Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Tuesday 29 April 2008

Plus ça change (2)

Signs of the times?

Yesterday, on the way to work, I saw an art-studenty young woman with a bag made out of a souvenir tea-towel with bamboo sticks to hold the shape and a shoulder-strap; and when I opened the paper, there was a long piece about how to make your own clothes (for women) - apparently Youtube is full of instructional videos.

It's reminiscent of my postwar childhood: sweaters made of wool unravelled from old ones, cut-down hand-me-downs and so on (I'm not complaining). I thought I was going to be the last person in this country to turn a shirt collar - apparently not.

Saturday 26 April 2008

Plus ça change...

I haven't been out and about the last few weekends, as I needed to move furniture in and out of the living room while the flooring was replaced; and I've also been dithering about some shiny new TV kit (and lugged a load of broken old stuff to the tip - thank goodness it's on a bus route).

But today I was up in town and saw - guess what - a couple of punks, Kings Road 1980s style. This was in Shoreditch High St (where else), so perhaps they were being ironic, or retro or something. I didn't think to take a photo - if I had I'd have been too timid to go through with it - but there may have been something post-modern about the way what would once have been a pink Mohican crest over the top of the skull was set along one side, while on the other side was a line of hair set like science-fiction eyes on stalks, or Björk's bunches on steroids.

But that wasn't what made them stand out, so much as how huffy they were getting at not being able to get a taxi to stop for them....

Friday 25 April 2008

Stirring me stumps

I managed to miss Walk To Work Day: and taking the best part of two hours to get there would strain my goodwill, to put it mildly. However, checking out routes on www.walkit.com got me thinking: I could invest some of my unexpected early pension in a bike...

Not that that would put me any closer to biking Boris (I hope). I'm not surprised - but I am relieved - to find that the nifty issue-matching Votewatch finds me some way from his opinions on most things, and I shall trot off to the polling station on Thursday to vote accordingly.

The only thing that gives me pause about saying "on yer bike" to Boris is the way he does it:

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Well, well...

Who'd have thunk it?

I thought one of the minor compensations for all the anguish about declining property markets would be no more begging letters from local estate agents ("We have recently sold a property in your building within days of its coming on the market, and we have a queue of clients anxious to buy..... please please PLEASE" and so on, and so on).

Hah. There were two more letters waiting for me tonight. Oh well, it's not a lot of extra weight in the recycling box, I suppose, beside the bulk of newspapers. It's just the waste of time that annoys me.

No time to go gallivanting round town the last couple of weekends, since I was moving eight bookcases and heaven knows how many books and records out of the living-room and back again to leave the workman space to get on with replacing the flooring. And, oh, what a difference it makes: hmm, I wonder what effect it has on the price of this place?

Friday 18 April 2008

It's not called Twitter for nothing, is it?

Gordon Brown's office has set up a Twitter feed during his visit to the US.

Mind you, I was as >dismissive of blogging in my time: and I could post to this using my mobile, if entering text weren't quite so laborious.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Sock-sorting day

Isn't it amazing how many different shades of black a few washes can produce in half a dozen pairs you bought as identically-coloured?

Sunday 13 April 2008

The London Marathon - sooner them than me

Where I live is right beside the route of the Marathon (near mile 16, if you really want to know), so it's a big event for people who live round here. For about three hours, we can't actually cross the main road, and more or less have to reconcile ourselves to being hemmed in here.

The day started fine and sunny for the wheelchair competitors and international elite runners, but by the time the fancy dress and what I've seen unkindly described as "village fete" runners got down to our part of East London, it was cold and showery (that might be rather better weather to run in than unexpected heat, of course).

As ever, people were out in force to cheer them on, especially the whole gallimaufry of the imaginatively dressed - Paddington bears, men and women in tutus and deely-boppers, Batmen, Supermen, policemen, firemen, cavemen, Wonderwomen, Pink Panthers, fluffy bunnies, Cornish pasties, a leafy branch in the backpack - you name it, it was there.

Mind you, some people showed more enthusiasm than others:

Last year, there was a woman in a cat outfit that wasn't much more than the whiskers. This year, a man in a Borat outfit - let's just say it demonstrated the effects of the weather...

By about four hours after the official start time, the runners are often mostly walkers, thinner on the ground and really starting to suffer as they battle on. It seems only right to slice up some oranges and break up a large block of chocolate to encourage them on.

By about five hours after the start, as I cross the road to go into town, the stragglers seem few and far between. One man, more or less ambling along, seemed so lost in his thoughts (or what was on his iPod) that he was quite startled when the policeman on duty said "Well done, young man!".

Here's a bit of video:

Thursday 10 April 2008

Living it up

One more thing to separate people with more money than sense from their cash. I had heard tell of this stuff before (incidentally, the BBC's description of it is deplorably sloppy, since presumably the beans make their transit undigested), but I suppose PR must have its day pretending it's new and unheard-of, especially if it's for charidee.

My trouble is, fancy coffees are one of the things that turn me into Mr. Grumpy. Always - ALWAYS - when I'm lined up for my once-a-day plain black coffee, I seem to find myself behind someone (sometimes a committee of people) ordering the strange new combinations and flavours that take far too long to make. A cappucino's bad enough, but cat-poo-chino*...?!

*That's not original, I'm plagiarising.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Old city, open city

Once a month, there are free guided tours of Somerset House, the handsome eighteenth-century building beside Waterloo Bridge that used to house different government offices (registers of births, marriages, deaths, Inland Revenue, that sort of thing), and is now home to the Courtauld Institute Gallery and some fountains in the courtyard.

It's named for Thomas Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who was uncle and Protector of the child king Edward VI in the mid-16th century (and, rumour has it, a little too physically affectionate to the only slightly older Princess Elizabeth, which has been held to explain her attitudes as Queen to men and marriage). He decided a grand riverside palace was required for his status, and cleared local riverside properties (the Protestant reformation conveniently absolving him of any need to respect local church buildings). His ambitions leading his enemies to find a way of bringing him down and executing him for treason, his palace then became an all-purpose government building.

In those days, government offices tended to be squeezed into any available outhouses of the monarch's palace, so a grand building like this was quite useful for putting up foreign guests and international conferences. As a result, it quite quickly, and perhaps ironically, became a place where Catholic worship was tolerated for diplomatic reasons, a practice extended when it was used to house the Stuart queens and their attendants, who tended to come from Catholic countries. Part of the tour takes you round the Piranesi-like lightwells around the courtyard and into a service cellar where a few tombstones of French and Portuguese servants are preserved.

The present building was the first designed with government and public offices in mind, and squeezes a lot of space in. The point of the lightwells around the courtyard was to let light into offices set into the slope from the upper street-level down to the riverside (complete with river entrance for the naval officers who occupied part of the building). Down below, the space for the lower orders is utilitarian (imagine working here when every copy of every newspaper had to be physically stamped to show duty paid), but upstairs the space for the nobs is grand and light: this photo shows the Nelson staircase.

Not the most important building, or the most significant bits of information I've ever learnt, but it was something to do on a cold wet Saturday afternoon (pity the poor children who were dancing through the fountains on the snowy Sunday as part of the Olympic Torch hooha). When (if?) the summer comes, the courtyard is an impressive public space to sit - much better than the civil servants' car-park it used to be - but for now, there's a distinct air of not being quite sure what the bulk of the building is for, since the Gilbert Collection and the Hermitage Rooms moved out.

For the moment, it's housing Open City, an interesting and stimulating exhibition on some of the work being done by Design for London, the Mayor's design agency (can't you tell it's election year?), on the "public realm", the spaces and streetscapes under pressure from competing demands for security, safety, cars, buses, pedestrians, etc., etc. This wall shows the range of interests that have to be accommodated.

There's an interesting range of projects described in the exhibition, from improved access and use of the Victoria Embankment (30 years overdue, in my view), to the "Bankside Urban Forest" (not the new trees outside Tate Modern, but a scheme to open up dead spaces in the warren of streets and commercial/industrial premises behind it), to huge open space conservation and regeneration projects in the south and east of London (some kick-started by the Olympic park development, but much larger in scale and range).

The public are invited for their comments: as you can see, there is a lot of disenchantment to be responded to...

Sunday 6 April 2008

Oh what a beautiful morning!

So much for having a look at the Olympic Torch (a.k.a. "Flame of Shame") Relay today.

Saturday 5 April 2008


I've just caught up with a piece in yesterday's Guardian (I just can't get through it all in the day, and usually catch up over tea in bed the next morning): apparently, there's a hooha in France about the decline of the point virgule (which sounds much more interesting, racier even, than the half-hearted English "semi-colon", don't you think?).

It sounds, as they say, a classically French piece of intellectual anguish, and letters to the Guardian about it today sound a classically English response of harrumphing pragmatism combined with a mild facetiousness.

What are described as the French rules for the use of the semi-colon are what I was taught for use in English. This is interesting, when you consider other differences in practice when it comes to notating punctuation. Each language has its own quirks: take, for example, the different ways of indicating speech (in French, with a long dash; in German, between >> and <<). The Spanish way of using upside-down question marks and exclamation marks at the beginning of the sentences that require them right way up at the end seems somehow to fit the way a flamenco dancer or a bullfighter takes a stance before getting on with the business at hand; and I think I'm right in saying German rarely has a need for semi-colons, if at all.

I wouldn't regard Guillemette Faure's suggestion that a semi-colon could become an emoticon as necessarily a sign of loss or failure. Not only in email but even more in real-time text chat (in which I once had a passing academic interest), what could more elegantly serve to indicate "Hang on a minute, that needs a bit more thought" or even "You do realise you've just said that out loud"?

As you might guess, I'm with the semi-colon's defenders, if only on the Joni Mitchell principle ("You don't know what you've got till it's gone"). I particularly like these two explanations:

Michel Volkovitch, author, poet and translator, is another ardent defender. "The point-virgule is precious when the subject matter is complex," he says. "For constructing a piece properly, distinguishing themes, sections and sub-sections - in short, for dissipating any haziness or imprecision of thought. It puts things in order, it clarifies. But it's precious, too, for adding a little softness, a little lightness; it can stop a sentence from touching the ground, from grinding to a halt; keeps it suspended, awake. It is a most upmarket punctuation mark."

and this from Will Self (not a writer I get on with, usually):
I like them - they are a three-quarter beat to the half and full beats of commas and full stops. Prose has its own musicality, and the more notation the better. I like dashes, double-dashes, comashes and double comashes just as much. The colon is an umlaut waiting to jump; the colon dash is teasingly precipitous.

Of course, as with any lament for a symbol, it's an underlying reality that's causing concern. In this case, I think it's the tide of purely functional, crudely pragmatic rather than reflective prose - the kind that peddles certainties, and avoids complexity, qualification, contradictions. And that is not unique to any one language or culture.