A Fine Day for Rugby


I just came back from a nice afternoon of rugby at the local stadium (for an introduction to the local stadium and team, see my post from last spring). Despite having read a book about it this past summer – the equivalent of “Rugby for Idiots” – I’m still quite confused about a lot of the game. Here are some interesting points I’m still trying to understand:


  • Play often proceeds even though there may be a man down on the field, even one being attended to by a trainer.  
  • As a kind of penalty against one team, the other team is allowed to kick the ball downfield and out of bounds, then keep possession of it, on a throw-in, at the point where it went out. So kicking it way down field and out of bounds is a valued tactical skill. At other times, the usual out of bounds type rules apply and cause a turnover.
  • The ball can only be passed backward by hand (the equivalent of a “lateral” pass in US football parlance), never forward. This is done over great distances and with great accuracy in rugby, and often with a pefect spiral on the ball.
  • The team who’s just been scored against kicks-off to the team that just scored. This is usually done with a high drop-kick (the equivalent of an “on-sides kick” in US football parlance).
  • After some minor penalties, the player who is awarded the ball must kick or lateral it away, however, it’s legal in this case for him to make a tiny drop kick that pops the ball up only a foot or two (satisfying the kick requirement) and then catch it himself and take off with it. 
  • Similarly, when running downfield with the ball, it’s perfectly legal to give it a little, low forward kick to get it by a defender and then scoop it up again and run with it; this is often done very successfully.
  • And, after some penalty calls that result in the ball being awarded to one team, play sometimes resumes so quickly that it appears that only half the players are aware of it. The game can move extremely quickly and I guess it’s up to each player to be paying attention at all times.

Today’s opponent was Rugby Rovigo from Italy. This illustrates the fact that teams here (in many sports) compete in a variety of leagues, including international leagues, simultaneously. So the match today, part of the regular schedule, was actually in the international league; a very interesting arrangement that promotes competition and quality play.


Unfortunately for the Italians, it was a rout. Our London-Irish team scored two tries (a try is the equivalent of a US touchdown) in the first eight minutes and it was more of the same from there on. Despite a large and vocal bunch of fans, Rovigo only scored once on a penalty kick, so the final score was a very lopsided and unusual 78 – 3. Think of such a score in US football! After scoring our third or fourth try, our team started to get cocky and we saw some extremely fancy over-the-shoulder and behind-the-back ball passing, which was a lot of fun to see. This was stuff they probably wouldn’t risk in a close game.


The weather was terrific and fans happy and respectful as always and it was a fine rugby outing.



Zorro! The Musical

I took the train into London yesterday and spent some time at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. It’s a wonderful collection and I used the strategy of identifying individual works I wanted to see and going straight for them. There was no browsing an entire room; I just hit my "best of" choices: Botticelli, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, and so forth. This was a good approach, partly due to the very accessible layout of the museum, and I avoided the "museum fatigue" that can occur when you try to take in too much at one shot.
For a late lunch, I strolled down to the Porterhouse Pub in Covent Garden, a nice place with more brass fittings (even the air ducts) than I’ve ever seen under one roof. They have a good selection of ales and decent food and I quite enjoyed my meal and the ambiance.
Then I was off to the nearby Garrick Theatre for the matinee of Zorro! The Musical. I’m usually pretty picky about seating but let myself buy a third-row center seat for this one and found myself in the thick of it. I actually had to turn sideways to see some of the action at the ends of the curved stage and I missed most of Zorro’s slide down a rope from high in the middle of the house to the stage. But no matter, it was still a fun and energetic show. Lots of rope swinging, sword-fighting, and special effects and, from my close vantage point, I could see it all clearly.
I could see too much, in fact. The leads in a show like this wear wireless microphones, with the actual tiny microphone usually set just in the hairline above the forehead and invisible. In this production, however, the flesh-colored mikes were worn down an inch onto the foreheads, so everyone looked like they had a wart on their forehead! Maybe from 10 rows back it wasn’t noticeable.
The cast put a lot of energy into their dancing and singing but, sadly, I thought the songs were a bit weak (music by The Gypsy Kings) and didn’t do the cast justice. As director, I would have trimmed several songs and dances out of the nearly 3-hour production. But all in all, it was a good show. In London, matinees often start at 3:00 pm, which is quite late by American standards. Moreover, with an evening show at 7:30 pm, the cast doesn’t have much time to rest in between but, to their credit, in the performance I saw the cast certainly seemed to give it their all.

A Visit to Oxford

The city of Oxford, home of Oxford University (the oldest university in the English-speaking world), is just up the railway line from Reading and, with perfect weather forecast, I found myself on the train at 9:40 am Saturday bound to spend the day there. I did not, however, watch beautiful English countryside roll by from my train seat as I hoped; no, I awoke to a thick English fog with visibility down to 50 yards in places. But I had faith it would clear.
And by the time I arrived in Oxford 30 minutes later, it was dissipating. After a 5-minute walk into town from the train station, my first stop was the TI (Tourist Information bureau) to collect a map, my pre-paid tour ticket (more on that later), and to peruse the free brochures and such. Then I was off to the Ashmolean Museum, which houses a fine collection of Egyptian artifacts, Renaissance drawings, and silver, glass, and gold stuff ranging in provenance from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century. It is a very fine collection, indeed.
I found an unexpected treat in the museum’s “Treasures” collection: Powhatan’s Mantle. This was described in 1683 as the “robe of the King of Virginia” and it was later catalogued as “Pohatan, King of Virginia’s habit all embroidered with shells or Roanoke”. As Disney will never let us forget, Powhatan was the father of Princess Pocohontas. The “mantle”, a large deerskin piece inlaid with small sea shells, may have had some function, such as a temple hanging, rather than being an actual garment. But it was a cool and surprising discovery for me in Oxford.
After 90-minutes in the museum I headed off in search of lunch and found The White Horse pub, a tiny but traditional place with low ceilings and lots of charm. Then I went off to the famous Turf Tavern for a pint and it was a clever warren of rooms and outdoor seating areas, where I enjoyed the very pretty fall day now in progress. Both of these places were recommended in tourist reviews on the Internet.
At 1:30, I went back to the TI, where I joined my tour. Many American PBS watchers are familiar with the Inspector Morse detective series imported from Britain. This series, based on books by popular crime writer Colin Dexter, ended in 2000 after 33 episodes and featured a crime-fighting detective duo based in Oxford. So, I was joining the “Inspector Morse Tour” wherein I and 20 other fans of the series were paraded around Oxford to places used in the show. Our first stop: The White Horse pub; our second, the Turf Tavern (Inspector Morse liked his pint). The tour did nothing more than pass by these places but it was fun to know that I’d anticipated our itinerary a bit. As we walked along, our tour guide provided us with many amusing production anecdotes and I recognized some sites from the show. A lot went over my head, though others on the tour were obviously more ardent about the series (had the DVD boxed set, watched them over and over, etc.) and were, as the Brits say, very keen. Two hours of this, though, was enough for me and I ended my tour at O’Neills with a pint of Guinness Red.
Oxford, the university, founded in the 12th century, is one of the world’s leading academic institutions but is a little different from many U.S. universities. It consists of 39 undergraduate and 10 graduate “colleges”. You may recognize some of their names: Exeter, Christ Church, Merton, and Trinity. Most have their own completely enclosed grounds, which include dorm rooms, classrooms, eating hall (where all sit down together), and lovely gardens. Many have their own churches attached. There are big inter-college rivalries in sports, academics, etc. Our tour took us into many of these places and it was delightful. Libraries, labs, examinations, and so on are the central university’s responsibility. Recipients of the coveted Rhodes scholarship study here.
Oxford, the city, is a typical college town but with fabulous ancient architecture and many narrow, crooked, cobble-stone alleys and back streets. All in all, and the extremely high-level academics notwithstanding, I came away thinking it would be a marvelous place to go to school. My train trip back to Reading was pleasant and I did get to see the countryside, though the foliage has not yet turned.
Coda: the very popular Morse series ended when the wonderful actor John Thaw, who played Morse, was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2002. His “sidekick” Robbie Lewis, played by Kevin Whatley, has reappeared in a new series called "Lewis", which is also set in Oxford and is nearly as enjoyable as Morse. When I got back to Reading, I turned on the TV and an episode of Inspector Morse was on; I was able to spot locations in it that I had been to that afternoon.

Home Team Rugby Opener

I just spent a lovely English fall afternoon today at the home opener of the local rugby team, London Irish, and it was a great outing. Our team lost by one point but it was only after a dramatic, down-to-the wire finish that made it a spectator’s delight. If you wish to learn a bit about the stadium and the game, see my post from last spring about attending my first-ever pro rugby match.
Today’s match was marked by over-zealous officials who called penalty after penalty (on both sides) that really stopped the flow of the game. Season ticket holders around me were commenting on the fact that they’d never seen so many penalty kicks in a single game. Tempers flared a bit on the field, too, and there were several unsportsman-like conduct penalties. Even after some off-season studying,  I found I remain firmly in command of only about 50% of the game’s rules.
One interesting thing I’ve noticed is the teams’ uniforms. Advertising is THE most important thing on their jerseys. Here’s an example,

So you’d be forgiven if you thought the name of the team was LLanera. However, that’s the name of a Spanish property company that was last year’s major sponsor. The little bit that I’ve circled is actually the team logo (click for larger image). Now, imagine if this was applied to American football jerseys. I’ve whipped up a crudely Photoshop’d example of what a Washington Redskins jersey might look like (with apologies to Mr. Portis):

Commercialism notwithstanding, the scale, cost, commute (£2.80 round trip bus), and pleasant atmosphere makes attending London Irish matches at Madejski Stadium (built entirely by a local developer; no public funds) a real delight and I plan to attend as many home matches as I can. Who knows… I may even buy a jersey.

Visiting Buckingham Palace

I made a long-anticipated visit to Buckingham Palace yesterday. I took a tour of the State Rooms, which are those used for State events – receptions, bestowal of honors, dinners, etc. – and it was a fascinating 90 minutes. The palace staff does an excellent job of getting you in, through security, and on your tour, all without the obvious security presence of, say, a tour of the White House. The admission price (£15) included an excellent audio guide.
Buckingham Palace is the Queen’s residence in London and also includes guest rooms for visitors and offices for the management of the monarchy’s operations and diplomatic relations. The palace has 775 rooms, including 52 Royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, 78 bathrooms, and the 19 State Rooms I visited. The palace came into being as a palace and was first used in 1837 and, today, has a staff of 800.
The State Rooms were marvelous – huge, ornate, beautiful, packed with works of art and amazing furnishings – everything you’d want to have if your goal was to impress the socks off visitors and dignitaries. The walls are hung with paintings by Vermeer, Rubens, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Titian, and many more. And yet, despite all the glitz, there’s something tasteful about these rooms (unlike the truly overwhelming golden splendor of Versailles, for example) and that’s very British, of course.
One reason I’ve waited so long to visit Buckingham Palace is that, for the first time ever and only in August and September, for the benefit of the tour, the main palace ballroom has been set up for a State Dinner. Wow! And what a set-up: seating for 200, glassware galore, gold and silver services, exotic candelabras, floral displays, etc., all laid out to perfection. The room itself is huge with massive chandeliers, ceiling decorations, and the U-shaped table doesn’t begin to fill it. Some interesting videos of a State dinner were shown in a side room and they’re also available online: check out these cool videos about the preparations and running of a State dinner. 
My favorite piece of art was the Table of The Grand Commanders, a 4-foot diameter round table, made of Sèvres porcelain and once belonging to Napoleon. It took six years to make and the top, which looks like it’s inlaid with a variety of rare materials and features cameos of various French generals and admirals, is, in fact, a single piece of porcelain. Absolutely amazing craftsmanship!
Our tour wound up in the 40-acre garden behind the palace and the exit path took me along one side of it. It was a grey, wet day but the gardens were impressive nonetheless and must be wonderful in good weather. There was, alas, no Royal sighting. However, if you are ever in London, I highly recommend this tour.

