Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday 28 July 2008

More passing shows

I was thinking I might not be posting much for the next couple of weeks: I'm doing a home exchange to Paris, which means I've got to get down to all those cleaning and minor repair jobs I've been putting off. It's all planned out: perhaps I'm being too fussy (I won't be looking so carefully at their place), but I'll know what I've left behind, and I'd rather have a certain peace of mind.

However, one of the put-off jobs (getting a new printer, so I can leave all my handy household hints written down) took me past the display window of the St Martin's School of Art tonight.

The last time I was here, there was a young woman licking chocolate off the inside of the window. Tonight, a pair of young women impassively manoeuvred three separate strands of coloured string around - not exactly cat's cradle, more a case of moving, inverting and distorting a frame. Come to think of it, the clever thing was that the tension (in the string, if not in the spectators) was never lost.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

These cheery chappies preside over the café in the Museum in Docklands. It's a far cry from the "char and a wad" in their hands to the espressos and Danish pastries now on offer.

In what was once a sugar warehouse in "Blood Alley" (so called from the injuries dockers received from the raw sugar inadequately cushioned by simple sacks), the Museum in Docklands tells the story of the importance of the river and the docks to London's life and prosperity, from Roman times through to the "Warehouse of the World" in the 19th and 20th centuries.

There are large and suitably Dickensian reconstructions (complete with sound-effects) of narrow alleys and their different shop-fronts and interiors. One of my great-great-grandfathers, who was a porter-labourer for wine importers near the St Katharine Docks, quite possibly lived in a room like this.

The material expands as it gets into the 19th and 20th centuries, of course. There are large sections on life and labour in the Victorian expansion (I passed on paying extra for a special exhibition on Jack the Ripper - what is this fascination with something so squalid?), the role of the river and docks in the Second World War, with much graphic detail of how the Blitz affected the East End, and ends with a canter round the decline of the 1960s and 1970s, and the debates over redevelopment since.

Both the products and the means of handling them are covered: the development of docks, bridges, tunnels, railways and warehousing, with replicas of the kind of stores used for handling and measuring tobacco and wines, a blacksmith's forge, a cooper's workshop, boxes of spices to smell, features on shipbuilding (including the works that was on the site where I live now), whaling and the never-ending battles over the regulation of trade and labour and the control of thieves and pirates.

Most striking - and sobering - is the one thing I haven't yet mentioned. This building was a sugar warehouse in the West India Docks: there's no getting round the grim fact of slavery and the slave trade, and how so much of our modern prosperity is derived from its legacy. Until recently, this was not so much in evidence in the museum. Now much detailed material has been moved into store to make space for a gallery that shows not only the shaming realities of the trade (for example, shipping lists recording the numbers of enslaved people on each ship - or often more shamingly, not even that) and conditions on the plantations (with original records), but also examples of the lives of black Londoners from the eighteenth century onwards - as well as the products of their labours and the comforts of life for those who profited.

Not surprisingly, there's also a "quiet space".

Back in the entrance hall, there's a small - perhaps too small - shop. This coming weekend, entrance to the museum is free: and what's more, it offers its visitors a nice lie-down with their cuppa.

It's Doggett as does it..

I never could resist a feeble pun, but it seems appropriate since today's event, the Doggett's Coat and Badge Race, requires more than a bit of dogged determination.

A sculling race taking around 30 minutes through central London, from London Bridge to Chelsea, it has been raced by newly-qualified watermen since 1715, since it was founded in Commemoration of His Majesty King Georges happy Accession to the Brittish (sic) Throne.

Watermen were central to the movement of people and goods in London: the equivalent of today's bus, taxi and lorry-drivers. Now they handle the pleasure and commuter boats, the tugs that move visiting cruise liners and warships into place and drag freight and refuse containers up and down the river: now they'll be used to ferry building materials in and out of the 2012 Olympics building site. Not so long ago, a name I recognised as that of an all-conquering sculler of my schooldays (and winner of the Doggett's) turned up in another context altogether: as the expert adviser to a TV programme on finding and handling a craft to re-create the original performance of Handel's Water Music.

The relevant City livery company still regulates the training of watermen and lightermen. The Coat and Badge winners have their place in the annual Lord Mayor's Show, accompanying the carriages as their predecessors would have powered the barges that took the great and the good from ceremony to celebration (among them last year was someone else I recognised, a regular waterman on the commuter boats I use).

In those days, the race would have been even more of a test of both power and endurance than today (though not that different from the regular demands of work on the river at that time). Not only was it rowed against the tide in heavy passenger wherries: the water around London Bridge ran dangerously fast to get through its narrow arches (until a broader-spanned bridge was built in the late eighteenth century). Nowadays, the power of the tide serves as a help rather than a challenge, and the distance is not unprecedented - it's about the same as the course used for the Head of the River Race in west London; but where the HORR is a processional race against the clock, this is a side-by-side tactical race, and there is just as much watermanship needed to take advantage of the tide moving with you as against. Don't forget, the tide rises and falls by something like 20-30 feet twice a day, which is a powerful amount of water sloshing in and out of London.

It's not a spectacle like a grand Venetian regatta: you could pass by the river and not really notice it. I rowed at school and university, and I'll admit most rowing races are really rather dull to watch unless (or even when) you know someone involved: everything happens too far away to see much detail, and the competitors pass in and out of sight within a very short time. This race, with its small pool of eligible competitors, has an even smaller pool of interested parties than most club rowing events: look through the list of past winners and you'll see some repeating family names, for professional watermanship (if there's such a word) has tended to become a family business, even rather clannish.

Still, it takes place at lunchtime, which allowed me to forgo the debatable delights of the office canteen for a sandwich on Waterloo Bridge. Sure enough, there were barely a handful of people looking as though they were waiting for the race. When eventually it appeared in the distance, there were four competitors, one well in the lead, who steered so sharply to the inside of the bend, towards the National Theatre, that I thought he was off his course and would crash into the boats moored along there - but he was deliberately cutting the corner. Normally, this would be a risky tactic, since it abandons the power of the stream running slightly to the outside of the centre; but the second and third competitors didn't seem to make enough headway to compensate. By the time they were at Waterloo Bridge, the leader was well past the next bridge along.

The fourth-placed had clearly gone too wide on the outside of the stream in the first part of the race, and he was struggling well behind by the time they passed me: the two launches of officials had passed him to keep up with the others. He was left to be followed by the safety dinghy and, no doubt most galling all, the two spectators' launches, one with a gaggle? a shoal? a rowlock? of watermen (previous winners?) in their redcoats observing from the upper deck: and he still had a good three miles to go under their gaze.

There were one or two desultory horn-blast salutes from the cruise boats, halted while the race passed; for all the pain and effort of the oarsmen, they had barely disturbed the normal business of the river for ten minutes.

Monday 21 July 2008

Passing through..

.. Canary Wharf on my way to the Museum in Docklands (of which more another time), I noticed a mock-up of a golf course putting green floating in the middle of the dock, with a number of golf balls scattered around the hole. I guessed there'd been some sort of wacky competition, then I saw a banner advertising a "male cancer" charity (golf.. I dn't have to spell it out, do I?): but I wonder if they really thought through the mental associations:

Friday 18 July 2008

"Hooray hooray hooray....

Misery's on the way!" (Noel Coward, if you don't already know, at a previous time of endless gloom-and-doom stories in the newspapers). But there's no misery in this house. I may be a smug old baby-boomer with a paid-off mortgage and a reasonably reliable pension scheme (because I suppose that's what I am), but even on a damp grey evening, there is plenty to look forward to. A fortnight in Paris soon, for one thing, but more immediately...

The Proms start today: 84 concerts over the next eight weeks, covering not quite everything, but enough to justify the BBC licence fee on their own, in my view.

I suppose I will find a few things to huff and puff about. No doubt the televised concerts will again have irritating celebrity interviews and embarrassing quizzes in the interval to persuade us all how classical music can be the thing for cool people (as if the people watching needed persuading). Fortunately, on TV and radio, you're not aware of the more self-important and jealously-guarded "traditions" of the long-standing Prommers (and the less said about the Last Night, the better). I suspect my shiny new TV will provide even more detailed evidence to justify founding a Committee to Buy Charles Hazlewood a Razor.

But every year there are predictable wonders and wonderful surprises. Over the years, I think of Renée Fleming's Four Last Songs, the Cleveland Symphony under Maris Janssons, Placido Domingo's Wagner début, the National Youth Orchestra's performance of Messiaen's Turangalila (I thought I'd hate it, but no) - I could go on. Last year, the highlight of the opening concerts, for me, was the Buskaid group from Soweto (French Baroque with Zulu gumboot dancing - it worked, trust me); and just about everyone is still buzzing about the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra from Venezuela. How can one not be excited that all this is available (that might explain why the audiences tend to be generous with their applause)? Who knows, I might even take myself halfway across London to see a concert in person.

This was just one of the Bolivarians' encore pieces last year - a reprise of part of Bernstein's West Side Story suite (there are other clips of the concert on Youtube, so you can see what built up the audience's rapturous enthusiasm):

Sunday 13 July 2008

In the kitchen - this week's learning points

I'm not a great gourmet - or gourmand for that matter. I enjoy reading people like Elizabeth David and Nigel Slater, who can convey the experience and idea of food in all its meanings, as well as occasionally inspiring an attempt at something out of the ordinary; but I tend to stick to the familiar and easy, and rarely set out to cook for cooking's sake. Once in a while, some respect for the seasons (gooseberries any day now, blackberries all too soon) might get me to do something different.

This weekend, it was this magazine recipe for a chocolate cake.

Memo to self:

(a) There is a reason why cooks wore pinafores: using an electric whisk for the final beating-in requires a much higher-sided mixing bowl if you - and the kitchen - are not to look as though an incontinent chimpanzee's paid a call.

(b) Cakes are not bread or puddings: they don't necessarily look or taste better still hot from the oven.

(c) At 220 calories for one-tenth of the cake, that first slice equates to something close to a five-mile run.

Friday 11 July 2008


Tonight, as ever, I put the kettle on to boil, poured the water into the teapot, let it stand, and eventually sat down in front of the TV to pour myself a cup: only to find I'd forgotten to put any tea in the pot.

I have seen something like this before.

It's official. I have become my mother.

Thursday 10 July 2008

It's that time of year..

A year ago today, I wrote up the Big Event of the weekend - the opening of the Tour de France in London, stuck in some photos and a little video clip, and put it in a blog. Start as you mean to go on, eh?

I'd always been a bit snooty about blogging, mainly in reaction to the way it - like so many new Internet developments - was initially overhyped as the most unprecedented/amazing/sweeping-all-before-it thing (since the last thing and until the next thing, that is). I just couldn't see how it was, in essence, different from any other personal website.

In essence, it isn't: but a pre-set format does mean new users don't have to keep reinventing the wheel in presenting what they want to present, and know roughly how to understand what other people are presenting (and when you see what some people still do with self-designed websites, the benefits of an off-the-peg solution are obvious).

But, oh dear me, did I really say
It's the focus on someone's stream of consciousness I find strange. I don't think I work all that hard nowadays, but after working, commuting, eating, housework, reading books and keeping up with what's going on in the world, it's hard to find the time (and the temerity) to just witter on to the world at large. Organising your thoughts, on any basis other than 'and another thing', takes even longer. What do all these people do all day?

Well, I'm managing to find the time now, though it is hard to organise one's thoughts. Which is why I'm wittering on, I'm suppose. Now, what can I do now that all the same events are coming around again?

Friday 4 July 2008


I don't often rave over books (I don't often rant about them either, but don't get me started on The D* V*nc* C*de), but I'm about to now.

I've finally got round to reading Robert MacFarlane's The Wild Places, which I bought some time ago, and I'm loving it.

It's an exploration of different wild landscapes in Britain: he describes long walks, nights in the open and cold-water swimming, on an island that served as a hermitage for Celtic monks, on moors, mountains, rivers and coastlines, and so on, as a foundation for discussions of ideas and uses of wildness and wilderness through our history.

Thus far, it could be just another way for townies like me to feel a vicarious share in the wildness our cosy lives shield us from - and all, of course, without having to put ourselves to the discomfort of actually experiencing it, just as people snuggle up in bed with their cocoa to listen to the nightly recital of that secular litany, the shipping forecast.

But what grabs and holds me is not only the detailed observation of the naturalist, but the precision of language (he teaches philosophy), coupled with an poet's ear for the rhythm of a sentence. See what you think of these:

On swimming at dusk:

It was dark in the cove, and there was little loose light in the sky, and I realised I could not see myself, only the phosphorescence that surrounded me, so that it appeared as though I were not there in the water at all: my body was unclear, defined only as a shape of darkness set against the swirling aqeuous light.

In the Black Wood, near Rannoch Moor:

Around dusk, there was a drop in the wind, and coppery clouds pulled slowly overhead, their high cold bosses still struck with the light of the low sun. Then it started to snow - light flakes ticking down through the air, settling on every upturned surface. A flake fell on the dark cloth of my jacket, and melted into it, like a ghost passing through a wall.

On nights in the open, in different landscapes:

I awoke into a metal world. The smooth unflawed slopes of snow on the mountains across the valley were iron. The deeper moon-shadows had a tinge of steel blue to them. Otherwise, there was no true colour. Everything was greys, black, sharp silver-white. Inclined sheets of ice gleamed like tin.

I lay in the warm darkness, breathing in the scents of the field, brought out by the gentle dew that had settled after nightfall. I could hear the ongoing business of the meadow - the shifting of grass stalks, the shy movements of animals and insects - and again I felt a sense of wildness as process, something continually at work in the world, something tumultuous, green, joyous."

Enough: there's nothing more irritating than having gobbets forced on you. Read it for yourself.

Thursday 3 July 2008


I'm an odd sort of joiner-in. I've worked at organising organisations, I spent a good few years as a political activist, I'm interested in the social internet, and I'm here, aren't I? But I'm ambivalent about parties and big communal celebrations. I've never been to a festival (not my sort of music, and you don't need wellyboots at the Wigmore Hall); and in any crowd, even if by any criterion I'm part of it, I somehow feel like the MP whose only appearance at Westminster was to "abstain in person".

So it's no great surprise that much though I like my own family, the phrase "family fun day" doesn't really appeal, so I wouldn't have been very attracted to either of local events today, at the city farm and city airport (not even if they got together so that pigs might fly).

Likewise, today's big event, London Pride was the day for my team, but I'm just not the demonstrative kind. I had an added interest in one float, since some colleagues were very involved in preparing the float for NHS staff, marking the service's 60th birthday, this very day. Now that is something we can all be proud of.

Last year, Pride was only a day or two after the foiled bomb plots, and the rain on the day added a certain grimness to the determination to show we carry on (and how). This year we had better weather, and the added frisson of wondering what our new Mayor would say or do. Never known for verbal continence in the face of modern conventional pieties, how would he cope with having to utter welcoming words to a crowd of homosexuals at an event that his office spends taxpayers' money to support?

As it happens, he led the parade (you can catch a glimpse in the video clip below) and even made a few attempts to blow a whistle. He's game, I give it that: and it must have occurred to him that it's now almost taken its place as a conventional summer ritual, somewhere between a village carnival and Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself seemed bigger than I've ever seen before - it took an hour for the floats and the bulk of the larger banner-waving groups to pass, and I would guess there were a lot more people following on. The Mayor and various organising bigwigs seemed to be in a special gaggle at the front, and after a gap, the uniformed service groups, then the various charities and community and campaigning groups, unions, political parties, religious and corporate groups and social, sports and leisure groups of all kinds, someone offering free hugs, and even one lone enthusiast in a Bond Bug. More floats than I remember from previous years (time was, the police insisted more than a handful just wouldn't be safe), but none that I could see sponsored by the commercial gay pubs and clubs for once - unless they were in the bit I didn't wait a second hour to see. The familiar gallimaufry of drummers, dancers and drag queens, of course; a solitary Hare Krishna finger-cymballed his way through the crowds on the pavements, but was rather ignored (is that considered good for the soul, or should I say karma?).

The parade isn't the only part of the event, of course. In Trafalgar Square, the main stage hosted speeches and singers (I've always been fascinated by the signing for the singers) and stalls for the various community organisations, and different stages and events were set up elsewhere in Soho.

Once again, it seemed the video button on my camera was more in use than the still photos: