Category Archives: UK

Lunch @ Blackfriars

Time for a little smackerel of something 🙂

Decisions, decisions…

Cocktails first 🙂

Lunch comes with a story! 🙂

Blackfriars is the only remaining medieval friary in Newcastle upon Tyne, now housing a restaurant and several craft shops. With its origins dating back to 1239 and a long and turbulent history that included a spell as a hostel to accommodate King Henry III, Blackfriars Restaurant confidently lays claim to being the oldest dining room in the UK.

Blackfriars Restaurant
Blackfriars Restaurant

The Dominican Friars, or Blackfriars, so-called because of their black cloaks, came to Newcastle in the early 13th century. Friars differed in a number of aspects to monks. Monks stayed in monasteries, often in the countryside, and spent their time praying and studying. They had little contact with the outside world and were self-sufficient.

Friars, however, focused on serving the local people through care, preaching and teaching. Friars were supposed to rely on the charity of people and usually had modest buildings, called friaries. The churches that they built were the first ones designed for preaching to large groups of people. Of all the different orders of friars (for example the Franciscans and Carmelites), Dominican Friars in general were the best educated and most fervent preachers.

In the medieval period there were three other orders of friars in Newcastle, including the Augustinian Friars who lived on the site of the Holy Jesus Hospital. Today few examples of friaries survive in the United Kingdom.

Tradition holds that the land for Blackfriars was donated by three sisters, but their names have sadly been forgotten. The original Friary was destroyed by fire in 1248 and rebuilt around 1250. The rebuilding was paid for by the first Mayor of Newcastle, Sir Peter Scott, and his son Nicholas. The scale and extravagance of the new building drew criticism from the General Chapter of the Dominican Order and the Prior (the head) of Blackfriars in Newcastle was forced to leave his post.

In the late 13th century the new Town Wall was built through the Friary’s land. The Friary was granted the right to make a gate through this wall in 1280 so they could access their gardens beyond. This gate can still be seen blocked up in the best preserved section of the Town Wall on Back Stowell Street.

The friars had an orchard and two gardens. The gardens would probably have had different uses, for example a kitchen garden for growing vegetables and a herb garden for growing plants and herbs for medicinal uses.

In 1534 Henry VIII broke England away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy, the power of the Pope. Shortly afterwards he began a programme of religious changes, which included the closing of monasteries and other religious houses in England and Wales, and the transfer of their land and wealth to the Crown. The Prior of Newcastle’s Blackfriars, Richard Marshall, was forced to flee to Scotland in 1536 after speaking out against the King’s religious changes.

In 1539 Newcastle’s Blackfriars surrendered to the Crown. Each one of the friars was given a small payment to help him survive until he found a new occupation.

After an absence of over 300 years, the Dominicans returned to Newcastle in 1860 and opened St. Dominic’s Priory on New Bridge Street in 1873.

Following the closure of Blackfriars in 1539, Henry VIII granted the Friary to the Mayor and Burgesses of Newcastle for a sum of £53 7 shillings and 6 pence.

The church, sacristy and part of the chapterhouse were demolished and a lot of the salvaged materials, such as the stone, timber and lead, were used to build the first lighthouse at Tynemouth and the High and Low Lights at South Shields.

From 1552 the remaining buildings were leased to nine craft guilds, which used the buildings as meeting rooms. They included Blacksmiths, Fullers and Dyers, Bakers and Brewers, Taylors, Cordwainers, Saddlers, Skinners and Glovers, Butchers and Tanners. The guilds continued to use the upper floors of the building until the 19th century. The ground floor was used as almshouses for accommodating the poor and widows of members of the guilds.

Guilds were fraternities of workers involved in a specific trade or craft. They aimed to establish an association for mutual benefit and assistance for members and were similar in some ways to modern trade unions. They also regulated standards for their craft and ensured that every member had a fair chance of selling their wares. They would fine members whose work was not considered to be of good quality so that the high standards were maintained.

Craftsmen were not allowed to practice without having completed an apprenticeship. This took about seven years and was unpaid. The guilds charged admission fees and enforced strict rules in a contract between master and apprentice that was called an indenture.

The guilds carried out a lot of alterations to the buildings. For example, new windows were installed in most of the buildings while the old windows were blocked up over the years and floor levels were altered. Plaques dedicated to these works can be seen around the site. Although the buildings have changed a lot, thanks to the guilds the Friary survived. There are only fifteen medieval friaries left in the United Kingdom.

Guilds became less important as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace and in 1814 the indenture system was abolished. While the guilds still existed and used the buildings occasionally, they no longer had the power they once had and the buildings began to fall into a state of disrepair. Though in a very poor condition, people continued to live there until 1951.

In the 1960s Blackfriars was threatened with demolition. However, the building was saved, largely through the efforts of Alderman Peter Renwick, Mayor of Newcastle in 1963 and 1964 and Sheriff in 1967.

Various plans were considered for the restoration of the buildings, but serious plans were not put forward until a survey in 1973 revealed that unless restoration started in the near future, complete ruin would be unavoidable.

It was recommended that premises for small businesses and craft workshops be created. The work was financed by Tyne and Wear County Council, the Department for Education and the English Tourist Board, at a total cost of £600,000.

During the restoration, archaeological excavations were carried out. The ruins of the church, which can be seen at Blackfriars, were revealed.

In 1980, as part of the celebrations of the 900th anniversary of the founding of Newcastle, H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother visited Blackfriars and unveiled a commemorative plaque. The restoration was completed in 1981.

In the medieval period most towns had defensive walls. Newcastle was an important town in the defence of the north of England against the Scots. In 1265 Henry III gave permission for the town to charge more taxes to fund new defences. The Town Wall was built in the late 13th and 14th centuries and was strengthened during the reign of Edward III (1327-77). The Town Wall was started along Blackett Street and stretched down to the river.

The Blackfriars area has the largest surviving sections of the Town Wall and the remains of four of its defensive towers. The most complete section of the Town Wall can be seen at Stowell Street, along with three towers. The outer ditch has also been excavated and left visible.

Morden Tower, situated behind Stowell Street, is now used as a small music and arts venue. The New Gate was at the junction of Newgate Street and Gallowgate and was one of the main gateways into the medieval town and its numerous markets. Here you would have been able to explore the bustling markets including the Bigg Market, Poultry Market, Groat Market, Wool Market, Iron Market and the Flesh Market. Today it leads down to the new Eldon Square shopping centre entrance and the entertainment complex, The Gate.

Their “strength and magnificence…far passith all the waulls of the cities of England”, Leland (1540)

Town wall along Bath Lane
Town wall along Bath Lane

After the Town Wall was no longer needed for defensive purposes a number of the towers were rebuilt and used by local crafts and guilds. Sections of the wall and towers can also be seen near the train station and near the quayside.

Just outside the Town Wall on Bath Lane is the House of Recovery which was a hospital built by public subscription and was in use until 1888. It was built outside the Town Wall to avoid the spread of disease and treated sufferers of typhus, cholera and smallpox from amongst the poor of the city. The building is not normally open to the public.

In stark contrast to the new shopping buildings stands St Andrew’s, the city’s oldest church. This church has a long and fascinating history dating back to the 12th century. A section of the town wall can be seen in the churchyard.

The Parish Church of St Andrew’s

The Parish Church of St. Andrew is believed to have been founded by King David I of Scotland (reigned 1124-1153) around 1140. The earliest remaining part of the church is the 12th century chancel arch between the altar and the rest of the church.

Over the centuries the building has been altered, enlarged, embellished, damaged and restored although most of its fabric is medieval. The last addition, apart from the vestries, was the main porch near the tower in 1726. Major restorations took place in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The tower dates from 1207 with the belfry added later in the 13th century. During the Civil War (1642-1651) the tower was used as a gun platform and the church suffered a lot of damage from the 1644 siege of Newcastle. Three cannon balls in the church testify to this.

In 1726 a new set of heavier bells were installed in the belfry, which were cast from the old bells and a statue of King James II (r.1685-1688) that was recovered from the River Tyne. However, the weight of the bells and stresses caused by ringing them weakened the construction of the tower so much that regular bell-ringing was stopped after 100 years until the bells were replaced in 1966.

The church contains, amongst others things, one of the finest carved font covers in England, a bell-ringer’s board and two medieval stone basins.

In the churchyard a number of notable people are buried, including composer Charles Avison (1709-1770) and engraver Ralph Beilby (1743-1817). Local architect William Newton (1730-1798) is buried in the church, though his tombstone is now covered by the organ. Newton designed the nearby Charlotte Square, which was built in 1770. This was Newcastle’s first square in the London-style with fashionable Georgian houses around a central garden and was meant for the migrating middle classes. It was named after Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III. Newton himself lived there for 28 years.

Street names can provide us with clues about the history of an area. Around Blackfriars there are some interesting examples.

Stowell Street

William Scott, later Baron Stowell, was a prominent judge in the early 19th century. He is most famous for his judgements on maritime law which are still used as precedent cases today. He was also brother-in-law to Bessie Surtees, who eloped with his brother in 1772 to get married. This street was named in his honour in the mid-1820s.

Dispensary Lane

From the late 18th century until the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 the poor relied on town dispensaries for free medical help. In 1790 Newcastle’s dispensary moved to a site off Low Friar Street, giving Dispensary Lane its name. The dispensary building was knocked down during slum clearances in 1935.

Low Friar Street

This street near the former eastern boundary of Blackfriars dates back to at least the 13th century. Before the 19th century it was called Shod-Friar Chare, referring to the Dominican Friars who wore shoes.

Darn Crook (now St. Andrew’s Street)

The name Darn Crook probably means dark, crooked or twisted lane. It was down this street in 1644 that the Scots breached the Town Wall, under the command of Lieutenant-General Baillie, and invaded the Town. Darn Crook was renamed St. Andrew’s Street in the early 1980s.

The name of this street is a corruption of Gallows Gate, which referred to the road (geat) that was used to bring convicted criminals from Newcastle’s New Gate Jail to the gallows. Since 1480 gallows stood on Newcastle Town Moor, outside of the city gates near Fenham Barracks. Northumbrians, however, had separate gallows outside the West Gate. The last person to be publicly hanged on the Town Moor was Mark Sherwood, who was executed in 1844 for murdering his wife.

Bath Lane
Before plumbing was a common household feature many towns had public medical baths. Newcastle’s baths were built in 1781 near Westgate Road and contained hot, tepid, cold and steam baths. Their main purpose was not for swimming but for getting clean and staying healthy!

Architectural Landmarks in London

It’s World Architecture Day today and little bears are getting ready for their trip to the UK, so it seemed like a good time to look at some of the architectural landmarks of one of their beary favourite cities.

30 St. Mary Axe

Nicknamed the Gherkin (a British colloquialism for pickle) in reference to its rounded form, Foster + Partners’ Stirling Prize–winning construction was built in 2004. Standing 41 stories high, the environmentally conscious building was commissioned by reinsurance provider Swiss Re.

Barbican Estate and Barbican Centre

A classic example of Brutalist architecture and the product of a postwar utopian vision, the concrete complex was designed by young British architect trio Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in the mid-20th century. The site includes the residential Barbican Estate and the Barbican Centre, Europe’s largest multi-arts and conference venue.

Little bears will be going to two concerts at Barbican Centre 🙂

Lloyd’s Building

Richard Rogers’s famous inside-out building is home to insurance company Lloyd’s of London. Taking cues from the Centre Pompidou, this three-tower Bowellist construction features external elevators and service functions, allowing for easy maintenance and flexible, open-plan interiors.

St. Pancras Hotel and Train Station

The St. Pancras train station first opened in 1868 and was followed by the completion of the east and west wings of the neighboring Midland Grand Hotel in 1873 and 1876, respectively. A masterful example of Victorian-era Gothic Revival architecture, the hotel was shut down in 1935 and fell into disrepair until renovations began in the 1990s. The site is now open for business in the form of the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel.

The Shard

Completed in 2012, Renzo Piano’s recognizable Shard building is home to a number of restaurants, offices, a hotel, and a viewing gallery. Inspired by the concept of a vertical city, the over 1,000-foot-tall structure is one of the tallest buildings in Europe.

Globe Theatre

In 1644, Shakespeare’s second Globe Theatre (the original was demolished by his theater company in 1599) was torn down to make way for tenement housing. Lucky for theater and literature buffs, American actor, director, and producer Sam Wanamaker pioneered the creation of a faithful reconstruction of the Elizabethan playhouse that opened to the public in 1997. While historians are not 100 percent certain of the original theater’s design, Wanamaker’s revival is a painstakingly close approximation that includes such 16th-century architectural elements as a water reed thatch roof.

Puffles and Honey on stage at the Globe Theatre
Tower Bridge

London’s iconic 19th century landmark was designed by Sir Horace Jones. Still operational, the bridge is raised approximately 850 times a year. Non-acrophobics can traverse the new glass-floor walkway to experience incredible bird’s-eye views of the city.

Tower Bridge
Houses of Parliament/Big Ben

A trip to London would not be complete without a visit to one of London’s most famous landmarks — the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Weighing in at 13 tons, the clock tower’s bell was cast in 1858 by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

Little bears will complete their trip to London with a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament 🙂

Big Ben and Houses of Parliament
Old Royal Naval College

The Christopher Wren–designed college is the focal point of the historic district of Maritime Greenwich, which is situated along the River Thames. In 1997, UNESCO named the London borough a World Heritage site. And little bears will be spending a whole day exploring Greenwich.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Another historic Sir Christopher Wren building, the cathedral is a prime example of English Baroque architecture. St. Paul’s is also home to a number of murals, mosaics, and sculptures, including Henry Moore’s 1983 work Mother and Child: Hood.

Draper’s Hall

Originally purchased in the 16th century to be the meeting place of Drapers’ guild, the Hall boasts numerous period rooms, many of which maintain their original decor. These include an exquisite Victorian livery hall, a court hall, and a drawing room.

Battersea Power Station

This out-of-commission coal-fired power station is now being redeveloped by Foster + Partners and Gehry Partners. Once complete, the new, cutting-edge complex will feature riverfront housing, shopping, dining, office space, and a hotel.

The £8bn ($13.36bn) redevelopment project for the Battersea Power Station, being implemented in seven phases, is scheduled to go on until 2025.
Benjamin Franklin House

In 1757, the Pennsylvania Assembly sent the Founding Father to England as a colonial agent. He remained there for nearly 16 years, living at 36 Craven Street in London. The house is now the only Franklin residence still in existence. The home is open to visitors as a museum and science and research center.

Westminster Abbey

For over a millennium, the Abbey has been England’s coronation church and has hosted at least 16 royal weddings, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s 2011 nuptials. The church is also home to a number of historic oil and wall paintings, as well as England’s oldest altarpiece.

Westminster Abbey, Royal Entrance
Royal Albert Hall

This still-operational, Grade I–listed music and performance venue had its foundation stone laid by Queen Victoria in 1876. The structure features a storied mosaic frieze, a glazed-iron roof, and a monumental Henry Willis organ.

Royal ALbert Hall
Leadenhall Building

Richard Rogers’s slim and elegant skyscraper at 122 Leadenhall Street was opened in 2014. Currently the tallest building in The Square Mile, the structure—unofficially nicknamed the Cheesegrater—is angled at 10 degrees to protect the skyline views of neighboring architectural landmarks like St Paul’s Cathedral.

City Hall

Designed by Foster + Partners and opened in 2002, the structure is sustainable and almost completely non-polluting. Its bulbous shape allows for optimal energy performance, minimizing direct sun exposure and maximizing shade.

British Library

The national library of the U.K. and one of the largest libraries in the world, the British Library houses such spectacular and rare volumes as a vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible and two 15th century editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and original Beatles song sheets. The library building itself has been given Grade I architectural status.

London Eye

One of London’s most visited attractions, the London Eye — or Millennium Wheel — is a monumental Ferris wheel offering views of the River Thames. It’s the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel and features a 4-D cinema and Champagne bar.

London Eye
Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey seen from London Eye
The Royal Exchange

This luxury shopping center features such high-end stores as Tiffany & Co. and Watches of Switzerland. But what makes this retail destination a must visit is the history of its landmark building. The structure was designed by William Tite in the mid 19th century and was home to Lloyd’s insurance market for approximately 150 years.

Buckingham Palace

London’s 775-room royal residence can be recognized by its ornate exterior gates and bearskin hat–clad guards. The palace is the Queen’s official London home, and Duchess Kate and Prince William have been known to delight royal fans by making appearances on the famous Kensington balcony.

Buckingham Palace
Highgate Cemetery

The serene Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 and features extraordinary examples of funerary architecture and acres of lush greenery. The cemetery’s most notable “resident” is Karl Marx, whose monument is a popular destination for visitors from all over the world.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Also called the Neasden Hindu Temple, this stunning and tranquil destination is an intricate example of Indian design and workmanship. The temple and surrounding grounds are open to the public for both Hindu prayer ceremonies and self-guided visits.

The Jewel Tower

As its name suggests, the Tower was built in the 14th century to house the treasures of Edward III. It is one of only four surviving sections of the medieval Palace of Westminster.

Kensington Palace

Sir Christopher Wren’s Kensington Palace opened in 1899 and was the birthplace of Queen Victoria. The palace is the former home of Princess Diana and the current home of the residences of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. It also houses the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, which is open to the public.

Kensington Palace, King’s Staircase

Mathematician to know: Ada Lovelace

What story are you going to tell us today?

Lucky I know lots of stories! 🙂 How about a story about Ada Lovelace?

Ada Lovelace (née Augusta Byron) was given a famous name before she made her own. Her father was Lord Byron, the bad boy of English Romantic poetry, whose epic mood swings could be topped only by his string of scandalous affairs — affairs with women, men, and his half-sister.

True to character, he was hardly an exemplary father. The first words he spoke to his newly born daughter were, “Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you!”

According to the book Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus, less than a month after the birth of their daughter, Lord Byron informed his wife of his intention to continue an affair with a stage actress and three days later wrote Lady Byron telling her to find a convenient day to leave their home. “The child will of course accompany you,” he added. Soon after, Lord Byron left England and never saw his daughter again. He died when Ada Lovelace was 8.

However brief their time in each other’s company, Lord Byron was ever-present in Lovelace’s upbringing — as a model of what not to be. Lady Byron, herself a mathematical wiz called “Princess of Parallelograms” by Lord Byron, believed a rigorous course of study rooted in logic and reason would enable her daughter to avoid the romantic ideals and moody nature of her father. From the age of 4, Ada Lovelace was tutored in mathematics and science, an unusual course of study for a woman in 19th century England. When Ada became sick with the measles, she was bedridden, only permitted to rise to a sitting position thirty minutes a day. Any impulsive behaviour was systematically ironed out.

Lady Byron (Anne Isabella Milbanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth)

It may have been a strict upbringing, but Lady Byron did provide her daughter with a solid education — one that would pay off when Lovelace was introduced to the mathematician Charles Babbage. The meeting occurred in the middle of her “season” in London, that time when noblewomen of a certain age were paraded around to attract potential suitors. Babbage was forty-one when he made Lovelace’s acquaintance in 1833. They hit it off. And then he extended the same offer to her that he had to so many: come by to see my Difference Engine.

Ada Byron at 17 (~1932)

Babbage’s Difference Engine was a two-ton, hand-cranked calculator with four thousand separate parts designed to expedite time-consuming mathematical tasks. Lovelace was immediately drawn to the machine and its creator. She would find a way to work with Babbage. She would.

Her first attempt was in the context of education. Lovelace wanted tutoring in math, and in 1839, she asked Babbage to take her on as his student. The two corresponded, but Babbage didn’t bite. He was too busy with his own projects. He was, after all, dreaming up machines capable of streamlining industry, automating manual processes, and freeing up workers tied to mindless tasks.

Lovelace’s mother may have tried to purge her of her father’s influence, but as she reached adulthood, her Byron side started to emerge. Lovelace experienced stretches of depression and then fits of elation. She would fly between frenzied hours of harp practice to the concentrated study of biquadratic equations. Over time, she shook off the behavioural constraints imposed by her mother, and gave herself over to whatever pleased her. All the while, she produced a steady stream of letters. A playfulness emerged. To Babbage, she signed her letters, “Your Fairy”.

Meanwhile, Babbage began spreading the word of his Analytical Engine, another project of his—a programmable beast of a machine, rigged with thousands of stacked and rotating cogwheels. It was just theoretical, but the plans for it were to far exceed the capabilities of any existing calculators, including Babbage’s own Difference Engine. In a series of lectures delivered to an audience of prominent philosophers and scientists in Turin, Italy, Babbage unveiled his visionary idea. He convinced an Italian engineer in attendance to document the talks. In 1842, the resulting article came out in a Swiss journal, published in French.

A decade since their first meeting, Lovelace remained a believer in Babbage’s ideas. With this Swiss publication, she saw her opening to offer support. Babbage’s Analytical Engine deserved a massive audience, and Lovelace knew she could get it in front of more eyeballs by translating the article into English.

Charles Babbage

Lovelace’s next step was her most significant. She took the base text from the article — some eight thousand words — and annotated it, gracefully comparing the Analytical Engine to its antecedents and explaining its place in the future. If other machines could calculate, reflecting the intelligence of their owners, the Analytical Engine would amplify its owner’s knowledge, able to store data and programs that could process it. Lovelace pointed out that getting the most out of the Analytical Engine meant designing instructions tailored to the owner’s interests. Programming the thing would go a long way. She also saw the possibility for it to process more than numbers, suggesting “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

Reining in easily excitable imaginations, Lovelace also explained the Engine’s limitations (“It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths”) and illustrated its strengths (“the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves”).

The most extraordinary of her annotations was Lovelace’s so-called Note G. In it, she explained how a punch-card-based algorithm could return a scrolling sequence of special rational numbers, called Bernoulli numbers. Lovelace’s explanation of how to tell the machine to return Bernoulli numbers is considered the world’s first computer program. What began as a simple translation, as one Babbage scholar points out, became “the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times.”

Babbage corresponded with Lovelace throughout the annotation process. Lovelace sent Babbage her commentary for feedback, and where she needed help and clarification, he offered it. Scholars differ on the degree of influence they believe Babbage had on Lovelace’s notes. Some believe that his mind was behind her words. Others, like journalist Suw Charman-Anderson, call her “[not] the first woman [computer programmer]. The first person.”

Ada Lovelace

Lovelace guarded her work, and sometimes fiercely. To one of Babbage’s edits, she replied firmly, “I am much annoyed at your having altered my Note… I cannot endure another person to meddle with my sentences.” She also possessed a strong confidence in the range of her own abilities. In one letter, she confided, “That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal… Before ten years are out, the Devil’s in it if I haven’t sucked out some of the lifeblood from the mysteries of the universe, in a way that no purely mortal lips or brains could do.”

For what it’s worth, Babbage himself was effusive about her contributions. “All this was impossible for you to know by intuition and the more I read your notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

Lovelace’s ideas about computing were so far ahead of their time that it took nearly a century for technology to catch up. While Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s analytical engine gained little attention at the time they were originally published in 1843, they found a much wider audience when republished in B.V. Bowden’s 1953 book Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. As the field of computer science dawned in the 1950s, Lovelace gained a new following in the digital age.

During the 1970s the US Department of Defense developed a high-order computer programming language to supersede the hundreds of different ones then in use by the military. When US Navy Commander Jack Cooper suggested naming the new language “Ada” in honour of Lovelace in 1979, the proposal was unanimously approved. Ada is still used around the world today in the operation of real-time systems in the aviation, health care, transportation, financial, infrastructure and space industries.

Ada Lovelace Day (second Tuesday of October) celebrates the extraordinary achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and math. The “Ada Lovelace Edit-a-thon” is an annual event aimed at beefing up online entries for women in science whose accomplishments are unsung or misattributed. When her name is mentioned today, it’s more than a tip of the hat; it’s a call to arms.

Story from Headstrong – 52 women who changed science and the world, by Rachel Swaby.

J.T. Rogers’ Oslo

While the shows we went to in northern Europe had the venue as the primary focus (Musiikkitalo, Harpa, Oslo Operahuset and DR Koncerthuset), the shows we went to in London were about the performance.

Since Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is one of our favourite plays, J.T. Rogers’s Oslo became an interesting option for a night out. It was our last night in London and the last night of a six week trip and the thought of skipping the play and getting a bit more sleep briefly came to mind. Luckily, it quickly left the mind!

Harold Pinter Theatre
Harold Pinter Theatre
Harold Pinter Theatre

Oslo tells the true story of how one young Norwegian couple – Terje Rød-Larsen, played by Toby Stephens, and Mona Juul, played by Lydia Leonard – planned and orchestrated top-secret, high-level meetings between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which culminated in the signing of the historic 1993 Oslo Accords.

Lydia Leonard as Mona Juul and Toby Stephens as Terje Rød-Larsen

This gripping play by J.T. Rogers, directed by Bartlett Sher, was awarded ‘Best Play’ at the 2017 Tony Awards and was winner of every ‘Best Play’ award on Broadway in 2017 including those given by New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards.

J.T. Rogers has lots of experience at dramatising foreign affairs, all his major plays deal with the subject: The Overwhelming (2006) dramatises the Rwandan genocide and Blood and Gifts (2010) explores the wars in Afghanistan. He has also written plays set in Spain, Germany and now Norway.

Oslo is the story of a peace process; it is almost wall to wall men in suits. But the events it elucidates are riveting. As is the dramatisation of the events for the play by Rogers. Improbably, the secret talks that led to the 1993 Oslo accords, the first agreement ever struck between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (remember the PLO?) and the state of Israel, were organised not through official channels but by a Norwegian academic and his diplomat wife. The negotiators were served waffles in a remote Norwegian house 🙂 The US was not told of the encounters. Yet later that year Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were shaking hands on the lawn of the White House. There were sobs of joyful surprise from witnesses as agreement was reached.

Sitting anonymously among the thousands of global dignitaries who had flocked to Washington to witness this historic event was Terje Rød-Larsen, the cultivated, softly spoken Norwegian diplomat who, with his wife Mona Juul, made it all possible by enabling the rival delegations to meet in secret to thrash out their differences.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres signing the peace agreement in September 1993 (Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat pictured behind) CREDIT: AP

The sobs provoked by watching this now are bitter: by the end of the decade the accord was in tatters.

Rogers’s play is not verbatim theatre but a reimagining. With fierce individual confrontations and high-powered comic eruptions. Rogers has fashioned an unexpected thriller out of the brave and inspired Palestinian and Israeli negotiators who came together to put aside decades of hostility and make peace.

Philip Arditti as Uri Savir is a chameleon Israeli negotiator who swivels from seductor to boa constrictor with a shimmy of his snake hips. He does provocative take-offs, not only of Henry Kissinger but also (jacket backwards over the head) Arafat.

Peter Polycarpou’s depiction of Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian finance minister sent by Arafat to make peace, admirably captures the conflicting emotions of enduring the pain of exile while seeking to wreak terrible vengeance on the Israeli occupiers.

Both of them have daughters called Maya.

Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurie and Philip Arditti as Uri Savir

At one Broadway performance, the entire 1,000-seat theatre was booked for the United Nations. They didn’t react to Philip Arditti’s Uri Savir impersonation of Arafat as an effeminate narcissist and a man whose vanity knew no bounds. Rogers suspects, they all either knew him or were terrified of being seen laughing at him. Even 13 years after Arafat’s death!

Bartlett Sher’s incisive production makes debate look like action. Which is part of Rogers’s point: in a peace process, talking is a deed – and may replace an act of war. Against the odds, the evening is truly theatrical – because it is essentially a backstage story. It makes most “news” look like mere window dressing.

The task facing the rival delegates when they first meet was a daunting one. For the Israelis, if the fact became known that they were talking to the PLO, the government would most likely fall. For the Palestinians, it would mean an assassin’s bullet.

Many of the players portrayed are no longer around to reflect on Rogers’s version of events. Rogers interviewed Terje Rød-Larsen at length, but spoke to only a few of the other participants: “I stalked the characters, through memoirs and TV interviews. But the lines on stage are all mine; there’s no verbatim. My rule, though, was that no one expresses views that they didn’t hold.”

Someone he apparently didn’t speak to was Yossi Beilin, who was a member of the Israeli delegation to the talks, and is disturbed that the playwright never contacted him even though Beilin’s character has a substantial role in the production. “No one bothered to call me, other than to tell me that there is such a play, and that if I’m ever in New York they’d be happy to invite me,” Beilin said. “I assume that the play has no connection to reality, but they tell me that it’s actually successful. it’s not clear to me why the playwright didn’t speak to those [involved] who are still alive.”

Joel Singer, who was the Israeli delegation’s legal adviser to the Oslo talks has seen the play on Broadway. “There’s very little resemblance to what you see on stage and what actually happened in Oslo. Even though they claim that the play is based on extensive research, there’s almost no link between what you see on stage and what really happened.”

Singer, along with other Israelis who’ve seen the play, found the Palestinian representatives were presented in an authentic manner, but didn’t find the Israeli representatives believable. Interesting cultural bias. Singer said, “All the Israeli representatives looked like cartoon characters, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The Israeli characters are all distorted. It bothered me personally that they were using the names of people I know and attributing characteristics to them that they don’t have.”

None of the players were presented as their real-life versions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if they had, a three-hour play about politics, even the politics of a peace process, would have been far too boring. The real Terje Rød-Larsen is a quiet and patient man, who never seemed to be entirely comfortable with the rough-house atmosphere of the Middle East region, where disputes were often more likely to be resolved through rocks and rubber bullets than rational persuasion.

Uri Savir, who was deputed by Peres to run the Israeli side of the negotiations, was an urbane multi-linguist of an academic disposition, softly spoken and thoughtful when discussing regional issues.

Ahmed Qurei is reported to be a man of great personal charm, tolerant and good-humoured, which no doubt contributed to his appeal as a negotiator. His easy-going style has won him friendships over the years with his Israeli counterparts.

Yitzhak Rabin, the great Israeli warrior-turned-politician who agreed to make peace with Arafat, a man most Israelis, as one Israeli character in the play remarks, saw as being akin to “Hitler in his bunker”, was murdered by a Jewish extremist in November 1995 in revenge for signing the deal.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding Arafat’s death in a Paris hospital in November 2004 remains a source of controversy among his PLO loyalists, many of whom believe he was poisoned by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.

By the time Shimon Peres, the Nobel Prize-winning prime minister of Israel who helped resolve many of the more intangible issues, died more peacefully aged 93 in 2016, he had become one of the most accomplished statesmen of our age.

For all the quips and light-hearted banter, and occasionally over the top characters, Oslo is, at heart, a deeply emotional drama. When the Israelis finally strike a deal with the Palestinians during a telephone call to Arafat’s headquarters in Tunis, they think they can hear music playing in the background. In fact it is the battle-hardened veterans of the PLO sobbing at the prospect of being allowed to return to their homeland.

Ultimately, the play is an implicit tragedy about the failure of both sides to build a lasting peace on the basis of the painful concessions made during the Oslo negotiations. “Between our peoples lies a vast ocean,” says Ahmed Qurei, the finance minister for the PLO, in the play, just before the negotiations start. Twenty-five years on, that ocean seems as vast as ever.

On A Sugar Plum High

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads….

And speaking of Sugar Plums …

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without shed-loads of sugar. And maybe that’s one of the reasons behind The Nutcracker‘s enduring festive popularity. The ballet’s candied cornucopia of sugar-frosted fancies makes it the sweetest work in the repertory.

Before attending a performance of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House, little Puffles and Honey topped up their sugar levels 🙂 They didn’t find any sugar plums at Selfridges, so they had to settle for macaroons… Sugar is a crucial ingredient in macaroons as well!

Dolly’s Cafe, Selfridges

Apparently it’s not done to eat Rudolf or Mr Snowman (they were delicious 🙂 ), so they got some macaroons from Pierre Hermé, the King of Macaroon. There were some odd flavour combinations, but little Puffles and Honey went for the classics.

Pierre Hermé, Selfridges
At the Royal Opera House
Checking out the Royal Opera House Christmas tree

Yup, the conductor has the right score 🙂

It all starts with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King). Though the story itself is not exactly little bear-friendly (including a fearsome seven-headed mouse that attacks the heroine), Hoffmann pays tribute to the great sweet-making tradition of his Nuremberg setting, in a magnificent sugar fantasia. The protagonists travel along a path of nougat by a lemonade river that winds past the glistening Bonbonville, and cross Rosewater Lake to reach the capital Confiturembourg, itself topped by the Marzipan Castle. And we do love marzipan…

The ballet reins it in a little – but not much. The original scenario was developed by choreographer Marius Petipa and Mariinsky director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who used a somewhat more palatable translation of Hoffmann’s story by Alexandre Dumas père (fewer heads on the rat, just as much sugar).

Presiding over the display are the regal Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Coqueluche. Though sugar plum today doesn’t mean anything more than the character in the ballet (and it is the Christmas role), to the original audience it was a fittingly sophisticated treat: a cardamom or caraway seed cast in spun sugar, a virtuoso test of the confectioner’s craft. Her prince is rather less glamorous: ‘coqueluche’ means ‘whooping cough’, making him the equivalent of a dancing cough drop, albeit a very elegant one 🙂

Sarah Lamb as The Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker
The Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince Coqueluche

Of the divertissements, there are three national-inspired dances that feature in most traditional productions – of which Peter Wright’s 1984 production for The Royal Ballet is an exemplar. First there’s the Spanish Dance, for chocolate; then the Arabian Dance, for coffee; and the Chinese Dance, for tea. These might seem humdrum treats now, but for the ballet’s creators more than a century ago, and Hoffmann before them, these were luxuries that carried an aromatic whiff of exoticism, masterfully expressed in Tchaikovsky’s music.

The Spanish Dance, The Nutcracker
The Arabian Dance, The Nutcracker

The Chinese Dance, The Nutcracker

The Story…

Drosselmeyer, a timeless magician and creator of mechanical toys and clocks, was once employed in a royal palace where he invented a trap that killed off half the mouse population. In revenge, the wicked Queen of the Mice cast a spell over Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter, which transformed him into an ugly Nutcracker Doll. The only way to break the spell was for the Nutcracker to slay the Mouse King, thereby committing an act of great bravery, and for a young girl to love and care for him in spite of his awful appearance.

When Drosselmeyer is invited to entertain the guests at a Christmas party that his friends, the Stahlbaums, are giving, he decides that this could well be the opportunity he has been looking for.

Their daughter, Clara, is a little younger than Hans-Peter imprisoned in the Nutcracker, and what better time than Christmas, when the mice are busy stealing the leftovers, for a confrontation between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker? Drosselmeyer decides to put the Nutcracker in the tender care of Clara and makes a special Christmas Angel to guide her through her task.

When all the guests have departed and the house is asleep, Clara, in search of the Nutcracker, creeps downstairs and discovers Drosselmeyer waiting for her. He draws her into his own special world of fantasy, where time is suspended, exerts all his power to transform the living room into a great battlefield and summons the Mouse King.

In the ensuing fight between the mice and the toy soldiers, the Nutcracker slays the Mouse King, but only through the intervention of Clara, who, out of compassion, saves the Nutcracker’s life.

Transformed into his real self, he dances with Clara and they find themselves in the Land of Snow. Drosselmeyer then sends them on a magic journey to the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets where they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.

Freed at last from his imprisonment inside the Nutcracker, Hans-Peter recounts to the Sugar Plum Fairy his great adventure and how Clara saved his life. They then join in a magnificent entertainment put on by Drosselmeyer to honour them for their bravery.

Returning to reality Clara runs out into the street in search of Drosselmeyer and encounters a strangely familiar young man, while back in his workshop, Drosselmeyer prays that his efforts will be rewarded. His nephew returns; the spell has indeed been broken.

It was another outstanding performance by the Royal Ballet. Two hours have never passed so fast.

Peter Wright’s exquisite 1984 Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet recalls the lavishly traditional air of the original production, with some changes to the scenario to bring it closer to Hoffmann’s original story. With magnificent designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman, including a gorgeously decorated tree that magically grows, and beautifully coloured imaginings of the fantastical Sugar Garden, this festive production has become a much-loved staple of the Royal Ballet’s repertory.

Wright’s adaptation of the choreography for The Nutcracker is characterized by buoyant footwork and lyrical freedom in the arms and upper body. Perhaps the best-loved number from the ballet is the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act II. Comprising sharp, filigree choreography and lasting for ten minutes, it is one of the longest and most technically challenging solos in the repertory, and a role that many ballerinas long to dance.

It seems hardly credible that The Nutcracker, a staple of the ballet repertory today, was the product of a troubled collaboration, roundly condemned by critics and infrequently performed at the time it was first mounted in 1892. Tchaikovsky, who had agreed to compose the ballet out of gratitude to the Director of Imperial Theatres, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, and on the basis of the great success The Sleeping Beauty had enjoyed a year earlier, was unhappy with the scenario of The Nutcracker when he finally saw it. The esteemed choreographer Marius Petipa, who drafted instructions for the composer and a detailed plan of dances and mimed scenes of the new ballet, fell ill soon after rehearsals began, leaving much of the actual composition of the choreography to Lev Ivanov, the second ballet master. The meagre roster of early performances is striking to us now in light of what the work has become: in the third season of its existence (after an initial run of 14 performances), the ballet was not given at all; this was followed by a three-year period without performances, between 1897 and 1900; and The Nutcracker was not produced at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow before the October Revolution, the first performance there coming in 1919, almost 27 years after the premiere. Even its seasonal topicality was disregarded, for it was scheduled throughout the theatre year from September to May, with rarely more than one showing in December.

What was the problem with The Nutcracker, then? Judging from the critical response, it was not its innovation but the fact that conventional devices were carried too far. In an age when audiences accepted extraordinary liberties of logic and motivation in stories used for ballet, the scenario of The Nutcracker was found wanting. “The authors of the ballet librettos never weary the intellect of the lovers of choreography”, wrote one critic, “but in The Nutcracker the author of the libretto, balletmaster Mr Petipa, in the extreme took advantage of his right as regards simplicity and non-complexity of subject matter. In The Nutcracker there is no subject whatever.” This criticism, though encountered elsewhere in early reviews, is not wholly accurate. In fact, there was no connection between the Christmas party in the first act and the Land of Sweets in the second that would make both acts part of the same ballet. In the printed libretto of 1892 the fantastic events were unexplained and the story, as a result, was divided into largely unrelated halves.

If imperial period audiences tolerated some relaxation of dramatic propriety in their ballet stories, luxurious staging was essential. “In this respect”, the same critic continued, “the direction of the Petersburg theatres… long since set the tone and prescribed the rules for all Europe. Even Paris and London bow before Petersburg… Beauty, magnificence and taste, not stopping at any venture and expense, brilliantly rival one another.” But here too the producers of The Nutcracker exceeded the norm. Tchaikovsky was overwhelmed by the staging and wrote to his brother Anatole the day after the first performance that “the production of both [The Nutcracker and its companion piece, the opera Iolanta] was magnificent, the ballet even too magnificent. The eyes weary from this luxury.” Vladimir Telyakovsky, who was to become Director of Imperial Theatres in 1901, recalled that the production was unimaginable in its bad taste, some of the artists representing confections in the second act being “dressed like fancy brioches from Fillipov’s patisserie”, a famous Petersburg establishment.

Assessments of The Nutcracker, based on these and other complaints, were thus unflattering or worse. Ennui was among the gentler verdicts: “They say that at the first performance only the balletomanes were bored; on this occasion [the second performance]… The Nutcracker provided nothing other than boredom to the public, and many left the theatre before the end of the performance.” Elsewhere we read: “For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic destiny of our ballet – one more step downward.” Wrote a third critic: “The production of such ballets as The Nutcracker can quickly and easily lead the ballet troupe to its downfall.” Through the scorn another defect comes to light, which audiences of the present day consider a virtue: the ballet was for children. “All this children’s ballet is made in the manner of a child”, wrote a critic known as Old Balletomane, “the program is pure child’s prattle! In vain do they suppose that one may substitute luxuriance of production for lack of imagination and thought in this programme.” Twenty years later Serge Diaghilev, defending his company’s repertory in The Times, shrugged off The Nutcracker as no more than a ballet performed by a hundred children.

The modern producer who would take inspiration from the first Nutcracker is left all the same with much that is worthy of revival. The lavish staging of magical effects, such as the miraculous growth of the Christmas tree, the spectacular tableau in the second act, Confiturembourg, The Kingdom of Sweets (such ‘kingdom’ scenes were especially beloved of Petipa), and the participation of children in the dances and the battle scene are all components of the first Nutcracker which drew on well-established traditions of the late imperial ballet.

The choreography of the Waltz of the Snowflakes is a special feature of the first production that his contemporaries ranked as one of Lev Ivanov’s great creations. But Ivanov’s steps and patterns for this dance have been lost passing from one staging to the next and have been re-created by Wright. He has also re-created the floor patterns from choreographic notations of The Nutcracker made in St Petersburg before World War I, now in the Harvard Theatre Collection. As a result, we see again Ivanov’s danced allegory of a snowstorm, “the hachures and patterns of snow crystals, the monograms and arabesques of the plastique of frost [gathered] into one well-proportioned, artistically finished vision” – as it was described by a balletomane who recalled the original.

Recent considerations of The Nutcracker, especially since the end of the Soviet era, have raised new possibilities about the meaning of the work. These tend to attribute Tchaikovsky’s reservations about composing music of Confiturembourg to some passing irritation, while allowing that the imagery and design of the work, with its patent disjunctions, were intended. One possibility, from the composer’s perspective, was his love of Dickens, whose vivid setting of A Christmas Tree veers much closer to that of The Nutcracker than anything in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the libretto’s ostensible source. In one passage Dickens’ narrator, like Clara, the only person in the house awake, describes the Christmas tree of his childhood, surrounded by toys, including “a demoniacal Counsellor in a black gown”, dolls, drummers and a regiment of soldiers in a box. For a moment, “the very tree itself changes, and becomes a beanstalk – the marvellous beanstalk up which Jack climbed to the Giant’s house!”, and presently, “all common things become uncommon and enchanted.”

These shadings may have aligned with images Tchaikovsky liked, but the principal disjunction of the libretto – between the everyday world and Confiturembourg – was taken from Hoffmann without Hoffmann’s return to reality at the end. Clara simply wakes up from her dream, resolving the fantasy of the story, a device adopted by many modern producers of the ballet. And yet the problem of incoherence, so stridently critiqued in early reviews, raises a reasonable question: would a theatre director as erudite as Vsevolozhsky, a ballet master as experience as Petipa and a composer as astute as Tchaikovsky, allow such a lapse in narrative, a beginning and a middle without an ending? The balletomanes’ complaint that The Nutcracker overreached conventions of ballet lax enough to permit such liberties seems dismissive and unsatisfactory, given the stature of the collaborators.

Could flaws so obvious be pointing to a new type of drama? Folklorists remind us that the motifs of the growing Christmas tree and the winter forest, missing in Hoffmann, echo ancient representations of the underworld, regular world and heavenly realm as joined by a tree, whereas winter symbolizes not just a demise before rebirth but also, joined with the forest, a path to another world, possibly the realm of the dead. We do not know if the collaborators on The Nutcracker wished to express such themes, but the possibility that they were motivated by something other than carelessness casts them in a more complimentary light than shed by early reception. The importance of Tchaikovsky to such a scheme would be central, in that his theatre works, beginning with The Oprichnik, passing through Eugene Onegin and ending with The Sleeping Beauty, The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, all display symbolic or novel approaches to drama that elicited criticism when they were new for being imperfectly conventional. They also share an element of experimentation manifest as early as Tchaikovsky’s student compositions, a quality that might be affirmed in The Nutcracker if we knew more about his part in the early stages of collaboration. In short, the composer may have been formulating new approaches to the lyric stage, appreciated more by the avant garde of the early 20th century than by his contemporaries. If so, his complaint about excessive luxury in the mise-en-scène may have been perfectly sincere, but unrelated to the ballet’s message.

‘The Nutcracker Then and Now’ written by Roland John Wiley, Professor of Musicology Emeritus at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour.

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

Is mostly an amusement park with lots and lots of rides. Even the Christmas tree is a ride!

We had to go on it…

And see the park from the tree 🙂

This looked interesting…

Bavarian Village

The Bavarian Village was one of several food areas in Hyde Park. Little bears chose Almhütte, apparently a traditional Bavarian restaurant with delicious food.

The pretzel was great, the sausage significantly less so 😦

The mulled wine was a poor distant cousin to the glögg from Tivoli…

There is a Christmas market as well.

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland doesn’t have an entry fee, but it does have the completely useless bag search at the entrance.