Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

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.