Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday 21 August 2017

Big Ben takes a rest

 Today we were all invited to gather to hear the last chiming of Big Ben before the great refurbishment of Parliament gets under way over the next four years. (Except of course for the special occasions like New Year's Eve and Remembrance Day, when the chimes will sound at the due times, as tradition dictates).

To hear some, particularly MPs, you'd think this was the end of the world. Never mind that for all we know that may come sooner than we think, or at least the world's present mad careering to hell in a handcart may take some time to be stopped. Never mind that the government is faffing around like a bunch of headless chickens refusing to accept reality and get on with what it should have been getting on with a year ago. What matters to some MPs is that they turn out not to like what they didn't realise was involved in the repair and renovation programme they voted for.

Seems to me that if you employ professionals to do a job you let them get on with it, and get on with your own job as best you can - such as, for example, if you're an MP, trying properly to understand what you're voting on. And maybe paying a bit more attention to the general mess in the world, instead of crying horrors about a bell, like a bunch of sentimental snowflakes. It's not as though the country's short of bells: a point underlined when, as the applause for Big Ben died away, Westminster Abbey proceeded to ring the changes.

Sunday 16 July 2017

After some showery days and one or two heavy overnight rains, the weather turned fine for the annual military parade for July 14th.

Although the lower end of the Champs Elysées is lined with grandstands, presumably for the great and good, the sans culottes are able to stand at the upper ends, where the various military units taking part get into formation and wait their turn to march off.

And there is, of course much waiting, and (given the times we're in) a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere (though intending spectators have to run the gauntlet of security searches a good way back from the parade, before they're allowed to get near it, and the metro stations directly on the route are  all closed).

Eventually, the general in charge drives down inspecting the troops (not much he can do if they're not up to scratch at this point, though), then the Garde Républicaine escorts the President  down at a trot to his position at the end of the parade on Place de la Concorde. President Macron got the biggest cheer from the crowd near me, though for some reason they also seemed particularly keen on the prison officers' contingent, and of course the firemen bringing up the rear.

I had been warned that if you were in a position to see anything at all of the parade, you would be under the trees and therefore unable to see the planes which, unlike our Trooping the Colour, lead off the parade as such. Thereafter there's something of a stop-start for the different contingents as they catch each other up, and while various additional ceremonials take place at the Presidental saluting  base. Don't tell the general, but during one of the lengthier pauses, one of the tank commanders got out his camera and starting photographing the crowd.

Once we'd all managed to disperse (not much in the way of police control to open up ways to keep people moving), it was surprisingly easy to find a bar nearby that wasn't inundated with people, so I managed to catch the tail end of the official TV coverage, which showed some interesting power play between Macron and President Trump. At the end of the ceremonies, the general in charge came up to be formally greeted by his President (of course), with Trump hovering somewhat awkwardly a few paces in the background. Macron's greeting became an extended and lively conversation, with the hovering Trump looking more and more like the cousin who can't not be asked to be bridesmaid; eventually Macron went back towards his seat and the general, somewhat hesitantly,  likewise turned to leave. Only after a few steps did Macron turn back, and wave the general forward again, in a "Go on then, you might as well" sort of way, to introduce him to Trump (who to his credit did everything congratulatory you would expect). No doubt about who was in charge in that exchange.

Saturday 15 July 2017

Not so down and out now

Nothing too remarkable about this street in among others around the Place de la Contrescarpe and the Rue Mouffetard, buzzing with people visiting the many restaurants in the area.

One reason for their doing so, and for so many of them being American, is that this general area was the classic "Left Bank" for writers and artists of the 20s and 30s, where many an aspirant moved in for a while, and many a building round about has a plaque to mark the passage of Joyce, Hemingway and so on.

One who is not favoured with a plaque is George Orwell, who lodged along this street while working as a washer-up in a local restaurant, an experience whose  misery is recorded - and possibly somewhat embroidered - in Down and Out in Paris and London. The street must, by all accounts, have looked and felt much less up-market then, by comparison (to judge by the estate agents' windows) with the entire area nowadays. All those plaques must add a certain value - to the point that someone has chosen to add one to celebrate the great achievement of eating cake while on a diet:

Friday 14 July 2017

Thursday 13 July 2017

Paris Plages revisited

On a hot summer day, what could be nicer than relaxing on any available spot near water.

Paris nowadays goes further than just parking oneself on the embankments and steps, part of the riverside being converted into Paris Plages.

Once they imported quantities of sand to replicate the beach experience, but it looks as though the expense and inconvenience of putting it in only to have to take it out again at the end of the season has been replaced by installing more permanent bouncy surfaces under the children's play equipment (adults can use the few patches of grass or the deckchairs and umbrellas available, or the seating provided by the many boatborne or pop-up cafés and sandwich bars).

What's striking is the effort that's gone into providing things for children to do. An embankment converts into a climbing wall, there are land-becalmed boats to play on, a mobile play library has opened its doors, a whole series of logs (some marked with the type of tree they come from) is converted into whatever your imagination wants to make of it. The mist-sprayers are there again as in previous years, and that old favourite a bubble machine.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

If you're selling socks...

...let the socks sell the sales:

Tuesday 11 July 2017

This area, not far from the Gare de l'Est, is another of the eastern Parisian neighbourhoods with all the signs of gentrification.

There's a nondescript street door for the building I'm in, between a graffti-ridden alleyway and an empty shop that looks as though it was once a wholesaler of clothes, like others along the street, where there are plenty of signs of shops closing down and being remodelled (shades of Aldgate and Commercial Road in  London).

Once inside the building, through a second security-coded grill, everything has been recently spruced up, original stone walls and beams exposed, and the stairs redone in a mix of uneven old and new timber with new, but seemingly traditional tiling.

On the outside, to cross the road down to the metro station might almost be to pass through Africa, with parades of hairdressers, wig and hairpiece shops, and beauty parlours catering for a primarily African clientèle. In last weekend's baking weather, social life was conducted on the street, with enterprising vendors bringing out dustbins full of ice to sell drinks (but after overnight thunder and rain, all that was left was this abandoned hat).

On the opposite corner is the traditional corner café/bistro, but such are the layers of history here that, passing by, one's eye is caught by a memorial plaque above the tables and chairs, asking us not to forget two young Red Cross volunteers shot on this spot while attempting to rescue wounded Resistance fighters in the rising of August 1944.

Returning to the gloomy alleyway, it's only a few steps before the graffiti turns rather more arty, and beside it is a discreet sign for some small start-up company, with a rather more upmarket dress shop opposite. Carry on through into the sunlight, and there's the kind of street scene that fits most tourists' mental picture of Paris:

Saturday 8 July 2017

Oh, the embarrassment....

The door of doom

There's a lesson in here somewhere.

Arriving in a hot (33C) and humid Paris, lugging a suitcase up through a metro station with more stairs than usual and confusing signage to the exit (hence more stairs down and up again), then up three floors to the flat I've exchanged with,  doesn't help with the right frame of mind and skills to getting the key to work in a fiendish combination spring and dead-lock. Messages and phone calls backwards and forwards with my exchange partners (now on the train to London) didn't entirely help, with matters coming to a head when the spring part of the lock fought back against sweaty fingers, and the key disappeared down the gap between the door and the landing floor, and indeed irretrievably under the door.

At which point I said I'd go to a hotel, having a favourite one I've used before, and started lugging everything back to that damn metro station and down  its stairs, only to get a call to say he'd come back to Paris to sort it out for me, and in the meantime, there was a little hotel round the corner that would do for one night if necessary, or at least somewhere to store the luggage while I waited for him to get back. Which turned out to be another three floors up with the luggage in one of the saddest-looking decors imaginable  (not quite a fleapit, it looked clean enough and the people were nice enough, but Alex Polizzi would have a fit).

Eventually, the tutorial on the lock (press in against the spring before turning to release the deadlock, then press in and turn again to release the spring lock) took a good 20 minutes for me to get the knack, on top of all the time he'd spent to get back to set me right. Eventually he went off to get an evening train, and arrived in London maybe 6 or 7 hours later than he had planned. We did all at least end up for the night where we were supposed to, but it was all rather shaming.

The lesson, perhaps, is in these wise words from Miss Barrel House Annie:

Saturday 1 July 2017

Public service announcement

Turns out this music sets the ideal rhythm for scrubbing out your grillpan (leaping around the room optional):

Sunday 30 April 2017

Another minor mystery

A week ago, there were tens of thousands of people running past here, and leaving however many squillions of water bottles, sweet wrappers and assorted other detritus. A miracle of cleaning-up gets under way almost before the last dogged competitors have staggered past, with most of the rubbish gone before dark the same day; but some odd freelance signage, like this, survives.

At least, I think this was something to do with the marathon - but whether it was a message of encouragement to a runner, or to do with some music promotion, it seems unusually small and discreetly tucked away under the foliage.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

A giant inflatable lobster may not be the most obvious of sights to expect on an Easter weekend, but this year Greenwich town centre hosted all sorts of activities as part of the Tall Ships Festival.

A concert stage alongside the Cutty Sark was belting out sea shanties and assorted Victorian comic songs, there were fishy-themed acrobats, no end of food stalls, and promotional stands for the lifeboats, marine conservation, boatbuilding and other aquatic pursuits: and to keep the children entertained, a Punch and Judy, a pirate ship - and the lobster.

A reminder that this new-fangled photography was a Victorian craze
Not to be outdone, there were costumed volunteers outside the National Maritime Museum explaining some of their collections and the stories they could tell about life on the old sailing ships, all under the watchful eye of Sir Walter Raleigh, who could probably add a lot more lively detail.

But of course, the event was mainly all about the ships, some moored here at Greenwich and others further downriver at Woolwich before setting off for a series of races from here across the Atlantic, this year to Quebec to mark the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.

The queues for a ticket to board the ships open to visitors were horrendous, and I've plenty of photos from previous tall ship visits to the area, so photos from a distance - and a video of the final procession as they set out -were all that was practicable:

Wednesday 5 April 2017

Up on the ceiling

This is as much as most people are going to see of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich for the next couple of years, unless they pay for a guided tour of the current restoration work.

One phase of the project was completed some time ago - the far end section, glorifying the Hanoverian monarchs George I and II and their Navy's triumphs. This you can contemplate while the guide introduces the tour and the history of the hall.

Now the conservators have moved on to the main part of the Hall's ceiling, and to see anything, you follow the guide up through the scaffolding to a platform right underneath the ceiling, for an explanation of the painstaking work of cleaning and repairing the painting, and the extravagant iconography.
Everything revolves around the central figure of William III, with his wife and co-monarch Mary seated beside him, she popular, lively, pretty and cultured (and credited with the idea of setting up this home for retired seamen in the first place), he dour, withdrawn and suspicious  - but, like Mary, a legitimate Protestant grandchild of Charles I, and even more attractive to Parliament - a history of successful generalship defending the Netherlands against Louis XIV. So while she sits to one side (with, as the guide points out, some daring workman's signature across her bosom, dated 1797), he triumphs over Louis XIV and the Pope, receiving an olive branch of  Peace and delivering the red cap of Liberty to captive Europe.

They are surrounded by images of the virtues defeating vices, approving figures of classical legend like Neptune, Juno and Hercules, the seasons, cherubs and roses and assorted images of naval grandeur and Greenwich's importance to astronomy and navigation.

At a less exalted level, the figure of Winter represents the retired seamen for whom the building was created - and the model chosen was the oldest pensioner of the time (and, it would seem, a somewhat rambunctious one).

Suitably equipped for health and safety, a tour party examines some detail
A confident - and accurate - prediction of the date of the solar eclipse due the year after the ceiling was finished

Sunday 2 April 2017

A taxi marooned on a roundabout...

.... with a metal tree sprouting through its roof is probably a sign of artists somewhere in the undergrowth.

Sure enough, down a road bordered by anonymous walls and what look like sites just awaiting the latest batch of expensive rabbit-hutch flats is Trinity Buoy Wharf, once the home of a shipyard and the base for Trinity House and its lighthouses, but now an enclave for arts and crafts, and seemingly holding another open weekend.

Except that not much seemed to be on view, apart from the cafés (where there's art, there's a catering opportunity), and these ladies. Still, it was a good excuse for a bike ride on a sunny morning.

Wednesday 29 March 2017

1.30pm 29 March

The biggest strategic error since -
1956? 1950? 1938? 1920? 1914? Take your pick.............

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Spring is sprung....

And with it, time for a long-overdue spruce up. Oh, what heavy weather looking for the replacement for the tired old beigey-peach coloured bedroom carpet. There was an obvious type and make, of more or less the same style and quality, but somehow nothing in the range seemed quite the right colour. Surprising how, despite repeated checks of just about everything else in the shop, the answer turns out to be the one you first think of: and in the event, once actually in place, it turned out to be just about right after all.
The floor scraped clean and re-screeded
The new carpet in place

Outside, the spring flowers are well and truly in bloom:

Blackthorn on the Mudchute City Farm
Back garden cherry blossom
Ceanothus - earlier than ever

Thursday 23 March 2017

Just a reminder

Not one of my photos, but quick work, whoever it was....

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Leftovers jam

Most years, gooseberries have such a short season in the supermarkets that they need to be snapped up, even if they aren't always used up: which means there are usually some lurking in the freezer waiting to be turned into jam - when I get around to it. And last week, the round tuit arrived.

It occurred to me this might be a useful occasion to make use of some items from the back of the cupboard, relics of past Christmas goody gifts. The last couple of chunks of some preserved ginger seemed a good match for gooseberries, even after sitting in their syrup for a couple of years; and then there was a jar of black figs with some brandy in the syrup. Figs have never been much of a favourite on their own, or even in a fruit salad (the only other idea I'd had for them), but chopped up they might add something to the gooseberries, even if it's only some extra pectin to set the jam.

The result may look a bit murky, but tastes good (still not keen on figs, though).

It's taken a few days' wait after eating some to be sure it's a modest success because, as I was putting the fig jar into the recycling, I noticed the date on it was...... some time in 2008.

Sunday 1 January 2017


No, not some long-forgotten variety act*, but (at the risk of bringing brassicaphobes out in spots) the offspring of an arranged marriage between kale and Brussels sprouts.

There was a brief glimpse of them in the BBC's Countryfile programme a few weeks ago, which sounded intriguing through the soporific haze of a Sunday evening's viewing. It seems they have actually been out on the market for quite a while, but it wasn't till this weekend that they turned up in my "selected retailer".

They're claimed to be a "fresh fusion of sweet and nutty". Well.. they're a pleasant enough variation, with neither of the potential disadvantages of either parent (but then, so are they, if they're cooked properly).

*They are, however. showbiz enough to have had their name changed from the more .prosaic "Flower sprouts", which would suggest a more down-to-earth sort of show.