Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday 31 May 2008

How lucky we are to have so much open space in London: actually, luck has much less to do with it than a lot of hard work fighting off Victorian property developers and pressing local authorities to maintain parks - but the result is a blessing. Not so long ago, I went on a group walk that started at one of the less attractive stations in south-east London: but someone had cleverly worked out a route that snaked through local parks and woods, and although we were never more than a few hundred yards from main roads and suburban streets, it seemed we were in open country. Passing across one "village green", though, we came across a local kabbadi competition, which you wouldn't expect in Lower Dozing-on-the-Wold.

On a buckshee day off work this week, uncertain weather having encouraged my natural laziness against going for a walk in the country, I simply went out locally instead: there's a clear mile or so through Greenwich Park and across Blackheath.

Avoiding the be-touristed paths up to the Royal Observatory, there's a slightly less kempt path up to One Tree Hill, with its own view, and a verse carved into the seats around the eponymous tree.

Carrying on, there's a rather Victorian flower garden, with some beautiful old trees and lots of island beds, and around the edges rhododendrons in full flower.

Through the high surrounding wall (this was once a palace, after all), you come to Blackheath, a wide open stretch of green with its own vivid history, criss-crossed by some of the busiest main roads in London, but still with plenty of space, not only for people to run around but for more rural touches - a little village pond over by Blackheath villages, and wild flower verges much visited by bees.

More remarkable still, to me, was how chatty people were. I'm not the world's most sociable person, but little incidents (a lost toy perched on the garden railings, a dog stalking a squirrel - clearly without quite knowing why) seemed to spark a series of jokey conversations with complete strangers.

Also in Greenwich Park, of course, is the National Maritime Museum, so I stopped there on the way home. I still think it's a rather bitty collection of seemingly unrelated themes (polar exploration, the Atlantic, how different peoples learnt to navigate, passenger ships, Nelson and Trafalgar, and a hands-on area for children to experiment with all sorts of nautical principles and practice - including, I'm pleased to say, Morse code), but there are plenty of boats, bits of ships and other nautical artefacts to look at and admire. They also have art installations, on this occasion Simon Patterson: he's most well known for his "Great Bear" application of the London tube map to various cultural luminaries, but a lot of what's here passes me by. I liked the sails, though, if only because I love Sterne's Tristram Shandy. They do a nice cream tea, too.

Last stop on the way home was a quick look at the Painted Hall, a celebration of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the Hanoverian succession and the confounding of Louis XIV. For all the bombast of the decoration, the light of those huge Restoration windows seems very calm and austere.

And best of all, all this is on the doorstep: the trouble with country walks is that it takes such a time to get home afterwards.

Sunday 25 May 2008

Hallo Belgrade

Last night we had our Eurovision party. I don't know what they do in other countries, but in the UK, we long ago gave up taking the song contest all that seriously - it seems as though even the BBC thinks the point is the party. In ours, we draw for who to "support", and we also run a "tatbola": three tickets a pound (for charidee, of course) and if you're really unlucky you win something. And we drink and eat a bit, of course.

I'm a traditionalist about these things and don't check out the competing songs in advance (life's too short, for heavens' sake), so my perceptions are (perhaps like however many others of the watching millions) based mostly on what I saw, since not that much was audible over the party chitchat, hoots of laughter and so on.

The range was much as usual. We had

- well-intentioned sentiments from the relative newcomers, seemingly delivered by a Desperate Housewife
- "all join in" party songs that might just be heard on coach trips and in Mediterranean holiday resorts this summer (Latvia, Denmark, Spain)
- big belter ballads, up a tone for the final chorus, surely the laziest gimmick ever: Serbia, Romania, Portugal, Poland
- cut-rate Kylie: Ukraine, Greece, Norway, Armenia
- eye-candy for the contest's core fanatics (you know who you are, boys): Israel, Russia, Turkey
- candidates for any drag act looking for an easy laugh: (Bosnia, Azerbaijan).

Sweden appeared to represented by Jocelyn Wildenstein, it looked to me as though the singer for Iceland had sweetly asked his mum to join in, and Finland stuck to the heavy metal style they won with a couple of years ago.

Our entry was competent enough, but came on second and ended up bottom (again). I still think we should have gone for this.

I have no idea what the French song was about, since the BBC has apparently still not learnt how to put pre-prepared English lyrics on its subtitles. In this case, I think he might have singing about "shivers", but from the subtitles I guessed it might have been meant to be Chivas (as in whisky), but the subtitling kept giving us "Chivers" (as in marmalade). But that's one of the incidental charms of the whole ludicrous gallimaufry.

How different it all is from the days of Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, Udo Jürgens and "Can you hear me, Zurich?"

Keen students of electoral processes might have wondered why the presenters in Belgrade seemed to know how the announcer from Azerbaijan had got her results in the wrong order, before she did....

But for all the chuntering about countries voting for their neighbours or on political affinity, is it so very different from the days when the French record companies got three or four entries, what with Monaco, Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland from time to time? It's something positive that - say - people in the former Yugoslav countries do show some solidarity with each other after all they've been through. More and more it's being treated as a self-parodying festival of frou-frou, a multinational Mornington Crescent - about as close as most heterosexual people get to camp: that's better than some other ways of expressing international rivalries, isn't it?

But I could wish it didn't go on quite so long. Perhaps there should be some more qualifying rounds done with videos to produce a final of about a dozen for the final live show. Or is that too prosaic?

Oh, Russia won, by the way. Expect a spate of anguished young men baring their midriffs next year.

And on the tatbola, I won some very dull posters for a computer game. So I know what I'm giving to it next year....

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Da dit

Being the kind of person who hangs on to almost anything in case it comes in useful (I'm still giving houseroom to a massive turn-the-handle gramophone - one day I might get round to digitizing all my 78s), I was cheered (and I'm not the only one) to read that the author Alan Sillitoe still keeps his hand in at the Morse code he learned as a radio operator in 1944 - and there's a French poetry magazine that's broadcast in Morse, apparently.

I've never learnt more than a few dah-dits in Morse - enough to recognise the origins of the signature tune for the Inspector Morse series, and ro realise that text messaging on mobile was at least giving ...--... a new lease of life (SMS, if you hadn't worked it out, as the default ringtone for an incoming message). I couldn't see myself tapping away in the darkness, or waiting to see if the coded message would get through before the sinister knock on the door; but on the Joni Mitchell principle ("You don't know what you've got till it's gone"), I admire people who keep supposedly obsolete skills - and languages - alive.

Now, is there a celebrity that can do semaphore?

Thursday 15 May 2008

Nothing to do with Samson or Philistines..

For some time now, I've been intrigued by this sign on a local building site.

Apart from the familiar meaning of "slew", I know it as a noun. My old Oxford dictionary has the meaning of a swampy pond, which explains why it conveys unpleasant or disparaging associations to me: but it seems there's also an American usage whose meaning may come from an Irish word simply meaning "many" (evidence, no doubt, that I don't know my Erse from my elbow).

A verb whose present tense is "slew" is something new to me. On checking, I find it means to turn on the spot, or on the same axis, and by extension to swing round (and as a metaphor, to get someone drunk or to exhaust them with beating). So I suppose in this context it's - prosaically - simply a warning to the crane and machine drivers to be careful not to swing round and risk bashing the existing structure the sign's attached to.

But it also seems to me like a perfect substitute for that old political metaphor the "u-turn". Obviously, one has to be careful to avoid inadvertent libel, but, if the appropriate circumstances arose, even the Evening Standard might be tempted by a headline like BORIS: I SLEW ON BENDY-BUSES.

Saturday 10 May 2008

More trees

One good thing about going to work in all the fine weather we've been having recently is seeing from the top of the bus this line of chestnut trees in full bloom along the edge of a local park.

Already, though, the flowers are passing their best, as they do. Early to flower, they're early to set seed. In the height of summer, they turn one's thoughts to conkers and other autumn pastimes.

Oh dear. I've depressed myself now.

What did the trees say?

I misunderstood about listening to trees (now there's an opening line) - the installation is there all this weekend, so I went to the Museum of Garden History to hear it today.

Is there a particularly English attitude to trees? Attaching a mystical significance to forests and trees must be part of many different cultures, but it's hard to imagine a TV series called Meetings with Remarkable Trees anywhere else. But whatever emotional impact trees may have on us, I don't think we would expect sparkling repartee from them. And so it proved: what you hear is a low rumbling, like an irregular heartbeat or distant thunder, overlaid with a faint high-pitched crackling or ticking sound. The first is the sound of the internal strains in the tree as it moves with the wind; the second is the sound of water passing from cell to cell as it rises up the tree.

It's a reminder, in this instant makeover world, that trees and plants aren't just objects to be designed with, their life is on a different plane and timescale from ours.

The Museum itself is only a couple of bus stops away from Waterloo (or a walk past St Thomas's Hospital and through Archbishop's Park) in the former church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, nestled into the walls of Lambeth Palace, and home to the tombs of a number of Archbishops, as well as Captain Bligh (of the Bounty), as well as sundry memorial stones, including this one demonstrating the limits to eighteenth-century charity. Its connection to garden history is that the Tradescants, father and son, were buried there - great collectors whose name was given to various plants.

It's volunteer-run: you could tell from the slightly apologetic way the voluntary donation is asked for as you enter (£3 is hardly going to break the bank), and the slightly worn static panels that take you on a quick canter through the social and cultural significance of different styles of gardening from the Romans to the late Victorians. No-one seemed to mind the children scampering around and enjoying the church's echo. There were quiet marital disagreements over the plants for sale (I'm not sure if this is a regular thing or just because this was their open day for the National Garden Scheme).

There are display cases about great plant collectors and gardeners (the Tradescants, of course, Dampier, Banks, Paxton, Jekyll) as well as a selection of gardening tools and impedimenta, a strange plant called a vegetable lamb, and an "auricula theatre" - one of the more bizarre Victorian tastes, in my view.

It's a quirky , rather than comprehensive, collection, and the art and events it hosts look rather similar: talks on Guerrilla Gardening, alternative music, that sort of thing.

The churchyard contains a knot garden (complete with a panel explaining the problems their box hedges have had with an amorous fox - apparently box, to a fox, is like catnip to a, well, cat), and some panels explaining some principles like planting for the immediate environment, or for wildlife, and so on. But the Museum is not resourced to be like Wisley or Kew.

It has (of course) a café and bookshop. I bought Robert Macfarlane's Wild Places, all about mountains, cliffs, remote islands and more trees: just the thing to read while tucked up in bed with a cup of cocoa.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

I think that I shall never see...

I'm rather sorry to be missing this event at the Museum of Garden History tomorrow.

The thought of listening to the internal workings of trees is intriguing.

It's a sort of payback for that soppy song the late, great Spike Milligan once parodied as

I talk to the trees
That's why they put me away....

After all, there are things the trees don't need to know:

Sunday 4 May 2008

Won't you buy my pretty flowers?

For all its reputation for industrial grime, the East End has its green spaces - and since the 1850s the place to go for locals to indulge their green fingers has been Columbia Road market on a Sunday morning.

Squeezed into a tiny stretch of street about 10 minutes' walk from the other great Sunday markets (Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane), Columbia Road is raucous, with a bit of banter to go with the gardening advice - and a bit overwhelming.

Stalls line both sides of the street, and the people inch along in between. Those who want to get by a little faster squeeze along the pavements along the outside (did you see what I did there?): definitely not a place for the claustrophobic (what on earth possesses people to imagine they could or should bring a child in a buggy into the crush between the stalls, I just don't know - but they do, and they survive).

Many of the plants are still the old favourite bedding and window-box plants, and plenty of cut flowers to sell to the sightseers who don't have a garden, but - even in the few years I've been visiting it - there seem to be more and more upmarket and exotic plants as the social composition of the area and gardening tastes in general have changed. There are trays of petunias and busy lizzies bobbing along as people hold them overhead, but palms, orchids, bottle-brush wattles and the occasional lemon, orange or olive tree stand out as they sail along above the crowds.

Similarly more and more of the shops round about cater for the quirky and more chi-chi artistic taste, as well the kind of ornaments you might expect people to put in a garden.

Pricing seems to aim at round sums to make the arithmetic easier - adjusting the quantity to the price rather than the other way around. Get there very early to avoid the crowds and see the best of what's on offer, hang around till lunchtime to see if there are any clearance bargains.

Stocking up my window boxes this morning, I got four upright fuschias for £6, four trailing fuschias for £5, six trailing ivies for £5 and a tray of lobelia for £4: in all, about the same as a very average restaurant dinner, a comfortable seat at the theatre, or three or four paperbacks. Not bad for (I hope) a summer's delight, is it?

You can understand the man I overheard saying "I'm the Imelda Marcos of plants".

Friday 2 May 2008


At least you can't blame me.

And at least we're not in Rome.

Not quite.

Thursday 1 May 2008

May Day

It's not just election day. In France it's a day for giving lily of the valley (muguet), so for readers in France:

X marks the spot

I've done it. I've been to do my democratic duty - and, as I always do, on my way to work (which is usually not busy, so I was in and out in five minutes).

From an outsider's point of view, it's been a rather quiet election. They usually are these days, as parties have fewer and fewer active members doing it the old-fashioned way (leafletting and canvassing door to door). Where I live, the old-fashioned way is close to impossible, since we're all behind gates or entryphones (and in my block somebody made off with the facing plates for our entryphone system a few weeks ago, since when nobody knows which wires go where, and any visitors have to telephone in advance to be let in - very handy).

We're used to one free delivery by the Post Office of a leaflet for each candidate (but they have to arrange for them to be individually addressed); but for an operation as huge as the city-wide election of the Mayor and Assembly, they now have a single booklet, with a statement from each mayoral candidate and a list of Assembly candidates. And that's pretty well all I've seen: apart from one leaflet for the Tories, who I suppose have a member living in my block. I never even knew about this comprehensive site until it was all over!

Voting itself is still a rather nineteenth-century operation: temporary plywood booths in the local school and tied-down pencils. I like it that way: it's straightforward and easy to understand not only what to do but also what happens afterwards.

Once upon a time, I was an active party member and saw quite a bit of the "afterwards", as an observer at several election counts.

First, all the ballot papers are tipped out of each box, unfolded, put the same way up and totalled to make sure there are no more papers in the box than were recorded as issued. This is the easiest bit for the tellers (who are usually bank staff since they're good at sorting and counting bits of paper quickly), but the most complicated for the observers. The individual ballot box represents the smallest geographical collection of voters, so the parties want to get any impressions they can of how their candidate's doing at this level. The observers are expected to count (silently) how many out of as many groups of ten ballot papers as they can count are going their way, and for as many as possible to do so for as many boxes as possible to get a good average.

Once the total is verified for a box, the ballot papers are all collected up and passed to another group of tellers to start sorting them into piles for each candidate. This is the serious stuff: the observers hover over the tellers alert for every mistake (every mistake against their candidate, that is - you'd be surprised how often new observers have to be told to keep quiet about possible mistakes in their favour). If I were trying to concentrate, as a teller, I'd hate having someone leaning over and pointing (no talking to the tellers, by the way, it all has to be done by pointing). Any disputed papers (from people who sign the paper - yes, some nitwits do, or people whose mark is all over the place or otherwise unclear) are put on one side to be dealt with specially by the senior returning officer.

Then the piles for each candidate are collected up and passed to a third group of tellers to start counting. This is the crucial bit for them, but the observers can (and do) relax, for they're in no position to second-guess the counting. They know by now roughly what proportion of the vote to expect. This is the time for them to banter with the opposition. In the 1997 general election landslide, I had my pocket TV with me, and I had the great privilege of telling my (loathed) MP that his counterpart in the next constituency had just lost his (even larger) majority.

Eventually, it's time, somewhere after midnight, for the announcement and speeches.

It's all bit different for this election, not least because one of our Borough councillors has resigned as well. So we had white, pink, yellow and peach ballot papers for each of the different categories: and where the white (Borough council) paper had to be folded (the usual way), the others for the London-wide elections were not to be folded.

And a little administrative detail like that tells me (I should have been a spy) that those ballot papers are going into a machine reader of some sort. And this is how it all works. But this is one area where I prefer to have humans, who can be checked by other humans.