The Great British Beer Festival

Switching to the complete other end of the cultural spectrum, I traded the crowds at the British Museum for the happier crowds at the Great British Beer Festival, one of the largest beer festivals in the world. This four-day event, sponsored by CAMRA, is held at Earls Court, one of London’s major convention centers, and is truly beer-drinker heaven.
CAMRA, as you may have read here earlier, is the Campaign for Real Ale, major promoter and guardian of all things having to do with traditional British pubs and beer. Americans can imagine it as the “NRA for traditional ale”. And, just to be clear, traditional ale is not Budweiser or Coors. This is the lightly-carbonated, regionally-brewed stuff from a cask that is hand-pumped up from the basement in most British pubs and served cool but not icy cold. My foresight in joining CAMRA last spring served me well today, as my membership card produced discounts and freebies and access to the pleasant members’ lounge overseeing the exhibition space.
Click images to enlarge.
I can only state the obvious: this huge gathering is all about traditional ale and food, with major and minor breweries well-represented. The program said there were 450+ different ales available, some brewed just for this event. The crowd of many thousands was festive and happy, but I saw no one who was really drunk and in distress. There was live music and also non-beverage vendors of things with a beer theme (belt buckles, mugs, bar accessories, and hilarious tee shirts, to name but a few). Hundreds of CAMRA volunteers staffed the event.
I picked up a pint glass at the door and dove in. Yes, real glass – no plastic cups here (clearly no paranoid American liability attorneys had been consulted) – yet no broken glass littered the floor. I limited myself to six half-pints and so was able to sample six different traditional ales. Most of them ranged in ABV (alcohol by volume, roughly ½ of “proof”) from 4.5 to 6% but I couldn’t resist trying out one 9% brew; which was tasted terrible – too sweet and syrupy.
The names given to beers are often very entertaining: one called “Nelson’s Revenge” was promoted with paper bicorn hats that were being worn by many attendees (see picture). Zany hats were rather the norm, for some reason. Other fun names included: Dive Bomber, Cakewalk, Tanglefoot, Icy Maiden, Celtic Queen, Oscar Wilde Mild, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Bitter.
Unlike typical conventions where there are many booths but little seating, many wooden picnic tables were provided and so there were places to sit and relax with your ale, food, and friends. Nonetheless, after three hours of fun and with tired legs, I picked up a complimentary carrying bag for my glass and headed home.

The Emperor Hadrian

Yesterday our “Chance of Rain” forecast really meant “All Rain”. It was a good day, then, to go the British Museum for the “Hadrian, Empire and Conflict” special exhibition. Of course, many others had the same idea and it is high tourist season, so the museum was packed.
Some of you may recall that I went to the special exhibition of Chinese terra cotta soldiers at the British Museum almost a year ago. That really was a special exhibition, getting to see 14 of the famous clay soldiers up close. Yesterday’s exhibit, about the Roman emperor who ruled from 117-138 AD, was interesting but lacked a certain something. These special exhibits are all about revenue: £12 entry fee, plus £3.5 for the audio tour, plus corporate sponsorship income. Perhaps museums start to rely on that income and therefore there’s constant pressure to have more and more of these exhibits, and suddenly they’re, well, less special. I’m just not sure the Hadrian exhibition, while interesting, was that special.

Hadrian is well-known here in England for building Hadrian’s Wall, a Great Wall of China-type fortification, across 73 miles in the country’s north. He became emperor at a time of many little rebellions at the Roman Empire’s fringes and much internal dissent and he ruthlessly created order. He also had a keen interest in architecture and had many iconic buildings built, including the Pantheon in Rome and his massive “villa”, which included 30 buildings and covered 250 acres, at Tivoli, outside Rome.

He was besotted with his young, male Greek lover, Antinous, and overcome with grief when the boy fell into the Nile and died during a trip to Egypt. Hadrian mourned him for eight years, the rest of his life. The timing of his death coincided with an Egyptian religious event and Antinous was soon deified, with statues of him as a god and temples to him sprinkled around the empire, which Hardian encouraged. His worship was said to rival Christianity in some areas.
As is usual at the British Museum, the exhibit was handsome and well-curated. It included statuary, amphorae, maps, and a spectacular model of Hadrian’s villa. It was pleasant and educational and 90 minutes well-spent.

