Saturday, December 24, 2005
Christmas 2005 (1) - this year the fashion for decorating the exterior of houses really caught on. Originally coming from America, the practice usually upsets the neighbours. I quite like to see the houses lit up, although I'm not sure what the inhabitants are saying about themselves ("look at me"?).
As a counter-point to the excessive materialistic consumption of last week, this photograph of a homeless person, sleeping on the steps of New St Pancras Church (oblivious to the passing commuters, framed by the building's architectural grandeur) is a reminder that many people are sleeping rough and going hungry at a time of unprecedented national wealth and personal prosperity. The government claims that the homeless figures are falling, and that there are enough hostel places for everyone. The charity Crisis says that that homeless are being hustled in and out of hostels to manipulate the overall figures, that many homeless are not counted, that in any case most hostels are too dangerous for the most vulnerable homeless people.
It is a theme that is repeated across Europe. The United Kingdom has not (yet) abandoned allegiance to the idea of the welfare state, and there is free education, free medical attention, free social security payments, free advice and training for the unemployed, free/subsidised housing for the needy (decided on a controversial points system). Despite all this support many people struggle to survive, and cannot cope with the pressures and demands that modern society places upon them.
A revolutionary solution:
"What is to be done?" asked Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in his 1902 book on Bolshevist revolutionary tactics.
If the poor are to be trampled in the gutter then at least the rich should be dragged down to join them, Lenin argued. The communists briefly achieved an equality of misery before human nature reasserted itself in a new stratification of society as injust as the old version. A nation is judged by the way it treats its most helpless citizens, and the Russian elites were cast in the balance and found wanting (it is a warning that should be remembered by the newly rich classes in India and China).
A liberal-intellectual-artistic solution:
"What is to be done?" obsessively asked Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt) in the beautifully photographed Peter Weir film The Year Of Living Dangerously (Mel Gibson as an Australian journalist-slob, pursuing diplomatic clerk Sigourney Weaver, both of them oblivious to the poverty and social deprivation of Indonesia on the brink of revolution).
Poor though the London homeless might be, they are not as desperate as the destitute of the Third World. 2005 was been a year when attention focussed on the plight of the continent of Africa. The main initiative was the (to my mind) self-indulgent one of putting on a music concert. All the big names of the pop and rock establishment were involved. Am I alone in finding this condescending project deeply unsettling? The idea of putting on a party to help the poor parallels the ball given by Lady Clarendon at Dublin Castle for the relief of the indigent starving itinerants of the Irish Potato Famine.
A religious solution:
"What is to be done?" the people asked John the Baptist in Luke Chapter 3, verse 10 (the answer being: "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise").
"The Bible gives us two options" said the fluty-voiced High Anglican priest in the reassuring gloom of Evensong at St Mary's. "The Old Testament tells us we must give ten per cent. The New Testament tells us we must give everything." Incense lingered on the air, residue of the day's services (brought up in the Mill Hill tradition of John Keble, our family has always been the highest of High Anglicans). That particular church (St Mary's, not John Keble's) had a reputation for combining quasi-catholic ritual with near-Marxist sermons. The "give everything" option was definitely stressed as being a preferred mode of conduct to ensure an easy conscience.
"We already give more than ten per cent through our taxes" argues Gary Spencer. "The basic rate of income tax is twenty-two per cent. Most of that money goes to the less-well-off." This argument ignores the fact that most tax income is siphoned off by politicians and vested interests into projects and schemes designed directly or indirectly to help get them re-elected. Only by fortuitous accident does any of the money go to the needy. Government largess always comes with strings attached and favours to be owed.
Only once, on a personal level, have I tried giving "everything". I was changing trains at Doncaster, and had over an hour until my connection. It was early evening, early in the Summer. I walked from the station into the town, which was effectively deserted (even though it was only just gone six o'clock). Eventually, after twenty minutes, the street I was following emerged into a featureless ring road, busy traffic blocking any further advance. Deciding to go back to the station, I turned to retrace my steps.
As I did so I saw a homeless person - male, indeterminate age (perhaps I avoided looking at him too closely), grey clothing. He was sat on the pavement, slumped against the wall, his hand held out as he muttered "Any spare change". I walked past him a few paces then decided to give him some money.
Retracing my steps, I held out a £20 note, all the cash I had on me at that moment (I kept my train ticket and credit cards, so it was not such a big sacrifice). The homeless person was hesitant about taking the money, asking "Are you sure" then calmly putting the note away. In the margin of familiarity that the exchange had created I advised him to go to the Salvation Army for help, but he said he was waiting to go into a flat, and was okay being outside in the summer.
I walked back down the street, increasing my pace as I didn't want to be late. From nowhere (literally) a short man in rough clothes (grubby jeans, green and red pullover, very dirty boots) appeared and started walking alongside me. "Did you just give him twenty pound?" he asked. I shook my head in reply, not wanting to encourage his company. "I know for a fact someone else gave him twenty pound this morning" he told me (presumably expecting me to go back and ask for a refund). We walked on, and although I was going quite quickly he kept up with me, walking side by side like old friends. All along the street he loudly greeted other homeless people, who were getting ready to spend the night in shop doorways. Homeless people seemed everywhere. The person walking at my side was known to all of them, and may have been a sort of leader (or chief bully - the line between the two is always blurred).
The street led into the ring road (this time the other side of the town centre) and I went towards the underpass that led to the station, on the other side of the flow of traffic. "I turn off here" I said to the leader of the homeless. Wordlessly he stood and watched me go.
Saturday, December 17, 2005
Into the foyer, furniture in Louis XVI style, upholstered in deep blue (you had to sit up straight on the sofas, which were a little uncomfortable). We waited for a while until the arrival of Robert Leiper, who had flown over from America the day before (staying with his sister who currently has an academic appointment in Paris). In that setting Robert Leiper reminded me of a portrait by Tamara de Lempicka (S.A.I. Le Grand-Duc Gabriel - the haughty features match Robert’s).
Past a big display of fresh roses, we went into the marble-lined restaurant. Lunch at the Hotel Crillon is more an institution than an event. The restaurant has cultivated a style of sumptuous dining that has become almost a cult. Every aspect (the table, the ambience, the menu) is arranged with the same attention to detail as if Charles Swann himself was expected. The waiters were fast-moving, darting around us in a blur of efficiency and flapping tail-coats. Pate foie gras (even though I am not happy about how it is made - in yet another compromise I went along with everyone else), terrine, lamb with vichyssoise, caramelised fruit. To drink we had a bottle of Sancerre, which was wonderful (worth the trip to France in itself). We went round the table proposing toasts - I suggested “La Reine”, primarily to the present Queen of England, but also doubling for that long-gone Queen of France who had her head sliced from her body to satisfy a howling mob barely a hundred metres from where we sat. Did her spirit still hang in the ether, I wondered, nostalgic for her singing lessons? Did she join us, craving mortal company, sitting in the empty place left for Alan Nixon? As usual the effect of the alcohol was to make me feel melancholic, and I knew that if left unchecked the melancholy would turn to morbidity. This downward drift in my thoughts was arrested by Gary Spencer nudging my elbow and pointing across the restaurant to one of the windows.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
The first was The Trench starring Paul Nicholls and directed by William Boyd. It was a depiction of trench life on the western front during the First World War. The acting was good, and the sets were authentic, but the film was basically a variation of Peter Weir's 1981 film Gallipoli (except that Peter Weir is a better director than William Boyd and Paul Nicholls is a better actor than Mel Gibson).
On Monday I watched Downfall, a German film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Alexandra Maria Lara as a secretary in the Berlin bunker (that bunker) during the last days of the Second World War (the script was based on the memoirs of Traudl Jung). The film captured the mood of claustrophobia, fanaticism and paranoia, seen through the (supposedly innocent) eyes of Traudl Jung. It was a fascinating film, and also explained why the German regime was convinced, right to the last minute, that they would win. Previously I had thought that the German leaders were self-deluded or even mad, refusing to acknowledge that their forces were overwhelmed and their cities in ruins. However the film gave a different view, conveying the total belief the Germans had in the cold-blooded theory of Darwinian selection. Darwinian theory underpinned all their actions, and convinced them that ultimately the stronger and more ruthless forces would triumph over the weaker nations (as we know, Darwin's theory was faulty in this case).
I only manage to see films on television since there never seems to be enough time to go to the cinema (although I do hope to see Mrs Henderson Presents). Cinema is one of the most powerful visual mediums - you are sat in the dark, looking at colour images many times larger than life, listening to sophisticated sound systems. Films on television are a poor substitute.
Downfall was broadcast on new satellite channel More4. I am very impressed with this new channel. Right from the start they seem to be placing an emphasis upon quality of content rather than a populist drive to gain ratings (that is also the policy of this weblog!).
Saturday, December 10, 2005
I am not a naturally out-going person. Consequently I find the four or five weeks before Christmas, made up of a relentless series of social gatherings, parties and office dinners, rather heavy going. Plus my sister is extremely ill with throat cancer (any Christians reading this entry please pray for her recovery).
The past two weeks in particular have consisted of too many late nights, when I have battled against a perpetual cold (which shows no signs of leaving), and an average of five hours sleep per night. So when Marie-Astrid e-mailed me to ask me along to a birthday celebration I was not enthusiastic. Especially when she told me she wanted to mark her birthday by going along to a candle-light Christmas musical evening in a local “castle” (an event that sounded so high-kitsch and embarrassing that normally I would not go near the place).
But Marie-Astrid is half-Danish and is enthusiastic about Old English customs (including entirely fabricated ones such as this). Also, as a recently-divorced person she is struggling to build up a social network - most of her previous friends were members of her husband’s family, and have abandoned her. And Marie-Astrid is always good company.
So I said I would go along, and on Wednesday drove to the northern town where she lives (“northern” is a relative term - some people would consider it to be in the east Midlands). Because I went there straight from work I was still in a suit, and wondered if I would be over-dressed. When I got to Marie-Astrid’s house I found she was dressed smartly, plus we were joined by two of her friends (Emily and Julie, both of whom work for a big charity) who were in long dresses (long formal dresses, like you would see at a ball).
Anyway, we drove for miles along narrow muddy lanes, until my car became almost entirely plastered in mud. We were obviously going deep into the countryside as there were no houses, no other cars, no lights whichever way one looked. Eventually, following Emily’s directions for about half an hour, we saw in the distance the “castle” lit up on the top of a looming black hill.
The “castle” is not a castle at all, but is in fact a ducal palace built in 1816 in a form of Regency Gothic (turrets, battlements and gothic arches overlaying a symmetrical and rational style of architecture that is essentially Georgian). The place is huge, and built for entertaining on the grandest scale. The ducal family must have considerable reserves of money, as everywhere was well kept - none of the usual signs of decay you see in big houses.
We couldn’t drive right up to the “castle” but had to park on the lower slopes, stewards directing us into a field. There were many other cars parked in rows, and I began to fear that the event would be crowded. Leaving the car we walked across the field (Marie-Astrid, Emily and Julie picking their way in high-heeled shoes, complaining about the mud) and past a sort of lodge, joining a procession of other guests making their way up the extremely steep hill, the direction indicated by electric lights strung out along the side of the path.
After about twenty minutes of stiff walking we arrived on top of the hill where a very cold strong wind was blowing. The “castle” towered over us, floodlit and looking as insubstantial as a film set. We followed everyone else through a gothic doorway into what seemed to be a sort of armoury (the walls decorated with displays of antique guns and swords, suits of armour standing in niches). This chamber although vast, was absolutely crammed with people, so that we could hardly move. Upstairs, on a sort of gallery, a big choir was belting out traditional Christmas carols, and at a bar glasses of mulled wine were being handed out. My worst fears, that the evening would be crowded, clichéd and uncomfortable, seemed to be realised.
But I was wrong.
Although there were hundreds of people at the event (almost all of them in full evening dress), as soon as we moved away from the armoury the “castle” absorbed everyone, so that there were never more than twenty or so people in each cavernous room. The interiors of the “castle” are so ornate and decorative that the swathes of Christmas baubles and tinsel seemed positively restrained by comparison. And the effect of such big chambers lit almost entirely by dozens and dozens of candles gave even the most over-familiar Christmas songs and carols new and (I hesitate to use this word, but nothing else seems apposite) magical settings.
We could wander all over the “castle”, each room we entered having a different musical performance, the thickness of the stone walls preventing the sounds from clashing. From the choir in the ballroom to a jazz band in a picture gallery, to a piano soloist in the State Dining Room (blond hair, serious expression on her young face, she played a succession of piano pieces on the theme of moonlight - Clare de lune, Blue Moon, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata). Open fires were in every room, and so many candles were on display that the fire risk must have been considerable.
At one stage we entered a sort of long gallery, a room of ridiculously expansive proportions (over a hundred and thirty feet in length), the furnishings sumptuous and extravagant. As we approached the end of this gallery the wall was made up of a huge floor-to-ceiling mirror. Marie-Astrid, Emily and Julie stood in front of this giant looking-glass and in a co-ordinated act of vanity dropped their coats to the floor and admired their long dresses (at a risk of catching cold, since the chamber was not warm).
We finished the evening in the small chapel (the altarpiece being a painting of The Holy Family by Murillo). A choir of women called Voices From A Small Place (eleven of them, various ages), were singing medieval carols. The women were dressed in red evening clothes, all different. They were led by an extrovert women aged about forty-five, and seemed just as interested in singing for each other as performing for an audience. Normally I am ambivalent about middle-class interpretations of English folk culture (satirised by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim), but this choir didn’t take themselves too seriously and stayed the right side of sentimentality. Their voices were very fine, and a rendition of the Coventry Carol was genuinely moving.
At the end of the evening we returned to the car. Most other people had already left, churning large parts of the field to mud. Consequently my car got stuck in a boggy patch and refused to move forward. Marie-Astrid, Emily and Julie immediately got out of the car and attempted to push it (in the dark, slipping in mud, not thinking of their shoes or long dresses) but still no movement. The field was on a fairly steep slope, and eventually I just let the car roll backwards onto some un-churned grass where the wheels could get some grip and I could get some momentum and go forward again. When I looked at the car the next day there were three pairs of handprints in the thick mud on the back.
Sunday, December 04, 2005
(Above) Baconsthorpe Castle in north Norfolk, which I visited as a child. I can remember being completely over-awed by the antiquity of the place. Baconsthorpe features prominently in the medieval Paston Letters, which describe feuding between the Heydon and Paston families over the Fastolf inheritance (Sir John Fastolf amassed a huge fortune from plunder during various invasions of France - Shakespeare satirised him as Sir John Falstaff in Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor).
The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story
(as Tennyson said).
(Above) an old legend connects these towers with a local castle.
After a hurried lunch (roast lamb) a long drive along muddy roads, eventually arriving at a melancholy town. Four grand former banks facing each other at the intersection of a crossroads, assorted shops trailing off along the four roads, petering out into the countryside. Apart from a good second-hand bookshop everywhere was shut.
Helen B and I had made the journey to look at the porch of the church. A local legend recounts that it originally came from a nearby castle (long since torn down), and reassembled as a grand entrance to the north door of the church. Certainly the two round towers were not ecclesiastical architecture, and were not bonded with the rest of the porch.
Already the light was beginning to fade, and the damp silence of the afternoon created a mood of expectation - would the legendary porch be a portal to another time? In a way it was, as when we entered the church we found a stillness and a darkness that seemed palpably from another age. We also found something else…
In the north west corner of the building was the fourteenth century tomb of a knight, his life-size stone effigy lying on a decorated stone chest. In full armour (with a belt of medallions), feet resting on a lion, his left arm held a shield emblazoned with two leopards. The head rested on a huge helmet, the face looking out at us from a petrified balaclava of chain mail.
“It was his castle the two towers came from” said Helen B (making up history as she went along). “After his death they were brought here as a memorial.” In a reversal of the Sleeping Beauty story she leaned over the knight and kissed his stone lips, and then relapsed into giggles.
Saturday, December 03, 2005
(Above) picture I took in the Place Vendome, setting sun, very cold air.
A short while back I applied for two days holiday, and as I filled in the form Sales Director Mitch Holmes looked over my shoulder and asked what I was up to. I explained that a group of my college friends would meet up every year just before Christmas. This year we were going to Paris for the day - by leaving early in the morning we could get to Paris by about midday, have a few hours in the city and be back in London by about ten or eleven (loaded with duty-free alcohol).
This information made Mitch Holmes very animated. He explained that he had a fairly big client in Paris and had been wondering what Christmas gift to give him (the company entertains all its major customers this time of year). I had given him the idea of going to over to Paris for lunch with the client, paid for by the company. Normally he would go to client lunches with Sarah Linton, but given the sensitive nature of their relationship (they are not-so-secret lovers) he obviously decided a freebie tryst in the city of love would be asking for trouble. Therefore I got roped into going (and thus have the prospect of two day-trips to Paris within a couple of weeks).
So on Thursday…
It was 5am when I got up, the morning/night dark and cold. After a cup of tea I left the house and set off for the local station, the roads empty and clear. Parking my car in the station car-park, I bought a train ticket from a machine (the ticket office wasn’t open) and went over to the middle platform. I was surprised to see lots of people waiting to catch the same train, talking to each other as if they were all friends (twenty people or so). Listening to their conversation, most of them were railway workers going up to London to start their various shifts (I was the only person on the platform wearing a suit).
The train made good time, despite stopping at all stations. Arriving in London, I met Mitch Holmes by the WH Smith shop and we went across to Waterloo by taxi. Despite the early hour London seemed as busy as ever.
At Waterloo we went into the Eurostar compound and then into the Business Premier Lounge (gaining access by showing company AmEx Platinum cards). The Lounge, created by Parisian designer Philippe Starck at a cost of £2 million, was a very long hall (the shape following the line of the platform) imaginatively furnished in a sort of reinterpretation of 1960s revival décor (not so much how the 1960s were, but how they ought to have been). Big “Dr Strangelove” swivel armchairs, plate glass windows, high stools at the central marble topped bar - a typical note of idiosyncratic luxury was the large ornate chandelier made especially for the salon (“lounge” doesn’t do the room justice).
At one end of the Lounge, in a wide futuristic niche, there were refreshments – tea, coffee, even alcoholic drinks. On the central bar were large plates piled high with various breakfast items such as croissants, chocolat au pain, waffles. In a wall of elegant minimalist boxes were crisp new copies of serious publications – The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Economist, Le Monde, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times. Suspended overhead, slightly obscured by the glittering chandelier, was a huge television monitor tuned into the Bloomburg channel (financial news and share prices moving continuously across the foot of the screen like electronic tickertape). Everything was free, and you could help yourself to whatever you wanted. Mitch Holmes took advantage of this largess and piled his tray with more than he could possibly eat or drink or read (like some kind of corporate scavenger).
We waited for about half an hour until our train was announced, then we went out to join a brisk-moving queue and after a short walk along the platform found our seats in one of the first class carriages. The rest of the coach was almost empty. As soon as we sat down staff came along to offer us a drink and ask us whether we wanted the English or Continental breakfast.
“It’s like the Orient Express” said Mitch Holmes appreciatively (actually it was nothing like the Orient Express, and to my mind resembled a Club Class aircraft cabin).
All the staff on the train appeared to be French, but spoke very good English. Breakfast was served, two young attendants trundling along with a metal contraption that issued trays of pre-packed food. By the time they reached our table the cooked English breakfasts had run out. I said I would be happy with the Continental breakfast (bread rolls, apricot jam, chicory coffee) but Mitch Holmes made a fuss.
“I ordered the cooked breakfast” he said, taking the Continental alternative with an air of very bad grace. “This is NOT good enough.” Then, as the attendants walked away, he said in a Yorkshire whisper (which is not a whisper at all, but loud and meant to be heard): “Bloody French”.
This national insult must have stung them as shortly afterwards a smartly dressed senior attendant arrived and presented Mitch Holmes with a tray of foil-wrapped hot food. Mitch removed the coverings and began eating the various items, but soon stopped, and complained to a passing attendant that the food was tasteless and there was no meat in the meal. The attendant said it was the vegetarian option and that he would look into the matter. Shortly afterwards a different smartly dressed senior attendant arrived and delivered a bona fide full English breakfast. Mitch Holmes thus commenced his third breakfast on the train, but soon pushed it to one side saying he didn’t want it. Attendants came by and removed all the detritus of the meal, giving us hot wet cloths to wipe our fingers with (Mitch Holmes rubbed his face with the cloth).
Close to half-twelve we arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris (delay of twenty minutes while the train stood at the environs of the city). The day was sunny, but very cold and Mitch Holmes put on a fedora – I had never seen him wear a hat before. The station seemed unchanged since my last visit, but there was little time to linger as Mitch Holmes marched us out the front of the building and across the busy wide road to the Terminus Nord Hotel.
We entered the brasserie of the hotel past a kiosk selling every kind of seafood imaginable (the restaurant has a tradition of Bouillabaisse). Into the vast eating hall which was very crowded and noisy. There was a pronounced art nouveau appearance to the place, with walls a discreet golden-nicotine colour, pendulous globes of light suspended from sinuous organic-looking ironwork, engraved mirrors reflecting panels of engraved glass. Black leather banquettes, white starched linen, transparent upturned goblets - everything was very smart. We were led to a table at the back where the client (English, working for a French company) was already seated. Our waiter was very tall, aged about fifty and had a military moustache - he was very good at his job.
Pate en croute de lievre et salade to start, then steak and chips, and for a pudding Sablé de pistache et framboise, crème citronnée et jus de lavande. The client didn’t have much to say - I wondered whether the trip was for his benefit or just Mitch Holmes living it up at the company’s expense. Mitch had his back to the main part of the restaurant and often looked round to comment on the large number of waiters moving about.
“Look at all these staff. Look at them all. How can they afford to employ so many people!”
“Waiting is a high-status profession in France” said the client.
“There were loads of staff on the train over” said Mitch. “French companies seem grossly over-staffed. No wonder their economy is on the rocks.”
The meal lasted about two hours. Nothing interesting was said. Afterwards the client said goodbye to us in the street outside and walked swiftly away.
We had a couple of hours before our train went back to London, so Mitch Holmes hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the centre of the city. The driver was perplexed as to where to take us. Mitch Holmes just told him “Anywhere in the centre” so he drove us to the Place Vendome.
Getting out the taxi we walked around looking at the shops - mostly women’s fashions.
“You can tell we’re in France” said Mitch Holmes, “even the manikins have their legs apart.”
We walked aimlessly along looking in the windows of various stores - Prada, Hermes, Chanel. The air was very cold, even though the sun was shining. Police seemed everywhere, particularly heavy at road junctions.
Eventually Mitch stopped another taxi and we returned to the Gare du Nord for the Eurostar back to England. Once again we gained access to the Business Premier Lounge by showing company AmEx cards. The Paris lounge seemed an exact replica of the London one except that there was no chandelier.
Mitch Holmes picked up several newspapers (including Le Soir - a fatuous choice since he can’t speak French) and we sat down in swivel armchairs. There were many people waiting in the lounge, nearly all of them formally dressed in dark suits. The only people casually dressed were the middle-aged man and women sat next to us.
“Look at me in cords and stripy jumper!” the woman said excitedly. “Everyone must think we are tramps who have sneaked in here illegally.” She hooted with embarrassed laughter, her partner (in jeans and sweatshirt) sinking deeper into his armchair.
The woman’s voice was so loud that it was impossible not to listen. She used a mobile phone to ring her daughter in England explaining that they had missed an earlier train through some mix-up by Eurostar and had been upgraded to First Class as compensation. She thought this was hilarious.
“We’re sat here in First Class with everybody looking at us” she said into the ’phone (as far as I could see no-one was looking at them). “I’m just a probation worker from Kent. I daren’t go to the loo in case someone asks what I’m doing in here.”
Eventually the train was announced and we went out to find our seats. The journey back to London was uneventful. Parting from Mitch Holmes at Waterloo, I felt a little let-down by the expedition - I had been looking forward to going to Paris with friends, and having a corporate visit forced on me in this way marred my sense of expectation.