Review – Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 16th June 2013

Last Night of the Derngate PromsA month before the BBC Proms season starts, it’s always time for the Royal Philharmonic’s traditional Last Night to mark the end of their season. A packed Derngate Auditorium looked forward to a night of music and festivities, and there seemed to be considerably more flags and a lot more general audience cheekiness than in previous years.

Our conductor was Nick Davies, whom we have not seen on the podium before, but he seems like a laid-back and relaxed sort of chap from his programme photograph. His experience at conducting for musical theatre in West End productions like Mary Poppins and Evita no doubt stands him in good stead for taking charge of the evening of Classic’s Greatest Hits that is the RPO’s Last Night.

Nick DaviesWe started off with the sheer brilliance of Bizet’s Carmen – Prelude, Aragonaise and March of the Toreadors. That’s a fantastic way to get your classic juices flowing. Wasn’t it Stephen Sondheim who described Carmen as the greatest musical ever written? Or was it me, I can’t remember. Anyway, it was a superb, sunny, exhilarating opening, and it gave the orchestra the chance to shine right from the start.

Nick Davies then introduced our guest tenor, John Hudson, who has a string of accomplishments to his CV including all the decent opera roles in many of the decent opera companies. He has a jolly, avuncular appearance; if he wasn’t wearing the traditional operatic dinner jacket he would look just right in a mucky white apron behind a butcher’s counter. He started off with La donna è mobile from Rigoletto which he sang with wonderful warmth and expression.

Then it was time to introduce the home contingent on stage, the Northampton Bach Choir. We’ve heard them a few times before and they’re nearly always superb. Their first contribution to the evening was Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and, if I’m honest, they were a bit ragged. It was a performance that seemed to lack certainty, with sibilants flying all over the place and a range of final “t”s that ricocheted around the stage like a staccato stutter. However, when Mrs Chrisparkle and I were walking home after the concert we overheard one chorister-looking lady saying to her friend, “well, he never told us when to come in”, so maybe there was a little lack of understanding between Bach and Baton.

John HudsonAll rectified splendidly, however, with the next piece, Sibelius’ Finlandia, where the orchestra gave a superbly gutsy performance and the choir were strong and powerful with their Finnish call for independence sung in the original Finnish. It was very rousing, loud and entertaining. Then came more power from the choir in the Hallelujah Chorus that followed, which was beautifully sung and had great support from the orchestra.

John Hudson returned to perform Che gelida manina from La Bohème. “Your tiny hand is frozen, come thrust it in the fire, aah – aah…” as I was once prone inappropriately to sing. I’ve always loved this piece as it was one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite pieces of classical music and it always reminds me of her. Mr Hudson gave it a very tender rendition, which obviously channelled the emotion of it successfully, as little springs of moisture began to appear behind my specs. There was a slight problem though – when the orchestra really took flight they rather dominated our tenor and it was hard to hear him at times. Nevertheless, musically it was still a delight.

Then it was time for Antiphon (Let all the world) from Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, which was new to me – a very different version of “Let all the world in every corner sing” that I intoned at junior school. Challenging and difficult, I felt the Northampton Bach Choir gave it a very good stab.

Daniel de FryThe last number before the interval – and with a concert like this you can consider them “musical numbers” – was the Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker. It’s a beautiful tune and the orchestra played it magnificently. It has a long, self-indulgent, decadent harp element, which sounded stunning. From where I was sitting, the harpist was hidden by three violinists but I checked my programme and saw that it was Suzy Willison-Kawalec whom we have seen many times before. I thought she was on top form. It was only during the applause afterwards when Nick Davies invited the harpist to stand that I saw it was a young man! A little subsequent investigation has revealed that it was Daniel de Fry, who I guess must have been a last minute stand-in and he is definitely a star of the future.

After a nice glass of Cabernet Sauvignon we returned for the second half, and the starter piece, Walton’s Orb and Sceptre. I had noticed the appearance of a large speaker in the corner of the stage, four rows from where we were sitting and I wondered if it might affect us. I was right to wonder. A keyboard instrument had appeared during the interval – again from where I was sitting I couldn’t really see it properly – but certainly when it was played I couldn’t half hear it! It augmented the Orb and Sceptre very dramatically and, because the organ (I guess that’s what it was) didn’t have a huge part to play in the piece, it didn’t dominate it, but just helped give it power, emotion and a lot of oomph. However, there were moments later on in the concert when the organ was just too loud, to the detriment of the other instruments. I expect we were simply unfortunate to be as close to the speaker as we were.

Northampton Bach ChoirThe Northampton Bach Choir returned for more drama with Parry’s “I was glad” which is always a crowd pleaser and they performed it brilliantly; very musical, delightfully regal and full of joy. It was a superb contrast with the reflective beauty of Elgar’s Nimrod, which followed; serene on the strings, blossoming with emotion, conveying all those aspects of a deep friendship just as Elgar must have originally hoped; a lovely performance.

John Hudson returned for the choral version of Nessun dorma from Turandot. Mrs C and I have never really heard it this way before. Mr Hudson sang the aria beautifully and with great clarity, and just as you thought it was going to end, the choir came in sang that famous “chorus” again. Mrs C had hairs stand up on the back of her neck. It was thrilling; we loved it. The choir absolutely nailed it; it was indeed the individual performance of the night.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraOn the home straight now, as we were taken through our paces with Tom Bowling (cellist Tim Gill on super form) and the Hornpipe from Henry Wood’s Fantasia on Sea Songs. Once the hornpipe had started the audience participation wasn’t going to hold back. Often conductors like to encourage the audience to keep quiet through the first part of the hornpipe at least so that we can hear the beautiful music once; Mr Davies didn’t do that, and taps, claps and thumps started up pretty much from the word go. Someone in the boxes stage right started to give Mr Davies a mild heckling, to the enormous amusement of the orchestra. John Hudson led us through Rule Britannia (lovely but the organ was too loud) and Jerusalem (always my favourite) and we ended up with Pomp and Circumstance and Land of Hope and Glory; all rousing, wonderful stuff that got everyone in the patriotic mood. As an encore, the orchestra gave us their Can-Can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which also resulted in lots of clapping and stomping, and a very respectable looking elderly man in a box stage left, who had enjoyed the concert up to that point in a reserved and dignified way, went manic and started doing his own version of the Can-Can. He looked like Statler from the Muppet Show on speed.

