Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Thursday 28 February 2008

Traffic approaching from both front and behind

Apparently, traffic police in Timisoara, Romania, are to be given ballet lessons to improve their presentation.

I can see it might help people who are directing traffic if they learnt how to project their gestures to make them clearer. I just can't help thinking, if swans are considered the appropriate model, of something like this:

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!

Only a few weeks to register your vote for the Oddest Book Title of the Year.

The Bookseller magazine has been running the competition for quite a while now. In among the laughs and raised eyebrows, I can't help thinking there's a candidate or two for new categories to add to the Calvino meme.

How about:

Books You're Glad You Don't Feel the Need For: A close contest this, for me, between
Cheese Problems Solved and
People Who Mattered in Southend and Beyond: From King Canute to Dr Feelgood.

Books You Suspect Might Be More Trouble Than They're Worth If You Read Them on the Tube:
Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues

Books That Are Likely to Prove a Severe Disappointment:
I Was Tortured by the Pygmy Love Queen

Monday 25 February 2008

What the..?

What on earth is the point of this advert (it starts about 30 seconds in)?

"Take care of your teeth, girls - or there'll be no point trying to look seductive by wandering about starkers in an itchy scratchy cornfield"

Sunday 24 February 2008

Back along Camden's "Museum Mile"

In a quiet Georgian terrace, just around the corner from the Foundling Hospital, stands the house Dickens took in the early years of his success, and in it the Dickens Museum. The street would have been quieter then, as it was gated off; nowadays it houses lawyers' chambers and other offices, though some still appear to be lived in.

Having a keen eye for the business side of writing and publishing, Dickens left much in the way of memorabilia; as a result the house gives a fair impression of his energy and industry.

There's one display that makes you realise what an effort went into publication, from deciphering his handwriting to typesetting and proofing: and all to a standard 32-page format for the monthly instalments in which his works appeared.

There's a rather uninspiring video outline of his life and work (it seems to be one of a series of programmes, perhaps meant for schools: there's not much sign of people like Miriam Margolyes, Simon Callow or Peter Ackroyd), but the real interest is in the things he really would have seen and used: a desk, a chair, even a commode, letters and manuscripts aplenty, and here his inkwell and a little china monkey he always had on his desk.

What doesn't quite come across is the sense I always get that his concern with social injustices, however rooted in reality, is subsumed into a melodramatic and fantastical form. For that you need to go back to the books, so I bought from the museum shop Our Mutual Friend, which I've been meaning to read for years - I remember being enthralled by a TV adaptation from years ago. All I need now is an unthreatening illness and a suitably Victorian period of convalescence to read it in.

His capacity for mythologising his characters - even London itself - seems all of a piece with the extraordinary energy with which he threw himself into his work and his commercialisation, into creating the strong and prosperous family life and even ultimately a sort of "village squire" status in Kent, where his father had so signally failed. If any man could be said to have worked himself to death, Dickens seems to have come close.

Perhaps that's what "Dickens World" aims at, though diamond geezer confirms my suspicions about the theme park approach. There are also museums with Dickens connections in Broadstairs, Portsmouth and Rochester.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Evenin' all

This week saw the conclusion of two particularly ghastly murder trials. Call it trivial of me, in the face of such depressing evidence of the depths of human brutishness, but I do wonder about the strange modern ritual (it seems to have been happening only in the last 15 years or so) where various people connected with the trial - and principally the chief investigating police officer - make a formal statement to the waiting media outside the courtroom.

One can't begrudge the bereaved their chance to speak: they've tended to be overlooked in the judicial process (though there are good reasons why "justice" is not just about satisfying the victim).

However, what strikes me as quite wrong is for the police officer in charge of the investigation to be expected - as now seems to be the regular routine - to make any public statement about the crime, the criminal, the trial and the judgement. It's almost like reviving those little homilies that used to close Dixon of Dock Green ("Harry's going to have a good long time to think over what he's done, and he won't be doing that again in a hurry. And young Danny's settled down - I don't think he'll be troubling us again...."), only this is about real people: it implies that the police who investigate a crime have some special insight into what should happen as a result. And they don't, any more than the rest of us do. Our job is to elect the people who decide what is and is not a crime, and what the range of punishments should be; the police's job is to find out the evidence as to who did what, when and how. There are good reasons why we have juries and judges to take it from there.

There are already too many occasions on which the police and the media are too closely in cahoots for comfort (strange how often the TV crews manage to be on the right spot to record particularly high-profile arrests). The desire for "a good story" (even when it's turning out to be an almost formulaic, going through the motions, cliché) shouldn't be allowed greater prominence than the proper operations of the criminal justice system.

Enough sententiousness. I'm feeling quite pleased with myself, actually. When Claude's remarks on Blogger's commenting system persuaded me to use Haloscan instead, I didn't realise it would no longer display the comments already made. Blogger's edit mode showed me those comments must still exist somewhere, but they wouldn't display in any obvious use of either system. But eventually, I managed to track down the right combination of URLs and codes to access the relevant Blogger page, and to copy them into Haloscan. So the wise words of Daphne and Max on Doris's crack are once again on view.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

News with personality

On the way to work, I saw a huge poster with this slogan, advertising Channel 5's new nightly news programme and the presenter they've enticed away from the BBC.

Natasha Kaplinsky seems a nice enough person, if a bit over-foundationed and highlighted (and I don't even have high-definition TV). But I don't want "news with personality".

Personality, on TV, is an artificial construct, which tends to reduce over time to an increasingly grotesque caricature of a diminishing number of tics and traits that are assumed to make the person in question recognisable. An interesting usage I discovered in Australia (or is it only Sydney?) is to use, where we would say "personality", the word "identity", as in a "X became a well-known Sydney identity" - and that, for me, underlines the artificiality of the idea.

The trouble is, not only is it as artificial a construct as any other style of presentation, there's a falsity at its heart. "Personality" implies that there's something more direct and honest about it: look, they suggest, this is your new best friend coming into your living room to tell give me all the latest goss.

That's not what I want. I want someone of unremarkable clothing and appearance, but with a clear and articulate voice and no distracting "personality" habits (there's a man on the BBC4 news that underlines every point and the end of every sentence with a sideways nod that suggests he's just about to wink salaciously - it drives me mad) to read a concise, reliable and accurate account of the important things that are happening in the world.

I would then like them to go away and leave me to think about it for myself.

This isn't some Daily Mail rant about how it was better when it was all dinner jackets and Alvar Lidell (though it wasn't necessarily worse). This is not about friendliness or warmth or memorability. It's about trust. The cult of "personality" news presentation risks a continuing descent towards the kind of sloppy, partial (in both senses of the word) reporting and hysterical over-reaction that keeps the political atmosphere permanently near boiling-point.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Funeral blues

It seems to be one of those topics that comes up in conversation from time to time - what music would you like at your funeral? In a purely hypothetical way, of course - I've no intention of going any time soon. Anyway, funerals are for the living, not the deceased; I shan't be there, and it feels rather controlling to try and lay down how people ought to be thinking about me.

My brother - a minister - tells me it's not uncommon for people to ask for a cremation service to be accompanied by Blaze Away or Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and part of me rather fancies suggesting Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye (except I don't believe "Till we meet once again" would have any reality).

But sententiousness will creep in, so I tend to mull over some favourite classical pieces. When I Am Laid In Earth is just too heart-rending (and in this context, dictatorial - what's to say people won't be saying "About time too" or "Who?"). Bach's Schlummert Ein is gorgeous and comforting (especially when sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson), but is sadly too long.

So for now I think I'll stick with Beim Schlafengehen from Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs (this is a literal translation):

Now the day has wearied me,
My eager longing
Shall accept the starred night
like a weary child.

Hands, leave all work;
Brow, forget all thought;
All my senses
Now seek to sink into sleep.

And the unguarded spirit
Shall soar in free flight
To live in night's magic sphere
Deeply and thousandfold.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Handel and Hendrix

Following up on my visit to the Foundling Hospital, and the generosity which which Handel supported it, I went to the Handel House Museum today.

I was brought up on his music, or at least, it was always there in my childhood - not just Messiah, but the Water Music, the Fireworks Music, and the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest (of course, since the 1953 Coronation was the first big public event I remember).

His house, in Mayfair, is handsome, though not as grand then as it would seem today. The exhibition has an introductory video, and a series of rooms which tell, rather than show, you his life and work and the life of London all around him. There are portraits and caricatures galore, but you get a better feeling of the raucous vitality of eighteenth-century London from the association with Hogarth at the Foundling Museum. Of Handel's own personality there are text descriptions, but somehow he doesn't quite to come to life. It needs the music for that, and they do occasionally have recitals there.

Coincidentally, the very next house - incorporated into the Museum - was once lived in by Jimi Hendrix, who is not forgotten in the display. Heaven knows what Handel would have made of his music, but I'm sure he would have been intrigued by the showmanship and fascinated by the business side of the modern music industry. And the rock lifestyle and spats among the Spice Girls wouldn't totally have surprised a man capable of threatening to defenestrate a recalcitrant singer, and coping with rival leading ladies having a punch-up in front of royalty.

You can find the Museum quite easily on Brook St, by the junction with New Bond St: just watch out for the blue plaques and the red flag (which reminds me - one of the joys of the blue plaques is "Well, I never knew that" moments such as I found on leaving the tube: Ernie Bevin, a titan of the trades union and Labour movement, lived throughout the 1930s on South Molton St: what would he make of it now?).

But back to the main topic. Handel was one of music's great humans - not just as a composer and supporter of charities, but in the sympathy and understanding in his music:

Thursday 14 February 2008


Not one. Neither sent nor received - as always.


Sunday 10 February 2008

It's official

I am a rat. To be precise, I was born in the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, and today there was a parade celebrating the new Year of the Rat.

Apparently, Rat is associated with aggression, wealth, charm, and order, yet also associated with death, war, the occult, pestilence, and atrocities. I am apparently an Earth Rat, and according to Wikipedia

"Earth is a balance of both yin and yang, the feminine and masculine together. Its motion is inward and centering, and its energy is stabilising and conserving....Its negative emotion is anxiety and its positive emotion is empathy.

In Chinese thought Earth is associated with the qualities of patience, thoughtfulness, practicality, hard work and stability. The earth element is also nurturing and seeks to draw all things together with itself, in order to bring harmony, rootedness and stability. Other attributes of the earth element include ambition, stubbornness, responsibility and long-term planning. In pathology, the earth can represent selfishness and self-centeredness."

I really don't recognise a lot of myself in that. Well, only in the nice bits, of course.

All that notwithstanding, and since the weather was far too glorious to be stuck indoors, I went to see the parade, complete with dragons, fish, dancers and acrobats. I noticed some distinctly non-Chinese faces in the traditional costumes, but, whatever the cast of features, there were plenty of participants with an equally distinctly British air of slightly defiant embarrassment at being dressed up and on display.

But everyone seemed to have a good time, so Kung Hei Fat Choi (apparently that's the Cantonese pronunciation)! Here are some video clips of the parade:

Thursday 7 February 2008

Sceptical disengagement

One of the things I didn't include in my "five things" is the relative absence (well, that's why I didn't include it - it's rather gone from my life than come into it) of political engagement - and for someone who reached adulthood (-ish) in the 60s, too!

But I suppose I was uncharacteristic of the times. Even then I could see both sides of most arguments, and never bought into the full 60s radical package. I've been very politically active in my time, and for quite a long time too; but eventually I rather lost interest. And now - perhaps it comes with being a bit older than now than most active politicians - I find it very hard to feel particularly excited by any of the personalities: indeed, while I recognise the seductiveness of excitement, I also think it's not actually good for one's health. I long ago stopped bothering with programmes like Today, or Any Questions or Question Time - I like my twopennorth, but shouting at the radio or TV doesn't quite cut it and just makes me look and feel foolish. So I'm not close enough to be particularly concerned about the precise minutiae of which minister said what and when. And I simply don't understand the - frankly - hormonal hysteria with which the partisan bloggers write about these things.

Most politicians - like anybody trying to be a leader or manager in any organisation - are trying to do their best, by their lights. Some lights are dimmer than others, of course, and many are indicating quite the wrong "direction of travel", but precious few are setting up wrecker's lights. Of course, it's a truism that anyone who wants the job that badly probably shouldn't be let anywhere near it; but in most cases, they're simply trying to square the circle of most people's incompatible desires. The trouble is, of course, that so many are so scared of confronting voters with the choices that involves, or of admitting that, actually, "something must be done" is often the worst possible reaction to a complicated problem.

The really interesting political question is the one that no-one can answer with any accuracy. Never mind all those carefully-crafted policy statements and equally carefully-nuanced language, what really matters is this: what will they do when the unexpected happens and they have to choose between equally unpalatable options? What - especially in this age of manic image-protection - is at the real core of their personality and judgement?

With some people, you can get a clear idea, which is why Boris Johnson is such a hopeless candidate for any post of real power. With others, it's not so easy. I didn't have a clear favourite among the non-Sarkozy candidates in the French election, and I'm glad I don't have to make a decision between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He has an obvious attraction - but I do remember that JFK's inexperience (for all his personal charisma) nearly led the world into disaster.

I hope the person in Arkansas who visits regularly hasn't been too badly hit by the tornados; and for them, and the people in Mississippi, Texas and New York who have also been visiting - indeed for any Obamaphiles - here's something to raise a bit of a smile:

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Pancakes and petitions

After a very sociable evening eating far too many pancakes (lemon and maple syrup, but some also with fruit and homemade banana icecream, thank you very much), I find there's a petition on the Number 10 website to make the Monday after Remembrance Sunday into a public holiday.

I think this is all wrong, because a holiday (at best) celebrates rather than commemorates; we already have commemoration ceremonies on the Sunday and on the 11th November itself, and such is human nature that what would be commemorated is yet more DIY and shopping. The whole notion of a public holiday vitiates what - in this case - it's supposed to achieve.

If we need more public holidays, let's have them when people feel like celebrating: in the summer and around the last of the warm weather in the early autumn.

More to the point, if the facility to create petitions on the Number 10 website is to be taken seriously, it must allow people to register opposition to the specific proposition being put, rather than expecting people to create new (and possibly competing) petitions expressing another point of view.

They do say "It is not intended to be a form of quasi-referendum or unrepresentative opinion poll" - but then, what else is the point of enabling people to add their support to a petition, if not to show a level of support for the proposition? And how valuable is that without knowing the level of opposition to it?

Sunday 3 February 2008

The Foundling Museum

Camden Borough Council have taken a leaf out of New York's book and invented a Museum Mile of their own. This neatly links places that attract enormous numbers on their own account (the British Museum, the British Library, Sir John Soane's Museum) with others that even Londoners tend not to hear much about. One is the Wellcome Collection, which I visited recently. Another is the Foundling Museum.

The museum commemorates the work of the Foundling Hospital, founded by this genial-looking chap, a retired shipbuilder called Thomas Coram, and the association with it of the painter Hogarth and the composer Handel, who both used their work and connections to raise funds for the Hospital.

Founded at a time when 40% of all deaths were of infants, the Hospital was part of a wave of response to the upheavals of rapid urbanisation - partly charitable, partly concern over the waste of human potential, perhaps also concern over social unrest. Mind you, it was a pretty slow-moving wave: it took decades for Coram to get support from the powers that be to launch his charity, and even longer before there was support by way of public funds.

In the early days, the children taken in weren't strictly "foundlings" - they had to be brought in by their mothers, whose own character had to meet the required standard. One of the most touching displays is a cabinet of the tokens left with the children - bracelets, rings and other trinkets, and even this poem:
Hard is my Lot in deep Distress
To have no help where Most should find.
Sure Nature meant her sacred Laws
Should men as strong as Women bind.
Regardless he, unable I,
To keep this image of my Heart.
Tis vile to Murder! hard to Starve
And Death almost to me to part.
If Fortune should her favours give
That I in Better plight may Live,
I'd try to have my boy again
And train him up the best of Men.

There was even a lottery to get in (imagine being blackballed from this last resort!).

Of course, over time, the Victorian sense of "charity" almost as an imposition eventually came into play, with rigid disciplines, as shown in the documents and uniforms on display. But to go into an apprenticeship, or domestic or military services, could be a better outcome than for many children in families. There are photographs of more recent inhabitants as happy and successful adults - one man who went into the Army, survived the First World War and married had no other family but the Hospital to whom he could send such images of his success and happiness.

Nowadays, the site of the bulk of the Hospital is Coram's Fields, where no adult can enter without being accompanied by a child, and the successor charity is focussed on working with families rather than substituting for them.

The museum itself also displays a collection of art, mostly portraits of the Hospital's dignitaries, and in the governors' impressive Court Room, pictures of Biblical stories making a point about the care of children. There are pictures of other charitable institutions of the time. Most of them struck me as indifferent (there are some dreadfully sentimental Victorian images of exceptionally angelic children at prayer and in the sickroom - one of a child being returned to her mother). The star is Hogarth's March of the Guards to Finchley - but some were painted by now famous names, to whom Hogarth pointed out the benefits of advertising their talents to the rich, well-connected and generous by exhibiting their work as a fund-raiser - the first modern form of art show, leading ultimately to the Royal Academy.

More important still is the Handel connection. He gave concerts for the Hospital and left it a manuscript of Messiah. There's a collection of memorabilia on display, and currently a temporary exhibition on the monster Messiah performances at the Crystal Palace. A recording of one of these multi-thousand performances from the 1920s was playing: not surprisingly, it sounded sluggish and glutinous alongside the last performance I heard - by the Sixteen, not 16,000.

Coram (who managed to fall out with the other governors), Handel and Hogarth show us that sometimes the "great and good" have actually been precisely that. And it's good to celebrate it.

Saturday 2 February 2008

I'm a pretty even-tempered sort of person, but I could be a holy terror as a child. These days, if there's anything that risks arousing a toddler's tantrum in me, it's being ready for my mid-morning plain black coffee and finding myself stuck in a queue behind someone ordering a cappucino - or worse still, once of those dolled-up modern concoctions. There's white coffee, black coffee and if you want it sweet you put the sugar in yourself. Anything else is marketing hype.

Enough of Mr Grumpy - I did get my coffee in the end, after all - and back to Mr. Frugal. I'm a make-do-and-mend sort of person. It takes a lot to get me to throw away something broken if there's the remotest chance of fixing it. I have bought a wick for a hurricane lamp within the last five years. Today I was tramping up Tottenham Court Road in search of precisely the right battery to revive a pedometer/stopwatch gadget I got for free in the first place.

En route, I noticed the Building Centre and popped in to see the exhibition on new London architecture. There are wall panels with an overview of the major planning priorities for London, but let's face it, who cares about all those discreet circles, stars, triangles and blobs that distinguish "major urban centres from "opportunity zones" from "district centres" or whatever, when the star of the show is actually this huge model of central London (yes, even the building I live in is there) with all the major new plans highlighted . No amount of earnestly wordy description and photographic mock-ups of individual new buildings (however exciting) can compete with playing God as you swoop over the whole city, or zoom in on the little cars and buses in the models of individual projects. There's something about gazing at a model that makes you feel reassuringly in control of the messy, fluid world around you. As dictators know - and revel in.