Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 29 February 2012


It's a staple filler in the newspapers - how computers and the internet are making us less social, worse at extended thought or legible handwriting, more extreme in expressing our opinions, and so on, but here's one I hadn't anticipated.

The people I exchanged homes with in Berlin have a piano. I haven't touched one in decades, and rather doubted if I could even read music any more (not that I've room for a piano in my flat anyway); but one evening, just as an experiment, I plucked up the courage to open up the folder of simple pieces they had lying on top, and approached the keyboard with some care.

As it turned out, there was no problem in remembering the notation or translating it to the right keys: but years of light-touch computer keyboards had simply taken away any sense of the degree of impact needed to get the piano keys to produce the right sort of sound at the right microsecond. No doubt practice would be the answer (it usually is); but it was something completely unexpected.

Now, should I take up the spoons instead?

Sunday 26 February 2012

Berlin (4)

Mentioning the security checks on visiting the Reichstag reminded me I have rather a lot of old photographs of Berlin.

Below, for example, are two images taken from the rear exit to the Reichstag building, on the left from a cold November 1988, with the Wall snaking its way between the Reichstag and the East German government buildings, and on the right the same view in the summer of 1992, with no Wall and only a snaking line of tourist buses in front of the Brandenburg Gate:

And here we are in February 2012, the government and parliamentary buildings integrated, spruced up, and complemented by shiny new meeting rooms and libraries - and directly across the double line of flagstones marking where the Wall once ran, a sign forbidding access to all but officials with the right sort of ID (to be fair, nowadays you'd only be running the risk of a bureaucratic talking-to rather than a bullet):

Saturday 25 February 2012

Berlin (3)

Some random observations:

Strange to think, as I turn off the heating and take off my sweater (so aptly named), that this time last week I was shivering in my thermals and looking at the ice on the Spree and the canals around Berlin:

And isn't advertising in other countries - particularly when it tries to be humorous - sometimes rather strange? I'm used to hairdressers' windows having pictures of the hairstyles they might want you to aspire to, and I've heard of putting on the dog, but would this entice you to trust them to find your look for you?

Friday 24 February 2012

Berlin (2)

These rather jaunty pedestrian traffic lights are among the few aspects of daily life in the former East Germany to be accepted after reunification (and it took a bit of a battle). Well, that and the cardboard-and-two-stroke Trabant car, which are now to be seen travelling in convoy as a tourist ride.

Which is by way of observing that, yes, even if there are no cars apparently in the vicinity, Berliners stop and wait for the green man before crossing the road. But this isn't necessarily a sign of undue obedience to authority. Many roads in Berlin are broad, straight avenues, and German drivers are keen on the accelerator. If you don't watch the lights in Berlin, you'll find it's even more true than in Britain that, as a learned judge once said, there are two sorts of pedestrians - the quick and the dead.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Berlin (1)

At what point does visiting Berlin stop including a somewhat morbid association with the horrors of the past?

Difficult, probably impossible, but I started last weekend's visit with its symbol of the present and future, the iconic dome on the Reichstag building (I had to, since you can only visit by pre-booking: for once it paid to check a guidebook in advance, otherwise I would have missed the chance).

All is light and air, with the mirrored cone reflecting light into the Parliamentary chamber below, and extracting the hot stale air of debate (ho ho) to help warm the building up. It also serves to catch and re-use any rain or snow that falls in through the open oculus at the top.

The claimed symbolism of transparency, allowing citizens literally to look down on their representatives at work, is belied by the fact that it's not really possible to see much through the thick glass ceiling of the chamber, not to mention the sadly necessary airport-style security around the building (of which more later).

However, the spiral ramp around it allows you to climb right up to the top and survey the views of the city round about. Most of the skyline isn't particularly dramatic, but you get a good view of how the new government buildings are deliberately formed in a swathe (sometimes directly linked by internal bridges) across the former line of the Wall, snaking along the meandering course of the River Spree. Below is the Federal Chancellor's office, where in the past I've stood looking across the narrow channel at blank sheds and menacing East German patrol boats:
The reunification theme understandably appears all over the place: these gigantic "Molecule Men" mark the point where the districts of Treptow (where I was staying) and Friedrichshain (in the East) meet Kreuzberg (in the West).
Something that was still only on the drawing-board when I last visited Berlin was the new Hauptbahnhof. Like Paris and London, Berlin had different rail termini for the lines from different parts of the country, but reunification gave them the opportunity to link up as much as possible in one station, pretty well exactly on the line of the Wall. One gigantic steel and glass box with five different levels allows easy interchange between mainline, regional and suburban trains, the underground and local buses.One more new development, reflecting the unavoidable past: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, sited on what was once Hitler's Chancellery. A striking field of blank grey concrete blocks, in regular lines, but at irregular angles, blank, impersonal, unyielding, and all the more striking against the trees and blue sky:

Thursday 9 February 2012

A mystery of the Underground

No, not why it's only ever Inspector Sands who gets called to the control room (one look at what's in an old-fashioned firebucket explained that for me) - but today's explanation from the driver for a halt and then slow running:

"The train in front has lost its pilot light".

Obviously some hush-hush experimental train powered by gas.

What will Our Beloved Mayor® think of next?

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Monday 6 February 2012

Sunday morning didn't exactly dawn, what with heavy cloud still casting a misty gloom around, but that hadn't stopped a lot of people coming out to build their snowman and generally lark about. By the time I'd joined a family snowman-building exercise in the park, there were plenty of examples, like this, already dotted around the riverside and the local parks.

This year's snow was of an unusually suitable stickiness for building snowmen, even for rolling up almost like a carpet into substantial boulders.

Over in Greenwich, plenty of people were sliding down the hill - and the Cutty Sark's masts and rigging are now rising through the mist again:

Sunday 5 February 2012

So we had our promised snow overnight, though not so much as this time three years ago.

Not so pretty was the racket from the people who decided to have a snowball fight under my bedroom window.

At 1am.

Ah well, youth will have its fling, and age its grouches.

Saturday 4 February 2012

A weekend in Amsterdam (5)

Some last incidental details that caught my eye:

It pays to look up: as Amsterdammers of the Golden Age found it more tax-efficient to build up rather than sideways, the tops of their houses repay study, not just for the hooks on the gables to hoist up goods and furniture (I once spent a quarter-hour or so engrossed in watching a committee get a fridge up to an attic), but also for some "statement" gable decorations. Is that, I wonder, why even a low-rise modern suburban house may have a decorative figure attached almost to the eaves rather than nearer eye-level?

But it also pays to look nearer ground level, at the front doors. Even security can be decorative, in a restrained sort of way - so a grille includes the figure of an inquisitive doorkeeper, and a spy-hole has its own little lace curtain. And, much more impressive than any nameplate or little bit of paper next to the bell is the custom of having the residents' names beautifully signwritten on the front door - a sign of commitment to stay. I seem to remember seeing more of these in the past - perhaps it's a dying skill or it's too expensive now, or perhaps people move around more.

And here are some other impressions in movement and sound:

Friday 3 February 2012

A weekend in Amsterdam (4)

I wouldn't want you to think I totally neglected kulcher on this trip. There were a couple of museums I've not visited in the thirty years or so that I've been going to Amsterdam.

One was the Tropenmuseum, originally devoted to the wonders of the Netherlands' overseas empire in Indonesia and the West Indies, but now expanded to include the cultures and environment of the tropics generally, in Africa, Latin America and South Asia, focussing on changes resulting from development and interaction with new ways of living. Alongside that are regular art installations and events on similar themes. Even though the content is more contained than its equivalent in Paris, the Quai Branly, it could be just as exhausting - it would repay an early start and a leisurely tour.

Another is the Museum Van Loon, an imposing canalside residence restored to something like the style of its wealthy 18th century owners, but full of mementoes of successive families living there. It's a slightly odd mix of a very Dutch worthy restraint and the opulent, as the pictures below would suggest. The grand staircase is in largely unadorned marble; but the very last picture shows not the main residence but - the coach house and stables.

Thursday 2 February 2012

A weekend in Amsterdam (3)

Though the weather was cold, it was occasionally sunny enough to encourage walking, something Amsterdam's waterways are ideally suited to.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

A weekend in Amsterdam (2)

A trip to Amsterdam isn't complete without a visit to the Tuschinski Cinema.

Its domes dominate an otherwise unremarkable small street, and inside the decor is... well, unique. I suppose one could summarise the style as Ballets Russes meets Scandinavian Gothic. Or possibly not.

It is possible to take a guided tour of the architecture and the restored decor, but it is an experience in itself just going to a film in the ordinary way, especially in the main auditorium, or even just to have a coffee in the foyer, watching the ceiling lights cast changing colours over the already over-the-top painted patterns on the ceiling.

Nor is the uniqueness of the experience confined to the decor. For one thing, I have known the main evening performance to include an interval halfway through the film at what seemed to be a somewhat randomly chosen moment. For another, there's the stereophonic experience of watching an English-language film in a city where so many people are virtually bilingual - half of them getting the joke as it's delivered on screen, the other half catching up as they read the subtitles.

Neither of these quite applied on this occasion. The film was an early showing in one of the smaller modern rooms, and it was (largely) silent. It seemed only appropriate to the spirit of the building to see that hommage to the Hollywood of the 1920s, The Artist.