It was a very enjoyable concert and a wonderful end to the RPO’s 2012-13 season. We’ve already booked our seats for next year! On the way back we walked past some of the choir and orchestra members spilling out of the stage door and heading for home, including Mr de Fry manfully propelling his (comparatively) giant harp up the street, peeking either side of it like a meerkat in attempt to navigate the road safely. Although he nearly ran us over crossing the road it did give us an opportunity to thank him for his great performance. Hi, ho, the glamorous life!

India – Mumbai – Gods and Temples

Early startAnother early start? I don’t believe it! So much for having a relaxing holiday. But we had so much to pack in to our next day, and we had arranged a lunch reservation for 2 pm, so 9 am was the latest we could get going. Anyway, who am I kidding? When did we last do a relaxing holiday?

Hari Krishna temple entranceReligion is everywhere in Mumbai. It seems to me in India there’s no such thing as a non-believer. Unlike in the UK, where we basically don’t particularly care much one way or the other, and if we do it tends to be a private and personal thing, in Mumbai you’re definitely classified as to your faith. You’re either a Hindu or a Muslim, a Jain or a Buddhist, a Jew or a Christian, a Sikh or a Parsi, maybe even a follower of Bahá’í. Not only are temples and mosques found everywhere, but each shop has its own shrine, and each street corner its own little religious refuge. Cows roam the streets; incense pervades the air; people wear clothes that make their faith instantly recognisable. Of course, different religions do things differently. So it was an excellent opportunity to visit a few temples with our guide Amish to get an insider’s view on the buildings, the services and the adherents, and to get a feel as to what it would be like to be a follower of any of these faiths.

Outside the templeOur first stop on this morning of hobnobbing with the Gods, was to visit a Hare Krishna temple. This was the Radha Gopinath temple in Chowpatty. As soon as you see the orange canopy stretched out over the open courtyard, you just know this has to be a monument to Hare Krishna. Around the courtyard are little shops and stalls, display cabinets, and slightly surprisingly, to get inside you have to get past the security staff. At the centre of the courtyard is a two storey building – it reminded me slightly of what an Indian Alpine chalet might look like. Downstairs there isn’t much – just some storage areas – but all the action takes place upstairs.

GIlded screen wallHaving made our way upstairs, a service was just about to start. I don’t know about you, but I always associate worshippers of Krishna to be dressed in orange gowns, banging drums, dinging cymbals, and chanting as they go. Just one look inside the temple shows this is not the case. At the front, an ornate gilded screen was attended by an orange clad man with what looked like a large furry lollipop. At the back, a very lifelike statue Congregation - maleof a priest sat on a golden throne. However, that ornate and colourful framework did not extend to the congregation. The room was packed out with men who looked like they had just come in from a business meeting, had removed their jackets, and were all seated on the floor to take part in a service that was being delivered by a visiting monk from Canada. So although the building and decoration felt very “Indian”, the service itself was extremely cosmopolitan.

Congregation - femaleIt all looks very sexist; the men are all seated, agog to hear the message of Krishna, whereas the women are all in a side room, chattering, creating garlands, preparing some food, looking after their kids. Like so many religious institutions it serves more than one purpose.You’re getting your spiritual nourishment yes, but at the same time family business gets sorted out, social events are arranged, and gossip gets done.

Off to BabulnathIt’s an evangelical place – we were welcomed, but as prospective new recruits of the future rather than simply as curious visitors. We were obliged to take away with us a list of all the places in the UK where we could worship at a Hare Krishna temple. The young chap who befriended us there seemed so hopeful of a conversion that it would have been like kicking a puppy not to have looked interested. It was a fascinating place to visit, but to me it didn’t feel remotely spiritual.

GaneshUnlike our next port of call, which was the Hindu temple at Babulnath, dedicated to Shiva. The approach to this temple is rather like going through a market, then into a quieter back street behind blocks of flats. Halfway up the hill (it is a bit steep) you are greeted by the reassuring sight of Ganesh, in quite a large street side shrine with its own electric power. At the top of the hill is the entrance to the temple, and to the side, another shrine, this time to Hanuman, the monkey god, which, on close inspection shows the god crushing his enemy beneath the weight and power of his foot. This is a god in destructive mode.

HanumanUnfortunately it is not permitted to take photographs inside this temple so I cannot show you what happened, but I can tell you it is an extraordinary little place. There is a small area, and in the centre is a lingam, about three feet high, that represents Shiva. Surrounding it is a small moat, and devotees quietly walk round the lingam in a circle, pouring water and milk over it. Amish asked us to sit on a nearby bench and observe whilst he went to prepare for the worship. It’s a strange, but mesmerising sight; and it was another welcoming temple – this time genuinely so, we felt. One man, having poured the milk and water over the lingam came back to where we were sitting to ask us where we were from; Babulnathhe told us he had relatives in Reading and hoped we would enjoy our visit. By now Amish had returned with two small pots of water, one for each of us, so we joined the circle of visitors, and when it came to our turn, gently poured the liquids out over the lingam. You have to pour it slowly, thoughtfully, kindly, reflectively, to get the benefit of the experience. And although it sounds like a very straightforward procedure, I found it extraordinarily spiritual. Whether it’s the symbolism, the simplicity, the sight of the flowing water, or the shared experience, I don’t know. But I felt really refreshed afterwards! And a bit wet. Fortunately in the Mumbai sunshine no moisture lasts long.

Jain elephantsOur third and final temple of the morning was the Chandanbala Jain Temple. It was very interesting to note the difference of decoration from the Hindu temples. Firstly, at the entrance, there is an abundance of swastika decorations; nothing sinister about this age-old pattern representing good fortune, which plays a significant part in Jain symbolism. Instead of the oranges and golds of the Hindus you have alabaster and cream colours, presenting a much calmer, more serene appearance. Carvings of elephants and stylised peacocks predominate. As at the Hare Krishna temple, the main emphasis is upstairs. The stairs themselves are lined with flower petals making a rich splash of natural colour. Chandanbala Jain TempleThey lead to an open air landing, where the men gather to talk about all those things that men do, whatever their religion. Then there is a door to an inner sanctuary.

