Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

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: