Friday, 4 September 2015

Bring out your dead!

Not what the tourists and office workers in Minories would have expected to hear this morning, but to mark the opening of a weekend of events commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Plague of London, a small troupe of actors was re-enacting one of the dismal processions you could have seen in London that hot and fetid summer.

There were a couple of labourers to draw the cadaver-filled cart, a couple of doctors in sinister masks and capes, a couple of healthy-looking near-dead to hand out flyers, and for added colour a tavern "hostess" and Daniel Defoe (somewhat a-historically, since he would actually have been a toddler at the time, and created his Journal of the Plague Year from other sources much later).

As it set off, the traffic nearly drowned out the performance, but in the quieter parts of the street it came into its own, even if the participants were almost outnumbered by photographers and cameramen. By now, though, it was taking on some features of music-hall repartee with the people in the office windows or walking unsuspectingly out of a sandwich shop - "Got any dead, missis? Shall I take this one off yer hands now to save time?" (gesturing to the lady's unfortunate husband) and "Look at the pustules on that one!".

Which does make you wonder, especially with all the horrors in the world just at the moment, how long does it take for "horrible histories" to become something one can laugh at or with?

The procession broke up when it reached St Botolph's church, with its exhibition on the event, and even the corpse got to give an interview for the TV.




Monday, 31 August 2015

August Bank Holiday

So much for this morning's leisurely walk to the DIY shop:

Friday, 28 August 2015

Obituary of the year

My newspaper has marked the passing of an evidently fertile musical legend:

"He is survived by four wives and 42 children, many of them percussionists."

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The downside of home exchanges

Laundry.

The laundry you hadn't time to do before you left, plus the laundry you didn't feel like doing in someone else's machine, plus the linens your visitors used in your place.

And that's just for me. Imagine if it were for a family. Heigh-ho.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Paris again

Six hours on a train may sound like a throwback to the days before cheap flights, but on a TGV through southern and central France six hours pass quickly enough. Even if you haven't brought enough to keep you occupied in the way of books and electronic entertainment, there's plenty of scenery to look at, and it's a very comfortable ride: to my mind, far more so than two hours in a plane. You can get up and walk along to the cafeteria car (not exactly a gourmet experience, but still a change of scene); and one advantage most people won't (I hope) have to experience is that if something you've eaten or a touch too much sun and heat have left you, as they did me, in a state of some intestinal uproar, then the double-decker TGVs have two loos per coach and lots of coaches. These things count.....

Planes turned out to be slightly on the agenda in Paris, though. I've been through the strikingly Jules Verne-ish Arts et Métiers metro station often enough, but I have no recollection of visiting the museum for which it's named. Although, literally, it means "Arts and Crafts" it's in fact a historical survey of scientific and industrial innovation in France - hence the place of honour for Blériot's cross-channel monoplane, not to mention an earlier bat-inspired, steam-powered plane that, well, didn't manage to cross the Channel.

The Vélosolex, on the left
Plenty of other forms of transport on display, including an array of bikes from different periods, among them a Vélosolex, with a little engine mounted on the front wheel. I remember riding around on one very nearly 50 years ago. Mind you, it was all fields then.

But just to show it wasn't just a relatively old-fashioned set of display cases and ancient relics, they had an interesting temporary exhibition about the impact of technical innovations on the process of design - and what does a designer do in the age of open source software and 3-D printers? All sorts of interesting new products and ideas on display, and more re-imagined bikes - some more practical than others:


Saturday, 22 August 2015

Barcelona by the sea

For all the sights and attractions in the city centre of Barcelona (one of the first things I saw was a gleaming display, all black glass and steel, enticing the tourist in to the Jamon Experience - I passed), you can't escape the sea. As well as a huge trading port and several marinas, and what with the 1992 Olympics and such-like, it has miles and miles of beaches within a few minutes walk of the centre, or at least, bus and metro stops, which become packed with people as the working day ends.

So with so much of the city's prosperity depending on the different uses of the sea over the centuries,  it's no surprise that one of its biggest old churches is Santa Maria del Mar. It's dominated by soaring gothic columns, relatively austere with the usual Spanish baroquery confined to side chapels, and just a few painted ceiling bosses, some striking stained glass and the (relatively discreetly placed) votive candles to add a bit of colour.

And it also has a maritime museum. There are some video animations to tell you the stories of various developments in sea transport, illustrating the models and artefacts on display, and a fair range of different types of boat, but apart from the replica of the admiral's galley from the Battle of Lepanto, and this modern replica of a real nineteenth-century attempt at a submarine (apparently it did work), it's a little underwhelming.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Here's the saw-tooth crest that gives Montserrat its name. Originally it must have seemed a remote and difficult place to access, high up on a steep mountain. But it seems to have been venerated since pre-Christian times, and - this being Catholic Catalonia - acquired its statue of the Madonna very early (and a claim to be yet another home for the Holy Grail, it seems), so it has a long history of visits from the devout, which explains the impressive basilica beside the monastery.

Nowadays roads, rack railway and cable car bring up thousands of tourists to admire the views and gawp at the basilica, complete with the associated cafeterias, gift shops and so on.

But it doesn't actually take much exploring to find a path round the other side of the mountain, well away from the crush and the car-parks.

This one is lined with various signs and memorials from the many different parishes each with their own prayers to Mary.

Other paths also lead away to various points of interest, and include memorials to different local saints and heroes.  One such was the Catalan cellist Casals - and if you enlarge the photo and squint, you might just see the tiny image of some people climbing the peak above (sooner them than me).

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Palau de la Musica

It's a useful reminder that anything old-fashioned was once the latest thing - when you're told that in Barcelona "Modernisme" doesn't mean the 20th century enjoyment of angles, discords and machinery, but rather what we know as 19th century Art Nouveau, all swirls and curves, flowers, greenery and all things natural.

In Barcelona, Gaudi is the most evident name, but his contemporary Lluis Domenech i Montaner wasn't to be outdone, as can be seen in the exuberance of his Palau de la Musica. Bach glowers down from amid florid tiling on the balconies, a stained class sunburst ceiling and large side windows flood the concert hall with daylight, the stage is framed by busts of a local composer and inspirer of choral societies (complete with burgeoning sculpted forest) on the one side, and on the other, what is claimed to be Beethoven (but looks to me like Wagner, at that time the latest thing), and a troop of Valkyries plunging down from the ceiling.

And if that weren't enough the performers on stage are watched by the figures of  sundry muses emerging from the ceramic sound-reflecting wall.

But all this nature worship was achieved by some up-to-the-minute industrial technicalities. The stairs and balconies are lined with small metal columns enclosed in glass: it's the architect's little hint as to how the floors and balconies are held up, on slender metal shafts hidden by all that decoration, thus freeing the walls to hold as much window as possible.

But why, given all that airiness and light, were the ticket clerks confined to a hobbit-hole?



Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The area where I'm staying, though bordering on a classic wide continental avenue, consists of narrow streets of five or six storeys straggling up towards Montjuic. This means that one side or the other is in full shade for most of the day, but just to make sure, not only do residents leave a screen hanging over the balcony, but the street trees are pruned and pollarded into skinny trunks straining for the sky and leaning away from the buildings, with only the tops left to grow into a natural shady arch.

It's not as though this is the first time I've been in Barcelona, or in this sort of street, but it's one of those things that come as new every time. I shouldn't be surprised at Mediterranean night culture, either, especially in the 30+° heat and humidity; but it is a bit of a shock to see toddlers running around at nearly midnight, and to hear occasional bursts of noisy conversation from balconies and out in the street, far into the night. Last night I was awoken by some sort of machinery running outside. On it droned, like a car permanently stalling and with the repeated hissing of vacuum brakes: it was just the refuse lorry moving slowly up the street as the crew emptied the recycling bins.

At 3.45 a.m.

On the other hand, there is always something to see when so much life is lived on full view, as it were. Huddled under a café parasol during a very brief shower, I was entertained by the sight of a woman struggling to keep plastic booties on her tiny dog, who was clearly humouring her by even tolerating the things, but couldn't see the point of all the fuss when one or another came off (as they all did in the first few steps).

And down on the port, among the pompous public buildings, there are exotic flowers and giant bubbles to see:






Monday, 10 August 2015

Trains and things

You need this display to realise how fast a TGV can go, when the views are of broad horizons and rolling plains.

When the option of a home exchange to Barcelona came up, I thought it worth trying to go by train. It's a long trip - six hours from Paris to Barcelona (one forgets just how large France is), and the logistics of exchanging keys and so on made an overnight break in Paris inevitable (oh, the hardship) as well as a more relaxed way to do it.

Until, that is, the Eurostar terminal announced a delay  because of a trespasser on the line in France. This must have been the day one of the desperate wouldbe migrants in Calais managed to walk into the tunnel (presumably the service tunnel) and well on the way to England; but in the event, although the train slowed down for the last mile or so in the tunnel, it arrived more or less on time in Paris. All that could be seen from the train at Calais was some military vehicles parked near the freight terminal area. Once again, cause to remember just how cocooned from the world's tribulations I've been fortunate to be.

Even more the case on the TGV, where the air-conditioning kept the blood-heat outside temperatures at a much more comfortable level. And after all that, on the Barcelona metro, they are at pains to reassure you that the next train will not be some gimcrack imitation:

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

If you've never molested a quince......

... now's your chance. According, that is, to the tour guide at the National Fruit Collections at Brogdale last Sunday. And certainly, the first beginnings of the fruit are furrily tactile; but that wasn't why everyone was there.

This is the season for cherries,and Sunday was their Cherry Festival, with a chance to see, try and buy some of the different varieties of cherry that you don't see in supermarkets, as well as visit their garden centre and various food retailers, or join in the family fun opportunities, like archery and the miniature railway.

It's not quite as impressive as the autumn Apple Festival I visited a few years ago, if only because there just aren't so many varieties of cherry, nor is there the variety of striking names.

Apart, that is, from Napoleon Bigarreau (surely, a criminal mastermind from the 19th century), and Merton Bigarreau (who must be his do-gooding cousin) - and May Duke (the innocent victim of Napoleon's evil intentions).

Monday, 15 June 2015

Part of this year's hoopla to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (special stamps, ceremonies and so on) is an exhibition at the British Library. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy brings together documents and artefacts to explain the background to that first Charter, and explore the way the idea, as much as the reality, of it inspired later concepts of liberty and rights that the barons who forced King John to it could never have conceived of.  It's a narrower and perhaps shallower focus than the Taking Liberties exhibition a few years ago, but still an interesting corrective to so many received ideas of how it all happened and what the Charter actually said and did.

Visiting the copy at Salisbury Cathedral a few years ago, I got into conversation with an American visitor who was earnestly trying to find where it guaranteed the right to bear arms, which of course it didn't. Since it was mainly about protecting the property rights of the already powerful against arbitrary fundraising by the king, its appeal to the Parliamentarians at the start of the Civil War is fairly obvious - an initially conservative response to what's perceived to be unduly radical change imposed from the top, as later in America.

Now we have a Conservative government claiming it needs to protect Magna Carta from the current Human Rights Act, though quite how whatever they claim as faults in the Act fall foul of the few remaining parts of the Charter in legal force, is hard to see. So the Charter's legend moves to a level even further from its historical origins.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Capitalism works for me?

Another surprising sight on a visit to Chrisp St Market.

No sooner is one election out of the way than passers-by were being called on to press a Yes/No button on this particular question, indeed to engage in discussion with the artist who set it up (an optimist, you might think - no surprise, then, that he turned out to be American).


It's all tied up with something called the 2Degrees Festival, all about worthy attempts to get us thinking, though I suspect most of us just think what we would have thought anyway, if at all (not that this was a question that actually featured much in the election campaign).

I remarked on the symbolism of the choice of venue, since the market's on the edge of the Lansbury Estate, one of the visible reminders of the Festival of Britain and the time when welfarist social democracy reached its high point in this country. But it turned out that they simply had to take the venues they could get, not being able to get approval for anywhere in the City (now there's a surprise).

(PS: The obvious answer is that for someone of my age, capitalism worked out quite well, but that's because its ability to amplify human impulses was held in check by proper regulation and good old-fashioned scepticism. Not so much nowadays, for those priced out of the race to build up capital.)

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Dogzilla

I've never been the greatest fan of the "hairy handbag" sort of dog, and I rather fancy this King Kong sized version (in Chrisp Street Market) could be the stuff of somebody's nightmares.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Sign outside a café in Spitalfields. To judge by the numbers inside, this sort of niche marketing works.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

This sceptical-looking copper was keeping an eye on the spectators at the State Opening of Parliament this morning. After all the excitements of the General Election, this was business as usual. Hard to imagine that, if you believed the opinion polls at the time, there was every prospect of alternative claimants to government each having a go at getting a Queen's Speech approved in Parliament (presumably the Palace would have expected them to find a way to sort that out without having to go through two such ceremonies in quick succession, but who knows?).

But in the event, the voters decided the issue, and the ceremonial proceeded as usual, from the sergeant-major using his pacing -stick to mark out the exact intervals between the Guardsmen along the route, the band strategically placed not only for salutes, but also to entertain the waiting spectators, squadrons of highly-polished cavalry, coaches and cars of assorted dignitaries and officials (and the Crown Jewels) getting to Westminster in time to make sure everything was in place for the main event, to the brief glimpse of herself trundling past, just at the right moment for the Australian tourist beside me to snatch the perfect photo she never expected to get.

Not to mention the street-sweeping machines bringing up the rear, so that you'd never know even a single horse had been along those streets.


Thursday, 21 May 2015

De-cluttering seems to be addictive.

After all that redundant paper and old letters (six large binbags full of shreddings), this morning I managed to get on to the bike and round to the recycling centre a palimpsest of technologies - a 40-year-old handheld vacuum cleaner (well, it might have come in handy, just in case), a 30-year-old telephone answering machine, over 60 computer diskettes, half a dozen rewritable CDs  - and a small bag of old clothes just to pad it all out.

My old computers are still waiting to be disposed of securely, there are a couple of shelves in the storage cupboard to be gone through, and an old cabinet that's so battered it isn't really worth attempting to do much with (and I have no idea what I shoved inside it).

And that'll leave plenty of room for the next lot (you never know when it might be useful........)

Monday, 4 May 2015

Sunshine at the Bank

No, not a weather forecast, either literally or financially, but a person.

To be specific, someone I must have been at school with, and referred to in a letter from a mutual friend found in a box full of old letters starting over 40 years ago, uncovered in the process of de-cluttering (finally!) my storage cupboard.

It was an unsettling experience to realise I had actually forgotten some of the people writing to me, not to mention many of the people they referred to; and even more so, as I re-read them, to think of all the could haves, would haves, should haves of different points in the past.

Less unsettling, perhaps, to marvel at how we actually managed to make arrangements to meet and to keep in touch in the days when you either needed to find a landline or phone box, or to send a letter or a post-card; and if, as they would, something went wrong, another exchange of cards or letters would be winging their way backwards and forwards.

There was no great loss in consigning so much trivia to the shredder; but some names and faces had re-emerged from the mists of memory - including, eventually, someone not exactly blessed with the sprightliest sense of humour, who eventually went into something financial.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Madeira: Flowers and gardens

Up in the hills behind Funchal (so high there's a cable car up to it) is the village of Monte, which hosts not only the last resting-place of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor (still, its seems, attracting Hungarian devotees) and the start of Madeira's much-touted street toboggan rides (no, we didn't), but also several gardens.

 One of them is the Palace Tropical Garden, which sets into a deep ravine a largely Oriental-style of garden, hence this cheery chap.

There's also a large collection of other tropical plants and traditional ornamental tiling with a focus on Portugese links to Asia.

But the ordinary domestic gardens can show some interesting displays, not to mention the wild plants, which can verge on the weird and wonderful:

Friday, 1 May 2015

Madeira: a cliff walk

We had booked to go for a walk on a mountain top; the weather was fine in town and on the coast, but as the van climbed up and up, the cloud became thicker and colder. At the top, the bushes were coated in ice and visibility didn't extend more than a few yards beyond the gift shop. So the guide's Plan B was a coastal walk, and in less than half an hour, we were in full sun and temperatures like an English summer.

And there was no shortage of compensatory vistas: