Monday, 27 July 2015

A pirate washout

Even younger pirates looked a bit puzzled

Hastings has more days in the year than anywhere else when the populace is encouraged to dress up and cavort in the streets of the Old Town.  At the end of July we have Pirates' Day - this year billed as "Unofficial" since nobody wanted to take on the burden of all the health and safety regulations that apply when you have street food, processions etc.  We're not talking about Somali pirates with submachine guns, here, it's Johnny Depp and his swashbuckling comrades that provide the role model.
Molls in the Dragon Bar

The thing about Pirates in the Caribbean, though, is - well, the Caribbean.  Sunlight and palmtrees and rum.  Yesterday it was more like the north of Scotland on the front: rain swept across the tarmac, and dripped off the shopfronts.  There was a distinct lack of swashbucklers in the streets.

For a brief period at the end of the morning, however, the rain stopped and the pirates promptly emerged, in a crowd of three-cornered hats, motheaten greatcoats and topboots.  Men who would normally sneer at make-up as girly appeared in full disguise, with scars, patches and wigs.  And the women - it was as if the full female cast of Poldark had come in on a coach to audition for Moulin Rouge, with bosoms squeezed and pushed out, froths of lace and of course cascades of glittering skulls and crossbones.

Our pirate companions
We have meant each year to get into the spirit of the event, but this year saw a pathetic attempt, where Paul wore an appropriate T-shirt and bandanna and yours truly - well, it was more a case of Noel Coward in the South of France than Johnny Depp leaping aboard.  Even these gestures to the occasion were however hidden underneath raincoats as we toddled into the town with our three more appropriately garbed lady pirates.

The Dragon Bar, normally awash with drinkers, was an empty cavern to begin with, but when a band of pirate drummers appeared things picked up a bit and the regulars of the Anchor Inn in George Street in particular were a sight to behold, with a one-legged gent coming into his own.

We left as the rain came back, but others stayed on, as I realised when I walked the dogs at 10 pm and saw a number of bedraggled pirates and their molls tottering back through the wet streets to their home cabins.  A triumph of fantasy over adversity - which is probably what Pirates of the Caribbean is all about anyway.

Antony Mair

Monday, 13 July 2015

Welcome to the Kino-Teatr

The Baker Mamonova Gallery and Kino-Teatr building

At last, I thought: some decent theatre comes to Hastings/St. Leonard's.  Theatrical offerings in the town have hitherto been restricted to a thriving am-dram scene at The Stables in the Old Town and B-cast musical revivals at The White Rock.  So when the enterprising duo of art dealer Russell Baker and his wife Olga Mamonova announced the conversion of the old Kinema building behind their spacious gallery in Norman Road you could have heard a small cheer at the opposite end of the town.

The space is fabulous, and beautifully fitted out for film and theatre.  Its prime feature is a stunning shallow-domed ceiling.  Surprisingly wide, the auditorium looks as if it can accommodate a couple of hundred people, with tiered seating so everyone can see.  Large armchairs are for loungers in a row at the front and another at the back, but the ordinary theatre/cinema seats in between, if less spacious, are totally comfortable for an evening's performance.  

The theatre opened with a play imported from New York - the McGowan Trilogy, by Seamus Scanlon.  A set of three linked one-acters, it is set in Northern Ireland in 1984, and shows the apparent decline of central character Victor McGowan from reluctant IRA executioner to apparent psychopath.

We didn't really find the play worked.  It's a challenge to take on Irish accents, which vary remarkably from region to region, even in the North.  There seemed to be a variety of attempts on the part of the actors, but none of them was particularly convincing, and at times conflicted with the character's origin in the script.  Paul Nugent, playing Victor McGowan, was doing his best, but I didn't find his interpretation consistent.  The play itself has a touch too much "Bang bang you're dead" for my taste, and I could have done with a bit more subtlety.  There's certainly scope for it in the material.  

We left in the interval.  But that's no reflection on the Herculean efforts put in by Olga Mamonova in particular in producing the play and on the whole team responsible for this great new addition to Hastings' cultural life.  We'll be back!

Antony Mair  

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Marvels of Great Dixter

Tucked away outside the village of Northiam, half an hour's drive to the north of us, is the late Christopher Lloyd's house and garden.  It has taken us three years to go there, and I am now wondering how I could have left it so long.

The house itself is a stunning Wealden Hall farmhouse, expanded into a small Lutyens mansion.  But the real miracle is the garden, extending on all sides in a series of enclosures.  Visiting it at the end of June is to be confronted with a blaze of colour.  Not a weed in sight, the soil enriched, and as if there weren't enough plants in the beds there's a wealth of other ones in pots.  If I have a criticism it's the sheer density of the planting, particularly in the section to the east of the house, where you walk between towering plants that seem to extend several metres in depth.  The view from the first floor of the house must be spectacular.

As if all of that weren't enough, they have an excellent series of plants for sale.  Not only are they varieties you won't find in your average garden centre, but they are considerably cheaper.  Having discovered this treasure, I shall be beetling along at regular intervals.

Antony Mair

Monday, 6 July 2015

Greece - a country in ruins

The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion

So now we have it - the Greeks have voted no in their referendum and the pundits don't know what's going to happen next.  We live in interesting times...

A few weeks ago we went to Greece for a holiday, spending a couple of nights in Athens and then ten days on the island of Milos in the Cyclades.  At that stage the ATMs were operating without restriction, so the requirement for cash everywhere, including the carhire company, wasn't overly inconvenient.  We had an excellent time, and returned relaxed.

But what the trip brought back was my memory of dealing with Greek shipowners in the days when I did shipping finance law.  I have some sympathy with Christine Lagarde's comment about needing adults in the room when it comes to discussions about Greek debt, but I'm afraid she's barking up the wrong tree.  The Greeks aren't children, they're adults who are different.  The methodical, rational approach of northern Europeans is, from my experience, entirely alien to them.

The Greek conundrum we are now faced with - a eurozone country that refuses to comply with eurozone requirements, and no legal route for exit - is a classic instance of "I wouldn't have started from here".  The Greeks should never have joined the eurozone in the first place.  Once in it, they should have tackled some of the structural problems - corruption, a bloated civil service, an excessive defence budget.  But the northern Europeans have to share some of the blame for the mess: everyone now seems to admit that the figures produced by the Greeks on entering the euro were dodgy, but nobody explains why they weren't scrutinised with the same rigour as those now being put up by Mr Tsipras.  Nobody seems to have suggested to the Greek government five or ten years ago that they should perhaps start limiting their borrowing.  More recently, the attempt by the Commission to hold back publication of the IMF paper showing that the level of Greek debt is already unsustainable and will become more so if the troika's demands are met seems a particularly squalid bit of manoeuvring. 

My own belief is that our view of the Greek mentality is still influenced by the legacy of Plato and Aristotle - in other words, we think of the Greeks as having the same mental discipline as the philosophers who flourished two thousand years or so ago.  But the truth is that they are more Levantine than European, loving a debate and a bargain and some drama in their daily life.  

Mr. Tsipras seems to be bearing up well in the middle of it all.  If I were him I wouldn't be able to sleep at night.  But then I'm not Greek.

Antony Mair

Sunset at Sounion

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Hastings Phil rises to the occasion

Setting things up: Francis Rayner, pianist, in Christ Church

Saturday saw an excellent tea-time concert from the Hastings Philharmonic Choir in Christ Church, Saint Leonard's.  Lasting a mere hour and a quarter, it was mainly devoted to four hymns that originated in Gregorian chant but were subsequently elaborated into motets.  In each case a group of guest soloists, together with the musical director Marcio Da Silva, first sang the Gregorian chant original and this was then followed by one or two samples of subsequent treatment.  The choir seemed on good form, and guest soloists Sarah Rowley, Victor Soares, Phil O'Meara and Henry Bennett added some star quality.  

The group of hymns was followed by three other pieces: three brief songs by Marcio Da Silva and two pieces by Whitacre, the first of which - When David Heard - is a deeply moving expression of profound grief, based on the short passage in the Old Testament describing David's reaction to the death of his son Absalom.

The meditative nature of the programme was enhanced by the superb surroundings of Sir Arthur Blomfield's masterpiece of a church, completed in 1875 and still a bastion of so high a version of Anglicanism it virtually disappears into the Vatican.  On previous occasions I've found the accoustic somewhat erratic but this time I managed to get a seat near the front so got the full effect of both choir and soloists - particular mention should be made of Henry Bennett's superb bass voice, which resonated beautifully in the lower register.  

Lovely music, stunning surroundings.  I have only one quibble: each piece of music was introduced by a member of the choir, giving us some background.  It's a practice I dislike, and always makes me feel like a child in a classroom.  What's more, it interrupts the flow of the music.  Everything said could have been contained, far more efficiently, in notes on a photocopied sheet of A4, which we could have read at our leisure.    Less of the talking, more of the singing, please!

Antony Mair

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Stonewalling at the Hilton

Those who survived to the end - back row, Chris Walters, Brie, Paula Stevens-Hoare, Darren Souch, Lucy Hards, Emma Whitby-Smith; front row, Paul McQuillan and Antony Mair

"Like your frock," I said to the bearded young man who was asking me if I knew which table I was on at the Stonewall Equality Dinner last Friday.  It was a sleeveless cotton number, more suited to a vicarage teaparty in the countryside than the plush surroundings of the Park Lane Hilton.  But one needs to celebrate diversity on an occasion like this.  "Like your waistcoat," he obligingly replied.  (I had wheeled out my old Tom Gilbey number for the occasion,)

Phil Price and Jane Milligan
680 of the country's more well-heeled gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans had gathered to raise funds for the Stonewall cause, at a cost per ticket that was eye-watering.  But that was just the start.  Christopher Biggins, with a flair that revealed new dimensions of camp, conducted a live auction that raised £100k, with people bidding for items ranging from a trip to the theatre and visit backstage to tea with Joan Collins and Liz Hurley - for which someone on a table near us paid a mere £20,000.  (I did notice he put his head in his hands afterwards as if to say "What have I done?").  Raffle tickets were £20 apiece.  There was also a "silent auction" which was like our own Ebay, where bids were registered on tablets left on our tables.  I noticed that a KitchenAid mixer was going for something reasonable, so put in a few bids, but the lesbians put me firmly in my place and it rocketed to double the retail price.  Oh well.

Chris Walters, Darren Souch, Paul McQuillan and Martin Bikhit
There was a clutch of celebs, whom we all tried not to ogle excessively.  Graham Norton was sporting a beard.  "It's grey," people were muttering in shock.  Beside us was an all-male table of well-groomed David Beckham lookalikes.  I thought they were luvvies but learnt they were lawyers and estate agents.  We had a rousing speech from Ruth Hunt, the new CEO, about Stonewall's aims, both domestic and international.  The not-luvvies beside us leapt to their feet to applaud at the end.  Stella Duffy conducted the fundraising part, and news about the amount being pledged was flashed up on large screens on either side of the stage.

Paula Stevens-Hoare 
Clare Balding - who, by the way, is even more charming and svelte offscreen - and other glitterati  left discreetly before the drunken rabble took to the floor for the disco.  We left some time in the early hours, rather the worse for wear, and with distinctly depleted resources.

I'm still pants with my mobile and photos but had my dinosaur's camera with me so here are some clips of our crowd.  Are they on Facebook?  Is the Pope Catholic?  

Antony Mair

Ryan Elterman, Brie, Paula Stevens-Hoare

Emma Whitby-Smith, Ryan Elterman, Lucy Hards and Paul McQuillan

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The scandal of Ecclesbourne Glen

View of "the bunker" from East Hill

When we bought our house in Hastings, we had a vague knowledge of the Country Park, which stretches from Hastings along the cliffs to the east.  Its discovery was a revelation to us. 

A long flight of about 180 steps starts opposite our house, climbing up to the top of East Hill, which is the beginning of the Park.  Views from here are spectacular, over Hastings Old Town, out to sea, and, when you climb a little further, across to the adjoining areas of grassland on top of the cliffs.  We weren't aware at the time that the Park is part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and has been designated a Special Area of Conservation, a Site of Special Scientif Interest and a Local Nature Reserve.

Between the areas of high grassland and heath there are a number of deep gullies, or glens, which are areas of centuries old vegetation - gnarled trees and rare ferns.  It is a wonderful haven for wildlife and a very special area for walkers.  

Earlier this year a building suddenly intruded on the view eastwards from East Hill - an angular projection that is the upper storey of a newly-built edifice for which planning permission was unaccountably given by Hastings Borough Council in 2013.  It has become known as "the bunker", and can be seen in the picture above.  The building as erected was larger than that for which approval had been given, and the owners, who operate a caravan park on the other side of the building, which cannot be seen in the above picture, put in an application for retrospective planning permission.  The outcry in the local community was immense.  An action group was formed, a planning barrister was brought in to oppose the application on its hearing before the Planning Committee, and permission was refused.

There is now paralysis.  The building is illegal as it stands, but no enforcement notice has yet been served for it to be demolished.  Campaigners have formed an association, and matters are being closely monitored.  The Council is under pressure to enforce.  It remains to be seen whether they will have the good sense to do so.  Meanwhile the blot on the landscape continues to wreck the view and the natural beauty of the landscape, supposedly protected, is disfigured.

More information can be found on the campaigners' Facebook page.  You can help by joining the Association!

Antony Mair