Thursday, 30 June 2016

Comedy: John Hastings & Friends

Looking through what was available on Meetup for tonight, I came across no fewer than four events scheduled for the same occasion! Random London and London Live Comedy each had one, and London for a Tenner or Less had no fewer than two.. and all for exactly the same gig: John Hastings (& friends) at The Grove in Hammersmith. No problem in deciding to go - I've never before seen him live, but loved his stuff on YouTube. Well, with it being free, I duly signed up to all four events - why not?

Now, the first two events seem to have been organised by the same guy - I've seen that before, when people want to advertise something more widely. I know London for a Tenner or Less is a group designed to publicise Funzing; they have far too many events every day (many simultaneous) to be a regular Meetup group, and I see the same things advertised on Funzing: and, on occasion, on Funzing's other Meetup group (that I know of), London Speaks Sessions.

Here's a fun fact; of the two Funzing events that I attended in the last two days, both of which I booked as a result of seeing them on Meetup, and which I confirmed on Meetup.. as soon as they were over, they completely vanished from their respective Meetup groups' pages. Fair enough, you might think - they were over, no need to keep them there. Except.. all groups keep a record of their past events, and these are no exception. Plus, London for a Tenner or Less also advertised Wednesday's event, which I went to, and confirmed, with London Speaks Sessions. But it's no longer displayed in London Speaks Sessions.. still there in London for a Tenner or Less, though!

So, as soon as I go to a Funzing event (advertised in Meetup), it gets deleted from the Meetup group's page. Am I paranoid? Would you blame me..? And would someone tell me what on earth they think they're doing..? I'm not dreaming, BTW, they both are Funzing; I got the following Facebook notification tonight:

In future, I'll be taking screenshots of any events I book with them. Assuming they don't boot me out of the groups before I can book any more.. I can only assume they don't want the Meetup groups to be openly associated with Funzing, Meetup being (nominally) a not-for-profit organisation, and Funzing a paid events site (mostly). Ah well..
It was nice to be going to something fairly close to home - it was only afterwards, though, that I realised I could have driven; I've driven through Hammersmith Broadway before, I could manage again (even though it nearly gave me a heart attack). What the hey, less hassle to take public transport - and I was back early enough to take the 295 bus straight there. Got off at the bus station, followed my nose, and accidentally came out the right exit for Beadon Road (the one after King Street). First right onto Hammersmith Grove and keep walking - The Grove bar and restaurant is on the left.
I've been to a good few events in pubs now, and they tend to take place either upstairs or downstairs, rather than in the main seating area. I remembered something in one of the non-Funzing groups about meeting upstairs, so when I found the stairs, up I went, and found the room with no difficulty. Tiny function room they have!! They barely fitted two rows of chairs in front of the mic, with a couple of sofas and tables to the side. A Meetup sign slumped on one of the tables - I didn't really fancy joining the group there, two of whom were having a discussion about comedy, another of whom was having a nap on the sofa. (Actually, they all turned out to be comedians - I don't think there was much actual Meetup activity.) Instead, I picked a chair (second row, natch) and, finding out they'd be starting late, and with the upstairs bar stocked but unstaffed (as usual), went back down for a drink - reasonably priced, and served by a chap who assured me they'd be starting "any second".
Yeah, right. To be fair, they were waiting for more of an audience - I think I was only the third audience member to arrive. The place did pretty much fill, eventually. And the guy I recognised from both non-Funzing groups filled the role of mc, regaling us with jokes that left us begging for the scheduled comedians! The first half comprised five acts, none of whom I'd ever heard of. Decent enough, some definitely better than others - notable for me during this section was a Welsh-Iranian guy called Darius, whose surname I didn't get - the mc could have done with saying their names more clearly.
An interval before John Hastings came on - he'd hung around with the others for a while before the start. I got myself another glass of wine, and settled in. And he entertained us royally for another 45 minutes or so, all on his own - practicing new material for the Edinburgh Festival, you see. He explained to us at the beginning that he was going to tell us a long story. And while it might not be funny, he could at least guarantee that it would be long..
It was very, very funny. He's as good live as online. And it occurred to me that it didn't matter at all whether you paid attention - or whether you came in to the story late; you'd still find it funny. No context required. He's a brilliant storyteller - highly recommended, check him out if you get a chance.
On the way home, I noted all the parking spaces - not a bad road for parking, this one. And arriving back at the bus station, I searched in vain for Stop M, which Google Maps had told me to get the bus back from, but whose location I hadn't checked. Well, I followed the route back, and found it on Fulham Palace Road. Which was funny, as I'd have expected a stop in the station, which would have been closer. Sure enough, what I should have been looking for was Stop C..
Back to Ireland tomorrow for the weekend, and next week is all mapped out - first time in a while that's happened. On Monday, I'm finally gong to Kinky Boots, in the Adelphi. Got my ticket on an Amazon offer - always, always shop around for the big shows. On Tuesday, similarly, I'm headed (finally) to Motown, the Musical, at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Best value in that case was from the venue itself. And I've already had a couple of emails from them, reminding me to print my tickets.

Speaking of value, on Wednesday I'm headed to the National, to see a reading of Stuff Happens, with Bill Nighy. Also in the room will be London Dramatic Arts, who are charging £2.50 more than the standard £10 for this production. It's been a while since I went with them - and at this rate, it'll be a while longer! Anyway, I've booked a seat upstairs, where hopefully I'll avoid them. (Pure badness of me to book at all, I know, but it sounds good.)

In complete contrast, I'm with the Man with the Hat on Thursday and Friday. Thursday is back to the Globe (whoopee!) for a performance of Macbeth that didn't get a great review in the Metro. What the hey, I don't pay much attention to those - and it'll be a great night anyway - great venue, great group. And on Friday, he's taking us back to the Royal Opera House, for Il Trovatore.

Talk: How to Fly First Class for Free

Funzing is represented on Meetup by at least two groups, and one of them - London Speaks Sessions - advertised, some time ago, a talk on How to Fly First Class for Free. (Weirdly, all mention of this talk has been removed from the Meetup site, as of today - go figure.) Anyway, I mentioned it to Helen, she said she'd be interested, and we booked. In the meantime, however, she got a new job - started this week, and was too busy to go, after all! So she sent her husband.

He was coming into Waterloo, and I arranged to meet him there at a certain time. When I arrived at Clapham Junction, even the London Departures board was confused - they never did say anything about the adjacent Platform 3, but when I passed, a train to Waterloo was due in one minute. Didn't actually arrive for a couple of minutes after that, but still.. for once I wasn't late, arriving at Waterloo a couple of minutes before my companion was due, which gave me time to grab cash at the ATMs across from where I was to meet him, outside Boots at Platform 12.

Jubilee Line to Canada Water, Overground to Shoreditch, was the easiest route Google Maps found for me. So off we schlepped, on cramped trains, and when we finally got there, turned right, under the bridge; first left on to Quaker Street, continued to the crossroads. Turned right onto Brick Lane. This much was easy. Now, Funzing has a major fault of being very cagey about telling you where its events are on - they don't even give the correct postcode on the event page. When you book, pretty much all they tell you is the postcode.. I'd thought the venue was one where Hard Facade played once. Nope, as we passed it, it seemed pretty closed. Well, we passed the doorway for no. 91, the address given for the venue.. followed some other folks who were looking for it.. and found Cafe 1001, the stated venue, just around the corner in the alleyway.

The website had said they had a bbq menu, and sure enough, a covered stall outside the door served a decent range of burgers, with beer and soft drinks. Sandwiches inside the cafe - I fancied a burger though, and that's what we had. We grabbed a nearby picnic table when it became vacant, and our burgers were cooked on the spot - a choice of salad ingredients and sauces. They came with wedges, we were told. We discovered that the "wedges" were (quite spicy) half potatoes.. also that there were neither napkins nor cutlery. Hey-ho, we managed, it was tasty, and we finished just as it was starting to rain - and a lady with a Funzing cap popped up inside the cafe, with a list of names.

My name was checked off, and we were each given the customary 10% discount voucher - for Funzing events booked in the next month. We made our way upstairs, across a landing populated with leather sofas, and through the double doors to where we could see people sitting. As we entered, a screen to the right showed "Miles Mogul" - yes, we were in the right place.

The bar wasn't free, unfortunately, so that obviously isn't a regular Funzing thing. And what she thought I ordered, I may never know, but it was obvious that she'd misheard my order for white wine when she made sure to warn me that they didn't have draught..! Mind you, I can hardly blame her, with the racket coming from the fan to the side. Drinks in hand (and they only seem to do small glasses of wine), we perused the seats.. an eclectic mix of sofas, armchairs, and metal chairs covered in some material that was unravelling rapidly. We picked a couple of those, near the back in the middle.

Well, this is hipster-central, and both crowd and venue were well suited to the area. The crowd? Predominantly young and white (I did see one black guy), men primarily sporting perfectly groomed hairstyles and beards, women generally slim, in jeans and t's, long hair. Photos now here.The venue? Shabby chic. Bare brick walls to the rear, illuminated red bars either side of the screen that looked like enormous heating elements. Eclectic seating, as I say. The lampshades over the bar were falling apart. Really though, the unravelling chair covers took the biscuit - I mean, the damn cover on my chair kept poking and scratching me for the whole talk!

The talk started inauspiciously. With no mic, he had to shout to make himself heard over that blasted fan, whose off switch they didn't seem able to find for five minutes. Nor could they find the switches for the lights they wanted to turn off. The door we'd come through kept creaking distractingly, and at one point, the talk was completely drowned out by the sound of the hand dryer from the toilets! Really, I'd be dubious about coming here for a drink, but for a talk it's a terrible, terrible venue! Avoid like the plague.

Right! Well, we were here for a talk, and a talk we got. Funzing advertises itself as a stepping-stone for people who want to promote their small businesses, and funnily enough, just like at the last talk I attended, this guy's mum was in the audience. He was less proficient than the last speaker, mind - probably less practiced at speaking in public - but what did come through was his absolute passion for two things: aeroplanes, and flying first (or business) class on the cheap.

He has his own website: In fact, he's on loads of different platforms - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, tons of YouTube videos. And as I remarked to my companion as we were leaving, what I found most remarkable about this was the level of opportunity out there to express your inner geek! It's truly fantastic - no matter what your passion, there is a forum for you, there is an online community. He's gone into this in a huge way, and was delighted to find one fellow #avgeek (aviation geek) in the audience (in the front row, natch).

He could've skipped the intro, about how his passion for planes grew, although of course it was a chance to publicise his videos, a few of which we watched. All we were really interested in was the nitty-gritty of how he does this, which he split into two sections - "Basic" and "Advanced" hacking. I really don't remember all the details, but it was all about airmiles - as he pointed out in the Q+A afterwards, he's not one for rocking up to the airport and trying to blag an upgrade. Although one helpful point about that was when someone asked whether prebooking a meal lessens your chances of an upgrade - no, the avgeek in the front row said, not necessarily, unless it's something complicated, like halal or vegetarian. Ditto, you're more likely to be upgraded if you're a solo traveller - less hassle, basically.

Basic: credit cards that are attached to airmiles. AmEx featured, but there are others - he mentioned tricks like partners each signing up to a card, signing up to a card via a referral, in which case both parties get a bonus: and also "churning" - an "advanced" hacking feature, whereby you keep signing up to cards, cancelling them, and signing up again for another signup bonus. The main thing, of course, is to concentrate your credit card spending onto the card that you want to boost points on. Tesco clubcard points can be converted to airmiles. TopCashback featured - this'll be the handiest for me, short-term at least.

Advanced hacking featured, as well as churning, ex-EU (nothing to do with Brexit, this is the idea of flying out of the cheapest European airport for taxes), upgrading to a higher passenger status to earn more points, and tier flights, whereby people fly to far-flung destinations just for the points. A whole world of complicated routes, and price and points comparisons, was unveiled to us, with websites like Flyertalk and the potentially very useful flight matrix from Google. Mind you, you can always subscribe to the Miles Mogul mailing list - the guy is always at it, and is a mine of useful information.

Despite the iffy location, this was really a talk with something for everyone. If you have any cause to fly anywhere, you might consider these sites and what they discuss. And now I know why, on the few British Airways flights I've been on, most of the passengers seemed to be in some higher class than simple Economy..

And so home, to bed early, and Guildford today. Tonight, no fewer than four Meetup events were advertising a comedy night in Hammersmith. With John Hastings as the headliner, I was keen - and, it being free, I've signed up for all four! So that's Random London, London Live Comedy, and two (for goodness' sake!) from Funzing's other Meetup group (that I know of) - London for a Tenner or Less. I think the two non-Funzing groups are actually run by the same guy.. so if you will duplicate, well, so can I!

Back to Ireland for the weekend, and next week is all mapped out - first time in a while that's happened. On Monday, I'm finally gong to Kinky Boots, in the Adelphi. Got my ticket on an Amazon offer - always, always shop around for the big shows. On Tuesday, similarly, I'm headed (finally) to Motown, the Musical, at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Best value in that case was from the venue itself. And hey, I got a reminder email from them today! which was nice.

Speaking of value, on Wednesday I'm headed to the National, to see a reading of Stuff Happens, with Bill Nighy. Also in the room will be London Dramatic Arts, who are charging £2.50 more than the standard £10 for this production. It's been a while since I went with them - and at this rate, it'll be a while longer! Anyway, I've booked a seat upstairs, where hopefully I'll avoid them. (Pure badness of me to book at all, I know, but it sounds good.)

In complete contrast, I'm with the Man with the Hat on Thursday and Friday. Thursday is back to the Globe (whoopee!) for a performance of Macbeth that didn't get a great review in the Metro. What the hey, I don't pay much attention to those - and it'll be a great night anyway - great venue, great group. And on Friday, he's taking us back to the Royal Opera House, for Il Trovatore.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Film: Udta Punjab

Film again last night, and top of my (now-completed - whee!) film list was Udta Punjab. If you remember, it was only on quite late at my local cinema last week - and being typically long, as Bollywood films tend to be, that wasn't an option for a worknight. However, this week, for whatever reason, it's showing at a much more respectable 7:30 - and I booked, which is cheaper (assuming you've registered for a free Cineworld account).

Just as well that my plan was for somewhere local, quick to get to, and not too early - we left Guildford late, and traffic was bad: and with a package to pick up, which Amazon had kindly let me know was deposited with a neighbour - I was just home in time to leave again. Got a parking space decently close to the exit - Cineworld Wandsworth validates parking from 7pm to 2am at the Garratt Lane Car Park, which makes it very convenient to drive.

As usual, the left-hand door to the screens - which would have been handier for me - was unstaffed, and I had to use the other one: but never mind. I arrived during the trailers, and took my seat in an uncrowded cinema. I swiftly learned that the title is Hindi for "Punjab flying high". And it's about the effects of the heroin trade in Punjab. A disclaimer at the start makes it VERY clear that the drug is not manufactured there, only trafficked through. And, of course, that they don't condone drug abuse..

Three connected stories form the basis of the plot. As I recall, the trailer was primarily focussed on one in particular - the drug-abusing rock star whose hit "Udta Punjab" is one of many songs he uses to promote drug abuse. (Can't check that just now, the trailer doesn't seem to be working.) Anyway, his character entertains us comically for much of the film. But there's also the young girl who works in the fields, and one day finds something that opens her eyes to the drug world.. and then there's the cop, who crosses the path of a doctor that runs a drug treatment clinic, and who really opens his eyes..

I got some ribbing yesterday when I said I was off to a Bollywood film. "Oh," said one, "I just don't like the way they break into singing and dancing in the middle." I tried to convince him that they don't all pan out that way, but I don't think I succeeded. Having said that, there is a bit of singing and dancing in this - not traditional, but of course we do get to see a bit of this rock star in concert. Otherwise, this is a dance-free zone. I'll say this - I love Bollywood for its sensitive treatment of its characters, who are richly drawn, and each of whom we're made to care about.

In this film, our attention is split three ways - which allows the telling of a very complex story; they're obviously trying to cover the whole spectrum of drug use and its consequences. The rich user, the poor user, the people sucked into it unwillingly, the families, the people trying to stop it, the drug lords and their minions. And it's told extremely well. The individual stories are engaging, the rock star's antics are entertaining. And, as I said, we do care about the characters. However, with the splitting of our attention in three different directions, I do think it loses a bit of focus. Had the rock star been a bit less cartoonish, this might have been a fantastic film - certainly, I was absorbed by the other characters, in particular Alia Bhatt, who plays an absolute blinder as the young girl, terrified in a world of drugs. But at the very least, it's interesting, and worth a look.

Tonight, Helen couldn't make it, so her husband is accompanying me to a Funzing talk on How to Fly First Class for Free. Mind you, I signed up to it via one of their Meetup groups - London Speaks Sessions. It's at Café 1001 on Brick Lane, so we can grab a bite to eat there.

Tomorrow, no fewer than four Meetup events were advertising a comedy night in Hammersmith. With John Hastings as the headliner, I was keen - and, it being free, I've signed up for all four! So that's Random London, London Live Comedy, and two (for goodness' sake!) from Funzing's other Meetup group (that I know of) - London for a Tenner or Less. I think the two non-Funzing groups are actually run by the same guy.. so if you will duplicate, well, so can I!

Back to Ireland for the weekend, and next week is all mapped out - first time in a while that's happened. On Monday, I'm finally gong to Kinky Boots, in the Adelphi. Got my ticket on an Amazon offer - always, always shop around for the big shows. On Tuesday, similarly, I'm headed (finally) to Motown, the Musical, at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Best value in that case was from the venue itself.

Speaking of value, on Wednesday I'm headed to the National, to see a reading of Stuff Happens, with Bill Nighy. Also in the room will be London Dramatic Arts, who are charging £2.50 more than the standard £10 for this production. It's been a while since I went with them - and at this rate, it'll be a while longer! Anyway, I've booked a seat upstairs, where hopefully I'll avoid them. (Pure badness of me to book at all, I know, but it sounds good.)

In complete contrast, I'm with the Man with the Hat on Thursday and Friday. Thursday is back to the Globe (whoopee!) for a performance of Macbeth that didn't get a great review in the Metro. What the hey, I don't pay much attention to those - and it'll be a great night anyway - great venue, great group. And on Friday, he's taking us back to the Royal Opera House, for Il Trovatore.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Concert: Terence Blacker

With Meetup a desolate wasteland, pickings are slim most days at the moment. What the hey, I was going out in London long before I ever heard of them.. I got a cheap ticket to a concert last night all by myself. Terence Blacker was playing in Le Crazy Coqs - a new venue to me, and a new performer, but I checked him out on YouTube and decided he was ok: and the venue was in Piccadilly Circus, so easy to get to. I booked.

"Smart casual", the invitation said. I could manage that except for the coat.. Somewhere, I do have a smart blue coat (with hood - it was promised to rain), but damned if I know where. So, self-consciously dressed in a duffle coat, I caught a train to Waterloo. Couldn't have been handier - at Clapham Junction, the two platforms closest to my entrance both had trains to Waterloo, due imminently - and the nonstop was the first to arrive. Mind you, it was passed at Waterloo, as we waited for a platform..

Bakerloo Line to Piccadilly Circus, and I knew I needed the exit for Glasshouse Street. Now, it's a while since I've been in Piccadilly Circus Tube station, and I do believe, in the meantime, they've made the effort to improve directions! Much needed - it's circular, and it's always taken some walking around (through packed crowds) to find the correct one. Now, underneath each of the old direction signs, they have a clear (un-graffiti'ed) map of the area, showing exactly which exit is where. So I could immediately see that I needed Exit 1.

I exited to find I was actually on Glasshouse Street. Had a quick look around - and there, just a short difference away, was the sign for Brasserie Zédel, which we'd been told to look for. Some people were eating outside. The doorman, complete with top hat and tails, smiled congenially as I went in.. and the place is fabulous! So sorry I don't have photos - I tried to take some later, but my unpredictable phone battery died. Do check online for them - the decor is terrific.

1930s Parisian-café style, it's all marble floors and mirrors. There's a café on the ground floor - carry on down the stairs, complete with chrome banisters and walls lined with 1930s posters, advertising circus acts. At the landing, pause to admire the art deco railings preventing you from falling to the marble floor of the lobby below, "Café Zédel" printed on it, and over which is suspended an enormous chandelier. Plush signs indicate the entrance to the brasserie, and the box office - but I had my ticket, and continued to the club, Le Crazy Coqs, just at the bottom of the stairs. After self-consciously removing my coat and draping it over my arm. Gave my surname to the lady with the clipboard, and was led into the club.

Wow. I don't think there's any real issue with the dress code - one girl I saw was wearing a t-shirt and jeans (albeit smart and fitted) - but this is a place you want to dress up for. Black-and-white-striped walls line a teeny little room, filled with teeny little round tables, with teeny little lamps on them. Gorgeously 1930s supper-club style! I was early, and was led to a table near the teeny little stage. I knew it was a cocktail bar, and peered to see what they had - but was pointedly shown the menu on my table; they don't like you actually ordering from the bar, and later, when t-shirt girl tried to do so, they quickly shooed her back to her seat. It's all table service here.

I was glad to see that their cocktail menu included wine - they didn't have the cocktails I like anyway, and goodness knows cocktails aren't cheap. They're generally extremely quick, and my order was taken rapidly - a glass of wine, and I ordered some fried chicken from the list of bar snacks, since I hadn't had time to eat. My wine arrived soon after, with a small ceramic tub of popcorn. And when I'd finished that, it was immediately replaced with another - no sign of my chicken..

Despite having been warned that I'd have to share a table, I didn't - there were a few empty tables, in fact. Before the show proper, a pianist entertained us with jazzy versions of popular tunes - just after 8, the main man came on, with an accompanying guitarist. And what followed was about an hour and a half of his songs; it seems he's also a writer, and the songs are heavy on the story. Plenty of satire, and not a little politics - plenty about the Brexit (the topic du jour, and for some time to come), and at one point, when he said something direct about it (he's a Remain supporter), there was a round of applause from the room. Some of the room. Plenty of humour throughout the performance too, and thoroughly enjoyable. Last song of the night was Sad Old Bastards with Guitars - a crowd-pleaser, and the one I'd seen on YouTube.

There was an interval, when the maitresse-d' came over to see whether I was ok, and I complained about my lack of chicken! She apologised profusely, saying the kitchen was "f***ed", but that they knew about my order, and it was coming. And come it ultimately did - just three pieces, but large enough, filling, delicious, succulent, and piping hot. And on the house. Which made this a very good-value evening! And I'd be delighted to go back.

And I was home decently early - but not early enough to blog, given that I'm in Guildford again today. Tonight I'm off to the local cinema, to see Udta Punjab, and tomorrow to another Funzing session - with Helen's husband, since she can't make it. This one is on How to Fly First Class - for Free.. Must pass them on the location details..

Monday, 27 June 2016

Opera: Nabucco

Glory, things still seem to be on top of me.. well anyway, Friday - a sad day for many of us, following Thursday's referendum - was rendered sadder by being Helen's last day at the company. Drinks after work were up the hill at Heart and Soul - the only option without driving. We sat outside - it was reasonably warm, intermittently sunny.. oh, and we finished off the white wine between the two of us. And I do mean all the white wine they had. You've never seen a bar so poorly stocked - the lady behind the counter was going to get some from the store for us, and give us some ice to chill it on the spot, until she discovered there was none in store either! Really, with the slowest service locally, and so frequently out of the essentials.. this is the last resort of the desperate! Like, I suppose, the steady stream of Asian students heading there for the Friday night cocktails..

The chat, however, was convivial, and the drive home - later than usual - was also easier than usual, with hardly any traffic. So that I cut my regular best time by 1/3. Really makes a difference!

Saturday was back with the Man with the Hat for a performance of Nabucco, at the Royal Opera House. Plácido Domingo is advertised for this, but it was after I'd written my last post that I seemed to remember the Man warning us, a while back, that Senor Domingo wasn't appearing in Saturday's performance, and offering us a refund if we wanted one. Didn't make a difference to me, so I later forgot all about it - but a very generous offer, I thought! Typical of the Man..

Typically of a day when I had nothing else to do, I was (just a little) rushed in setting out. Train to Waterloo, and had I had time, I'd have walked from there - but time was a bit tight, so I said I'd take a bus. I do keep forgetting what central London is like at the weekends - it's not that often I'm in town then - and pushing through crowds at Waterloo was vexing, being in a hurry, as I was. I wasted a little time checking routes, but really, I don't think there's a bus from Waterloo that doesn't stop at Lancaster Place: just on the other side of the bridge, and the closest that most of them go to the Opera House.

From there, just follow your nose - straight ahead, and it isn't long before the Opera House peeks into view, on the left. Now, the Man had been conscientious in warning us that many of the entrances are closed for renovations, so he wouldn't be at his normal spot; instead, he'd be at the main entrance on Bow Street, for us to collect our tickets. In fact, he posted a picture on the Meetup page.. with an "M" to denote exactly where he'd be! All of which made it very easy to find him. Once I'd.. pushed through.. more crowds!

It was drizzling persistently by the time I found him, wearing a black jacket to match the black cap that we're always to identify him by. Now, I do hear rumours that he's got a new cap.. haven't seen anything of it yet, but I believe he's choosing his moment. Days like this, I bet he was glad to have a cap to shelter under.. he'd already been there since 6.15, nearly half an hour by that point, and had promised to wait until 7.30, half an hour after the performance started, so that latecomers could pick up their tickets. That's a lot of drizzle. And with no late admissions, that would mean he'd have to watch the start himself on a telly, in a room that he's assured me is plush. Still..

So I grabbed my ticket and blithely left him to it. Well, had I had an umbrella I'd have offered it.. but I was conscious that I didn't have an awful lot of time to chat. We were up in the rafters again, and that's a long way. And I didn't particularly want to check out the telly room. A cursory bag check (I did have a rather small bag). Going in that way, there's no signage for the Amphiteatre - funnily enough, given that this is supposed to be the main entrance, the signage is much better from the piazza entrance, where the box office is. But I know the building well, and as this is the way I normally exit, I knew to climb the main stairs and take the escalator to the Amphitheatre. Where the signage is much better - and I got there at the same time as my companions.

He had two bands of seats - one in the Lower Amphitheatre, with a direct view, but I was in the cheaper seats, in the side slips. Yes, you have to lean to see properly - but it's ok. And we had the lower of the two rows of seats there - which is nice, as the ornate railing provides plenty of footholds so you can vary your position; leaning can be hard work. In the slips, the row behind is so much higher that you don't get in their way by leaning.

I'd forgotten to pick up one of the free fliers on the way in, but I've seen Nabucco before, and I know the basic story. Nabucco is the King of Babylon - the name taken from Nebuchadnezzar, but he's more a composite. His daughter falls for a Hebrew slave. As in the bible however, Nabucco goes mad, and his elder daughter engages in a power struggle - the opera is more concerned with this.

It's a sparse production, as I've seen before with this opera. The cast are dressed in 1940s style - evocative of the persecution of the Jews, I guess. A grey stage houses, mainly, a sandpit, in which most of the action takes place. At intervals, this is filled with tall standing blocks - representing the Jewish temple that Nabucco ultimately destroys. Brooding, stone-effect panels to the side add to the effect. A screen at the very back of the stage discreetly displays crowd scenes to give a greater sense of the mass of people.

Not that there aren't a lot on stage anyway - let me tell you, when the entire group of Hebrew slaves points itself at the audience and lets rip, the sound is thunderous! I closed my eyes for the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. But this is an opera full of familiar arias - a catchy repertoire, and justifiedly popular. And the visual highlight is when they light a real fire onstage - pity the man stood beside it, I'm sure I got a touch of the heat even in my elevated seat!

At the interval, some of us repaired to the balcony, where we got a table, for once! And it turned out that the poor Man with the Hat did indeed wait outside for someone who never turned up for their ticket - but sent a message that he got afterwards. Which is why it's important to let people know..

Afterwards, we made our way down the road to the Sun Tavern, where he'd reserved the back section for us, upstairs. And we chatted away merrily till closing, the television over our heads showing us the news (silently), and a Brexit conversation going on below. A conversation that'll continue for a while yet.. A pleasant walk back to the station, and home. Rather late.

Yesterday was supposed to be a film - but it literally took me all day to do the film list! So I didn't go to anything. However, I haven't taken a vow of isolation - tonight I'm off to a concert I got a cheap ticket to - Terence Blacker is playing at Brasserie Zedel. Dress code: "smart casual" - means I'll have to change my shoes, and Lord knows where I can scare up a "smart" coat! But hey.

Tomorrow, I'm using my newly updated film list - to go to a film! Top of the list is Udta Punjab, showing in my local - at a more reasonable hour.

And on Wednesday, I've arranged to go to a Funzing event. One of their Meetup groups - London Speaks Sessions - has organised a talk about how to Fly First Class for Free! Well, I'm hoping they continue their tradition of plenty of free wine..

Friday, 24 June 2016

Film: The Conjuring 2

Film is an attractive option, if nothing else is jumping out at me. And The Conjuring 2 has terrific reviews, and a great rating on IMDB - especially considering it's a horror film, which generally means a much lower rating.

Now, I couldn't just go out and see that. O no, I was supposed to do a film list, checking the IMDB ratings of all films showing. Thing was, by yesterday evening, my list had only got up to "Bas".. by the time I finished it, I wouldn't have had time to go to anything! I compromised - I'd do the ratings for the films showing in my local cinema.

That took me just over half an hour. Yes, The Conjuring 2 was playing there. Yes, it was very highly rated. Thing was, there was one film rated higher - but Utda Punjab wasn't showing until 9, and therefore would be over late.. and I'm in Guildford today.. :-) I had my excuse. It'd taken me ages to get back, what with traffic jams caused by floods from the previous night's torrential rain. Several roads closed - so by the time I got back and rated all the films, it was 7:40. But the film wasn't showing until 8:15! (I'd still been on the road at the time of the earlier showing.) Perfect - I booked (cheaper).

The drive usually takes me 10 minutes - last night, with the traffic all backed up, it took me 25. What the hey, one of the advantages of mainstream cinema is you don't have to be there on time. For once, I hadn't printed out my ticket - I usually do that at the office, but since I'd just booked it that evening, it was handier just to collect it from a machine, using my payment card. Then had to queue to buy a packet of Minstrels, for dinner.

When I got in, they were showing trailers - most I wouldn't be bothered with.. but the last was for Lights Out. Ooh now, that made me sit up. Appropriately included in the trailers for this, as it's co-produced by James Wan, who directed both The Conjuring 2 and its predecessor, The Conjuring. I know it, however, from the short YouTube film of the same name. This is part of the Ponysmasher channel, run by the Swedish director, David F. Sandbergh, and his wife, Lotta Losten, who stars in his films. Sure enough, I knew they'd moved to LA.. A collaboration between them and James Wan is, potentially, the dream team for horror fans. Anyway, this is due for release next month - and, for the moment at least, incredibly highly rated! One to watch. Also check out that YouTube channel - packed full of inventive, short horror films, with accompanying films to show how they were made! (Generally involving the innovative use of IKEA products.)

Well! After that, we were straight into the main feature. I absolutely love James Wan's films - he has a real feel for psychological horror, employing yes, jump scares, but innovative ones. He knows what you expect - and plays with those expectations. Arguably the best horror director working at the moment - and his rough edges are smoothing, too. At the start of this film, he reminds us of the involvement of paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren in the Amityville haunting. And we're introduced to the creepiest demon I've seen in a while.

But mostly, this film concerns itself with the Enfield haunting. The events as depicted did, apparently, happen - a single mother and her four children (the eldest in her early teens) find themselves terrorised by a poltergeist. The Warrens are called in - and both before and after their arrival, we are subjected to an increasingly terrifying range of happenings, the fear factor ramped up until I found myself riveted to the screen. Visually stunning. Very highly recommended.

Home (much faster), bed, Guildford. I don't normally come down on Fridays, but today, sadly, is Helen's last day with us. :-(  So we had lunch at Heart and Soul, where they were decently prompt with the food - and I can highly recommend the garlic bread. We're back there again for drinks this evening - not too many for me, I have to drive home. Tomorrow, the Man with the Hat is taking his other group - Let's Do London - for Less! to Nabucco, with Plácido Domingo, at the Royal Opera House. Another huge group, God love him - the Opera House always draws a crowd. And with renovations there, and some entrances being closed, he's posted a picture on the Meetup page of where he'll stand to give us our tickets! Aw gee..

Concert: East Meets West

Ah yes, another day when I had something else booked and the Man with the Hat rode in with a counter-offer. How does he manage to hit those days..? Well, nobody's forcing me to change my plans, of course - but I figure there's no earthly point in sticking to my original plan if I'd rather be doing something else. So, I was off to King's Place.

I had to revise how to get there - it's not hard (nor does it really take very long) but it's been a while. Train, Victoria Line to King's Cross - I remembered from there. It was fun trying to figure out the trains at Clapham Junction - between trains on the point of departure, that I wouldn't get to in time, and trains that didn't stop at Vauxhall - there wasn't much scheduled for Victoria, so Vauxhall it was. At King's Cross / St. Pancras, I remembered to head for the King's Cross side.

You'd be forgiven for wondering whether a referendum was happening.. newspaper headlines on the Tube, a lady handing out fliers, a poster urging people to vote.. Up York Way, the landscape was a bit altered by a lot of construction work - but I eventually came across the building of glass on the right. I was early enough to hit the cafe, where I can now recommend the orange brownies.. anyway, when the Man arrived (with a big pile of impressive-looking free programmes for us!), I collected my ticket (and programme) and went out to the attractive seating area to the back. Opening onto the canal, there's a large grassy area, populated with tables and chairs (tables topped with ingenious flower-pot ashtray/bins), and - for the Euros - a separate bar (unstaffed when we were there), and widescreen tvs wherever you turn.

A barge was moored beside us, and - for those of us there early enough to enjoy it - it was a lovely place to spend a warm, reasonably bright (if not exactly sunny) evening. We were a smidgeon jealous of the corporate barbeque over the side, smells wafting in our direction (what a perfect evening and location for it!) but, despite discussion, we did not invade. We did, however, down our drinks - a lot of the bar staff were in training, and unqualified to answer complicated questions such as whether we could take drinks in with us. So we decided not to risk it. As it happened, there was a large pile of plastic containers right outside the theatre door, ready for us to decant our drinks into if necessary..

Seating was unassigned - this was in Hall Two, the smaller of the venues here. The concert - marketed as East Meets West, but with the logo "Korean Sounds" on the backdrop - was a combination of Western classical music (the first half) and Korean (the second half). It's interesting how, if they have unusual music in a classical concert, they generally try to sweeten the audience by including something more conventional - which is probably why we started with Mozart. This piece - as with so many classical pieces - is composed of several movements, and it was interesting to see many of the audience applauding vigorously after the first.. and less so after the second, as they realised they weren't supposed to.. and I think they'd stopped entirely by the time the third finished. Tip, guys: wait until the performers get up, smile, and take a bow. Much safer.

Mozart was followed by Janácek. Typically with Eastern European composers, this was something a bit different - as I remarked, if someone thinks classical music is boring, get them to listen to something like this! At times discordant, it was a step too far for some.. but hey, for me, I liked it. Can't go around listening to the same stuff all the time - you'd go brain dead.

And so to the interval, and a long, long queue at the bar. The person I was with remarked at the fact that there was only one barman - as we were waiting, of course, the Man with the Hat happened by, drink in hand; he, in his reliably resourceful way, had gone to the much quieter bar upstairs. Well anyway, he was good enough to tell me that the make-or-break Ireland match, which had started during the concert, was still nil all. And then he moseyed off, and we were queueing to the end of the interval.. the busy barman was happy to put our drinks into plastic for us.

The second half saw a costume change, and a change of pace to classical and Buddhist Korean music. The stage was now strewn with pallets. and there were gasps of appreciation as the musicians came on in gorgeous traditional costume. Three on zithers, one on a flute. Some found it a bit drawn out.. my impression was that this is music of a different pace, a pace that Londoners just aren't used to. And I found it good for the soul. Whatever your impressions - definitely different.

We repaired to the outside seating again afterwards, where I made sure to seat myself facing the telly. The match was about 65 minutes in by now - still no score. Until.. 85 minutes or so in.. something started to happen. And then.. a roar from the crowd. We' d done it, and Italy could do nothing in the closing minutes to change that! A historic victory - this is the first time that Ireland has made it out of the group stage of the Euros. (Olé, olé, olé, olé..) Memories of Stuttgart, 1988, when we qualified for the Euros for the very first time.. Whatever happens now, they've done us proud.

Apologies to my companions for having one eye on the telly the whole night - even when we were forced to go inside at 10, I was still in front of a telly. Great night anyway, for many reasons. Sadly, on our walk back to the station, the dry evening had been replaced by a persistent rain shower - which was at least refreshing. Back too late to blog.. and yesterday was just too busy.

But keep an eye out for my next post.. to follow shortly!

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Deaf Men Dancing & Comedian: Francesca Martinez

You know, I actually had something else booked for Monday night. Then the Man with the Hat, with unerring instinct, came along and scheduled something for exactly the same night. Huh. This is what I get for booking stuff in advance. Well, I have allowed myself the luxury of cancelling if something I fancy more comes up - and so it was that I came to his instead.

An early start meant I shocked everyone at work by working from home on a Monday, unusually. New venue, this - cue some anxious direction research. Google Maps suggested that, to get to the Royal College of Physicians, I catch a train to Waterloo, then the Bakerloo line to Regent's Park. The walk from there looked short, and quite easy - right from the station, next left, next right onto St. Andrew's Place. Streetview didn't extend into St. Andrew's Place itself, but I figured it couldn't be that hard to find.

One of those in-between days: showers, but really hot in between, so the coat you had to bring with you was a nuisance when the sun shone. It was rush hour when I got on the Tube - I was dripping sweat by the time I got off again, and made my way through brilliant sunshine and leafy streets, lined with elegant, white buildings. I wasn't the only one to walk the whole way around St. Andrew's Place before realising that the building I wanted was that one that didn't look like a toff's townhouse - the non-white one, on the left as you enter. Anyway, there was a helpful lady at the door to tell us that yes, this was the place, that registration was on the lower ground floor, and that the bar was upstairs. Where I could already see the Man with the Hat.

So I registered, and got my token for a (most welcome) free drink. Made my way upstairs, blithely speeding past the group - priorities, y'know. I was quite prepared to be sociable when I had a drink in hand! And some of us then made our way upstairs, to peer at the exhibition of medical curiosities, and then down to the lower ground again, where there were antique medical instruments, and a "throne", which we all tried out - I gave it 8/10 (not enough back support).

Back upstairs for the performance proper, in the library - unassigned seating. The books, interestingly, were all enclosed in a wire mesh - later, one of the organisers made a joke about the books having "locked-in syndrome". Which I think I was the only one to laugh at. Ah well. Comment cards had been left on our seats, as well as some information about Exceptional & Extraordinary, the performance programme - of which this show was a part - that's currently playing London, at the end of its UK tour. They use comedy, dance, and film to highlight our attitudes to disability, to difference.

On Monday, we got Deaf Men Dancing to start. Yes, the dancers are deaf - so is the choreographer. And over the course of their hour-long performance, they depicted the issues that face deaf people - how oralism was preferred to sign language, the reality of hearing tests: the weird little boxes they gave out in church to people who couldn't hear what was going on (not sure they achieved much).

After a brief interval, Francesca Martinez came on with her funny, sassy, Wobbly Manifesto. She has cerebral palsy, you see - or, as she prefers to describe it, she's wobbly. We were overloaded with interpretations during this bit - surtitling on the screen behind her, typed in real time (and it was interesting to see how they struggled to keep up, and how they left bits out. Like the rude bits. Sometimes.) Also a sign language interpreter to the side. A master of stagecraft, she brought on a guy to act as the man who coined the term "cerebral palsy". Oh, and he later represented - of all things - a wooden leg.. Inventive, this show.

Meantime, we were busily trying to figure out the comment cards, which asked "how we deal with difference". Huh? Who's "we"? I used to be involved in survey design, y'know. Ambiguous questions don't do anyone any good. Anyhoo, we figured out "we" meant society in general, and answered accordingly. I was decently quick at that, but then I do a lot of surveys..

An intriguing Q+A afterwards, with Francesca, the chorographer of Deaf Men Dancing, and one of the organisers. If I'd thought we were overloaded with translations before..! Now we had the surtitles, struggling to keep up with all speakers, and no fewer than two sign language interpreters: one for the audience, one for the speakers, two of whom were deaf. Interesting to watch the different signing.. and always enlightening to hear a perspective over and above what we've just seen on stage.

Afterwards, we assembled in a clump around the Man with the Hat to find out where our pub was. In fact, he'd missed the Q+A to research it for us. Aww.. And after telling us to walk straight on - and us looking at him in a suspicious manner - he accompanied us, then ran back for stragglers, then accompanied us again, and so it was that we finally came to the Queen's Head & Artichoke. Ahem. This is what it says on the website: "The origin of its name is attributed to Daniel Clark, Master Cook & Head Gardener to both Elizabeth 1st & James 1st." Eh, so I suppose that's the Queen in question - and since the following is also quoted on the website, perhaps that's a vague reference to artichokes..? "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too." Jeez, profound.

Inside was blissfully quiet, as pubs go, and we inhabited a corner with a long table, under strings of - cloves of garlic. Curiouser and curiouser. A large white wine wasn't the most expensive I've come across, but close. Anyway, the chat was good, till we eventually left - the last few of us heading home from Great Portland Street, just up the road. A couple of us Tubed to Baker Street, walking up and down stairs and along platforms to get back to the Bakerloo line and a direct route to Waterloo. Which is ironic, since - looking at the map afterwards - I see that we could have walked from Great Portland Street to Regent's Park a lot faster, and gotten the Bakerloo line straight from there. O well.

Our journey was also somewhat lengthened when we came to an abrupt stop just as we were pulling out of Piccadilly Circus. Happily, just where we were sat gave us a perfect view of the platform cctvs - not that we could see much, apart from hordes of irate passengers arriving on the platform, wondering why they couldn't get on this pretty empty train. Cue grumbling passengers moving down to our carriage, in case they needed to get off (the front of the train being in the tunnel). We never did find out quite what it was - something on the track, perhaps, or some overenthusiastic safety measure. Anyhoo, I did eventually make it home. Past my bedtime - but what's new?

Guess what I did last night? Stayed in, and did get the blog done this time! So this is a record of my most recent outing (not counting Asda).. and with this, I am officially UP TO DATE!! Drum roll please.

..for the moment.. the Man with the Hat organised something else for tonight - King's Place, this time, and a concert involving Mozart, Janácek and Korean Zithers. Terrific - also clashes with something else I'd booked, but hey. He does seem to be getting good at that..

Dance: Zik'r

Thursday threw up a flamenco show by Sadler's Wells - conveniently at their more central Peacock Theatre. Not a second thought - I booked. I adore flamenco.. unfortunately, I left it a bit late to head into town that evening, and just missed the train I needed at Clapham Junction. So, with delays to services that evening, by the time I got to Waterloo, the odds of my getting there on time by bus were slim, and I hopped in a taxi. Whose driver had to be told several times where I was going. Heavy traffic, and when we got there he tried to take me round the back, but couldn't find the entrance - which used up more time. So much for the Knowledge of black cab drivers!

I picked up my ticket, and was ushered to the upper level with a number of other latecomers - it was too late to take our seats in the stalls. Never mind, I picked a good seat upstairs, which wasn't busy. And the performance started soon enough after that I knew that taking a cab had been the right choice..

Zik'r is a spectacular show, tracing the evolution of flamenco from India to Spain. Combining sufi and more traditional flamenco, the stage was filled with singers, flamenco dancers, whirling dervishes.. the music a fantastic mix of Indian, Moroccan, flamenco, and more modern elements. I was absolutely transported. At the interval, hungry, I sought out the desk where they were selling rather delicious ice creams. And while I was sorting myself, two ladies came along and started to ask about the cds. I was so impressed with the music that when I heard one of them was the show soundtrack, I bought it myself.

I took my seat in the stalls for the second half - near the back, but just as good. Another spellbinding set, all stamping feet and swirling, frilled dresses, and a well deserved standing ovation ended the evening. Highly recommended, if you ever see it around.

I got a bus back to the station - back to Ireland for the weekend, and Saturday saw me taking my mother's poodle to be clipped:

And since these things take time, my mother and I popped down the road for lunch in the meantime, to the Auburn Lodge - which has a carvery lunch, rather a cramped queueing area but otherwise fine, with plenty of seating in the bar, where the Euros were showing on multiple screens. Good food, hearty portions, and free tea or coffee included, which is brought to your table, either straight away or later. You'd better grab the desserts while you see them though.. when they're gone, they're gone!

Comedy: Top Secret

Back in London! Absolutely wrecked, and with a ton of holiday blogs to write - not to mention that Helen still had to upload all those photos. No wonder I didn't feel like going out on Monday night. And with the photos now uploaded, I deliberately decided to stay in on Tuesday night, to start all this blogging. Wouldn't you know, that was the day that construction workers decided to cut through the fibreoptic cables supplying all of SW London with internet..!

Well, I'd booked to go to Top Secret on Wednesday night (with the Man with the Hat), so that I wasn't going to miss. Even if it was going to add to my tally of blogs to write. Now, my phone is acting up to the extent that I'll have to get a new one (when I get through with all this blogging!), so it helped not to have to consult it to find directions. I remembered my way pretty well, arrived in good time. Hand stamping this time was a bit erratic - mine wasn't, others' were. Hey-ho, nobody got thrown out..

When I went in, the Man with the Hat was holding court near the bar. Plenty of familiar faces rocked up - whee! Great to be back, great to see them. In fact, he had a huge group there that night, it seemed, and also seemed that we were the only ones in the house for the first act, Tez Ilyas. Well, I like to think we were appreciative..

This was my third time at Top Secret, and for me, the best yet (comedy being, as always, subjective). Not everyone was terrific, but overall I had a ball. Luisa Omeilan - terrifically sassy. Maff Brown - v funny. I don't know everyone that was on the bill - which is a tragedy when it comes to the last guy, whose name I just don't remember: a Romanian comedian, with a keen eye and a self-deprecating streak, who assured us that no, he wasn't the guy from the Meerkat ad. He joined us for drinks afterwards too, down the road in the White Hart. Well never mind, it was a great welcome back to London for me..

(Now going to have a short break before I tell you what I did on Thursday.)

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Ireland: Day 9 (from Kinsale)

There's a café on the ground floor of the Old Bank House, which is reserved for residents' breakfast till 10.30 - checkout time, and conveniently, also the start of parking restrictions where we'd parked, i.e. we'd have to pay to park from that time. And it was the only place on our travels that served baked beans for breakfast! (in a little pot). Cool.. I love 'em.

We passed through Cork city on the way north, but didn't stop. Honestly, I spent nearly two years living there, and while, of course, you could find something to do if you had to - still I couldn't think of a single thing worth stopping for as we were passing through. We did stop in Blarney though, parking in the famous Woollen Mills (largest Irish shop in the world). It's walking distance from there to the famous castle, although - unlike in times past - you can't even enter the grounds without buying a ticket. Which we didn't do - that infamous stone they get the tourists to kiss is (a) hard to get to, involving a climb and being held as you bend over backwards above a sheer drop, and (b) simply part of an ancient urinal. Instead, we meandered along the railing, through the car park till we got a bit of a view:

On our way back to the Woollen Mills, we stopped off at a gift shop to the side - where we made more purchases than in all the time we subsequently spent in the "largest Irish shop in the world". And let not the Blarney Chocolate Factory be forgotten - a little shop at the side of the road, it's a treasure chest of sweet delights. Purchases were made there, too. For the woollen mills, however - although we walked their length, and marvelled at their goods: well, partly the problem was that, despite the break in the weather, it was still hot, and woollens just didn't do it for us..

Not hungry enough for lunch yet, we drove on - by the time we got to Charleville, we were hungry enough, and from my time driving to and from Cork on this road, I knew the East Ocean Chinese restaurant was worth a stop. The town was busy, and we were lucky to get parking - we were also lucky with our timing, as they were close to closing for lunch. I'd only been here for dinner previously, and I see for lunch they close the back section, and have a simple, one-page menu of the most popular choices. Fair enough, and we ordered - and were simply, quickly, and satisfyingly fed. We didn't bother with dessert, and afterwards wandered across the road to a curio shop. Where we saw some curious things, but none that tempted us to buy.

Back to my mother's, then, and a few hours to relax before the evening.. we had booked tickets for a banquet at nearby Bunratty Castle. First, mind, a last dash to Dunnes in Ennis, where Helen had a mind to do a final shop. I instructed her that she had 15 minutes.. and 15 minutes we spent (less, actually, I think). Then a quick drive along the main road, and we found ourselves at Bunratty with 20 minutes to spare. Just nice. As you come from the Ennis direction, the castle - hidden by trees - is on you before you know it; the road curves around the corner of the castle itself.

We continued to the car park, and got out in lashing rain. We found ourselves in the company of a hen party (well, that promised some fun!) and followed them through the entrance, into the gift shop, which wisely stays open till the start of the later performance of the evening. We browsed but didn't buy, ultimately continuing through the folk park to the castle itself, led by young ladies in unwise high heels, rather fetching floral garlands on their heads. They usually have a piper at the entrance, but not in this weather:

Inside, we climbed the spiral staircase (fear not, there's a handrail) to the entrance hall, where folks in medieval garb served us mead, before they took the podium for a brief lecture on the history of the castle, then broke into a madrigal:


(As ever, more pictures here.) Downstairs again to the banqueting hall. We were assigned seats depending on the number in our party, and found ourselves seated decently close to the entertainment:

Seating is on benches at long tables, and you are furnished with a knife and some napkins - otherwise, just a finger bowl and a bowl for drinks. Jugs of white and red wine are provided, and a larger jug of water; all are unlimited for the duration of the meal. The menu is given on the banquet website - despite the description of "spiced parsnip soup" to start, we thought it tasted more of oxtail; this you drink by lifting it to your mouth (very practical, I think). Spare ribs - the ultimate finger food - to follow, along with chicken served with diced vegetables: all easy enough to skewer with the knife, the same you use throughout. The only relaxation of the cutlery rules is when they provide you with a spoon for dessert.

We were fed well enough, although I don't think many managed the full meal before they came to clear away; it's just that bit slower, when you don't have the implements you're used to! And the wine made us very merry, as the entertainments started in earnest, and we joined in a singalong. Finally, we wound our careful way into the night, passing again through the giftshop, where they were still willing to sell us mead. But no, home to bed for us.

The following day was the day of our flight back to London. Flying with Ryanair, we couldn't check in for free until a week beforehand - so we waited until we visited my friend's house, and checked in using her computer. This was just two days before the flight.. now, they obviously fill from the back (hoping you'll pay for a better seat), because when we checked in, as early as possible, for our outbound flight, we were allocated seats in the very back row of the plane. Checking in two days before the flight, however, we were allocated seats all the way up in Row 3! You have been told..

We arrived at Shannon airport in good time, intending to eat before boarding. Unfortunately, Helen had a bag to check, and Ryanair bag drop doesn't open until two hours before flight time - so we ended up getting a meal deal from WH Smith, as the public café closes at 2, it transpires, and the only other option for full meals is past security. When we did eventually get that far, the queue was horrendous, anyway - the Green Army was on the march (and I wished them luck). So we grabbed a table at Zest!, a new food option beside the pub. Well, the pastry I had was good (not as good as that at Kylemore, mind), but I will NEVER again order those lukewarm chips.. ugh.

Finally on the plane, we weren't going anywhere fast - turns out all that rain we'd been missing had fallen on Gatwick instead, where it had knocked a hole in the runway. We did get back eventually.. rather exhausted, rather impressed, rather determined to return and do the bits we'd missed. We did see and do an awful lot during our stay.. we did enjoy ourselves. And we do recommend it!

Next blog post - back to London.