And what did we find inside this sanctuary? Yes, there were religious icons and statues, shrines and altars. But chiefly we saw a family group of around 20 men, women and children, sitting on the floor in front of a vast vegetarian picnic laid out on bowls and patterned boards. The food had obviously been prepared by the women whilst the men sang and played their musical instruments. I don’t think the picnic had any greater significance than being just a simple family get-together (probably by relatively important people within that temple’s community), Jain musiciansusing the space communally to share and basically have fun together. They didn’t seem to mind at all that they had onlookers gatecrashing their party, and in fact the man playing the bongos was keen for us to appreciate their music. It was really fascinating to see the temple being used in this way, more people-oriented than god-oriented.

VT architectureBack on Day One – or rather Night One – we’d had a brief trip to see Victoria Terminus from the outside, all lit up and sparkly. Now was our opportunity to go back and see it by day. From the outside it looks big and grand, but you’re honestly not expecting it to keep on going back and back in the way it does, once you’re inside. It’s massive; no wonder it can accommodate all Mumbai’s millions of daily travellers. The elegant area at the front by the ticket offices and information desks would not look out of place in any Oxbridge college or South Kensington museum, with animal gargoyles nestling in the pseudo Greek carvings atop pseudo Doric columns. Not surprising that UNESCO wanted this place as a World Heritage Site. The immaculate gardens to the side of the station are a beautiful ornamentation for the railway company’s offices, but woe betide any stray tourist who wants to muscle in and walk around, security will be on to you like a shot.

Playing trainsWe also went further into the station and basically played at getting in and out of trains, posing as hangers-out-of-doors much to the amusement of local onlookers. They were empty trains, mind you, so we had no chance of the doors suddenly closing and whisking us away to Pune or somewhere. We would see the trains properly in action a couple of days later.

VT gardensWe returned to the Oberoi just in time to meet our friend the Food and Beverages manager who had booked us a table at the restaurant of the sister Trident hotel. The Oberoi and Trident are linked by a little shopping mall, and in fact the Trident used to be the Oberoi until the Oberoi was built – I hope that isn’t too complicated for you. As residents of either hotel you can use the facilities of the other one if you wish, and we were strongly recommended to visit the Frangipani restaurant. As we had become accustomed, the chef came out and gave his solemn oath not to let any gluten accidentally worm its way on to Mrs Chrisparkle’s plate. It was a delicious lunch, very relaxed; fractionally less formal and fractionally less classy than the Oberoi.

NarimanWe definitely needed a rest after all that, so took to our spacious suite for a well deserved kip. I think it lasted longer than we’d anticipated, so all we had time for later was a briefish walk along the water’s edge to Nariman Point and back, just to get some air and a little exercise. Dinner that night was to be in the Oberoi, at their Italian restaurant, the Vetro, which was very elegant and exclusive. The only thing that could finish off such a delightful evening was another session in the Eau Bar. I love sophisticated travel!

If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com

Review – The Pitmen Painters, Leicester Curve, 15th June 2013

The Pitmen PaintersThis National Theatre production has been around and about for five years now, including a spell in the West End, so it was high time we saw it. The story of the Pitmen Painters was new to me. The play by Lee Hall is based on William Feaver’s book about a group of miners in the 1930s from Ashington in Northumberland, who decided to start an art appreciation group and from that discovered an extraordinary ability to paint.

Nicholas LumleyLike Lee Hall’s rather better known work, Billy Elliot, the play is set in the world of working-class, ill-educated people who struggle to accept the presence of creativity and artistry where traditionally there has only been hard graft. But whereas Billy Elliot has self belief and his problem was with his traditional, unimpressed father and brother, the only people that the Pitmen Painters have to convince is themselves. Embarrassed at their own ability, when the local wealthy P&O heiress takes a shine to their work they have no idea how to behave; and the play grapples with fascinating subjects like patronage versus independence, loyalty within a group, and the place of art in the fight for improved conditions for the working man. It also takes a good humorous look at the nature of groups and societies, how they develop, their rules, and how they react to outsiders; and at the nature of art itself – what does it mean, and how do you appreciate it.

Philip CorreiaIt’s no serious treatise however. It’s extremely funny, with the humorous, class-based contrast between the well-educated, posher art crowd and the Geordie bluntness of the miners; and also the relationships between the group members themselves, each one of whom is convinced they know the best way forward. Lee Hall’s script is beautifully written, and is full of good lines that not only give the audience a good belly-laugh but also reveal the truth about the fascinating individual characters that make up the artists’ group.

Donald McBrideGary McCann’s set is unglamorously dark and foreboding, and there are just a few ramshackle old school chairs to suggest all the different locations of the story. To understand what the characters are discussing when they examine works of art, there are three projection screens at the back of the stage, which show the close up picture details. Even though it sounds a bit stagy and artificial, this device works extremely well and you quickly forget its essential lack of reality. The screens also explain the place and time for each scene, which is useful for a play with a number of short scenes that gradually spans 13 years.

Joe CaffreyThe whole cast give a great ensemble performance and do justice to the memory of the real people they are portraying, with an entertaining blend of older and younger too. Nicholas Lumley is superb as George Brown, the authoritarian retired miner who runs the local Workers Educational Association and is never without his rulebook to hand. Short-tempered, world weary, pernickety, but essentially good-hearted, it’s a really well-rounded performance and totally believable. He has great comic timing too.

Riley JonesThe young, idealistic element of the group is best seen in the character of Oliver Kilbourn, played with absolute conviction by Philip Correia. Kilbourn was one of the more gifted artists and Lee Hall depicts him as having a genuine artistic brain; for instance, he is the only one who can appreciate Ben Nicholson’s “circle in a square” creation that has so entranced the heiress Helen Sutherland played by Suzy Cooper. When Mr Correia talks about art appreciation it is like listening to a young child learning how to make sense of something new, and he brings a freshness and excitement with his growing understanding. Helen offers to pay Kilbourn to stop working at the pit and just paint, which causes him considerable anguish and pressure to make the right decision. His subsequent showdown with Helen is dramatic and vivid, and his anguish is palpable and painful; as is the atmosphere between them afterwards. The two actors work together really well here.

Suzy CooperDonald McBride plays Jimmy Floyd as a humorously intellectual lightweight who apparently only lives to work robotically down the pit and to provide as good a home for the wife as he can; unless his working class tenets are threatened, and then he turns surprisingly confrontational; another very good performance. Joe Caffrey is excellent as the ruddy-faced Marxist Harry Wilson, always on the lookout to improve the lot of the working man and to spout Communist bon mots, but who clearly believes in a Utopia that will be everyone’s saving grace, is genuinely furious at inequality and becomes moved to tears by the Miner’s Hymn. Riley Jones is also very effective as the “young lad”, the nameless character who appears to be George’s nephew, ungainly, socially awkward, out of work but nevertheless with an ability to get to the heart of an argument when needed. He also turns in an excellent silly-arse-accented Ben Nicholson, in a very significant conversation with Kilbourn that alters his opinion about Helen and changes his life forever.

Louis HilyerThe catalyst for the development of the miners’ artistry is the character of Robert Lyon, the lecturer engaged to take the Art Appreciation Course and who suggested they have a go at painting, as his approach and their approach to art appreciation didn’t have any common ground. Louis Hilyer takes to this role with huge enthusiasm, his Home Counties gentility creating a hilarious first scene as he tries to understand the locals. Did he unfairly profit from his association with the group by exploitation? That’s another question the play poses and that you must decide. There’s a superb scene between him and Mr Correia when Lyon invites the now more mature Kilbourn to criticise the sketch he has created of him; talk about the boot being on the other foot. And there’s very good support from Catherine Dryden as Susan, Lyon’s pupil who wants to earn a little extra cash from posing nude, much to the hilarious alarm of the highly traditional miners.

Catherine DrydenI confess I wasn’t – and still am not quite – sure about the final scene, where discussion about Kilbourn’s idealistic banner for the Labour Party results in the rendition by the entire cast of Gresford, the Miner’s Hymn, which certainly some members of the audience also knew as they were singing along in the stalls; not entirely appropriately, I felt. The scene trod a fine line between genuine sentiment and mawkishness, but I think the majority of the audience appreciated it. What I am sure is that it is a very thought-provoking and entertaining play with a terrific cast and I am not remotely surprised at its continued success. Touring until August, and definitely worth catching if you can.

India – Mumbai – Flower, Vegetable and Spice Markets, and the Chor Bazaar

Red pianoAnother beautiful sunny day, and, despite our protestations, Amish wanted an early start as we were going to explore the markets. “But we’re on holiday”, Mrs Chrisparkle whimpered, “I’d love a lie-in”. “If you get up late, then there’ll be nothing to see at the markets”, he insisted. Sigh. So we were all breakfasted and bathed by 9am and waiting by the red piano. Yes there really is one, right in the centre of the Oberoi lobby.

Crawford MarketInto the car we got and headed straight off for Crawford Market. This massive structure is named after Bombay’s first Municipal Commissioner, Arthur Crawford, and the central fountain and other decorative sculptures were carved by Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard. It was built in 1869 and it houses hundreds and hundreds of stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine.

DeliveriesThey say to understand a place you don’t go to the museums, you just experience life on the street. Well, I say that, even if no one else does. The teeming life that takes place inside Crawford Market begins on the streets outside. Smaller stalls that can’t get a look-in inside pitch up on the pavement; delivery vehicles park up anywhere and everywhere, with guys loading up little trolleys with lolloping uneven wheels Colourful flowersto bring new goods to the waiting thousands inside. There’s clearly an order of seniority in the market, which you can tell from how the men are dressed – I say men, because there are hardly any women working there. There are smart men – normally looking like they’re very well fed – in business shirts and trousers, who are obviously the movers and shakers, dealmakers and traders, employers and owners. Then you have another status of guys Stallholders– the majority – who work on the stalls and wear scruffier work clothes, maybe colourful short sleeved shirts and sports shirts, and well-worn trousers. You also have all those who are doing all the cleaning up and dealing with the rubbish, but everyone has their part to play – and those doing the menial work show equal pride in doing a good job as any of the wealthier businessmen. Any women there are rather no-nonsense older ladies in elegant saris whose expressions show they have spent a lifetime identifying the best quality produce and buying it at the best price.

More flowersIt’s a monument to hard work and long hours, but it’s also an incredibly cheery place. Everyone is delighted if you take their photo – they like to check it afterwards for approval, and inevitably it results in a satisfied head-wobble. Some people smile for the camera, others – they tend to be older, more senior types – like to look Victorian grandees, all respectable and serious. You wonder briefly if they are not so happy having their picture taken – but the satisfied head-wobble afterwards reassures you they are. The variety of colours Patience and skillassaulting your senses, particularly in the flower market area, is overwhelming. Huge bowls of colour co-ordinated flower heads, yellows, pinks, oranges, whites, are everywhere; all primarily for sale to make temple offerings. You can observe the skill of the guys painstakingly assembling garlands from the raw materials – serious, diligent workers kneeling together in a mini-production line producing creations of exquisite beauty. After an hour or so wandering round here, we got a feeling of incredible privilege to be able to share in this extraordinary community.

Well fed cowsA pause to refresh ourselves with a drink at a local restaurant, and to reflect on the extraordinary sights we’d just seen, then it was off to look at the cows in the middle of the street. These weren’t the ordinary kind of “stray” cows that wander all over India, getting in the way of cars and joining shopping queues, but an actual compound in what is basically a traffic island in the middle of the road. It’s like a farm the size of a living-room, with just two or three very healthy animals that you can feed with lush grasses supplied by some very elegant ladies who look far too well dressed to be farm girls. When we got there, however, all we could do was pat the cows as they had already had more than enough to eat. Mrs C breathed a sigh of relief as she’s a serious bovinophobe.

More clocks than ColdplayAcross the road is where the Chor Bazaar starts. Literally the “thieves’ market”, this is an area of antique and bric-a-brac shops, great for very individualistic collectors and hoarders. Amish took us round three or four specialist shops. The first was full of clocks and watches, all mounted on display so you could barely see the wall behind; mainly grandmother clocks and pocket watches, and it’s a Chor Bazaargenuinely beautiful sight. We went into a very expensive looking antiques shop, which had some rather large works of art – huge Buddhas and great big ornamental lions – apparently a number of the TV and film companies hire them from this shop to appear in their productions. Talking of films, there was also a Bollywood Poster shop, featuring all things collectable from the world of Mumbai movies.

Dead carsThe area is a hive of industry in other ways too. Walk on, and the collectable shops thin out and you come across a few roads where all you see is wrecked cars. This is where Mumbai cars go to die; but fortunately they all have donor cards. Here hard working teams assault a car and break it down into tiny individual pieces. No part is wasted – tyres, mirrors, windscreen wipers, radios, seats, Hot bakerypanels are all cut out of the old car and stacked up in the hope of being resold and reused. Men perch on plastic crates surrounded by auto wreckage; reflector lights dangle from the tops of awnings; dogs sleep under mounds of tailgates. Other businesses whose proprietors kindly allowed us to wander round and photograph included a busy working bakery, where sheets of dough were laid out on sacks over a stone slab floor before being fired up inside a fiercelyFabric workshop hot oven; and a fabric repair workshop where second hand clothes were re-stitched and revived with care and made to look new. The men working at this mini-factory were curious to know why two middle-aged holidaymakers from England would be remotely interested in their way of life. We said that we were humbled by their endlessly positive and generous nature, that everyone makes us welcome all the time, that their country is beautiful, and also that we’re not quite middle-aged yet, thank you very much.

Vegetable marketWe could have stopped for lunch – but some days are just too exciting and engrossing to waste time with food. The sights, sounds, and smells of downtown Bombay were nourishment enough. So we crossed back to Crawford Market, this time to check out the vegetable market area. Whether it was because it was later in the day or because it was a different part of the market, I don’t know, but this area seemed a little more relaxed and laid back. It’s less colourful than the Not too much garlic pleaseflower market – obviously – but the work that goes into the presentation of the produce is no less diligent or skilful. Each vegetable or piece of fruit is inspected, graded and arranged in patterns to make it look as visually appealing as possible. Leaves are washed and delicately displayed; garlic bulbs are pared down so that the shavings create a garlicky carpet on the floor; stallholders sit with huge old-fashioned scales surrounded by wide round wicker baskets containing Spicebeans, chillis, potatoes, herbs, and tomatoes, and the smells are sensational. There’s a great sense of community here – yes, to some extent the traders are in competition with each other to sell their wares but also they spend loads of time just chatting to each other, helping each other, sharing food and tea. On the way out of Crawford Market we passed by the spices section – a few shops and stalls crammed with jars and jars of dried spices and mixed herbs. But there are loads of other parts of the market that we would return to later in the week.

Happy Crawford Market manSo it was rather tired but really exhilarated that we returned to the Oberoi for a much needed rest. The previous evening we had tried to go to their Ziya Indian restaurant but it was fully booked, so we had reserved a table for the following evening. It was the same kitchen that prepared our gorgeous Vegetarian Thali for Valentine’s night, but this time we were in the comfort of the restaurant itself.Mumbai evening The food and drink manager introduced us to the chef, Mr Prashant Penkar, who personally assured us that providing Mrs C’s tasty and gluten-free dinner would be his main task, nay pleasure, of the evening. The food was a complete delight – spicy but subtle, superbly presented, a fabulous wine, and a memorable occasion in very attractive surroundings. I can’t recommend it too highly! And of course, an evening in the Oberoi isn’t complete without a glass or two in the Eau Bar to relax even more before bed.

If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com

India – Mumbai – Morning trip to Elephanta Island, afternoon stroll downtown

Elephanta Island monkeysOne of the must-see sights near Mumbai is a half-day trip to Elephanta Island. Protected by UNESCO it is famous for its 6th century cave temples, and boats make regular round trips from the Gateway of India all throughout the day. Amish, our guide, had other commitments that day, so instead we were accompanied by Mobin, who ensured we got on the right boat and kept us company during the crossing.

leaving the Gateway of IndiaThus it was that for the third day in a row, we visited the Gateway of India! You really can’t see it too often, though, in all its sunshiny glory. The boats depart directly behind it, from an area that looks as though a mish-mash of boat-parking skills were employed to get the boats in that particular arrangement, all jostling for position in a higgledy-piggledy sort of way. Nevertheless, you trust in your guides and in your Captain, and slightly nervously get on board. The boats are all the same style and shape, with a covered downstairs and an open air upstairs. We plumped for upstairs, oil refineriesso you take some rather steep and narrow steps up through what appears to be a gap in the roof and emerge on top, and hope to find an unbroken plastic chair to sit on. The trip across to the island is a little over an hour, and two main sights can be enjoyed en route. The first is the majestic Gateway of India, seen as it was designed to be seen, from the sea, gently getting smaller against the horizon as your journey progresses. Also as you near the island, you get quite close to some oil refineries, and with a good lens you can get some interesting pictures; if oil refineries are your thing, of course.

Land train to the cavesYou know you’re arriving at the island when you see this massive long jetty spurring out into the sea. I’m not sure why the boats dock so far away from the island itself, other than to give passengers a long walk, or more likely to pay for a trip on the little land train that takes you to the “village”. The village is basically a row of stalls, selling the usual tourist stuff, no outstanding purchases to be made, but exotic nonetheless, and colourful canopies over the walkway produce atmospheric light effects as you walk through. By now Mobin had introduced us to our guide on the island, Avinash. He actually lives on the island and knows the caves like the back of his hand – and why wouldn’t he, he takes people round them every day of his life.

Ticket officeThe first thing they tell you when you start walking round the island is to beware of the monkeys. What, you mean those cute tiny little things who jump around in the trees and look so adorable? Yes them. They go for your food, they go for your water. If you’re not careful they will knock them out of your hands, scavenging little so and so’s. Whilst we watched some monkeys cavorting in the trees, Avinash got our tickets: 10 rupees for Indians, 250 rupees for foreigners. At least that was written on the board in numbers. When we went to Prague in 1997, the cost to get in to the Old Jewish cemetery was very expensive for tourists and ridiculously cheap for locals, but the actual amount payable was written out in words, in Czech, so 99% of the tourists couldn’t tell that they were being ripped off. We had a Czech friend though, who got us in as locals, and we had to spend the next half hour not making eye contact with anyone or speaking, or else we would have been chucked out as undesirable aliens.

ShivaMeanwhile back in Mumbai, there are three major temple complexes at the Elephanta site. The main, extensive, area has hundreds of extraordinary old carvings of Hindu gods, many of them still in superb condition. The star attraction is the three headed statue of Shiva, which is breathtaking in its grandeur. Avinash took us all round the complex and explained who each of the gods were, and in what guise they were appearing – as you may know, Hindu gods get up to all sorts of exciting and unexpected activities. Alas I can’t remember the intricate details today. The overwhelming feeling is that you’re in a place of great history, superb artistry Temple complexand creativity, and that man, 1500 years ago, chose this natural environment as a home for his devotion to his gods. It’s a great place for photo opportunities too; not only of the sculptures, and the light and shadow effects created by the sun beaming into the darkness (if you were a little kid it would be the most brilliant place to play hide and seek), but also outside in the sunshine with the banyan trees and the monkeys. Ah yes, the monkeys. Guess who forgot the warning about the little buggers and had his bottle of water grabbed right out of his hand? I guess I was lucky not to get scratched and then spend the rest of the week worrying about rabies.

Another cave viewpointAfter a detailed guided tour, and then a more relaxed, independent walk around the complex to discover little nooks and crannies you missed the first time round, and to try some more experimental camera shots, it’s time to head back to the land train and the boat back to BOM. On the way back we got chatting to a very nice Indian couple who recognised our accents, and they talked about their lives spending half the year in India and half in UK – seems like a pretty good lifestyle. Arriving back at the Gateway of India, Mobin was just taking us to our car when we bumped into Amish taking an American chap on a tour of the city. They were both obviously enjoying their day, and it was a cue for a lot of teasing conversations as to who was the best guide! Guys, you’ll just never know…

lunchBack at the Oberoi and time for a late lunch. We decided to hit the Eau Bar because we didn’t really want a huge meal, just some Indian snacks and a refreshing glass of white wine. I tell you, that is such a glorious experience. The snacks were like Indian tapas – utterly delicious, and surprisingly filling. With the view over the bay, the terrific service and contented tummies, we were in seventh heaven. There were only two other people in the bar – an English couple who, from the loud conversations they were having on their mobiles, we deduced were obviously going to attend a big Indian wedding later in the afternoon; and they were pre-loading for Dutch courage!

local walkWe could have just flumped down afterwards and rested – every day that week it was between 32 and 34 degrees so it was hot, but not so much that you couldn’t go out and do things – but instead we decided to go for a little wander around the district by ourselves. I had my Eyewitness Travel book of India, and a couple of relatively useless maps taken from the hotel room. We planned a very simple circuit around the hotel and thought we’d see what happened.

Nariman PointThere’s a path at the water’s edge that takes you to the farthest tip of Nariman Point. So we wandered down there, and discovered that it’s the place where everyone likes to be seen walking. Young families, groups of friends, students; they all clamber about on the concrete blocks that are scattered at random to the side of the footpath as an additional barrier between it and the sea. Lots of soft drinks and ice creams get consumed along that stretch. We doubled back up, walked further along the water’s edge until we turned right onto Madame Cama Road. This takes you past the back entrance to Churchgate cricket ground where we saw members of a ladies’ cricket team (either England or New Zealand we think) getting on board an official World Cup 2013 bus.

Oval MaidanFor the sight of more cricket, we walked on, until we got to the Oval Maidan. It’s a large expanse of park in the middle of the city – you couldn’t really call it green though, as the heat of the sun has made the grass brown. And on this empty patch of land, as far as your eyes can see in both directions, take place dozens of cricket matches. Some of the players were wearing traditional white, but the majority were just in shirts and jeans. It was great just to watch people enjoying themselves, and if you were ever in any doubt as to how much your average Indian loves cricket – this will make it abundantly clear.

Traffic!On the other side of the Maidan is the Rajabai Clock Tower – by day looking more like part of a Victorian railway station or church tower; it stands out as a very refined looking piece of architecture. We negotiated some busy roads – traffic not only nose to tail but nose to side as well, there’s not a lot of space on those roads for that many vehicles – until once again we made our way to the Gateway of India. Still busy with tourists, locals and tradespeople, we noticed a number of guys sitting by the side of the square with loads of containers – we never did find out what that was all about. Perhaps you know?

container guysWe spent a little while people watching and reflecting on the terrific day we’d had. From there it was just a simple wander back to the hotel for a rest, a shower and a quiet evening. We decided to return to the relative informality of the Oberoi’s Fenix restaurant, which was very relaxing, and later on we heard the call of the Eau Bar yet again, where we swapped Northamptonshire Cricket stories with our knowledgeable wine waiter. Tomorrow was to be another fun-packed day, going round markets and meeting the real Bombay people.

If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com

Review – The History Boys, Sheffield Crucible, 8th June 2013

The History BoysHere’s another play that most people know something about but which Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen; and the film passed us by as well. The National Theatre’s original production in 2004 had tremendous reviews and a rather brilliant cast, by the sound of it; but I’m delighted to say that the recent revival by Michael Longhurst at the Sheffield Crucible, the last night of which we saw on Saturday, also has a brilliant cast and was a very enjoyable, although not quite flawless, production.

Matthew KellyA simple set greets you on entering the auditorium – the floor of a school gym, that slightly uncared for parquet flooring that I remember all too clearly, and with sketchy well-worn sports court tramlines painted on top. That gym floor has the power to bring back all one’s own school memories in an instant. Scary! The school staffroom, and the movable glass encased pod that becomes the Headmaster’s Office, get wheeled on and off the stage along with school desks and chairs in a sometimes frenzied manner by the boys en masse, acting as scene setters whilst apparently doing sports training or performing one of the musical numbers that the eccentric teacher Hector has taught them. These scene changes work incredibly well; they help the show proceed with great pace and it maintains the humour even whilst we are waiting for the next bit to continue.

Edwin ThomasWhilst it is all very inventive and clever though, the staging is a problem from time to time. Sometimes the shape of the Crucible stage can really work against the audience. Much as when we saw Macbeth last year, depending on where you sit, some important scenes can get masked, and important character reactions can become invisible. From my seat (B16), whoever was sitting opposite the headmaster in his office was completely obstructed by the glass edged corner frame. Admittedly, the door was left open, and the reflection of the person could be seen in the door, but I didn’t feel that made up for the poor sight. The setting of the classroom scenes were rotated so that everyone got a different view in each scene, which sounds fair; but whenever a teacher had their back to you, it was a) hard to hear what they said, and b) impossible to see or hear the actor who was facing the teacher. I heard other people grumbling about that on the way out of the auditorium. That always makes me very frustrated – when you’re centre of Row B, you really ought to have a great view!

Nicholas DayWhilst I’m on the subject of frustration, I was also very disappointed to discover that they had run out of programmes for the final performance. To someone like me, who has kept all their programmes (and ticket stubs) going back to 1968, who likes to read the programme from cover to cover, including the bios of the cast and creative team, and who refers back to them on and off throughout the years to see the photos of the cast, and of the rehearsals (they’re often in programmes nowadays), I found the lack of a programme a slight mental barrier to bonding with the production. It also means I can’t illustrate this blog with photos from the programme – instead I have borrowed some photos from the Internet. I hope you don’t mind.

Julia St JohnI was, however, very impressed with the play itself. Funny, sad, taking very believable characters and making them just slightly larger than life; dealing with big questions about the nature of education and trust, and that sometimes perilous interaction between virtually adult pupils and teachers. It’s full of accurate, instantly recognisable characterisation: everyone knows a teacher like Hector, who believes in education for life rather than exams; everyone knew a boy like Dakin, more sexually precocious than is good for him; everyone knows an administrator like Headmaster Felix, keener on statistics than real life and only happy when he can label and categorise people and events.

Oliver CoopersmithMatthew Kelly gives a very entertaining performance as Hector, profoundly useless at preparing the boys for Oxbridge but creating a bond with them in an appreciation of everything that nourishes the heart, mind and spirit. Hector and the boys are a team; he’s the leader but he also allows himself to be dominated by the team dynamic if he sees fit. Hector comes across as both the stereotypical “tweedy jacket with elbow patch” teacher, and the surprisingly leather clad rebel on his motor bike, looking for a likely lad pillion rider for thrills and a grope on the way home. It’s a fascinating character because he’s human, he’s far from being 100% good; and you ask yourself the question, how much bad behaviour are you prepared to tolerate from one person for the greater good? The play’s answer is, quite a lot. If you’re familiar with your 1970s British drama, I’d say Hector makes a very interesting comparison with David Mercer’s unorthodox and unpredictable vicar, Ossian Flint. Anyway, Matthew Kelly gives a great performance of schoolmasterly bluster, kindly counsellor, personal rage and emotional outpourings.

Tom Rhys HarriesIt’s an excellent contrast with the cool and reserved performance of Edwin Thomas as Irwin, the graduate new recruit brought in to sharpen the boys’ brains for the rigours of applying for Oxford and Cambridge. As Irwin attempts to break into the Hector/Boys club, it becomes a very interesting study of what happens when an outsider interrupts a cosy set up. Loyalties are tested, judgements called into question. The play’s two acts both begin at a later moment in time, when Irwin, now a presenter of History TV programmes, is filming an episode which will be interrupted by one of the boys. Irwin’s perhaps unsurprising bitterness is clearly revealed in a very effective use of dramatic irony, and I thought Mr Thomas’ performance here became disquietingly sinister. Brilliantly done.

Joshua MilesI very much enjoyed Nicholas Day’s performance as the Headmaster, clearly intellectually outsmarted by his colleagues but secure in his power of status and seniority. Alan Bennett gives the character some of the best lines in the play and he makes the great use of them. Julia St John as Mrs Lintott, the third teacher, also gives an excellent performance, treading a sensible path between the extremes of the others and amusingly giving voice to Bennett’s subversion of the rules by virtually coming out of character to revel in the fact that she’s the only woman in the play. Great use of shock language! I was reminded of the character of Maria Feletti in “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” turning on the writer, Dario Fo, for his sexism in making her the only woman in his play. I also loved the scene where the three teachers coach each of the pupils on how to be interviewed for Oxbridge. It’s a hoot, and really heightens the differences between the characters.

Will FeatherstoneThere are superb individual performances too from the actors playing the boys. Both Mrs C and I agreed that Oliver Coopersmith as Posner was outstanding. In Posner’s own words, being small, Jewish, homosexual and from Sheffield notwithstanding, he gives a superbly subtle performance of being discriminated against and vulnerable but also incredibly defiant and unsentimental. His singing was immaculate, and his comic timing fantastic. I also really liked Tom Rhys Harries – who gave great support in the Menier’s Torch Song Trilogy last year – as Dakin, the good-looking popular boy on a mission to spread the boundaries of sex as much as he can dare; a really confident and insightful performance. Joshua Miles, brilliant in Bully Boy, here plays the outspoken Lockwood, again excellent, although I was a little disappointed that we didn’t see more of him as it isn’t really a major part. Will Featherstone’s Scripps was another no-nonsense portrayal of a character who knows he’s going to have to make lots of sacrifices in his life, a surprisingly moving and very believable performance. The rest of the cast give solid gold support and in particular the eight actors who play the boys put in an amazing overall ensemble performance – you can see that they’ve got a fantastic working relationship and it gives tremendous drive to the whole production. Thought provoking, funny, and very satisfying – this was an excellent revival and I’m glad we got the chance to see it.

India – Mumbai – City Tour

India is GiretWhen you’re in a foreign country – and I mean exotically foreign, rather than Magaluf or Ayia Napa – even the most mundane aspects of travel can be fascinating. Our first stop on our daylong city tour was to get the car filled up with fuel. In the UK this is hardly an eventful experience. You get out, unscrew the cap, stick in the nozzle and pull the trigger. You might have the excitement of pay at pump, or you may choose the more traditional pay in kiosk. That’s about it.

Petrol StationIn Mumbai, however, things are different. You all get out of the car. One man fills it with fuel, another cleans it, another ushers you into the kiosk to pay. When you come out, the car has been reparked by yet another, who will provide any other automobolistic services you require. They will check your tyre pressure, your screenwash, your oil – and it’s all free and done with a friendly, eager to please attitude. How very different from the UK Tesco experience. It seems like good value too – diesel was 53.69 rupees per litre – that’s about 64 pence. Of course, it’s relatively expensive in comparison to the average wage.

Reliance TowerWe were driving out of central Bombay towards the north. One of the first things you see is an extraordinarily shaped tower emerging out of nowhere. It looks like one half of a huge jigsaw puzzle that ought to slot into another jigsaw-tower to make one complete tower block. It’s 26 storeys, if I remember rightly, and it’s worth about $2 billion. Yes, billion. It belongs to the owner of the Reliance Company, and the most extraordinary thing is that only six people live there. So, no need to bump into each other if you don’t want to.

Dhobi GhatFrom perhaps Mumbai’s smartest location to one of its most hard-working. It’s a short distance to the Dhobi Ghat, which covers a vast area of the town, and from its best viewpoint you can actually only see a fraction of it. Rows and rows of gleaming washing extend almost to the horizon in this incredible laundry village. Colour-co-ordinated lines of clean clothes join corrugated iron shacks where a vast team of skilled laundrymen and women process tons and tons of washing. It comes from hotels, hospitals, private residences; and also from clothing companies as it gets washed here as part of the manufacturing process. People work hard here; but as a result they earn a good living, and to have your own laundry set-up in this complex is quite some achievement.

Dhobi Ghat detailIt’s an awe-inspiring sight. You could gaze at it for hours as there is always something new to see. Strong men beating wet fabric against the sides of stone walls to get the dirt out; whole families taking turns to wash themselves in large urns of soapy water; guys carrying large laundry bags up and down steps to and from the street as they deliver the goods through all stages of the process. And, amazingly, all those rows of washing lines, crammed full of clothes, and not one clothes peg in sight. The secret is they twist two ropes together to form one line so each item of clothing can be trapped in the grip of the ropes. So much industry and hard work going on all around you, it’s the most unlikely, but extremely popular, tourist sight in Mumbai. Completely mesmerising.

Hanging GardensFrom gritty reality to a haven of peace. Our next stop was the Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Garden, better known as the Hanging Gardens, originally opened in 1881. Its welcome sign on the way in prohibits “Playing outdoor games like cricket, football, kite flying, strenuous exercises, running, etc; sleeping, drinking liquor, smoking, misbehaviour etc; feeding to animals and birds; bringing pets; plucking of flowers and trees; bringing and eating outside eatables; and littering”. Apart from that, you can have a good time. It’s positioned close to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, which as non-Parsees you’re not allowed to see – and that was fine by me. Instead you have such delights Where's the Old Woman?as landscaped lawns, a bandstand, exotic flowers and a Pillar of Friendship. It makes for a good place to rest for a bit after some heavy duty sightseeing. There are also fabulous views over the bay, which our guide, Amish, had tried to show us the previous evening. Just alongside the park is a children’s play area with a rather superb enormous Doc Marten, where the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe lives. OK, you have to suspend a bit of belief there, she’s not actually real. The place was thronging with groups of schoolchildren, all very neatly dressed in their blue uniforms; most of whom behaved extremely demurely; just a few came out with the usual “Hello! How are you! What’s your name!” to which you reply “Hello! I’m fine thank you! My name’s Chris! What’s yours?” to which they simply giggle hysterically. Must Not Frighten Schoolchildren.

Gandhi HouseThe next port of call on our day trip was the Gandhi House, or to give it its proper name Mani Bhavan. This was Gandhi’s headquarters from 1917 to 1934. It’s a very absorbing little museum, which includes his bedroom, dozens of display cabinets with models re-enacting significant moments of his life, and also a large library and study area containing thousands of documents pertaining to the great man. The terrace off his bedroom has a charming view over the street and is where he was arrested in 1932. It’s definitely worth half an hour or more of your time, and you do get a good sense of history and privilege to be in the place where he spent such a lot of time.

SamratThen it was definitely time for a long leisurely lunch. Amish took us to the Samrat restaurant, which was a busy and delicious place that did a good range of vegetarian food (always the best bet in India). We sat upstairs and ordered a selection of goodies and did our best to eat them the Indian way, with consequently very messy hands, which in itself was good fun. An excellent choice for locals and tourists alike.

Gateway of India by dayNot very far to retrace our steps from last night to visit the Gateway of India in the daylight. The square was still awash with people, and the Gateway itself looked very imposing and formal. We would return to the area the following day, as it’s the departure point for boats to Elephanta Island. It was nice just to wander around, and it’s a great place for people-watching.

Masala teaAmish wanted to take us to a little stall where he said you get the best masala tea in town. There you will find the most skilful tea maker in the world, and the queue can be worryingly long, so in order to be able to serve all his customers he has to work really hard and really fast. Masala tea ought, by my taste buds, to be the most disgusting thing in the world. I like my tea with very little or no milk, clean, plain and simple. This masala tea is milky, spiced, complex, and completely delicious. No wonder he has such queues. As befits distinguished overseas guests we were served our tea in posh cups. All tea’d up, we returned to the hotel for a much needed afternoon nap.

Valentine’s Day dinnerWhat I didn’t tell you, gentle reader, was that it was Valentine’s Day. Traditionally Mrs C and I like to do something to mark the occasion – go to a restaurant, or maybe take a day trip somewhere exotic. Well, there we were in Mumbai, you can’t get much more exotic than that. I had asked the hotel in advance if they were having any particular Valentine’s Day events – and they weren’t. I don’t think it’s very big in India. Nevertheless, they suggested that we have a private dining experience by the pool. Sounded like a good idea to me. Thus it was that later on we turned up at the poolside, all scrubbed up and looking lovely, to enjoy our second vegetarian thali of the day. We had a special menu printed up in our name, and rounded off a superb meal with a fab bottle of Crozes Hermitage. That’s the kind of thing the Oberoi really excels at. It was great!

If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com