Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Sign of the times

A toddler, trying to grasp the idea that tapping and swiping the TV screen doesn't actually make it do anything.


Monday 24 December 2012

Time was, a trip "to see the lights" was a semi-compulsory part of the season, but fell by the wayside in the face so many other distractions. It was by chance that a walk through Seven Dials and Covent Garden suggested it might still be worth it, if you choose the right time of the late afternoon.

Forget the disenchantment of the most-hyped displays, in Oxford St and Regent St, which have mostly seemed not quite enough or too commercial (who thought it would be Christmassy to have the lights in Oxford St advertising Marmite?). Here, the lights are just that, with Seven Dials and the surrounding streets in a more modernistic orange and yellow, and
Covent Garden in more traditional red baubles with silver (and, appropriately for the weather, those lights that look like dripping rain), complete with a red-nosed reindeer and Lego advent calendar.

Trafalgar Square is the most traditional of all, with just the Norwegian tree and its austere plain lights. I arrived in the middle of a carol concert underneath it. Part way though a small commotion and applause among the crowd on the steps revealed a marriage proposal, greeted by a call for three cheers from the choir leader.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Magical mystery tour

Whether it's the planetary alignments, Mayan calendars, climate change, squirrels nesting in the works, or just plain human error, there have been a number of occasional slips with the audio announcements on the buses locally. Repeating the name of the last stop, or anticipating one or two ahead, is nothing new; but just recently I've heard some rogue announcements of places way off the route.

Today was such a lowering grey, seeping sort of day, that something obviously decided the thing to cheer us all up, on the pootle up the road to Canary Wharf, would be some outdoor swimming on the other side of London - for it suddenly announced the next stop would be Tooting Bec Lido.

Since we're all still here..

..why not get on with the seasonal celebrations in style, with this offering from the home of innovation, artistry and design of lasting value (well, that's what they say, and who am I to disagree?) - the Elvis Christmas Tree.

Thursday 20 December 2012

In case you were wondering...

(Mind you, he did hedge his bets by waiting for the lights to change before crossing Charing Cross Road):

Sunday 16 December 2012

Inescapable (2)

On a recent sunny day, what else but the You-Know-What would serve as a test for the 20x optical zoom on the new replacement for the camera that went on its own holiday in Austria last summer? (The insurance company kindly didn't quibble over the claim - they just knocked off so much for depreciation and the excess that in effect they refunded my premium for the year; still, anything's better than nothing).

In the end, I went for the newly-introduced upgraded model of the same type (Canon SX240HS, for the technical). This is the view from the riverside here - at least 4km or about 2.5 miles:

Friday 14 December 2012

What difference a few months make. On a return visit to Stratford in miserable weather, it's clear from John Lewis's third floor (no queueing to peek into Olympic Park this time) that, even while they still have lots of London 2012 tat souvenirs to sell, on the Park itself the only movement to be seen comes from distant orange lights on the diggers and lorries clearing up.

The temporary tentage for ticket and security checks has gone, revealing just how much space is available to be turned into parkland:

and the wings on the Aquatic Centre are well on the way to being removed:

No doubt the completed park will be the spectacular bonus we've been promised, but (as with the Olympic preparations two years out) it's hard to imagine in a bleak and rainswept December.

Friday 7 December 2012


Cycling round Limehouse Marina en route to the Regent's Canal, it struck me just how much the Shard building stabs its way into the view from just about anywhere within a substantial radius (it must be two miles or so from Limehouse, and I could even see it from Broadway Market up in Hackney).

But I have no intention of paying £25 to go up to see the only views in which it wouldn't appear (not when they put them on their website).

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Is it just a coincidence that the two monarchs who were instrumental in the biggest upheavals of this country's lurches towards modernity weren't actually born to rule? I've no idea, but it is a fact that both Henry VIII and Charles I came into the world as Spares rather than Heirs Apparent, and only moved into pole position at the age of eleven, or thereabouts, the elder brothers both having died around the age of eighteen.

It's one of those pointless "what if" questions as to whether subsequent history would have proceeded any differently if that hadn't happened, not least because the elder brothers never had much chance to show what sort of king they might have been.
The National Portrait Gallery's current exhibition on Henry Frederick, Charles I's brother, tries to give an idea of what he was like, though how much is contemporary hagiography is hard to tell. He was (of course) a paragon of all the princely virtues of the time - one wonders if some of the praise heaped upon him was intended or seen as some sort of implied criticism of his father. He apparently had his own ideas about foreign policy (as least as regards potential marriages), and about Sir Walter Raleigh (not one of the king's favourite people). He assembled the basis of Charles I's famous art collections, and after his death poets and composers seem to have been more than perfunctorily productive in the lamentation department.

One thing is clear, though. If his death aroused seemingly mediaeval suspicions of poisoning, an emerging modern science made clear through an autopsy report (also part of the exhibition) that he was genuinely sick - with what seems to today's scientists to be typhoid fever. Unfortunately, science hadn't yet got as far as to do anything about the malevolence of Jacobean drains, for which no amount of princely virtues could be much of a match.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Is it my imagination or have I just been able to avoid the over-early signs of Christmas this year? Until this weekend that is: a Scandinavian Christmas market in Rotherhithe. Not so out-of-place as it might sound, because from the days of the docks, there are Norwegian and Finnish seamen's missions established close together and almost within sight of the river; so their Christmas markets combined with a series of commercial stalls along the street between them, to make an all-Scandinavian event.

Plenty of the traditional Christmas, of course, but instead of Santa's sleigh a pair of huskies (not that many seemed to be paying for a ride in the sled - there was hardly the road-space for it, for one thing). There was also plenty of what you might expect from Scandinavia at any time of year: bright designs and bakery (saffron buns or chocolate honey cakes, anyone?), smoked fish, strong drink, knitwear, Moomins, and sweets with names that mean something else in English.

But that was Danish; Finnish being such a singular language, the chances of unfortunate similarities to English are rare. Looking along the shelves of the temporary supermarket in the Finnish church, even the most ordinary sorts of foods appear mysteriously exotic. What about some makkara and hernekeitto with a Lapin Kulta for lunch? Don't worry, that's sausage and pea soup with a bottle of beer.

Oh, and even in Finland, would you expect to see a sauna in a church? Well, it's one way to celebrate a hyvää juolua.

Sunday 4 November 2012

That time of year

Never mind the horrors of what Guy Fawkes had in mind, and of what eventually happened to him, but one bang and some sparklers, and somehow we're all children again:

Saturday 27 October 2012

Something fishy

7.30 am on the coldest morning of the autumn (so far) isn't normally the ideal time to be up and about sightseeing, but if you want to see Billingsgate fish market, that's getting a bit late. And it is only a short bus ride away from me, so there's no excuse for not having visited before.

It's a prosaic shed (quite unlike its former building (now an upmarket conference centre) in the City), and it's tucked into a nondescript plot of land handy for the main road (but no doubt now eyed covetously by no end of property developers).

Once you're inside, the display of fish is as far from the average supermarket display as you could imagine, with whole huge fish and wholesale-size packages of processed products on every side. There are, of course, familiar products of our own waters, like dressed crab for £2.50, and those vacuum-packed kipper fillets with a lump of butter in; uneasy memories were stirred by the sight of a sign for coley (my mother would occasionally boil "six-pennorth of coley for the cat", which would drive the rest of us out of the house) - I had no idea they were such a big fish. But what caught my eye were the exotics, like parrot-fish, needle-fish with alarming green teeth, baby sharks, and the like. That, and the pile of salmon heads (4 for £1) that presumably someone might want for stock.

Eventually, the traders' banter was sounding a little forced, some of the stands were closing, and the pressure-washing of stands, trolleys and floor was moving rather pointedly towards people who were gawping and photographing rather than buying. So it was time for a scallop and bacon roll in one of the onsite cafés (sorry - caffs), and on with the rest of the day's business.

Sunday 21 October 2012

You get a politer class of graffiti at Marylebone Station. True, it sternly demands "Bring down the government!" - but it is signed off with a heart.

Friday 12 October 2012

It was entirely a matter of chance that I walked up Charing Cross Road today and noticed the coincidence of the date on the memorial to Edith Cavell that, like millions, I've passed countless times before. Today is the anniversary of her execution by the occupying forces in Brussels; evidently, wreaths had been laid this morning, one with the Belgian colours on.

What is remarkable about her story is not just that the shock of it brought home that the war, then still relatively new, was going to be more brutal, for women as for men, than many had so blithely supposed it might: it was her final words to those around her that made such a deep impression. She might perhaps have meant them more as a clear-sighted acknowledgement that she had always understood the risk she was running, than as the pacifist and humanitarian message they came to signify. But that was what continued to resonate long afterwards:

Tuesday 9 October 2012

"Press button B"

Time was, that was a simple mechanical operation, to get your money back from a public phone if the call didn't go through. The world of modern kitchen appliances is rather more complicated.

If it was whizzy enough - by comparison with what I was brought up with - to have a couple of  knobs to twiddle round a scale of printed options that told you what was on offer, now we have slimline, streamlined multi-functional indicators with discreet hieroglyphics (cheaper to print different manuals for different languages, which is no doubt why I've got an additional booklet of instructions for the oven in Czech and Slovak).

Take the dishwasher (not literally, of course). It has some sort of sensing arrangement to tell you when it needs more salt, which means telling it how hard the water is. There's a table offering four (count 'em) different ways of measuring hardness against the possible machine settings. Most Londoners would imagine we have really hard water, but of course it's passed through a lot of (ahem) human filters since leaving the chalk hills, and according to all four of the measures on Thames Water's website, it turns out to be barely half way up the available scale (one wonders where on earth is at the top).

But trying to get that recorded on the machine..... well. It turns out that the indicators for different sorts of wash also serve, in the right sort of combinations, to tell you how to set not only the hardness scale but also to choose whether it beeps to tell you it's finished (haven't yet found a way of getting it to put the washed dishes away). This involves pressing one button till one light's on, then it blinks, then the one next to it blinks and goes on, and yet another blinks and goes off. Or not. Why is that one over there blinking and this one not? How do I get the blinking thing to stop blinking well blinking so I can start again?

I think I got there in the end, but I might as well have been randomly pressing buttons on the Tardis ("I'm not very bright and I haven't got my glasses on"):

Sunday 7 October 2012

And it's done..

(Apologies for the blurrier photos - but you get the drift):

Thursday 4 October 2012

Bit of a swiz

National Poetry Day today, apparently, and poems were promised for the Piccadilly Circus lights.

Sonnets instead of Samsung, you might think, but not really.

Instead, one relatively small strip at the bottom of all the adverts featured, for a few minutes every hour, some short films inspired by Charles Causley's

I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.

Which was all very well, insofar as they could be made out against the competition from all the other advertising panels (not to mention, depending on where you were standing, having your view obscured by a passing double-decker). A brave attempt, perhaps, but simply swamped:

Wednesday 3 October 2012


The Wellcome Collection's offering for the summer of the Olympics has been the "Superhuman" exhibition, on the science and engineering of "human enhancement", its medical applications and artistic responses to it.

It starts with Icarus, and moves swiftly through glasses, false teeth, and false noses for syphilitics. It soon expands through the kind of prosthetic developments we're familiar with nowadays, to ever more mind-boggling possibilities (although there's an artwork connecting different sorts of life support machines to act together like a body to point out how difficult much of this work is).

What may be technically possible, in all forms of biotechnology, raises difficult questions. Among them (perhaps the organisers could not have foreseen how much the response to the Paralympics would bring it into general discussion) is: what is "normal"?

Who defines (and how) the "normality" that prosthetics are supposed to restore in those perceived to be impaired? What defines the exceptional human (rather than technology-assisted) performance we celebrate in competitions (and will we come to value "performance" in general rather than trying to focus on the specifically human quality of it? Who pays for, and what do we do about unequal access to, all these new technologies? Where are the boundaries beyond which enhancements make us "abnormal"?

And if you think there should be a limit, one of the exhibition's video contributors points out that, eventually, if life as we value it is to survive in the universe, our successors will have to enhance themselves enough to find or build another planet to live on, before the sun's collapse envelops the entire solar system. Don't worry, we've a few million years left: climate change and new diseases are far more likely to get us, in a much nearer future.

On which cheery thought, time for another cup of tea, I think.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Kitchens on the brain...

Somehow, other people's kitchens seem to draw the attention just at the moment. Like this view from the street of the restaurant kitchen at the Globe on Bankside:

Monday 1 October 2012

It begins....

After a summer's worth of hesitation and cogitation about replacing the kitchen after both the washing machine and the dishwasher chose to give notice, not to mention faffing about with possible tiles, and further delays so that the fitters could avoid the Olympic traffic snarl-ups they told us to expect....... the time has finally come to bivouac up one end of the living room with the essential supplies behind a barricade of all the bits and pieces for the new kitchen, while my bed is safely defended by boxes full of pots, pans, crockery, utensils and all those things that filled up the cupboards when I thought they might come in useful some day (possibly).

So from this at its spick-est and span-est

it had come to look like this when the fitters arrived at 8.30am:

and this when I got home at 5.30pm:

It looks cleaner and tidier than it has done for years.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Autumn comes to Trafalgar Square

It rained a bit on Sunday afternoon:

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Some people plan ahead. Some people get a brochure, ponder, weigh up, mark up and book up the things they want to do and see, often months ahead.

Not that my life is a permanent drift, obviously, but it's surprising how often "Sounds interesting, that might be an idea" stays just that until it's just too late to do anything about it.So the Open House weekend this year might have passed me by (again), but for chancing upon a couple of references to particular places, at just the right psychological moment to persuade me to the earth-shattering conclusion that a weekly shop is as well done on a Friday as on a Saturday, which can then be freed for something out of the ordinary.

Like, for instance, marvelling at the monster engineering project of Crossrail, currently excavating at various places in central London and burrowing between them deep below the surface. The visit to the site of their Bond Street station-to-be started with a video presentation all about the plans and mind-boggling statistics, which are all explained on their website. But what we'd really come to see was some big diggers and holes in the ground. Health and safety being what they are, the reality that we were allowed to see was, frankly, rather limited. At each end of the station (itself a gigantic box some 35 metres down), they've built cathedral-sized shafts for the excavations, and also "grout shafts" to monitor ground movements and enable underpinning to be injected under neighbouring buildings if necessary. But all we got was an oblique view of the holes, and of some of the massive quantities of clay coming up to be taken away to form a new nature reserve out in the Thames estuary mudflats.

Just round the corner from there, by a complete contrast, is the Wigmore Hall, which specialises in chamber music. They were throwing open the day's rehearsals to all comers. I'm been to more than one of their Sunday coffee concerts, so their grand marble and Art Nouveau friezes weren't new to me, but there was novelty in seeing how the player's earnest concentration could break into good-humoured informality as notes were made and comments in exchanged in the fine tuning of the night's performance.

By yet another chance, eavesdropping in the Crossrail queue revealed that the Supreme Court building was also taking part in the weekend, but by the time I got there, the queue was round the corner, so that had to be put off until first thing on Sunday.
The former Law Lords are now set up in independent state in what used to be the Middlesex County Council building, a classic Edwardian statement of pseudo-mediaeval civic pride. But within, the Court presents itself as transparent and open. In addition to a standing exhibition on the history of the building and the institution, it's been hosting a seasonal display on Sport and the Law, which explains how law has increasingly come to be involved in sport and its controversies (though not, apparently, the complaint about the 1948 London Olympics that the commemorative stamps were too big to lick), complete with an activity room for visiting children.

On this occasion, we were allowed to see the Library, but it's also possible for the public to visit the building's exhibitions and attend hearings the rest of the year as well. Some of the old civic chambers are used as courtrooms; when they're acting as a final court of appeal for those Commonwealth countries that still use the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, they sit surrounded by grand panelling and ceiling beams. But when meeting as the Supreme Court for the UK, they use an austere modern room, not under a Royal Coat of Arms, but under a purpose-designed emblem symbolising each of the countries of the UK, enclosed in a stylised scales of justice and an omega;