Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Things you see from the top of a bus (Part Umpty-Two)

Strolling along past the shopping mall entrance at Canary Wharf, a man with a fearsome-looking hawk on his arm.

A live one.

On reflection, I suppose the management may think this the answer to some sort of problem with birds roosting where they don't want them, or something of the sort. But no-one who passed them seemed to take a blind bit of notice.

Saturday 19 October 2013

Another Shoreditch art attack

Well, art-ish.

This building abuts the old railway bridge supports that house the tube trains that are now offices, and are regularly decorated by different artists.

Someone placed the insect on top years ago as some sort of comment on the banking crisis, but now that the building underneath appears to be out of business and all locked up, the painters have extended their empire.

Friday 18 October 2013

Fun day at the museum

Perhaps not the best day  to visit the Museum of London's new exhibition of the restored Cheapside Hoard of jewellery: a teachers' strike, a couple of days after a TV documentary all about the exhibition, and apparently in the middle of half-term holidays for Dutch schools. The Museum was packed with people, and the school parties seemed busy and active, and a bit noisy: but that, after all, is the London the museum celebrates.

Inside the special exhibition gallery, despite timed entrance tickets, it could still feel crowded. Since the special beauty of so many of the pieces on display is in how small they are -  this scent bottle is barely an inch high, for example - you had to lean over the case with the borrowed magnifying glass,  blocking the view for anyone else behind. And it only took a couple of vocal and scampering toddlers to cause a fair amount of tutting.

But with a little patience, detachment and observation, it was possible to see the seemingly miraculous fine details, explore where the jewels come from, and how the pieces were made - together with the beliefs around different jewels and the illnesses they supposedly warded off, the iconography of the way they were worn, even have a sniff of the sort of scent the bottle might have contained. It was particularly powerful and pungent, but it probably would have had to be to cope with the stink of London - and Londoners - of those days.

And then, of course, there's the mystery of how this collection came to be lost or abandoned: since that must have happened any time after 1640 up to about 1680, you can take your pick of explanations - someone who went to fight in the Civil War and never came back, someone who went into exile when their side was out of favour (and never came back), a family that died in the Great Plague and left no heirs or records? We shall never know.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Some more photos of Hamburg

It isn't all about work and money: the merchants and citizens liked spending their money on the mind and soul as well.

The harbour panorama is dominated by the stern-looking tower of the Michaeliskirche, but inside, the church is far less austere and more baroquely curvaceous than you might imagine a Lutheran church to be - with a grand organ case in each of the three galleries. But a gallery window, high in the ceiling, looks distinctly like part of an eighteenth century ship: and the whole church is as broad in the beam and curvaceous as the freighters that brought the wealth to build it.

And as all good nineteenth century citizens did, they endowed art galleries, with the Kunsthalle's large collection containing some of the best-known Caspar David Friedrichs, which was a bonus for me. Not far away, the Kunst und Gewerbe Museum is a smaller version of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It has a large collection of musical instruments, including the weird and the wonderful; and on this occasion a special exhibition devoted to what constitutes bad taste - with an opportunity for members of the public to contribute their kitschy items (on condition that they take one of someone else's away with them).

The purely functional has its decorative element too. Not a few old office blocks still retain some art nouveau decorations and entrances; someone's used an escalator in the underground to create a scrolling thought for you to ponder.
And even the Elbtunnel, with its massive lifts for cars as well as pedestrians is lined with ceramic panels depicting its marine environment, including rats chasing round a workman's boot):

Wednesday 9 October 2013

This sleepy fellow is nominally on guard at the old city gate of Lübeck, a short commuter train ride away from Hamburg.

Another Hanseatic trading city, it links to the Baltic as Hamburg does to the Atlantic; but it feels much smaller, and
with more of its mediaeval and merchant core retained (or restored and re-created), the focus seems to be on a much more relaxed sort of tourism (especially on a sunny day warm enough for summer).

But for all that, it boasts connections to three significant modern Germans, so the historically-minded culture vulture could spend a fair amount of time finding out more about Willy Brandt, Günter Grass, or (as I did, since that was the only one open that day) Thomas and Heinrich Mann.

Or you could just stroll the remaining cobbled streets and snaffle up the products of the Niederegger marzipan factory.

Monday 7 October 2013

Thank goodness for digital TV. I'd have to live here for quite a while before my German could cope with extensive idiomatic and dramatic conversations, so for a lot of TV programmes only an outline gets through. Without, that is, the option for subtitles - "German for the hearing-impaired" (which, in German, I suppose I am). They might not run exactly in synch with the dialogue, but at least I can now work out what someone was actually saying a little while ago. I have to say, though, it doesn't actually improve the basic quality of the programmes themselves: subtitles or not, slow and drippy romantic soaps and formulaic cop shows are still the same.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Once round the lighthouse!

Well, not quite, but there is a great deal of Hamburg harbour and port to be seen, and direct from the city centre. The cheap way to get a tour is to take one of the public service ferries - it won't take into into all the nooks and crannies of the port, but you still see a fair amount).

There's still a visible historical chain of harbour development, from little creeks (or "fleets") running up to what would have been merchants' houses, then to
dedicated warehousing and docks (the nineteenth-century versions of which are now offices, flats and a very visible number of oriental carpet shops), these in turn being supplanted by a modern "Harbour City" set of developments, like so many other cities, complete with tourists gliding past on Segway tours. One difference here is that the housing includes plenty to rent, and the "anchor" building is a striking and gigantic new concert-hall, music education centre and public cultural space (complete with wavy roof)

But what is most striking is the expanse of modern dock and port facilities on the other side of the river, with cranes and wind turbines and
other industrial facilities stretching as far as the eye can see.

What seemed, on my childhood visit to the Pool of London, to be huge freighters (one last remaining example sits here as a museum and visitor attraction) have now been replaced by bigger and bigger container ships. Where London's docks moved out to the sea to accommodate the new behemoths, in Hamburg it's possible to live in the local millionaires' row, stroll on the beach, admire a museum collection of traditional sailing boats or visit a Soviet-era submarine, while watching a ship with thousands of freight containers on board coming right into the city centre, or some massive cruise ship being refitted on the other side of the river.

Saturday 5 October 2013


A little autumn sunshine through some simple coloured panels can change the most mundane and functional aluminium and grey surfaces:

Friday 4 October 2013

This ship on a stick actually sits on top of one of the tall flagpoles outside the even huger Rathaus in Hamburg. It underlines, as the Rathaus itself does, that like the other Hanseatic cities, its strength is in trade, business and craft. At present, there's a display in the entrance on all that the relevant trade organisations do to support the training and promotion of independent craft and artisan trades in Hamburg: as their predecessors have done for centuries, to judge by the opulent display in the public rooms of the building as the tour guide takes you round.

As it happens, the mediaeval heart of the city was destroyed in a great fire in 1842, the old Rathaus having to be sacrificed to create a firebreak, so this building dates from the same era as the equally show-off Victorian town halls of the more recent industrial cities of Britain. From the intricate casting of the entrance gates, rooms and staircases lined with marble, onyx columns, intricate carving and inlay on doors and panelling, felted and leather wall coverings, ornate candelabra, plush upholstery and grandiose paintings and statues: all underline what a confident and competent company of citizens can do. Royal patronage and pomp gets a bare nod here and there.

Also as it happens, this building was barely affected by the other great firestorm on the city in the Second World War. There was a bomb that landed in the square outside that could have done severe damage; but it failed to explode. The detonator is on display in one of the meeting rooms. It looks like any other piece of finely-machined precision engineering: though no-one actually said so, its failure could be a symbol of what's happened in the long rivalry between us - and why.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Three stops from Schlump

Perhaps someone who lives near Mudchute is in no position to find other cities' station names amusing, but my current home exchange to Hamburg is on the U-Bahn line that passes through the aforementioned Schlump to get to that monument to civic pride, the imposing 19th century Rathaus, or indeed to anywhere much.

Unless, that is one were to cycle. It's evident that a lot of people in this very pleasant suburb do: so much so that there are rather elegant on-street lockable garages for bikes: