Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 30 March 2008

How very English...

Listening to Radio 3 with my pot of tea this morning (of course, the one clock I didn't put forward when I woke up was the bedside clock, so I didn't lose an hour with yesterday's papers after all), I heard something that brought a few memories back. It was the distinctive sound of Anglican plainchant - a way of singing a tune to texts of variable length and rhythm (usually the Psalms), with every syllable distinctly pronounced (as presumably in the sixteenth century). And what they played neatly combined with that other distinctive sign of England - the weather:

And I can't resist their Highway Code, either:

Friday 28 March 2008

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Odi et amo

A chance discussion about learning Latin brought back some memories recently.

In my time, schoolbooks didn't seem to go out of their way to be particularly interesting (though it seems there may have been aspects we and our teachers were unaware of). All I remember of the early days of school Latin was a bit of the Aeneid and Caesar and his weird fetish for throwing his armies across rivers. And "All Gaul was quartered into three halves" (pause for schoolmasterly snicker). Later, I felt distinctly cheated to discover that all along there'd been texts (which we studied for an exam that turned out not to require them) containing racy bits from bishops' visitation reports (a sort of Dark Ages Father Ted), St Columba meeting the Loch Ness monster, all that sort of thing.

I also remember my first exchange visit to a family in Paris as a shy, homesick teenager, my school French coping with official signs and instructions but hopelessly lost in the torrential volubility of family life (I now see Madame was perhaps as nervous as me or my own mother: probably wondering if I was expecting to eat roast beef with mint sauce and milky tea all the time). In all that, the one familiar point was my exchange partner's first choice of record to play. I didn't understand a word of the French, of course (I had to Google for the lyrics before I could try the translation below), but the opening chorus was clear as anything:

Rosa rosa rosam
Rosae rosae rosa
Rosae rosae rosas
Rosarum rosis rosis

It's the oldest tango in the world, that blond heads learning Latin heehaw like a nursery rhyme

It's the tango of school, that traps dreams - it would be sacrilege not to let it make you naughty

It's the tango of the good fathers who keep a warning eye on the Jules and Prospers who'll be tomorrow's France

It's the tango of the spotty swots, all wrapped up in cottonwool around hearts already cold

It's the tango of the must-try-harder, who conjugate disappointment and who'll end up behind a counter because Daddy didn't.

It's the past tense, where I came bottom, because this rosa rosae tango wasn't as much fun as my cousin Rosa

It's the tango of strolls alone together under corbelled, statued arcades protecting us from questions

It's the tango of rain on the yard, the mirror of an unloving pool that made me see, one fine day, I'd be no Vasco de Gama

But it's the tango of the blessed time where such a little kiss, one empty Thursday, made Cousin Rosa rosy.

It's the tango of the time of zeros - I had so many, written small and big, I could make tunnels for Charlie Chaplin, halos for St Francis

It's the tango of prizes for those who had the luck to learn in childhood everything that would be no use

But it's the tango you regret, once you've bought the time to see, dumbly, that Roses have thorns.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Comfort food

I'm a food-as-fuel sort of person. I don't devote a lot of time and attention to cooking (not a lot of incentive); posting pictures and comments about my usual meals would be very dull indeed, unlike the delicious things I see on other people's blogs: Ken and Walt, for example.

That's not to say I don't read cookery books and magazine articles, and occasionally have an idea or two of my own (a friend of mine who emigrated to Australia misses gooseberries, so I keep some frozen and try to think up new things to do with them for when he visits). Sometimes, I even try out things that take my fancy.

A couple of weeks ago, Rachel from North London's lamb and chorizo casserole caught my attention. It seemed vaguely Easter-themed, so I made some over the weekend. Half her quantities served for two main meals for one (the second time with some potatoes added) and the liquidized leftovers (with some chopped celery and carrots) made an excellent soup. Perfect comfort food for a cold and wet weekend.

Sunday 23 March 2008

I'm dreaming...

..but awoke to a white Easter:

Saturday 22 March 2008

Semper aliquid

Having prudently done my shopping and gone to the gym yesterday, I had nothing in particular to do today. I started out for the Transport Museum, which I haven't seen since its refit, but there was a long queue outside, and I didn't fancy standing around in the flurries of hail and sleet and almost snow.

But a rather wasted journey offered - as London tends to - a moment of intrigue.

What was on at London Bridge that required this young man to bring a sousaphone?

And why the sunglasses?

Friday 21 March 2008

How now brown cow?

One of the incidental benefits of digital TV is the revival of the back catalogues to fill all those extra channels of airtime. Once upon a time "It's a repeat" was a mark of the scheduler's lack of imagination. Now, in amongst the forgettable dross that should never have been shown the first time around, we have the occasional pleasure of re-visiting programmes we once enjoyed (or never got to see).

There's the oddity of old BBC series turning up on ITV3 (the Two Ronnies, Pie in the Sky - the one with Richard Griffiths running a restaurant and doing a bit of police work on the side): but what's particularly struck me recently (which I didn't expect) has been the degree of technical change over the decades.

Recently BBC4 has been re-running a production of Jane Austen's Emma from the early 70s. Something has been troubling me throughout, and I've finally realised what it is: the sound.

The difference in the quality of visual presentation is something I've rather got used to as time has gone on (one only has to look at the difference between the lighting in those days and, say, the way Lark Rise to Candleford has drawn on so many familiar pictures from the period). That includes the startling difference between the visual quality of film and videotape until very recently, though it hasn't been much in evidence in this Emma, as it's entirely studio-bound (we haven't got to the picnic on Box Hill yet).

And that's what made me realise what was striking me as odd - it's studio sound, dead and flat in the pauses. But I also realised I can hear every word: the actors are articulating. It's not just me - these days, actors are gabbling and swallowing their words, or letting them be swamped by the accent or the background noise.

But I'm looking forward to another digital channel pleasure tonight: a new series on Sacred Music.

Wednesday 19 March 2008


An interesting piece on Julie's blog on the value of reading*. How could one disagree?

I'm not sure I buy the idea that the internet - any more than TV or radio or the cinema before it - is killing reading (intelligent, engaged reading). It's a commonplace that people don't really "read" online, they scan and focus on what they think they're looking for, and that you have to structure content and write it accordingly. It is undoubtedly replacing a lot of not-quite-reading of hard copy print, but is that among those who would otherwise have read seriously, or just among those who probably wouldn't read seriously anyway?

There is of course plenty of evidence that writers keep on writing and publishers keep on publishing, and that the mass media promote the sale of more and more books.

What I'm in no position to estimate is whether people who do read books do so any more or less reflectively than they did in the days before mass and electronic media. I recently came across this from Milton's Paradise Regained (no, I haven't read the whole thing, this was in an anthology I was given for Christmas and keep as a loo-book):

"However, many books,
Wise man have said, are wearisome; who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior
(And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek?)
Unsettled and uncertain still remains,
Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys
And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge,
As children gathering pebbles on the shore."

Ouch - I think.

*Note to self: where did I put that copy of Proust's Sur La Lecture I bought in Paris (well, it's short, ooh, when was it? I really must get on with it.

Monday 17 March 2008

Page 123, multiplied

There's a meme going round, which invites people to quote the fifth and sixth sentences (some people suggest more) on page 123 of whatever book they happen to be reading.

I tried this with a couple of books, but the results looked so uninteresting I decided not to bother.

And then I thought, what would happen if you combined the results from books you have been reading recently?

So here's a collage from page 123 of some books currently lying about:

"The larger and more colourful a city is, the more places there are to hide one's guilt and sin; the more crowded it is, the more people there are to hide behind. A city's intellect ought not to be measured by its scholars, libraries, miniaturists, calligraphers and schools, but by the number of crimes insidiously committed on its dark streets over thousands of years.[1]

Most of the houses were exactly the same inside and outside, except for those which had been purchased from the council, an achievement often marked by a neon-coloured front door or a wall built around a garden of blue gravel.[2]

Again there was no answer but she took a few steps back and saw the lace curtains on the upstairs window fall back into place. She returned to the door and pressed the buttons simultaneously and continuously for about five seconds, then released them.[3]

She started to explain what had happened and how she'd been trying to get home, but trailed off as she realized that he wasn't listening to her but was staring at the stuffed monkey she had attached to her bag. "Where did you get that?" he said.[4] "Don't worry," Miss Throckmorton replied. "We'll take good care of him."[5]

The pain was terrible. Removing his boot he fingered his worn sock and was relieved to find he wasn't bleeding.[6] "For solidarity". He smiled grimly.[7] Was it trivial that a beatiful woman had wanted him? He suspected that it was.[8]

Clesant dragged himself up and across the floor, he opened the cupboard, and the man bundled in and hid, and that was how it ended. Yes, that's how it ends, that's what comes of being kind to handsome strangers and wanting to touch them.[9]"

[1] Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red.
[2] Andrew O'Hagan, Be Near Me.
[3] Jasper fforde, The Fourth Bear.
[4] Catherine O'Flynn, What Was Lost.
[5} Kim Edwards, The Memorykeeper's Daughter.
[6] Beryl Bainbridge, Young Adolf.
[7] C. J. Sansom, Winter in Madrid.
[8] Mark Mills, The Savage Garden.
[9] E. M. Forster, Dr. Woollacott.

Saturday 15 March 2008

Wrinkly, crumbly, twirly

I've got to face it: they're coming true, these particular epithets.

Wrinkly? Well, I've only to look in the mirror (not that I'm particularly bothered, you understand, it runs in the family a bit). And now, a check-up at work confirms a generous fold or two elsewhere: one knows it perfectly well, of course, but what's sold as a 34-inch waist turns out, shamingly, to have been coping comfortably with the challenge of a rather more expansive circumference.

Crumbly? Not quite yet: but the tape measure was only one of the checks that day - and cholesterol, blood pressure and peak airflow have moved in the wrong direction over the last couple of years. I've always thought I was being careful about what I eat, but although this means not quite so drastic a change as for diamond geezer, I shall certainly have to take some more exercise. So tomorrow (ah, always tomorrow), it's back to the gym my service charge is paying so much towards. It's served me quite well in the past (I managed to get a good 20lb off over one period), it 's just a matter of building it back into the daily routine. Though I don't think I'll be taking it quite this far.

Twirly? That's what bus drivers call the canny holders of older people's travel permits (now called the Freedom Pass): they're not valid in the morning rush hour (or not until Ken has his way), so it's not uncommon to find someone affecting hopeful if unconvincing surprise: "Oh, am I too early?".

That's what I became today. And yes, though it feels far too early, and rather over-generous to those of us who are still earning a decent crust, I've paid my taxes for everyone else. If a bit of payback's offered, why not take it?

As rites of passage go, it's very low-key. No oaths of allegiance, no special ceremony (what could it consist of - ceremonial presentation of some thermal underwear and a promotional tin of Benger's?), just a queue at the Post Office (well, this is Britain), a form, some symbolic documents (wouldn't you just know that one's authenticity can depend on a bill?) and one of those axe-murderer photos from a machine.

It brought to mind distant memories of being taken by my mother to the disused chapel the Ministry of Food was using as a local office, to queue up for new ration books. (Guess what was still on the ration in the early 50s? That's right, all the things I'm going to have to ration for myself once more: butter, cream, cheese, meat, sugar and sweets).

And that's not the only throwback that's returning. This is my old identity card.

I suppose it's too much to hope Ms. Smith will accept it in lieu of the expensive shiny new ones they're insisting on wasting so much of our money on.

Well, it would be asking a lot to be taken for sixteen again.

All in all, it makes you think there's only one thing to be said:

Aw diddums

I see Tony Blair's former chief of staff was upset by the police investigation of the "cash for honours" allegations:

Powell saw the cash-for-honours investigation as part of a disturbing trend towards the police becoming too involved in politics. "If someone's broken the law and really done a criminal act, felony or embezzlement, it should be dealt with as a criminal issue, absolutely. But because the Scots Nats complain about something, is that a sensible reason for the police to get involved?"

Now, who was it who popularised the slogan "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"? In all the incontinent torrent of criminal justice legislation from Blair's government (if the word kanonorrhea doesn't exist it would need to be invented), I don't recall one that said the police should decide an allegation of crime isn't worth investigating on the basis of the political opinions of the people making the allegation, let alone the number of votes they've attracted. Of course, the possibility of malice is something to be borne in mind as part of the investigation, not as a reason for not even attempting to investigate in the first place.

But then, what can you expect from people who don't seem to question the reliability of "allies" who threaten to turn against us if they're not allowed to use orders for our planes as a way of robbing their own national treasury?

Still never mind, it's spring. Here's an ornamental cherry tree near where I live. And for the first time in months, I'm walking about without a sweater on.

Sunday 9 March 2008

Once the Gormenghastly pinnacles of St Pancras Chambers have been fully converted to luxury penthouses, or whatever, and the hinterlands of King's Cross have been fully regenerated, this is going to be a pretty impressive part of London. The presence of the British Library puts it well on the way already, of course.

Notwithstanding one of Prince Charles's sillier remarks, I've always thought the British Library a wonderful building, since the first moment I went inside. Of course, I was biased, having gone there from trying to study in an undersized university library overwhelmed by "study groups" that wouldn't shut up. Going to a proper grown-up library, with everything to hand and nothing to disturb or distract, was like a holiday.

Today I went back to see what's new in the (free!) display galleries. I had thought to practise some nostalgia in 1968 - on record (yes, I do remember it, and I was there - indeed I once nearly stepped on Charles's toes coming out of a lecture at Cambridge), but (why do I think this seems characteristic of 1968?) the computerised sound archive was on the blink, so all I could see were some all too familiar news photos and captions.

So I went downstairs to Breaking the Rules, stuffed full of avant-garde Isms from all parts of Europe. Paris, Moscow and St Petersburg take pride of place, but there are cases of examples not just from London, Brussels and Berlin, but Belgrade, Tallinn, Kyiv and all points in between. Although it claims not be an art exhibition, and to focus on print, film and music are also there. Perhaps I left it too late before lunch (the BL has quite a nice café, too) and it would repay an extended visit, but I'm afraid I find myself tending to the "Yes, well, and...?" point of view. Yes, I know that in any age there is lazy conventional thinking to be challenged, new things happening that could change perception and social relations, but a lot of the experimental doesn't really inspire. And for all the wickedness of the Nazi and Stalinist response to the avant-garde-isms they saw as dangerously independent, I can't ignore the point that both Hitler and Stalin were, in their way, frustrated artists in their own dogmatisms: an artist with a manifesto is not necessarily an unmitigated good for humanity.

Not particularly avant-garde is this 3-D piece of trompe-l'oeil in the basement, which has amused me since my first visit to the BL (it's called Paradoxymoron):

Thursday 6 March 2008

Where this stuff emerges

The Guardian's Saturday review supplement has a regular piece in which a writer describes the room where they work. You can imagine the oneupmanship. They've had the occasional Artist's Studio (most recently Antony Gormley, if you're interested), but why be so selective? Why not other workplaces - My Abattoir or My Garage:

One wall demonstrates the creative tension between aspiration, fantasy and disappointing practicality that so characterises our work. Fading posters of Ferraris and Aston Martins jostle for space with vital but mundane lists of parts and prices, as well as pictures of goddesses and - if Casanova over there is to be believed - willing girlfriends. One might almost say the nipples follow you round the room as they keep watch over, not inappropriately, our tools. Will that be cash, squire, get my drift?

Or what about The Reader's Cupboard Under The Stairs:

Here the hoover and the ironing-board encumber each other in an irritating but companionate marriage, until one or the other is called to their duties outside. The Guardian's words of wisdom accumulate in drifts until the journey to the recycling centre - soon to return with new insights, we hope! Some of course remain to protect those lares et penates we cannot do without. Who knows what fascination and excitement we shall feel in decades to come when unwrapping the predictions of Polly Toynbee, the judgements of Simon Hoggart, from around the last of Mother's Spode?

So where do I do my stuff? I started to carry notebooks around, but pretty soon found I was always leaving them in the coat I wasn't wearing when I needed them. So mostly it comes tumbling out of my memory as I stare at the computer screen. This sits, with all the computer's bits and bobs, on a set of shelves on wheels, from Muji. This is handy to move when I feel (very occasionally) the need to do some serious hoovering, but as it's all open-sided, there tends to be an occasional shower of spare ink cartridges and accumulated CDs from magazine covers and commemorative screensavers that I never use.

The shelves sit in one corner of the living-room, next to a bookcase with all my reference books and my photo albums in. I've got so much in it now that to get out any one dictionary means unpacking almost everything else. On one wall is this print of St Jerome in his study - a leaving present from colleagues who obviously saw me as a monastic pen-pusher. Further along is the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the central square of the estate where I live, so I can see whoever's going past: this occasionally makes me feel like a curtain-twitcher, but neighbours do wave from time to time. Well, I hope they're waving. On the other wall over the bookshelf is a collection of prints and photos of where I used to live and row (not that I've pulled an oar for years).

And that's how I fill space. How do you fill yours?

Saturday 1 March 2008

Who's being anti-social now?

Several people who have been sleeping out at Gatwick airport have apparently been given Anti-Social Behaviour Orders to stay away, and one has been severely lectured by a court for breaching the terms of it.

I suppose we have to accept that airports, like so much of what we fondly imagine to be public, social space, are in fact privately-owned and owners are entitled to specify the terms and conditions on which people use it: and camping out because it's warmer and drier than some alternatives is clearly not one of those.

But since when has it been "anti-social behaviour" to be somewhere you're not welcome?

The court was apparently told this man's presence at Gatwick did not cause any problems: but according to the law "anti-social behaviour" consists of "behaviour which causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress", and the Home Office's guide lists possible examples which common sense would accept as meeting that definition:

- graffiti
- abusive and intimidating language
- excessive noise, particularly late at night
- fouling the street with litter
- drunken behaviour in the streets
- dealing drugs.

Nothing there about sleeping where you're not wanted.

Nothing there about not filling in slack hours buying things you don't really want.

Isn't wasting the time of courts a form of anti-social behaviour?

And while we're at it, Mr Guardian editor, since when has it been "asbo" as a word and not ASBO as an acronym?