A Trip to the Wallace Collection


I discovered the Wallace Collection yesterday, a hidden gem of a museum. It’s in a former palatial private residence set across from a stunning private park, quite near Oxford Circus in London and just down the street from the famous Selfridge’s department store.


The museum houses one of the world’s greatest collections of 18th century French and Flemish fine and decorative arts. This is what most museums ought to be like. Each of its room is completely decorated for a specific period, and as if someone still lived there. Fantastically ornate tables and chairs, chests, fireplace surrounds, parquet flooring, sculpture, ceramics, chandeliers, and sumptuous window treatments combine with framed paintings to produce the effect. And, best of all, you can walk among all these things and get your nose right up to them (no touching, of course). It’s kind of like going to Versailles without the velour ropes that keep you from going into the rooms. Really terrific!


So, for example, there’s a room furnished in the style of the Louis XIV era and another ala Marie-Antoinette. The inlaid writing tables are incredible and made with an amazing array of materials, from gold to tortoise shell. Naturally, you may not sit on the gilded chairs, but I have rarely been to a museum that offered so many usable chairs and benches where you could sit down and enjoy the view. And the paintings themselves are superb – Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard, Watteau, among others – and are, as I said, very accessible. You can get close enough to really appreciate the brushwork.


There’s also a collection of armor and weapons and a wonderful restaurant in a glass-roofed courtyard. And, best of all, though the Wallace Collection is a national museum and easy to get to, it was not at all crowded. It is easy, with all of the ornate décor, all that visual stimulation, to get a quick case “museum fatigue”, so this is a place that merits several small visits instead of one long one. Check out their web site.



The Reading Festival Begins

Tomorrow marks the start of the Reading Festival. This is a genuine, Woodstock-style music festival that runs for three days during this national holiday weekend. This year is the 20th anniversary of the festival and they expect 80,000 to attend, coming from all over the UK and Europe. I thought about volunteering as a "festival steward", then thought again and didn’t. Tickets were all sold out long ago.
Most attendees camp out in their own tents in vast meadows along both sides of the Thames River and there are substantial vendor areas, lots of toilets, serious medical facilities, and five stages.  Some 200 bands are scheduled to perform. I have to admit I looked through the "50 Biggest Band" names and recognized only Metallica and Rage Against the Machine – what a geezer I’m getting to be!
Performers you will recognize who have performed here over the years include Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, 50 Cent, and Coldplay, so we are talking about a serious musical draw.
Like everything these days, I noticed that this event offers the equivalent of VIP Sky Boxes. These are temporary, hard-walled, locking, furnished, and air-conditioned shacks, very desirably located, for those who wouldn’t even consider sleeping in a tent but who do have a platinum credit card.
Reading has a population of 143,000 so adding 80,000 more souls is quite something. Apparently the festival-goers are allowed to leave the festival site and run into town for supplies and then re-enter. The merchants love it and stock up but others have told me that "it’s insane". All the roads around town have special signage up and special parking is in effect with shuttle buses. Last year the local pubs served up 2 million pints during the festival!
You know how a tidal wave sucks all the water back from the beach before it comes crashing in? I think I detected the calm before the storm today, fewer people around the town and mall than usual.
I, for one, am looking forward to seeing squadrons of dread-locked, Wellington boot-wearing, tattooed lads and lasses swarming through town. It will definitely remind me of my old Woodstock days. A steady stream of backpack and sleeping pad-laden kids was coming by my office by this evening.
Here’s the festival’s web site. See how many bands you recognize.
Oh yes, the forecast is for a bit of rain during the weekend. Mud anyone? More later…

Life in the Small City

One of the most remarkable things about living in Reading is how small my world is. In the U.S. I live in a totally suburban setting, where driving is required to do just about everything. In Reading, I live in a small city and, on a daily basis, need a car for almost nothing.
For example, it’s a rather pleasant 7-minute walk from my flat to the office in the morning. On the way I stop in at the news agent (convenience store) to pick up my breakfast yogurt. At lunchtime, when I need to run errands, I may go from my office to the Central Library (2-minute walk) then up to my bank (3-minute walk) and the Post Office (next door) then circle back down into the pedestrian mall to Boots (the drug store, 2-minute walk) then over to pick up a take-away salad at Picnic (best salads in town, 2-minute walk), and then head back to the office (3-minute walk).
Everything is in a such a small area and is relatively uncrowded. Queuing (getting in line) for service anywhere usually means 1-2 people ahead of you, tops. Yet the mall features modern retail outlets: major department stores, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, Disney Store, Gap, multi-screen cinema, and so forth – not little village shops.
On a nice day, it’s extremely pleasant to go out and about. Even when it rains, I’m barely outside long enough to get wet. I’ve gotten very comfortable with my "small neighborhood" here and, I fear, quite spoiled by it all.

My 1st Visit to the NHS Doctor

I‘ve been having some ear aches and impaired hearing, so I went to the National Health Service doctor near my house. I have company-provided private health insurance but it only covers ER and hospital treatment and "your NHS professional" has to refer you in order to use it.
Before I could see the Doc,  however, I had to register for the NHS by producing my passport and proof of residence, then wait two days. I was able to get an appointment quickly, though, on the third day. When I registered, I was given some "Practice Information", badly printed on a laser printer, with typos, that indicated that all doctor appointments are 10 minutes maximum.
I arrived for my appointment and was directed to the Waiting Room. The medical office was somewhat different than in the US, a bit cluttered, a bit shabby. Of course, my GP at home is in McLean, which explains a lot. I found the universal Waiting Room magazines and decor, except for the large scrolling LED sign that exhorted us to get our blood pressure checked and presented other health tips. When it was my turn, no nurse or staff called my name. No, the LED sign beeped loudly and summoned me by displaying "Mr. Hausman to Dr. Simspon’s office, 2nd floor". No staff person paid me the least attention, so I just got up and went upstairs.
The doctor’s office had a desk, computer, chairs, and examining table in rear but looked more like a home office than a professional medical office, which some might find reassuring. There was no separate examining room. The Doc wore a shirt and tie, no white lab coat, no stethoscope or other symbols of the MD. Mindful of the time limit, we got right down to it. He heard my complaint, looked in my ears and saw a wax build-up obstruction. He asked no questions about medical history, did not look in my nose or mouth, and didn’t ask about dental health (a big factor in many ear aches). What little we did say went right into the computer.
The Doc suggested I go to the drug store for ear drops that would soften wax (and presumably cause it to fall out) and that it might take a month to be effective! This despite my saying that it was painful enough that I couldn’t sleep on that side. No offer to remove it by syringing with water or mechanical means. Mentioned sending me to an ENT specialist at the hospital if situation unimproved (after a month?).
Zip, bing, done – elapsed time 8 minutes, no cute nurses, no paperwork describing treatment, no bill, no payment, no nothing else from anyone there. Goodbye, I walked out the door. Well, at least the Hippocratic Oath was observed: "First, do no harm".

Repeat Offenders

Here’s an interesting story that’s indicative of the legal process here in England. It seems a heroin addict snuck into a local church and made off with the handbag of a 73-year old woman, while she was praying. He was eventually identified and nabbed by the police.
What’s interesting is that the thief had recently been released from a stint in prison. In addition, he was out on bail pending trial for shoplifting. And, oh yes, he had 47 previous offences! Forty-seven! These facts, in several combinations, raise so many questions, starting with: how does someone with a record like that get bail?
Let us presume that this offender had no record of serious attacks, no physical assaults, that his 47 transgressions were indeed more of the same: purse-snatchings and shoplifting. Seems less urgent but still, I wonder what the cost was to the local taxpayer for 47 arrests, 47 trials, and 47 case dispositions? Clearly there was little deterrent effect being created. And what of the 47 victims – their losses and traumas?
The thief was sent back to prison in this case, but I wonder for how long. He now has 48 offenses to his "credit"; I wonder how long it will be before he gets to 50.