Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

It's that time of year

The annual newspaper filler story (beg pardon, survey) of the year's most popular names for children is with us again.

Strange how these things come and go. There may never come a time again when "What did Horace say, Winnie?" might be a plausible catchphrase, but some - to my ears - old-fashioned names can make a startling reappearance. I shan't forget the slight froideur when my mother, on learning the name of her much-longed-for grand-daughter, burst into the old song "They call her Hard-hearted Hannah, the vamp from Savannah, GA" (she isn't, of course); and I'm wondering when (if ever) I can tell my great-niece that, though she's as cute as the winner of the Miss Cutest-Ever of the School of Cute could ever be, every time I hear her name, I can't help thinking of this:

Monday, 29 December 2008

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

How Christmas seems to have crept up on me this year. What with a cold (that'll teach me to congratulate myself on having avoided one so far) and being in charge of the incoming workflow at the office this last week (yes, I'm sure you're under pressure to publish before Christmas but so is everyone else and why couldn't you all have thought about it last week?), I've barely been in the mood to do at least some present-buying (my brother now has four grandchildren, would you believe). I've had absolutely no amusing observations or curious insights to offer, and managed to forget to take my camera into work so I can't show you, as I intended, a particularly crunch-defying set of Christmas lights on a house (maybe when I come back next week).

But at last I seem to be ready, and even have a spare moment to wish you all you wish yourself. Here's something to waken up that Christmas spirit (you'll need to allow a minute for all the opening credits):

Saturday, 13 December 2008

I'm beginning to feel a lot like murder...

Three or four times in a single commercial break? Oh perleeese.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

It was a bright cold day

It wasn't April and the clocks weren't striking thirteen, but the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library was calling.

Starting with one of the few surviving copies of Magna Carta and similar mediaeval documents, the exhibition shows the visitor milestones in both our constitutional history and the development of the liberties and rights we tend to take for granted today, grouped around the themes Rule of law, Four nations, Parliament and people, Human rights and Freedom from want.

All the obvious and familiar events are reflected, some in more detail than others. The seventeenth century is a particular interest of mine, and seems to be particularly strongly represented. It's a real thrill to see the originals (even if the handwriting's a bit hard to decipher) of the Scottish Covenant, the contemporary notes of the Putney Debates, the Agreement of the People (the constitution we should have had but didn't), Charles I's death warrant, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Bill of Rights of 1689 (as near as we ever got to a written constitution) and the Act of Union.

The long slow process of extension of the ballot, the great Reform Act, the Chartists, the suffragettes, they're all there. There's rather more of a strain to document the development of labour and welfare rights and the barest nod to the slavery issue (though not without pointing out that both Locke and the founders of the USA both took slavery for granted, since their idea of liberty and rights tended to focus on property - come to think of it, there's no mention of how both royalists and republicans in seventeenth-century England sent some of those they had defeated in battle into slavery in the West Indies).

Apart from the star documents, a particularly thought-provoking feature of the exhibition is the interactive sampling of opinions on some current contentious debates in this general area, and the opportunity to compare one's own views with those of others. Interestingly, people tended to cluster into two fairly distinct groups on most topics; and I was surprised to find myself closer towards the "caution" and "control" axes than I would have imagined. You can join in online, if you like.

I came away with the thought that rights and liberties aren't necessarily the same thing, nor always (pace John Hancock and friends) self-evident truths.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

How many cherries...

..does it take to make a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte?

I was interested to learn from Rachel that the courts will be considering whether it's libellous to call someone "one cherry short" of one.

Clearly the profound legal implications - let alone the substantive merits - of such a case are well beyond my grasp, but if, as seems likely, it provides some gainful employment to libel lawyers (who in these times must be hard put to it to scratch a living), it will be well worth it.

This has nothing, of course, to do with any consideration (oh dear me no) of its potential entertainment value, as there is not the remotest possibility of this being the kind of case that seems to come along just at the right time to provide the kind of hilarity that enlivened a previous period of perceived gloom and doubt.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Twas on a Monday morning....

It was only the quietest popping sound, hardly audible above the clanks and swearing at every bump, but by the time I got to work it was clear I had a puncture. By the time I left work there was no way the tube was going to hold any air at all; but though I had a spare tube and tyre levers, I didn't have a spanner. Fortunately, I could take the bike all the way home on a boat, and I cheerfully thought I could deal with it there.

Oh dear. My ancient adjustables couldn't shift the nut at all; all they did was start to round off the angles on it.

So it was back to the old routine till I could get to a shop, and 'twas on a Tuesday evening that I beheld a proper old-fashioned bike spanner, the miniature dumbell kind, and I tested it on a companion model of bike in the shop. But would it fit when I got it home? Would it bogroll.

Another day of mumbling announcements and enforced inspection of strangers' armpits (dear Santa, for the Jubilee Line, please, some signals that work all the time), and 'twas on a Wednesday evening that I went to another shop and checked the precise specifications of a fearsome tool that looked like the kind of thing you see labelled up on Crimewatch.

And it fitted! Only a few more swearwords and I had the wheel off.

Oh. It must be the best part of forty years since I mended a puncture. Getting the tyre off - no problem; but wasn't there something about making sure you didn't get the new tube caught underneath the edge of the tyre, and oh dear, how is it that it seems to be rather too loose and large? But no, all the printed labelling matches up, so somehow this wriggling snake has to be squeezed in; and at last it seems to be filling up, and lo and behold, it's fixed, it's pumped up and solid. I have done it.

Twas on a Thursday morning that I faced the day with a new skill mastered. I am man: hear me roar (oh, all right then, I am bloke: hear me drone on about spanners).

Then I opened the curtains: bucketing down.

So 'twas not until today that I actually rode the damn thing again.

I'll tell you what though. It goes so much better with its driving train scrubbed. And don't we all?

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Dank and dreary..

As must be obvious, I really haven't found much to write about recently. It's that time of year. And though there are plenty of things to see and do in London, as at any time of year, a couple of weekends of wretched weather have combined with the kind of bad posture while doing necessary odd jobs that seems to seize up my back muscles. So a brief sciatical totter to the City Farm café and back was the sum total of this weekend's outings.

The only consolation to Sunday afternoons at this time of year is drawing the curtains to cocoon with something toasted and a detective story, but otherwise:

No sun, no moon!
No morn, no noon!
No dawn, no dusk, no proper time of day,

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! -

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Dear Mr Tourist..

I know there's a lot to learn about London, and especially the Tower and Tower Bridge, but if you're walking across the bridge approach road in the gloom of the evening rush hour, do you think you could actually take your nose out of the guide-book before stepping into the road in front of me? I wouldn't want you to get a bad impression of Britain, but I don't honestly feel inclined to apologise for swearing at you.....

Monday, 24 November 2008


I tend to screen out most TV adverts, especially those for the Christmas market (those bizarre perfume ads!) and compilation records - and above all compilation records for the Christmas market.

But tonight I couldn't help noticing that one of this year's offerings of quasi-religious sentimentality - according to Morrison's - includes Lesley Garrett singing about that well-known Scotsman, Angus Dei.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Lolling idly....

... in front of QI last night, it struck me that in almost all panel games and comedy quizzes of this kind, on radio or TV, there is only ever one woman "contestant". Not only QI, but The News Quiz/Have I Got News For You, Just A Minute, Never Mind the Buzzcocks (so it's not just the BBC), whatever.

I'm sure that in the prim and conservative 1950s, programmes like Twenty Questions and What's My Line routinely had two men and two women taking part.

Is this something to do with a change in the perceived audience? But doesn't that become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

And relax...

The cycle path along Cable Street is unbelievably bumpy by comparison with the road surface: but this morning it allowed me to sail past a caterpillar-tracked earth-mover trundling slowly along - the driver blissfully stretching with his hands clasped behind his head......

Saturday, 15 November 2008

At last!

I've spent the afternoon playing with my Winkku*.

Since it's an extension to be added on to one end of the handlebars, it's a bit inclined to wobble on its own, which means the rear-view mirror doesn't always give the clearest picture. Of course, that might be because I'm currently using the strap-on** - I'll wait to see if it's any better if I use the version that has to be actually inserted*** into the handlebar.

The lights are bright. From the rider's viewpoint the indicator doesn't seem so, but it would be different from the perspective of a following car-driver. I'm not sure if it makes a great deal of difference to how drivers respond: they seem to have been giving me a wide berth anyway, for whatever reason. I'm not sure I trust it enough to do without hand-signalling for a right turn, just yet, at least; but it's handy that it also makes an extra set of front and rear lights.

*Oh do stop sniggering.
**Look, I won't tell you again.
***Oh for heaven's sake...

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Home thoughts

Dear me, isn't it amazing how quickly one forgets a trip away once the normal daily habits of home are picked up again?

I managed to get in a quick look at the free exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville on Jacques Prévert; to do it justice would need a couple of hours, there are so many film clips and examples of all the different art forms he tried (some fascinating collages, for example). Ah well, it's on till February, so I might get another chance.

The train trip home gave me an opportunity to listen to a couple of records I'd got round to buying in Paris. I can't remember how I came to hear about the Gotan Project, though I soon found I recognised one of their pieces, as I think would a lot of people. They perform tango music (tango/gotan - geddit?) with various bits of additional electronic trickery: FNAC has them filed under electronic music, but it's the hypnotic melancholy of the tango music that gets me. What really intrigues me is trying to imagine how anyone came to think the tension, the attraction/repulsion, domination/submission, love and hate, the sheer passion of tango the perfect music to sell.... dishwashing tablets:

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Armistice Day, 2008Armistice Day, a public holiday in France. I've said all I want to say on the subject, and since it was a beautiful day and the museums I had it in mind to visit were closed today, I decided to take a bike and explore Auteuil, passing the Arc de Triomphe en route to see if there was anything happening. The main national event of this 90th anniversary was a ceremony combining commemoration and (since France is currently presiding over the EU) reconciliation at the vast cemetery at Douaumont near Verdun, so the only sign I saw today was a blaring police escort for what looked like the Australian Ambassador.

Facade, AuteuilAuteuil retains something of the air of the village it once was, attracting litterati away from the smoky, dirty city in the 18th century - there are traces of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams here. Now it is an upmarket residential area, with most of my guidebook's interest focussed on architectural details, with examples from Guimaud (who designed the iconic Metro entrances) as well as some extraordinary 1920s flights of fancy, and some (currently inaccessible for repairs) Le Corbusier.

But other things caught my eye as well:

- a family making the most of a no doubt rare midweek opportunity for papa to take the children to buy the day's baguette (baguette safely stowed across the hood of the buggy; but the toddler, allowed to stand on the back axle, surreptitiously nibbling at it)

- an ornate but (I suspect) futile sign forbidding people to play ball games against the wall of the church

- an interesting opportunity for deconstructing a trade name

- that apparently in France there aren't so much beauty parlours (too frivolous?) or clinics (too medical?) as Instituts de Beauté: serious enough to be reassuring without being forbidding, perhaps

- more and more museums: in the immediate vicinity there's a Balzac museum and the museum of Radio France, and on the way back to the centre, I spotted a sign for a Musée de Vin (on rue des Eaux, ha ha ha), and near les Halles there's also a dolls museum.

And in the evening, I actually went out to dinner with some other people (this is rare for me), with whom I'd been sharing facts and opinions on an internet messageboard for years, and a very pleasant meal it was too.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Till I dropped...

A grey and drizzly day, and a Monday, when most of the museums are closed. My exchange partner had mentioned that one of the buses from here goes all the way south of the river to near the Bon Marché department store. I'm not normally one for drifting round the shops for the sake of it (I make an exception for bookshops and the DIY basement at BHV, which is full of interesting examples of how the French do household things), but on a morning like this, doing the old lady thing seemed to be a sensible option.

The nearest bus stop is at the other end of the Rue de Babylone, which belies its name to be about as genteel as you could imagine, offering a glimpse of an interesting courtyard or two.

Bon MarchéArriving at Bon Marché, I saw why my guidebook says it's not only the oldest department store, it's considered the most chic. Even the tea-towels cost €16.50. Passing through the lighting department, I was struck (almost literally, it was hanging so low) by an Italian designer's sprightly take on a chandelier, ready-wrapped in a fibreglass web for that "Voilà! Instant Miss Havisham!" look - a snip at only €2910 (must be a bugger to dust). But the Christmas tree decorations department glittered, and in haberdashery you could probably find any sort of button you liked. I did buy a book (what else - and of course it's one of the season's priwewinners, though I might not get round to reading it till Easter, knowing me), and a coffee and a very nice cake in the basement café, but on the whole I find the world of people who fall for the glitz (or worse still, take it for granted) stifling.

Coming out, the narrow passage between road works was blocked by two young firemen inviting donations for their calendar. How could I refuse? It is of course the season - I've just been interrupted by a knock at the door by a representative of the binmen and roadsweepers, but I said to call back when my exchange partner returns. I always used to say you know you're getting on, not when the policemen look young, and not when they start calling you "Sir", but when you expect that as your proper due; but it was much more disconcerting that these firemen looked to be about 16.

As it happens, I know just the person it'd be a handy gift for, but now I needed a postal tube to keep it in good order. None for sale in the post office; the stationery shop they recommended only had them about four sizes too big. So I thought I'd look in BHV, since I was planning to visit the (free) exhibition on Jacques Prévert at the Hotel de Ville, which was open today. No, only huge ones there too, and a huge queue for the exhibition too. I ended up walking all the way to the Pompidou centre thinking that somewhere round there would have a better choice: no luck, huge is clearly this season's must-have (or rather, can't have anything else).

No, I'm not much of a shopper - except for the chocolate eclair I now felt entitled to.

Sunday, 9 November 2008


This morning I finally worked out which bit of indistinguishable black plastic touchpad on my exchange partner's computer actually makes it go (well, I've never used one before). So instead of cursing Acer, TeaTimer (which uses a lot memory at some moments) and Firefox, I spent the morning catching up on tidying my photos, video and posts so far. Perhaps I'm moving into the phase of needing things clearly labelled, like the "Drink me" and "Eat me" labels in Alice. Now there's a novel theory: was Carroll writing Alice not for a little girl but for a demented elderly relative?

I pootled down to the Marais on a bike, had terrible trouble finding free Velib spaces to park it and consequently was in no mood to take photos or do anything worth writing about.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Porte St Denis to Montmartre

As the sun was shining this morning, I followed a walk suggested on (of all places) the French railways website.

Starting at the Porte St Denis (a proto- Arc de Triomphe from Louis XIV's time, featuring this distinctly unmartial lion), the walk starts with some of the less swish "passages": Passage Brady, famous for Indian restaurants, the Passage de l'Industrie (where the industry seeme to be hairdressing supplies, and if ever I'm in need of a wig, I'll know where to come, as this is Syrup City). Doubling back along the rue Château d'Eau, the route passes salons that use all that equipment, with a gathering of Afro-Caribbean girls all making that Saturday do a social highlight.

Rue d'AbbevilleOn past this saucy-looking frontage on rue d'Abbeville, past Tati at Barbès-Rochechouart, and up the hill towards Montmartre.

Skirting Sacré-Coeur and the "instant heritage" demonstration vineyard of the Clos Montmartre, the route passes the Musée de Montmartre, currently featuring an exhibition on the life and work of Jean Marais. I had no idea he became an action hero later in his life, as well as a serious classical actor - and an art potter to boot.

Sun or no sun, a definite chill in the air encouraged a return to the flat for a welcome cup of tea, but climbing down towards the metro station, I stopped for an attempt at an atmospheric black and white photo that quickly turned into a "Don't Look Now" moment. Passing the funicular station, I came across an exuberant medical students' band, Les Plaies Mobiles:

Friday, 7 November 2008

Ouf! Part Deux

Don't panic, it's an advertBarely had I got back from my jaunt to Paris in August when I received a proposal for another home exchange, from someone else in Paris, this time as far to the north-west as I was to the north-east last time.

So here I am in a sixth-floor flat in a solid 1920s block (complete with wardrobe-sized lift) at the Porte de Champerret.

Ste OdileIt's just up the road from the most extraordinary church - Ste Odile, an Art Deco frontage in vaguely Dutch-looking brick, with Byyzantine domes and a Ghormenghast tower topped with a patriotic cockerel. If my memory's correct, the 1920s was a time of conservative re-assertion in France, not least in the position and status of the Catholic Church: and it shows.

I was up at 5am to be sure of getting the train this morning, and it's starting to catch up with me. Which is why I'm in a mood to rant about coffee culture. I've been peeved for years about people taking an age to get their cappuccinos and fancy skinny frappé latte mochaccino with a caramel shot or whatever, when all I want is a plain black coffee. This afternoon, a new bugbear: a modish takeaway deli-café which handed me a cartridge (in one of those adult-proof foil wrappings) and pointed me to a sleek machine in the corner: so sleek, so beautifully designed and engineered that there was not the slightest indication of how or where to insert the cartridge. I was on the point of suggesting somewhere to the people behind the counter when they took pity and explained how to find the magic lever and which way round to put the cartridge. In which time, of course, they could probably have served an office party's worth of cappuccinos.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Welcome back, America!

My facetious query about Obama's prospects turned out to be resoundingly inept (there might be a connection with my having spent far too many years beavering away for the party that can never quite).

This looks at one level like our 1997 election: a predictable and predicted landslide against a discredited and exhausted government, where the winning campaign was predicated on a considerable amount of caution and dampening down of expectations. At another, it's more like our 1945: a wholesale rejection of the conventional thinking of decades, even generations, with voters fully conscious of how historic a shift they were creating.

I'm in the middle of reading his early book about his search for identity. I'm not bothering with his campaign-y book, since manifestos are a recipe for disappointment, and the really interesting thing about any politician is what they will do when confronted with the unexpected and unhoped for, the kind of thing you don't want to mention in manifestoes.

So far, I'm getting a strong sense of someone having to invent himself in a way most people don't have to: something he might have in common with Tony Blair, who might not have had to, but certainly did, invent himself. I just hope Obama's obvious ability to connect isn't just Blair's ability to make himself a receptacle for people's hopes. And thank goodness he has verbs in his sentences.

Monday, 3 November 2008


Champagne corks as handlebar end-stops.

Seen outside (where else?) Waitrose.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

You don't get this on the tube...

My new trip to work takes me through some places I already know quite well, but also to some complete surprises.

First, I go up the only main road off the Isle of Dogs to Canary Wharf and round the huge roundabout built in under the new developments. This manages to act as a gigantic wind-funnel: a headwind, naturally.

Coming up and out of the roundabout, there's a slightly hairy choice of lanes before ducking out of the main flow of traffic into Narrow Street in Limehouse.

Before the Victorians, this was a base for sailors, often of dubious reputation. Later, warehouses were built along the river; some survive, converted into expensive housing, rubbing shoulders with a converted shop or pub sporting this cherub, model workers' dwellings from a century ago (now gated off and renamed upmarket) and a pub that claims to have been the model for one in Dickens.

A sharp turn comes up to the main road by the Limehouse Tunnel; there's a wait for the roaring flood of traffic to halt a while before you can cross and turn off along Cable Street and its bumpy cycle-path.

This runs almost all the way to the Tower of London, past clumps of social history: a short terrace of two-up, two-down cottages, solid blocks of public housing from slum clearance programmes of the 1920s and 1930s (but mostly of course post-Blitz reconstruction), a Catholic church, and one of those pocket palazzos that the Victorians created for public buildings (now a rather neglected looking base for a number of small community organisations, with a convenient side wall for this mural commemorating the anti-Fascist "Battle of Cable Street" in 1936).

Then there's a longer, older terrace of Regency/ early Victorian houses for the middle class, a corner pub which is now a private residence (next to the halal butcher and a few steps from one of Hawksmoor's "coal churches") and on past slabby and brutalist 1960s concrete and system-built tower blocks. One thing I notice more and more is the waste of odd left-over spaces around these estates - a bit of pointless grass, at best, with little sign that anyone ever uses it. But here and there, some have been taken over, officially or otherwise, for little vegetable gardens, many with the kind of trellis pergola for growing squashes that I take to indicate some initiative by Bangladeshi residents.

On down the nondescript Royal Mint Street, with the apparently prettily-named Rosemary Lane restaurant the only reminder that, in the days when that was the street's name, this was one of the poorest and most destitute streets in London. Here Mayhew came across people who lived by collecting and trading in street-waste - bones, cigar-ends and "pure" (dog dung, used in tanneries).

Here the route turns into the main stream of traffic squeezing its way over Tower Bridge; once over, a lot of traffic is lining itself up to turn left at successive traffic lights, and some decisive judgement is needed to get into lane to turn right, down Tanner Street and into Leathermarket Street (do you see a theme here?). Here's another area gentrified apparently and mercifully without (so far) massive rebuilding: the Morocco Store and the Leather Exchange buildings are still in use as offices for small businesses. Crossing Bermondsey Street you see the greasy spoon is still doing business, even as the kind of sports shoe shop that wouldn't look out of place in Covent Garden has opened up (it's called "United Nude" - nope, me neither) and the pubs have spruced up: "ever popular" the estate agents call it (i.e., property prices beyond the imagining of people who knew it 40 years ago).

This is Dickens territory. A little to the East was Fagin's lair, a little to the West, the Marshalsea debtors' prison, as featured in Little Dorrit (and David Copperfield, and Dickens's own life). And here, all down the side of a building, is a quotation from "Pickwick Papers".

Over the next main road, you're into Chaucer, as the streets in the Tabard Gardens estate (another 1930s public housing development) are all named with reference to the Canterbury Tales (Pilgrimage, Pardoner, Manciple): the pilgrims would have set out from the Tabard Inn on Borough High Street nearby. With wide quiet streets shaded by full-grown plane trees, it looks closer to the planners' pictures than their 50s or 60s equivalents do today.

Crossing over Great Dover Street (the main road to Canterbury and the coast - you see why the pilgrims set out from Borough), the route comes back into Dickens's time, passing a side street of plain Victorian workshop buildings, and turns into the grand, elegant 1830s Trinity Church Square with a church (now a recording studio) at its centre:

I could imagine Dickens's not quite upper crust settled here: enclosed among their own kind, but close enough to their businesses to keep an eye on their workers. Apparently it's owned by Trinity House, which operates the nation's lighthouses: this might account for the austere and uniform external decoration.

Turning south again, and past the mosque on Dickens Square (now what would he have made of that?), avoiding a dustcart (or is it a work of art?), it's a short run down and round past the Salvation Army headquarters - how appropriate - to the Elephant and Castle:

And in the evening, I get to do it all again in reverse.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Life's too short

There are too many lists. You can't move for lazy TV programmes about the umpteen best/ worst/ funniest/ most irritating whatevers. And now the Guardian's producing a list of a thousand artworks to see before you die. Well, that's one supplement that goes into the bin unread. I see what I can when I feel like it(and vice versa) - and that's it.

On the other hand, I did enjoy their article on costume drama (the latest BBC offering, Little Dorrit, looks promising):

"Generally speaking though, costume drama acting is about demonstrating supreme bonnet control in devastatingly posh circumstances. This is why it is known as Dench warfare. "

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Generation gap

Today I saw a young woman jogging along the main road with a black armband. How unusual, I thought, you don't often see that sort of mourning convention these days.

It was, of course, her music player.

I'm surprised I didn't wonder if she was monitoring her blood pressure.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

I blame the weather.

Recently, I just haven't been to any special events or places to write about. Just catching up on the stuff that's accumulated on my TV recorder (that "series link!" facility has a lot to answer for), and the reading matter that piles up on my kitchen table. I need to clear a bit soon (because I've had another offer of a house swap to Paris in early November - the other side of the city this time), but first I've been wading through Martin Amis's "House of Meetings", which someone at our book club brought along but couldn't persuade the rest to select.

I say "wade through" advisedly. Somehow I just cannot get along with his style. The subject matter - the love and rivalry of two brothers standing as a metaphor for different responses to the experience of Stalinist repression - interests me, and the writing style is great deal less florid than in other novels of his I couldn't finish: but something in the voice of the narrator (the ruthless, shameless survivor of the two) just didn't take life. It's not that it's overwhelmed by the detail of the research - it's a short book - but I was just too conscious of the author describing, to the point that the characters seemed merely schematic.

On the other hand, I am enjoying "The Clothes On Their Backs", one of the Booker Prize finalists. For this month, the book club agreed to choose whatever we liked from the shortlist, and to be honest, it was the shortest and cheapest that I could see in the shop. As good a principle as any (I remember a bookstall in North End Road market in Fulham with the sign "Thick books £1, thin books 50p"). This is a tale of family secrets, and how refugees responded to life in Britain. I don't know yet what the secret is, though I can guess there might be a plot element in common with "House of Meetings".

Sunday, 19 October 2008


One of my parents' more gnomic sayings was "If we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread". I can't remember if this was a comment on privation or improvidence, but catering just for oneself at a supermarket tends to the reverse.

Inspired to try Ken's "smoked potatoes" (I prefer to call it bacon hotpot), I realised I would still have about half a pack of lardons left. What to do? Easy, fry them off and have them with some scrambled eggs for Sunday breakfast (I don't usually have a cooked breakfast, but on Sundays - especially in the winter - I might make an exception). But what to do with the rest of the half dozen?

Which is how I came to indulge myself with a proper sponge cake on Saturday afternoon (and it helped use up some marmalade that's been hanging around for far too long). And I might make an almond soufflé topping for some gooseberries that have been cluttering up the freezer. If I had some ground almonds.

They teach you more than they know, do parents.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Etiquette (2)

Once on the bike, I turn into someone else. Every bump in the road, every missed turn or misjudged choice of lane, every traffic light deaf to my pleadings, evokes an almost involuntary expletive: not so much a tour as Tourette's.

By Christmas, at this rate, I shall be Father Jack:

Saturday, 11 October 2008


Navigating my way around the mess made by the umpteenth excavations of the electricity cables along our only route off the Isle of Dogs, I was wobbling along with my right hand signalling a turn, two fingers elegantly extended, when I found myself in one of those "After you, Claude" moments with a car.

Nice of him to slow down, but I wasn't quite sure he was giving way; since I was nearly about to stop, it seemed more secure to keep moving to turn behind him, so I switched to gesturing to him to carry on towards me and go first.

Only later did I realise that it must have looked like a particularly vigorous V-sign.


It's started.

Now I'm thinking of getting one of these (well, I do have a couple of nasty turns against the traffic, which is fine at the moment, but what happens when the nights draw in?).

Ooh, and it might be fun to have one of these, too....

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Sheer frivolity

The isle may be full of noises (chiefly of headless chickens coming home to roost), but at work today all is calm, as a colleague presents each of us with a sycamore seed picked up in the street, and we all spend a merry moment playing helicopters. I wouldn't put it past him to organise a conkers contest.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Sit up and beg

I would pick the a grey and windy, autumn-setting-in sort of a day to test out a route to cycle to work: but even with a head-wind trying to blow me backwards across Tower Bridge and a stop to check the maps, it took me no longer than it would by public transport - 41 minutes door to door. No excuses now...

The best thing is how you can see - and stop to look at - all sorts of interesting odds and ends - the curious coat of arms at the entrance to Guy's Hospital, or the mural commemorating the most exciting piece of local history in what is now a very quiet residential street (so quiet, it's got the only real cycle lane in the area - sadly, it appears to have been laid with the only square-wheeled roadroller in existence).

For a couple of weeks I've been trying to work out what niggled me about a piece in the newspaper on the best sort of posture for cycling. Sit upright, let the legs do the work: it wasn't just the vague memory of an old-style district nurse going about her business, but something else I'd seen.

And then it came to me (I do hope I don't cycle like the first four minutes of this):

Monday, 29 September 2008

I've been tangoed..

I suppose it's a commonplace in a lot of cities that people who live there tend not to take full advantage of everything that's going on: daily routine takes over so easily, especially in London with its long commuting times.

I don't have that much of an excuse for never having been - in ten years - to a performance at our local performance space - a converted Presbyterian chapel - (since I've been to the café upstairs often enough). It's only about five minutes' walk away, but somehow nothing ever quite caught my eye there: until this weekend, when I saw (another advantage of going past on a bike rather than a bus) that there would be someone singing tango songs by Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla.

Years ago, I got the chance of a business trip to Buenos Aires. I'm not sure I'd want to go back again (the diet seemed almost entirely meat-based - a pasty for starters, a huge slice of roast beef for a main dish: by the end of the week I'd have killed for a lettuce leaf), but it was an adventure, and I was especially taken by the "proper" tango music. They even had a TV channel devoted solely to tango lessons and performances, and not the kind of ballroom tango that's been so easily sent up in TV comedies.

Of course, I'm far too English to imagine ever being able to dance it (it's quite enough to hang on to the idea of playing the spoons as my fantasy someday talent), but that doesn't take away from the enjoyment of listening to it. Unfortunately something about the performance (maybe the space and the acoustic, but probably trying to present them as art songs with just a voice/piano combination) didn't quite get the tension and emotion across last night. Maybe it all depends on the contrast between the bandoneon and sweet and swooping strings:

Friday, 26 September 2008

Tutu much....

My spendy mood the other week also led to my booking a theatre trip - to see the Trocks. I've seen them a few times over the last 20+ years, so I booked for the programme that seemed to have unfamiliar things. I couldn't resist something described as "The underwater scene from The Little Humpbacked Horse", but (shows how much I know) it turns out to be genuinely part of the ballet repertoire, a sort of pre-Nutcracker Christmas treat in Imperial Russia, with dancing jellyfish, no less.

You will gather that this is not for the entirely serious balletomane: a company of - sometimes quite hefty - male dancers performing en travesti to pastiche the conventions and formalities of (mostly) classical ballet. The tone is set by the opening announcements in a heavy cod-Rrrraahsian accent ("Pl-yease to turn aff your mobile ph-yones, or ve vill do it for you."): all the clichés and absurdities of the style are guyed, fixed smiles remaining firmly in place, even as a six-footer is paired with a minuscule support, dancers miss the follow-spot, tread on someone else's toes, steal each other's thunder and so on. But the point is, they do actually do the dance: they really do waft across the stage on point, or do umpteen fouettés (twice in the course of the evening, on this occasion).

The audience was not that different from what you expect at most high-culture events in London. Perhaps slightly more student-y (Sadlers Wells rather than Covent Garden) and a fair smattering of gentlemen who "dance at the other end of the ballroom", and some people who probably know exactly how some of the classics should be danced, to judge from some (to me) inexplicable laughter at some points.

Alternative programme or no, a (traditional) change of programme saw Madame Ida Nevaseyneva giving us her dying swan (again), but I've posted that Youtube clip before - so here's another example of what they can do:

Monday, 22 September 2008

Cycles, churches, courts and crime

You expect to have to work for your bread, but this weekend required some effort to take advantage of the circuses - the Open House weekend and London Freewheel.

Somehow, although I'm totally irreligious, the Open House weekend seems to find me visiting mostly religious buildings. Maybe they're just more visible, but this year I started out at Christ Church Spitalfields, now beautifully restored (and incidentally, where one of my great-great-grandfathers was christened - but I suspect that might have been insurance rather than zeal, since the "parish" was the only source of social security in hard times), and over the weekend also dropped in - since I was in the area - at St Clement Danes (the "RAF church", the old memorials to the likes of John Donne's wife being joined by those to many different units and groups of aircrew - and the people in occupied Europe who ran escape lines to get Allied airmen home), St Giles in the Fields and the Bevis Marks Synagogue (designed by a Quaker architect around the same time as the great Wren churches, it has a similar openness, lightness and sense of peace).

There's almost as religious a feeling about the Royal Courts of Justice (that was apparently the intention), the pre-Disney Gothic-turreted fantasy in the Strand. I worked nearby for over twenty years and never realised just how open to visitors they are. They'd laid on mock trials, visits to the cells and a prison van (this required a degree of queuing I didn't fancy), an amusing talk by a judge's clerk about mostly the ceremonial robes but also about the daily work of a judge, as well as other talks and displays. It's a warren of corridors and courtrooms doors off mysterious half-landings up and down winding staircases. The courtrooms are surprisingly intimate, but this is hardly surprising, given that much of the business here is to do with private civil disputes and criminal appeals on points of law, rather than the grand public dramas of TV and movie trials.

From one end of the justice system to the other: the Thames Police Museum is a volunteer-run collection of all sorts of memorabilia crammed into the former carpenters' workshop at the headquarters of the river police in Wapping. Models of boats, old equipment, photographs of great events, uniforms, flags, paintings and documents all jostle for attention as you squeeze your way between the cabinets. There are some fascinating stories here, but they're a bit buried: and the reality of the work, as shown in a recent TV series, can be grim (the river is so murky that divers mostly have to locate what they're looking for by feel alone, whether it's a body or an abandoned weapon).

As for the Freewheel event - last year I wondered if I should get a bike, and this year I was able to join in (no need to register - I don't want a free bib advertising Rupert Murdoch, thank you very much, and certainly not to go on one of his mailing lists). And a great day was had by all, notwithstanding some shocking bad manners by some cyclists (what else is new):

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Gently remove the postilion from under the horse...

This is one of the handy phrases offered by Mme de Genlis, tutor to French royalty, in her 18th century guide and phrasebook for travellers in rural France, as quoted in Graham Robb's Discovery of France, a book I'm loving.

The book is the story of how "France" developed from a society in which people had little experience of anywhere, let alone of any authority, outside their own immediate pays, where excise duties were required as goods moved from one part of the country to another, where families could - for no obvious reason - be defined as a caste almost of "untouchable" status as in India. It tells how the country was mapped, how transport was developed, how people migrated - a fascinating mix of global trends and piquant local detail. As for example, what Mme de Genlis's choice of phrases tells you about the state of the roads at the time. And did you know that bands of dogs were trained to smuggle goods past the excise officers - without being led by humans? Or that the "Tour de France" was a term for apprentices' travels to learn their trades around the country?.

The book closes with the development of both national identity through national education (and national military service) in the nineteenth century, and at the same time of regional/local identities to encourage tourism. Paris, by the way, hardly features.

Well bless my soul

Thanks to Cécile Quoi de 9, I discover there's a variety of fig in France known as "couille du Pape" - as demonstrated by a display of jam on the occasion of the Pope's visit to France.

That is to say, in France you can buy a kilo or a jar of - that of which the Pope, of all people, has no functional need. Well, it makes a variation on "Cobblers* to the Queen", I suppose.

*[For readers not familiar with British English - this is the punchline of an old joke relying on London rhyming slang. Cobblers stands for "cobblers' awls", which rhymes with...?

Sunday, 14 September 2008


Sunday turned out to be a late attempt at summer, so it was out with the bike again. An hour or so's ride got me to the British Library for the last day of the Ramayana exhibition - beautiful miniatures, from mostly 17th century editions of the great Indian myth, with material exhibiting its influence elsewhere in south and south-east Asia - different forms of text and image, dance, wall hangings, shadow puppets.

It's a long - very long - legend of good and evil, how a king in exile pursues and destroys the abductor of his wife (with the aid of Hanuman the monkey god, Garuda the eagle and an army of monkeys and bears), she restores his (and public) faith in her virtue and loyalty by agreeing to sacrifice herself (but is saved), and they return to resume the throne and inaugurate a golden age. There are shape-shifting gods and demons, miraculous cures, battles, moving mountains, wicked stepmothers, brothers and wives both loyal and disloyal, and a great many other things familiar from folk myths and legends throughout the world.

Many beautiful details in the paintings: here's the online version on the BL's website.

On the way home, I realised I was near Bunhill Fields, the old cemetery for nonconformists, which I've never visited. So by way of light relief, I stopped in to pay my respects at the graves of Bunyan, Blake and Daniel Defoe - and the imposing tomb of Dame Mary Page (died 1728), with the inscription:
In 67 months she was tap'd 66 times, had taken away 240 gallons of water, without ever repining for her case, or fearing the operation.

Clearly an example to us all.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Feast on the Bridge

This was the weekend of (among many other things) the Thames Festival. I've been less aware of it in the past than of the Great River Race, which passes where I live - but I don't think I could find anything different to say about the race this year. Instead, on Saturday I took the bike and rode into town to have a look at the Feast on the Bridge.

Part farmer's market, part harvest festival and community fete, this takes over Southwark Bridge. There were stalls selling Sussex beer, Essex oysters, "street food from the Silk Route", burgers, sweets and cakes (including cakes and jam from our own local city farm), a stall for children to make their own gingerbread men, a giant pumpkin for them to be photographed with, folk rock and morris dancers, and two tables running the full length of the bridge for people to enjoy their food with a view. On the north side, there were free chocolate samples, and a cosy arrangement of sofas on the pavement for that homely touch.

I managed a good ride around central London and home again, but I still haven't quite got things organised. I need to find some way to carry my weekly shop home on the back, the best place to fix the lights, and I'm sure the brakes are binding a bit.

Hang on, it's all coming back to me: that's why we have bikes: let the tinkering begin!

A grand night out

I do seem to have been in a spendy mood this week. I broke the habit of a lifetime and booked (shock!) to go out of an evening (horror!).

Suddenly realising that this was the last week of the Proms and that I hadn't been in person for decades, I had a look to see what was still available, and surprisingly, there were seats. Of course, if you've the time and stamina to queue, you can get into the standing places in the arena and topmost gallery quite cheaply, but for me it's enough of an adventure to get myself there at all. Best of all, there were still reasonably-priced seats for the Beethoven Choral Symphony, one of the traditional regulars of the Proms: and my seat was beside the organ, facing the conductor across the choir and orchestra.

The Albert Hall is a grand amphitheatre in red and gold; it can hold 5500 people, but my first thought was how intimate it can feel, with the arena audience and many of those seated being very close to the performers. Hence, no doubt, the proprietorial nature of the traditional prommer, those people who regularly queue for the standing places and maintain the rituals of decades, chanting messages from arena to gallery, shouting "heave" when the piano lid goes up, and all the nonsense of the Last Night: but of course, rapt and knowledgeable silence while the music is playing, and usually a generous response - if they liked the performance, they let you know.

The size of the audience has to be taken into account if you visit, by the way: 5500 people, with the lights and all the exertions on the stage, generate a lot of heat, and it rises. The Proms take place over the summer, and even in one as dull as this has been, it can become quite clammy down on the ground, and more and more unpleasant in the higher tiers and the gallery. It's a Victorian building without air-conditioning. A practical top tip is to go to the loo at the start of the interval: there might not be time if you wait till after your ice-cream.

Being at a live performance allows you to hear a lot more detail in the range of both pitch and volume than you get from hearing (considerately-played) broadcasts or recordings at home. My seat gave me a slightly unbalanced sounds, being right behind the brass and percussion (it felt almost like an open-air acoustic), but there was so much more to hear than I'd ever really been aware of before.

It also gave me a performer's view - the screens at the front of the stage to let the soloists see the conductor (who would be behind them), just how many hammers the tympanist had to choose from, and some sort of electronic device on his music stand (a decibel meter?) and the extraordinary self-devised notation for the equally extraordinary Penderecki piece (exactly what people think of as modern classical music, strange slidings, swoopings, tapping, slapping and plucking in no conventional time pattern: the sort of thing that sets the mood for in a sci-fi horror film, but it seemed to fit in the context of this programme).

I could also, of course, see what the choir and orchestra see of the conductor.

By chance, the scheduled programmes and the recordings I've been catching up on have been Beethoven-heavy, and it had struck me just how playful Beethoven is with rhythm, and how much all the different conductors were letting the music dance. Tonight, we certainly got dancing, on the podium as much as in the music.

Noseda had a gesture and a move for every mood and detail he was trying to evoke: stern, dreamy, nonchalant, decisive, precise, straining, imploring, a hand outstretched at thigh-level as though supporting the sound, a chop or a double-handed backhand or a thumb-to-index circle indicating the degree of emphasis he wanted from a section, sometimes the fingertips crumbling pastry or spinning threads in the air, sometimes seeming to shoo invisible pigeons away, his shoulders raised and his feet moving as though through treacle, or arms raised and hands floating, his feet almost on tiptoe as he swayed the rhythm. And all at a take-no-prisoners tempo. No wonder he looked exhausted at the end.

That's not to everyone's taste (though the audience can't see most of it); there's as much to admire in the way, for example, Colin Davis just stood back at moments, stopped even beating time and let the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra play Sibelius); but this was a fabulous performance with the customary response, and special cheers (three separate calls) for the choir. "Roar of applause" wasn't just a cliché in this case.

As I came out, Prince Albert was glittering in his floodlit memorial. He might have been surprised to see just how much good has been done from the profits of his Great Exhibition, perhaps that the Hall is not only still standing but thriving - Sunday jazz brunches and all, and perhaps shocked by some of the music; but, musically capable as he was said to be, I think he would have approved.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Well, I've been and gorn and done it

I've bought a bike. Having ridden it all the way home from the shop, I reckon I could get to and from work in about the same time as I spend on public transport. So we shall see.....

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Still here

I'd be surprised if anyone ever really thought the LHC experiment at CERN might lead to the end of the world. Maybe I'm just naively trusting of people in white coats.

It all looks very James Bond meets Dr. Who, and frankly that's about my level of understanding: so it's even less of a surprise that this morning I was most struck by the Guardian magazine's take on the whole thing (if they're going to have more giveaway posters, this is a much better candidate than some of their other offerings - click on the image to see it full-size):

Saturday, 6 September 2008


Hooray for a poet!

A schools examining board - acting on just three complaints - withdrew this poem from its syllabus:

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets
I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.
I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something's world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.
I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
For signing on. They don't appreciate my autograph.
There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he's talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

Today, the poet, Carol Ann Duffy, published her comment:

You must prepare your bosom for his knife,
said Portia to Antonio in which
of Shakespeare's Comedies? Who killed his wife,
insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch
knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said
Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?
Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt's death?
To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark - do you
know what this means? Explain how poetry
pursues the human like the smitten moon
above the weeping, laughing earth; how we
make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:
speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

Wit is the best response to idiocy.

By the way, is anyone asking about the recruitment policy that appointed the original complainant an examiner?

Friday, 5 September 2008

Is there anything more exhausting...

..than doing nothing - or rather, having nothing to do (or, at least, nothing that really demands immediate attention)? Apparently the office was busy while I was away - and, heaven knows, people seemed to be clearing a lot of stuff to dump on us just before my break - but this afternoon has really dragged.

At home, on the other hand, there's been a lot of catching up to do. Did I mention I got a hard-drive recorder to go with my shiny new TV? It has that "series record" facility - so I came home to find it full of all sorts of things I'd idly clicked on, chiefly a whole batch of Proms concerts. I've still to work through them all, but the range so far has stretched from classical-jazz crossover music, to Vaughan Williams (it's an anniversary year this year: and we didn't just get the floaty-mimsy-Edwardian early music but his stark and angular 9th symphony, from just before he died) to the Bach St John Passion, to a wonderful evening of the Beethoven Violin Concerto (elegant and fun - it adds so much to be able to see the players smiling at each other and obviously making a conversation out of the music) and the Sibelius 2nd symphony (one of the first major classical pieces to engage me as a teenager, and this performance was all flood and fire).

And to bring the tone down, there's an agreeably daft new series Lost in Austen, where a modern young woman who adores Pride and Prejudice and longs for the imagined elegance of the time suddenly finds Elizabeth Bennet in her bathroom, having found a door from the attic at Longbourn, and they end up swapping places. I can just hear the pitch to the schedulers at ITV: "It's Bridget Jones meets Life on Mars - with bonnets!"

Friday, 29 August 2008

Call me childish (if you dare), but I like sitting in front on the top deck of the bus. That way I get the best view: today, a competitive-looking cyclist stopped by a red light. Roadworks were enforcing single-lane working, so he couldn't jump the light; instead, he was twisting his body and his front wheel this way and that - anything rather than put his foot on the ground.

I know the frustration: for a London pedestrian, there's a drive to keep moving. It's not so much speed as continuity of pace; something to do with a sense of control, perhaps. I felt it too with Vélib in Paris: going along a long straight street, I'd find myself getting into a slow bicycle race with the red lights in the hope they would change before I got there (too many had an irritating habit of changing just after I'd stopped).

And it's the sense of control that sells a scheme like Vélib: you can pick a bike up and put it away without having to worry about storing or maintaining it.

The bikes are sturdy, and basic (three speeds, brakes, adjustable seat post, permanent dynamo lights, a basket, a kickstand and that's about it), but a lot of effort must go into maintenance: several times I saw inspectors going round (on Vélib bikes) with their clipboards, presumably noting any bikes that needed work (I was surprised at how few needed air in the tyres - or are they solid?).

There seems to be a signalling etiquette: although you can, in office hours, call up the office from a button on the control post at a station, I rather suspect users indicate a faulty bike by lowering the seat and swivelling it round backwards - and I've seen some bikes with the tyres partially removed, which I also suspect might be a signal from the inspectors to the people who go round with the collector vans.

I've no idea about the economics of it: the pricing is designed to encourage short hops, but I regularly managed to get from the Hotel de Ville up to the Bassin de la Villette within the "free" half hour (my record was 19 minutes) - all in all, I took 46 rides in two weeks, for at most €16. I know there's some sort of commercial sponsorship, but there must be a substantial subsidy from city finances: and who knows what sort of return can be calculated in terms of car journeys or metro overcrowding foregone?

I forgot, until almost the end of my time in Paris, that one reason for trying the bikes out was to see whether it would make sense to buy a bike. Well, I'm certainly not past riding in city traffic (if I can go round the place de la Concorde on a bike, London traffic doesn't worry me), and I certainly don't need anything too fancy (maybe an extra gear or two), but it's that ability to 'park and forget' that really appealed - it's a self-powered taxi. And that's exactly what you don't get with your own bike. We've got secure storage both at home and at work: but I can't take a bike on the tube if I don't want to ride all the way, and could I be bothered with the faff of a folding bike? I have a faint echo in my mind of my mother when presented with a new ornament. She would smile sweetly as she thanked the donor for the present, but as soon as they were out of earshot, you could hear her mutter 'One more bloody thing to dust'.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Home again

The last day wasn't entirely about tidying up the flat (the secret is - as one never does at home - to clean as you go, and better still, don't make things dirty in the first place).

Ignoring a strange sort of irritated uncertainty (don't want to go, can't wait to go), I went to a favourite place I hadn't so far visited this trip, the place des Vosges: one of the most beautiful squares I know, and full of interest on the weekend - this piece of pavement graffiti for one, but also the buskers taking advantage of the perfect soundbox of its arcades (despite one of the creakiest see-saws in existence):

In the evening, one last try at my Arc de Triomphe project. A couple of times before, the queues to go up have been off-puttingly long; but at dinner-time on a Saturday night, they were virtually non-existent, so there was plenty of time and space to put this together:

Friday, 22 August 2008

Içi on spontane

It's been pouring with rain all day, but with only two days left, staying in wasn't really an option. Instead, another chance discovery beckoned - an exhibition (free!) at the Mitterrand library of documents and images from May 1968. It was basically a series of wall displays and a handful of fliers and photos in cabinets; I noticed a number of my contemporaries there, looking shyly excited and nostalgic, like my parents' generation looking at old gas-masks and ration books.

I don't know what's stranger: revisiting the near-hysteria of that time, or doing so in the context of this over-slickly technological new library, named for the sly survivor of the old politics (who appeared to make a complete ass of himself at the time, but still outlived and out-smarted his rivals to the left, the right and in the centre - and I'm not sure we yet know who he really was).

They say if you can remember the 60s, you weren't there; but we bystanders get the best of the view, you know, and keep our memories into the bargain. I was in Paris in June 1968 with a friend - the Right had just won the general election and the strikes and disturbances were collapsing. Somewhere in a cupboard there's one of the last posters still then available at the Sorbonne (but a hole was rubbed through it by a bit of the tandem we were travelling on - don't ask).
Even then, there was some scepticism about it all: at the time Private Eye referred to a lot of mad Frogs charging about as usual, and heaven knows, if you were looking for examples of "infantile Leftism", my contemporaries could give you a few. There was one particularly bad incident of vandalism in my college; but what took the biscuit was the time a student occupation of the central administration at Cambridge took the decision that various ancient railings should be cut down as a symbolic liberation. "We need hacksaws!" was the cry (hacksaws - to cut through several inches of wrought iron!), so a collection was taken up with great enthusiasm, and a delegation sent to buy hacksaws: only to return with the news that it was early closing day - end of revolution. As the Prime Minister of the day remarked, this was the kind of Left that was more gauche than sinister.

Of course, it's hard to imagine now that democracy itself couldn't be taken for granted. France had faced more than one serious prospect of a Greek-style military coup d'état more than once in recent memory, and Franco still ruled on its southern borders. Perhaps, too, there was some prescient sense that the surge in prosperity over the 1950s and 60s wasn't sustainable, as events were to show in the next few years.

But even then, I found the dogmatism hard to take: even more so now that, in the UK and US, there are people who have retained the fundamentalist approach but use it to pursue the neocon agenda.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Gilding and gods

A heavy museum day today. First the Musée Jacquemart-André, a once private collection kept as it was, in the same way as the Wallace Collection was. An imposing and ostentatious house of the post-Haussmann redevelopment of Paris, with all the gilding you can imagine, the entrance guarded by a rather droopy-looking lion, it was the home of a couple of indefatigable collectors, of 17th and 18th century paintings (including a couple of Rembrandt portraits), and of Italian art from all periods. Perhaps too many madonnas for my taste, but I was very impressed by this Mantegna Ecce Homo, and intrigued by an 18th century Viennese clock where a pointer moves along a horizontal line.

They also had a visiting exhibition of a private collection of art from Africa and Oceania, which was a bit of an eye-opener, and served as a sort of taster for the afternoon's visit to the Musée du Quai Branly. This is the latest in tradition by which each President of France has the opportunity (duty?) to launch a "grand projet": and this museum was Jacques Chirac's. I'm not sure if this rather Napoleonic idea of the "grand project" isn't something relatively recent (5th Republic only?), nor how it works: is the President allowed to have whatever he dreams up, or is he given a shortlist of various big ideas in the broadly cultural domain that have been kicking around for a while but never had government funding?

The Quai Branly fits into a rather long and narrow site (complete with a modish vertical garden), and the architects have used it to ensure you have a long and winding journey, not only into the museum, but also up to the collections, and then around them, from Oceania to Australia to South-East Asia to Asia to Africa to the Americas. An equally sinuous internal partition provides built-in screens for films (and seats for visitors to enjoy them one-on-one) showing rituals, dances, and people from the different cultures talking about what the different objects mean to them. There's lots of fascinating objects and some beautiful textiles. If there's a common theme at all, it is broadly an anthropological focus on traditions outside the major religious cultures (Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu). The total effect is a bit overwhelming - it would be easy to spend all day there, and it's perhaps best not visited after another museum.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Marabouts and castanets

Another day where chance changed any vague plans I had. Definitely museum weather, so this was the day for the Muséé Jacquemart-André, I thought; but first, as the metro passed through Barbès-Rochechouart, I thought I'd stop off and take a look at the cheap clothing shops and the market under the railway line along Bvd de la Chapelle. Interesting that the patter's very similar to London markets: "Everything's got to go! Last chance!"

The first time I came here, there were several hawkers pushing out fliers for marabouts - this time only one, but one that was advertising here three years ago. Mamadou is still claiming to be a seer, healer and medium with an excellent reputation, offering precise and detailed visions, capable of finding solutions to all your difficulties: love, infidelity, loneliness, impotence, work, business, studies and driving tests. And all on the basis of a photo - consultation by correspondence only. The only thing is, if he or she is so good at this sort of thing, why isn't he or she living the life of Riley in some jetset hideaway? Or maybe he (or she) is.....

Back on the metro, the map shows only one stop beyond the Jacquemart-André to the Grand Palais, only recently reopened since a refit - so why not take a quick look?

This part of Paris is deliberately imposing, remodelled around 1900 with a great deal of self-assertion, as in the gilt and curlicues on the Pont Alexandre III; and it's here that statues of heroes abound - Bolivar and La Fayette eternally waving swords at each other, Churchill, de Gaulle and Clémenceau all striding determinedly in different directions. The great nave of the Grand Palais is currently refitting for the next big event, so there wasn't anything to see except the newly-cleaned outside. You have to wonder exactly what was meant by some of the detailing.

Opposite is the Petit Palais. Not only did it have a café (well, it was lunchtime), but its permanent collections as the city museum of fine arts are free - and rather impressive. This Gallé piece was commissioned by a society lady who features as a minor character in a detective story set in the period that I just happen to be reading at the moment. The focus isn't just on art directly relevant to Paris: there are some impressive examples of art from all periods, though not all rooms were open. Some beautiful religious art, both Western and Orthodox, and some impressive Roman sculptures as well, in a building surprisingly light and elegant for its period and size.

They also had a special exhibition on Flamenco and how it was viewed, both as part of a touristic "Spanishness" but also as it was taken up by the artistic avant-garde of the early 20th century. Lots of interesting pictures, a rather pointless film by Man Ray, but a couple of fascinating early films (from 1894, and from the 1900 exhibition for which the Palais was built) and enthralling examples of dancing from the 1930s. And I only saw it because of a whim.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

A fairground surprise

The great thing about Vélib is that you can stop when something catches your eye, like this contre-jour effect on the Canal St Martin:

I was on my way to the area around Parc Bercy, passing the Palais Omnisports and finally spotting how they manage to mow the grass on a near-vertical slope. The park was developed on a wine-warehousing site near the railfreight station; some attractive stone-faced buildings have been retained as a rather too spick-and-span shopping village (chi-chi kitchen gadgets, Occitane en Provence and rather a lot of Club Med), surrounded by posh apartments and offices. Stopping for lunch there, I realised there might be an explanation for the decline in the population of sparrows in London. Maybe they've all come here, because there seem to be a lot, in rude health - I saw one fly off with a piece of bread almost as big as itself.

On the way around the park itself, I saw, of all things, a pair of chandeliers hanging over a gateway in a security fence. Passing round the building, I realised this was the Musée des Arts Forains, or fairground art. I'd heard of it, but discounted the idea of visiting because I had the impression they only accepted organised groups: but there was a sign saying the next visit would begin shortly, and the people waiting didn't appear to be a coach-party. Sure enough, though most of them had booked, there was no difficulty about admitting people who, like me, had just turned up on spec. The main point is that you can only take a guided tour, for which they obviously prefer people to book.

The space is large (several "pavillons" which I assume were also warehouses), with objects hanging from the ceiling and theatrically spot-lit. Our guide started out by concentrating on the art involved, and parallels with what was going on in society at large at the time. With the children getting fractious, he rapidly moved on to the fairground organs and what not only the children had really come for - a chance to try the carousels and games, including a rare bicycle carousel and a café waiters' race, and finishing with a Venetian scene:

The tour took two hours, with other strange and interesting things to see outside as well: definitely a highlight of this trip, and all the more so for being so unexpected. Finally crossing the swooping Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir, what should I see on the (really rather excessive) steps of the Bibliothèque Mitterrand than a candidate for Claude's photographer hunt: