Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Contemporary etiquette

If you're in the loo of a pub, and someone else in there answers a phone call, is it rude to use the (very noisy) hand dryer?
(Asking for a friend, obvs).

Friday 13 December 2019

Those election results in full

Ah well. At least I have the paperwork lined up to prove I had a Scottish grandfather. It may not be long before that makes a difference.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Election day

In this rushed general election, the campaign(s) on the ground haven't exactly been noticeable around here. It's a fairly large Labour majority in this constituency, and in my neck of the woods, many of us live behind entryphones and some of us in gated-off developments, so even if the parties could get people to come out canvassing on dark, damp winter evenings, you can see why they might not expect to gain much from trying to doorstep people around here. Until yesterday (two days before polling day) I had one leaflet from the Greens early on, and since then nothing. Then the bulk of the one free leaflet delivery by the Royal Mail turned up (and even then, the Liberal Democrat leaflet wasn't there - whether they're gambling on getting to be the last arrival, or just got the set-up wrong somehow, I don't know).

Since I made my mind up quite some time ago and the actual voting means a five-minute (if that) detour on my way to pick up my morning paper( or to the bus stop for my commuting neighbours - the turnout did seem to be quite brisk around 8.30 this morning, with small queues building up), any excitement is safely confined to the TV.

As it happens, of the six candidates here, three are women (Labour, Conservative and -despite  the cover photo of Nigel Garage - the Brexit Party) and three are men (Green, LibDem and the independent). While it's no surprise that the new Labour candidate here is of Bangladeshi heritage and making much of her record as an activist with Momentum, the local Tories have chosen an immigrant from Nigeria, which isn't quite what one would expect from a lot of the national rhetoric.

Clockwise from bottom left: Greens, Labour, Conservative, Brexit Party, and a local independent still campaigning over the fallout from from shenanigans of our previous, disgraced, borough mayor

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Sunday 27 October 2019


The morning the clocks go back, and one wakes up to find an extra hour available, it seems natural to reach for the internet-abled devices, whether it's the radio stream on the phone (with headphones, so as not to annoy the neighbours) or the computer. So it was not the most pleasurable of surprises to find no wifi connection (and on the fancy fibre-optic network so many of us have signed up on in this development, too), still less to realise how temporarily bereft I felt.

By the time I thought it not too early to call their customer support, they had already put up a recorded "We're on it" announcement, and - anticlimax of the year - it was back on again reasonably quickly. But it's just another reminder of how we take so much for granted: as are so many old and recycled TV series, on the multiplicity of digital channels, where assorted plots and jokes would be impossible now, with mobile phones and the internet.

Sunday 20 October 2019

Another day, another demonstration

And it was a big one:

A family day out for quite a few:

Still some jokey signs, but some were more aggressive than others:

And the odd placard abandoned and forlorn in the passing rain:

Sunday 13 October 2019

I am counted

Today is census day. That may come as a surprise to some in the UK, but this is one of the areas chosen to test out an online census form as a rehearsal for 2021, when the next full census is due.

It probably took me about ten minutes to do, but then it's all very simple for just me. I can't remember exactly what was asked in previous censuses, and therefore what's different in this survey, but I don't think we had something asking us about what we think our "national identity" is. It'll be interesting to see what that turns up when compared with the answers to what passport(s) we hold and what our primary language is, as well as the questions one might expect on housing, work patterns and caring responsibilities. All useful for screening for comparative advantages and disadvantages, and potential discrimination, I suppose.

One thing I did notice is that we're no longer asked for a more detailed place of birth than just the country, which will probably upset keen genealogists. But who knows whether anyone will still be interested when the records are made public in 2121, even assuming anyone's still here?

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Harrumph (II)

The first (or the first to impinge on my consciousness) Christmas advert* has arrived. It would be for Disneyland.

*(overt - the perfume ads have been running since September: we all know they're aiming for the Christmas shopper, but of course they just show "aspirational" fantasies of one sort or another with brand names that don't seem to mean very much on their own, and certainly don't conjure up images of Santa and all that)

Friday 4 October 2019


The thermometers say it's not that cold, but the weather maps on TV showed a pretty blue plume of polar air descending on us. It's definitely felt like time to dig out the warm winter jacket, turn the heating on, change over to the thicker duvet, and swap over the curtains so that the thick and heavy ones no longer block out the early morning light  (such as it is) from the bedroom, but now trap colder air by the living room window, while the thin light ones stand a better chance of letting the morning light wake me up.

Which probably means it will now get warmer for a while, and there'll be the usual period of taking jackets on and off, and fiddling with the radiators to get a comfortable, even temperature.

Oh well, only three months till the days start getting longer.

Monday 30 September 2019

It's a wise child

There was a family party over the weekend - a special birthday for someone (not me), but if the mood was nostalgic for some of us, casting back decades and generations, the children, though showing polite interest in great-great-grandparents even I never knew, soon brought us up to date by trying to bamboozle the Google Assistant device:

"Google, who is your mother?"

"My engineers are always there for me"

As to asking who its father was, the resulting schmaltzy PR guff about Google's merits put me off trying to remember it.

Monday 23 September 2019

What I did not on my holidays

In between trips to the Continent, I needed to fit in some shifts as a volunteer London Ambassador - those people in strikingly stand-out pink shirts at various key points handing out maps, giving travel directions and answering (or trying to) assorted questions about London. In hindsight I kicked myself for not having done it at the time of the 2012 Olympics, since I spend some of my spare time doing just that sort of thing on internet messageboards - and why not do it for real? It's a way of making sure to get out of the house and actually talk to people, after all.

Perhaps 2012 was too soon after retirement to think of taking on new work-type commitments - but subsequently, either they weren't recruiting any more people to the scheme until this year, or I didn't see the announcements in time. But this year, I duly ended up accepted, briefed and kitted out (two shirts, hat, fleece waistcoat, a very handy fleece-lined rainproof and a backpack), and needing to squeeze the minimum number of shifts into the end of July and early August. It turned out you have to be quick off the mark to book in, as the locations closest to me had already been filled by the time I got round to it.

Not that Piccadilly Circus and Parliament Square are hard to get to, nor, as it turned out, was it that demanding an exercise - my first day was the hottest day of the year, and even for that we all seemed to manage OK (slightly dispiriting, though, that so many people thought we were trying to sell them something, but that's central London in the height of the tourist season, I suppose). There were enough people on each team to cover for each other, and all the support materials were well thought out (though it seems as though there's some sort of rule that the wheels on things like their information stands or "pods", just like supermarket trolleys, must have a mind of their own as to where they will go, which added a certain excitement to pushing them up or down any sort of slope to and from their storage spots). Not that there wasn't the odd unexpected question: any camera repair shop near Parliament Square? Are there any, anywhere, nowadays? All things considered, it was actually quite invigorating, even - or especially - on the day when the weather changed and gusts of wind and rain threatened to play havoc with the maps.

This weekend there was another opportunity, to do some ushering/doorkeeping/general dogsbodying for a special event at City Hall for EU residents in London.

It turned out to attract even nore people than they expected, and I believe they even had to shut the doors early.  The offer of free legal advice on the complexities of the government's post-Brexit settled status scheme (say no more) had most to do with that, no doubt.

But there were also some social and fun activities alongside, including concerts outside - and "crazy football" (something to do with the fact that London - or at least Wembley Stadium - is hosting parts, including the final, of the European Championship next year, though presumably not to these rules):

Wednesday 18 September 2019

It may be a bit late to remark on Saturday's other big event, the Last Night of the Proms, but there are some bemusing, if predictable, comments on the BBC's Facebook feed of the moments where the guest star singer of the night, Jamie Barton, not only waved her flag but nailed her colours to the mast, changing a line of "I Got Rhythm" to "I got my gal", and, at the climactic moment of "Rule Britannia", holding high a rainbow flag. As one might suspect, the Daily Mail readers lined up the complaints about it being "too political" (though that complaint was as much about the prevalence of EU flags and gold-starred blue berets among the prommers in the Arena) and "rubbing our noses in it".

