Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 30 November 2011

It being St Andrew's Day, today is the time to dust off one's distant Scottish ancestry. In the true spirit of parsimony (and soft Southern laziness), I offer you someone else's creations to mark the day.

From the symphonic (I hear pre-echoes of Sibelius in this, but maybe that's just me):

to the traditional (at least for Gaelic-speakers, which I am not) - the band is Capercaillie, the singer Karen Matheson, and to mark the Auld Alliance, the photos are taken by some really skillful French people (how come it never rains in other people's photos?):

Monday 28 November 2011

Autumn colour (2)

No self-respecting bird has any excuse for missing the invitation of these blazing red berries. I assume we can expect to see plenty of seedlings from this tree in the future.

Whether it's a measure of the late warmth we've been having, I don't know, but the tree's immediate neighbour, a ceanothus which flowers profusely for a couple of weeks in May, seems to have decided to compete, however feebly, with a few tufts of blue flower:

Sometimes autumn can be just too abundant:

Sunday 27 November 2011

Perhaps she didn't intend to comment on the weather, but as I came out of Canary Wharf underground station into this afternoon's cloudless sky and balmy sunshine, the perky jazz singer busking by the escalators swung into Summertime. The nip in the breeze soon belied her; though there's usually a fair breeze swirling around there, today it was strong enough to set pages of a dropped newspaper performing aerobatics way into the air, indeed it had woken me overnight.

As it happens, my explorations of old photo negatives have turned up the aftermath of another windy night. At the time, I didn't notice more than that what turned out to be the Great Hurricane of October 1987 was a bit loud. Perhaps the unusual warmth in the late evening air beforehand should have been a warning; but it wasn't till the light-switch didn't work the next morning that it registered with me. My battery-powered radio told me there were no trains or underground, but I thought I ought at least try to get into work. There were buses running, on a route that got somewhere near (after the bus had inched its way around fallen trees and fire engines). Needless to say, hardly anyone else had made it in, nor were the phones working, or the power for the limited word-processing machines of the time (a computer all to oneself? on every individual desk? are you mad?), or indeed the lights. So we kept up a token presence in case anyone came to ask us anything, and went home before it got too dark.

By Monday, of course, everything was more or less back to normal in London (and even the "why oh why" brigade had realised that there wasn't much mileage in insisting that They Should Have Done Something). But it was a strange weekend, discovering what damage had been done in the neighbourhood [of course, I realise this is trivial to people who've suffered real hurricanes, but our weather usually keeps within the bounds of a modest sufficiency, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime event]:

Friday 25 November 2011


Enjoying the morning sun over a cup of tea in my living-room, I caught an unexpected glint in the corner of my eye. From about halfway up one wall beside the window, fully four feet down to the handle of a hardly-used magazine basket, two threads of spider silk were catching the light. Not that I've noticed a spider (or a fly, come to that, recently), but one has obviously been industrious.

Unlike me, at least as regards the dusting department. Instead, I've been busy with, among other old photographs, this spider web from forty-odd years go in my parents' garden:

Thursday 24 November 2011

Scanning past horizons

Chania HarbourOne of my big retirement projects is to digitise all the old photos piled up in boxes in my cupboard of clutter and mysteries. Seizing the first box to hand the other day, I found myself ploughing through assorted negatives from the 1960s onwards.

Although there are as many individual images as I'd imagined, it's always surprising how few are really worth looking at again.

There have been some finds of moments and people I'd completely forgotten about; and scanning from the original negatives has, after some digital jiggery-pokery, brought to life images that, in print, have faded (like these of Crete in the mid-1970s), or brought out usable detail out of those that looked too dark or badly-composed. But there's been a sight too much "Who the heck is this, and what was the point of taking that?".

Each new packet reminds me of the limitations of pre-digital photography: having to make your own judgement about setting time and aperture for the light and film-speed - and then having to wait for days, or even weeks, to know whether you'd got it right, which (combined with the cost) meant taking fewer photos in a week on holiday than in a few hours today. It also meant filling in with often pointless test exposures at the start of the film as you wound it securely on, or to fill in the odd handful left on the end of the roll (unless you'd tried sneaking in "just one more" and found only half of your best shot because it was right at the end already).

Most unexpected is the incidental recognition of changes in the otherwise unremarkable sights that don't exist any more. Here are pictures from the 1960s, of the Thames riverside where I used to live, about as far west of central London as I now live to the east.

Driftwood washing up on each tide was a normal sight. These must have exceptional accumulations, with the piles built up outside the rowing clubs to be burnt off rather than risk them floating off on the next tide and damaging the boats (and my father wasn't too proud to collect driftwood on a home-made trolley for firewood at home from time to time).

Nowadays, it's not only clean air laws that prevent all that from happening. The inlet in this picture is now cut off from the river's tides by subsequent flood prevention works, and incorporated into a local park. But it wasn't till I saw these images that I realised we never see driftwood like this any more, no doubt for the same reason that I'm able to live where I live now. With the docks moved down to nearer the coast and everything arriving in containers, and with the riverside warehouses and factories replaced by housing, broken-up crates and pallets and stray baulks of timber are no longer ending up in the river and washed right through London to the western suburbs.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Autumn colour

The unusually warm weather has been producing some odd sights, and I don't just mean the people still risking T-shirts (not exactly a sign of hardiness in yesterday's sunshine). Cycling home from the supermarket, I was distracted by a butterfly dancing out of some hebe bushes in full purple flower; and my window-boxes refuse to take any seasonal hints. I still have lobelias, and the odd fuchsia and geranium, clinging on.

Whether it's something in the climate, the geology or the biochemistry of our native trees, we don't usually have very dramatic autumn colour, but the sunshine yesterday made even the fairly restricted colours on our local plane trees look more than little interesting (you can also see the following photo as a jigsaw puzzle, in whatever level of annoying complexity you choose: enjoy!):

Saturday 19 November 2011


There's a small flurry of excitement about the launch of the new series of the Danish crime series The Killing ("this time, she's got a new jumper!").

Apart from the whole question of why we enjoy watching so much misery played out, I'm struck by the commissioners' anxiety about the acceptability of subtitles. I'm wondering how many people have to use them even for English-language films and programmes, now that a naturalistic sound ambience and styles of acting and [in]articulation can make it difficult to make out what someone's saying. I had to use them all the time for The Wire, and even occasionally for homegrown drama. (And no, it's not my ears: try listening to any replays of old programmes made in dead studio sound, or to His Girl Friday, of 1939, and see how they still manage to get the dialogue across, the faster and more manic it gets towards the end).

If there's a problem with subtitles, it's when you do have some knowledge of the original language, but not quite enough to keep up, especially if it's full of slang delivered at speed - as for example in Spiral (Engrenages in the original French), which also filled the same "cult" slot on BBC4.

I'm forever trying to translate back from what I'm reading to what I've heard, which tends to distract from following the plot, even if it does add to my knowledge of French police procedure and criminal jargon (let's hope there's no need for that to come in handy next time I go). Even in other languages, there's a temptation to pick out odd bits and pieces: the way Sarah Lund referred to her CV left me wondering whether what we think of in English as "estuary" vowels might actually be a relic of the Angles and Vikings all those centuries ago.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Reporting back

The gooseberry chutney I made in August is edible, indeed more than acceptable with a nice bit of cheese or cold chicken. There's definitely a tang of an acidity that isn't the vinegar, though my worn-out tastebuds couldn't confidently identify it as gooseberry flavour. It still looks an unfortunate colour and texture, and a punnet of gooseberries doesn't actually boil down to much finished product, so I'm not sure it was worth the effort. Or not as much as the jam. Perhaps it needed some apples to bulk it out.

Likewise, though the Blessed Delia's recipe for creme caramel comes up a treat, I had to wonder, when contemplating the washing up, if is it so much better than shop-bought.

Sunday 13 November 2011

An hour and a half

That's how long I was perched on a narrow, downward-sloping ledge with one arm hooked round the railings at the back of St Paul's Cathedral churchyard, to get the best view of the Lord Mayor's Show yesterday. That's how long it took for the procession to pass.

It was the usual mix of community carnival, commercial advertising opportunity, and civic pomp and heritage, to mark the inauguration of next year's Lord Mayor. The presence, round the other side of St Paul's, of the occupation protest didn't in the event have any effect, despite their raising some pertinent points about the City's status as part local authority, part private corporation controlled by business interests. A free show's a free show, and, as it has for centuries past, this Show provided a distraction from any awkward questions of that kind.

Every organisation the new Lord Mayor is connected to, along with the livery companies of the City, any military or community organisation that can claim a connection with the City, and commercial organisations that can pay to be represented, all put their floats and marching bands into the charivari. So slipped in alongside the various units of the Army, Navy and Air Force, every kind of youth and community organisation you can think of, there were striking displays from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Pimlico Plumbers ............. and Stoke-on-Trent.

Eventually we got to the civic dignitaries, with their attendant liveried watermen, and finally the cavalry, lent by the Queen, and the Lord Mayor's State Coach with a cheery wave from the man himself. They say you know you're getting old when the policemen look as though they're barely out of school; but when the Lord Mayor of London looks as though his mum should have packed him off for a proper haircut.........

The procession ends with the Trained Bands, a reminder of the days when London stood against the monarch in the Civil War, and clung (as it did from the days of Magna Carta onwards and symbolically at least still does) to its independence. The protesters will have their work cut out.

Endurance is the name of the game for the Show: having made the procession down to the Royal Courts of Justice for the formal ceremonies, and after a break for lunch, they have to process all the way back again (by another route, for maximum exposure). Coming out of the Museum of London a couple of hours later, I found bands and floats dispersing in all directions, with time to stop and chat, pose for photographs, tend to the horses and rest the weary feet. One young band was so relieved to be finished, their leader marched them smartly out of Guildhall yard, straight at a mounted policewoman who was - to judge by her language - rather more shocked than her horse.

Friday 11 November 2011

It's all been said..


There's a reason for two minutes' silence.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Never a dull moment

With the Olympics on the way, Canary Wharf seems to developing a sporty theme this week: two book signings by sports personalities, and today (no doubt an awareness-raising event for the Paralympics - though the lunchtime throng looked to be more interested in setting new speed records for getting to their sandwiches and sushi), a demonstration of sitting volleyball:

Tuesday 8 November 2011

More visitors

Not a day that would make you think of rainbows, but when my eye was caught by an unusual pair of masts at Canary Wharf, they turned out to belong to the Rainbow Warrior:

Saturday 5 November 2011

It's that time of year again

Some might harrumph at council tax going up in smoke, but if it saves the cost of accidents at fireworks parties in homes, it'll be worth it. And it was a good show - and within walking distance.