Now open: Birmingham’s beating heart

8 09 2013

Outer cirles

“It is an honour for me to be here in Birmingham, the beating heart of England. Birmingham is very special for me because it is here that I found myself alive, seven days after I was shot. It is now my second home, after my beloved Pakistan. The doctors and nurses of this town worked hard to help me recover. The teachers of this town strived to rehabilitate my educational career, and the great people of this city gave me great moral support.”

“Pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism. I truly believe the only way we can create global peace is through educating not only our minds, but our hearts and our souls.”

Malala Yousafzai

On the 3rd September 2013 the New Library of Birmingham was opened. Starting with a fanfare followed by an inauguration speech by Malala Yousafzai, a truly inspired and appropriate choice, the public were finally allowed to see how the reported £188 million had been spent.

Built to replace the stunning, but badly treated, Madin Library the decision and design has been controversial. Having observed the construction of the new library from a hole in the ground, to majestic concrete, to the final circular cage I am not convinced it is the right building in the right place, looming over Baskerville House with a fussy covering hiding a conventional glass box.

The inside, fortunately, is much more interesting.

Gather to celebrate

Arriving just after the doors open to find a large but friendly crowd. Yes a large crowd queuing to visit a library. After a slightly chaotic, but again friendly, wait it is through the doors into the large reception area. People are handing out information and the Stan’s Cafe Commentators are in a hut. Then up the blue-lined escalators to level 2 and the Book Rotunda, with many shelves of colour-coordinated law books.

Brass crowd

From level 2 is access to a large outside terrace garden with some good views of the city, but the best views are from the smaller, secret garden up on level 7 and the skyline viewpoint on level 9.

Garden vista

Entrance to the real

Alpha blue

Back inside to the Book Rotunda for the main reason for visiting, Together We Breath created by Super Critical Mass. The piece was for mass brass band, all volunteers from schools, colleges and professional ensembles. You can see the creators discuss the project and watch a clip of the rehearsal here. Whilst being described as having “not a tune in earshot but that’s not any kind of problem” the drone-brass did have a score, or at least a plan:

The Score
Photo by D Evans, used with permission

From my perspective the piece worked brilliantly, filling the space with hypnotic sound with a structure just beyond understanding, although it was slightly faster than expected from the rehearsal.

Brass large and small

Brass two

Brass three

This performance was the start of the Discovery Season, curated by the always interesting, and reliably brilliant Capsule, responsible for the Supersonic Festival and many amazing musical events. Very much looking forward to the rest of the season, especially Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham and Adrian Utley doing In C (with Pram!).

As for the rest of the building it is far too early to know if it will work but on day one the mixed and happy crowd loved it, with the story steps on the lower ground being very popular.

All too exciting

True there were some problems with the escalators stopping, probably due to the numbers of users, although I like to think it was in homage to the Madin Library with people stuck in the glass lift on its first day. Also some of the finish looks rough and hurried around the escalators. Even with all the people the building still felt spacious and easy to move around. The travelators from level 3 to 4 may help with people-moving but they do ruin the effect of the Book Rotunda cutting intrusively, in colour and size, across the top of the circular space.

Bright glass

The biggest disappointment, for me, is the Amphitheatre. From the original description and plans I envisaged more of a usable performance space, with tiered steps leading down to a below-ground stage. What we have is a sunken circle with no access from above and very limited viewing, just a single row around the fence. Whilst it is being used for some performances, and the opening fanfare, this appears a missed opportunity.

Cirles below

To help find your way around there is an excellent visitor guide which can be downloaded to prepare in advance.

And visit you must, this is an important addition to the city and deserves to be used and explored. Now if only we can convert Madin’s Library into the Birmingham Museum of Modern Art…

Brass blue


– words by Paul
– pictures by Paul & Dave





Views of Laos: the south

31 08 2013

Another short flight brings us to the city of Pakse and a boat trip down the Mekong Do Khong, one of the many islands in this part of the river. From here we visited waterfalls, saw river dolphins and took an elephant ride to a temple. The trip was completed with a land crossing back into Thailand.

The full set of photographs from this part of the trip can be found here.

On the Mekong south of Pakse
A type of grandeur

On the way up to Wat Phu
Seeking shelter

Inside one of the shrines at Wat Phu
One among many

On the wall at Wat Phu
Standing. Watching

A pontoon bridge to Khong Island
Walk on water

The Mekong from Khong island
Light splash

On the way to Ban Khang Tanglae village
Erode over time and water

At Ban Khang Tanglae village
Happy together


– words by Paul
– pictures by Paul





Views of Laos: Vientiane

30 08 2013

A short flight brings us to the capital city, Vientiane. A very small feeling city but relaxed and welcoming. From its soviet-style square, to a selection of temples and a colonial-style museum this was an easy city to explore during our all-too-brief visit.

The full set of photographs from this part of the trip can be found here.

Parade ground at the National Assembly Hall
The past is still with us

Motorcycle powered ink-jet printer at That Luang Stupa
May miss a business opportunity?

At That Luang Stupa complex
Foot marks

Memorial in the grounds of the That Luang Stupa complex
In memory of a life

View from the top of Patuxai (was Victory Arch)
Neatly set out

Inside Patuxai (was Victory Arch)
Seller on the spiral

Outside Patuxai (was Victory Arch)
Monk capture

One of the many statues at Wat Si Saket
Part missing

On a drive through the centre of the city
Small opening


– words by Paul
– pictures by Paul





Mulberry fields (forever)

29 08 2013

We crammed an awful lot into just one day on March 12th. After Sites 2 & 3 of the Plain of Jars we headed back into town for lunch. The group split up, to avoid overloading a single restaurant, and the two of us eventually opted for one of those deserted places that might turn out to be a terrible mistake. In fact we were served some of the best food we’d had in Lao: fried spring rolls and veg fried rice with really tasty, fiery dipping sauces. It was local food that hadn’t been made bland for tourists.

Midway through our meal a stream of people appeared from the floor above and exited through the restaurant, driving off in Toyota Hilux trucks with tinted windows. We couldn’t decide if they were office workers or local mafia.

After lunch, to Mulberries to meet the silkworms who’d made the scarves I bought in Luang Prabang.

In case of doubt

in case there was any doubt

We wandered through the mulberry fields, where all the production is organic, picking and eating the fruit, and thence into a shed where the worms live. The baby ones were tiny, but the older ones were unexpectedly large.

not twiglets

not twiglets

The larvae eat for several days, then sleep for several days in a cycle that changes as they age. Then they pupate and produces the all important cocoons.

let's pupate

cocooned

To recover the silk thread, the cocoons are put into boiling water. Stirring them around with a stick picks up the threads and they are then unwound by hand into long strands.

unwinding

A native cocoon produces about 300m of silk, a hyrid 700m.

winding

After the cocoon has been removed the pupae are edible, and no potential source of food in wasted in Lao. Nothing is wasted in Lao.

dyed

All the dyes at Mulberries are natural materials. The different colours and their sources were shown on charts. Of course we spent lots of time browsing the goods in the shop – it’s only polite – but sadly there was nothing other than a packet of mulberry leaf tea with my name on it.

orange

I did wish that they had yarn for sale, as well as woven goods – it would have been fabulous to buy laceweight silk yarn to crochet a shawl for myself.





Views of Laos: Plain of Jars

28 08 2013

From Luang Prabang we took a long drive to the unlovely town of Phonsavan to explore the Plain of Jars and learn more about the recent tragic history of Laos.

The full set of photographs from this part of the trip can be found here.

Early morning Phonsavan
Town, not yet awake

Explorers on site 2 of the Plain of Jars
Intrepid explorers

Site 3 of the Plain of Jars
Jar, jar, jar

Overview of site 1 of the Plain of Jars
Must count them all

Weaving at the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm, outside Phonsavan
Working ghost

Cluster bomb at Lao UXO Department just outside Phonsavan
Cluster death

Defused bomb at Lao UXO Department just outside Phonsavan
Now safe

Welcoming committee at Phonsavan airport for the visiting Vietnamese dignataries
Wave, with flower


– words by Paul
– pictures by Paul





Views of Laos: Luang Prabang

27 08 2013

The second part of our trip through Laos finds us in the former capital of Luang Prabang. The old city, with no buildings over four stories, is bounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and, other than a small area of bars for young people, is quite lovely.

The full set of photographs from this part of the trip can be found here.

Very early in the morning for Tak Bat, the Monk’s Alms Procession
Collecting

Coffee and doughnuts at the Saney Om coffee shop
Coffee and doughnuts

Inside Wat Visoun (aka Wat Wisunarat)
Increase in size

Fortune telling at Wat Visoun (aka Wat Wisunarat)
Good fortune today?

One of many colonial buildings in the centre of town
Good structure

Statue at the Royal Palace Museum
I watch over you

Part-finished statue
Will be finished one day

On the bank of the Mekong
View of a purple world


– words by Paul
– pictures by Paul





Views of Laos: the north

26 08 2013

In March 2013 we spent sometime travelling through Laos. We started by crossing the Mekong from Thailand to the small but pleasant town of Ban Houei Sai, leaving our passports for a visa whilst we went for lunch. Our bus then took use to Luang Namtha for village life and a walk in the hills. Then on to Nong Khiaw for spectacular river views and a boat trip down towards Luang Prabang.

The full set of photographs from this part of the trip can be found here.

Traditional village house
Sustainable development

Less than traditional village children
Young hipster

River view at Nong Khiaw
Look the other way

Rock formations on the Nam Ou river south of Nong Khiaw
Water line

Local village weaving
Detailed working

Kitchen in a village house
Kitchen support

Bridge across the Nam Ou river at Nong Khiaw
View from the bar

Inside the Pak Ou caves on the Nam Ou/Mekong river confluence
Fire pot


– words by Paul
– pictures by Paul








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