Home for the holidays?

You know September is on her way because it’s Clinique Bonus Time at John Lewis, and because the sunsets get redder and the skies stop being cobalt blue and go a bit anaemic in the evenings.  Yesterday evening it was slightly ambitious to sit outside a pub, but I did, with light Kentish Town breezes getting the better of me and having to shrug my jacket back on at 7.45pm.  The white wine tastes metallic and harshly chilly.  But the street was still half lived outside front doors; dogs poised on white-painted sills awaiting the return of their owners from the tube, children and mothers stopping to talk in the fading half light and sash windows pulled up and open into the North London night.  And yet, the lamps were on by eight o clock, and the shutters were pulled, and the hatches were soon battened down.

Yesterday it became Keats-like and I left the house in a slightly rain splattered mist.  But this time of year can fool you.  Summer is in its dog days and rendered fickle.  Here it comes, today, bright skies and sunglasses and a blast of warmth on the bridge of the nose, but then the world reminds us its soon to be autumn, and days flecked with sandals and sticky ice cream residue on the fingertips are propped up by days either side where shoulders, sunburned from that Italian holiday we’ll be paying off until November, shrug into Zara cardigans.  The best thing to do is to chase the sun into the corners of the garden, where you can decamp with cups of tea and that novel you didn’t read on your holiday because you can’t read on holidays (more on that further down the bloggery).  Mediterranean sun rays are deeper, less frivolous and too sensual to allow you to concentrate on books.  But the English tepid sun, as watered down as Robnson’s orange squash, is unlikely to allow your imagination to hold itself hostage to dry, sun-drenched beach dreams.  The temperature is right for reading.

This is also a strange time of year to be packing for a break outside of London.  The rest of the country is coming home and I’ve flipped into reverse, counting the kilo weight of the hand luggage bag, folding jumpers up and siphoning out my under-100 ml liquid bottles.  This week the air fares halve and if you don’t have children of school age now is an ideal time to chase the last summer rays or, in my case, actually have to go somewhere where it will be raining and 5 degrees colder.    I have to watch that I remain within the rules when I am packing hand luggage, as have previous dastardly history with getting it so wrong.  When I tried to fly to New York they had to remove a 8 inch knitting needle from my hand luggage.  A flight to Rome was nearly one Bluebird less when i realised I was carrying half my cutlery drawer of spoons and knives.  Another time a massive safety pin that is used for embroidery, a huge grey thing like a Victorian baby’s nappy pin was confiscated from me when I was en route to Bordeaux.  Once I even managed to lose my passport in a WH Smith branch in Luton Airport between checking in and getting on the aeroplane on a school trip.  When the school realised they dragged my mother away from her birthday lunch (yes) so she could drive 40 miles to the airport with my birth certificate so they’d let me on the plane.  This they did, but it didn’t solve the problem of whether the French were going to let me in.  Eventually, they did, thanks to a violently persuasive Physics teacher who talked at the French in English for 40 minutes until she exhausted their natural xenophobia and granted me access to their hallowed country and their 15 year old boy-populated, snowy, cold and terribly daft, Alps.  It was only when I got there that I realised they were expecting me to strap two pieces of wood to my feet and propel me from a mountain.  Fools.  Absolute fools.  I refused and decamped to my bed with a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel for a week.

The truth is, I just don’t like going away from home – or London – at all, because I’ve never seen the point of it, nor has the point been sufficiently explained to me.  Now I love a cultural break as much as the next vulture, but I don’t mean them.  I mean going on holiday.  I mean every single year, by the beginning of April, someone asks you what you’re going to spend your money on this summer, and you feel compelled to actually book something and do it.  Most of the time we lie to ourselves and pretend the process has been distinctly enjoyable.  It hasn’t.   Everything I need (with the exception of the occasional, guaranteed three weeks of unbroken weather in the high 70s every few months) is here.  I don’t understand why, if this is such a world city, of worldlike qualities, other people don’t just come here.  It’s much simpler.  We have hotels and buses and taxes and room and before you know it everyone will be having such a fine time.  But no, people think we want to fly about the place, polluting what’s left of the air and stamping a massive carbon footprint around the globe.  And the other problem is, when you are going on holiday, everyone assumes you will have time to read, and asks you “Oooh, what book are you taking?”  But that’s hopeless – you won’t have time to read.  Holidaying tends to be disastrously social, so no sooner are you on the plane that you are forced to talk to people, and unless you are flying off to delirious isolation in a Norwegian fjord for a fortnight, I am hear to tell you, dearest traveller, that no, this will not finally be the fortnight you knock off that dusty Penguin of “Anna Karenina” which has been squatting on the top shelf, emitting supercilious intimidation down at you since 1993.  You will return from the inevitable break with the same inevitable sense of incompletion and failure because you have not read the book you said you would read, as well as a whole host of irregular bowel conditions due to you being taken, so rudely and inefficiently, out of your normal routine.  The foodstuffs you adore have been temporarily removed from you, your usual brand of tea and coffee become nothing more than a hallowed and distant caffeine dream, the temperature and wind and environment a jarring and unsettling difference from your own, the airports a mass of seething, nasty, polyester-clad humanity and yet – and yet – they call it a holiday.  A holiday from what?  Well, the obvious answer to that is a holiday from your normal, homely settled environment and other nice things.  And this, to me, seems a bizarre method of relaxation.

I don’t think it’s just me, you see.  I think we’re all creatures of habit in one way or another.  Homo sapiens seem to be programmed this way.  Habit, structure, routine, the little physical signals we give our bodies throughout the day that keep it in its correct lane on the motorway.  The problem with holidays is they make no sense.  Their intrinsic holiness doesn’t exist for most of us, for one thing, and they are about as far from relaxation as they could be.  In fact, they are very hard work.  And work is something for which we should be paid.  That is the law.  But going on holiday, with its packing, its travelling, the exhaustion, the social conventions one is expected to undertake on arrival, the lack of the European sit-down toilet, the disgusting infringement of the liberty of the private individual that is airport transit, is something we actually have to pay to do.  It is not surprising, dearest readers, that most of us secretly come back, fling the passport in the drawer and return to work with a secret thrill at the idea of “getting back to normal”.   How many of us sit down at our desk after a holiday and think, truly think, we have just undergone an experience that has offered us any value for money at all?  Perhaps there are four or five holidays in your lifetime that have made you feel this way.  Well, that’s find and dandy, until when you remember that you have had to go on holiday every single year of your life.   If you were to add up all of those holidays it probably amounts to not much less than the whacking great bunce of lolly you had to slap down as a house deposit.  And you’ve really enjoyed living in your own home, haven’t you?  Even though, bring British, you’ve been forced to pay far far too much to do it.  It wasn’t as if you had to fly there, or get mosquito bites there, or have unfortunate sex there with a man called Robin who you meet on a Cypriot curry night on the beach.  In fact, you’ve probably had really great stay-cations there, watching telly and hanging out and – yes – even that nebulous thing – you’ve caught up on reading “Anna Karenina”.    As energy usage becomes more and more important in our every day lives and the carbon emissions build up, how long is it going to be before we are morally bound to holiday in England?  And what could be more environmentally aware than holidaying at home?  Well, not necessarily in our house where there seems to be a plethora of falling asleep with the television and various other electrical gadgets on very loudly and at high speed, and spending the sleeping night farting on the sofa, but the sentiment to help the planet is there.

The end of the English summer is about the onset of reality.  But it’s also about the onset of the beauty of our autumn and, as we head into my favourite time of year in England, I’m still in my pyjamas typing this with the hand luggage half filled and the passport by the front door, I’m already looking forward to coming home.  I’ve decided to have a holiday from holidays for a bit.  Or, rather, go away, come back and have an immediate, well-deserved holiday at home, here in London, amidst the falling red leaves and the long September evenings, probably still be sitting outside the chilly pubs in Kentish Town trying to pretend it’s still warm enough to be quaffing pinot grigio, despite the fact that the local residents are walking around in ear muffs and long overcoats.    Then we can all start complaining about the weather again.  But it doesn’t matter a jot.  Because it’s home.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated in two weeks, so I shall see you again on September 12th, unless of course I have an unfortunate episode in the airport again whilst trying to take a John Lewis breadknife on board a RyanAir flight, in which case I’ll probably be back on here tomorrow.

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Rodgers & Hart or Rodgers & Hammerstein?

My brother once put the phone down on me because I said I loved Rodgers & Hart but that Rodgers & Hammerstein weren’t nearly as good.  That was ten years ago, but I’m not sure things have changed in my opinions – in fact if anything they’ve become more entrenched.  I am a bit perplexed by my adoration of Rodgers & Hart and my cool dislike of Rodgers & Hammerstein.    After all,  chilly and cardiganed, I did enjoy an evening of The Sound of Music at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre on Tuesday, with its sentimental displays of Austrian independence, stern nuns, Nazis and singing children, and it was exquisite, but I always know that if someone tried to play a Rodgers & Hammerstein song at my funeral I’d insist on coming back to haunt them.

Rodgers & Hammerstein is nothing like Rodgers & Hart.  The dramatic shift in the nature of the partnership means you could be forgiven for thinking that the Richard Rodgers in one partnership is not the same Richard Rodgers in the other.   The alchemic relationship between a composer and his lyricist is a delicate thing of such distilled components that I suppose they will always be destined to produce different results, just like the children a man has with his first wife will look nothing like the children he has with his second.  But if we compare “I Wish I Was In Love Again” with “Edelweiss”, you’d think these musical theatre children were off separate parentage completely.  This was a bit of a brain–fuddling conundrum for years, until I discovered that with Hart, Rodgers would write the melody first, presenting Hart with it only when the tune was absolutely complete. Hart would then write the words. With Hammerstein, it worked the other way around.  The lyrics came first.  The songs evolved in an utterly different way.

Rodgers and Hart is salty without being lewd, urbane, deeply romantic and underlined with a dash of hard-baked sexual cynicism.  I always thought that the relationship between Amanda and Elyot in Coward’s Private Lives could be prefectly underscored by the lyrics to “I Wish I Was In Love Again” : ( The broken dates / the endless waits / the lovely loving and the hateful hates / that conversation with the flying plates/ I wish I was in love again. …The furtive sigh / the blackened eye / the words “I’ll love you til the day I die”/ the self-deception that believes this lie…. ). There is so much experience and ripe knowingness in these lines that it’s astonishing. This was one of the fruits of Richard Rogers’s labour with Lorenz Hart.   Hammerstein’s “OOOkkkkllaahoma!”, with it’s wind-swept, dry plains and the far-away Eastern drama of “The King and I” were poles apart from the world that Rodgers had created in his songs with Hart, with its aim firmly on the city (“Manhattan”), worldweary resignation and heartfelt regret (“Little Girl Blue”) and the sublime exhilaration of early love”(Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”).   Rodgers and Hart were fired by a desire to raise musical theatre songs from the lazy or the tame, with its dreary rhyming of “June”‘s and “Moon”‘s, and soar into a higher vernacular.   There are so many shades of meaning in some of Hart’s lyrics, which rest ambivalently on top of the music.  What does “You Took Advantage of Me” mean?  Is someone willingly surrendering themselves to true love?  Or have they just realized their innocence has been exploited?  (Here am I with all my bridges burned / just a babe in arms where you’re concerned.  So, lock the doors and call me yours….).  Is this some kind of weird sadistic relationship, or a happy ending?  This is highly complicated, adult stuff.

In The Boys from Syracuse Rodgers & Hart put Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors to music.  This is a score that swings, mishmashing olde English with the new and manages many flirty half rhymes (rich in and kitchen, or do to and cute too), but this score also contains the song “Falling in Love with Love” which was covered by a range of popular singers in the second half of the twentieth century,  Their other compositions are ridiculous in their quality “A Ship Without A Sail” is a thrillingly beautiful ballad of mind-numbing loneliness, and there is also something of the pain of the terminally unrequited love with the desperate plea “My Funny Valentine”‘s lyric ‘stay, little Valentine, stay….’.  Does the valentine with his/her slightly weak mouth and tousled hair stay?  It’s all ambivalent, and although the composition is tight and delicious it is wound around with Rodgers & Harts usual melancholy. “There’s a Small Hotel” has all kinds of horizontal implications, whereas “It Never Entered My Mind” is a chilling reminder of the over-confident who play the game of love, and think that a certain someone will always be there to put up with them, only to wake up one morning and “order orange juice for one”, not to mention that, now alone they”have to scratch my back myself” – you can make of that what you will.

Could it have been something of a comedown for Richard Rodgers to go from  “Lost my heart / was dyspeptic.  Life was so hard to bear. Now my heart’s antiseptic….” to “Doe, a deer, a female deer” ? Whilst I am not a Hammerstein-basher, the problem with him as a lyricist is you can see the rhymes coming a mile off. Hammerstein rhymes “way” with “day” in the first scene of Oklahoma!.  The production of The Sound of Music that I saw this week reinstates a song from the original stage production which was omitted from the film, “How Can Love Survive?” .  Half of it is clever, the other half has rhymes that you can spot coming from a mile off.  Nevertheless, Hammerstein’s lyrics cleave to Rodgers melody beautifully.    Hart’s depression and alcoholism wore Rodgers down in the end.  About a year before Hart’s death from pneumonia in November 1943,  Rodgers teamed with Hammerstein.  Together they went on to create the most popular partnership in musical theatre history.  When Hart was asked to co-write a musical with Rodgers set in the American west in late 1942 called Green Grow the Lilacs, Hart replied “Cowboy hats and gingham is not for me.”  But Rodgers knew a man who could : if there was one thing Hammerstein could do standing on his well-born head, it was songs about cowboy hats and some of the American west’s fruitiest red gingham.  And he did it splendidly.  That kind of world suited Hammerstein’s lyrics perfectly.

The Rodgers & Hammerstein partnership was characterised by space; great expansive swathes of it.  Whether it is the grand dustbowl sweep of America, the Austrian alps or distant, Eastern Siam, Rodgers and Hammerstein is very much about looking out.  Very few things on the planet are bigger than South Pacific.  It’s as far from the worldly metropolitan “Manhattan” as you can get without sliding off the globe all together.  The sightlines are in the middle distance and a huge amount of dramatic action takes place outdoors.  There is little place for introspection.  “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning!”  they chant in gleeful joy of a brand new, blue skied, bright American day.  In Rodgers & Hammerstein there are not cities in the way and the horizon beckons in gorgeous magnitude : “Everything’s going my way!”   In Rodgers & Hart the view is internalised; much like a telescope turned inwards, and it is the plain of the human heart that is ploughed for emotional material.  Often “very little is going my way!” is the overriding feeling.  The emotions are not stark, confident or clear.  In this way, perhaps the work of Rodgers & Hart is doomed to have its slightly knowing, melancholic tinge, so bent is it on telling the stories of failed romances, broken dreams, lost loves.  Rodgers & Hammerstein’s work is more outgoing and playful – and certain more sexually innocent.  It can lure the theatregoer into the refreshing charm of a different life, more often than not in a different country.   Although more folksy and less sophisticated, Rodgers and Hammerstein excelled at big drama as well as big vistas.  They were particularly good at death (see Carousel and Oklahoma!)  Rodgers and Hammerstein is a glass of cool lemonade to Rodgers & Hart’s short, acerbic gin and lime.

The main difference is. therefore, sex.  There is tons of it in Rodgers & Hart.  Bucket loads of the stuff. “Should We / Shouldn’t We?  or, “I’d Love To, But You Won’t Let Me”  or “I Could Have But I Didn’t And Now I Shall Die Alone” or “Blimey, I Never Knew About THAT”, or “You Had Me But You Behaved Like A Twat So I’ve Left You”  sort of thing.   Rodgers & Hammerstein is a child-friendly, sex-free sort of world (and I’m not just talking about the nuns).   I don’t know what Oscar Hammerstein’s sex life was like, but I’d bet a tenner it wasn’t half as exciting or tortured as Lorenz Hart’s.  The Hammerstein world is different, straight forward, more dynamic in its physical limitations but less dynamic in its psychological ones.  There are no abiding links that I can see, except the composer, who in his relationship with Hammerstein, unlike his relationship with Hart, was unable to set the tone of the song and take the lead.  Hart admitted he had talent, and once told Alan Jay Lerner he could have been a genius but he didn’t care enough to work hard.  He does not appear to have known how sublime a lyricist he was.  For all his failings, drunkenness and tardiness, Hart had an unfailing generosity towards Rodgers, after Rodgers had created his partnership with Hammerstein.  At the first night of Oklahoma! he told Rodgers, “This is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, and it’ll be playing twenty years from now!”  Hart was dead six months later, his last words being “What have I lived for?”

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to welcoming you again on August 29th! x

Burton and Taylor – Review – BBC4

Flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of tickle, shag.  Flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of a tickle,shag.  Marry in riot of tabloid scandal following divorce from Eddie Fisher on set of crypto-Egyptian, eyeliner-heavy ropey film, made notorious only for its overtones of Burton / Taylor lust.  Flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of a tickle, shag.  Fight.  Buy some small dogs.  Stay in Oxfordshire 12th century hotels and annoy the locals with gin-soaked misery, shouts, psychosis and general, unmitigated tomfoolery.  Diamonds.  Buy some more small dogs.  Divorce.  Then try to do some more flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of a tickle, shag.  Remarry and repeat until someone falls dead drunk / falls dead/ trips over the diamonds or dogs. Such was the appearance in the public mind of the relationship of Liz “I like a man with a big rock” Diamonds Taylor and Richard “I have a voice like a big cock” Burton in the 1960s and 1970s.  BBC4 attempted to recreate the dying embers of the Burton / Taylor relationship with their dramatic retelling of the circumstances surrounding the blighted Broadway production of ‘Private Lives’ a year before Burton’s death.

“To me, their relationship is ridiculous!”  screeched Beverley, regarding Burton and Taylor,  in Mike Leigh’s production of Abigail’s Party in 1977.  “They did it in the jungle”, replies Angela, semi-reclining on the orange upholstery.

The BBC cast Dominic West in the role of Richard Burton.  He captured the ripe roundness of Burton’s vocal tone superbly, that peculiar accent that was Welsh mining village cum Stratford upon Avon cum Shakespearean in New York that seemed to pour out of Burton’s mouth with the same rich sagacity that the booze poured in.  West has also aged in the last couple of years, and got a bit sexy-jowly, which is fine by me – and fine by Liz – but looked nowhere near as ravaged and unfortunate as Burton looked at this stage.  West looks like he moisturizes.  There was something lovely and clean about his face that didn’t quite ring true.  Burton  had the complexion of a used and dried out tea bag; somewhat muddy, brownish, pitted and interesting.  West looks like what he, I imagine, is : an actor in his mid-40s, still good looking but nervously slapping on the Olay regnerist serum nightly like nobody’s business to prevent the jowly scowl from progressing further over his lucrative career.  Still, it must have been cheering for him after playing Fred West, who we can only hope is not a relation.  “Hello Lumpy,” he said, to Helena Bonham-Carter’s Taylor, who, like him, looked far too young and had taken chiselled physical slightness to a new, decidedly non-lumpy level.

Helena Bonham-Carter played Liz Taylor, and I couldn’t quite work out at first why it didn’t work.   Her performance was quite wonderful.  But whilst no one really expects anyone to actually look like Taylor,  no one looks less like Taylor in the body than Bonham-Carter.  She doesn’t carry enough flesh, her body doesn’t look like it could withstand the potent cocktails of pills, spirits and hot dogs that Taylor regularly shoved down her neck.  She looked too porcelain skinned and too aristocratic to have considered getting married eight times, let alone getting married twice to a dipsomaniac, pout-lipped Welshman who took her on a decade long shag fest.  Bonham-Carter tried, bless ‘er.  She tried to look less patrician but there’s really nothing you can do about that when you’re dealing with a fine-boned darling whose great grandfather was a Liberal Peer.  They bolstered her cleavage up and sort of stapled it to the top of her neckline so that West’s Burton could be constantly reminded of what fabulousness he was missing, but Bonham-Carter’s breasts simply lack the gravitas to carry it off.  Appropriately for a Bonham-Carter, they were Liberal Party breasts; they were simply never going to achieve a majority.  There were always two bigger parties nearby to worry about.  Some actresses get upstaged by their own breasts, Bonham-Carter was upstaged by the fact that the viewer was constantly reminded that she didn’t have enough of them.  From scene to scene, her breasts played a turgid role of ‘Are they there or aren’t they?’, where she would sometimes appear as flat as a boy and other times the poor things would be hoisted up to create a cleavage which would be wretchedly dragged about like a fairground illusion act that doesn’t quite successfully convince.  Still, it convinced him. “You’re  gorgeous,” said West’s Burton, as he smoked a fag whilst firstly trying to make her join him in exercising in loungewear before just suggesting the two of them have a shag instead.

Unfortunately, despite the stellar efforts of the two actors, and Bonham-Carter’s deliriously wonderful Taylor-drawl, they were let down by the writers.   The script was quite, quite ordinary, terribly clunky and filled with clangers of plot points.  We were reminded of biographical facts in Burton and Taylor’s life with the laziness and lack of imagination that acted like a theatrical series of bullet points.  He is recovering alcoholic.  CHECK.  She was brought up in the studio system.  CHECK.  She has a problem with learning her lines.  CHECK.  She’s irresistible and he is some sort of fanny magnet.  CHECK.  The rehearsal scenes obtained a tang of credibility, but they were ruined by a riot of scenes taking place back stage in the theatre where they were, ludicrously, attempting to perform ‘Private Lives’.  The director seemed obsessed with doors opening and closing.  The doors in the dressing rooms were playing supporting roles.    Burton would march into her dressing room and sort of flounce about and say worryingly stupid, un-Burton like things such as “They haven’t come to see a play.  They’ve come to see US play out our lives!”  as if the idea had just struck him for the first time, and she’d throw him out and slam a door, walk through another door, knock on his dressing room door and go in and close that door in his miserable, classically trained face.  Most of the time she would be arriving at the theatre late with a band of silly dogs.  In she’s going through her door – ooh – out comes Richard (DOOR) and slams things (DOOR)  and goes into her dressing room  (OPENS DOOR).  Only once did it really go off between them, and she laid into him shouting and telling him to Fuck Off whilst he pretended he didn’t want to slap her and shook until his perfect hair moved and grabbed her and shouted back.  Finally, methinks, a little drama.  Go on Richard, SLAP HER.  It’s what she wants.  And then she wants you do try to do some exercises again whilst smoking a fag before shagging her.  Only at that moment did the viewer really believe that here were too absolute nutjobs who failed to resist each other’s physical capabilities to the point of personal destruction, and whose idea of a quite night in a la Burton & Taylor Towers would involve seven bottles of Jack Daniels and a succession of revealing negligees.   The rest of the time the relationship seemed tame and the characters, dare I say it, a trifle dull.  They had glamour but no substance.  None of the words that came out of West’s mouth appeared to have any resonance with the vocabulary and tone that we have come to know from Burton’s diaries.  Bonham-Carter, as I have said, spoke her role with great technical panache, but what was the point, when it was so woefully underwritten?

The terribly irritating thing was this:  Elizabeth Taylor was 51 when she and Burton decided to try ‘Private Lives’ on the stage.  This was a great opportunity to cast a 50 something actress in a strong, iconic role.  And yet, with the depressing predictability of television casting, we ended up with an actress who has just turned 40.   I would have loved to see (despite the lack of facial similarity) Cherie Lunghi play this role, or Julianne Moore.  Or someone – anyone – born before Burton and Taylor made ‘Cleopatra’.

This relationship captured the imagination and sense of glamour of many tabloid readers of the press in the 1960s and 1970s – the madnesses, the apparent sexual intensity, the drunken void that each of them came to fall into.  Why then was this depiction of Burton and Taylor so banal, so ordinary?   Could we really believe that this Taylor was the woman Burton wrote of as being “beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography”? This drama was stupidly restrained; we wanted some truth, some spit and crazy theatrical sawdust, some fury and fierce awfulness, a lot more stupidity, shouting and sex.  But it was as if they turned all the lights off and decided to illuminate nothing.  This screenplay of Burton & Taylor made Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie look like a fun couple to spend an evening with, and you know how unrelentingly boring they are.  A shame, because there is a great and terribly interesting tale to be told about these two.  This, however, was not it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog here is updated every other Thursday, so we shall see you on August 15th. Thank you!