Category Archives: Reviews

In praise of… Manchester Museum

I have been at a conference at Manchester University for the past two days. The conference has been based at the Manchester Museum, which is managed by the University as part of its public engagement activities. We were very lucky last evening to have the opportunity for a private tour of some of the Museum’s collections, before being served dinner in the main gallery.

The Museum was originally established by the Manchester Natural History Society and the Manchester Geological Society to House the collections of various businessmen and collectors from the northwest of England, during the 19th century. The Manchester Museum building as it is now was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and opened in 1890. Waterhouse was the architect of the Manchester Town Hall, the Natural History Museum in London’s Kensington, and Strangeways Prison in Manchester. The distinct architectural vernacular that is the hallmark of each of these buildings is repeated on a much more human scale in the Museum building, with a full height atrium running through the heart of the space, and galleries open to the atrium and running around all four sides.

The museum’s collections inevitably reflect the eclectic tastes of the original collectors, with taxidermy examples of animals and birds from all four corners of the globe, recreations of dinosaur skeletons, and an actual skeleton from a sperm whale that was originally washed up on a beach in North America and brought to Manchester for display. Elsewhere, there is an extensive Egyptology collection, displays of Native American clothing, and examples of rocks from meteorites, and other planets in our solar system. It’s not often that you get the chance to touch a piece of Mars!

If you’re in Manchester with an hour to spare, I heartily recommend the Museum as a place to visit. And it’s free!

Michael Buble at the BBC

So this evening we’ve caught up with the Michael Buble programme that was broadcast on the BBC in the UK yesterday. Apparently he’s quite good looking (so Mrs P. says anyway – I don’t see it myself), but either way, he’s got a fantastic singing voice and is a peerless performer. We had the great privilege of seeing Buble perform live in Birmingham in December 2014, and he owned that stage – holding a packed arena in the palm of his hand from the first note to the last, some two hours later.

Watching the programme tonight has added poignancy given the news that has broken today that Buble’s three year old son has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment in the US. It’s tempting to fall into the trap of believing that celebrities are somehow immune from the challenges and traumas that afflict the rest of the population. In reality, of course, not only does ill-health make no distinction between those who are famous and those of us who are not, but for the famous, their battles with illness are played out in the full glare of media attention.

So this evening, as we sit and marvel at Buble the showman, out thoughts are with Michael the father, his wife, and little Noah as he undergoes treatment.

In memory of Wilfred Owen

A short post today in between meetings and before I spend an evening talking with prospective medical students and helping them prepare for applications to University next year. It’s humbling to think that the sixteen and seventeen year olds that I will be talking to later – full of hope and expectation and with their whole adult lives ahead of them – are the same age as many of the men that went to their deaths in the trenches of France and Belgium during the Great War. Owen himself, one of the greatest English language war poets, was killed in action one week before the Armistice in November 1918. This poem is titled Futility.

Move him into the sun–
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds–
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,–still warm,–too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
–O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Parental Pride while Perusing Perugia

On 2nd September, Charlotte and I celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary. We’d been thinking about how we were going to mark the milestone for a couple of years, with options ranging from a Caribbean holiday, to a visit to Dubai. In the end, a coincidence of events led us to Italy, and a two-centre stay in Perugia and Rome

The coincidence that led us to Perugia was the arrival in that city on Thursday 28th August of the Cardiff & Vale of Glamorgan Youth Orchestra for the final concert of their Italian tour. Our daughter, Joanna, is a flautist with the Orchestra, and the opportunity to see the concert at the Basilica San Pietro was too good to miss

We flew from Bristol to Rome Fiumicino on the afternoon of Wednesday 27th August with Easyjet, our first flight with the budget carrier. As Easyjet virgins, we had completely missed the fact that booking your seat in advance (being taller than an Ewok, I try to get emergency exit seats with their additional leg room whenever possible) qualified us for Speedy Boarding – a reminder that even in the “all animals are equal” world of budget airlines, some are decidedly more equal than others! Not usually one to feel all that comfortable about by-passing queues and preferential treatment, it did feel like even Easyjet were making a special effort for our anniversary!

Arriving in Rome, there was that magical and evocative moment when you step out of the air-conditioned claustrophobia of the plane and feel the heat of the Mediterranean sunshine. It was 34 degrees C and beautiful. Having reclaimed our suitcase and cleared immigration (thank goodness for e-passports!), we made our way to the train station for the first leg of a three hour journey that would take us first into the heart of Rome at Termini, and then out to the north east of the city to Perugia. If you do ever find yourself travelling by air and rail to Rome via Fiumicino Airport, bear in mind that both the airport and the main railway station (Rome Termini) are ENORMOUS! Our walk towards the railway station at the airport started quite casually – there was at least 15 minutes until the train left – and gradually built into a full-blown sprint as we realised that the platform wasn’t quite as close as we’d hoped! Nothing says tourist quite so eloquently as arriving sweaty and wheezing into a non-air-conditioned railway carriage as the train begins pulling away… To do this once may seem unfortunate; to do it a second time having run from platform 1 at Termini to platform 22 to catch the connection to Perugia, begins to look like carelessness!

Perugia is a city of two halves. The ‘old town’ is at the top of a very steep hill, with commanding views across the surrounding, mainly agricultural, land. The railway station and our hotel were at the bottom of the hill. Lesson #2 : when all the guidebooks and all the comments from previous travellers to Perugia say very clearly that the only way to get from the bottom of the hill to the top is by taxi or bus, it’s probably best to heed the advice. Suffice to say, however close the two-dimensional map made the walk from the hotel to the Basilica look on that Thursday morning, the three dimensional reality was a little more challenging. On the plus side, though, we did get to see the Vet School linked to Perugia University, and its certainly given me some ideas for future improvements to the appearance of the School at Bristol!

Rome 2014 002

The Vet School at Perugia

The old town of Perugia is well worth a visit if you ever get the chance, being a mix of classical Mediterranean architecture, and astonishing views. Our celebrations really began on that Thursday lunchtime with an initial glass of Prosecco on a cafe terrace perched on the edge of the town

Rome 2014 010

The rolling hills below Perugia

It would have been rude not to...

It would have been rude not to…

 

The orchestra was due to perform that evening as part of a Festival of World Music that had been running at venues across the region for most of the summer. The poster outside the Basilica San Pietro gave not the slightest hint of the magical occasion that was to follow, however.

The Orchestra did get bigger billing than the Pope!

The Orchestra did get bigger billing than the Pope!

To say that the setting was perfect would be to seriously undersell it. The Basilica was a fantastically atmospheric location for the concert, and the orchestra lived up to the occasion and then some, with a performance that was as good as it could possibly have been. From the opening Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Rhymes (Williams), through Mozart’s Serenata per fiati n.11, to the rousing rendition of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony, the musicians (under the masterful guidance of conductor Eric Phillips) created a sound that belied their years. It was a truly brilliant evening, and left at least two parents floating back to their hotel on a cloud of pride!

Not my greatest snap ever, but hopefully gives a sense of the grandeur of the Basilica

Not my greatest snap ever, but hopefully gives a sense of the grandeur of the Basilica

A superb start to a superb anniversary break

In praise of…. CenterParcs

We count our visits to CenterParcs’ Longleat Village with reference to our son’s age. He was nine months’ old when we stayed there for the first time (and the village itself had been open for less than two years). He will be twenty years’ old in August, and we have spent at least a weekend in Longleat on probably fifteen or sixteen occasions during his life. We’ve just got back from a four night stay which included a first for us – it didn’t rain once during the whole time we were there! And it was fantastic!

Coy ducks avoiding the camera on the pond outside our villa!

Coy ducks avoiding the camera on the pond outside our villa!

Both our son and daughter measure some of the key moments in their development with reference to CenterParcs activities : playing in the now-defunct sand and ball pits that used to occupy space at the end of the Sports Cafe in the Jardin des Sports (yes – it is called that; and yes, it is a large, indoor sports hall!); being towed around the village in one of those caravan-like trailers that attaches to the back of a standard bike; learning to ride their bikes without stabilisers; their first time down the Wild Water Rapids, the big green slides, or the bumpy, white slide; their first meal at Rajinda Pradesh (the on-site Indian restaurant); and their first time fending for themselves while mum and dad spent time in the Spa (for the record, ‘fending for themselves’ amounted to swimming in the Sub-Tropical Swimming Plaza and feasting on burger and chips from the poolside bar!)

Dan's first solo family BBQ as Head Chef

Dan’s first solo family BBQ as Head Chef

CenterParcs can be an easy target for those who haven’t been, and who might look upon it as a kind of Butlins for people who also shop at farmers’ markets. You can see an excellent example of the arguments for and against from this Telegraph piece from 2011 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/8711425/Center-Parcs-Did-David-Miliband-get-it-right.html). All I know is that, as a family, we have had loads of unforgettable experiences together at Longleat Village – from learning to sail, to highly competitive family badminton, table tennis and air hockey encounters; from tense crazy golf and putting competitions, to chilled out patio breakfasts and barbecue dinners. Yes – it can be expensive (especially if you are restricted to school holiday times), and the costs can mount up if you pack lots of extra activities into your day (only access to the swimming complex is included in the cost of a typical 3 or 4 night stay). But our experience has always been that the cost has been more than justified by the value of the time that we have spent there. There really is nothing quite like laying back in the outside pool as the steam from the water gently drifts drifts away and looking up at the stars in an inky black sky (winter time only of course; it wasn’t dark until after 10.30pm on this most recent visit!)

Taking time to stop and stare

Taking time to stop and stare

 

(Photos courtesy of Dan “Call me David Bailey” Pearce)

Bringing joy to the world – music education and why we need to protect it

On Tuesday evening I was one of several hundred parents, family members and other supporters who were privileged to spend a little under two hours listening to the incredible pool of musical talent that is collectively the Cardiff & Vale of Glamorgan Youth Orchestra and Youth Choir. These young people (aged between about 15 and 21) performed a programme of mainly popular (but including some less well-known) Christmas music to an incredibly high standard. It was an uplifting experience for all of us who were lucky enough to be there listening – and judging by the looks of pride and pleasure on the faces of the performers as they made their way out of City Hall, they had a pretty good time too!

My daughter is a flautist and this is her first year in the County Youth Orchestra, having ‘come through the ranks’ of the Junior Schools’ Orchestra and Wind Band, the Transitional Orchestra and the High Schools’ Orchestra, with a minor flirtation with the Jazz Ensemble along the way. It has been amazing to watch her progress through these various groups, and the confidence with which she now approaches complex pieces (including an extended solo performance in a recent School presentation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.4). Of course, she has put in hours of personal practice and attended one-to-one lessons with private teachers during this time as well, but her involvement in the County Ensembles has provided an exposure to a wide range of musical styles and provided opportunities to play in venues including Cardiff City Hall, St David’s Hall, and the Millennium Centre – all experiences that would not have been possible otherwise. Collectively, her exposure to music in all these forms has fuelled a passion that will stay with her for the rest of her life, and is likely to lead to a career in some form of music performance/teaching/writing

However, there is a dark cloud hanging over the future provision of publicly supported music provision in Cardiff (and across the rest of the UK). Local authorities are faced with the almost impossible task of cutting costs to meet national government targets, and funding for discretionary services (including music and leisure services) is inevitably under ever increasing threat. Previous attempts to remove funding from the service in Cardiff have been deflected (http://cardiffian.jomec.co.uk/article/cuts-%C2%A3173000-cardiff-and-vale-glamorgans-music-development-fund) and the worst case scenario (full removal of support) has been avoided. However, as budgets come under even greater pressure in 2014/15 and 2015/16, it is likely that funding for music services will once again come under the spotlight

The irony is that there is compelling evidence supporting the contention that access to good quality music education from a young age has a significant positive impact on learning in all subjects (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/12/music-lessons-early-childhood-brain-performance); as well as positively impacting on those higher level cognitive skills that are now essential for employees in a digital economy (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/musicians-spot-mistakes-more-quickly-and-more-accurately-than-nonmusicians-8849068.html). The educational and economic arguments in favour of protecting music service funding as part of a modern education system are powerful and persuasive. The challenge now is to make sure that politicians locally and nationally are fully aware of them when the time comes to wield the budgetary knife