Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Thursday 31 December 2009

Oh, how promptly and obediently we stuck on the coloured patches our guide gave us to wear. And oh, how the irony of it completely passed her by.

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Krakow in the snow

After the first evening, as in every home exchange, of orienting myself to someone else's way of organising their home (so many keys! no teapot! have I, the invading stranger, put the cat off its food?*) and the neighbourhood (evidently the would-be trendy/arty bit of Krakow), it snowed overnight.

Even under skies that stayed leaden-grey all day, there was a certain extra charm to seeing real snow weighing down Christmas trees and street decorations alike.

As the morning wore on, though, the mixture of slush and occasional rain made this a day for indoor sightseeing. In the Czartorysky Museum, one is introduced to a dizzying succession of Polish monarchs and marshals of the 16th-18th centuries and their various portraits, acquisitions and knick-knacks (the glory days of richly-decorated armour and sumptuous carpets and tents acquired as booty from defeating the Ottomans soon give way to more domestic goods), and then a collection of paintings, which likewise rather tails off after the mediaeval, Renaissance and the Rembrandt.

I had lunch in a cellar which also offered a fortune-teller (no-one seemed to need her services, and she didn't seem bothered - no doubt it was no surprise to her).

In the Collegium Maius, the mediaeval base and current museum and ceremonial heart of the Jagiellonian University, not everything is mediaeval: it's the closest I shall ever come to an Oscar, and Olympic gold medal or a Nobel prize (this must be one of the few places where you can see them all in one cabinet, as they have been presented to the university by former students). The main impression, however, is of the solemnity with which great institutions like this present their history (all the more understandable here, given what's happened to Poland over the centuries); much is familiar to anyone who's seen an Oxford or Cambridge college chapel or library, but there are some really impressive examples of decorative art and craft:

*This is a rhetorical question. There is a cat. There is food. What - by one letter - is the most economical response?

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Euphemism corner

Spotted en route to Stansted Airport and the delights of Ryanair (no, there were some things I didn't have to pay for, I made sure I went before I got on the plane):

A truck advertising 'End of Life Vehicle Specialists' - not, I suspect, hearse suppliers, but scrap dealers.

Thursday 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

Just to get you in the mood, here are some lovely ladies knocking out (literally) some seasonal music:

Monday 21 December 2009

Getting there..

These last few days before Christmas are eerily quiet in the office - a bare handful of people under the ever-so-slightly-overplanned ranks of our Space Invader decorations, and round the corner even fewer under our neighbours' efforts (they tried to compete, but it has to be said, Christmas spirit notwithstanding, that it looks like an explosion in a pound shop).

No more tea-point two-step, for these few days. Long years ago, some genius decided a building full of civil servants would need no more than two tiny spaces per floor, each of which might just about pass muster for a one-bedroom flat for those of modest income. As a result, gasp as one might, making a cuppa usually necessitates a polite wait while strangers from other sections exchange mysterious gossip and air incomprehensible grievances, and then a polite excuse-me and might-I-just of manoeuvres between the boiler, the sink and the fridge. Not today.

It's all the quieter because of the snow, the worst effects of which don't seem to have had any effect where I live, but to the south and east of London, people were taking three hours to get home last night, it seems. Less than ten days ago, I was still not using my winter outerwear, the encircling gloom not being that cold.

But with the snow, the Christmas season is at last (and somehow rather late, by comparison with previous years) perceptible; it seemed only appropriate to seek out the seasonal photo-opportunity I missed last year (you may attribute the camera movement to seasonal shivers):

Sunday 20 December 2009

Somebody stop me

Waitrose had a reduction on packs of Green and Black's chocolate yesterday. I thought it might be something to keep me going until Christmas. Won't last till Monday at this rate....

Friday 11 December 2009

Senior moments

I've never been particularly interested in shoes: all they need to be is comfortable and long-lasting. I usually have a couple of pairs of black and a couple of pairs of brown shoes, in different styles, and wear each pair on alternate days. I only mention this because today, on picking up the waiting pair of black shoes so neatly (for once) aligned in the corner, I realised I must have spent yesterday wearing the left of one style and the right of another.

On a seasonal note, one advantage of the colder weather is that, on a crowded tube train, people are so much better padded and less sharp-elbowed. It's like being gently (but firmly) swaddled in a constricting maze of pillows.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Santa's little stylists strike again

We do occasionally do some work as well.

Saturday 28 November 2009


In the hardware and household shop, among the novelty items, tucked in beside the granny race tracks, a box of wind-up condiment shakers, with the slogan: "Passing the salt and pepper has never been so much fun!!!!"

Tuesday 24 November 2009

What happens to electoral registers may seem a very dull subject. But did you know the "edited register" (the basic names and addresses, and the electoral ward they're in) has for ten years been on sale to all and sundry to use as they wish?

Last summer, a review for the Ministry of Justice made a firm recommendation that this should stop. Now the Government has put out a consultation - mainly, it seems, aimed at the commercial and charity marketing interests who would be affected - asking for opinions about what should happen.

Well, I've had my say and sent it in.

I may have been less than sympathetic to the idea that direct marketing people would have to set up and maintain their own registers (the word "Tough!" may have slipped in there somewhere).

I may not have shrunk from expressing outrage: Tunbridge Wells can be proud of me.

You may have your own opinions. But if you don't express them now, who knows what they might let the moneybags get away with?

Saturday 14 November 2009

Who'd have thought soft furnishings could cause such homicidal rage?

Strictly speaking, it was the hardware attached. I've never been that fond of the curtain poles I inherited, and recently both the rings and the fixings have been looking increasingly precarious. The time has come for something shiny and new.

I had tested to see what sort of wall plugs I might need, honestly. What I didn't realise was that the builders of this flat had been sneakily inconsistent: at one place there might (as I'd found) be a void between the wall surface and whatever lintel they'd put in, but (as I had not found before today) at another there'd be none. All I could do was drill a hole roughly where I needed it, and only then work out how to fix a screw into it. It all served to prove the first rule of DIY: whatever you need (especially when you need it right now, before everything falls down) is still in the hardware shop - and the only really well-stocked one near here is two bus rides away.

But at last I have managed to ensure a modicum of privacy at, at least, the bedroom window. One of the brackets seems already to be plotting a bid for freedom, but sufficient unto the day, and all that. As I relax a little, I can pass on the observation that, if you should see someone in the street muttering darkly to themselves about the injustice of the world of curtains and hardware, there might be some semi-rational explanation.

These things, as my mother used to say, are sent to try us, and worse things happen at sea. Judging by the violently gusty winds and squalls of rain we've had today, the latter's all too evidently true. A night for listening to the Shipping Forecast in one's own cocoon (especially now that I can close the curtains), and particularly to the soothing midnight play-out music:

Saturday 7 November 2009

Conversation piece

Cycling over Tower Bridge needs concentration, even more than on other roads. Going to work or coming home, I need to bear over to the right as I come off the bridge - so relative pace and position in the traffic lanes need to be thought out. To add a complication, there's a nasty pot-hole on the northbound lane that needs to be avoided.

So I was in no mood to be distracted by some indistinct shouting from a car to my right. It's not unheard of, whether it be someone trying to share his (it's usually his) interesting variations on motorists' vernacular for cyclists, or someone asking for directions (yes, they will do it even at some speed, and even leaning right across to the passenger-side window). But I ignored it, until I heard the word "gadget".

Then the penny dropped. He wanted to talk about my Winkku.

I couldn't make out any more, as he continued to bellow indistinctly, keeping pace alongside me, so I just made non-committal noises, until the point where he really had to decide which lane he was in, and he drew ahead to stop in the queue at the lights. I rather ostentatiously put on my indicator as I moved to the right and pulled up behind him.

He poked his head out of the driver-side window and shouted "What happens when you want to turn left?"

But the lights changed and he did not stay for an answer.

Monday 2 November 2009


Not the most likely venue for an artwork, you might think; one of London's little seen spaces, the old Kingsway tram tunnel. Here, once upon a time, trams rattled between the Embankment and the top of Kingsway.

Ever since the trams were withdrawn in 1952, the space has been closed off to the public, part used for an underpass for cars, part set up for a control room for emergencies like the Great London Flood that we're still waiting for, part leading to mysterious offices for "other government functions". Of the rest, what isn't simply used for storing stuff has served for film sets, but most of us only know of the tunnel by reputation and odd glimpses through littered gratings and over the walls of the old entrance way.

So there's been a lot of interest in the opportunity to see it offered by Conrad Shawcross's Chord, an installation that takes advantage of the long straight tunnel.

Entering down the surprisingly steep slope (imagine how the tram wheels must have squealed as they strained their way up), I was struck by the height and angularity of the tunnel. This isn't a tube, it's a straight cut down, made all the deeper for double-decker trams. We were ushered past still-surviving elements of the old tramway station: a narrow central platform and the kind of steep stairs that wouldn't pass a health and safety inspection nowadays, but the torn, stained and flapping station signs and maps on the wall are simply film props.

Skirting puddles and cables, we went on into the gloom, and came to two large contraptions, a good 4-5 metres high, set on a rack-and-pinion rail track. Three arms, each with three branches, and each of these with three sets of six spools of thick thread, each of a different colour (but related to the other five in the set). All these elements rotate independently, driven by intricate cogs from a single, modestly small, motor on each machine. Starting 10 metres apart, the machines move slowly apart, making a rope at a rate of 5cm an hour. After three days, the machines move back together and the process starts again.

Though the classically-minded might think of Ariadne, she made her thread at home (sensible girl) and for a labyrinth, not a straight tunnel. But here the floodlighting from the sides, keeping pace with the machines and the rope as they move, accentuated the gloom on the farther side. One might fancy that anything could be lurking in the dark, beyond the heaps of indeterminate shapes and the mysterious closed-off world of troglodytic securocrats. Appropriately perhaps, the machines let out an eery wail, like a modern jazz trumpet in a film noir soundtrack - or the squeal of a ghost tram grinding around a curve.

The enthusiasts for forgotten heritage, weeping concrete and the like had been flashing away with the cameras; we were asked not to photograph the artwork, but this doesn't seem to have been a universal rule, so you can get a better idea from these photos, or these.

It takes less than half an hour, it seems, to contemplate the interchangeability and limitations of time and space; all too soon, we were being ushered up the surprisingly steep slope back to the street (imagine the noise of trams labouring up this!).

One last fact: when I asked the guide what the material for the rope was, he said the only material available in a sufficient range of colours for all those spools was "anorak cord".

Friday 30 October 2009

Krispy Kreme, please note....

It isn't the most winning of sales techniques to greet a customer's order by adopting a Lady Bracknell tone of mildly outraged incredulity to say "Just the one?"

Friday 23 October 2009

Sheer frivolity

I suppose I ought to have done my democratic duty and sat down to watch Question Time last night. But it's a long time since I gave up watching controversialists being controversial. What's the point if the only possible constructive contribution to the discussion is to throw something at the telly? Especially if, half the time, you could make a better fist of the arguments being put forward by someone you loathe in support of something you despise. And that's the last position I'd want to be in when the likes of Nick Griffin are on.

Anyway, it was nearly past my bedtime, and who wants to go to bed still chuntering away in high dudgeon? (By the way, what is low dudgeon?) Perhaps I might catch up in the daytime on the interweb - or maybe not.

Truth to tell - and I do hope this doesn't turn out to be some sort of historical parallel - there was a Astaire-Rogers musical on BBC4..........

Monday 19 October 2009

Apple time

Tuesday is National Apple Day, apparently, and this weekend there was an Apple Festival at Brogdale Farm, the home of the National Fruit Collection.

Here over 2000 varieties of apples are grown, along with 500 varieties of pear, not to mention quinces and cherries, and the collection supports all sorts of serious research.

It's open to visit most of the year, but for the casual day-outer, the interest is either blossom or fruiting time.

For serious gardeners, there are opportunities to buy plants and seek expert (if rather brisk) advice:

"Is there anything I can do about the scab?"

"Yup. Spray".

To save time, there was an ID parade of trays of different apples marked with their names, for all those people with an old tree but no idea what variety it is.

And there was a large pick'n'mix tent of apples and pears for £2 a bag, of varieties I'd never heard of - not just apples (Norfolk Orange, Blue Pearmain, Murfitt's Seedling) but pears (Bergamotte de Strycker, Beurre de Beugny).

This being a Festival, the regular apple-focussed activities and tours of the fields were supplemented by talks and cookery demonstrations as well as other entertainments - food, fudge and craft stalls, a falconry display, a chance to try your hand at archery, the local classic car club display, and live bands while the miniature railway tootled back and forth behind the Egremont Russets.

The guided walk took us past trees loaded with fruit which we were allowed to taste (and pick samples): perfect scarlet or crimson apples like the pictures in children's books (and every other possible colour too), historical varieties from what was claimed to be a Roman variety (small, green, not very tasty and fruiting only every other year), to the Elizabethan costard (large, crimson, delicious, but fruiting only at the tip of each stem, so not commercially economic), and a range of flavours too, with some apples (supposedly) tasting of aniseed, raspberry, lemon or coffee flavours.

It's the names that capture the imagination. The limited range of supermarket offerings simply doesn't prepare you for a world in which you might find D'Arcy Spice tempting the Lady of Wemyss to a Fondante d'Automne, or Mrs. Phillimore having Great Expectations of William Crump, while Leonard Lush calls Scotch Bridget "Sweetie" (and she calls him "Fairy"). (Yes, those are all names of apples and pears).

Anyway, here's my haul from the pick-and-mix (and a few windfalls besides):

Friday 9 October 2009

Don't squeeze me till I'm yours

I didn't think of commenting on M. Giscard d'Estaing's venture into Cartlandland with his roman à wishful thinking about a tendresse between a tall and sophisticated French President and a beautiful young Princess. There comes a point when it's only polite not to draw attention to someone's onset of senility late flowering of erotic fantasy.

But seeing it referred to today, I suddenly remembered that he once affected to play the accordion, in an effort to show himself as just a regular guy (think David Cameron on the spoons, or Boris Johnson morris dancing). It occurred to me that he was perhaps re-imagining himself in one of Piaf's great hits. It seems he could have quite an effect on an impressionable blonde, with just a comb-over and a squeeze-box (even if, as she points out, a little one):

Monday 5 October 2009


Monday morning, lowering clouds and seeping drizzle: autumn setting in with not so much a vengeance, more a sigh and a sniff. Hard to imagine that less than two weeks ago we were still in a late summer, perfect weather for a stroll along the Ridgeway to Ivinghoe Beacon:

Sunday 4 October 2009

Wet and wild

One last piece on what I did in my holidays: a pleasant walk along the Thames towpath from where I used to live, there are some forbidding railings and embankments which, in my childhood, looked mysterious and off-limits. And so they were, for these were reservoirs: we would see them on TV, once the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race started to get aerial coverage, but otherwise not at all.

Since then, they have been converted into the London Wetlands Centre, a combination of educational facility and bird sanctuary.

Around two sides of the site, a succession of areas shows different sorts of wetland habitat and the birds that live in them. I'm assuming that some of the birds populating the more exotic habitats (New Zealand ducks in the "white water" section, South American swans and blue-beaked teal in another) have clipped wings - wouldn't they get lost if they tried to migrate? But there are plenty of native mallards, moorhen and other Little Brown Jobs, as well as various sorts of different geese that seem to think they own the place:

These carefully managed spaces also include, with due acknowledgement to their relative artificiality as well as the principles of recycling, sculptures made of scrap materials

These outer areas are mostly focussed on school parties, with different sorts of buildings for groups to congregate, and a collection of fairground games to explain the water cycle and the maintenance of wetland biodiversity.

But as you walk around, there are vistas of apparently isolated wildness. Most of the site is left for non-human visitors. We humans can only look at them at a distance, from various hides:

Choose your viewing angle right, and you could be miles away on the marshes of the Thames Estuary:

But if you look up, you see not only herons, swans and Highland cattle in the water-meadows - you see the expensive apartments whose development helped provide all this:

And you remember it's all within half an hour of central London.

Thursday 1 October 2009

First of the month

For some reason I have never been able to understand, there is an old folk custom (occasionally honoured in my childhood by my mother) of saying "Rabbit" to mark a new month. So......:

Note for non-British viewers: In the song, "rabbit" is Cockney rhyming slang - rabbit (and pork) = talk.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Underground in the sky

Don't be alarmed. This driver's-eye view isn't from a real rogue tube train poised to do a Thelma and Louise into Great Eastern St in Shoreditch.

It's from one of the redundant carriages now doing duty as artists' workshops and offices up a narrow spiral staircase on top of an old railway arch housing a massage parlour.

The collection of carriages is known as "Village Underground" (well, it is and it isn't, geddit?), and was welcoming visitors last weekend as part of the Open House event (I didn't really set out to see much this year, but this was on my route somewhere else, so I thought I might as well take a look).

The carriages mostly seem to house about half a dozen people each, with desks and all the usual office paraphernalia replacing most of the seats. I did ask one of the occupants if they found it got over hot in the sun, but apparently it's enough to leave a door open.

One of them, however, was being used for dress or costume-making, and was thickly festooned with cardboard pattern cutouts, swathes of fabric, and people ironing and pressing away - shades of the Shoreditch sweatshops of a century ago, perhaps.

Gingerly making my way down the stairs, who should be waiting to go up but Joan Bakewell - clearly this was the place to see. From the street, you can see why people want to find out what it's all about:

Monday 21 September 2009


For once, trying to navigate through a herd of stampeding commuters at Waterloo offered something more exciting than another day at the office: I was going against the flow, for a train to Salisbury on a roundabout route to see Stonehenge.

A brisk walk to Salisbury bus station past some inventive gardening left me just enough time to savour the latest hot local news before the bus to Amesbury, the nearest town to Stonehenge. You can get a bus direct, but that just takes you to the car-park and the utilitarian sheds of the visitor centre: I was following a walking route that leads to Stonehenge through its context.

For the best part of a mile around the site, there are barrows (burial mounds) and supposedly ceremonial routes aligned around the stones. The route circles the edge of this gigantic piece of land art, offering distant glimpses of the stones as you climb up and down one set of barrows.

Eventually it leads to the Cursus, an expanse of open land believed to have been an area for ceremonial processions, but on this morning used by a solitary runner and a small group of butterflies, one of whom obligingly rested on a fence post. The land is owned and kept open by the National Trust with clearly marked paths and handy noticeboards explaining the features of the landscape.

At the lowest point of the Cursus, the lie of the land seems to have been used to emphasise a sense of awe when you look up to the stones. The tourist trappings of the final approach now seem a temporary distraction, rather than defining the experience of the stones themselves.

It's the sheer scale, not only of the size of the stones and the effort to erect them, but also of the timescale that impresses.

From the first wooden stakes to its final form, it seems to have taken as long as the timespan from the Romans to us; and it was finished and apparently abandoned almost as long before the Romans came.

All of its construction and use must have been in times when there was no writing, and no history but what was passed on by oral tradition, through a hundred generations - the longest chain of "Chinese whispers" one can imagine. The audio guide passes on some of the more entertaining myths as well as the best suppositions of archaeological investigation: but who knows what changes in concept and understanding, as well as use, of the site there might have been? There must, then as now, have been traditionalists and reformers, visionaries and functionaries, all leaving their mark on how the site was seen and used.

It escapes certainty: passing on, one last look back sees the site almost vanish into the landscape.

The return route leaves enough time for a quick exploration of Salisbury, where almost every corner seems to be stacked with baskets of flowers, and its Cathedral, which boasts a copy of Magna Carta, and a striking modern cruciform "infinity font". Here everything is defined and explained: would Stonehenge in its prime have had volunteer guides on hand and all the facilities to make the visitor feel welcome?

Monday 14 September 2009

Artists Formerly Known as Plinth

Passing through Trafalgar Square over the weekend reminded me that Antony Gormley's One And Other project for the Fourth Plinth is still going strong.

24 hours a day, people get an hour to do more or less what they like. There have been people sitting and drawing the view, or photographing people photographing them, blowing bubbles, throwing paper planes, presenting some sort of performance art, promoting themselves and their interests in all sorts of ways. The occupant in this photo was protesting about puppy-farming (the photo ought to inspire something about turning a blind eye, but at the moment I can't quite work out what).

You can see what's going on at any time on the project's live video feed, and plenty of people have been posting clips on Youtube. Back in July, one astute swing dance tutor led a large group of his students from the plinth - great publicity for his class, and great fun to watch (sound is a bit variable on this, but clearer in this ground-level view):

Saturday 12 September 2009


Got a Quavers quandary, a pretzel poser, a Twiglets teaser, a flapjack flummox? To get rid of those Cheesy Wotsit worries, you obviously need the people whose van I saw the other day, emblazoned with the strange device "Always Delivering - retail snacking solutions".

It's not new, this habit of advertising not plain vanilla products or services, but "solutions", usually for the most mundane sorts of business. I seem to remember that Private Eye, when I still bothered with it, would occasionally offer some of the more egregious examples. No doubt there's a chemical company somewhere thinking itself mighty witty for offering "solutions solutions".

This is not quite the same as one of the banes of my former life as a middle manager - the return of the bigwigs from some conference or other, fired up with enthusiasm for the latest technological wizardry, the classic solution looking for a problem, which, of course, we would be expected to waste time identifying and "solving" (fortunately, it only mattered for a month or two until the next fad came along).

Nor is it quite the same sort of grade inflation by which, in estate agencies and other bucket shops, hair-gelled spotty herberts and over-mascara-ed peroxide blondes cease to be clerks and sales staff and become "consultants".

This is a bid for power. No more are you an everyday wholesaler among many, trailing round the corner shops like all the rest, waiting for them to tell you what they think they need. As a purveyor of "solutions" you can imply that you are like some new age therapist, the keeper of the munchies mysteries, the shaman of sugar, the high priest of Hula Hoops.

And as for us ordinary customers, the only "retail snacking solution" we need is quite simple: step away from the starch - eat an apple instead.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Nineteen to the dozen

Thanks to my PVR, I've got a backlog of the kind of old films they show on daytime TV. Recently, I caught up with His Girl Friday (which I don't recall ever having seen all the way through). It makes for an interesting comparison with today's Hollywood offerings: it's static and wordy, revealing its stage-play origins, but by today's standards almost unbelievably articulate.

A plot about an ace reporter trying in vain to settle down into dull domesticity, and enticed by her ex (as a cunning ploy to win her back) into rescuing a man from a politically-driven execution, becomes ever more voluble as the farce gets ever more convoluted. I'm guessing that too many producers nowadays judge that they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator to recoup their costs: the clearest modern comparator to this sort of production would be a TV sitcom, like Spin City.

There are a few moments of purely physical comedy - Rosalind Russell hitches up her skirts to chase a vital witness and (I assume) her stunt double rugby-tackles him to the ground. But as the complications of the farce get ever more frequent and various, there's as much enjoyment in the increasingly breakneck speed of the dialogue as in its content: and you know what? I could make out every word.

In memoriam

Sad news this morning, of the death of Keith Waterhouse, best known for Billy Liar, who also wrote various other unjustly forgotten novels (Office Life, Thinks, Mrs Pooter's Diary), and newspaper column after newspaper column. In the last couple of decades he was writing for the Daily Mail (boo), but once upon a time, he was in the Daily Mirror and wrote its style guide (when it was still a newspaper). I have an old copy of some of his columns from those days - you could read it as a blog before its time, full of incidental items of nostalgia and comic rant.

Take this, for instance:

I have been listening to the wireless again. Not the radio. Not that transistorised plastic matchbox which sings and burps and prattles all day long like a drunken mynah bird, but a real wireless set.

It's a mahogany cabinet the size of a small wardrobe, its loudspeaker is framed by a fretwork fleur-de-lis, and it has strange stations on the dial like Daventry, Hilversum, Zagreb and Paris (Eiffel Tower).


A somewhat bohemian character of my acquaintance was plucked out of his garret in deepest Soho and hurried to the suburban bedside of his father, who was gravely ill.

As he tiptoed into the sick-room the old man opened his eyes, beckoned his son closer, uttered these immortal last words:
'When are you going to get your bleeding hair cut?'

Then he sank back into the pillows and quietly expired. It was, my friend reports, a most moving farewell.

Monday 31 August 2009


Inertia has a lot to answer for, in my case, not that it (or I) can usually be bothered to. I won't tell you how many cookery books and magazine recipes I have yet to put into practice; and it's much the same with me and guidebooks to walks within a commuter's train ride out of central London. I have a nice collection, of which I suppose I have done three or four walks.

Having some days off, and no plans, I thought I really ought to make some use of my boots. Arriving at Penshurst station, the clouds were looking more than a bit funereal, but I was brought up in the spirit of "I brought you all this way to enjoy yourself, now get on with it", so off I set.

It's amazing how, within a few yards of the railway station and a village centre clogged with cars, a few yards into a field took me into such quiet that all I could hear was my own breathing. Even a model plane performing acrobatics some fields away made no sound.

This is the gentle landscape of many a picture book, with undemanding ups and downs (nothing too strenuous for me) and docile cattle and sheep ignoring any passer-by, and even a fearsome-looking cockerel deciding I was no great threat to his plump and fluffy harem.

The route passed through Chiddingstone, a single street of Tudor cottages, the entire village now owned by the National Trust (and couldn't one tell: the backyard restaurant where I had a sandwich lunch had Radio 3 for its muzak), a church with a "vinegar bible" and plaques recording that one local family lost their elder son in the Boer War and the younger in the First World War. The village also has its "Chiding Stone", a rocky outcrop possibly - or possibly not - used as a place to reprimand local wrongdoers: someone had thrust a bouquet of flowers into the fence around it, like those impromptu shrines one sees at the site of road-accidents, so perhaps it has some special local significance still.

Along the way there were plenty of signs of the seasons about to turn, although the wetness of the summer has left everything lushly green.

Eventually, the route arrives at Penshurst village, with more higgledy-piggledy Tudor houses round the church. Presumably it's miles from the station of the same name because the resident bigwigs didn't want the railway line too near their stately home: Penshurst Place.

This is a handsome old house, home to Sir Philip Sidney, one of the stars of Elizabeth I's court, but also much quoted as a moral example in the inherited Victorian books I grew up with. There's an impressive mediaeval hall and the usual complement of long gallery and ancestral portraits - many others in the family have been in court and public service over the generations, which is one reason why one of the gardens recreates the Union Flag in roses and lavender.

It is, of course, practically the law that a stately home sells cream teas, so that was some welcome extra fortification for the walk back to the station, past a reminder of more recent troubled times, and with one last, classic view - of a cricket match:

Tuesday 25 August 2009

But which way will it crumble?

In among the chocolate chip, oatmeal and raisin, raspberry and white choc and other carbohydrate feasts at the refreshment stall was this monster.

Leaving aside the fact that it's not a Michelin-starred dinner or a romantic weekend in Venice, it's a big biscuit (and a broken one at that) - what on earth would you do with it if the answer was no?

Friday 21 August 2009

The joy of ukelele

Every season of the Proms has its memorable concerts - and they're not all of the grand classical repertoire.

Topping the list of requests to BBC's i-Player replay service this week has been a late night concert by the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain. For 25 years, they have been exploring the humour in the sight of a line-up of people dressed like a rather formal 1920s concert party strumming (and singing) their way through a range of pop and rock classics, with some mix and match.
This must have been the first Prom to feature a Sex Pistols number, and a man who looks a bit like your bank manager performing Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights - with the audience shouting "Heathcliff!" at appropriate moments. One audience member stole a laugh by recalling (at some reference to rock) a folkie's famous rebuke to Bob Dylan for turning to an electric guitar 40 years ago, and shouting "Judas!".

But what caused the most stir was some more serious audience participation. Nigh on a thousand people brought their own ukeleles for a mass performance of Beethoven's Ode to Joy theme, with the UOGB providing harmonies and descants: and some audience members sang along (in German too). All very jolly, all the more remarkable that it was happening at nearly eleven on a sweltering night - and rather moving too. Joy indeed:

History - writ in sand

I've never been a fan of TV talent shows. Even if they're run in the kindest way possible (some hopes), there's a lot of ho-hum and why bother acts before you get to someone you would pay to see again.

I don't doubt the Ukraine's equivalent has its fair share of Whitney-wannabees, but they seem to let their cultural boundaries stretch that bit more. This is - well, judge for yourself:

Friday 14 August 2009

And breathe......

This week, I've been both amused and amazed by the way the healthcare reform debate in the US seems to have branched out into absurd stories about the National Health Service.

This may be because the loonies don't need a dictionary to misunderstand the NHS, unlike other European systems that that provide universal care through insurance, at lower cost and higher efficiency and effectiveness.

Or it may suit the more machiavellian among them to face a furious blacklash from this side of the water, if it enables them to dismiss any reform proposals as being like the system defended by people with snooty accents, bad teeth and attitood (though, as it turns out, there are plenty of American expatriates willing to tell the truth).

As I understand it, there's little if anything in any of the proposals before Congress that approach the idea of a single payer, let alone a single delivery system, for healthcare in the US. I doubt if it would be possible in such a large, diverse and individualistic country. We tend to forget that the NHS is very much of its time, founded as it was at the high point of belief in community spirit and collective action through the state to achieve common ends. That, after all, was what was believed to have won the war. But the neocons' target audience wouldn't be aware that all this is not new: Churchill's first speech in the 1945 general election campaign claimed that a Labour government - people he'd worked in coalition with for the previous five years - would need a Gestapo to carry through policies like creating the NHS.

As the dust settles a little, what has really struck me is how so many of the comments from this side of the water see this as more than just a series of mistakes or political exaggerations: people are taking it as an insult both personal and national - our very sense of ourselves has been injured. It's as though the neocons have been taking pot-shots at Lassie and spitting at the Queen. In the long history of reciprocal misunderstanding, this feels like something of a watershed: perhaps de Gaulle had a point.

Friday 7 August 2009

You couldn't make it up...

Ploughing seriously through the analysis of the Government's potential fiscal crisis, whither Iran? and the like in this month's Prospect, I am intrigued to learn that one of the more obscure cable TV channels that specialises in Things That Go Bump In The Night is apparently planning to bring us a programme from America about a short psychic.

It's called Small Medium At Large.

And she really exists.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Dog days

We seem at last to have come to the end of the pre-holiday desk-clearing that makes July a bit of a nightmare at work - the rest of the department sneaking up to the metaphorical wall and hurling work over, and buggering off with a cackle and snicker (or so it seems).

But this week, it has been quiet enough to engage in conversation with my colleagues, this morning on the derivation of "Hi de hi!", which one of us has clearly decided is the cheery phrase du jour that we all love to hear of a morning.

As the oldest inhabitant, I managed to trump the lot of them by remembering Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher":

Tuesday 4 August 2009

If in doubt, move stuff about..

Not having anything interesting to write about, I've succumbed to the lure of re-arranging the furniture - and adding a couple of whirly widgets to the sidebar. I'm just a child at heart.

If your inner teenager is interested, here's where you can find the tag cloud and the Flickr widget. And no, I don't know if you can get one that'll add glitter.

Friday 31 July 2009

It fell to earth, I know not where...

Cycling along Narrow Street, I saw something spinning in the air ahead of me, and several metres above the centre of the road. It's too early in the year and too large for a sycamore seed. As I got nearer, it resolved itself into a feather, but not some fluffy piece of down zigzagging its way gently to the ground.

By the size and colour, I'd say it was a wing feather from a cygnet or a goose: and it was spinning more or less about its vertical axis - something I've never seen before. No sign of a wounded bird in the area, no cartoon exploding goose, no child with a bow or a catapult - nothing to explain it that I could see.

It's the little mysteries that keep life interesting, don't you find?

Wednesday 29 July 2009

The truth is out there....

All over Paris, you might spot mosaic plaques of space invaders. An oddity that didn't much arouse my curiosity, until on my last visit I happened across an expensively pretentious (and pretentiously expensive) art book all about the "invasion".

The other day I saw evidence of an incursion in London, on a railway bridge in Southwark. Aha, I thought, I've spotted something new: I'm ahead of the trend, I'm no square, I'm alert, I'm awake, I'm aware, keeping abreast, out in front with the rest of elitesville*.

No such luck. It turns out I'm 10 years behind the times (no surprise there, then): guerrilla tiling is simply everywhere - positively vieux chapeau.

*No prizes for identifying the quote (but I might be asking questions later - or not).

Tuesday 28 July 2009

I wuz robbed!

The people who won games at our barbecue on Saturday are getting sustificates. I should have had another go at the cream crackers - I was only a couple of seconds short...

Monday 27 July 2009


I don't think domino-toppling is going to be an Olympic sport any time soon, but one of many (some seemingly rather random) events to raise awareness of the London Olympics in three years' time was a series of domino-toppling runs through the five "Olympic boroughs" of East London. Or in other words, on my doorstep, so I couldn't not go.

In Mile End Park, about 800 breeze blocks were duly lined up to topple their way along the park, across the road, up some steps to go through the Ragged School Museum and down in to a boat on the canal. As this was in the afternoon and the rain was still holding off, a fair crowd gathered. Eventually, as children shouted "It's coming! It's coming!" and a spaniel puppy screamed in even greater excitement, the movement flowed past, accompanied by a decorous stampede of spectators. Even if my camera batteries hadn't failed at the crucial moment, the crowd would have blocked the view.

Later, a run was set up in Island Gardens, to ripple round from the riverside, past the rowing club and the social club into Island Gardens. Another run was set to go down the stairs and through the Foot Tunnel to Greenwich (would it have managed to go upstairs as well?) a couple of hours later, but by then the weather was looking much less promising. I am a fair-weather topple-watcher.

Here's a clip of the run into Island Gardens:

Sunday 26 July 2009

We're lucky, where I live, that the developers of our estate, unlike more recent johnny-come-latelies, didn't feel the need to cram accommodation into every available square inch of land. As a result, we have low-ish buildings grouped around a central square open to the river, which gives us a vaguely collegiate feel, and a space that lends itself to informal socialising, like our annual communal barbecue (there are plenty of individual groups on any fine day, so there's also an elephant's graveyard of abandoned equipment available to be liberated if you look in forgotten corners of the garages).

This year the sun shone, the bunting fluttered, there was not only food, and drink, but music, fun - and games. We started with Bash the Rat and Play Your Cards Right (I was pipped at the post in How Fast Can You Eat Three Cream Crackers - who says the British have a dysfunctional relationship with food?); there was limbo dancing in the twilight, and musical chairs in the dusk - and, as far as I know, no tears before bedtime. Some clearing up to do this morning, though.....

Tuesday 21 July 2009

What kind of cheese are you?

Yes, not having done anything at all interesting over the weekend, I turn to one of those internet quiz things for inspiration. Sort of.

Apparently, I'm "a soft, crumbly white blue-streaked cheese... very cool and mellow.... very knowledgeable and wise and people come to you for advice and help."

Which is as might have been last time I looked at it: but the strange thing is, I really don't like blue cheese.

And now I've done the test again, I find I'm camembert: " a creamy, delicate tasting cheese. You are refined and graceful and very organized. As a very insightful cheese, you like to ponder the meaning of life."

Hmm. I wonder if they ever come up with anything uncomplimentary, as for example:

"You are Stinking Bishop - you smell of old socks and wet towels. An acquired taste, favoured by those who don't mind a dare."

"You are Mousetrap - old, hard, bitter and cracked. You are supposedly attractive to rodents if to no-one else, but are not surprised to find yourself remaining un-nibbled by even the most desperate mouse."

Sunday 12 July 2009

Barges, baas and bells

It was a dull grey morning, with nothing much to look forward to but some rain, when I heard hooting and sirens from the river, which usually means something at least worth a look. It turned out to be the start of the annual Barge Driving Race, in which teams manhandle (there's no other word for it) lighters from Greenwich to Westminster. Two oarsmen run up a slope to get the angle to heave the lighter forward, while another team of two wait to relieve them - this is a long race and these are both bulky and weighty craft ("lighter" only in the sense that their predecessors were used to make larger ships lighter by taking on their load for onward transport):

Feeling energised, I went to see some sheep on London Bridge. In times past, it was a valuable privilege of "Freemen of the City" to be able to drive livestock over London Bridge free of tolls: for the 800th anniversary of London Bridge this year, the Lord Mayor's charity appeal was combining a re-enacted walk of sheep across the bridge with an "Anniversary Fayre".

My heart had sunk a little at that. A "Fayre" suggests an event with the wrong sorts of pretensions, the "fête worse than death" where the home-made jam (sorry, preserves) comes with a mark-up for the lacy doily tops on the jars, and there is gimlet-eyed pricing on the bric-à-brac and vintage clothing ("This isn't a jumble sale, you know"). The weather was looking like a good excuse to ignore it.

But in the event (and I notice there seems to be some backtracking about the spelling), it turned out to be a collection of stalls and tents displaying mostly the crafts of some of the City's livery companies and various other heritage-related organisations - bricklayers and "tylers", stained-glass makers, painters, calligraphers, playing-card makers, assorted vintage vehicles and demonstrations of blacksmithing by the bus stop. Sundry people in robes of office and other sorts of fancy dress added some colour to the event.

But the sheep were the main attraction: and groups of people were taking occasionally reluctant animals for a short walk before handing them on to the next group (I'm assuming they'd all made a suitable donation to the Lord Mayor's appeal).

And all the while, the bells of the City churches were ringing - because yesterday was also the 150th anniversary of Big Ben.

Sunday 5 July 2009


I have a cabinet full of assorted screws, nails, nuts and bolts and bits and pieces that I've saved in the course of DIY over the decades. Since I moved to a modern flat, it's hardly been looked at in its dark cupboard corner.

Recently, I noticed that the endless bumps and potholes must have shaken out the bolt holding in place one of my rear panier's supports. This hasn't had an immediate effect on my ability to get the weekend shopping home on the bike, but it can't be doing any good to have all the load carried on one side. So it was time to try to find a screw of the right thread, thickness and (crucially) length to fit the slot. And sure enough, after much delving and sorting, I found it: I have no idea what it was saved from, but it was a perfect fit.

Thirty years of hoarding to save a pound. My Dad would be proud of me.

Friday 3 July 2009

Hot enough for India

On a free afternoon this week, it seemed only fitting to the weather to visit a bit of India in London, at the British Museum.

In the courtyard outside, the sun was beating down on a small collection from Kew of Indian plants - some familiar favourites like rhododendrons, some less so (at least I now know what a banyan or a peepul tree looks like). Inside, the Garden and Cosmos exhibition of court paintings from Jodhpur was in a blissfully air-conditioned room.

The display moved from lively paintings of seventeenth century court frolics, via late eighteenth century representations of the universal Ramayana story, to increasingly austere and formalised paintings from a time in the early nineteenth century when the maharaja was under the influence of a particularly abstract brand of yogic cosmology.

You could just lose yourself in the colours; but I couldn't help noticing that while in the earlier paintings the people, not to mention the birds and animals decorating the scene, are shown in many and varied activities, in the last, they are all arranged in strict and formal, even totalitarian, patterns. And at the very end, there's a room of paintings showing three holy men, in the same relationship but with two supported by different animals, on differently coloured "cosmic oceans" - so abstracted that no-one knows what they mean. No wonder the maharaja's nobles finally revolted.

Tuesday 30 June 2009

Not wailing but gnashing

My dentist obviously believes in patient involvement. Last time I went to see her, she insisted on showing me digital images of a crack in one tooth (how comforting to see it Grand-Canyon-size on the TV screen). Now she's rigged up a mirror over her inspection light, so that the patient can see exactly what she's up to in there.

No doubt there's plenty of clinical evidence that this reduces anxiety, and the good Liberal Democrat in me is all for empowerment: but I'm not that keen on seeing exactly what each pointy, shiny, whirry implement is doing as it prods, chips, scrapes or polishes away.

My teeth aren't something I can view with any degree of detachment: not while they're still attached to me.

Monday 29 June 2009

New balls

WUH! [plock]


[shoesqueak, shoesqueak]

ERRRFFF! [plick]

OOOHHH! [applause]

AAAIYEEEE! [plock]

ITE!!!! [thud]

I really can't be bothered about Wimbledon. At all.

Friday 26 June 2009

Festival frolics

You can't move for festivals and events at the moment. Round our way, as well as all sorts of events in and around Canary Wharf, the Spitalfields Festival has just finished, and we now have the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival. Last night, a group of us went to see Fous de Bassin, which is un spectacle in the French sense, as well as a spectacle in the rather more disapproving English sense. I've just come back from a second visit, this time a bit closer to the action.

In the Millwall graving dock, where one of the first new housing developments in the area gave each resident a mooring pontoon (virtually never used), there were some strange sights. As dusk fell on the main dock, the point of them became clear.

To whimsically tinkly music, a street scene such as you might see in a classic French comedy film unfolded: a car slowed down and stopped, enveloped in steam, the passenger (wearing a striped jacket that from a distance looked like pyjamas) got out and was apparently abandoned by the driver, so opened up a folding chair and sat to read a newspaper, a street cleaner with his wheely-bin came past and offered advice (and incidentally magicked up some lamp-posts as he passed), a pregnant lady sauntered past greeting everybody, and returned surprisingly quickly with an apparently occupied pram. An officious looking person (a postie?) on a bicycle pedalled very fast to go nowhere, blowing a whistle the while; and then an oversized bed appeared. Since, by the way, all this was taking place on the water (everyone floating along presumably with their own hidden electric motor), the bed was being rowed along by its occupant. As you do.

A female figure with an eighteenth-century wig and a huge red ball-gown came slowly into view, perched on top of a paddle wheel, five metres above the water, the wheel being powered by a slave caged within like a hamster. The occupant of the bed having for some reason torn it open and thrown around its feather filling, the surface of the water was now strewn with feathers which took on rainbow colours in the lights.

Then, as the darkness became complete, there was thunder. Flames began to appear, and the music became menacing. Two angel-like creatures zipped around jousting with fiery lances, and the wings of one caught fire (as did the hair of the man reading a newspaper). A Viking-esque longboat with a series of flaming flares along its length appeared, bearing an exuberantly priapic demon-king figure gesticulating among his acolytes, along with a Tinguely-like machine with a series of water-scooping wheels: they swooped around as what looked like a battle developed, and fireworks shot up from the water. As the fireworks reached a climax, the longboats and the angels weaved around each other and all the other participants, who were shouting incomprehensibly; the ball-gown woman writhed in artistically-posed agony on top of her paddle wheel. The street-scene had become a nightmare: the postie was now a sinister-looking clown, the mother now had a child and a creepily military mannequin in tow. As the fireworks reached their climax, the car now re-appeared towing a caravan.

There was music; there was fire; there were fireworks; it was on my doorstep; and it was free.

Sunday 21 June 2009

I seem to be even more lackadaisical about planning holidays than I used to be (and that's saying something). I've never been one of those people who sits down on Boxing Day to plan their upcoming summer, nor to stick to the same old place (no "good old Broadstairs!" for me - though I do seem to have been to Paris a lot recently); but this year I really haven't given the matter much thought. Perhaps it's something to do with working on short-term contracts at a job which isn't particularly stressful, but I'm not panting to get away.

I do like reading the travel supplements, if only with relief that I now know enough about more and more places to be sure I don't particularly want to go there. Après-ski (and indeed avant- and pendant-ski)? Pfui! Stretching out in the sun on a tropical beach? Not likely. Adventure camping in South America? Nada y nada. Luxuriating among the glitterati in some achingly up-to-the-minute boutique hotel? Per-leese.

But my eye eas caught by a piece in last weekend's supplement about the joys of Mechelen.

Hmmm... It's easy to get to by train - Belgium's practically next door; and it boasts a high and mighty tower, with an inspiring view. According to the (presumably much esteemed) local scribe Libert Vanderkerken: "Filled with joy, you look around and greet the fields, the woods, the moon and stars. A grandiose sight unfolds and fills your eyes and heart with overwhelming joy, and in this mood you'll find that precious peace of mind."

How can one resist?

And who couldn't be charmed that the aforesaid tower celebrates St Rumbold?
London can be quite surreal at times.

Yesterday I went to have a look at the "Tudor river pageant" (part of the commemoration of Henry VIII's accession - the bit when he was a Good Thing rather than the monster he became). Nothing too surreal there - we like a bit of re-enactment, even if the dressing-up is just a little ridiculous.

So I hung around on the Millennium Bridge (since it would be easier to run from one side to the other to take photos); eventually the procession appeared, and a burly "King Henry" bade us all a suitable stentorian "Good day" with all the flourishes.

So far, so ho-hum; but running for a bus to catch up the procession nearer Parliament, I passed a Japanese tourist hammering out (more than competently) the tango Por Una Cabeza on one of the street pianos scattered around London this weekend for our general amusement and edification.

And as the bus passed the brick and brutal balconies and walkways at the back of the City of London School, there was someone standing, surveying the street, in a Guy Fawkes mask. No-one else; no sign of any other activity: just standing there blankly as the bus swept past.

I just made it to catch the pageant passing Westminster, to the sound of boat whistles and police sirens (before my return to the normality of a Saturday date with Waitrose):

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Some things I won't take lying down..

I've often wondered about trying out a recumbent bike. This morning I saw one crossing Tower Bridge*.

The rider's head was nicely placed at the height of the bumper behind and the exhaust in front, with nothing that might indicate his presence at the eye-level of any driver (or indeed cyclist).

So if I do give it a try one Sunday morning in Dulwich Park, that'll be the end of it.

*Yes, I know this picture shows one at the Arc de Triomphe (and I bet she didn't ride the recumbent round it), but it's the only picture I could find that shows one in relation to a car (now I wonder why that could be?).

Sunday 14 June 2009


Just another Saturday.

But my usual shopping trip to Canary Wharf included a diversion among all the indistinguishable shiny objects in their annual Motor Expo: Land Rovers performing gravity-defying dressage. Quite why people would want to sit in a car doing all this, rather than watch it from outside, I don't know, but they were queueing up:

And then, a gentle bike ride across London, along the river and through the parks coincided not only with a party of Horse Guards ambling back to barracks along the Mall after the Trooping the Colour parade, but also with the first arrival of some fancy-dressed cyclists for the Naked Bike Ride:

No, I didn't join in (the world isn't ready for that, nor am I); actually, nakedness wasn't that much on display at that point. On my way home later, I did see a few crinkly-bottomed old gentleman starkers around the Wellington Arch (why does that sound like a euphemism?); but mostly, there were people with various sorts of fancy dress and decorated bikes (and one young woman promoting a cycling website with the banner "Powered by cake").

I was on my way to see a different sort of decoration, in the the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, almost hidden down a mews in Notting Hill.

It's a series of packed display cabinets taking you through products, packets, adverts and toys in their (lightly-outlined) social and political context from late Victorian times to the present day. The further away they were in time, the more outlandish they seem: Aspinall's "Neigeline", anyone? Ramsay's Spice Nuts (for eliminating all species of worms), Co-operative Liver Salt (what on earth would the unco-operative sort do?), the Bloomer Polkas. But as you move forward through time, nostalgia creeps in: the place must sometimes echo to "Ooh look, we had one of those" - there was a glove puppet of Sooty that I'm sure I had as a child. And then there are cases devoted to how individual brands have altered their appearance over time, how packaging is made and what the manufacturers (several of whom are sponsors, wouldn't you know) are doing to lessen the environmental impact.

As you might imagine, they're not short of themes for scrapbooks, postcards and souvenirs in the shop: but they also had books on how to achieve the look of different past decades, and, for the scholarly, I noticed a history of Australian apple labels (I am not making this up).

Friday 5 June 2009

Anorak time

I like to think I'm grown-up and matter-of-fact when it comes to machinery, especially the small stuff, gadgets and the like: it comes from strange bits and pieces my father used to bring home, like the thing that rolled cigarettes, a sort of miniature reverse-churn device for mixing butter and milk to make cream, and the heavy-duty spike and blade on a handle that clamped on to a table so you could peel apples and potatoes without having to hold them (provided of course they were perfectly smooth and regular in shape).

My mother, on the other hand, swore by (and not too often at) the pressure cooker that looked like a weapon of war, and her heavy old sewing machine; so perhaps it's not so odd that big machines still inspire a certain awe. Which is why it's still a bit of a thrill to be stopped on Tower Bridge while the road swings up to let a ship pass through. It's happened twice this week. The first time I didn't have my camera with me, so I can't show you how tenaciously the abandoned newspapers clung to the railings as the road swung towards the vertical, and the wind made a tissue scramble up. By Thursday, someone had swept the road; but you can see the mad dash of pedestrians who can't wait three or four minutes:

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Back at work..

(actually, I'm beginning to think of it more as a day centre)... today's canteen menu offered us "Fussily pasta": and they lived up to it.

While you make up your own jokes, I'm posting a couple of photos I took yesterday. The first was in a charity shop window (bear in mind, this is in Notting Hill, where the charity shops stock designers, and the clientele quite possibly speak of nothing but karma and the like):

and this was on a house in Portobello Road: