Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Tunbridge Wells day out and Fairlight Hall piano recital.

Battleaxe never likes trying on clothes in winter, when she is muffled up like a Babushka in thick jumpers, wooly tights, big boots, quilted coat, hat and scarf, but sometimes it Has To be Done.
     Tunbridge Wells is our nearest high-end shopping destination. It is easy to go from Hastings by train, but lazily, we take the car and park in the Great Hall just behind the BBC. They used to have talking parking ticket machines which told you to safeguard your valuables in cod celebrity voices but sadly, those have been replaced by those complicated ones where you have to key in your car registration number. Useless for Battleaxe, who never remembers it.
     Our usual route takes us up the hill for coffee at Ismail, which is on the ground floor of the Cotswold Outdoor shop. There is a good smell of freshly roasting coffee inside, excellent outside people-watching in summer, and they have a huge variety of interesting coffees and teas on offer, as well as hot chocolate. I noticed something called Pu'erh tea on the menu board, which I photographed, and asked the girl behind the counter what it was, only to be approached and abruptly questioned by a rather officious manager-type woman, which I found a bit off-putting. Turns out that the tea comes from ancient trees, and is then fermented and further aged. It sounds horrible.
Ismail - very grand building
     Then along Monson Road to continue our shop circuit. Did I ever say that when we first came to Hastings I applied to be a board member of a housing association with offices along that road? I nearly got chosen but they didn't feel I 'demonstrated sufficient commitment'. Right first time there then, I was only after the expenses paid days out and the spare money to spend on the inevitable shopping.  I could normally have feigned far more convincing commitment, but in fact I was developing shingles on the day of the interview. It was all for the best. I'm only too happy to be finished with social housing.
     My favourite shop is Fenwicks - they have virtually a whole floor of clothing brands I can relate to: Masai, Sandwich, Great Plains, SeaSalt, Ella Moda, Nice Things, Adini, L K Bennett, Ted Baker  etc.
     Lunchtime, and we are spoilt for choice. TW is crawling with eateries. Have I mentioned the Wetherspoons? It is the former Opera House, and they have kept the ornate interior intact, even to the machinery for changing the scenery. They stage occasional opera productions. Whatever you think of Wetherspoons, they do a fantastic job preserving interesting old buildings. I'm thinking Harrogate, converted baths, Folkestone, beautiful old chapel.

Wetherspoons Opera House
    However, our current lunch-time choice is the two-course £9.95 fixed price menu at Cote, just along from Ismail. Excellent value, good service, good food.
    After lunch we normally stroll down the hill to inspect the lower town. TW has another large department store, Hoopers, opposite the station. This is one of those cavernous, perfumed and strangely silent retail temples one remembers from childhood. It stocks very high-end brands, and also specialises in what I class as 'Ladies' clothes. I have sadly concluded that Battleaxe is never going to grow up and be a Lady. Anyway, think Basler, Berkertex, Gerard Darel, Gina Bacconi, Jaeger, Joseph Ribkoff, Max Mara. Shopping done, genteel Ladies congregate in the vast tea room. My mother would have loved it.
Ideal for an impulse buy.....
    Down the bottom, past many independent shops, galleries etc, you get to the Pantiles. The very first time we came to TW, you could still sample the iron-laden water from the Chalybeate Spring, served by a wench in traditional costume, but in 2014, the water mysteriously dried up.  Nobody knows why. Anyway, we have our own, apparently more potent, Chalybeate Spring here in Hastings, in Alexandra Park. Here is an interesting web page about Hastings' wells and springs.


   Apart from a fantastic kitchen shop, there is not a lot in the Pantiles except for a few nice art galleries.
   This time, we investigated the nearby church of King Charles the Martyr. Dating from 1678, it is the oldest building in Tunbridge Wells, and has a fine plasterwork ceiling. Until today, I never knew that Charles was the only person to be canonised by the Church of England. All references to him were removed from C of E liturgy in the 1850s, although a campaign to reinstate him is still fought by the Anglo-Catholic Society of King Charles the Martyr. Contrary to what I was taught at school, Charles' followers seem to believe he was executed because of his faith.
   One thing about writing this blog, Battleaxe learns so much.
   There is lots in TW we have not as yet seen - rocks, steam trains.... so much to do.
   
Church of King Charles the Martyr, Tunbridge Wells
    Talking of doing things, and changing the subject totally, on Saturday morning we went to a piano recital at Fairlight Hall. Quite unusual to have a Saturday morning concert. It was a beautiful sunny day. The pianist was Marcin Koziak, the Polish third prize winner from last year's Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition. He looks like a little lad, but a lady in the loo queue told us he was married. I think he had a tough call in the competition - in the final against two very polished South Koreans who both chose to play the same concerto. Koziak has a very different style. On Saturday he played a nicely varied programme - a mixture of nineteenth century romantic and twentieth century, including Bartok's Piano Sonata, which involves much explosive crashing about on the keys. This was followed by a very delicate Chopin encore, making an agreeable contrast.
    The concert was in the Fairlight Hall Recital Room, accompanied by mulled wine and nibbles. Plenty of people we knew there, as usual for such Hastings events.
    This year's event starts at the end of February, and we will be away hunting for the elusive Northern Lights for much of the competition, but have got tickets for the final on March 7.  Phew, tomorrow we are off to Madeira for a week.
     
  

Monday, 19 January 2015

Cinema experiences - Kino Hawkhurst and Electric Palace Hastings

No, sorry, I have not as yet been to the new Kino in Rye. We'll go very soon and I'll report back.
     Last week we went to the cinema twice - unusual for us. We'd made an attempt to go to the Kino in Hawkhurst the previous week - it is usually a quick and simple journey, along the quiet, straight road via Sedlescombe, but on that particular day the A21 was closed due to flooding, and the traffic had been diverted onto the back roads. We crawled along in pouring rain behind a huge lorry carrying a crane, and although the road is straight, there was never enough clear space to overtake.  Arrived in Hawkhurst only to find all seats for the film, 'The Imitation Game', were sold out. Surprisingly, we weren't even all that cross, but, determined to see the film, booked seats for this week.
     We very much like the Kino.  It has wonderfully comfortable high-back squishy seats with loads of legroom, handy cup/glass holders for the flat white or the Sancerre, a nice little cafe-bar, and an outside terrace area for summer evenings.  It is good to enjoy a bit of luxury. Although, don't get me wrong, I'm not altogether turning my nose up at our own Hastings Odeon. However, those sticky floors, that sickly pong of popcorn and nachos, and the constant slurping, chomping, rustling and chatting from other members of the audience do get a bit wearing.
      The Hawkhurst Kino audience is posh. While we were waiting for the film to start Philosopher and I were speculating that the oast-houses of rural Kent would be deserted.  Many lonely labradors would be huddled against many Agas in red-flagged kitchens. (Kitchens probably fitted by Smallbone of Devizes. Does anyone know anyone who has such a kitchen? I just like the name.)  Anyway, being posh does not rule out loud haw haw talking, or stumbling up and down across rows of legs without realising you could just walk round the end.
Kino - comfy seats!

Kino terrace

Kino in Hawkhurst - old Lecture Hall
    
Outside the Building
     But what of the film? I had trouble from the start in that I don't like Benedict Cumberbatch or Keira Knightly, and we both thought Turing was portrayed as just too clichéd autistic. We thought that the film-makers had tried too hard to beef up the story with dramatic happenings, which again, felt clichéd. It all felt a bit predictable.
      Anyway, I am looking forward to going to the new Kino in Rye, which has two screens, cafe-bar etc. It will be interesting to see the audience profile there. Parking might be a bit tricky for us non-Rye residents as the cinema is right at the top of the town, near the church.
      On Friday we went to the Electric Palace to see 'Pride', the film about LGBT people who supported the Miners' Strike in 1984. I have lots of memories from that time - going on the 'Saltley Gates' march with Arthur Scargill, helping with benefit do's etc.
     We had arranged to meet folk from the Writers' Group there, and encountered other people we knew as well - that's the thing with the Electric Palace and its audiences of boho Hastingas. While it is our local and we are fond of the place, it does not approach Kino luxury. The bum-numbing old and worn tip-up theatre seats are scarcely improved by the supplied cushions. The sound sometimes veers from the shrill to the boomy via over-loud or unintelligible. Some Hastingas favour the hairstyle I can only describe as erupting bees nest, and if you have one of those in front of you, views of the screen can be limited....
     However, Battleaxe always likes to accompany a film with the same slightly strange combination of a glass of wine plus a liquorice catherine-wheel, and the place has a cosy feel and a great atmosphere.
Electric Palace - a bit less luxurious!
Electric Palace
      So what of that film?  It was a real 'feel-good' movie, and enjoyable, but once again a bit full of clichés. The committed yet fun-loving gay folk, partying while the dread spectre of aids hangs over them... the miners and their families, initially so suspicious but then so warm and welcoming while having their grey Welsh horizons expanded, Imelda Staunton being cosily outrageous, Bill Nighy being fey etc etc. Our fellow audience members clearly loved it, and clearly all fired-up, applauded enthusiatically at the end. I'm not sure I could go that far.
      Went for a drink to the FILO afterwards. Philosopher and I used to go there fairly often, but have not been for ages.  It is an excellent pub, brews its own beer, quiet and friendly.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Why are Marks and Spencer clothes so awful?

I see that Marks and Spencer has, yet again, posted poor results for the last quarter of 2014, particularly with clothing sales, blaming unsuitably mild weather, logistics problems and discounting by other retailers.  This is now their fourteenth quarter in decline.
     A Guardian review of comments by retail analysts speculates about every possible reason for the chain's failure except for the blindingly obvious.
     M & S women's clothes are REVOLTING. No-one with half a brain would want to pay money for most of the stuff. 
     There, what's so hard about saying that.
Who is going to wear these? I quite want a lace dress just now, but not in that colour....
     Why should Battleaxe care? I no longer shop there. But I used to, I'd like to again, commentators are already speculating about store closures, and locally, the survival of the Hastings Priory Meadow store is crucial for our retail economy.
      As well as Priory Meadow, we have a big new store on the Ravenside retail park, which has the sea-view cafe referred to in previous posts. I have photographed some of the goods on offer in our stores. Maybe things look different at Marble Arch, but most M&S customers are out in the sticks, like us.
      I've got history with Marks. Back in 1970, when I was a Business Studies student, I did a project on staff relations in Marks and Spencer. In those days it had unrivalled staff welfare and development policies. What is it like now, I wonder?
     After meeting the then Head of Personnel at the old headquarters in Baker Street, I was offered a place on their graduate management training scheme. In those days that scheme was aimed at men - women were directed into staff welfare. It was a great opportunity, but stupidly, I did not pursue it. The scheme involved placements at stores around the country, and I wanted to go and live in London with my friends. Who knows, by now I might be in the boardroom agonising about the falling clothing sales.
     M & S have made repeated high-profile changes in their top womenswear team. The latest team came from Next. Paula Bonham-Carter? Any relation to Helena? Whoever they employ, and however many hundreds of thousands a year they get paid, it seems to make no difference, the clothes are still all wrong, and one's heart sinks walking into the stores.
    
A clashing riot of garish, busy prints, poorly displayed.
     What is going wrong? Firstly, they have lost sight of who their customer is, and try to be all things to all people. Clearly, CEO Marc Bolland has told his staff to sell to younger women, but the fact is, young women are never going into M&S. However, as they get more grown-up, they could be lured in by my 'Perfect basics' range (see below).
     Very much older customers are still going to want the 'Classics' range - for as long as that generation survives. In my view, the typical M&S customer is aged between 40 and 65 (getting older as the Baby Boomers age). This customer wants clothes that are stylish, flattering, good quality, comfortable, good value for money and available in the sizes they need.
    Most current M&S colours are unflattering for the adult/older woman. Bright purple? Acid yellow? Jade green? No. Prints are too busy. Fabrics look and feel cheap. While we have largely, thank goodness, lost the ruffles, gathers and dangly bits from the old Per Una range, the garments veer desperately between long, baggy and frumpy or skin-tight body-con. Neither is flattering.
     Clothes are poorly displayed in the stores. Here are some examples of garments - all horrendous by the way - as they appear hanging in the store and on the models on the website. Oh, and by the way, the website is not user-friendly.
Website - hut who wants pink and green body-con?
So unappealing and shapeless on the rail.
Website - if one fancied Barbie pink 60's style crimplene....

It looks horrendous in Hastings.
 
Doctor, doctor, I feel like a pair of curtains...

And look like it in Hastings
  I now buy only two things from Marks - their 'heatgen' long-sleeved winter tops for layering, which are brilliant, and their elastic topped tight jean/jeggings, which are my winter basics casual wear with tunic tops or long cardigans.
     Even the knickers have lost their pzaz - go all saggy in no time.
     But it could be so easy. Give Battleaxe a fortnight and she could redesign the ranges. Firstly, we need Perfect Basics - a range of garments that every woman need to underpin her other clothing choices. Lets have good quality, fool-proof, well-fitting tee shirts, layering tops, leggings, shirts, stretch lycra pencil skirts, well-cut trousers, jeans/jeggings, wool jumpers and button-up cardigans. Simple colours - black, white, cream, navy etc. Stock enough of the sizes most women wear!
    Then, you need variants on the current Indigo range - shirts, jeans, trousers, soft tunic tops, skirts, day dresses, knitwear. Lots of soft cotton, bright but not lurid - think White Stuff and Mantaray at Debenhams,
     Now, work wear. Bit of tailoring here. Nice shift dresses, long and short sleeved. Pencil and 'A' line skirts, well-cut jackets, trousers, toning shell tops. Wool and lycra, linen mixes for summer.  Cut out the Barbie pink and neon purple... Next do this well.
     And so on..... how on earth can it be so difficult?
     Here's a nice link about the history of M and S women's clothing.
     I know random shopping/fashion posts don't really fit with Hastings musings, and that blogs should stick to a theme, but Battleaxe has always been into fashion and clothes.    Locally, I like the Lilac Room in the Old Town, and it has featured in many Battleaxe posts. Obviously places like this don't compare with M&S, but chances are when I go into this little shop, I come out with something I like.
     So finally, here's a nice bicycle snapped outside Bell's in George Street. Looks like where M & S is headed.