Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The last of summer slipping away

Bank Holiday weekend, the last holiday before Christmas. Although the days were sunny there was no heat, and you could feel the last of summer slipping away. On Saturday I drove up to the high heath where two adjacent villages were putting on various shows.

Above: First village. I was impressed by the way the church tower seemed to absorb the afternoon light. The village seemed to be one of those places where everything is immaculately kept up (but without becoming too prettified). In the eighteenth century a woman got lost on the heath in heavy fog and eventually found her way home due to the tolling of the church bells. She left a bequest to the church with the proviso that a church bell is tolled every evening at eight o’clock. The custom is still kept up.

Above: There was an exhibition on hunting. The tone of the exhibition was defiant, since the government has outlawed hunting with dogs. Local feelings run very high on the issue.

Above: There were photographs of old hunting meets. The hunting fraternity represent a distinct culture with well-established customs and traditions. There was a strong desire in the village to preserve their hunting heritage.

Above: There was a marquee where you could get a cup of tea. At these places you can always find someone who is willing to talk about the history of the village. I talked to one elderly lady about her horses:

“Someone in the office was saying that if your horse is a bit lame in one leg and you’re going into a show class you should kick it in the other leg so it can’t work out which leg to limp with.”

“What a wicked thing to say!” (she was using ‘wicked’ in its condemnatory sense). “When you next see that girl you should kick her in the leg and see how she likes it.”

Above: Every field seemed to have horses in it. The landscape of the stone heath was originally very bleak, but in the last two centuries it has been “improved” with plantations and stone walls. There is a sense of being very high up, with the sky all around you.

Above: In the next village, five miles on, the old folks were sat out in front of the village hall to see a display of Morris dancing.

Above: The traditional musicians included an accordian player in a long astrakhan coat resembling Orthodox Jewish dress.

Above: The male Morris dancers did their performances. It’s easy to laugh at these retired bank managers and personnel directors dressing up in 19th century peasant garb, but they take their hobby very seriously. It’s the sort of scene that Billy Bragg would sneer at (although in a reverse of class consciousness, Billy Bragg himself admitted on the radio last week that he employs domestic staff).

Above: High up on the church tower these odd little medieval faces looked down as if bewildered by all the commotion. Inside the church the organist was playing hymn requests for £1 a time. One woman gave him £5 to play Blaydon Races.

Above: The male Morris dancers did a “sword” dance.

Above: The female Morris dancers did this complicated dance involving floral arches. Note the patterns formed by their shadows. In the opening scenes of Roman Polanski’s film “Tess” (based on Thomas Hardy’s novel “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”) the girls of the village take part in similar rustic dances, to the same sort of music (http://www.roman-polanski.net/articles/hervedeluze.htm).

Above: A modern-day Tess shyly touches her face while her more outgoing companion flirts with a swaggering village lothario.

Above: Inside the village hall you could buy cups of tea from a little hatch. Home-made cakes were displayed on glass stands. There was a big raffle board displaying rows of numbers (instant prizes).

Above: A very loud woman was talking about the history of the local manor house: “It was seconded by the RAF during the war. When my parents got it back it was in a terrible state. There were so many holes in the roof that they used to put on invitations Come and see our indoor water features.” I drove around trying to get a glimpse of the manor house, but it was situated in a little dell surrounded by trees (lots of No Entry signs). The best view I could get was of this gable and turret.

Above: On a ridge you could see across to the Vintage Vehicles exhibition. The horse-drawn carriages moved in a slow procession down the central field. The wind carried over the sound of applause.

Friday, August 25, 2006


Cornhill – one of the three hills in the City of London. Along Cornhill is the entrance (a very modest entrance – not much more than a door) to St Michael’s church (you can just see one of the pinnacles of the tower, on the right of the photo, surrounded by scaffolding). The church has a very pronounced atmosphere. Before my visit I was aware of reports that the building was haunted. Normally I am very dismissive of supernatural activity. But on this occasion I felt the accounts could be true.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Stretching off into the distance

Above: bales of straw in the late evening (about eight o'clock), just after a light shower of rain. The air was still and the landscape was silent. Note the "blue remembered hills" in the far distance.

I have been fascinated by the harvest this year. It seems to have been going on for months (helped by the recent heat wave). The fields are covered with bales of straw, stretching off into the distance.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The week divided into three themes

I had some time off last week as it was my birthday on Wednesday, and also we were having a new bathroom installed. The bathroom installation meant I had to be at home during the day, but I managed to see some friends in the evening. The week divided into three themes.


Marie-Astrid asked me what I would like for my birthday. I told her I wanted to meet some new people. So on Monday evening I went to The Gap Inn, a pub in the middle of nowhere, where she had arranged a get-together of various people she knew.

The Gap Inn is part of the Brewer’s Fayre chain, a budget “family” establishment (Marie-Astrid thinks it immoral to spend more than about thirty pounds on a meal). After driving for miles I eventually found the place. At first it looked like an ordinary roadside pub, circa 1900, on a t-junction hemmed in by trees. Turning into the car park I saw that the original building had been extended many times over in what could be described as PVCu-Joseph-Paxton – a design of multi-level conservatory halls. Inside was a big open-plan bar area with seating arranged round low tables. As soon as I walked through the door I was called over to a group who somehow knew who I was. Shortly afterwards Marie-Astrid arrived, and then Emily (who arrived in a long dress, expecting the restaurant to be a lot smarter). We went through the main restaurant area, which was crowded with families, and round a corner and up a few steps to a quieter level where a long table had been arranged. The seating was on one long banquette (one side of the table) or wobbly chairs.

Garlic bread, a steak (a bit dry and tough) with chips and salad, and a sort of chocolate cherry cake with lots of synthetic cream. Water to drink, with a cup of coffee to follow. Afterwards we had drinks (real alcoholic drinks) out in the garden which was just a big area of grass dotted with trestle tables, a climbing frame and kiddies slide to one side.

The people (twelve in number) Marie-Astrid had assembled were very disparate, and included some eccentrics. There were people from her church (severe Baptists), people from her work (public sector), and tenuously-connected Scandinavian relations who happened to be in the United Kingdom. During the evening I managed to talk to all of them, theoetically extending my circle of friends (though who knows whether I will ever meet any of them again – Marie-Astrid seems to operate a slash-and-burn policy when it comes to marginal acquaintances).


Paul Waddingham asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told him I wanted to see a film – something new. We went to see The Wind That Shakes The Barley, an anti-imperialist film by Director Ken Loach which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year (reviewed on BBC 2 by Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark who broadcast direct from a roof-garden at the festival wearing evening clothes that implied the dress code of Lord Reith had been reinstated).

The film is set in southern Ireland in the years immediately after the First World War. It follows the career of a student doctor who joins a group of insurgents after observing a sequence of repressive measures carried out with disproportionate force by military forces upon the local population. The group of insurgents witness atrocities carried out by the military. They carry out atrocities themselves (on the military and on “informers” in the local population). They split into factions and carry out atrocities on each other. The film ends with the student doctor being executed by the regime he had helped to bring into power.

After the film we had dinner at Café Rouge at the Hays Wharf Galleria. Hays Wharf is the river frontage (south side) that runs between Tower Bridge and London Bridge. The Galleria is a shopping mall inside the old Hays Wharf offices and warehouses (1850 stock brick edifices). Café Rouge is a chain of fake French cafés with a menu of classic gallic dishes. We sat at one of the outside tables, a low fence seperating us from the passing evening strollers. Crêpe D'Eglefin (pancake filled with haddock), followed by Boeuf Bourguignon, followed by Crème Brûlée. House white wine to drink during the meal with several coffees to finish. The food was very good (“obviously mass-produced and reheated in a microwave” said Paul Waddingham). The waitresses were young and pretty (eastern Europeans), smiling every time they came over to our table.

Paul Waddingham couldn’t stop talking about the film. He loved it. He is a true radical, not caring whether things are left-wing or right-wing (it is the process of politics that he finds so absorbing).

“Ken Loach is being very subversive with this film” he said. “It is obviously about the Iraq war, every single frame. But if he had made a straightforward drama set in downtown Baghdad, it would have sunk without trace, especially in America. Dressing it up as the Irish war of independence is a master-stroke. Americans will go to see it since they over-romanticise the Irish troubles. The left in Britain will go to see it since they empathise with anti-imperialism. And all the time Ken Loach is getting his anti-war propaganda across. He’s especially clever by portraying the freedom fighters as white catholics instead of brown muslims - so people don’t automatically discount their experiences because they’re not Europeans. The guy’s a genius.”

Above: inside the Hays Wharf Galleria. Cafe Rouge is off to the right (we sat at a table out on the main plaza).


Gary Spencer asked me what I would like for my birthday. I told him I would like to see a part of London I’ve not visited before. He booked us a table in the dining room at the Ritz Hotel (I’ve been in the hotel several times, but I’ve never had a meal there).

The hotel opened in 1906 and has been visited by a bewildering number of famous people over the years. The dining room at the Ritz is one of the most ornate interiors in the country, designed in a Louis XVI style by the partnership Mewes and Davis (who also designed the interiors at Luton Hoo). The most stiking feature of the room is the way in which the magnificent chandeliers are linked by garlands of gilt-bronze flowers.

Our table was near the window, looking out over the Italian Garden and into Green Park. I told Gary Spencer that since he was paying the bill I would have the same courses he ordered (he never believes me when I tell him I am indifferent to fine cuisine). We started with pan-fried pate foi-gras, Gary ordering a half-bottle of sauternes at an incredible price of £89 (it was Chateau Rieussec http://www.wine-journal.com/rieussec.html). Then a dish that seemed to be mashed parsnips and poached quails eggs with a half-bottle of Sancerre, followed by duck (Canard a’la Rouennaise) with two big glasses of a red Chilian wine, followed by Amedei chocolate fondant and praline ice cream with sauternes again. We had our coffee in the Long Gallery. Inbetween these courses the waiters brought us little extra dishes, unsolicited. The food at The Ritz is described as “informal palace quality”. Although each course was very good in itself, the combination of so much rich food made me slightly nauseous by the end of the meal. The bill, with tips, came to well over £300.

Gary Spencer talked a lot about immigration (a subject everyone seems to be talking about).

“You’re right” he said, “Blair has turned this country into Orwell’s Airstrip One” (I don’t remember ever saying that, but I let it go). “Instead of being a distinct nation, we are an economic sub-unit of the state of Oceania, a club of economic stakeholders, citizenship being decided by whether you can contribute to the economy or not. The bottom ten per cent of the population is going to be pushed to one side and replaced by five million keen young eastern Europeans. Employers are delighted by this, since they don’t have to bother with demotivated unskilled workers or high levels of absenteeism. The Labour Party is delighted since they think there is going to be a repeat of the sixties and seventies when they organised immigrants into bloc votes and shouted Racist at anyone who said they were gerrymandering. But I tell you this time round they’ll get a shock since the Polish bloc vote is more likely to go to the Conservatives, if they play their cards right.”

“What will happen to the bottom ten per cent who are being pushed to one side?”

“Who knows. But there isn’t an infinite amount of money for social services, medical care, education. As soon as all these Poles and Lithuanians start having families the pressure for resources is going to intensify - and there’s no way taxes will go up to close the gap.”

We went out into the night air. Gary seemed to be very drunk (he had probably drunk two glasses for my every one). We walked down St James’s, Gary making loud comments about the appearance of various women we passed. Eventually we came out onto The Mall and walked up towards Admiralty Arch (I said I wanted to see John Prescott’s grace and favour residence). Gary was staggering as he walked and instead of talking normally he was almost shouting. I warned him that there was probably more police surveillance along The Mall than any other place in Europe.

We arrived at Admiralty Arch and Gary Spencer said he had to “go” urgently. Oblivious of his surroundings he urinated against the Portland Stone. Cars drove past in The Mall.

“You realise you could be arrested for being drunk and disorderly” I warned him.

“It’s a dirty protest against John Prescott” he said.

Above: the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly was designed by Mewes and Davis and opened in 1906.

Above: inside the dining room at The Ritz (not a very good photo).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The smell of old sacks

In the lean-to shed there were some old sacks, a few of them hanging on the wall. Smell of onions, mixed with the faint odour of rotten cabbages, combined with that indefinable “sack” smell. When was the last time these sacks were moved – ten years ago? Twenty years? The lean-to shed had an atmosphere of intense silence, as if it somehow comprised a pocket of forgotten time. The smell of old sacks seemed a distillation of the past.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Everything about the show is nasty

At ten o’clock yesterday morning I went out to buy the Sunday newspapers. As I drove to the local shop (about two miles away) I switched on the radio, and Desert Island Discs was playing, featuring the musical choices of Sunday Times journalist A. A Gill. As the presenter, Sue Lawley, was praising the writing of A. A Gill so highly I decided to buy the Sunday Times and see what his column was like.

I am ALWAYS disappointed when I buy the Sunday Times. It is a physically huge publication that basically tells you nothing. Literally hundreds of articles that are empty of any real content or stylistic quality.

There was a so-called exposé of John Prescott’s son and his dubious property developments. However much Prescott senoir deserves a good kicking, to attack his children for no other reason than that they are his children seems very shabby. It left me feeling sorry for the old man.

There was a review of A. N. Wilson’s new biography of John Betjeman that entirely ignored the book and just blathered on about the reviewer’s opinions. Betjeman may well be shallow, suburban and of marginal importance, but that is missing the point. What I want to know is whether A. N. Wilson’s book is worth reading.

A. A. Gill’s writing (two articles, one of which was a restaurant review) was a great disappointment. He is a HORRIBLE writer, trite and self-obsessed. It doesn’t bode well for the A. A. Gill book I recently bought (A. A Gill is away) and which I had been looking forward to reading. On Desert Island Discs A. A. Gill said he had been choosing his selection of records for all of his life. Reading his column, it seemed very likely that this smug, narcissistic individual was quite capable of spending a lifetime refining his musical tastes with an eye to eventually airing them on Sue Lawley’s very middle-brow show. Sorry if this post seems a bit negative.

One of the (many) sweeping generalisations that A. A. Gill incorporated in his lazy journalistic efforts on Sunday was to say “everyone” was watching Big Brother (a reality show on Channel Four that has just finished a three-month run). However much you try to ignore this programme, it intrudes itself into your consciousness. Last night I got roped into watching highlight’s of the final day in the “house” (a studio where the performers are on stage twenty-four hours of the day).

Predictably, the only people willing to subject themselves to this scrutiny are gross extraverts and individuals with mental health problems. So abased has this format become, that it called to mind Hogarth’s “Bedlam” painting in The Rake’s Progress (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:William_Hogarth_019.jpg - showing two well-dressed spectators come into an asylum to be entertained by the half-naked lunatics). Arguably the latest version of Big Brother, with its financial encouragements to ever more openly sexual behaviour, must come close to procurement of acts of public prostitution (with the tabloids accusing one of the participants of being a former “vice girl”).

There is also the recurring issue of racism, with the popular votes ejecting, at a very early stage, anyone who was black, asian or Turkish (the show even broadcast remarks by the contestants about the offensive smell that came from a black woman’s clothes).

One by one the contestants are ejected from the studio by public votes that seem to be based on nothing more substantial than how people look. The hierarchy of society revealed by these plebiscites is very depressing. The behaviour of the baying crowd as each evited person emerges from the studio is shocking (heaven help us if Endemol, inventors of the show format, ever gets the contract for the reintroduction of capital punishment - which must be on the cards given the huge numbers of Eastern Europeans coming to the country with their fundamentalist views on abortion, contraception and law-enforcement).

Worse, however, than the behaviour of the crowd are the performaces of the presenters who help mastermind the disgusting and abusive spectacle. They prance around exhibiting hideous knowing in-joke expressions, obviously contemptuous of the people they are exploiting. Everything about the show is nasty (it would be the perfect environment for A. A Gill to take centre stage).

Friday, August 18, 2006

Rainbow flags of the world’s first globalised nation

Above: the rainbow flags of the world’s first globalised nation.

After several days off to celebrate my birthday (and also to witness the installation of a new bathroom) I have returned to work today.

On the way to work the rainbow flags of the world’s first globalised nation were fluttering happily.

I arrived at my desk to find hundreds of e-mails. During my absence paper had accumulated on top of my keyboard in an unwieldy heap. In the next room people were talking about me (little remarks in an undertone that they thought I couldn’t hear).

While I was away I had missed yesterday’s strategic review meeting – which means we will go another month before I can raise my ideas for the future and my concerns about the present course.

Friday, August 11, 2006

One of the most important places I would ever visit

One hot evening after work I drove deep into the countryside to a village where members of the county’s Architectural Trust were assembling to look at a church that has been restored with funds provided by the Trust. I had been invited along as a guest, although I would quite like to be a member of the Trust myself. As it happened, the person who invited me wasn’t able to attend so I went along to the gathering without knowing anyone.

The invitation stated the meeting would start with drinks at 8pm followed by a talk on the restoration at 9pm. Leaving work at six, I only just got to the place before nine. I had wondered whether I would be over-dressed going straight from work (in a suit) but when I got there I saw the effort people had made to dress up (it was the Trust’s annual general meeting and reception).

In the village High Street I parked my car and walked to the church. The sun had gone down but it was still very light – the light had acquired a luminous quality as if the sunlight absorbed by the landscape during the day was being reflected back in tints of blue and grey. Countering this luminosity was the dark gloom of the giant yew trees which stood in the churchyard.

The church was a massive building, on a wooded ridge beside the High Street, surrounded by sloping fields. I went up the path, virtually a tunnel through the overhanging black yews, and walked round to the west side of the churchyard where I looked down into a small meadow. In this meadow was a marquee, and on the grass outside this tent the Trust’s drinks reception was just coming to an end. The sight seemed to duplicate Bill Brandt’s 1935 photograph Cocktails in a Surrey Garden (http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/5020-popup.html) – the beautiful countryside, the fading light, the elderly, well-dressed, well-bred people enjoying their drinks. I wanted to take a photograph of the scene but my nerve failed me (it would have been a very noticeable act). Instead I turned back and went into the church where the audience was beginning to gather. I sat in one of the side aisles – the bench was very hard and uncomfortable.

Although the Architectural Trust is quite a small organisation every seat in the church was taken by the time the meeting began. Perhaps many of the villagers had also come along? There were three speakers, each one going up into the big church pulpit (high above our heads) and giving speeches that lasted for about half an hour apiece:

First the lord of the manor (the big stone manor house was adjacent to the church) talked about his family’s involvement in previous restorations of the church. He described various interesting features of the manor house (“We have a Priest’s Hole under the stairs – a step swings to one side and the priest drops in…”). He then went on to talk about the importance of the village as the place where one of the most important late-medieval manuscripts had been produced – one of the treasures of the British Library. I had not been aware of this connection. As I sat on the hard bench in the brightly-lit church I became aware of the parameters of the evening silently changing around me. I felt that the village could possibly be one of the most important places I would ever visit.

Next the Rector (a woman priest) climbed up into the pulpit. She made several jokes about not intending to give a sermon (nervous laughter from the audience). She drew our attention to the new oak door that had been put on the porch, with a carving taken from a scene in the illuminated manuscript of an angel blowing a trumpet (was this intended to be a warning against any hubris and blowing-of-own-trumpets concerning the restoration?). She talked about the privations endured by the congregation while the restoration had been taking place. She thanked everyone for their patience and good humour. She raised her voice to almost a shout when telling us (just a little bit too stridently): “This is NOT a museum!”

Finally one of the churchwardens, Chairman of the fund-raising committee, told us (with frequent references to copies of the accounts which had been distributed, with much fluttering of paper, around the audience) just how the large sums of money had been raised. The churchwarden was prosperous-looking himself, admitted to being a recent in-comer to the village, appeared to be someone who knew about making money. He talked through the process of applying to the myriad of organisations that had a potential to help. He explained the principle of the widow’s mite in getting others to contribute. He stressed the importance of never giving up. If he looked a little pleased with himself he was probably entitled to.

After the talks everyone spilled out over the aisles to look at the restoration. I was very glad to get up from the hard bench. Walking around the church, among the milling Trust members, I was very struck at how much money had been spent on the building.

Normally a restoration aims to arrest decay, but usually stops short of repair so that you see things in a worn state (supposedly this is more “authentic”). This restoration had gone beyond preserving the status quo and had achieved renewal. Thus the walls were pale cream instead of Victorian whitewash. The lighting was brilliant and had a golden lustre. Rotten wooden cabinets had been entirely replaced with brand new versions in blond oak. Memorial brasses set in the floor had been roped off instead of hidden under tatty old carpets. The hatchments high up on the walls had been so thoroughly restored (including gleaming gold leaf) that they looked new. The gigantic and elaborately carved medieval Easter Sepulchre had been scrubbed clean and identified as a focal point (reverential and scholarly Trust members taking photographs with their digital cameras). Having endured one millennium, the church seemed set up to survive another thousand years.

At the western end was a table with a black and white facsimile of the illuminated manuscript. You had to wait your turn before getting to look at this, and then you were hemmed by other people craning to get a look. As the pages turned one woman (obviously a local) speculated on where in the village different places could have been.

Suddenly the point of the restoration came to me. Many cultures seek to redefine their identity by referring to a past golden age. Was the restored and renewed church meant to be England’s Shrine of the Book?

(the Shrine of the Book is in Jerusalem and houses the Dead Sea Scrolls http://www.imj.org.il/eng/shrine/index.html, one of the defining icons of the modern state of Israel).


Above: the new oak door that had been put on the porch, with a carving taken from a scene in the illuminated manuscript of an angel blowing a trumpet (“Looks like he’s drinking a yard of ale” said one woman). To the right is a photograph of the angel in the facsimile illuminated manuscript. Apologies for the poor quality of all these photographs – it was past ten o’clock at night. The illuminated manuscript produced in the village (or possibly the production was in a nearby town – nobody is sure) is a psalter or Book of Psalms from the Bible. Each page of the psalter includes incredibly detailed coloured drawings illustrating scenes from the life of the village – harvesting crops, feeding livestock, spinning cloth. We see the ordinary people of the village holding parties. We see the river flowing through the watermill. We see the ladies of the manor travelling in purdah in a wagon covered in silks. In a chivalric scene we see the lord of the manor, in his knight’s armour, being handed his helmet and shield by his wife and daughter-in-law. These scenes of everyday life are intermingled with religious iconography, with the implication that the village was a mirror of the heavenly kingdom (“The kingdom of this earth” PAUSE “is become” PAUSE “the kingdom of our God…” CRESCENDO). The inhabitants of the village, both rich and poor, saw their lives in heavenly terms. And the village is still a kind of heaven (even if only for wealthy retiring in-comers).

Above: “This is NOT a museum” declaimed the woman Rector. Roped off medieval brass of a knight in armour (looking like a museum exhibit). Whenever visiting a church it is always worth lifting up loose carpets to see if there are any memorial brasses underneath.

Above: hatchments displaying a dead person’s coat-of-arms were carried in funeral processions and then displayed by the deceased’s front door for a year. Then they were put inside the church where they were usually left to quietly decay. This hatchment has been restored to pristine condition.

Above: at the end of the day traditions and rituals need to be passed on from one generation to the next for a culture to survive.

Above: I took this photograph at about half past ten in the evening. It was still day, and the quality of the light was exceptional. It was as if the light was coming from the earth itself, a soft grey-blue light.

Above: looking down into the meadow where the drinks party had been held. I didn’t quite have the nerve to photograph the party while it was happening. The scene reminded me very forcefully of Bill Brandt’s Cocktail’s in a Surrey Garden (from his series of sociological photographs The English At Home). Bill Brandt is one of my favourite photographers, particularly his ethnographical work. His photography is filled with unspoken meaning. According to Sarah Boxer (New York Times) his photography creates: “a private universe to which we are on the point of gaining access”.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

To swear like a fish wife

Entrance to Old Billingsgate, formerly Billingsgate Fish Market (the Fish Market moved to a new site in 1982). The New Moon pub advertises “Draught Sherry” (do they sell it by the pint?). The market dates from 1698 and over the years the workers became infamous for their bad language (where we get the expression “to swear like a fish wife”).

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I had been expecting the day (Wednesday) to pass almost unnoticed

By special delivery yesterday arrived an early birthday present. In the parcel was a Charvet tie (expensive) and a book. Sent by a friend in America.

I had been planning to keep my birthday (which is next week) subdued. I have booked four days holiday from work and arranged for builders to come in and do some work to the house. I had been expecting the day (Wednesday) to pass almost unnoticed.

But so far three evening celebrations have been lined up (not counting family things). They are all fairly quiet and low-key. But it’s nice to be remembered.

Lots of laughter

In the pub’s scruffy beer garden, in the hot sun, a group of White Van Men were having a cheerful lunch. I took this photograph from behind a metal gate, the bars of which added a caged quality to the scene (but White Van Men are not really dangerous – even if they’ve had a few). They were swapping stories about someone they all knew:

“He was knocked off his motorbike on the Romford arterial road. He rolled over and played dead. When the motorist ran over to come to his assistance he jumped to his feet and beat him up.”

Lots of laughter.

“He was working as a kitchen hand at a fancy restaurant. He called the engineer out as he believed one of the ovens was faulty. The engineer said the oven was fine and left. Later the oven exploded and the door flew off and hit him. He called the engineer out again, not stating what the reason was. When the guy arrived he beat him up.”

Lots of laughter.

“You know he’s into power lifting and everything. Anyway, I was loading the car and he just came along and picked up a HUGE rock and put it in my car boot. I couldn’t move it. It took four of us to get it out. He thought it was hilarious.”

Lots of laughter. The scorching sun shone down. The busy road generated noise and dust and exhaust fumes.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The smell of crushed grass

Another village show.

In the Carvery at lunchtime the opaque light came through the fabric of the marquee. The smell of crushed grass mingled with the aroma of home cooking. Over to the right the old buffers were reminiscing.

Can anyone remember a previous year when the harvest was brought in before the end of July!

Monday, August 07, 2006

In the environs of the British Museum

The Museum Tavern on the corner of Museum Street, designed by Victorian architect William Finch Hill. Many writers have drunk in this pub, including J.B. Priestley, George Orwell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Karl Marx (who wrote Das Kapital in the Reading Room of the Museum and was so poor he used to wash his clothes in the sinks in the lavatories – despite being such an expert economist, his personal finances were a mess!).

Museum Street runs from the British Museum down to New Oxford Street and beyond. In his novel The Devil Doctor Sax Rohmer invented an antique shop called Salaman’s in Museum Street. If you touched a small Buddha statue in Salaman’s a flight of steps would appear that led down to a chamber hiding the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu.

Virginia Woolf referred to Museum Street in her third novel Jacob’s Room saying with typical ambiguity: “When one walks down that street opposite the British Museum – what's it called? – that's what I mean. It's all like that”. Jacob’s Room was written in 1922. To my mind it’s about the loss of innocence. We see the subject of the novel (Jacob) aged 19, on the eve of the First World War. We see him working as a student in the Reading Room of the British Museum, talking to friends, falling in love. He travels across Europe and sees the acropolis in Athens by starlight. We (the readers) know that in a few months’ time Jacob’s easy liberal world will be destroyed. Not just for Jacob, but for millions of 19-year-olds. Virginia Woolf may have intended the novel to be a memorial to her friend the young poet Rupert Brooke who died while serving in the Royal Navy during the First World War.

When I was at university in my second year I had a summer job (lasted about six weeks) in the old Reading Room at the British Museum. I worked down in the stacks, which comprised a subterranean warren connected by cast iron spiral staircases. Each team of five library assistants had its own little room to gather in. Requests for books arrived in batches and were handed out by the team supervisor. You would then go off with a trolley and collect the books and send them up by special lifts. You could take as long as you liked to do this. There was an old chap who had been there years and showed me the ropes (“If you can’t find a particular book don’t waste time looking for it, just write on the chit Destroyed in the war and chuck it back at them”). In the long periods when we had nothing to do we read books we had picked off the shelves. Pornographic books were locked away and were looked after by a special team (they were full-time staff, no students allowed). I was once called to the Director’s office, along with one of the other temp Library Assistants (Frances Westaway) to collect some books. We went into the historic Kings Library (part of the Museum’s galleries) and had to knock on a door that was disguised as a false wall of books. “That figures” said Frances, “he lives in a bookcase!”

Also in the environs of the British Museum is Montague Street where the University of London uses some of the 18th century terraced houses as student accommodation. During the summer these student rooms are rented out to tourists, but one year (the summer I was working at the Reading Room), for some obscure reason, they were left empty. Marie-Astrid managed to borrow the key to one of these rooms (she had a friend who lived there in term time) and stayed there for weeks without being discovered, while working as a temp in the West End. I used to go and see her after I had finished work. The room was tiny and we only had the bed to sit on. We had to be very quiet (and only talk in whispers).

Friday, August 04, 2006

What is the strategic interest Britain is pursuing?

Sculptured relief in the British Museum of the Assyrian king Tiglath Pilesar who established the Second Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BC – the king can be seen flanked by two attendants, firing arrows in a landscape of palm trees. Ancient Assyria occupied a region of present-day Iraq. Tiglath Pilesar is generally regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time. Using Assyria as his base he conquered “all of the world” (present day Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Israel). He was astonishingly cruel, even by the standards of the ancient world, destroying cities, murdering opponents, and in the occupation of northern Israel impaling or deporting most of the inhabitants. His royal palace at Nimrud was discovered by Henry Layard in one of the most famous archaeological excavations of all time, written up in his (wonderful) book Discoveries at Nineveh.

The Assyrian Empire was relatively short-lived and after its fall its cities and monuments were covered by debris and forgotten. This decline of a once-great empire into total obscurity was referred to by Rudyard Kipling in his 1897 poem Recessional warning that Britain must eventually decline as a world power (“All our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre”). The Assyrian Empire demonstrated that only vicious and overwhelming force could (temporarily) subdue the peoples of the region we currently know as Iraq.

On the Today Programme there was an item that William Patey, the outgoing British ambassador in Baghdad, had sent a confidential report to London (leaked to the BBC) saying that civil war and the break-up of the Iraq was extremely likely. What is the strategic interest Britain is pursuing in helping to occupy Iraq? Perhaps a division of the country along Wilsonian principles of self-determination might be the sensible option in the long run (but what do I know?).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

“Look – the morning star!”

The Morning Star – a comfortable, quiet and unpretentious pub. Not the sort of place you would want to spend all night in. But definitely the sort of pub to slip into in the early evening when you just want a quiet drink and to be left alone.

The Morning Star is a name for the planet Venus, brightest celestial object after the Sun and the Moon. Because of its position in relation to the Sun and the Earth the planet Venus can also, confusingly, appear as the Evening Star. C. S. Lewis described a visit to Venus in his 1943 novel Perelandra.

The Morning Star is the title of a Marxist daily newspaper, formerly affiliated to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Due to the incessant factional in-fighting that characterises extreme left-wing politics this affiliation has in recent years been denounced and repudiated (with latterly even the denouncers being denounced in yet more accusations of class betrayal). The newspaper still carries on however, with editorials routinely attacking what it calls the “ruling classes”.

The Morning Star newspaper used to have offices in Farringdon Road. If you catch the Metropolitan Line from Kings Cross to Liverpool Street the “Underground” train actually runs in a deep cutting open to the sky for a short distance. When I was a child I travelled this route (en route to Norwich) and remember the tube train stopping at Farringdon and someone in the carriage pointing upwards and saying excitedly: “Look – the morning star!” I looked upwards (along with several others in the carriage) to where the grey cloudy sky could be seen high above. There was no sign of any stars. It was only as the train moved away that I noticed the red lettering that said “Morning Star” affixed to a building that backed onto the cutting.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Originally an exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1878

Above: After following the park driveway for about a quarter of a mile I saw away to the right the Paris House (click on the picture to make it bigger).

In the evening I met Gary Spencer for dinner. We went to the Paris House restaurant at Woburn (actually inside the Woburn Abbey estate). It was quite difficult to find as the signage was discreet to the point of being obscure. After half an hour of driving around Woburn eventually I found the particular gate in the estate walls (a massive and intimidating piece of neo-classical masonry) and drove into a secluded part of the park. The evening had become cooler after a brief shower of rain. As I drove into the wooded estate my car was surrounded by deer milling around and coming up very close – when they stopped on the drive I had to just wait for them to move again (pressing the car hooter was out of the question in such aloof surroundings).

After following the park driveway for about a quarter of a mile I saw away to the right the Paris House. Luckily I knew what the building looked like as there was nothing to announce the restaurant. I turned off the narrow drive onto an even narrower way and arrived in a small gravel car park.

The building was much bigger than I expected – it was in the style of a half-timbered cottage (cottage orneé), but enlarged to the size of a small country house. The whole building was originally an exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1878 and was purchased by the then Duchess of Bedford who had it taken to pieces, transported to England, and re-erected on the Woburn Estate. During the Second World War it had many secret uses, including at one time being the headquarters of General de Gaulle.

Inside the Victorian style was continued – it was like entering a private house rather than a restaurant. Gary Spencer was waiting in the small bar drinking champagne (£8 per glass!). We chose our meal from the menu and then went through into the restaurant.

The main salon was a modest room, with about thirty or so diners at widely spaced tables. I had a sort of haddock pastry, followed by chicken in a very rich sauce, followed by the cheese course, followed raspberry soufflé, with several cups of coffee at the end. Half a bottle of Sancerre to drink between us (we were both driving).

Gary Spencer was in a very talkative mood, and we covered a huge range of subjects. He told me he currently had debts of £800,000 but covered by assets of £1.5 million (how true is this? - the numbers seem incredible). He advised me to buy a self-financing property in Dubai and when I suggested Dubai might be a bubble told me that bubbles can make a lot of money if you get the timing right. He then, without any irony, told me Warren Buffet’s maxim: never buy an asset you do not intend to hold for ten years.

He described how he was building a usp for his firm (usp = unique selling point) by creating a matrix of all individual fund managers in the United Kingdom and analysing their performance.

He told me pension demographics was nothing to worry about since cloning technology would enable nations to close any shortfalls in population growth and put the resulting babies out to foster homes (“in the next twenty years we will see industrial processes applied to biological functions – whether you like it or not it is coming”).

He described a recent visit to India, and how the IT centre at Bangalore was organised in a series of campus-style developments based around individual companies.

He expressed vehement dislike of Russell Brand (Russell Brand is an MTV presenter with an appearance resembling an Aubrey Beardsley cartoon – he is supposed to be very witty but I have never heard him say anything funny).

Once again he offered me a job (I said no).

We discussed the crisis in the Middle East. The current war in Lebanon had obviously been planned for some time, and George Bush and Tony Blair had probably been party to this planning. The phenomenon of suicide bombers was nothing remarkable (“just look at the high suicide rates among young men in the West – all the Arabs have done is taken their disillusioned suicide-prone young men and harnessed them to a political end”).

The meal came to an end – the restaurant bill was probably the most expensive I have ever paid. Outside the night was mild and the stars in the sky were bright. As I drove back through the park I could see the deer moving around restlessly.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Sweep of the drive up to the hall

Many times in my researches I have arrived at a place to find it disturbingly familiar. The sweep of the drive up to the hall in this photograph aroused such powerful feelings of deja vu that I felt momentarily confused. But other times I have stopped on impulse at a village and looked around and gone back to my notes only to find that I had already visited the place five years previously.