Quite how any of that is more political than the waving of Union Jacks (or any other national symbols), I don't know; in any case, the apparently patriotic elements of the Last Night have carried a strong element of ironic exaggeration at least since they started to be set in stone in the 1950s, and the enthusiasm for them is simply that community singing of belting tunes on a party night is fun. Nor is it obvious how it's any more ostentatious than the time, a few years ago, when a prommer threw a pair of knickers at Jonas Kaufman, only to have a pair of Union Jack boxers lobbed back in return, or the time (even more years back) when Anna Netrebko smooched her way around the orchestra, caressing the occasional male musician as she sang Lehar's"Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß".

And then there was the complaint about bringing foreign performers in for the last night (culminating in "Rule Britannia", of course) - but hadn't they actually picked up from the programmes for the other 90-odd concerts that the galaxy of overseas star performers (not to mention composers) is rather the point of the whole exercise?

Be that as it may, and controversy apart, here's Jamie Barton's performance on the night of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"

Monday 16 September 2019

Not what one normally expects to see while out to get the weekly shop. This Royal Fleet Auxiliary was in town for one big event, but on Saturday morning was joined by a couple of patrol boats, one of  which took up position as a lane marker for the Great River Race, the annual 20-odd mile procession race all the way from Greenwich to Richmond. With so many crews from outside London, a lane marker's important, to stop the inexperienced from succumbing to the temptation to cut corners on the inside of the bends: not only is it counter-productive (the current runs fastest slightly to the outside of the middle on a bend), for that reason it's also against the rule of the river, and would risk collision with oncoming traffic.

There might have been another reason for the patrol boats' presence. It's the custom for crews in this race to fly as large a banner as they feel they can (this is no race for high-tech Olympic-style craft stripped down to the minimum). There's a usually a fine display, creating no end of puzzles trying to recognise all sorts of county and local flags that we wouldn't normally see; this year I only saw one with a Skull and Crossbones, but it obviously did no harm to have the Royal Navy on hand. (Apologies in advance for the quality of the video: trying to zoom in across such an expanse of water pushed my phone camera's capabilities to the limit):

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Nature notes

Occasionally I'm woken in the night by a whimpering-wailing sort of sound that eventually dies away. I rather assumed it was a sound of animal pain and alarm, and therefore that perhaps one of our local foxes was earning its keep by catching a rat. It certainly wasn't the screaming bark of their mating call (the kind they use in TV dramas to signal that it's creepy at night in the countryside and Something Nasty is about to happen).

But one night I looked out to see a fox chasing another, and as they passed under my window it was clearly the chasing fox that was making the noise as it saw off an intruder. So it's presumably some sort of territorial warning, the vulpine equivalent of "Git orf moi land!": or - this being the East End - "Gerrahta my rubbish bin!"

Sunday 8 September 2019


Canary Wharf now has a "grooming atelier".

It's a barber's.

Saturday 7 September 2019

What I did on my holidays (VI) - Hamburg

The offer of a home exchange to Amsterdam provided an opportunity to try something I've had in mind for a while - to go back to Hamburg, but to do so by train. It's possible to do it in one day from London (I went straight through on the way back, without too much discomfort or boredom), but I didn't fancy arriving there in the evening, so stopping off somewhere en route would be called for - so starting out from Amsterdam (four hours away) made sense.

What I particularly wanted to see was the building with the roof like wave-crests - the Elbphilharmonie.

Built on to an old warehouse at a key point where the old warehouse and docks area pokes out into the Elbe, it's a complex of (very expensive) housing, offices and car-parking surrounding two new concert halls. As with so many new projects, it took longer and cost more than expected, but the end result is an impressive and austerely beautiful space, all off-white stucco and unvarnished oak, with airy foyers and staircases open to panoramic views on both sides, and an outside observation platform running right round the building (no photos allowed inside for the general public, so these are borrowed from elsewhere):

Photo from BASWA Acoustic
And inside the concert halls, it's not just the open-ness of the main hall that impresses:
Photo from the Suddeutsche Zeitung
so much as the seemingly organic, almost Gaudi-esque, shapes lining the walls:
Photo from Sudkurier
Photo from dds-online.de
But they're not just there for the visual or tactile interest - they're all part of the acoustic design. Apparently (according to the guide), every ridge, gully and cell is part of a carefully worked out plan for each small area of the walls, with every panel planned for its specific location and no two panels entirely the same. Not that (as with other concert halls) there wasn't debate about how it all sounded, leading to some later modifications.  Not having had the opportunity, in the time available, to get to a concert, all we could hear of the acoustic, apart from the guide talking, was a test run of the emergency announcement and some snatches of recorded music as the sound engineers did some tests of their own, which all sounded fine to me (but what do I know).

The tour over, we were free to take photos around the outside, where the wavy glass exteriors offered some interesting reflections:

Friday 6 September 2019

What I did on my holidays (V): Amsterdam - cycling

I have cycled around central Amsterdam before, but not this time - public transport and walking is quite enough for getting around, not to mention the bother of parking (and remembering where you've parked it), plus all those hump-backed bridges. But looking out from the centre is a much easier proposition. Hiring a bike at the Amsterdamse Bos gives you a typical "omafiets" ("grandma bike"), with sit-up and beg handlebars (comfortable), completely enclosing chainguard (hooray) - and back-pedal brakes (erm...takes a bit of time to embed them as an instinctive use - so it's just as well this is all or nearly off-road and along winding woodland paths:

On another day (the hottest of the year, as it turned out), something a bit more adventurous (but not very): down the Amstel river, past Rembrandt at the sort of spot where he liked to sketch:

and the sort of views he liked to sketch:

Monday 2 September 2019

What I did on my holidays (IV) - Outside Amsterdam: Maeslantkering

One half of the great storm surge barrier across the estuary of the Maas (Meuse) at the Hook of Holland:
A model in the Keringhuis to show how it all works
The high point of this trip's watery theme was to see something of the massive flood control works across the different estuaries in the great delta across the south of the Netherlands.

Here at the Hook, these two great arms can, at a few hours' notice (automatically triggered by sensors out at sea), be floated in their dry docks, then out across the river to be sunk on to underwater sills, so as to hold back any anticipated storm surge, such as the one that caused such devastation in 1953. Once the danger is passed, the arms can be pumped out and floated back into their docks.

The Keringhuis is the information centre in that modest-looking grey shed, exploring and explaining (with a strong orientation towards engaging children) the problems and issues involved, not only in holding back flooding from the seas (something the inhabitants of the Netherlands have had to do since human habitation in the area first began), but also coping with flood waters coming down the rivers from elsewhere in Europe, and with periods of drought, and all while keeping open the trade routes into Rotterdam.

So it's a complex series of problems, with different answers for different locations, and not just in the different designs of massive barriers. Where once the answer was, almost, as many dikes as possible, now it's a matter of managing water in and out. Increasingly they look to work with nature, for example, encouraging the movement of coastal sandbanks so that beaches and dunes are built up, or in places "de-poldering" land so that surplus river water can be stored in lakes (which has meant re-settling people, the difficulties of which are rather skated over in the exhibition) and released as necessary, and other parts reverting to marshy nature; some dikes, being largely peat, dry out in increasingly hot, dry summers, so they have to be (perhaps counter-intuitively) watered to stop them crumbling away.

The statistics and superlatives of the engineering are impressive, especially if you book a guided tour, where the guide will take you under the main structure:
Those lower struts have to be regularly repainted on the inside as well as out - and the steel is apparently 7cm thick.
But what is even more striking is the way such a massive and complex long-term plan was developed and expanded over decades by (as far as possible) consensus across the different levels of government, with each having an agreed set of functions and responsibilities. It's a similar sort of long-term process as the development of cycling infrastructure across the Netherlands over the last 40 years or so. And now, they're developing an international network of those cities and countries that face similar problems (London, of course, where our own barrier wouldn't have been finished without Dutch expertise, New Orleans - no surprise there - St Petersburg, and so on). Which is rather encouraging as we face whatever climate change is going to bring us.

Sunday 1 September 2019

What I did on my holidays (III) Outside Amsterdam - Enkhuizen

Having some time to explore more widely than the usual round of things to do and see in Amsterdam, this trip took on something of a watery theme.

An hour or so north is the pretty town of Enkhuizen, on the edge of what was once the Zuiderzee, till they closed it off in 1932 to reduce the dangers of flooding from the North Sea, and forming the IJsselmeer and some substantial areas of poldered land.

Nowadays it is a magnet for plenty of leisure sailors.

One can only guess at the combined value of all those boats. Once, the town's inhabitants liked to leave the marks of their modesty as well as the source of their prosperity:

Of course, safety came at a price: major changes to the way of life in the villages around the affected coast as fishing declined, the war and occupation came, and small market gardening faced increased competition from larger operations.

Hence the Zuiderzee Museum, a collection of reconstructed village houses and other buildings (church, school, pharmacy, post office, smithy, laundry and so on) arranged on the same sort of plan as a typical village, on the edge of the still seemingly vast expanse of water, with plenty of craft sailing by as they did years ago. The interiors are smaller and darker than the photos suggest, to the point that my entering an open front door gave another visitor quite a fright as, at just that moment, she came out into the hallway.

There's an indoor museum displaying all sorts of objects and artefacts demonstrating the different trades, pastimes and costumes of the different villages. Just as the old, relatively isolated ways of life were starting to dissolve into standard modernity, the tourism promotion authorities chose just those costumes as a symbol for all that is  Dutch, so these will not be entirely unfamiliar:

Tuesday 27 August 2019

What I did on my holidays (II)

Amsterdam continues to offer its usual variety:

The orchestra assembles at the Concertgebouw

On the KNSM-Eiland, an area of redeveloped docks and warehouses. Presumably conscious vegans have the stamina for ecstatic dance seven days a week

At NDSM - old warehouses now used as art studiois and for a monthly monster (but rather sad-looking flea market/boot sale


Other than the fact that this was outside a water pumping station, I have no idea

Sunday 25 August 2019

What I did on my holidays (I)

Perhaps, after all, there's something to be said for the usual annual round, in this case, trips to photogenic places I've been to before.

First,  back to Austria for some walking down in the same picturesque mountain valley as for some years past.

Hard to resist the temptation to take yet more photos of the same dramatic waterfall (enlarge this and scroll down to see some tiny humans for scale) and cataracts.

Easier to resist the temptation to snap at every last wild flower (quite possibly exactly the same plants as in previous years),

However, there was something new in some surprisingly un-flighty butterfles who for once stayed posed (heat? or still air?) - and not forgetting an Alpine traffic jam:

Then another brief home exchange in Paris. where the first thing to see on emerging from the usual everyday metro station was this group of inflatable polar bears taking advantage of the hot air from the trains below, and flapping frantically in the breeze.

It appears there's a regular artist at work here, aiming to remind us all of global warming. But his work was purely temporary and vanished within a couple of days (I don't know if the bears simply took flight).

Equally eye-catching was this enthusiastic gardener's full use of a tiny balcony overlooking (what else?) the Promenade Plantée.

And then, in the Tuileries gardens, there was this:

Saturday 23 March 2019

Well, here we are again. For once, there is something to write about that doesn't feel like repeating the same old annual round.

As the EU 27 have finally held the feet of government and Parliament to the fire, with a set of deadlines for ending the shambles of inability to decide principled debate over how to translate into the People's Will what has so far only been expressed as the People's Won't, we come to the positively, absolutely, definitely final crunch in the course of the next week or so.

And as part of that,  the People's Vote campaign for a second referendum held another march in central London today, attracting hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, people - most of whom really want the whole thing dropped, one way or another. Placards and slogans were a mixture of the humorous, whimsical and pained, but with not a few featuring, well, not the kind of language my mother would have appreciated (slightly to my surprise, but then, I don't get out much these days): not just the familiar "Bollocks to Brexit" stickers, but a fair smattering of four-letter words too. How persuasive this would be to any waverers from the other side, and how influential if and when Parliament finally works its way through alternative suggestions - that remains to be seen.

Here's some indication of the mood: