Friday 27 October 2017

Help! Beatles Tour of Hamburg (With Ukulele)

On this trip I was hosted by the German National Tourist Office.

"There's nowhere in the world they played more than Hamburg," says Stefanie Hempel as we stand in the German city's Beatles-Platz. "Here the foundation stone was laid for their career."

She's right. Hamburg was where the Beatles got their start, playing a huge number of gigs - Hempel estimates it as 300 concerts over two years.

Her tribute to their German residency is a specialist tour of the St Pauli neighbourhood around the Reeperbahn, the spine of Hamburg's famous red-light and entertainment district.

She punctuates stops at the sites of Beatles venues past and present, by playing Beatles songs - on her ukulele.

It may be a far cry from the Beatles' guitars or even George Harrison's sitar, but it seems to work. The compact instrument allows Hempel to belt out a tune, vocals included, with little preparation. Then we're off along St Pauli's dingy daytime streets to the next stop.

At Beatles-Platz itself, she sings In My Life. Then at the former Top Ten Club (see photo top right), she rocks a version of sea shanty My Bonnie, which the early Beatles performed with Tony Sheridan.

In a back street courtyard, we locate the doorway which John Lennon leaned against for the cover of his 1975 Rock 'n' Roll album...

... then we pause by the site of the former Bambi Kino, a cinema where the Beatles were boarded within a shabby storeroom between gigs:

One of the nearby places they performed at was the Indra, where they first used the Beatles name and initially acted as the backing band for a stripper (Hempel performs the Chuck Berry number Rock and Roll Music here):

Next is the Kaiserkeller, perhaps the Hamburg venue most linked with The Beatles in popular memory. It's still rocking:

And finally, we stand behind the site of the long-vanished Star Club, to admire this plaque listing the impressive array of talented artists who took the stage during its short life:

This is where Stefanie goes out with a bang, belting out I Saw Her Standing There. I join in the "Ooooh" bit in the chorus, of course. All you need is love, right?

Find out more and make bookings at Hempel's Beatles Tour website.

Friday 20 October 2017

Melbourne Creative Landmark: The Nicholas Building

I originally wrote this profile as part of a walking tour submission to Melbourne's City of Literature office. With its consent, I'm sharing it with you...

This 1926 office building is at the heart of Melbourne’s creative traditions.

It was built on the fortunes of the Aspro company which manufactured aspirin, and for a long time it was a hub of Flinders Lane’s fashion industry, or ‘rag trade’.

There are still aspects of that trade active here today, including a company making buttons using traditional methods.

However, in recent years the building has broadened its creative activities, becoming what’s called a ‘vertical laneway’.

Like Melbourne’s famous ground-level lanes, a vertical laneway is composed of numerous small-scale businesses – located in a high-rise building.

Literature is a strong element of the Nicholas Building’s mix. This is where convicted bank robber Gregory Roberts wrote the novel Shantaram, based partly on his fugitive life in Mumbai.

It’s also the long-time home of Collected Works, Melbourne’s top poetry bookshop.

Walk to the list of tenants in the beautiful barrel-vaulted arcade, and look for enterprises that welcome visitors.

You’ll find the poetry bookshop, art galleries exhibiting local artists, the button shop selling its attractive creations, and other outlets selling handcrafted fashion and gifts.

Take some time to ascend in the old-fashioned lifts which retained attendants well into the 21st century, and explore the creativity of this extraordinary place.

As you leave the Nicholas Building, cross the street and take a moment to admire its impressive facade. Covered with terracotta tiles, it was influenced by the Chicago School and was at the cutting edge of Melbourne architecture in its day.

The Nicholas Building still stands out among its neighbours along Swanston Street. It may be a little wrinkled with the passage of time, but it has great bones.

The Nicholas Building is located at 37 Swanston St, Melbourne, Australia.

Friday 13 October 2017

Joo Chiat & Katong Food Tour: Singapore on a Plate

On this trip I was hosted by BetelBox Tours, the Singapore Tourism Board and the Raffles Singapore.

When I visited Singapore in 2015, I went on an excellent food tour of the city's Joo Chiat and Katong neighbourhoods.

Operated by BetelBox Tours, a company connected with a local hostel, it covered the food of Singapore’s largest architecture conservation district: an area associated with Malay, Peranakan Straits Chinese, and Eurasian communities.

The tour was a pleasant walk through a low-rise area, and the food was great and plentiful. It was fun, sociable, and with some interesting social history woven into the strolls between food stops.

It was also top value for money. Keen foodies as we were, the group I joined could hardly have polished off the vast quantity of edibles presented to us. From memory, the guide took leftovers from our final banquet back to the hostel as a treat for the backpackers.

Here are some images from the tour for your enjoyment...

Delicious! And colourful!

Find out more about the Joo Chiat / Katong Food walk and make bookings at this link.

Friday 6 October 2017

Portmeirion, Wales: The Village by Night

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

In September I had the good fortune to revisit a place I haven't seen for 25 years: the beautiful village of Portmeirion in Wales.

Not that it's a real village. Rather it's a confection of Italianate buildings and facades, put in place over decades by the late Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

The architect wanted to show how architecture and nature could work harmoniously together; so he rescued demolished statuary and facades from around Britain, reinstalling them here.

The result is a beautiful though slightly odd village which feels too sublime to be real: a fairy-tale place.

It was this curious quality which led actor/director Patrick McGoohan to film his surreal mystery-drama TV series The Prisoner here (below I'm wearing a characteristic badge of the Village's inhabitants in the series).

By chance the 50th anniversary of its first screening fell in September, and it's still a spectacular viewing experience - I recommend it to you.

Portmeirion is mostly visited by day-trippers, to whom it's open during daylight hours. But if you stay overnight in the hotel or one of its rooms scattered through the Village, you can roam around freely after dark.

This is what Narrelle and I did, and were rewarded with a magical experience. The sky was clear, the stars were out, and Williams-Ellis' remarkable creation was even more beautiful than ever.

After seeing these photos I took on the night, I hope you agree.
As the inhabitants of the Village were fond of saying in The Prisoner, "Be seeing you!"

And a small additional note: this post was written in the grand John Rylands Library in Manchester. A beautiful space for composition, I think you'll agree:

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Review: Henry V at the Pop-up Globe, Melbourne

The slogan of the Globe Theatre replica currently adorning Melbourne's Kings Domain is "Shakespeare like it's 1614."

This seems like a missed opportunity to me; I would've gone with "Party like it's 1599." But I'm a turn of the century kinda guy, even if it's the 16th century we're talking about.

Whatever. The point is, there's an excellent scaled-down version of the Bard's famous venue parked next to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, with a repertoire of four plays: Henry V, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It.

It's Henry V that Narrelle and I have come to see on an overcast Sunday afternoon which is tentatively threatening to rain. It shouldn't be a problem, as we have seats beneath the O-shaped roof, but the "groundlings" who get in cheap and stand in front of the stage are beneath the open sky and are not allowed umbrellas.

Even though it's a history play and might therefore be assumed to be weighty fare, I instantly realise that it's a great choice for this venue. For a start, the Chorus, the narrator character who introduces the play and changes of location, is perfectly in his element here. When he asks us...
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
... we can look above us and see the "wooden O" of which he speaks.

And it turns out, the "imaginary forces" he pleads for us to use are up to the job, aided by sound and motion upon the thrust stage. The battles with the French army, when they come, are noisy and clanging, aided at one point by the keen of bagpipes.

Despite this sound and fury, to which the audience lends wholeheartedly its support via cheers and clapping, the quiet scenes hold their own. When Henry and others reflect upon the coming deaths before the battle, Shakespeare's thoughtful words are received with respectful attention by the audience. There's true revulsion, too, at Henry's later war crime, his order to kill the French prisoners.

Still, the venue - with nothing like a fourth wall, especially given its daylight performances - invites a broad performance of this history play, and that's what we get. Comedy scenes are played up, stirring calls to arms are cheered, and cast members often walk through the audience, interacting with the groundlings.

The only element I'd question is the overwrought accents and highly effete mannerisms of the French, along with a jokey suggestion of the Dauphin's homosexual desires. Though this treatment has been used in other productions, it seem to harness prejudices that would be best left in the 16th century. We don't need to see the French portrayed as "unmanly" in order to recognise them as the baddies of Shakespeare's piece.

Overall, it's great fun to see the play in the setting for which it was written, and a delight to see audience members (many of them young) enjoying theatre so fully.

There are plenty of seating options from basic to more comfortable, but you can't beat the standing-room-only groundling tickets, which go for about $20. I spent the first half of the play seated, but the second half leaning on the stage, with actors whirling about just above me - and it was great fun.

The time went quickly and I was glad I'd forsaken my seat for the best spot in the house. If you choose this option though, take a raincoat - there's a lot of fake blood splashing about, and it might end up on you.

The Pop-up Globe's season continues in Melbourne to 12 November 2017. Find details and make bookings at its website.