The Sunday Roast

The Sunday Roast is a traditional English main meal served on Sundays (usually in the early afternoon, at lunchtime), consisting of roasted meat, roasted potatoes, vegetables, and gravy. It’s popular throughout the UK, though I’ve read that it’s in decline. My observation is that it’s mostly served at pubs, perhaps to induce folks to come in for a drink on a Sunday.
I’ve been going to the Hope Tap pub here in Reading for their Sunday Roast now and then. The pub is part of a national chain called Wetherspoons and it gets a lot of grief for being too corporate and bland. It does lack a certain charm and the food can smack a bit too much of the steam table, but it’s also very consistent, they offer a number of good traditional ales, and the service is excellent. Their Sunday Roast (beef, pork, or chicken) only costs 6.59 GPB and that includes your drink, so it’s a good deal.
For that amount, you get a large plate with half a roasted chicken (two breasts on the bone, so no pressed "mystery meat"), four large roasted potatoes, about 3-cups of veges (green peas, carrots, broccoli), gravy, dressing, and Yorkshire Pudding. The latter is not pudding at all; it’s a type of baked good, a sort of hollowed-out, cupcake-shaped dinner roll.
The accompanying photo shows a beef roast with mashed potatoes but it gives you the idea. There are three Yorkshire Puddings on the plate at the right end.
By any measure, it’s a boatload of food and generally pretty tasty. The Hope Tap is big, open, and comfortable and it’s very pleasant to eat my Sunday Roast, drink my pint, and spend a hour or more reading the Sunday paper there.

The Museum of Reading

The Town Hall in central Reading includes a conference center, tourist information center, concert hall, and a very nice museum. With temperatures pushing 80-degrees, rare high humidity, and the British penchant to eschew air conditioning, including in my flat, a tour of the museum today seemed perfect.
And it was. The free museum is a little jewel, nicely laid out on several floors with some excellent exhibits. A large one covers the finds at the ruins of the ancient Roman walled city of Calleva, in nearby Silchester. Another features a 70-meter long copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Battle of Hastings, which brought William the Conqueror to power in 1066. One exhibit is devoted to the famous Huntley & Palmers Biscuit company.

I spent a very pleasant two hours there and was able to see just about everything. That’s quite a satisfying accomplishment compared to visiting a place such as the British Museum, where one feels a lifetime might not be long enough to see it all.
The Museum of Reading is very well arranged for use by children and has a surprising number of "join-in" opportunities. For example, at the start of the Bayeux Tapestry, there was a royal robe, crown, and throne, with a sign inviting you to put on the garments, take a seat on the throne, and view yourself in the nearby full-length mirror. In the "Box Room", visitors are encouraged to touch collection items, from preserved animals to Roman pots to a hippo skull.
The history of Reading was detailed in a short video, which I found very interesting. It included tales of Vikings, Romans, Kings, and battles. I learned a lot I did not know: for example, Reading had, from 1121-1539 the largest abbey in England, larger even than Westminster Abbey in London. The King visited often and Parliament convened there several times, pilgrims came from everywhere, and King Henry I was buried there. But when Henry VIII decided abbeys were hotbeds of political/religious dissent, he ejected the monks and had the abbey dismantled, around 1540! Just a few ruins still exist today and the Town Hall itself stands inside the old abbey grounds.

Reading went on in the 18-20th centuries to become a major trading center and was renowned for its brewery, brickmaking, seeds, and biscuits. Yes, the British "biscuit", which kind of covers the spectrum of products Americans call crackers and cookies. And Huntley & Palmers, for 150 years, made biscuits in Reading, becoming a cornerstone of British culture and shipping their wares worldwide. Their exhibit told the story that, when the first European adventurers finally made it to Tibet, they were welcomed with tea and a tin of Huntley & Palmers biscuits.

So, the museum was a very fine destination for today: not at all crowded, air-conditioned, and full of interesting exhibits. In future posts, I’ll have to see what other nuggets like it are in hidden locally.

But Does The Queen Know?

I mentioned earlier in this blog that plans for the US restaurant chain Hooters to expand in the UK was causing some protest. I also mentioned that there we already four of them here and that they’d been doing business quietly without ruining their neighborhoods.
I didn’t know how close they were, though! I discovered during a visit to nearby Windsor that Hooters was already well-established in the major pedestrian shopping mall there, just down the hill from Windsor Castle (you can click the picture for a larger view):

Billy Elliot, The Musical

Yesterday I went into London and, with a visiting friend, went to see the musical Billy Elliot. It’s been running for the past three years at the Victoria Palace theatre, a great old place, very ornate, but with comfortable seats, good sightlines, and even air conditioning. The music for the show was composed by Elton John and had the sound and feel of his work rather than that of more traditional musical theatre scores. Of course, thanks to Lloyd Weber and company, what is traditional anymore?
The show’s story is that of a 12-year old boy from a coal mining family caught up in England’s 1984 Coal Miners Strike and his interest in becoming a ballet dancer and getting into the Royal Ballet School. So there’s plenty of strike warfare and family tension fronting rags-to-riches and homophobia themes. And, oh yes, Billy’s mom’s ghost appears periodically to urge him to follow his dreams. Schmaltz galore!
The performances were very good and the production is of a very high quality. The set design was clever, with lots of sliding wagons and under-stage elevators, and they even got in some faux snowfall. There was, of course, a huge amount of dancing and it was fun to see. Ballet, tap, and jazz – the cast looked like they were having a ball.
Our performance’s Billy was a fellow with a lot of gymnastic skill and many of his dance numbers included thinly-disguised tumbling runs; entertaining all the same, though. There was even an aerial bit but the all too obvious cable took much away from it. 
The title role is shared among four different child actors in rotation and the program revealed there have been 15 Billy’s in the last three years. Eight young girls perform as Billy’s classmates at the local ballet school and there’s an assortment of other children in the cast, as well. So – a good family show, eh? Well, no. First, there’s a ton of expletives in the script, coming out everyone’s mouths and, second, the teenage gender-orientation angst the script dwells on might be a bit much for younger kids. Definitely not Disney approved despite the feel-good setting.
The show was entertaining enough that the three hours (with one intermission) went by quickly. We sat in the Stalls (Orchestra) about 15 rows back and under the balcony but the sound system was excellent and we could hear every word, said or sung. We also had a good view of the slightly raked stage floor and the dancers’ feet – especially important for appreciating good tap.
The curtain call started out very weirdly with a clumsy cast bow and then went into what looked like a gratuitous dance number/encore they couldn’t fit in anywhere else. However, that soon became the real curtain call with individual, ensemble, and full cast bows. Despite the Elton John score, there was no signature song that we left the theatre humming.
There’s quite a good website for the show here: Billy Elliot The Musical

You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog

As I may have mentioned, the nightlife here in Reading can be pretty strange. I encountered this group, assembling for a night on the town, yesterday evening and couldn’t resist taking their picture. If you can’t tell, except for the fellow all in white, they’re all wearing plastic Elvis hair, sideburns, and sunglasses.
They graciously asked me if I wanted to join them but I figured I’d just slow them down. 
It’s not too surprising, I guess. I’ve seen advertisements for several "Elvis Impersonator" shows that are touring Great Britain. More proof that some American “traditions” can be found clogging up many other cultures.
This reminds me of my days in Los Angles, many years ago, when I worked on a show called Elvis Forever featuring a fellow who claimed to be the "top Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas". It amazed me that middle-aged women in the audience would shriek like 10-year old girls and go nuts over this shortish guy onstage who really didn’t look at all like Elvis. But he could sing, and that show ran for months to packed houses.
During that project I, sadly, had to become intimately familiar with the entire Elvis oeuvre, watching all the movies and listening to the songs day after day to prepare and then hearing them again rehearsal after rehearsal for weeks. It took years to get all of those songs out of my head.
But I guess, compared to some of the brutal and demeaning genres of music popular today, such as gangsta rap, Elvis is sheer genius and as gentlemanly as it gets.

Jesters Do Oft Prove Prophets

I’ve just finished reading a biography of William Shakespeare, written by Bill Bryson. As you may know, Bryson is an American raised in England and the author of several well-received books, including A Walk in the Woods, his absolutely hilarious account of his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail.
His biography of Shakespeare is well-written, very well-researched, and clears the air of the many myths, exaggerations, and lies about the great poet and playwright. Based on many official records, including those extant from Shakespeare’s time, it also offers an interesting look at Elizabethan and Jacobean England and the role of theatre in society.
One of the most interesting things this book reveals is the enormous contribution to English made by Shakespeare. He made up a surprising number of words and phrases for use in his works that have survived to become common usage today. Do you recognize any of these, first found in Shakespeare?
Antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany. And countless others, including countless.
From the book: “He was particularly prolific when it came to attaching un- prefixes to existing words that no one had thought of before: unmask, unhand, unlock, untie, unveil and no fewer than 309 others in a similar vein”.
And how about these phrases: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, remembrance of things past, cold comfort, to thine own self be true, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, tower of strength, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance, foregone conclusion.
Fascinating! Bryson reckons Shakespeare single-handedly "produced roughly one tenth of all the most quotable utterances written or spoken in English since its inception". Bryson also, I think, lays to rest with authority, the question “was Shakespeare really written by Shakespeare.” I admit to having my thinking on this matter changed by the book (yes, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote it all).
For those of you who, like me, have a theatre background, many of the things Bryson writes about will have a particular resonance.
This is a short book (just 200 pages), is an interesting and engaging read, and has been on the Best Sellers list in the US for a while. I heartily recommend it to you!

Imagine If I’d Chosen “Expedited Delivery”

Before coming to the UK, I was a frequent Internet shopper and an regular L.L. Bean customer. This last is partially due to the fact that I have an 18-inch neck and LLB is one of the few places where I can buy dress and sports shirts in that size without paying a horrendous premium. The unforseen side-effect of going to the gym too much.
So it was that, before leaving the US, I was careful to take note that LLB does ship to foreign customers. Three weeks ago, I decided to buy a few shirts, etc. from them and see how it worked. The upshot is I will not be buying anything that way again. Here’s why:
My goods cost $144, plus $35 for “International Airmail Shipping and Handling”, for a $179 total. Yesterday I received a letter from Parcel Force (the UPS-like branch of the Royal Mail Service here) notifying me of their intent to deliver a parcel shipped to me, from Sweden.
Sweden? A phone call or two revealed that this was, in fact, my L.L. Bean package coming to me from Maine, USA, via Sweden. Well, that’s certainly odd but, OK. And, by the way, there is a £32 Customs Duty fee due. That’s $64!
So my order actually cost me $144 + $35 shipping + $64 import duty, for a whopping $243! So, basically it cost me $100 to get $144 of merchandise here. So that will be my last L.L. Bean order from here.
In fairness to the folks from Maine, their website did clearly say on the last screen where you submit your order, that “Recipient is responsible for all local taxes and fees” or something like that. So, they did warn me. 
What I’d like to know is, does anyone ever place a second international order?

And Hot Dogs, Too

A very happy 4th of July, Independence Day, greeting to all the "former colonials" in my audience. My British acquaintances here (and even strangers, such as bartenders who pick up on my American accent) are well-aware that the 4th of July is a big holiday in the United States and many have mentioned it and wished me well today.
They’ve even taken my little joke about going down to the Thames and tossing in a few commemorative tea bags with good humor (although I wonder if the younger folks actually know anything about the Boston Tea Party).
I’ve been more struck by the fact that my acquaintances here seem very sympathetic that I’m not home for this big holiday. In reality, though, I categorize Thanksgiving and Christmas well ahead of the 4th of July as family-oriented holidays.
Somewhere today I’m sure expat Americans are gathering (probably in London) for a big party but the Internet was useless in helping me find out about it. Another case of an Internet search returning waaay too much information, much of it only loosely-related to the desired results.
Light up a sparkler for me, my friends, and I’ll be thinking of the Red, White, and Blue.