Friday, 28 February 2014

La Traviata from beyond the Urals - a joy at the White Rock

Ever optimistic, we booked for La Traviata, put on by the obscure-sounding Russian State Ballet and Opera Theatre, at the White Rock. Our last couple of experiences down there have been grim, never mind trying a one-night stand from a touring troupe of Russians.
     However, the whole experience was a delight. The performance had a wonderfully old-fashioned feel,

Olga Sosnovskaya as Violetta
with lots of big ball-gowns, corsets and flowing white nighties.... I kept imagining the Victorian well-to-do of Hastings, making their way to the newly-opened Pier Pavilion for just such a spectacle.
     The performance had English surtitles - always a bonus, even though the plot of La Traviata is well-known, and best of all, the performers were crackingly good. Don't get me wrong, we ain't talking Covent Garden here, but all the principals, and indeed the chorus, had beltingly strong voices that zapped briskly into every cavernous corner of the theatre.
     The young woman playing Violetta (Olga Sosnovskaya?) did an excellent job. She hit every note robustly and confidently, and served up a classic death-bed scene. Her Alfredo was interesting - at first sight, he resembled an earnest  Japanese concert pianist who had got the wrong week for the Music Festival, but he had a fine voice, acted well and made a real fist of the role. Germont père also had an excellent voice, although we did feel he could have injected a bit more gravitas into his performance. Some of the minor players, such as the Baron, were a bit wooden, but you can't have everything....
     In addition to all this there was a perfectly competent full orchestra - we were sitting in the second row back of the stalls - practically had the double-bassist's elbow in our faces.
     I was so pessimistic about the experience that I didn't even get a programme - also, they were £5, which seemed a bit steep, so had to do some internet research about the company before writing this.
     Very interesting it is too.....
     Turns out that the Russian State Ballet and Opera Theatre is an umbrella organisation presenting the work of different regional Russian theatre companies. This year's tour is by the State Ballet and Opera Theatre of Komi, a Russian province north and west of the Urals, partly above the Arctic Circle. The Soviet-era theatre is in the republic's capital, Syktyvkar. Ever heard of that? No? Neither had I.
State Opera House in Syktyvkar. Their fountain looks a bit like the one in Hastings that is causing a big rumpus at present

Originally, their fountain was a giant statue of Lenin.....
    The population is a mix of the indigenous reindeer-herding Komi people, ex-inhabitants of the gulags and Tatars as well as Russians. Most of the country is tundra, or sub-Arctic forest, and became notorious as the site of many of the Gulags. The Komi people have their own language (Finnish-Uragic?), and their culture was heavily suppressed during the Stalin era.
    It is mind-boggling how many things one knows nothing about.......
    I wonder what life must be like for those performers, touring endless second-rank provincial theatres night after night - Watford, Croydon, Newcastle, Buxton, Worthing, Guildford.... and of course, Hastings.
    Had a bit of a busy day before going to the theatre. My lovely new iphone stopped working, and the nearest Apple store is in Brighton, so had to trek over there. We had a nice day revisiting old shopping haunts, and I got a brand-new phone. I wonder if they have an Apple store in Syktyvkar?....Eeer - no. The first Russian Apple store is shortly to open in Moscow.....

Monday, 24 February 2014

Thoughts on Libraries with Hastings Battleaxe

Overall, we read that library usage is in decline in the UK.  However, for Battleaxe and Philosopher, a new era of library use has begun - we now are regular borrowers at the Hastings Public Library.
     Why has this come about? Time and convenience have much to do with it. Also, as I get older, I can't be bothered finishing books I don't enjoy. I can borrow books I would not normally try - and take them back if I don't like them. Don't talk to me about e-books either - they are fine on holiday, but I much prefer to read a printed book.
     In Birmingham, we either had to use small-scale local libraries which were often shut due to staff cuts, burst pipes or whatever, or find our way to the big city library.
    A few days ago we made our first visit to the enormous, glitzy new Library of Birmingham, with its eye-catching lacy metal skin.
The Library of Birmingham, opened September 2013
      Inside, it is genuinely astonishing - huge light spaces with blue-lit escalators and travelators meandering gently up through ten floors. There are cafes, roof terraces, discovery zones, chill-out areas, and a massive kids area safely tucked away with the music library on the lower ground floor. Our granddaughter loved it.
Inside the new Library
      Birmingham should be really proud of this fabulous building. However, although I'd happily visit it again, would I use it on a regular basis to browse quietly and choose my current reads?  I can't somehow see me travelling in from the suburbs, crossing the city and then navigating my way comfortably through that vast space.
      Before leaving the topic of massive Birmingham libraries, I must put in yet another plea (see previous blog) to save the now-empty 1970s 'Ziggurat' - the John Madin Central Library, from demolition.  I was looking at it from the roof terrace of the new building, and felt frustrated and saddened.
The old Birmingham Central Library taken from the roof terrace of the new Library
     It is really a wonderful example of Brutalist architecture, and could achieve its full potential in the City landscape if it was cleared of the horrid blocks you can see on the Centenary Square side, and of course the nasty, tacky, smelly fast food joints cluttering the inner atrium.
     I am old enough to remember the old Victorian library, demolished to make way for the Madin building - destruction which, of course,  is now regarded as disastrous vandalism.  I do firmly believe that future generations will see the demolition of the Madin library as a similar tragedy. Maybe it is yet not too late - Brutalism may be getting more acceptable.
     So, here we are in Hastings. We have the choice of a tiny library in Ore - which is little more than a hut, or the main library in town. I was in there this morning. Housed in the Victorian Brassey Institute, it is a bit cramped, slightly shabby and with that characteristic library smell I remember from childhood - musty books, dust and a slight whiff of tramp's overcoats. They have machines to check the books in and out, but today they didn't work, and I ended up having a conversation with the bloke behind the desk and a prospective borrower about different translations of Proust......
Hastings Library
     However, change is afoot. The building next door has been purchased and the library is to be extended and refurbished. I don't suppose we'll have more space in the end - the new building will also accommodate the Chiildren's Library and the Registry Office, now both in other places.
     For me, I guess, it is a matter of size and scale. Hastings is just big enough to have a good browsing selection, not so big that it is daunting, and small enough to be friendly.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Hastings - a lovely walk on a rare sunny day

Well, what a difference a day made.....
      Here's the sea on Saturday - I don't know about anyone else, but I find it very hard to get good pictures of waves. No sooner is the camera primed and ready than it shakes in the wind, spray blows in my eyes, then the waves subside and reappear further down the beach. Yesterday a stinging hail shower finally put paid to my efforts.
Huge waves - St Leonard's
      Sunday though, was gorgeous - sunny, mercifully wind free, and mild. We decided to go for a long walk - and I mean long, 5.73 miles, to be precise. We set off from our house and walked across Clive Vale to the West Hill via Bembrook Road. As soon as you clear the houses, the lovely view across the valley appears, down to sea the past the East Hill lift.
View from Bembrook Road
     Then, along Collier Road to the West Hill. For us, the view from the West Hill has a special significance. We first rented a little house in Plynlimmon Road, just by Emmanuel Church,  back in 2009 when we first thought of moving from Birmingham. Walking on the West Hill always lifted our spirits after closed-in city life, and fixed our hearts on Hastings. We still never tire of the views - out to sea, down across the Old Town, and watching all the dogs eagerly tearing about after balls.
     Had a coffee, sitting outside in the warm sun, at the West Hill Cafe, before retracing our steps and striking off along St Mary's Terrace.

Views from the West Hill Cafe

St Mary's Terrace
     This road must have some of the prettiest old houses in Hastings, and much gentrification has taken place since we first visited. As ever, we noted the plaques on the houses where Whistler's mother lived, and Grey Owl. One of Robert Tressell's homes is nearby, at the end of Plynlimmon Road.
     Then, down across the railway via Grey Owl's Reach - or Dog Poo Retch... it always smells even if there aren't actually any turds waiting for unwary feet on the bridge.  There is an attractive little jumble of trees, old Victorian steps and tall houses before you turn down St James's Road. Another Grey Owl plaque here - where he was born.
Top of  St James's Road
     Again, this little street is getting very gentrified. We looked at a house here at some transitional stage a few years ago. It was very pretty, but tiny and dark, with only two bedrooms and a little garden backing onto the railway embankment. The agent was very angry because the house was rented out to a young woman who had left the place strewn with dirty crockery, underwear etc. Apparently messes like that put some people off - we had a hard job convincing the guy that if we had liked the house we would not have been deterred by the odd bra on the floor.
     So, across the road past the railway bridge. When we first came to Hastings we enjoyed seeing how many times we could photograph the tower of Emmanuel Church from different places - this is one of them. Philosopher even sent the vicar an anonymous envelope of photos.
     We read that the Germans used this church as a landmark in the war when they flew across to bomb London - not surprising, it is so prominent.
Railway bridge with Emmanuel Church on left.
     Into Alexandra Park. It was muddy, with pools of standing water on the grass, but the grass was very green, and some trees were already coming into leaf. It was great to see so many people out in the sun enjoying themselves. Both Philosopher and I love the park - it is exceptionally attractive, and one of the unsung beauties of Hastings. Initially we were much taken with the Alexandra and Clive Vale Bowling Club, and walked along making up stories about Alexandra and Clive and family life in the Vale household....
Sunny park....
     We thought of making another pit-stop at the Eat Cafe, but it was packed, so we pressed on into the upper park. There are some amazing houses in Lower Park Road - some Victorian, and some Art Deco.
      On up by Harmer's pool to the bottom of Shornden Reservoir.
Harmer's Pool
A sharp little climb out onto what we call the 'Blow-up Lawn' so called because it is reminiscent of the park in the film. This is near the Garlic Wood which we visit each spring, and the Spooky Tree - a huge misshapen old thing that is like a fairy-tale witches home.
The 'Blow-up' lawn
Arriving in Bohemia
     Then, we were in Bohemia. We stopped at the North Star Inn on the corner of Clarence Road and New South Road for a restorative beer and a packet of crisps. This is a lovely old pub, run by the same people as the General Havelock down in town, but suffers from a lack of food provision. Apparently they now do a Wednesday curry night, but that does not help people hungry for a Sunday lunch!
The North Star
     Dragged ourselves out of the pub and along Horntye Road. This area needs a bit of gentrification - it is a bit run-down and grubby-looking.
     Down into Summerfields Woods. We always have trouble here because things never seem to be in the same places twice running. We know we pass the old Walled Garden, and often we pass the mysterious folly bath spring, but often we end up blundering through the trees and ending up either higher or lower than we want to be. For some reason, I also find the wood a bit spooky - it feels threatening. Today, was no exception - and of course it was very muddy and slippery. We were heading for the Museum, but ended up scrambling out of the wood much higher up, at the back of the Travelodge.
Spooky Summerfields Wood
They had a nice exhibition of flower and plant paintings at the Museum, and also some lovely paintings illustrating the four seasons from the permanent collection, but I think we were a bit too tired to do it justice. That Art Gallery and Museum is another hidden Hastings gem - see previous blog.
A lovely summery scene: The Flower Market, Violet Vicat Cole, Hastings Museum
Then, down Bohemia Road, down Cambridge Road into town. We ate our lunch at Ada, the Turkish place on Robertson Street. We enjoy practising our Turkish on the poor staff - often they can't understand us - we hope it is because they have a regional, probably Turkish Cypriot, accent, and not because we are hopeless.
    Caught the bus home. Hastings was absolutely packed - the seafront looked like a summer day, the crazy golf was thronged - people obviously desperate to get out and enjoy the good weather.
    This is a long blog post for a long walk!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Lisbon - Hastings Battleaxe takes a break.

The first Bishop of Lisbon was an English Crusader monk called Gilbert of Hastings, back in 1147. I can find little about him except that he was born in Hastings. Unfortunately we forgot to look for any trace of him in the Cathedral (the ) he founded.
    Our hotel, the Lisboa Plaza, suited us admirably. It was in a quiet road off the Avenida da Liberdade, a wide and busy boulevard that sweeps down through the centre of the city towards the coast. Our room overlooked a strange semi-derelict Art Deco amusement park, now being restored, so I expect the hotel and its surrounding area will go more up-market quite soon.
Deco gateposts of old Amusement Park next to our hotel

That's how I like to see the Metro!

     The hotel was very handy for the Avenida Metro, and also the bus to the airport. Public transport in Lisbon is very good and very cheap - of particular interest to Battleaxe  and Philosopher were the old-style trams, and the various funiculars and lifts that carried you up the steep hills at both sides of the city centre - a bit like Hastings! There were great views from the tops of the hills. On our first day we went up in a wonderful iron Victorian lift, the Elevador de Santa Justa, which takes you up to an older quarter, the Barrio Alto, and rode a rickety old tram.
Elevador Santa Justa

View from the top of the Elevador

View down to the Tagus
The No 28 tram

On a funicular

     We saw many attractive Art Nouveau buildings, and in the Barrio Alto we visited one such, the Cafe Brasileira. Many buildings are covered in tiles - some have tile pictures.
Cafe Brasileira interior

Tile picture on an old shop

The lower city was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, and was rebuilt on a grid pattern, with very imposing large squares with massive statues and fountains in the middle. As when we went to Funchal in Madeira, we were struck by the attractive patterned pavements, and again I ask why can't we have some nice paving like this on our bleak Stade Open Space?

Nice paving....

Impressive arcchway

     The best museum we visited was the Calouste Gulbenkian Collection. Gulbenkian was an Armenian Turkish oil magnate, who, I read, originally wanted to house his collection in London, where Sir Kenneth Clark had been one of his advisers.  Unfortunately he fell out with the British Government, who declared him a 'technical enemy' at the outbreak of war in 1939. After the war, he took his entire collection to his adopted country, Portugal, where the current building was developed to house it. Our loss, methinks.
     Architecturally, the building was an interesting example of Brutalism softened by greenery and water, and inside it was quiet, spacious - and wonderfully empty. I particularly liked a room full of exquisite Art Nouveau jewellery, by Lalique who was a personal friend of Gulbenkian. There were also some fine paintings, in particular French impressionists.
Lalique hair ornament

Lalique hair ornament

Lalique owl bracelet
     We spent most of the time on our favourite foreign city pursuit - just wandering the streets, looking at the buildings, peering into shops and visiting the odd church. The city felt quite safe, although there were a number of beggars, and plenty of rough sleepers. The citizens seemed friendly and helpful.
Rococo gone mad - Church of San Rocque

Shop interior

Was it? we tried it. Not really

     Eating out was also quite cheap - one day we had a lunch of a huge bowl of home-made soup, a big sandwich and a glass of fresh orange juice all for 4.95 euros.
     I ate the obligatory sardines once - Philosopher, who is not that keen on fish, not at all.
    Weather was better than here - not difficult - we had one wet day, when Tempestade Stephanie rocked up.....

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Brede 'Giants'. Hastings Battleaxe recommends a visit

On Saturday a brief window of bright sunny weather opened in the morning, so we jumped through it and headed out to Brede - the restored steam engines at the old Waterworks only operate on the first Saturday of each month and on bank holidays.
      We had a slightly interesting journey to get there - the Brede Valley was flooded, and the road by the river was about a foot deep. Some drivers are such fools, the way they surge through floods at high speed - not only will they swamp themselves, but they risk swamping other cars also.
       The Waterworks, and the modern treatment plant beside it, are in an isolated and beautiful position in the Brede valley. Originally, coal to fuel the engines was brought by barge up the river and then carried to the works on a little steam railway. Apparently, however, the wells were sunk in the wrong place - the underground supplies of water turned out to be inadequate.
       The 'Giants' of Brede - the steam engines, are just fabulous.
       The oldest and most beautiful engine was made by Tangye's of Birmingham in 1904.
The Tangye engine
      Originally, there were two of them, and their job was to pump water up from the aquifers around 200 feet below the surface, and then drive the water a up further 500 feet and six miles to holding reservoirs in Ore and at Baldslow for distribution to Hastings. 
       The huge engine is in flawless condition, and is still working perfectly after over a hundred years and a long working life - it was superseded by electric pumps in 1964.
      I could not help reflecting, briefly, on the tragic decline of Birmingham heavy engineering industry. Formerly, the much derided inhabitants of 'Benefits Street' would have had a hard, but dignified, working life labouring to make wonderful things such as that engine.
       There is another, slightly more modern (1939) but equally huge steam engine that has an engine house all to itself. You could go down underneath the engine and stand below the massive revolving  12 ton fly-wheel and see the piston things rising and falling disturbingly close to your head.
That flywheel weighs 12 tons
       These days, the engines only run at about a quarter of their former operating speed. Despite their vast size, their gentle churning and hissing was soothing and hypnotic to listen to and to watch. Currently, they are powered by compressed air. We gave money towards the building of a new boiler house to bring steam back.
       As mentioned before when we went on the Kent and East Sussex Railway back in the summer,  Battleaxe is fascinated by old engines. Don't ask me why. Perhaps its genetic. As usual, most of the Engine Admirers there today were men.
       In addition to the big engines, there were lots of other smaller pumps and engines working away that had been brought from other waterworks around East Sussex. The outfit is entirely run by volunteers. You could get coffee, and of course - cake. We were impressed, particularly as it is free to go in.
      I'll upload a little video of the Tangye engine below.

       Outside, there was another treat - a big nuclear bunker to wander round.  This one would have housed the heads of the utility companies in the South-East. All the fixtures and fittings were still in place. Philosopher and I reflected on the craziness of the thinking back then. There would be these bunkers with groups of big-wigs in, but what were they supposed to do?  All the workers would still be outside, presumably unprotected. I suppose they had to plan something, but it was, in practice, pretty meaningless.

The nuclear bunker
       We drove back up to Brede and had a look at the church. There were lovely snowdrops on the churchyard, and the view down across the flooded valley was like the Lake District. It is a nice old church, with another Brede 'Giant' inside - the tomb of Sir Goddard Oxenbridge, who died in 1541 and was apparently seven feet tall. However, the effigy of him on the top of the tomb was only about half that size.
       The organist was practising his hymns. 'O Sacred Head Sore Wounded',  for Easter, presumably. One of my favourites: 'What sorrow mars thy grandeur? Can death thy bloom deflower' etc. It was nice to hear it even with a few mistakes and rheumatic organ wheezes.
        This will be my last blog post for a few days - we are off to Lisbon. Assuming we ever get there - the weather is just horrendous.
View of Brede Valley

Driving home through the floods by Brede Bridge

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Jerwood Collection Revealed: Hastings Battleaxe recommends....

     Just a quick up-date. Go and see the 'Jerwood revealed' exhibition!
      It was actually sunny today, so we went for a prowl round the Old Town before lunch and Jerwood viewing. Great excitement in George Street - the side of someone's house had collapsed just above the big wall at the back of Butler's Gap. The Fire Brigade were there and had cordoned the place off. This is the second such incident in two days. Yesterday there was a landslide in White Rock and several properties there are now unsafe. If it stays this wet for much longer, Hastings will start slowly sliding down to the sea.....
     Anyway, back to the Jerwood. They have redone the cafe - in grey with yellow accents, and bright red netting lampshades. The tables and chairs are now brown wood. It actually looks much better - warmer, more domestic, less stark.
     For this exhibition, they have got almost the whole Jerwood Collection out on display, plus a room full of
Alfred Wallis - Two Boats
Alfred Wallis, mostly on loan from Kettle's Yard in Cambridge. I don't usually reckon much to Wallis, but it did feel like a very good place to hang his work, next to the view of the fishing beach out of the window. St Ives, where Wallis came from, has got very touristy and sanitised. I think he'd feel at home on the Hastings Stade.
     The first pleasing thing that struck me about the exhibition was that the walls were full of paintings, instead of acres of empty white space. There was plenty to look at, and even some sculptures in cases.  They have made a partition in the big room downstairs and painted some walls grey - it looks much more friendly and welcoming.
     I don't think the Jerwood should be afraid of leaving much more of their collection out on display on a permanent basis. Commercially, I think it would be more interesting for more visitors. The collection is the Jerwood's strength - that is what people want to see. Speaking personally, I like to revisit paintings, and to become familiar with them. I regard my favourites as 'friends', and I don't get fed up of seeing them over and over again.  
    I think for the first time I left the Gallery thinking that what was on view was genuinely satisfying - it was sufficiently dense, and sufficiently interesting.
    Here are a few of my personal favourites. There are more, but I can't find them on Google.
Alfred Wolmark - the Flatiron Building
Dod Proctor

John Bratby

Maggie Hambling
Elizabeth Adela Stanhope-Forbes