Monday, 31 May 2010

The most beautiful place in the world

"This is the most beautiful place in the world."said our eldest as we walked through one of our local pubs, The Island Queen. We were on our way to the striped velvet semi-circular sofa in the back corner from which the photo below was taken (it's good for penning in children).

He has a point. It really is quite a sight: its double-height ceiling, intricately-moulded and ox-blood in colour; the large mirrors decorated with enamels of lush plants; the ornately-carved mahogany bar; as well the large curved and etched windows. And that's before we get to the bits the young fellow wouldn't appreciate yet, such as its Cask Marque-quality real ales (I had an Adnams Summer Stout, thanks). Food's not bad, either.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

A simple story about multicoloured zombies with Walkmen

Look and marvel (from here - there are many more). They're book covers from an Indian print-on-demand publisher.

I like this comment from the blog about the one above, Kipling's Kim: least that one has a cover which recognises that, at heart, it's just a simple story about multicoloured zombies with Walkmen.

H/t Scott.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

This Week's Scandals of the Rich and Famous

Scandals of the week:

#1 Alain de Botton confesses to feeding his dinner party guests with what sounds like Smash*. I wonder whether in his ongoing quest to take on the persona of Theodore Zeldin, he's thinking of inviting random members of the poor to attend? (Zeldin would approach a member of Oxford's unemployed to invite them to Sunday lunch with him and his friends - God knows what they made of it. I wonder how much of Zeldin's research for an Intimate History of Humanity was perpetrated on these unwitting lunch guests?). Anyway, Smash. If I were one of those impoverished surprise guests I'd complain - even the poor can afford potatoes.

#2 Ringo Starr attends Chelsea Flower Show and the caption to the photo that appears in The Telegraph describes him as 'the narrator of Thomas the Tank Engine'. I know he wasn't a great drummer, but he really was a full member of that band, you know, those ones, The Thingies. (H/t Hooting Yard).

#3 Christopher Hitchens is exposed as being not just crapulous in the mornings but also a bit portly.

#4 David Laws... Nothing to see here people, move on, move on.

* I heard of this incident because someone told me about it. They, in turn, had read it in a newspaper, one that is not available online.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Golden from eating

We are infested by clothes moths, hundreds of them. Not for us the fleeting and rare (and admiring) encounters some have with their colourful cousins. On the contrary, our moths are ubiquitous, stubbornly so. They're also strangely quiescent in the face of our efforts to eradicate them. They sit still and prone when you creep up (being brownish, they're clearly visible on our whitish walls). It makes snuffing them out a doddle - if you get them first time, which you really should do.

But it's not enough. We've brought into play sticky strips of paper impregnated with moth pheremone. These presumably exciting aromas attract moths like, well, just like moths to a flame. In two or three days the paper is encrusted with moth bodies, the odd one with legs and wings still flailing.

All this moth culling has meant I've had a good look at these creatures. If you see one briefly it looks a rather boring, dun colour. But on closer inspection - for instance, when looking at one stuck on a piece of gridded white paper along with another dozen or two - they look like slightly-frayed snippets of antique gold braid, shining dully and dustily. When crushed gently under a finger they leave a little smudge, as if a couple of lashes worth of Miners eye-makeup had somehow brushed past.

This observation made me appreciate anew a poem by Peter Redgrove. It has an intriguing metaphysical turn. But its real delight - as with so much satisfying writing (Nige being a fine exemplar) - is its sharing of the fruits of a writer's close observation. The language is precise, careful yet rich; on occasion and when well-earned it spills over into the lyrical:
The lamb-faced moth with shining amber wool dust-dabbing the pane
Flocks of them shirted with tiny fleece and picture wings
The same humble mask flaming in the candle or on the glass bulb
Scorched unwinking, dust-puff, disassembled; a sudden flash among the hangings
Like a window catching the sun, it is a flock of moths golden from eating
The gold braid of the dress uniforms...

It's a little mysterious to me why I can find so much more satisfaction in this - or in one of Nige's description of butterflies - than in any number of moths and butterflies seen in the flesh, so to speak. I rarely go out of my way to see a butterfly (and never do so for a moth, at least when it would be merely for the sake of looking at it). But most days I'm diverted - even rapt - by a description of something that I'm not fussed about when it's not inhabiting a collection of words.

For those who have the time and inclination here's the full poem:


I know a curious moth, that haunts old buildings,
A tapestry moth, I saw it at Hardwick Hall,
‘More glass than wall’ full of great tapestries laddering
And bleaching in the white light from long windows.
I saw this moth when inspecting one of the cloth pictures
Of a man offering a basket of fresh fruit through a portal
To a ghost with other baskets of lobsters and pheasants nearby
When I was amazed to see some plumage of one of the birds
Suddenly quiver and fly out of the basket
Leaving a bald patch on the tapestry, breaking up as it flew away.
A claw shifted. The ghost’s nose escaped. I realised

It was the tapestry moths that ate the colours like the light
Limping over the hangings, voracious cameras,
And reproduced across their wings the great scenes they consumed
Carrying the conceptions of artists away to hang in the woods
Or carried off never to be joined again or packed into microscopic eggs
Or to flutter like fragments of old arguments through the unused kitchens
Settling on pans and wishing they could eat the glowing copper

The lamb-faced moth with shining amber wool dust-dabbing the pane
Flocks of them shirted with tiny fleece and picture wings
The same humble mask flaming in the candle or on the glass bulb
Scorched unwinking, dust-puff, disassembled; a sudden flash among the hangings
Like a window catching the sun, it is a flock of moths golden from eating
The gold braid of the dress uniforms, it is the rank of the family’s admirals
Taking wing, they rise
Out of horny amphorae, pliable maggots, wingless they champ
The meadows of fresh salad, the green glowing pilasters
Set with flowing pipes and lines like circuits in green jelly
Later they set in blind moulds all whelked and horny
While the moth-soup inside makes itself lamb-faced in
The inner theatre with its fringed curtains, the long-dressed
Moth with new blank wings struggling over tapestry, drenched with its own birth juice

Tapestry enters the owls, the pipistrelles, winged tapestry
That flies from the Hall in the night to the street lamps,
The great unpicturing wings of the nightfeeders on moths
Mute their white cinders . . . and a man,
Selecting a melon from his mellow garden under a far hill, eats,
Wakes in the night to a dream of one offering fresh fruit,
Lobsters and pheasants through a green fluted portal to a ghost.

ADDENDUM: T took a more practical view than me on reading this post. She pointed out I should be asking my readers for top tips on getting rid of these blasted moths. So. Does anyone have any? Please?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Wish you were here?

There's something about these photos that's affecting but it's not the sight of 'people having a good time being alive'.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

World in motion

My eldest (4) goes to a nursery which is very multinational - all sorts of foreign kids, from all over the world. It's very good but its make-up is nothing special; it just reflects the nursery-using population round here.

He knows the local team is Arsenal and he's being indoctrinated by the nursery teachers (local girls) to follow them - he recently informed us, apropos of nothing: 'I hate Chelsea'. He knows that some Arsenal players are Spanish and French just like some of his nursery friends.

I assume this is why he simply doesn't understand the World Cup. The notion of an England team makes no sense to him despite our spending a while to explain it. His biggest objection was that unlike him some of his friends wouldn't follow England even though they lived in the same place as him - this was literally inexplicable.

Do a child's horizon's broaden gradually, country coming behind other identifications? Or is this how he's always going to think, as a Londoner first and foremost - a born and bred cosmopolitan?

By the way, the title of this post gives me an excuse to refer to the very greatest World Cup song (below). It's actually the only one that's good in any way at all. It would have been a hit without the football tie-in and you can't say that about any of the others.

Its use in the current Mars advert is a great idea, I think. Not much happens: a now-tubby John Barnes (too many Mars Bars probably) does his rap - yes, still badly - and lots of people dance around him, unorganised and, it appears, spontaneously. They're in a park. They look normal - they're not even over-excited as people often are in advertland.

As was pointed out here, 'a montage of people having a good time being alive' is something the internet does very well and, as one would expect, TV advertisers are making the most of the insight. It seems you don't even need a montage: fairly ordinary people having innocent fun allied to a memorable soundtrack seems very affecting right now.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Memories of old Islington

Fitzstephen, a monk, commented in about 1180 that there were 'fields for pasture and open meadows, very pleasant, into which the river waters do flow, and mills are turned about with a delightful noise. The arable lands are no hungry pieces of gravel ground, but like the rich fields of Asia, which plentifully bring forth corn and fill the barn of the owner with a dainty crop of the fruit of Ceres. Beyond them an immense forest extends itself, beautified with woods and groves, and full of the lairs and coverts of wild beasts and game, stags, bucks, bears and wild bulls.

Ah, the good old days...

From here.

Quite literally

The War on Drugs is looking more and more like, well, a war. Columbia, Mexico, now Jamaica. Legalise them and regulate them - it's the most moral thing to do. (Tax them too - think of the deficit).

Secret Affair

I acquired my Penthouse and Pavement LP by swapping it for a Nine Below Zero LP (we used to do a lot of barter - I remember swapping a pair of burgundy shoes for a bottle of Drambuie and a fiver). I made the trade, which I thought was quite a good one - I was selling a sinking band for a rising one - as I was on the turn from being a mod to being something else. I'm not sure this something else had a name, other than the catch-all New Romantic. I bought a zoot(-ish) suit from Oxfam, some burgundy shoes (those ones), grew my hair, learnt that swinging arm dance and the job was done.

Being a mod involved a lot of hassle - being chased by grebos and skinheads who all seemed to be bigger, hairier and uglier than we 'little mods'. Also following something a bit artier seemed a good move as that's what the older girls were into.

Before being a mod I'd been a rude boy, which like being a New Romantic also didn't seem to provoke people as much. It's perhaps no coincidence that both ska and electronica have worn very well. But mod, not so much. There's something a little bit irritating even about The Jam.

As for the some of the other groups, well judge for yourself. Here's 'My World' by Secret Affair. I still get a thrill hearing it but that may just be an echo of the adrenalin rush I got from being chased through the market place by leather-clad greasers.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Penthouse and Pavement

When I wasn't in the garden this weekend - barbecuing, removing the urban beach created when you combine young boys with a sandpit, and lolling - I was doing some youtubing. I have a number of vinyl records, in fact a whole collection, which I've never got round to updating in CD format. Youtube seemed a good place to go to rescue momentarily some favourite tracks from obsolescence.

I came across this video (below), Penthouse and Pavement by Heaven 17 from 1981. It's got to be one of the best synth tracks of the era, with an almighty synth solo about 1:55 in. But what really struck me is the video, which features what can only be described as yuppies: it's a fantasy about working in a slick, high-pressure job as a young, urban professional whilst engaging in industrial espionage and other betrayals. You could argue its intention was to be critical but the imagery overrides; it's glamourous.

This seems amazingly prescient for 1981. The conditions of the time were hardly conducive to this sort of dream of executive chic, white-collar stress portrayed as thrilling and epic - post-punk had only just spluttered out, unemployment was high, and austerity reigned. And the term yuppie didn't become current until a couple of years later, and then in the US.

I suppose that, in part, the look is inspired by Kraftwerk's industrial chic. But it feels more commercial than industrial - they're wearing sharp suits, not boiler suits. (By the way, has Europe, before or after Kraftwerk, had such an influence on British pop as the German synth combo? Ibiza?).

Watching it from this distance makes me wonder at how big ideas can arrive in places and ways that seem ephemeral, inconsequential, even trivial. An avant garde of the teenage bedroom, the street corner, the back room of pubs, the self-organised club night. Perhaps fantasies of young, aspiring and often unemployed pop stars helped precipitate privatisation, big bang and the '80s consumer culture as much as the ideas of monetarist economists?

In any event, at the very least the video's an interesting period piece and the music sounds as fresh and exciting as it ever did.

UPDATE: T pointed out this documentary was on last week, which I missed. You can watch it on the iPlayer until tomorrow (unless you download it). Serendipity or another example of the hive mind?

UPDATE 2: I watched the documentary. Interesting on Sheffield, a city I don't know. And Paul Morley agreed with me, pointing out how BEF was a branded small business and the whole look couldn't help itself in prefiguring the 80s - from Pavement to Penthouse, for some.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Inhabitants of a lost world

1950s music hall (from here - out in paperback now):
The joy, perhaps as much in memory as at the time, was in the variousness: the magician Ali Bongo ('The Shriek of Araby'), the illusionist Cingallee, the pigeon act Hamilton Conrad, the animal and bird impersonator Percy ('I Travel the Road') Edwards, the drag act Ford and Sheen, the mind-reader The Amazing Fogel, the lady whistler Eva Kane, the male impersonator Hetty King, the foot spinner and raconteur Tex McLeod, the yodelling accordionist Billy Moore, the human spider Valantyne Napier, the mental telepathists The Piddingtons, the novelty xylophonist Reggie Redcliffe, the speciality dancer Bunty St Clair, the pianist Semprini, the aereliste [me neither oh yeah] Olga Varona, and many, many others - inhabitants of a lost world.
Lady whistling?

We went to a travelling circus when we were on holiday in France a couple of years ago. One of the acts (all of them performed by a combination of the same family) was a cat circus. Daredevil stunts performed by a couple of scrawny creatures. Preparation and training appeared minimal but it's amazing what you can do with a handful of ham.

Friday, 21 May 2010

To celebrate the possibility of jumping on and off

For zmkc (fingers crossed).

Be careful what you wish for

Timothy Garton-Ash needs help:
Can anyone save me from Europessimism? I feel more depressed about the state of the European project than I have for decades. The eurozone is in mortal danger. European foreign policy is advancing at the pace of a drunken snail. Power shifts to Asia. The historical motors of European integration are either lost or spluttering. European leaders rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic while lecturing the rest of the world on ocean navigation.

The European Union had pragmatic reasons to exist:
For more than 50 years after 1945, there were five great driving forces of the European project. They were: the memory of war ... ; the Soviet threat ... ; American support ... in response to the Soviet threat; the Federal Republic of Germany, wanting to rehabilitate post-Nazi Germany ... ; and France, with its dual-purpose ambition for a French-led Europe. All five driving forces are now either gone or greatly weakened.

What's left?
...we have a set of new rationales for the project. They include global challenges such as climate change and the globalised financial system, which increasingly impact directly on the lives of our citizens, and the emerging great powers of a multipolar world. In a world of giants, it helps to be a giant yourself. But a rationale, an intellectual argument, is not the same as an emotional driving force, based on direct personal experience and an immediate sense of threat. We don't have that sense in today's Europe.

Garton Ash reckons Europe might need a new Winston Churchill to inspire 'an emotional driving force ... in the poetry of 'blood, sweat and tears''.  But there doesn't seem to be one available.
Where, then, is the dynamism to come from? I do not know. I do not see it. Yes, we have been through many bouts of Europessimism before; for as long as I can remember there have been such bouts. Every time Europe has somehow got out of the dumps, to take another step forward. Europe's global competitors all have big problems of their own. In 10 years' time, historians may yet look back and laugh at the Europessimism of 2010. But only if Europe now wakes up to the world we're in.
Europe, wake up!

But what for? Why does Europe need to take 'another step forward', to 'wake up'? The main reason appears to be because punches far below its weight. If it still wants to shape the world in the interests of its citizens then it must close the gap between its potential and its actual power.

And yet the rest of the article demonstrates that the common 'interests of its citizens' are not strong enough to propel the new Europe forward (or perhaps even to keep it together). What hope then that they can be projected internationally as an expression of a single European interest in anything other than a limited fashion? Rather than punching their weight internationally as Europeans, Greeks and Germans may soon be more keen on punching each other.

We're left with an account of how an exercise in wish-fulfillment didn't turn out to fulfil the wish. The launch of the Euro saw the ambitions of people like Garton-Ash running so far ahead of the reality of a common European citizen that the collapsing of wish into reality was bound to be jarring.

For Garton-Ash it's a matter of bemoaning how the world isn't the way he'd like it to be in newspaper articles and seminars. He's reduced to hoping that some Great Man might rescue his dreams. The unemployed, bankrupt and over-taxed people of those countries the wish-fulfilling Euro has locked into depression may take another route to express their disillusionment - let's hope it doesn't involve a Great Man of another ilk.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Packington v3.0

The Packington Estate in Islington is being knocked down and rebuilt. The blocks at the end of our road have just been demolished. The photo below shows the last corner being torn down. You can see in the background a piece of Victorian terrace, which escaped the original redevelopment, and to the right of it, the main building of the Islington City Academy, née the notoriously bad Islington Green School, which is also reckoned to be unfit for purpose and is being knocked down this summer. And the orange machine that crushes and tears down the buildings using massive serrated jaws at the end of an extendable neck has inevitably been named by the boys 'The Dinosaur'.

As well as being quite thrilling for some, the current redevelopment is a huge endeavour, involving over 500 dwellings covering 10 acres. The quantity and extent of rubble has to be eye-balled to be believed.

It's got to go as it's unsafe: its concrete slab construction is not dissimilar to that of a house of cards. If there were a gas explosion it would collapse in much the same way (as per Ronan Point). It also happens to be riddled with asbestos. It was built in the 1960s (natch) in the face of bitter protests demanding the terraced housing on the site be refurbished rather than replaced (see here for a compilation of press articles covering the dispute - great stuff if you like that sort of thing).

So this huge development hasn't lasted even fifty years. But putting aside its dangers, its aesthetics and its layout are enough to make you welcome its destruction. No-one likes it, not even the campaigners to keep modernist post-war buildings. I object most strongly to how it's built like a castle, obliterating the street plan, closing off through routes, and having its shops practically segregated from the wider populace by being hidden in its midst. It's even surrounded by a basement-level concrete area (admittedly green in parts) that's functionally a moat,

This isolationist design can't have helped the residents to feel part of the surrounding community, nor does it encourage the surrounding community to consider its residents their neighbours. I can't believe this hasn't been a factor in the low-level crime that occasionally breaks out around the estate: scooter joy-riders and window smashers, mostly.

We live in a more or less identical terrace to those that were destroyed - the southern end of our street was flattened to make way for the estate. They're now nearly all refurbished, though some were home to squats well into the 1990s. We love it here but the look of the Packington was nearly enough to deter us from buying back in 2004. We visited after dark one night and were intimidated by the baleful glow of the estate looming at the end of the road. It reminded me of the view of Minas Morgul in the Lord of the Rings film (above). However, we liked the layout of the house, it seemed good value and it was handy for yon local amenities so we went ahead.

The Packington Estate then was a disaster on most levels. Its replacement is looking promising, however, aiming to be much more integrated with its surroundings. There's a return to the old street plan, open thoroughfares, outward-facing shops, ready access from most approaches (no moat), and a mix of ownership (housing trust, affordable and private). They've finished the blocks that face the canal. They're a pleasing mix of London brick and light-grey render and feel very much part of a new, open and pleasantly buzzy area around the bridge over the canal from Packington Square into Shoreditch (above).

We have a tendency to feel smug about post-war developments such as the Packington. From our perspective it is easy to condescend to the purblind planners and their destructive ideas. But I wonder what each of us would have done in their shoes? And I dare say the same sort of mistakes are being made in different ways as I write - I know Soho residents might have something to say along these lines with regard to the Crossrail development.

Over here, it's turned out all right in the end. But I can't help shuddering when I think of the disruption and cost involved in entirely demolishing and rebuilding such a huge area of Central London twice in fifty years.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Ravioli, niblets, sandwiches and head-butt

This is just great - it's as if a grown-up journalist has written an exhaustively well-researched and detailed report on a playground scrap. This is an extract not a summary (it's too involved and complicated to summarise):
“Yes, there was a head-butt,” confirms Hedstrom, the national sales manager for Gaston’s Elk Cove Vineyards, one of five wineries that poured vino at Cochon 555. “Toward the end of the event, after Olympic Provisions was declared the winner, I was walking by Eric. I said, ‘Hey man, we should get you involved in the event next year [Hedstrom is close to Lowe and invited Barwikowski and Nostrana's Cathy Whims to battle at this year's event]. He responded with a lot of cuss words and that he’d never be part of an event that had the winner use a pig from Iowa. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

The evening went sharply downhill from there ending in arrests and hospitalisations. I wonder what it says about the American food connoisseur. Can we imagine cuddly Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall getting all medieval with someone's ass because he roasted an out-of-county pig at the River Cottage open day? No, we can't.

If you've ever 'enjoyed' American fine-dining, you'll know that complication and detailed provenance are regarded as good things in themselves. So the winning dish?
Olympic Provisions chef Jason Barwikowski was the big winner last night, taking home the title of Prince of Porc with his ravioli in broth, pork-belly niblets and tasty banh mi sandwiches all made from a Red Wattle pig from Iowa’s Koerperich Farm.

 I've got indigestion just reading it.

H/t Felix the Salmon.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Victoria Park life

When we visit Victoria Park in Hackney it takes me back to its namesake in Cardiff. It's more than the name. They look alike, as do, I imagine, most of the country's Victoria Parks. Victorian park designers - or, at least, designers of Victoria Parks - appear to have followed the same template: two-parts savannah-like parkland combined with one-part gardens around a water feature.

Developers of houses fronting Victoria Parks also appear to have adhered more closely to a period than a vernacular. Red-brick terraces with apologetic crenellations and multiple modest peaks; reticently and domestically gothic. My maternal grandparents, Nan and Pop as we called them, lived in one of these houses - one of the ones looking out onto the Cardiff edition, Victoria Park in Canton.

Looking back, I wonder how they afforded to live there, being a working class couple (he was working as a drayman, for Whitbread I think). I'm sure they worked and saved hard and I suspect the neighbourhood was going through a shabby period when they bought. Two other accommodations would also have helped. My great-grandmother - Nan's mother - lived in the front room on the ground floor and they also let some of the upstairs rooms.

We children called my great-grandmother Nanny-in-the-Cupboard: in our early years we literally believed she lived in a cupboard rather than the front room, a theory made more plausible as we weren't allowed past the door. On our arrival, we'd walk down the hallway when a side door would open and she'd stick her head out, usually making some comment that might be generously described as cheeky. She was a small woman, barely 5' tall, whose blonde curls were usually tightly packed into a hair net. She always wore light pink lipstick striped across her lips like warpaint.

Her challenging comment would usually be addressed to my Dad who she often dismissed as a 'Welsh bugger', despite her being Welsh herself (her name was Gwen Thomas). However, she was a Cardiffian, the only true city dwellers in the Principality. They have a distinctive accent - an inherently cheeky, nasal twang not dissimilar to the city accents of the West Midlands - and the dismissive, mocking attitude to the inhabitants of the rural hinterland typical of the traditional urbanite. She treated my Dad as something of an aboriginal, warning her daughter that the man her grand-daughter was marrying had 'a touch of the tar-brush' about him.

She was a game old girl, who went down the pub well into her nineties, smoking, drinking, playing the piano as well as skittling.  She obviously had quite an appetite for life, something she shared with her first husband, my great-grandfather, the son of recently-immigrated Lithuanian Jews.  He'd done well for himself, learning to ride whilst with a British cavalry regiment in Egypt during the Great War (where he contracted the malaria that killed him in his late-thirties) and running a car showroom on London's Portland Street that was sufficiently successful to allow him to continue his riding on Rotten Row in London's Hyde Park.

I've seen a photo of him: he had a handsome aquiline face, with a twinkling but self-contained expression, as if something that should have been disclosed wasn't. However, this may just be a consequence of my seeing him through the filter of his indiscretions. His appetite for life got the better of him in a way that put himself on the wrong side of the law. He was a convicted bigamist: Nanny-in-the-Cupboard and her three children were run in tandem with another wife and family and with at least one mistress.

However, his charm seemed capable of compensating for his transgressions. Apparently, at his trial - at Marylebone Magistrates Court, I believe - his two wives and his current girlfriend (potentially wife number three?) took a practical view of proceedings and befriended each other, sharing a bench at the front of the visitors' gallery when they weren't testifying. The judge in his summing-up looked over at the three petite blonde women sitting together and remarked that while he abhorred my great-grandfather's morals he couldn't find fault with his taste. This didn't, however, save him from going down for a stretch.

As I've mentioned, the other way Nan and Pop managed to defray the cost of a largish house was to let out rooms. My brother and I would often be put to bed in a vacant one. Two things stick in my memory: bright orange, clinging nylon sheets (it was the 1970s) and the readymade plastic signs screwed onto the wall admonishing 'No Soliciting'.

At the time, I had no idea what this might mean and never really got a satisfactory answer from my parents - I recall something about not being allowed to sell things from the rooms, which made me think of travelling salesmen opening their suitcases for favoured private clients. Being precocious I knew the word 'solicitor' and so suspected some arcane legal significance.

I now wonder what precipitated the signs being put up, what sort of people stayed as guests and what effect the prohibition might have had on them. It may well be that the area was more down-at-heel than I remember it.

The mysteries of the house, the fun of the park over the road with its towering slide and boating lake, as well as the odd big city treat - such as a Chinese take-away of chicken chop suey half-and-half with pork balls and radioactively pink sweet and sour sauce, or my brother and me being bought matching new gear from the Peacocks around the corner as if we were twins - all made for exciting stays in Victoria Park for a couple of country mice like my brother and me.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Showing the way to the small fish

News from Iran that isn't being widely covered over here: a general strike in eastern Iranian cities and executions of trade unionists. One of the victims was also a teacher, and, it seems, a remarkable one:
The crime committed by teacher and trade unionist Farzad Kamangar? “Enmity against God.” After a trial that lasted a mere seven minutes, Kamangar languished in prison for nearly five years before he was hanged last Sunday. In his last letter from Evin prison, he wrote: “Is it possible to be a teacher and not show the way to the sea to the small fish? Is it possible to stare into the eyes of the children of this nation and remain silent? Is it possible to accept the responsibility of being a teacher and informing the people, but not say anything?”

The anniversary of Ahmadinejad's non-election is on June 12th. We can expect more of this in the coming weeks. I'm not sure what good it does but I nevertheless think it's important not to lose sight of the cause of these brave dissidents.

 H/t Harry's Place.

Robin who?

It's a relief to read snappy and decisive reviews like this:
Wow. What a mess. Remember when Ridley Scott directed good movies? Among other things, this film features the bizarre decision to do an interpretation of Robin Hood who (a) is not called “Robin Hood,” (b) doesn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor, (c) doesn’t live in Sherwood Forest, and (d) doesn’t fight with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Instead you get a boring and historically confused account of the First Baron’s War.

Oh, and (e) he has an Irish accent.

I wasn't sure the world really needed another Robin Hood movie (not that this has turned out to be one). But having enjoyed Gladiator I thought I might give it a go. Now I don't have to feel self-critical about not bothering.

H/t for the Oirishry: TFAD.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

With fire and rhubarb

'Rhubarb is the fruit of barbarians... they are armed with stalks, hard stalks they brandish in their hairy fists, stalks of raw rhubarb.'

Friday, 14 May 2010

With fire and sword

I missed this when it came out (easy to do with the capacious Sunday Times, especially if you don't read it).

It's a playful interview with Norman Stone, who has a book to push. There are some typically sparky comments from the Professor:
Stone was born in Glasgow and still retains his Glaswegian accent, which makes his eastern European languages sound all the more authentic. Does he have any sympathy with the Scottish Nationalists? He snorts again. “Put it this way: when the British Army puts down the Scots with fire and the sword, I shall be riding on the tanks, acting as their interpreter.”

Should be music to the ears of some Scottish Labour MPs given how they came out in hives at mention of a coalition with the Nats. I've rarely witnessed such dismissive loathing expressed by one party about another on this island. Strangely, though, Labour and Plaid work fairly harmoniously together in the Welsh Assembly Government. Why does there seem to be so much more antipathy between the Labour and the nationalist party in Scotland than in Wales?

I have a feeling I know what the Professor's opinion might be. He once remarked to me: "The Scots are either on their knees or at your neck; the Welsh don't even reach up to your knees".

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Speaker corners

A very fine sketch of the First Commoner. I too shall keep commentary to a minimum.

Felix Dennis Q&A

I read a Felix Dennis Q&A on the weekend. He wrote a seriously interesting, insightful and wise book on what it takes to become rich (ignore the 'how to...' title - it's much better than that [by the way, I won't be making the cut]). His poetry, however...not so much*.

Here's a short selection of Qs and As:

What is the worst thing anyone's said to you? 
"I am not begging you – I am asking you as a friend."

Which living person do you most despise? 
Such an emotion places one, however remotely, within another's power.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you? 
Fear nothing – failing that, fake it!

The second strikes me as very true and good advice if you want an equable life. However, such a self-denying approach to vituperation, as well as being difficult to maintain, does remove a fair bit of fun from things.

* I would guess one of the more reliable ways to become a much published poet is to become a multi-millionaire publisher first. As for his public performances he offers unlimited free wine. Lack of self-knowledge isn't something you could accuse him of.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Otterly thrilling news

For those otter fanciers amongst you, here's an update on the story that's really been preoccupying us for the last week or two - and there's a Hollywood angle.

'In a river of trouble...'

Sam & Dave in No10: "When the day come, and you know you're down, In a river of trouble, you're 'bout to drown..."

H/t: Lure the Sea.

Floats like a butterfly, stings like a horsefly

So Nick Clegg has turned out to be a masterful negotiator, leaving the other leaders, as well as those eminences grises P Mandelson and A Campbell, trailing in his wake. Negotiation is a combination of art, science and temperament, which is not to say it can't be learnt or that a natural aptitude can't be developed.

Which makes Clegg's experience in what is thought of as one of the toughest arenas for negotiation, that of global trade, particularly valuable. Whilst carrying Leon Brittan's* bag in Brussels he was in charge of the EC negotiating team on Chinese and Russian accession talks to the World Trade Organisation. Against Chinese and Russians and on behalf of a gallimaufry of Europeans - that's hard ball, demanding stuff.

Anyway, he appears to be a much more considerable politician than I believed before his success in the debates and before he parlayed a tricky hand into what looks right now like tidy winnings. He deserves his name, floating like a televisual butterfly but also stinging like the eponymous horsefly.

* Apparently, he tried to persuade Clegg to join the Tories. Well, it took a while...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Bilious Green

Stupidity and evil are the same, if you go by the results.

That's the admirable Margaret Attwood, from 'Surfacing'. She's most recently been in the news for boycotting a literary festival in Dubai which banned a book with a gay character.

We've recently learnt that she's the hero of Caroline Lucas, Britain's first ever Green MP, having recently been elected for the Brighton Pavilion constituency, and a potential backer of a mooted progressive government.

Unfortunately, though, there's more to Lucas than you might guess: she's a signatory to this letter, one of the more stupid/evil bits of writing I've seen in the papers this year.

(An example of an intelligent/good letter, largely from a different corner of the left, can be found here.)

Monday, 10 May 2010

Nailed by Wolf

For the vanishingly small number of people interested in this stuff, here's a summary of financial reforms recommended by the FT's Martin Wolf - I think they're spot on:
First, raise capital requirements... Leverage ratios of 30 to one are crazy. Three to one looks far more sensible.
Second, institutions must also have substantial liabilities that can be converted into equity or treated just as if they were equity, in a bankruptcy procedure...
Third, make capital requirements powerfully counter-cyclical.
Fourth, make sure that banks hold a large stock of assets that are easy to value by lenders of last resort.
Fifth, shift incentives within firms. The managers should receive bonuses in shares they cannot sell until years after they have left . . .
Sixth, impose much higher capital and collateral requirements against trading in derivatives. All such activities should be moved on to exchanges. Yes, innovation would be slowed. When the costs of innovation are borne by others, that is good sense.
Seventh, radically improve the quality of information available. Particularly important is a change in payment of rating agencies. Since these provide a public good, they must be funded by a general levy.

It's desperately important that Britain's new government takes a lead on implementing these. We're all in mortal financial danger until they're in place.

H/t Thomas PM Barnett.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Cause for civil liberties optimism?

This is very welcome news:
The Tories have pledged to halt the extradition of Gary McKinnon, an autism sufferer accused of hacking into the US military’s computer systems, if they form a government.
A David Cameron administration would challenge the terms of an agreement between the British and the US governments used to charge McKinnon in America.
The Conservatives believe the extradition treaty, intended to catch terror suspects, is being misapplied. Their position is supported by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader.

An unjust agreement which has been slavishly misapplied. I hadn't realised this shameful action was also underway:
A review of Britain’s extradition rules would be welcomed by a woman whom [Home Secretary Alan] Johnson agreed could be extradited to the US on charges of “abducting” her daughter.
Liz Prosser, 59, who now lives in Wales, gave birth to her daughter Tamara in America. She fled the country with her 12 years ago after being told her visa would not be renewed and she must leave Tamara behind with her father, from whom Prosser had parted. She is battling against extradition.

Let's hope this pledge is an indication that a ConLib Government would put into action what the parties have said about the importance of civil liberties.

Alan Watkins

I'm very sad that Alan Watkins has died. He was one of my journalistic heroes (here, here).

There's a fine appreciation here by Robert Harris:
Watkins was fond of comparing himself to a highly skilled craftsman – a lathe-operator at Rolls-Royce, say – whose task each week was to produce a precision object to the best of his ability. He did it with consummate skill, always using a fountain pen (he never mastered a computer) and always measuring what he wrote against the stern syntactical standards of his late mother, Violet, a Welsh school teacher: "She knew about sequence of mood and sequence of tenses, the relative pronoun as subject in its own clause, and the difference between a straight and a subjunctive conditional."
It was Watkins who called Labour "the people's party", and invariably referred to the trade unions as "THIGMOO" ("this great movement of ours"). It was Watkins who first observed that "politics is a rough old trade" and who revived the sobriquet "young fogeys" to describe the twentysomething Thatcherite journalists on the Spectator and in theDaily Telegraph. Of Hugh Gaitskell's famous "fight, and fight, and fight again" speech" at the 1960 Labour party conference, he observed: "The speech was crude, vulgar, abusive and intellectually negligible. Inevitably, it was a great success."
Only Watkins, with his ear for the rhythms of English prose and love of the demotic, would have observed of the sports desk of a national newspaper that their names were "as solid and reassuring a presence as the Trumpton fire brigade: Jones, Rea, Simon O'Hay, Bateson, Glover, Tench". It took a journalist of Watkins's comic skill to sum up the uneasy after-effects of a conversation with the sinuous Tory MP Sir Edward du Cann, which he compared to "descending a staircase in the dark and missing the final step".

I liked Watkins because of his learning, wit, style, humanity, irreverence and Welshness. I've recommended it before but his memoir 'A Short Walk Down Fleet Street' is indispensable to anyone who'd like to experience vicariously the ambience of what will probably be regarded as journalism's golden age (at least for journalists).

It also gives one a true sense of British politics in the late-twentieth century, which like politics everywhere is as much about people as ideas. Given his own feel for history, I think one of the compliments that Watkins would have most appreciated is that his work will live on as a valuable primary source for future historians of the period. You can't say that about many journalists.

By the way, I met him once in the M&S in Islington back in the '90s. He was ahead of me in the queue and I was brave enough to tell him I enjoyed his column (in the not entirely thriving Independent on Sunday). He thanked me, before - shaking his head in mock sorrow - urging me to 'just keep on buying the paper'. Not much of a reminiscence but enough to suggest he was a decent, humorous and modest chap, a craftsman in the best sense of the word who never forgot that he plied his trade for the enlightenment and amusement of his readers.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Argument is good

The leaders' debates confirmed how much most people dislike argument. The little approval worms that tracked the audiences' responses always headed downwards when hammer and tongs were produced. 'Argument' appears to have taken on some of the unseemly connotations of 'row'. I've seen it reported that this dislike of argument is particularly strong when the politicians are perceived to be arguing 'for the sake of it'.

But arguing for the sake of it is the main way policies are examined and tested in our adversarial political system. Oppositions have a duty to oppose, as the old political saw has it. The idea is that it's only through rigorous questioning that truths will be revealed and propositions tested.

It's a mode of enquiry that's deeply engrained in English life. Our court system, for instance, is based around adversarially competing positions between which a jury (or a judge) is required to choose. But I don't think people complain about that - it's seen as a fair way to get to the bottom of things, even though everyone knows that the barristers are engaging in what is something of a charade.

Avoiding 'pointless' argument seems on the face of it very reasonable, not to say rational. But I favour our adversarial approach. Experience tells me - along with philosophers of the Open Society - that it's always better to debate openly and vigorously an issue before deciding the best path. It makes it more likely that good objections or better alternatives will be brought to light. And sometimes debate needs to be stimulated artificially, by someone playing devil's advocate.

This issue provides another instance of how the British constitution's seeming irrationalities contain deeper wisdoms. 'Ya boo' politics serves a purpose and, if the election result does bring forth constitutional change, we should be wary of shallow rationalisations.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Big news

I forgot to mention the big news of last night. Our youngest did his first poo on the potty. Frankly, everything since has been something of an anticlimax.

Dream venues

My oldest friend visited us in London last weekend with his two children. We met at primary school when we were eight or so and I'd just moved into the town. His son, who's eleven, goes to a school that's a rival to our old one and enquiries about how he was getting on inevitably led on to reminiscences.

Our old school really was a quite magical place. It was housed in a pair of large Victorian buildings constructed and tiled with Cotswold stone. At the back were gardens threaded with little brooks and incorporating an open air theatre whose stage was hedged around by beeches. In the summer, we'd have stories read to us whilst we sat crossed-legged on soft, cropped lawns shaded by pussy willows and silver birches. Out there the teacher's voice always seemed quiet but clear, intimate but distant. I remember the fragrance of the roses, the drifting pollen, the warm touch of the sun. It wasn't difficult to lose yourself in those stories.

Beyond these gardens was a meadow, where we played football in the winter and rounders in the summer. In the summer term, if it had been warm and dry for a week or so, the dinner ladies - who were also our playground monitors - would pronounce the meadow open. You'd hear the news first by incredulous rumour and then have it confirmed by a clamour that echoed around the parched and dusty playground: a fluting chant of 'mea-dow, mea-dow, mea-dow' would drown out the dinner ladies' cries for calm and dozens of children would harmlessly cram themselves into a narrow passage that led from the front of the school to the path that ran alongside the garden and on to the blessed meadow.

Once there we would run around like skittish ponies let out to summer pasture, eventually collapsing exhausted, pausing awhile to shyly watch the girls make daisy-chains.

It really was that wonderful so I make no apologies for my lyricism (not that my wife isn't a bit tired of my occasional raptures on the subject). Anyway, in the course of telling each other how magnificent and interesting it all was I was reminded that one of my schoolday haunts still appears as a venue in my dreams. But, strangely, it isn't one of the places that are most memorable for me in my waking life.

The place in question sits in a handsome, Georgian, Cotswold-stone building (here's the Google Street View) whose purpose is social, an assembly room as the Georgians called such places. We used it for school lunches and, on occasion, plays, carol services and important school assemblies.

But it's not the main hall that I occasionally revisit in my dreams, it's a room that runs along the back of the hall, the other side of a kitchen area. This ancillary space was used by a playgroup, to give old folk their lunches and no doubt for other useful things.

So far, so unmemorable. And I'm afraid to say that nothing much happens in this space in my dreams: it holds no great fears. So why on earth is it stuck there?

It's taken me a while to work it out. A use that I'd overlooked was that of changing area for the school nativity play, which would be put on in the hall for the delight of parents. I hated being on public display (still dislike it) and I know that one year, despite my best efforts, I played one of the Three Kings.

I'm pretty sure the pre-performance nerves, the adrenalin rushing round my young body, had some sort of photographic effect on my surroundings, burning them into my subconscious, to be wheeled out now and again as a bland backdrop to some anxiety-fed dream. Looking back, I could have done worse.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Feel lucky

A little something to make you feel lucky today (from here):
Kim Jong Il and Vladimir Putin are having a summit meeting in Moscow. During a break, they're bored, and they decide to take a bet to see whose bodyguards are more loyal. 
Putin is on the 20th floor and calls on his bodyguard Ivan, opens the window, and says: "Ivan, jump!" 
Sobbing, Ivan says: "Mr. President, how can you ask me to do that? I have a wife and child waiting for me at home." 
Putin sheds a tear himself, apologises to Ivan, and sends him away. 
Next, it's Kim Jong Il's turn. He calls his bodyguard Lee Myung Man and yells: "Lee Myung Man, jump!" 
Not hesitating for a split second, Lee Myung Man is just about to jump out the window. 
Putin grabs Lee Myung Man to prevent him from jumping and says: "Are you out of your mind? If you jump out this window, you'll die! This is the 20th floor!" 
Nevertheless, Lee Myung Man is still struggling, trying to escape Putin's embrace and jump out the window: "Mr. Putin, please let me go! I have a wife and child at home!"

This may be too close to the truth to be funny.

Be damned

Still typing by jabbing at the keys. So, laboriously (as ever, some might say)...

Here's a topical election poem by RS. Well it's topical apart from the dated characterisations (or caricatures). I can't say I sympathise with the conclusion but I do like the idea of being 'damned for your own sake'.

He has the vote 
and a stupendous future
awaits this little-- 
     VOTE TORY--this little
nation of . . . . What does crachach
     (Every drop
           of water is worth its weight
           in tears, but they are running
           out now like the variations on
           the cynghanedd.)
LABOUR and protect
your class. There is an aristocracy
of the pit, too.
                        VOTE LIBERAL
and allow England to enjoy
your prospects.
                   VOTE PLAID, mun
and be damned for your own sake.

For whatever reason seems valid to you, do make sure you damn yourself today.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Sorcery from Huddersfield

Just finished reading John Richardson's Sorcerer's Apprentice, a witty and perceptive memoir. Once his early life is sketched out - delightfully - the bulk of the book concerns his time living in the South of France where he was friendly with Picasso, Cocteau and other artists and collectors of the same vintage. A well-examined life, some high-end gossip, a collection of fascinating portraits and intriguing art historical insights make for a readable brew (thanks to Barendina for the recommendation, which I pass on).

I bought it second-hand (Abe Books?) for £0.01 plus p&p. It's an unused copy acquired, catalogued and laminated by the University of Huddersfield, an institution that is new to me. I know it's unused as it's in pristine condition and has an unstamped library flyleaf.

This transaction, or series of transactions, seems wasteful and even somewhat melancholy (despite my ending up with a bargain). Perhaps a librarian's aspirations for his student readers outstripped their interests, or at least their reading lists? Or was the book's withdrawal before it had a chance to be read a matter of policy - the product of a purge of perceived snobberies or in favour of art-theoretic approaches? Was a new art history course stillborn because of a change in funding or fewer applications than anticipated?

In any event, the University of Huddersfield and Picasso's Provence won't be communing within the covers of this book.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Looney Tunes fingers

Two of my fingers are throbbing like they're on Looney Tunes. Typing is slow and posting will be on hold for a day or two. In the meantime, here are otters.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

How far they have fallen

Labour ministers are complaining about being savaged by some fearsome beast called the 'Lib Dem press'. It's all too weird.