Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 28 October 2007

In my last post I mentioned in the context of the constitutional consultation the idea - that the soldiers of 1647 would have seized on - that the House of Commons ought not just to be a replacement monarch with monarchical powers. Catching up on a book of Leveller texts I bought at the Putney Debates exhibition, what do I find?

In A Remonstrance 0f Many Thousand Citizens - what a title! - (July 1646) the authors complain:
For we must deal plainly with you: you have long time acted more like the House of Peers than the House of Commons. We can scarcely approach your door with a request or motion, though by way of petition, but you hold long debates whether we break not your privileges. The king's or the Lords' pretended prerogatives never made a greater noise nor was made more dreadful than the name of privilege of the House of Commons.

They may not be sending people to prison for having the wrong opinions, or engaging in "fishing expedition" interrogations any more: but there are precious few legal brakes on what the House of Commons might be able to do if a sufficient majority thought they could get away with it, even if at the moment we only face minor nonsenses about priority in queues at Westminster or some eyebrow-raising expenses claims.

Saturday 27 October 2007

The poorest he and the richest he

I was brought up in Putney, and on the fact that it has one proud claim to historical fame: its parish church housed the debates, between the soldiers and the leaders of the Parliamentary army against Charles I, that most clearly articulated the issues that dominated debate (in the Anglo-Saxon world at least) about the principles of representation in government for the next few centuries.

Last night I went to a staging of the key moments in the debates, and the opening of a commemorative exhibition in the church. Actually, given the constraints on space - it is still, after all, a functioning church - it's more of a commemorative cupboard, with half a dozen explanatory panels of text and pictures, and an audio-visual display of extracts from the record of the debates and of various talking heads on their significance. And there's an elegant engraved slate plaque as well.

That's not to minimize the importance of what happened here. In 1647, the Army had presented Parliament with a victory over the King in the first Civil War, but also with a challenge. Soldiers were claiming a say in that great issue that confronts all revolutions: where next? To borrow a phrase from Milton "Progressive, retrograde, or standing still?"

A contemporary shorthand record allows us, uniquely, to eavesdrop on the (more or less?) exact words with which ordinary soldiers argued their fears over the compromises the Parliament was planning to make with the King, for the sake of peace and property, and their belief that God's grant of a victory over the King created a right for all men to a say in government.

Eventually, and perhaps not surprisingly, the process of debate collapsed into repression, as the Parliamentary revolution faced its Kronstadt. As tends to happen to revolutions that require a particular kind of perfection in the people, it fell even further into a military dictatorship which could not long outlast the death of Cromwell.

The issues raised at Putney never went away. If the revolution of 1689 finally settled the primacy of parliament over the monarch, equal suffrage finally arrived in 1832, and universal suffrage in 1928, we still argue over how democratic our system really is.

How appropriate that this has happened at the end of a summer in which The Broon launched a consultation on at least some of these issues. However, if you look at what was proposed in July, it focusses on incremental changes, with a great deal of "could" and "might" about the possibility of a proper written constitution - and absolutely no recognition of the idea - that the soldiers of 1647 would have seized on - that the House of Commons ought not just to be a replacement monarch with monarchical powers.

Thursday 25 October 2007

More announcement nonsense

As I career down the escalator, it's clear there's a train at the platform: but the crowds aren't pushing to get in, they're just standing waiting. Some of the doors are open, some aren't; the train is quite empty.

Something Is Not Right.

Eventually the platform attendant announces that someone is ill on a train two stations along, and she'll let us know when the trains will be moving again, and whether this train is to be boarded or not. Before she can do so, the doors close and the train moves off empty, leaving a full trainload of passengers, and the new arrivals, puzzled and bemused.

At this point, a cheery message tells us there's a good service on all London Underground lines this morning. Once again, the PR tells us something that is not only not the case, but even if it were true would be of no informational value at all.

Does no-one at LUL have any common sense?

Saturday 20 October 2007

I had thought about going to see the Camouflage exhibition at the Imperial War Museum this weekend. I'd like to say I couldn't find it; but the truth of it is, when it came to it I just couldn't be bothered.

It's the weather. I feel like one of those late wasps that sometimes stumble around in a sudden warmth of the sun in the first chills of autumn, not quite knowing what they're trying to do.

So after doing my chores for the day, I thought I'd see the waxwork of Jonny Wilkinson that replaced Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square, with some pertinent thoughts about the symbolism. But though the giant St George's Cross flew all round central London, the waxwork seems to have made way for the celebrations of Eid. I couldn't hear much of what the rappers were saying (I rarely can), and I don't like feeling hemmed in by crowds, so instead I settled for home, and the first Marmite crumpets of the autumn.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Gymshoes teapot funnel..

What's been your strangest shopping list?

Saturday 13 October 2007


If a nickname is the mark of an impact, then Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth at Tate Modern has made it, and very soon after opening.

A shibboleth is a means of dividing people to identify those you fear or mean to harm. This "division" is an artificial crack in the floor of the main Turbine Hall. The official description points you to the divisiveness of the very concept of "modernity". But if you arrive thinking that the crack suggests that the cultural constructs this massive building houses are unstable (even if its foundations aren't), the experience of it suggests otherwise.

Despite much discussion over the supposed "mystery" of how it was built, there's no great secret or puzzle to it. The artifice isn't exactly hidden. A section of floor has been replaced by one in which cement render forms the "crack", on a deliberately visible framework of chicken-wire fence-netting: what divides also contains and supports (Good fences make good neighbours, or so I was taught).

I don't think many of the people who came for the spectacle were feeling their foundations rocked, their cultural assumptions challenged, or any particular concern to reconsider their own shibboleths.

Children played their unselfconscious games with it. Tourists assumed their standard "We were here" poses for photographs, as they must have done across the meridian line at Greenwich and outside Westminster Abbey or the Tower, recording their individual presence in the same sort of pose as millions of others. Others were putting their cameras right inside the widest parts for that God-like canyon effect.

People straddled and probed what must very soon be appearing on the souvenir T-shirts. They were imposing their presence without any visible cracks in their foundations: the consumption of modernity as spectacle went on its merry way.

Tuesday 9 October 2007


Use all the available doors along the platform edge

As opposed to which doors, where?

Thursday 4 October 2007

Hubble bubble.....

I'm in print. Or, to be precise, one remark I made on a messageboard has been used in a guide book to London. The producers kindly offered to send me a free copy from the US, which arrived today.

A roughly A5-size book, 1" thick, came in a box 14"x11"x5", complete with enough bubble-wrap to fill the space and sixteen (count 'em) sheets of documentation. Among them, just to reassure, is a written confirmation that the package contained no unauthorized explosives, destructive devices or hazardous materials [unauthorized?] - complete with a photo of the person signing and a sticker to say that Random House authorized the rather fed-up looking woman in question to sign.

And I have to wonder - is any of this remotely likely to prevent anything - apart from unemployment in the packaging and bureaucratic nonsense industries?

If I let it get to me, I might need to start popping bubble-wrap as therapy. I've got plenty of it, after all.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Not even bronze

I have to hand it to TfL, they replied within 48 hours to my email about station announcements, along the same lines as my rant here.

However, despite my asking for a reply that didn't just seek to soothe my irritation, but actually answered the point I made, they went for the standard "customer management" response:

Thanks for your recent feedback for about the use of PA messages at Canary Wharf station on 18 September.

We've been reviewing the type and frequency of messages that are broadcast at our stations and have developed a new set of guidelines for staff when making announcements. These guidelines will be disseminated to front line staff over the next few weeks and should result in a reduction in the frequency of announcements.

The changes are focused on giving customers the information they are most interested in - factors affecting their journey - without overloading them with information. Service information - to tell customers if there is a good service, delays or a suspension - will still be the most frequent type of message, but will in most cases be no more than once every five minutes.

Non-service announcements will also be reduced in frequency, with announcements from each category to be made no more than once an hour. The categories are:
* Housekeeping (no smoking, no photography etc)
* Marketing (Oyster pay as you go )
* Safety & security (CCTV, personal belongings etc).

We have also emphasized that consideration should be given to residents and note that these guidelines are not to override any local agreements with residents, for example the quiet period at Earl's Court.

While there may be times when more frequent announcements become necessary for safety reasons, these new guidelines should ensure that customers get the information they need while reducing any impact on residents.

I hope you notice a positive difference to our announcements in due course.

Do get in touch if I can be of any further help.

Well, I did get in touch. Two weeks ago - and not a dicky-bird in reply to my basic point: that using the PA too often switches people off and they don't listen. Only use it when something out of the ordinary is happening, and they will - unless LUL has evidence to the contrary, but this reply rather suggests no-one's collected any.

I've often thought there ought to be a Society for Halting Unnecessary Transport Undertaking Pronouncements (geddit?), but I don't really have the energy to do more than whinge, like most commuters. Until now. I'm really thinking about it.