of Reckoning

Ooo, I got my exam results today. OK, so they were provisional results, subject to confirmation at the end of the year. How did I do? Well, let’s just say that I won’t have to think about hurling myself out of the window anymore. It’s good to know that the hard work – yes, there was hard work – has paid off.

One final dissertation now stands between me and the MSc.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

No Beer Was Sold

I never expected that a small country like Denmark could host such a world-class treasure trove of arts and antiquities. But then, I hadn’t heard of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek until I visited Copenhagen a few days ago. And what’s amazing about this place is that it was established privately by the brewer Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg fame. This is public spiritedness and service at its best.

And when you step into its domed central hall, you wonder if you’ve entered a museum. Or perhaps it’s a sub-tropical greenhouse. Why the lush greenery around?

And in the various surrounding galleries, there’s an impressive collection of sculpture, ranging from many famous Rodin pieces, to others created by Danish artists such as Stephan Sinding. Indeed, Glyptotek refers to a collection of sculpture.

But there’s also a good selection of classical artefacts from the Greek, Roman and early Mediterranean era, including this most amazing hall, looking like an ancient temple.

Heading to its new adjoining wing, there’s even a slate of French impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, including a large number from Paul Gaughin. We know of Gaughin from his many Tahiti works, but perhaps not of his Danish connection, through his wife.

What I liked about the Glyptotek was also its sense of adventure. It presented a temporary exhibition, “The Real, Unnaturalism”, which juxtaposed modern art with those from much earlier eras, resulting in interesting sights such as these:

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen

So I trundled, traipsed and trotted half way across town to look for her. I had told HM on-line that I’d go there, point fingers at her and laugh at her. Well, I was joking. But I guess any visitor to the city just had to go pay a pilgrimage to her home by the water’s edge. And finally, after walking through the grounds of the Kastellet, an old fortification, I caught a glimpse of her.

It was Den Lille Havfrue, known to the English-speaking world as The Little Mermaid, from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, about she who was willing to give everything up for the love of a prince. The statue was commissioned in the early part of the 20th century, and has rapidly become one of the most iconic images of Copenhagen, even of Denmark.

To describe her as underwhelming would be unfair. It cuts a small, lonely and forlorn figure, with an empty expression, and has been subject in the past to various acts of vandalism. But it is a national symbol, nonetheless, though I wonder if it’s more popular with visitors than with locals. The US has a mighty Statue of Liberty, France has the imposing Eiffel Tower, both reaching high up, but Denmark has only this tiny figure. Still, it’s way better than Singapore’s vomiting half-lion, half-fish.

I had arrived in Copenhagen the previous day to complete my summer sojourn through the major Scandinavian states. First Finland, and then Norway and Sweden, and now, Denmark. They share many superficial similarities, with a flair for design, efficient transportation, clean streets, and good looking inhabitants, each with the ability, it seems, to speak flawless English.

But the Danes, I’ve been told, are the least reserved and most fun loving of all Scandinavians. And judging just from what I encountered in Copehangen that seems to be true. It may not be as beautiful a city as Stockholm, set on water, but there was a sense that it was edgier, more cosmopolitan, more colorful, and full of life.

A very visible demonstration of this was the sheer number of young children I encountered. Have birth rates in Denmark bucked the downward European trend? But everywhere I went, I saw families with young children, testifying to how comfortable they are with raising their young in the city. And that, surely, was a very positive sign.

On my first day, late in the afternoon, I walked down the Strøget, Copenhagen’s main pedestrianised shopping street, past the picturesque Nyhavn harbour, across the grand Kongens Nytorv circle, and then to the Amalieborg Palace, seat of Denmark’s royalty, who hail from the oldest reigning dynasty in Europe, dating back to the Viking era. And then, with time to kill in the evening, I headed to the local Erotic Museum. Heh.

The following day, some high art was called for, and I spent quite a bit of time in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek – a spectacular museum established by the Carlsberg Foundation with riches from their brewing business – and also the Statens Museum For Kunst – the Danish national gallery of art. Both institutions were incredible, replete with cultural riches.

The day was filled with many other activities. I also visited the Frihedsmuseet, located near the Little Mermaid, which recounts the story of Denmark’s occupation by the Germans during the Second World War, the Marmorkirken, a huge domed church adjacent to the Amalienborg Palace, and also the Rundetaarn, a baroque-era Round Tower, presenting visitors a good look of the entire inner city.

The next morning, I departed my hotel, thirsty, and walked some twenty minutes away from the city towards the Carlsberg – Probably the Best Beer in the World – Brewery. My destination was their Visitor’s Centre, but the 19th century architecture of the old complex had much to offer as well. Particularly interesting was the entrance archway, with four huge elephants, including this one with a swastika on it.

Of course the swastika was an ancient symbol of good luck, unfortunately misappropriated by the Nazis. What I learnt later on was that before the current emblem of a crown came to be used, some pre-war bottles of Carlsberg carried the swastika label, with others using a double-star insignia instead.

The trip to the visitor’s centre was most rewarding, offering a good overview of the company’s history, from its foundation by the Jacobsen family to its merger in 1970 with the Tuborg beer company and beyond. And the best part of my tour? The beer tastings that came at the end.

I spent the rest of the day visiting the Nationalmuseet, which tells the story of the Danish people, and also Vor Frue Kirke, a church with a neo-classical column design and an arresting Christ figure, before heading to the Strøget again for some people watching, with its many shoppers and buskers. This had been a good trip, and I was glad to have been here.

Denmark surely punches above its weight in the world. It is home to more than butter cookies, Lego and the Little Mermaid. It has produced composer Carl Nielsen and physicist Niels Bohr, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and silversmith Georg Jensen. Of course, detracting from this august list is Michael Learns to Rock. Yucks.

My abiding regret on this trip? Copenhagen is home to the world-famous Tivoli Gardens – filled with rides and other attractions. But as I had travelled there alone, it seemed odd for me to go in on my own. So I didn't. What a shame. But perhaps one day, I shall be back, with a friend or two in tow, ready to enjoy this most enjoyable city again.

Travel Notes: I flew from London Stansted airport via EasyJet to Copenhagen’s magnificent airport at Kastrup, just a short train ride away from the city’s main train station. I secured budget accommodation only a minute’s walk away at Hotel Nebo. For cheap food, look no further than Riz Raz, with three branches in town, offering good Mediterranean buffet.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Wasted Day, A Wonderful Year

It’s a strong testament to my foresight and abilities at good planning. At long last, the rain clouds have drifted away, and a semblance of summer emerged today, with bright skies and fluffy clouds. And this was also the day that I chose to stay inside to work on, well, paperwork. Meanwhile, outside, London is abuzz with activity.

So, at very least, I guess it was just the right day to head out for a good run to Regents Park, where the tops were down, the hemlines were up, the dogs were roaming happy, and I felt exhausted, after a week of excuses had kept me from donning my running gear. Primrose Hill will have to wait for another day.

The SSG and HM were on line, but this time in Singapore, and not London, much less mere moments away somewhere else in the College. But they’re gone now, and the beginning of the end of my London sabbatical is becoming ever evident. At this stage, I still don’t know what lies next, nor where I’d be. But what I do know is that I’ve certainly sealed a few solid friendships here. And that’s Goodenough for me.

Monday, July 23, 2007

My Own Lazy Weekend

Compared to the frenetic activity of the week before, I’ve had a comparatively quiet weekend, principally because I’ve been feeling a wee bit under the weather, in more than one sense of the word. So Britain has been hit by some of the worst flooding in recent memory, and given my prudent choice to head out without a brolly, compounded by a lack of sleep and the onset of fatigue, my body broke down sometime on Saturday.

I had been out for lunch with a contact at the Habour City in Chinatown, and decided after that to walk to nearby Piccadilly to check out the famed Abercrombie & Fitch outlet. But the weather was atrocious, with heavy rainstorms soon giving way to humid sunshine, making it too reminiscent of Southeast Asia. Around me was a sea of humanity, a multitude of madness, drenching my senses with too much noise and colour, and I started getting increasingly woozy. I knew I had to head back for a good rest.

I was rewarded in the evening with a wonderful, home-cooked meal. The Celebrity Swinger Chef, who had announced earlier that he was hanging up his wok, decided after some prodding by the Fierce One to venture down to the buttery for another demonstration of his culinary prowess – something which he continued to do the following evening. I appreciate these moments, humbled by the realization that I will never be able to cook as well as him, but confident that I am able to eat more than a good share of what’s available. Heh.

In between, on Sunday afternoon, the few of us journeyed to the Surrey Quays/Canada Water area again on board the reliable Bus 188 from Russell Square to meet up with GNK+1 and his other half for Sunday carvery lunch at Spice Island, a large pub restaurant situated at the water’s edge. Around were lovely modern residential developments, which served only to make me continue fantasizing about living and working in London.

In the evening, after the delicious dinner, we convened for another session at Swinger’s Bar, whereupon the remaining Russian Standard vodka and Bombay Sapphire gin were quickly consumed. It would also be the last time for a long while before I would meet BP again. He’s heading off soon – that lucky bugger – for his second year of studies in the Big Apple. Meanwhile, GNK+1 is starting work at the bank, but with the dissertation yet complete. Best of luck to the both of them!

Friday, July 20, 2007

History, Music and Friendship

I spent the day with two lovely ladies from my class – delightful individuals with whom I’ve not really hung out with for some time. How awful. Thus it’s always good to catch up with them, and part of me feels the tension of time ticking, with my tenure in London destined inexorably to end very soon...

So she stays Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, which is located just outside London’s M25 orbital, and thus I suggested meeting up at nearby St Albans, an ancient town with Roman origins, for tea and more. I was always happy to get out of London, even if peripherally.

After the dreadful morning storms had cleared, I boarded a creaking First Capital Connect train and pulled into St Albans station, with bright skies and a warm hug greeting me. Traipsing into town, we fortified our stomachs, before checking out the first sight on offer – the Parish Church of St Peter.

A short walk away, I came upon St Albans’ main attraction - its spectacular cathedral. I’ve written before about my interest in old English cathedrals, and the one at St Albans was certainly no let down. This is an outstanding example of medieval architecture, with a very long nave, and even some recognizably Norman features.

We ended our tour of the town with a stop for sustenance at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, believed to be England’s oldest surviving pub, with an extant 11th Century structure. The ancient woodwork inside reeks of hundreds of years of historical boozing. I said to her that oldest man-made edifice in Singapore dates back probably to only the 1820s and 1830s. Here, in Europe, you get to walk around with the ghosts of generations past surrounding you everywhere.

I headed back to London and rushed straight to the Barbican Arts Centre, where I linked up with my other friend and popped into the concert hall with barely seconds to go before the performance started. I attended her birthday celebrations last Saturday, and thought it might be nice to bring her out for some lovely music.

Although I’ve never been to the Barbican, I remembered her telling me of her fondness for the venue, and with the Manchester Camerata – which hails from her hometown – performing this evening, it promised to be a wonderful evening out.

The Barbican is a large combined arts complex, featuring not only music, but also film, drama, exhibitions and talks. But I know of it not only because of this aspect, but also because it’s regularly been described as among the UK’s ugliest buildings. Opened in the early 1980s, I could be charitable and perhaps term it as best as a concrete monstrosity.

Which is a shame, because the interior was pretty decent. Sure, it wasn’t as resplendent as the Royal Albert Hall, but it was functional and modern. The Barbican Hall, where musical performances are staged, was smaller than I expected, engendering an intimate seminar atmosphere.

What about the music? We were on hand for a concert in the currently Mostly Mozart series, and tonight’s menu reflected this theme. We started with a weird modernist work by Stravinsky – his Concerto in D – before proceeding to enjoy Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4, his Piano Concerto No. 21, and his famous Symphony No. 41, the Jupiter, with its stirring and unforgettable finale.

We ended the evening by sauntering to nearby Moorgate, where we enjoyed a drink at the Red Lion. I can’t think of a more archetypal name for a British pub. Surely there must be dozens of Red Lions out there? She tells me as well that she's likely to spend the next month working on the dissertation while being camped out in Spain. How idyllic. As for me, I'll continue my own encampment in London, with so much more to see, experience, and eat.

From Mecklenburgh Square to Millennium Square

Man, I don’t think I’ve had such a physically shack and siong day for quite some time, at least not since the run-up to East Asian Night some months back. Together with SW and BP, I spent much of Thursday helping the SSG to pack her stuff for her move from Goodenough College across the river to her new place at Millennium Square. It was a really exhausting day. And I’m certainly getting any younger...

But don’t get me wrong. I was certainly happy to help her with the move to the new flat, which she will be sharing with the HM, who’s currently back in Singapore. And what a lovely new place they have, close by to Butler’s Wharf, with the Thames and Tower Bridge very close by, and with lots of amenities around, including important outlets such as a Starbucks and a wine retailer. I think both the SSG and the HM will enjoy their new home in London very much indeed.

When everything had been shifted, BP and I went to get takeout from a nearby Pizza Express, and promptly wolfed everything down, before sinking onto her couch for a Friends DVD marathon, feeling totally wiped out. But the evening got decidedly better when the SSG returned from sending her sister - who had also chipped in for the day - off to Heathrow Airport, whereupon we dimmed the lights, turned the music on, and began savouring the delightful Chablis we got her and also a bottle of Cava.

So, it's hearty congratulations to the SSG and HM for securing such a lovely new home, and best of luck too as they begin their second year in London soon. Wanna know something too? I so wish I could stay on in London for some time to come, especially in such a cool apartment as this, with lovely views. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In Vino Veritas

Bacchus would have been proud of us. Five wine tastings, a Bombay Sapphire cocktail, plus a tour around the different wine regions of the world – from Georgia, to Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire, and then to other parts of the world – the Antipodes, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, the US, and even China and Thailand.

Yup, you heard correctly. So it appears that the Huatongs and the Monsoon Valleys are here to challenge the supremacy of the various Chateaux in France. But I wouldn’t be too worried. SW tried the Chinese wine and almost had to spit it out. The equally adventurous BP had sampled a so-called organic wine earlier, and claims that his headache stemmed directly from it.

We were at the Vinopolis earlier this afternoon for an excellent wine tour. It's located at Bankside, near to Borough Market, within what appears to be old warehouses. Situated nearby was the Wine Wharf, where I had been to earlier, which seems to be part of the same company.

Compared to my two companions, I was decidedly less adventurous, and limited my tasting selections to more well-known varieties, including an Italian negroarmaro, which I have never heard of before, much less encountered. Indeed, apart from that, I certainly came away much better informed about wines and wine-making.

We ended our tour at their amazing shop, which has some of the widest selection of whiskies I’ve ever seen. Selections from all over Scotland, from the Lowlands to the Highlands, from the Speyside to Skye. Arrayed there on the shelves, it sure was a spectacular visual feast. Well, don’t just take my word for it. Professional whiskey drinker SW was bowled over by the entire place, and he’s certain to be back.

We moved next to the wine store, where we got a bottle of Chablis Grand Cru “Valmur” 2004 from Domaine Christian Moreau, which we intend to present to the SSG tomorrow as she moves out of Goodenough College to her new spanking apartment at Shad Thames across the river, to begin – sorry, to resume her life as a super-duper sibeh dualiap corporate lawyer.

Bankside had more to offer. After leaving Vinopolis, we headed into nearby Southwark Cathedral for a quick shuftie around the historic complex, and then settled down for dinner at the Anchor pub, accompanied by a jug of Pimms. But the day wasn’t at an end yet, for there was a screening of Ocean’s Thirteen waiting for us at the Cineworld Haymarket further away at Piccadilly.

It was pretty okay, but not as riveting or memorable as Ocean’s Eleven. The plot was less than gripping, the dialogue was vapid, and you know what the biggest problem was? The lack, except for a sagging Ellen Barkin, of any attractive female lead. No babes. None whatsoever. No wonder some critics panned it.