Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College, Oxford, 18th August 2012

A Midsummer Night's DreamOur annual visit to Oxford to see the Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College was a bit late this year – all that rain in July doesn’t make you want to sit in the wet watching rude mechanicals, no matter how entertaining they are. Then came the Olympics so everything else got put on hold. But fortunately, the sun came out and the rain went away for last Saturday so Mrs Chrisparkle and I were able to gather together a party of seven, including Lady Duncansby and our nieces, Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra (plus their mum and dad) to stake our place in the front row for the matinee of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Gemma Fairlie. This is the second time that the OSC has staged Dream, the first being a few years ago now, but this is a completely different production, less ethereal and more farcical.

Antony JardineIt’s such a privilege to spend an afternoon with picnic and Pinot watching the Bard brought alive with some modern tricks in a contemporary setting. This Theseus is the Head of an Oxford College, and Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius are undergraduates. The first line has Theseus on his mobile complaining about bikes parked in the wrong place (“I don’t care if they do belong to Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, get them moved!”) and so if you’re the kind of purist who doesn’t appreciate that kind of addition to the text, you might find this production a bit of a challenge. But I always say that a modern version doesn’t rewrite the original, and I’m always up for a jazzy version of Shakespeare.

Andrew VenningThe first couple of scenes are actually played in promenade, so we all left our hard fought-for seats and went to the garden entrance to see Theseus in a tizzy and Lysander proposing to Hermia, whilst Helena ham-fistedly spies on them from behind a bush. There’s absolutely no denying this production of Dream is played to get the maximum laughs available – and it really succeeds. Bottom – this time a gardener and not a weaver – arrives and encourages us to another part of the garden where he and Peter Quince start dividing up the parts for Pyramus and Thisbe. Alexander McWilliam There don’t appear to be any other members of their troupe so audience members are approached to be Flute and Snout – but don’t worry, you don’t have to do anything if you are chosen; it’s just a good excuse for a bit of jolly banter. Mind you, later on two audience members were chosen to play the lion and the moonshine, and the laughter of the little girl playing the moon almost stole the show!

Rebecca NaylorBy the time Puck has enticed us back to our seats (where we stay for the rest of the show) any barrier that might have existed between audience and cast has been well and truly broken. What then comes over particularly well with this production is its high level of active physical comedy. As usual a number of the roles are doubled up – and in the case of Antony Jardine, tripled up, with the result that he’s barely ever off stage. His Theseus marks the bookends at the beginning and end of the play, but he’s also Quince – who himself doubles up as Flute, playing Thisbe – and also Oberon; and he tackles all of these roles with great verve and humour. I don’t know how he manages all the costume changes. Also responsible for a lot of very funny horseplay are Andrew Venning as Lysander and Alexander McWilliam as Demetrius, who basically fight like girls, do excellent po-faced sincerity at the Rachael Henleybehest of Hermia or Helena, or neither, or both; roll around in the grass a lot and attack the physical comedy head on. How can Demetrius resenting having his hair ruffled be so funny? There’s a scene where Oberon, who has the ability to charm anyone to sleep or awakeness with a beckoning of his hand, casts a spell on Demetrius by rubbing his big toe on either side of Demetrius’ cheeks. Mr Jardine must have been in a mischievous mood for the last Saturday matinee of the run – I don’t think Demetrius was expecting Oberon to rub the full length of the underneath of his foot right down the centre of Demetrius’ face so that the poor stunned Mr McWilliam was effectively podiatrically violated in the cause of comedy – fair play, he just managed to keep a straight face.

Helen Bang Rebecca Naylor’s Helena is a comedy sensation; with her secretary glasses and attractively gawky presence, she turns in a beautiful performance that encompasses down-trodden lovelorn to unwilling dominatrix and she is very funny. Rachael Henley’s Hermia is suitably more straightforward, but with a touch of the Catherine Tate’s Lauren about her and Helen Bang makes a very classy Titania/Hippolyta.Mark Pearce Mark Pearce is great as Bottom – his clowning is nicely underplayed and his backchat with the audience emphasises the artificiality of the situation. Hiran Abeysekera’s Puck has a great vocal range and is really well cast, looking like a diminutive sprite with a penchant for mischief. You share in his enjoyment of the farcical, and you feel sorry for him when he is criticised. I suspect Mr Abeysekera may well have a very good future in the theatre.

Hiran AbeysekeraThe play has been quite heavily cut in parts – which makes sense with a production lacking a number of the minor characters. However I did get a bit irked by the fact that Titania kept on referring to her fairy companions when there weren’t any – I rather wish those lines had been cut too. A minor detail. You won’t come away from this Midsummer Night’s Dream with a deeper understanding of its central themes of love and marriage, abuse of authority, identity and imagination; but you will remember scene after scene packed with laughs and inventive comedy. It’s an excellent production to mark the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s tenth anniversary, and the audience loved it.


The Real Chrisparkle meets Susan C Fox!

As the Dust SettlesHello and welcome to another of my occasional interviews with artists and writers around the world and I am delighted to welcome the writer Susan C Fox from Washington DC, author of “As The Dust Settles – Finding Life at Ground Zero”.



RealChrisSparkle: Welcome Susan! Please, to start us off, give us a bit of an outline of what your book is all about. The aftermath of the 9/11 attack on New York, right?

Susan C Fox: Hi Chris. Yes, it is a book about the recovery after 9/11 in the neighborhood of ground zero, which the affected area surrounding the former World Trade Center site was called. In August of 2002, my husband and I moved to the area and after living there for several months I felt obliged to begin writing about the area and seeking out residents and later businesses to find out how they were doing as it was a very difficult area to live. I interviewed residents, businesses and people who worked in the area to discuss not simply the event of 9/11, but more so the implications it had on their lives and how they were dealing with their own recoveries.

RCS: It must have been a really strange place to live at that time. Why did you decide to move to the area in the first place?

Susan C FoxSCF: Initially, I think I was curious about the neighborhood and thought that moving there may be a way of assisting in some way. Later, the decision became a financial one. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) was created to begin the rebuilding process and offered anyone willing to move there a monthly grant of $500 for the first two years. Given the cost of moving to NYC, which requires not only the first month’s rent and deposit (which is another month’s rent), you also had to pay the last months rent. At the time, our financial situation was a big concern and this was a way of moving without putting us in a worse financial situation.

RCS: It’s interesting that there was a financial incentive to move there, as I discovered from reading your book (which I found absolutely fascinating!) that a number of the local residents and businesses really suffered financially as a result of the terror attacks. How did the state go about helping the residents and businesses financially?

SCF: The grants that the LMDC, which was a government organization, not only provided them for new residents, but also to retain previous tenants. They also offered funds to the businesses as well. There were also charities, Safe Horizons, The Red Cross and the like, that assisted residents by reimbursing them for food costs, in some cases, medical treatments, psychological counseling, and banks offered loans at a lower rate. However, what I later discovered, many of the people living closest to ground zero had a difficult time getting assistance. For the businesses, the amount of money received depended on how long the businesses were established which for new businesses affected was for some ruin and others simply disastrous.

RCS: Yes for those people, they really suffered twice, didn’t they – as if the destruction of their buildings and neighbourhood wasn’t enough. Their financial ruin is something that wouldn’t have occurred to me. How do you think overall that the authorities coped with the situation? Did they manage it as well as could be expected, or do you think they let some people down?

Ground ZeroSCF: I think many people were let down. What I found most interesting was that the anger many people had in my neighborhood was directed at the government, rather than the terrorist. And although there was that, the people who experienced the attacks first hand were the people least looking for retaliation. I think the EPA should have done something immediately and the contaminated buildings should have been brought down after the “pile” (the remains of the towers) was removed. All in all, it was a terribly difficult situation, but it was not organized in a way that was logical. I think initially it was simply a matter of a rescue effort, and then it was a matter of removing the debris and getting the area cleaned. But after things settled a bit, I think organization was lacking and their was not a central focus on the future of the neighborhood.

RCS: That is fascinating – that the people who were affected first hand were the least retaliative; I guess they were just relieved to be alive. And you touch on another subject here that I don’t think many people in the UK at least were really aware of – the contamination. Basically, the area was strewn with poisoned dust, is that right? That must have given rise to many health scares.

SCF: Incredibly so. When the owners of the Deutsche Bank finally sold the building to the LMDC, which was several years later, a report surfaced regarding the kinds and amounts of chemicals in that building and it was staggering. Much of the danger was already known to medical professionals especially those attending to the rescue workers, but little was done and people had returned to the area and lived there for several years. Most of the air testing was done three years after the attacks, so it was too little too late. Outside of the contamination, there was also the problem of rodent infestation and very little mention of the amount or level of human remains that were all over the area. For the people cleaning out their apartments and businesses, this was also a problem.

Contaminated apartmentRCS: There’s an almost pathetic photograph in the book of someone’s otherwise elegant living room covered with grime, which really brings home a sense of how personally the contamination invaded people’s lives. Is the area generally safe now?

SCF: That’s a great question. I should think generally, as a whole, it is safe. However, I would also add that for many of the residential buildings it is questionable, as they were not properly tested. Much of the dust may have gone below the floors, between walls, etc. and in some cases there are buildings that remain untouched. They were empty on September 11, 2001 and remain so. Those buildings, I would assume contain all of the dust and debris from that period. Unless the buildings’ interior structure (behind the walls, ceiling and floors) are tested, there is really no way of knowing.

RCS: That is a pretty scary situation. Does that add to a general unease for the current residents, or are they just putting it out of their collective minds?

SCF: I think, in the end, one must move forward. Part of the difficulty for the residents, workers, and businesses has been the ability to move forward and continue with their lives even after three or four years. The construction process has been just as painful for them. Many people left the area for different reasons. Those who have stayed, they have to live with this question everyday. For some, they lived and worked in the debris cleaning out their own homes without any assistance for close to nine months. They lived with the contamination, as did the rescue workers. In the end, many of them realize they have been exposed and will deal with the consequences. For those who are new to the area, I am not sure it is an issue.

RCS: Can I ask you about the people that you interviewed for the book? How many people did you actually speak to, and how did you go about finding people to interview?

SCF: I interviewed nearly 140 people, some on the record, some off. My first interview was in May of 2003 and my last was November of 2004. So I spent almost 18 months interviewing people. Some people I found through friends and acquaintances, others I read about in the papers and wanted to learn more from them as many of their interviews were really piecemeal So I cold called people and stopped into businesses. Some people gave me referrals and contacted their friends, and as I moved further into my research I found others in government agencies and the like. I have to admit I was quite nervous cold calling people, but overall the reception I got was amazing and so many people wanted to talk on so many different levels and for so many different reasons.

RCS: That is a huge number – you undertook a really comprehensive survey. I can imagine that the cold calling was a bit nerve-wracking, but it’s interesting that people were willing to talk so readily. Do you think you almost provided a counselling service to them?

SCF: In some cases, I think so. Overall I think 85-90% of the people I asked to speak to agreed. I really became emotionally connected to these people. It is hard to walk into someone’s home without knowing them and ask them to trust me and tell me about the worst day in their lives. The more I found out, the more respect and admiration I had for all of them, and the more I knew I needed to get the book out. After a year and a half, I eventually was burned out, and needed to take a bit of a reprieve from the book. Unfortunately, four of the people I interviewed passed away before the book was published and that is in itself difficult.

RCS: I was wondering if you had become personal friends with any of them as a result – although maybe friends isn’t the right word? Preparing the book, and then publishing it – albeit after your necessary break away from it – must have become almost like a personal mission for you. Did you feel as though you were allowing these people to have a voice, so that their story can be understood by a wider audience?

Ground Zero looking toward Deutsche BankSCF: I have become friends with many of them, and two of the people who died, I felt very close to. It really was a personal mission, initially the need to write the book came from within. I found it to be such a difficult place to live and I just kept thinking, how are the people doing who were here on that terrible day? How are they surviving? So it began from my own needs, and then it evolved into the need to tell the story of this community. I felt they were underrepresented and they had so much to tell. In the end, I think that by living there and living with all of the daily pressures I was able to experience something that another writer, who didn’t live there may not have. But I also think, that by not being there on 9/11, I had a bit of a distance and yet I also experienced the attack on my own city of DC. In other words, I had a vantage point of understanding and at the same time distance. I think this helped with trust and my commitment to the area and community. At the same time, my distance from the event itself, allowed me to do the interviews and write the book.

RCS: For my part, I think you’ve absolutely achieved that – you are able to bring these individuals’ experiences to the reader and get quite intimately involved with each story – they’re all different in their own ways – but in a structural way, you somehow remain dispassionate and non-judgmental, which really allows the reader to focus on the people themselves. On a personal level – if I may be so bold – did it make you think differently about your own life?

SCF: Thanks Chris that is kind of you — there are some things that I wish I could have included, but my main goal of the book was to stay back from the personal stories and experiences and allow people to speak. I struggled with this at times, not in the way of critique, but adding perhaps more of a theoretical perspective. In the end, I chose not to. My experiences upon moving to NYC were so interesting and so many different things happened on different levels on a daily basis that I was frequently emotionally moved and continuously working through these moments. I felt that I was being thrown into something in such a way that it has to be told. Once you add the community into the fold, I thought it could be a different kind of book.

The whole experience, professionally and personally has changed me. I was not used to this kind of writing be it sociological or journalistic and it began out of the need to do it. I think in the end, it has had to change me, but it is difficult to say how as it has been unfolding for sometime and I’m getting older. Although, the whole experience at times was very difficult I wouldn’t change it. I never thought I could fall in love with a community and neighborhood as much as I have and I guess with any love affair you have to take the good with the bad. I have always been somewhat on the periphery of communities that I have been involved with, and I can say that has really changed. I know my neighbors now and get involved with their lives and they with mine. In the end, they may be the people you have to rely on and that may need you.

RCS: They say every book changes the world, but you don’t always think that applies to its author. Thanks for that thoughtful reply. From my own experience, I know that life is very different in a village from in a large town (having lived in both) and that community spirit varies widely from place to place. But you can have that closeness even within a large and ostensibly faceless community and it sounds like that’s something that will stay with you for good! So, having written this book, do you have the urge to write another?

SCF: Indeed, there are many villages in large cities and at the same time you have your anonymity as well. Yes, I do have some things in mind, a bit more academic. But at present, with a two and a three and a half year old, I think I will have to hold off on that for a bit. I am teaching and hope that a book can come out of the research I have been doing and perhaps it all stems from my experiences with the book in some ways. I teach art students, and one of my courses “the psychology of creativity” is a hit with the students, so hopefully I can write a book on creativity and how it relates to the psychology of the individual and their need to create.

RCS: Your course sounds fascinating! And yes I can well imagine that having two youngsters is not entirely conducive to spending hours researching at the computer. Good luck with your new book as and when you get the opportunity! Thank you again Susan for your time speaking to me today and very best wishes for the future.

SCF: Thanks Chris. It has been an absolute pleasure!

And if you want to buy “As the Dust Settles” it’s available from Amazon here.

Photos copyright of Susan C Fox with the exception of the black and white photograph of the apartment living room, copyright Cheryl Dunn.

Our Olympic Experience No 3 – Canoe Sprint, Eton Dorney, 10th August 2012

Eton DorneyWhen I book theatre tickets I always like to be near the front if possible, which normally means paying the top price. Generally I would prefer to go less often but with the best seats, rather than finding myself stuck somewhere on a balcony gasping for oxygen whilst peering down on to a tiny stage miles away. With the Olympics, however, the best seats are likely to be several hundred pounds so that was never going to be an option – and for the football and boxing we bought the cheapest seats available. But for some inspired reason, when I bought the seats for the canoeing, I went for the top price (£60). And I am so glad I did, as Mrs Chrisparkle and I found ourselves in Row 1 of Stand 1, virtually at eye level with the finishing line. I have never enjoyed such an excellent view at any sporting event ever!

TV Camera Rig-upAs ever, the whole experience was made so much more enjoyable by the twin ingredients of enthusiastic volunteers and gamesmakers, and superb seamless planning and logistics. For Eton Dorney, we chose to Park-and-Ride at Stafferton Way in Maidenhead, which involved driving to a car park and then getting a shuttle bus. Originally I had thought we could go by train; but, according to the London 2012 travel site, in order to get to Maidenhead station early enough to negotiate the shuttle service, walk and airport security, we would have had to have departed Northampton at about 8.30pm the night before. Thus we opted for the 90 minute drive. The Park-and-Ride was an excellent choice; we were nicely parked up and had joined the briefest of queues for the shuttle bus within moments of our arrival. The Shuttle Bus takes you to Windsor Racetrack, where you walk on a carpet of temporary plastic bricks for about a kilometre to get to the security check-in.

Big lensThe gamesmakers were really on top form, welcoming and helloing, guiding your journey to the entrance. Shortly before the security area the path breaks into two – should you go left or right? One megaphoned volunteer announced: “you may take either the left or right path. The queue on the left is a little shorter, but the staff on the right are a little better looking”. We went right. Once through, another megaphoned gamesmaker, the self-styled Mr Happy, was welcoming guests. “I like happy couples” he said, “you make me happy when you look happy”. He had a bon mot for everyone walking past. He really made me laugh. Inspire a generation – I want to be a gamesmaker when I grow up.

The finishing lineAs we had to leave home at an ungodly hour, we then went on a breakfast hunt. Fortunately Mrs C had been very sensible and brought with her some pre-buttered gluten-free bread. Roast beef rolls from a hog-roast-type stall were a rather unorthodox breakfast but very filling and actually quite delicious. They kindly didn’t charge us for Mrs C’s unused roll, so two huge chunks of roast beef each and one roll cost £12.50. We perched on the edge of some concrete stand and slowly breakfasted. Then it was time for a pre-sport toilet break – Mrs C reported nothing remarkable from her visit to the Ladies, but I was astounded at the positioning of the urinal in the portacabin type construction that I used. With the door open, anyone queueing for breakfast baguettes would have received a complementary eyeful of activity at the urinal. I decided to opt for a cubicle.

More actionOnce inside the stand, we decided to make ourselves comfortable and await the sports. I would suggest you take some kitchen towels or tissues because the seats were pretty wet from dew. Fortunately I had kept my roast beef roll serviettes, which were fine for the purpose. On the big screen opposite, we had two genial hosts introducing the activities of the day; and throughout the morning (our session was 9.30 – 12.30) they either interviewed participating canoeists and kayakists, or entertained the crowd with Mexican Wave practice and Bongo-cam, which is where a camera alights on you unexpectedly and you have to play the bongos to a suitable backing track to the hoots of laughter of your immediate friends and the wider derision of Eton Dorney as a whole. It’s funnier than it sounds. I didn’t get the lady’s name but he was called Dave. They did a very good job of keeping everything moving and engaged inter cursus although with a race every seven minutes or so, there’s not a lot of down time. He modelled his “look to camera” on Brian from Big Brother, which might not be an entirely wise move. The other amuse bouche which remanifested itself continually throughout the morning was Mandeville and Wenlock’s song, “On A Rainbow”. They’re the London 2012 mascots, if you hadn’t worked it out. It’s a bustling bright little number that would be perfect in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest and revels in jolly lines like “who knows how far you may go when you travel on a rainbow”. You’d be very hard-hearted not to adore it, even after being forced to hear it six times in one morning.

Another nailbiting finishThe sporting programme for the morning itself was, we were told, historically unique in that it was the first time 200m canoe and kayak sprints had been introduced to the Olympic Games. They’re rather exciting to watch, and rarely take more than 40 seconds or so to complete, so these guys and girls are the Usain Bolts of their sport. Men’s single and double kayaks, Men’s single canoes and Women’s single kayaks, all doing 200m at a dash; firstly heats, then semi-finals. The heats were a little odd; depending on how many participants there were in the heats, to progress through to the next round you had to finish in the top five or six positions. However, in some of the heats, there were only six competitors anyway – so they all got through. It was more like a dress rehearsal really. In fact, in the Men’s single canoes, there were four heats in which 25 competitors took part – and only one of them didn’t get through to the semi-finals, poor Mr Demyanenkov from Azerbaijan – and even he had a quicker course time than seven other participants who did get through. The vagaries of sport, heh?

Yet more actionWe did of course loudly cheer all the Team GB competitors, all of whom got through their heats and three of whom made it through the semis into the finals which would take place the next day. A couple of rows behind us there were about ten very vociferous French spectators who went ecstatic every time one of their countrymen or women took to the water. There were also some Australians, Canadian, Slovaks, and many other nationalities all supported. There were also some plucky competitors who finished way behind the others in their heats and semis, but who still got massive rounds of applause when they eventually crossed the finishing line. Probably the winner of the “kayaking outside his league” award was Nelson Henriques of Angola who not only crossed the line a long time after his rivals, but also delayed the beginning of each of his races by his inability to get into starting position in the first place. That’s the kind of sportsman I would be.

The crowd behind usSo 23 races constituting a good three hours worth of entertainment, in a very good-humoured crowd, with a fabulous view of the action and in glorious sunshine. What more could you want? The trip back to the Shuttle buses was quick and easy – with the gamesmakers lining the route for Hi-Fives all the way back, if you felt so inclined; even one of the bazooka wielding policemen was Hi-Fiving everyone; a trifle risky, I thought. Mr Happy was still on his perch, being happy and encouraging everyone to come back tomorrow because that would make him really happy. If you’re missing any prozac, he’s got to be a suspect. No queues for the shuttle bus, and the exit from the Park-and-Ride car park took about three minutes. I doubt if we’ll get any last minute tickets to any other events, so that wraps up our Olympic experiences. Great memories! And if you went to any Olympic events, I hope you cherish the memories too.

Our Olympic Experience No 2 – Men’s Boxing, Flyweight and Welterweight Rounds, ExCel Arena, 3rd August 2012

Day 7After a day’s Armchair Olympics, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were up and out on a mid-morning train to London for some Flyweight and Welterweight Boxing Rounds at the ExCel. Lots of firsts for us here – neither of us had seen live boxing before, nor had we been to the ExCel, nor had we trekked out that far into the wilds of Docklands. When I amateurishly dabbled with Postgraduate life at Queen Mary College in East London in the early 1980s, this area was largely a wasteland. Mile End, Stratford and such places always had some liveliness, but one never ventured out as far as Canning Town. The DLR has opened up a whole new area which we had never seen. This was only our second ever trip on the DLR – the first being a good 15 years ago when we were in the company of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle taking her on an excursion to Greenwich, where she spent the whole day scowling, as was her wont in those days. But I was amazed at how developed, lively, trendy and generally fabulous this part of East London has turned out to be. The ExCel is actually alongside the Royal Victoria Dock, where I believe my paternal grandfather worked; and not far from George V Docks, where both my dad and his brother laboured as teenagers. How times have changed.

BoxingA quick check of my Tube Map App recommended the Northern Line from Euston to Bank then DLR to Custom House. Quite easy – approximately 33 minutes. When we arrived at Euston, however, the recommended Olympic route, on all the information boards, was Victoria Line to Kings Cross, then Circle Line to Liverpool Street, walk to the mainline station, take the Overground to Stratford, walk 6 minutes to Stratford DLR, and from there head to Custom House – 1 hour 8 minutes. Or alternatively, with one fewer change, (but three minutes longer), tube it to Highbury and Islington, then take the overground to Stratford. Why all the fuss? We just went to Bank, changed nice and simply to the DLR and arrived at Custom House station long before we needed to, so much so that we stopped off for a decent cuppa tea at a bar adjacent to the station, which was awash with accredited people from all nations of the world.

Custom House stationVery jolly and friendly security checks got us into the ExCel. We walked its length and breadth and soaked up the atmosphere, which really was rather splendid. Not only does it house the Boxing, but also Judo, Weightlifting, Table Tennis, Fencing, Wrestling and Taekwondo. As our sports session was from 1.30 to 3.30pm, we thought we’d have a light lunch at one of the stalls. Again this involved the usual gluten-free hunt, but that was quite easily achieved by the appearance of a large and tasty looking Jacket Potato stall, so both Mrs C and I had a Jacket Spud with cheese and beans (£5.50 each) and some water. We sat on the floor, ate, drank and were merry.

ExCelOnce you get inside the Boxing area itself, there are more food and drink stalls, plenty of toilets and a little semi-museum of boxing artefacts and full size shrines to famous boxers. A guy who looked as though we would be handy with his fists was posing next to a lifesize cardboard cut out of some boxing champion or other. His lady was attempting to take a photo that would doubtless serve as The Perfect Facebook Profile Pic. Looking round the museum area, I tried to find some references to the amateur boxers my Mum knew when she was young and carefree, but drew a blank. We wandered around a little more, and saw a weigh-in machine, and a few other exhibits. We turned to go into the arena, pausing to watch the posing guy still with his dukes up and bearing a very pained and embarrassed expression as his lady was still fiddling uselessly with the camera. I think the fun moment was lost.

Our viewOnce inside the arena, I was impressed with the overall size of the room but felt the boxing ring itself looked a bit dwarfed by everything else. There were plenty of TV screens to help you see the action a bit clearer and closer up but if you’re going to rely on those you might as well stay at home. A jovial announcer chap introduced us to some video which explained the finer points of this noble art; and then he interviewed a few excited punters. Apart from the relatively small area obviously set aside for the “Olympic Family”, it was good to see that the hall was more or less full. The crowd was very expectant for the final bout as that would feature Great Britain’s Fred Evans’ fight against Lithuania’s Egidijus Kavaliauskas, so it was almost as though the seven matches before it were like a warm-up act.

Filling up nowWhat became very obvious as the afternoon wore on is that Olympic Boxing is highly tactical. You win by scoring points – and you get a point every time the knuckle edge of your glove strikes your opponent in the appropriate target place – head or torso. Points make prizes, and no score is no glory. There were a couple of bouts where the two boxers, admittedly nimble on their toes, spent what seemed like hours just tippety-tapping their gloves against their opponents glove, for which cheeky approach the opponent would just tippety-tap back. A typical end of round score for this type of shenanigans was 2-1. All tactics and no fisticuffs, which is actually a bit boring to watch, especially when you’re sat at a distance from the ring. They may have floated like a butterfly, but some of them stung like one too. There were, however, definitely some boxers who showed more fighting spirit than others. There was a 17 year old flyweight Puerto Rican, Jeyvier Cintron Ocasio, who was suitably polite and reverential to his elders and betters outside the three minute rounds but then went hammer and tongs at his opponent, the Brazilian Neto, during the match itself. Amongst the welterweights, Canadian Custio Clayton eventually seemed to get the idea that a little aggression is necessary and his final round against the rather overwhelmed Australian Cameron Hammond was worth staying awake for.

An early matchIn order to overcome the tedium of paying attention to each second of each round, the crowd as a whole developed coping strategies. The most popular was to get up at all times during the session, whether it be before, during, or after any particular round, and go to the bar. Unlike at the football, you were allowed to bring alcohol into the arena. Some people took this opportunity several times during the two hours. It was as though they regarded their (at least) £50 tickets as entry to a very expensive club, where you simply go and get drinks for everyone, and there’s a bit of boxing going on as minor background diversion.

A later matchThe next most popular activity was checking Facebook. Every other smartphone was lit up with that familiar blue and grey screen, as husbands commented on action pics and wives chatted to girlfriends. The other entertainment activity – the boxing equivalent of the Mexican Wave really – is to pick on an unlikely competitor and support them for no good reason whatsoever. It only takes one mischief maker to start up the cry “Mon-Go-Lia! Mon-Go-Lia!” for the whole crowd to join in and support the plucky pugilists from Ulaan Bator. I saw the person who started the Mongolia chant – he was about four seats in front of me – and I can tell you the nearest he’s been to a yurt was the camping sale at Millet’s. There’s no doubt the chant worked wonders – we had two Mongolian boxers in our session and they both upped their game in response to our admiration, although the Welterweight still lost – dashed close though. The mischievous chanter got bored – and with good reason – at the dull tactical bout between Ukraine’s Shelestyuk and Moldova’s Belous, and started up a “Mol-Dov-A! Mol-Dov-A!” chant; but we knew what game he was playing, and no one was having any of it. After a dozen or so lone shouts, he shut up, embarrassed.

Full arenaThe whole thing is a surprisingly theatrical event. The entrances of the boxers; the arrival of the next lot of judges and referees like a changing of the guard; the pantomime reactions of the crowd. There were no busty blondes walking the number of the next round inside the ring, but I guess we weren’t in Vegas. For that final match between Britain and Lithuania, not only did the crowd sing with one voice “Freddie! Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!” but they also loudly booed poor Mr Kavaliauskas, which was unsportsmanlike and I wasn’t very happy with it. Even less happy was I with the booing that met M. Vastine of France and Signor Picardi of Italy, whose sole transgressions were to have been pitted against a Mongolian. Still, I cheered on Freddie like he was an old mate, even if he was extremely tactical in his approach to his opponent; and as my reward Evans did give him a good going-over in the last round to seal his victory. I’m not sure what would have happened if he had lost – the judges would have been lynched.

Thames BarrierWhen it was all over we all got up quickly, and, ignoring Seb Coe’s recorded message of “thanks and bye”, we left the arena and headed down towards Pontoon Dock station to get the DLR, but first to enjoy a brief side visit to the Thames Barrier Park – for yes, it is indeed just here – and a rather enjoyable view of the Barrier. We had decided to go home for dinner (by home I mean eating out in Northampton, not actually “at home” of course) but thought we might first see what the West End was looking like in the height of London’s Olympic frenzy. I would say it was a little quieter than usual – particularly as far as traffic was concerned. Charing Cross Road barely had any. After a nice little Pinot Grigio in Covent Garden, we made our way back. A fascinating day out – not quite as entertaining as we had expected but well worth the experience; and a continued Hats Off to the organisers and volunteers who have made this Olympics a most extraordinary thing.

Our Olympic Experience No 1 – Men’s Football, Japan v Honduras and Senegal v UAE, Coventry Stadium, 1st August 2012

Olympic FootballAs I’m sure you’re aware, dear reader, deep down Mrs Chrisparkle and I are very sporty types, so I put our application in for the ballot for Olympic tickets on Day One, what seems like many years ago now. Like nearly everyone else, we were completely unsuccessful in all of our choices. But that meant we were entitled to go for the Sad Losers’ Repecharge, and subsequently obtained tickets to three sports, totally unrelated to the six of our original application. Still, once we got them, we held on to them, and on Wednesday we sampled our first taste of Live Olympic Glory.

JapanCoventry was the perhaps slightly unlikely location for this momentous event, as some of the football events are being held at the Ricoh Arena – I mean the City of Coventry Stadium (close shave with the Branding Police there!) We arrived at the station courtesy of our London Midland train on perfect time, and were greeted by about a dozen joyful volunteers whose sole job seemed to be to say hi and welcome and point to where the complimentary Shuttle Buses were waiting. Within 60 seconds of getting off the train we were sitting on the bus – you can’t say fairer than that. And very soon we were off on the first leg of Glory.

HondurasAt the stadium, we were asked to take everything out of our pockets and put them into a clear plastic bag that they kindly provided; any small bags could be taken straight through, but any larger ones had to be security checked. “This counts as small, yes?” said Mrs C to the friendly lady, pointing at her handbag. “No. That needs to go through security.” But the procedure was about as speedy and pleasant as it could be. We were rapidly whisked to a nice lady who asked permission to open Mrs C’s bag, agreed that everything inside was perfectly valid and non-terrorist, and then put her bag into another large clear bag, tie-twisted it up with an enormous security tag that could have restrained an oak tree, and we were cleared to enter. A friendly lady asked if I wanted to buy a programme. Yes please. But there are £5 and £10 programmes, and the lady went into careful detail to explain the difference between the two. I opted for the fiver.

SenegalMore friendly people waved us towards the turnstile entrances, with “hello” and “welcome” and “have a nice day” and it all sounded really genuine and welcoming. It’s a pity Life can’t be more like the Olympics, really. Mrs C and I were separated at the turnstile into “men” and “women” queues so that we could be same-sex-frisked (“Don’t mind if I pat you down, sir?” politely enquired the presumably G4S security guy) and then it was a quick scan of a barcode and we were inside. They say in advance to expect airport-style security. They are wrong; it is hugely more friendly and polite than any airport experience I’ve ever had.

UAEOnce inside there is a vast array of food and drink outlets – more than enough to deal with this crowd you would have thought…. (see later). We established which would be the best one to offer a gluten-free meal for between the matches. Nearly every one was offering steak pie, pasty, cheese and bacon slice, etc and we thought uh-oh this doesn’t look promising. I distinctly remembering reading on some London 2012 site that they had put a lot of thought into providing for the sustenance needs of people with food allergies. We kept looking. Eventually we found two outlets that were offering Chicken or Vegetable Jalfrezi, with rice and naan. We had already thought that a glass of pre-match wine would be a good idea so ordered two London 2012 Chenin Blancs and asked whether the Jalfrezi was gluten-free. After some backstage consultation the lady came back and said yes! We said great! We’ll be back later. The Chenin Blanc was just about cold enough but very tasty and we stood in front of a screen and watched Bradley Wiggins coasting home to victory, to a huge cheer from the others also watching.

Japan and Honduras National AnthemsI’m pleased to say there is plenty of toilet provision, which is always a Good Thing. For the gents, a veritable plethora of urinals; I reckon at least 300 people could use them at the same time, and that was just on our side of the stadium. Ladies were also well catered for, I understand. However, Mrs C’s enjoyment of the toilet provision was marred by the overzealous actions of the Branding Police. I had noticed in the Gents that the name of the company supplying the hot air dryers had been masking-taped-over. Didn’t give it a huge amount of thought to be honest. Mrs C, however, complained that not only did they do that in the Ladies with the hot air dryers, but also with the soap dispenser, the Sanitary Towel bin and most ridiculously of all, with the names on the vending machine. So you couldn’t tell if you were buying an urgently needed tampon or a tangerine-flavoured condom. She came out speechless with annoyance about it, finding it an insult to her intelligence. So much so, gentle reader, and don’t tell anyone, but, aggrieved by the wrong done to the sisterhood, she returned back inside and removed the masking tape from the vending machine. As she pointed out, if you had bought the tangerine-flavoured condom by mistake you would be more than narked. A little civil disobedience from time to time is just something that has to be done.

Our excellent seatsThe first of the two matches we would be seeing was Japan v Honduras. Not a lot of Honduran shirts or flags in evidence, but, my, what a lot of Japanese! Every other person had a red dot on a white oblong painted on their face, loads of people wrapped themselves in large Japanese flags, ladies were in sporty kimonos, guys were dressed in full Samurai warrior outfits. The atmosphere was tangibly exciting. They were really throwing themselves into the spirit of the event in a way that I hadn’t expected.

Japan v HondurasWe took our seats; and they were great. East stand, more or less in line with the front end of the penalty box, about fifteen rows back. Everyone of course is currently concerned with Empty Seat Syndrome, but I didn’t think the ground was looking that bad. People kept coming in and going out so it was difficult to gauge the attendance but it looked to us about 75% full. The teams came on; we had the National Anthems. Everyone stood in respectful silence for both anthems (apart from the Japanese who sang along, which was only right and proper).

Flags of all footballing nationsAnd from then on, it got a bit boring. The match wasn’t very exciting – both Japan and Honduras were already through to the next round so there wasn’t a great deal to play for apart from a bit of honour on the day. I’m certainly not saying they did a “Badminton”, they just weren’t very good at finishing. Or starting, come to that. At half time we were thrown big bouncy balls to play with. That was good. Second half came, still not a lot of action, but we hang on till the final whistle to mark the end of the thrilling no score draw.

Senegal v UAEThere was a good hour between the end of the match and the beginning of the Senegal v UAE match so we thought there would be plenty of time to queue for a Jalfrezi. Actually Mrs C had suggested we leave five minutes early to queue, but we decided that ought not to be necessary. Wrong! When we eventually got to the outlet in question, there was a very long queue. Should we join it, or come back when it has gone down? We joined. After half an hour we were close to the counter, but then – disaster struck. They ran out of pies. Everyone else was desperate for pies, it seems, and they were waiting for fresh supplies to go in the oven. But instead of trying to find out if anyone wanted anything else to eat, they just stopped serving. And waited. They would serve people who just wanted drinks, but that was all. Eventually extra pies arrived, but not before some people had got unsurprisingly very arsey and tetchy about it. In fact I was surprised at the amount of good grace and forbearance most of the customers showed. After 45 minutes of queueing we were finally able to order. Two Vegetable Jalfrezis and two glasses of your Finest London 2012 Tempranillo Shiraz, if you please. I paid for it all (£22.40 – judge for yourself if that’s good value or not). First one Jalfrezi arrived. The server scampered away. Then two little bottles of wine were plonked on the counter – no glasses. The server scampered away again. A guy waiting for a pie admired the fact that they served wine by the neck – we agreed it was a classy joint and no mistake. Eventually another Jalfrezi appeared, which we grabbed quickly. “Have you got any glasses for the wine please?” No – but we could have the polystyrene cups they use for coffee. So we found a quiet corner – not – and ate our Jalfrezis (very nice actually) and drank our wine (surprisingly delish). The naam bread turned out to be pitta but because of the stupid time it took to queue and get served we missed the first 15 minutes of the next match and so I certainly wasn’t in the mood to question their Trades Descriptions.

Fewer attendees second match Our late return was a shame because it was much more exciting than the first match. Senegal and UAE were really at it hammer and tongs, especially in the second half, with lots of near misses and agonised oohs and aahs from the largely non-partisan crowd, Senegalese drum beats notwithstanding. There were a couple of goals though, both at our end of the pitch, so it was very rewarding to watch. The 1-1 draw was fair I thought. The majority of the Japanese supporters had gone home after the first match so the stands looked much emptier but it didn’t spoil the atmosphere. The official attendance was 28,652 – apparently Coventry City’s average home crowd for 2011-2012 was 15,118. So that’s all good then.

Senegal attackWould the trip home be as seamless as the way in? Absolutely. Vast swathes of farewelling volunteers pointed us towards the shuttle buses and there really were a helluva lot of those too. They must have rounded up every stray bus in Warwickshire. Considering we left the stadium at around 9.40pm we were back at Coventry station at 10.20pm – that’s pretty good service. On arrival at the station we were still being welcomed, goodbyed and missing-you-alreadyed by volunteers and got on an extra train that those nice people at London Midland had provided that arrived at 10.23pm.

UAE defendA really enjoyable day. Highlights: atmosphere, organisation, friendliness, goals. Lowlights: food queues and overzealous Branding Police. You may read that the Olympic powers that be don’t want you to take bags into football arenas. Our advice would be, bring your own choice of food from home and enjoy it picnic-style – although no drinks of course, you’ll need to get those from the well-stocked bars. There is a big Marks & Spencer just outside the stadium, which was calling Mrs C’s name as we arrived, so you could also stock up on eatables there. Do that and you’ll have a much more relaxing – and probably tastier – time. Anyway, what’s with this “no alcohol inside the ground” rule? Why is it safe to drink it in the outside areas, where people are milling around and bumping into one another, and not safe to drink it when you are sitting down? The bizarreness of this rule became very obvious at half time in the second match when we all got up to go out and encountered a poor man trying to get in with two hot coffees in either hand with which he was desperately trying not to scald himself as tons of us bombarded past him. If he had been carrying alcohol and it got spilt, it would have only resulted in tears not bandages.