Sunday, 30 October 2011

Two Paintings and The Killing of Sister George

UPDATE: 2nd November, 2011

I have sadly discovered that The Killing of Sister George should now be read as the killing of "The Killing of Sister George" .  This illustrates the famous maxim: carpe diem or in other words seize the day.  If you want to see a play and it's on, see it then and there!

Also, there appears to be some confusion regarding the dates of the picture description sessions at the Whitechapel Gallery.  One of the party on Saturday has sent me dates (hard copy) in the post which appear to conflict with the Whitechapel Gallery's website.  It may be best to call Sarah Barrett on 020-7522-7888 to check dates and to book a place.  The sessions are all the same.

Further to my quick visit to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), I contacted someone who introduced me to portraits and we exchanged a few words about my trip.  The following is an excerpt:

I am so pleased to hear that they looked after you at the NPG and that Ramsay was there for you to see!

Thanks so much for your kind words, and, remember: The importance of a portrait lies not only in its "look" but also in what it tells us about the time from which it comes. With that in mind, vision is only one part of understanding a work.

The painting which was studied in the Art Through Words programme at the National Gallery in London )
on 29 October was Interior by Vilhelm Hammershoi.  (
 Having described the Anton Henning exhibition in Edinburgh, also entitled Interior, as visual overload this Interior is very much in the dark, monochromatic and minimalist stereotype of the Scandinavian.  Hammershoi painted this in 1899 so there is an element of the Fin de Siecle doom and gloom with the approach to the new century. 

Jo and Clair started by doing the layout of the painting with dimensions and positions of the figures; two doors, a table, a stove, two chairs and the back view of a woman (Hammershoi’s wife Ida)  My peripheral vision picked out the vertical lines of the doors and the stove.  The position of the woman was in line with the stove and I could only make out her neck and what seemed like the edge of a white apron and waist straps. 

Jo led a discussion on set designs and the plays of Ibsen.  Was the woman reading a letter, telegram or photo?  I mentioned Hedda Gabbler, someone else mentioned Ghosts and Jo mentioned A Dolls House.  This was my cue for the Arcola Theatre production where I was sitting near a tipped over chair.  Many of those attending the session chipped in with their comments and the later stroll through the National Gallery gives one the chance to chat to other visually impaired people.  One was going to the British Museum talk in connection with Grayson Perry and another had been to a talk for the visually impaired at the Whitechapel Gallery.  (

A big thanks to the National Gallery for the Art through Words programme. 

After “looking” at the Hammershoi painting I was in need of a portrait and on leaving the gallery turned left three times and went into the National Portrait Gallery.  I had not been in the NPG since I lost my sight 10 years ago.   The last time I visited the NPG was on the occasion of an exhibition of Allan Ramsay.  I mentioned this to Rebecca, who approached me on entering the gallery and I asked if I could meet Mr Ramsay.  Rebecca told me about the NPG’s latest exhibition as we went to the room where there is a portrait of Ramsay as well as one of Samuel Johnson. She mentioned the programme the NPG offers to the visually impaired  ( and then showed me out another way and gave me directions to the theatre ticket information booth. 

For matinees in reasonable “finding” locations I had a choice of: 39 Steps, a play by Arthur Miller or The Killing of Sister George. I opted for the latter, a play by Frank Marcus which was made into a film starring Beryl Reid and Susannah York.  The Killing of Sister George is playing at the Arts Theatre (between Charing Cross Road and St Martins Lane. Tube is Leicester Square)  Meera Syal plays June Buckridge (George), Helen Lederer plays the Fortune Teller, Belinda Lang plays Mrs Mercy Croft and Alice is played by  Elizabeth Cadwallader.  (

I found the theatre after walking round the block and the “anteroom” seems as if it as a modern pub chain of the sofa, coffee table and bar stool variety.  I bought a ticket, got a coffee and on getting  up to enter the auditorium was asked if I needed any assistance.  I was shown to an aisle seat some three rows in the stalls.  My neighbour kindly explained the set to me.  During the interval another neighbour asked if I wanted a drink from the bar.  I also enjoyed the interval chat with 3 ladies, some 20 years younger than me, who were shocked by the violence. During the interval my reproduction of Hammershoi’s painting rolled away and ended up on the stage as a prop!

Regarding the play I enjoyed it for what it is: a comedy.  The fortune teller is supposed to be hammy, two faced and a horror and sounds well played by Helen Lederer.  Belinda Lang portrays a scheming BBC apparatchik from the 1960s and the scene over scones with the references to dropped scones, girdle scones and pancakes complete with Mrs McNaught’s recipe for scones (bicarbonate of soda plus crème of tartar) sounds as fresh as a 1960s Ambridge baking competition. 

Frank Marcus wrote the play in 1964 and the film appeared some 5 years later.  I remember the shock at the time when the  film opened and it appeared from the matinee audience that it still provokes both shock horror and laughter in proportion.  I could only make out some of the movement on the stage so can’t comment on the visual detail. It sounded fine from my seat.   If you like the radio productions of Simon Brett and Mark Tavener you will enjoy this production.  If, however, you are only familiar with the Beryl Reid performance then you may be disappointed with Meera Syal.  If you do not follow The Archers you may miss out on some of the references.  For those lamenting the “Killing of Nigel” in The Archers there may be some sympathy for a much loved radio soap character.  Aristophanes could be cruel in comedy and if you enjoyed Clouds or Lysistrata you will enjoy this production. 

As usual many thanks to the public in London and the staff from Leicester Square and Green Park tube stations. 

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Pushkin: Queen of Spades - Fusebox Productions at Arcola Theatre

Previous posts have discussed the making of literature accessible to the visually impaired and the effort that makes a visit to the theatre so much more enjoyable than listening to an audio book.  The current row over the new Kindle’s lack of text to speech facility can make one go into “Sour Grapes” mode.  While I have enjoyed some of the RNIB Talking Books containing Russian literature, the drama can be very hard work so an accessible performance can be a real treat.  I have posted on Chekhov at the National Theatre where I saw The Cherry Orchard and the Arcola Theatre where I saw the Sea Gull.  On Twitter, I found out that Fusebox Productions ( )  were doing Pushkin’s Queen of Spades at the Arcola Theatre.  (

In 1975 I visited the Pushkin Estate which is to the south of Pskov.  Pskov had been a restricted city of the Soviet Union and I was part of a joint British Council and National Union of Students group to visit Moscow, Leningrad (St Petersburg) and Pskov.  At that time tourists were a novelty in Pskov and we were very well treated.  My visit to the Pushkin Estate gave me an interest in some Russian literature and the other works which they inspired.  ( , )

Pushkin’s story about the Queen of Spades was transformed into an opera of the same name by Tchaikovsky.  This opera was recently reviewed on BBC Radio3 in the CD Review in Building a Library.  Interestingly the opera performance rated most highly was an old 1950s recording on reissue with all of Tchaikovsky (60 CDs) by Brilliant Classics.

Fusebox Theatre has worked the story into a drama with 3 actors in 80 minutes using rhyming couplets, a lot of movement and a lot of “visual”.  This latter point did not put me off as the words express the whole story and there is enough commentary to keep the story going. 

The theme of the story is betting, putting everything on the turn of a card and a coin.  Avarice and greed just about sum it up and this production is as relevant to today’s financial woes and the bankers using funds as casino chips and so called financial instruments being no better than the old “Three card trick”. Games of cards are often covered in novels and other fiction.  E. F. Benson has Miss Mapp losing at bridge, Fleming has James Bond playing Baccarat in Casino Royale, Agatha Christie has Poirot working a murder mystery after a game of bridge and Aunt Dahlia was always losing her shirt in the Wodehouse stories. 

Benjamin Way carries most of the back story, giving an energetic performance and letting the script tease out what humour there is naturally.  This is no hammy performance.  The roles of Countess and skivvy were also well played and all three have to handle the props.  I probably missed a few of the visual gags, though I think the lady to my left found the performance more hilarious than many of the audience.  My peripheral vision picked quite a lot of the stage action and I found my White Stick useful in “examining” the discarded cards at the very end.  Herman had the 3, the 7 but did he get the Ace? Go “see” it!

Note: For more information on Pushkin, contact Pushkin House in London at

Monday, 24 October 2011

Blind Chemist out and about with the Royal Society of Chemistry

Blind Chemist out and about with the Royal Society of Chemistry
I have been a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry since the 1980s, though since I lost my sight 10 years ago had made little contact until a few months ago.  I was shocked to be told by the librarian at Burlington House that I was only the second blind person she had met at the society in 18 years.  I have since been to the RSC for some of their public debates, lectures and presentations. 

Working a room at a conference or symposium is no easy matter.  For a start, I can’t read a name badge and even though I “stick” out like a sore thumb, unless I am known to other attendees tend to be diffident or even want to take you to a chair thus stopping you ‘working the room’.  There is also usually the 50% chance of getting the name tag the wrong way round. 

It was pleasant to be greeted with my name badge on the occasion of the lecture given by Sir John Cadogan who had won the Lord (Jack) Lewis prize.  I remember JIGC when I was at Edinburgh and he was Forbes Professor of Organic Chemistry.  In the 1970s lectures were given without the aid of projectors and Power Point and one admired the way JIGC could fill in several blackboards with perfect “Benzene Rings”.  To the uninitiated these are perfect hexagons.  I could never draw organic chemistry molecules very well which is the reason I went on to do my PhD in inorganic chemistry. 

Sir John’s talk was partly reflective and partly anecdotal.  Chatham House rules probably do not apply but the criticism of sound bite science policy is certainly one that ought to be heeded.  I particularly enjoyed the barb about Genome Valley during the Blair years.  Sir John has many views on the pseudo-sciences and I regret that so much of public discourse on science is now dominated by History of Science, economics sciences and some of the very soft sciences. 

Sir John referred to Peripheral Vision several times in his lecture and though critical of interdisciplinary approaches to research, maintains that there ought to be a multidisciplinary approach.  To paraphrase Lord (George) Porter “Pure Science is Science which has yet to have an application.”

On the whole, a very interesting evening and a chance to meet some old friends from my Edinburgh days. 

Sir John left academia and joined British Petroleum when the company still undertook research.  The question of directing pure scientific research is something that many in government never understood.  In terms of putting a price or cost on anything, the Blair years have been criticized for measuring anything without having a sense of what they were measuring.  I noted that Matthew Taylor, in an interview on radio, took great exception at this level of criticism.  During the discussions the questions of both serendipity and luck were mentioned.  How do you measure these? Discuss!

On a lighter note, though with serious implications, was the RSC talk on “What’s in my Stuff”  This was given by Dr Hywel Jones at the Chemistry Centre at the Royal Society of Chemistry in Burlington House.  The research had been motivated by asking people in the street if they knew what went into a mobile ‘phone.  The non- scientists had an excuse for not knowing though the audience had some problem in answering the question “How many chemical elements are in a mobile phone?”  In what became a cross between Bingo and an auction the answer is 40.  I had guessed 27, so was getting there, though someone had read an article about Rare Earths in Time some months ago.  Being a Main Group Inorganic Chemist I had not worked with any of the Rare Earths but had isolated a novel compound with Germanium in it.  I can be heard muttering Tantalum and Yttrium as people tried to guess what “stuff” went into a phone. 

On average, there are 1.3 mobile ‘phones per head in the UK.  I have 3 Nokia button mobile phones which have been dropped and have had coffee sprayed at them, but still talk to me.  A case of reuse and recycle the phone rather than isolate the elements therein. 

For the benefit of those using a screen reader, I am going to be talking about jeans, the trouser variety and not the DNA stuff.  I heard on the radio that there were more pairs of jeans in the world than people.  Another case of “What’s in my stuff?”  There has been a proposal to use titanium dioxide impregnated on jeans (trouser variety) in a move to reduce pollution in ambient air when moving about.  There is an ‘echo’ of Sir John’s lecture when he commented that not enough pure chemistry research was done in heterogeneous catalysis.  Good old titanium dioxide is used as white pigment in paint and toothpaste and its use as a household chemical is well known.  I mentioned this at the RSC and they confirmed that interest was shown in the fashion industry and that a photo shoot had been done in London.  One idea is that a laundry product could “impregnate” the Jeans (trouser variety).  At this point it might be worthwhile checking up on the etymology of “Denim Jeans”

(you might hear me say 27 at around 28:05-10 mins! Also Yttrium & Tantalum later.)

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Leamington Lift Bridge: a bridge over the Union Canal in Edinburgh

On account of some software problems during my summer in Edinburgh, an interview which I did with a member of staff at the Leamington Lift Bridge on the Union Canal in Edinburgh had been mislaid (we didn’t have the right cable at the time). 

I had approached the Waterways office inquiring about boat trips on the canal itself (you have to go to Ratho or Linlithgow to pick these up).  I spoke to some tourists who had taken two days to travel by canal boat from Falkirk (the Falkirk Wheel) and they told me of the Leamington Bridge.  I had never heard of it but years ago had driven across the bridge which was then just a bridge over a disused canal.   
I had heard about the reopening of the canal basin – a museum is planned – and this part of Edinburgh, Tollcross/Fountainbridge, is near the Edinburgh financial district.  A lot has changed over the years and this can be detected in my vague memories of the canal going back to the 1960s.  I found it strange trying to figure in landmarks with the current A to Z used by a sighted person.  All became clear when it was explained that the meat market entrance had been moved in one of the redevelopments.  The Edinburgh Canal Basin might yet not have the cache of Little Venice, but the location should be attractive when all the amenities are up and running. 

From my diary entry, we had a very nice lunch at Lock25 (  To those who were in Edinburgh during the 1970s, this was the notorious Clachan Bar at the junction of Fountainbridge and
Ponton Street

Additional links:

On this post, are some photographs taken of a canal boat passing under the Leamington Bridgewhich is lifted. You can hear Don from the canal explaining some of the history and mechanism of the Scottish Waterways part of the British Waterways canal system. This is the first time I’ve included photographs and a sound interview which was taken with Don’s permission during the summer on 17th August.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Things to see, places to go in London

The following information has been taken from a social group and includes some events in central London which may be of interest to those in the area.  From time to time, I will post these in the blog.  If anyone has an event which they feel is of interest to readers of this blog, please contact me by leaving a comment.  If deemed suitable, I will incorporate it into a post.
Kensington Site Village

Queen Alexander College (QAC), a national college for people with visual impairment is holding its Sight Village

At: Kensington Town Hall, Hornton Street, W8 7NX
On: 1st November, 10am – 4.30pm and 2nd November, 10am – 4pm.

QAC Sight Village events are the UK’s largest exhibition of technology, equipment and support services for people who are blind or partially sighted.

There is no charge for this event and volunteer guides will be available to help you go around the exhibition.


Bloomsbury Festival
21st – 23rd October 2011

More than 150 events are being held over this three day festival. The complete programme is available on the festival’s website 


Handling at the British Museum
Monday 31st October 2011, 10am-12.30pm

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

The British Museum has arranged a handling session for visually impaired audiences led by the artist Grayson Perry in response to his new exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman.

Places are limited. Phone or email Access and Equality Manager Jane Samuels on 020 7323 8506; to reserve a free place.

Meet by the Information Desk in the Great Court at 10am.

The British Museum, Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG.


National Gallery

Art Through Words

Sessions for blind and partially sighted visitors

Meet at the Sainsbury Wing Information Desk at 11.30am on the last Saturday of the month. Admission is free.

Each session begins with a detailed verbal description of a painting, and ends with a visit to the Gallery.  For more information Tel: 020 7747 5820 or email:

Saturday 29th October, 11.30am – 12.45pm
Vilhelm Hammershoi: ‘Interior’.

This Danish artist, who lived from 1864 to 1916, painted portraits, landscapes and many room interiors which frequently contained a single figure that was seated or standing.

Saturday 26th November, 11.30am -12.45pm
The Workshop of Albrecht Durer: ‘The Virgin and Child (“The Madonna with the Iris”)’.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was a German painter, engraver, mathematician and theorist from Nuremberg. His prints established his reputation across Europe when he was still in his twenties, and he has been conventionally regarded as the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance ever since.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN.


Geffrye Museum

Handling Sessions for Blind and Partially Sighted Visitors

A Tudor and Stuart Christmas

The Geffrye explores the home over the past 400 years, from around 1600 to the present day. The museum holds monthly object handling sessions or talks.

The next session is on Wednesday 30th November, 2-3.30pm, where you can explore Tudor and Stuart Christmas celebrations, sample food and drink, enjoy some festive treats and make your own pomander. This session is repeated on Friday 9th December, also from 2-3.30pm.

136 Kingsland Road
City of London
E2 8EA
020 7739 9893

Hours: Mon Closed; Tue-Sat 10:00 am – 5:00 pm; Sun 12:00-5:00 pm
Subway: Old Street
Rail : Hoxton (London Overground


Theatre highlights: Audio described performances

Inadmissible Evidence
Saturday 12 November – 2.30pm (Touch Tour: 1.30pm)
Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, WC2H 9LX
Price: £15
Bookings: 020 7845 5822

Bill Maitland, a middle aged lawyer, struggles to avoid the harsh truths of his life and keep a hold on reality. As those closest to him begin to draw away, he puts himself on trial to fight for his sanity. John Osbourne’s portrait of loss, betrayal and defeat.

Mamma Mia!
Wednesday 16 November – 7.30pm (Touch Tour: TBC)
Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street, W1D 6AS
Price: £35
Bookings: 0844 482 5165

On the eve of her wedding, a daughter’s quest to discover the identity of her father brings three men from her mother’s past to the island they last visited 20 years ago … Inspired by the storytelling magic of ABBA’s songs, Mamma Mia!’s tale of family and friendship unfolds on a Greek Island paradise.

Million Dollar Quartet
Friday 25 November – 8pm (Touch Tour: 6.15pm)
Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4AU
Price: £25
Bookings: 0844 482 5165

With over 20 classic hits, including ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘I Walk The Line’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’, this show is inspired by the true story of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and the night his ‘million dollar quartet’ of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis played together for the first and only time.

The Mousetrap
Saturday 10 December – 4pm (Touch Tour: 2pm)
St Martin’s Theatre, West Street, WC2H 9NZ
Price: £20
Bookings: 020 7836 1443

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has kept audiences guessing for five decades!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Culture on the London Overground

The London Overground has proved to be very useful in getting about in and around London.  Recently I was approached by one of the staff offering some assistance.  I had been wondering for a while about changing lines at Highbury and Islington so asked if Canonbury might be simpler.  London Overground radioed ahead and I was met at Canonbury and shown the lifts and footbridge.  From my point of “view” it is easier to change to the East London Line section at Canonbury.  You may have to be non-sighted and a bit of a transport nerd to appreciate this!  I am beginning to make sense of Whitechapel and have done the switch to Southern at West Croydon; you stay on the platform and listen.

There are close on 100 cultural sites and sights to visit and enjoy around the London Overground.* (

Recently I have been to Richmond Theatre.  The theatre is on Richmond Green and is a short walk from the railway station which is well served by the District Line, Overground and SWT.  There is a side exit which avoids the steps otherwise the station approach is near a zebra crossing and if you cross the road and turn left any lane on the right hand side will take you to Richmond Green. 

Richmond Theatre ( has been lovingly restored and has a mixed rep (reputation and repertoire).  With matinees twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday it is well worth checking out.   The theatre has front stall seats which come with a warning “May have to look up”.  These seats are not the most sought after, though I found them suitable.  There is legroom and I enjoyed the proximity to the stage as my peripheral vision could make enough, though I had to use sunglasses with the glare of the lighting. 

Recently I went to see Keeler by Gill Adams.  This is a play about Christine Keeler and the role of Keeler was played by Alice Coulthard.  The part of Stephen Ward was played by Paul Nicholas, who also produced and directed the play.  I can just about remember the Profumo affair which erupted in 1963 and involved the usual kiss and tell stories, corruption and politics.  Knowing the back story there was no problem following the plot.  Stephen Ward was not a likeable character and few of the other roles are portrayed as such.  Keeler is hardly the “tart with a heart”  Some of the scene changes are captioned but the dialogue can differentiate between Cliveden, Dolphin Square and a coffee bar off the Edgware Road.

Another play I saw on 8th October was Tartuffe by Moliere.  This production was performed by English Touring Theatre (ETT) and is based on an adaptation by Roger McGough from Liverpool. This production is performed in rhyming couplets and just approaches an unacceptable level of ham and pastiche and withdraws.  It is very well performed and though some of the jokes are “truly awful” there is enough of the Mel Brooks and dare I say “Carry on” comedy to carry the plot forward.  On hearing one of the actors playing the maid Dorine, I whispered “That sounds like Kirsty from The Archers”.  I was suitably silenced but on the way back home on the London Overground the programme was duly checked and I was vindicated.  Annabelle Dowler played Dorine and very well too.   I can’t put a face to some politicians and actors and not having a television makes one clueless with some of the soap stars.  The rest of the cast were very good including: Joseph Alessi, Eithne Browne, Simon Coates, Rebecca Lacey and Colin Tierney in the part of Tartuffe.  A very enjoyable production. 

Camden Arts Centre ( is near Finchley Road and Frognal Station and is not far from Finchley Road Underground station.  Bus stops for 13, 113 and 82 are near.  I recently went to a talk on the exhibition of the work of Mathilde Rosier.  This was moderated by the writer Deborah Levy.  One of the works I liked was ‘Regard, don’t le jaune 2011’.  Rosier has an admiration of birds especially owls and much of her work involves triangles.  I can usually pick up geometrical shapes and though I can paint blur I can’t  see it. One of the installations involved a masked ball event.  On wearing a mask many people act in a disinhibited way. This may be familiar to some blind and partially sighted people who can’t pick up some non verbal communication!

On Thursday 6th October I went to the opening of two exhibitions at Camden Arts Centre.  Haroon Mirza has an installation “I Saw Square Triangle Sine” In case you are sighted this is NOT a typo. I did not mean sign. (Those using a screenreader will know)   Haroon Mirza was introduced by Lisa Le Feuvre who is Head of Sculpture Studies at the Henry Moore Institute.  Haroon Mirza works with sound a lot and we were encouraged to add to the noise or was it sound of the installation. I would encourage any person with sight loss to try this out.  We have to triangulate with close attention to sound and noise.  I was able to chip in with a remark about noise attenuation which impressed the less geometrical in the crowd for a nanosecond.  I found Mirza’s work accessible which is more than I can say for ‘A World of Glass’ by Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg.  It must have been the sight of the whitestick as I could sense “concern” as I approached the “glass ware” arrayed on tables.  This part of the installation reminded me of the sculptures in the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow in Poland which I visited in 1975.  There are animated films running in the background and though the sighted may enjoy this installation it somehow left me cold even though the work was explained.  

However, be warned: the website is very visual, requiring you to click on icons.)