Wednesday, March 28, 2007

James Henry Greathead

Statue of James Henry Greathead, civil engineer who invented the tunneling shield that made possible the digging of the tube tunnels. London was the first city in the world to have an underground railway system. Greathead’s statue stands at the top of Cornhill, and was put up in 1994.

Greathead was also responsible for the construction of the first stages of the Northern Line (a tube line which has many personal connections for me - almost every station has featured in an episode in my life at one time or another). The stations on the Northern Line's Morden Extension are architecturally distinguished and were designed by Charles Holden. Between Euston and Camden Town is Mornington Crescent characterized by scruffy patches of grass that must never be built on as they mark the sites of plague pits (also there is a game called Mornington Crescent which has acquired a cult following on BBC Radio 4).

For a picture of Greathead’s tunneling shield:

More on the game of Mornington Crescent:

Bad history

There has been a great deal of bad history associated with the current bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade. It is depressing that people can be so ignorant. It is even more depressing that some people choose to be ignorant.

Two opposing positions have been arrived at:

1) Slavery existed in all cultures and at all times, but it was the application of large-scale industrial processes by the British that transformed the Atlantic slave trade into a uniquely evil manifestation. Nothing can compensate for this crime. An apology to the descendants of the surviving slaves, together with the payment of reparations, might help them cope with the legacy of slavery (poor self image, poor social status, poor economic prospects).

2) Slavery existed in all cultures and at all times, but it was the British who put a stop to it, first by outlawing the trade in slaves, and then by abolishing slavery in all dependent territories (a quarter of the world). Slave rebellions from Spartacus onwards, campaigns by well-meaning individuals, boycotts of West Indian sugar, all had proved ineffectual. It was the power of the British state that made abolition a reality.

The particular idea of an apology (expressed most recently in a discussion led by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last night) seems to be irritating people, most of whom seem to feel no personal responsibility for what happened two hundred years ago. The idea of bad blood (that children should be punished for what their fathers and grandfathers did) is an ancient legal concept, but one that has not been voiced for many years. Campaigners for an apology point to various precedents that suggest an apology would lead to greater communal harmony.

Opponents of an apology say that the black community in Britain is being encouraged to think of themselves as victims by manipulative politicians who aim to keep black people ghettoised, dependent upon state benefits, and malleable as a voting bloc at election time (Ken Livingstone has been identified in this context).

Above: The Thomas Clarkson memorial, erected by public subscription in 1881. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has been critical of the amount of attention history has placed on the role of William Wilberforce, but the Clarkson memorial far outclasses Wilberforce’s statue in Westminster Abbey. It’s one of my favourite structures (click on the photo to see it in more detail).

Thomas Clarkson looks down a short avenue past a non-conformist school to a war memorial in the form of a celtic cross, improbably flanked by two palm trees and with municipal gardens behind. From either side of the war memorial sweep two very graceful Georgian crescents, forming a circle (they are built on the site of the bailey walls of a Norman castle, the castle keep in the centre being now occupied by a large Regency villa). The crescents meet again at a small raised square (you go up some steps) with the town museum on one side and council offices on the other, and with a perfectly framed view of the medieval church beyond.

As an example of town planning it is superb.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

There was something about the arrangement of the north aisle that seemed puzzlingly familiar

I had gone to a hilltop church to look at some examples of Saxon sculpture. By hilltop I mean right on top of a cone-shaped hill with a terrific wind blowing even on a still cloudless sunny day. The view was spectacular but the wind was so fierce that we (Marie-Astrid and myself) were glad to get inside (although the hill itself is of considerable interest being a mixture of yellow-pink dolomite and grey carboniferous limestone and incorporating thousands of sea-fossils thrust upwards when the hill was formed three hundred million years ago).

It was a big building, built on the grand medieval scale. At one time a great family had dominated the local area and enriched the church (more for their glory you would suspect, rather than as an expression of piety). But the family had died out and now only their monuments remain in the elevated isolated church with the wind whistling round.

I didn’t have much time to look around as Marie-Astrid doesn’t much care for old buildings and had imposed a time limit (she was driving). My original intention was to photograph the Saxon carvings, “discovered” (actually they had been there for centuries unnoticed and unregarded) by the late Sir Alfred Clapham, world authority on Romanesque architecture and sculpture (see his masterful essay: Disputed Examples of Pre-Conquest Sculpture), in a process of analytical deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes. But as usually happens, once we were in the place I got distracted by all the other things there were to see.

Above: Looking across the nave, you can see the black wood pew on the left with the private family chapel on the right.

In particular I was intrigued by the arrangement in the north aisle where a monstrous family pew stood side by side with a railed-off family mausoleum. The pew was a huge wooden kiosk dated 1627, and exhibited all the vanity of the landed gentry in the seventeenth century (ornate balusters, friezes of cherubs, gigantic heraldic achievements). Next door the family chapel, protected by heavy iron grills, contained recumbent effigies carved from Chellaston alabaster.

Above: I know I’ve said this before, but at the risk of broing you, an “achievement” is when your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and all sixteen great-great-grandparents were entitled to a coat of arms – all the various arms are then displayed on an escutcheon known as an achievement. This example has many more than sixteen arms, so it’s a sort of super achievement. There are no “supporters” so the family was not noble, and probably just stayed in its own locality making very careful marriages generation after generation.

Above: Standing in the family mausoleum and looking towards the family pew, you can walk out of one door and into the other.

There was something about the arrangement of the north aisle that seemed puzzlingly familiar. It was the idea of the living sitting side-by-side with the dead. And then into my mind “pinged” the line from Henry Scott-Holland: “Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped away into the next room”.

Unfortunately the famous poem of Canon Henry Scott-Holland has become so over-familiar that it has lost a lot of its impact, but you can read the full text here:

Friday, March 23, 2007

Hirsh has an incredible shop window

Hirsh in Hatton Garden, in the centre of London’s diamond district. Over four hundred jewellery manufacturers are based in the area. Hirsh has an incredible shop window to look into – every surface sparkles with diamonds.

Hatton Garden was always a centre for gemstones and watches, but the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in the 1860s made the area take off (the new diamond distribution trade was funded by bankers based in Hatton Garden).

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Not impressed by yesterday's budget

Above: the government has pirated and pillaged its way through incredible amounts of tax revenues.
I was not impressed by yesterday's budget. Chancellor Gordon Brown sensationally cut 2p-in-the-pound off income tax, while concealing the fact that he was PUTTING UP income tax by the same amount. For about twenty four hours I had warm feelings towards the government only to find out this morning (on the Today Programme) that it was all a sham.
What a let down!
Over the last ten years the government has pirated and pillaged its way through incredible amounts of tax revenues, and yet because of the character of Gordon Brown they have managed to preserve public confidence in their handling of economic and financial matters. Gordon Brown's image has been sober, safe, very dull (an old-fashioned bank manager writ large). Only two times has he slipped up - the first time when photographed laughing himself silly over Tony Blair's resignation predicament (last year), and the second time (in my opinion) over yesterday's phoney tax cut.
I used to quite like him, but now I am not so sure.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Subdued this year

Saturday was St Patrick’s Day. It seemed subdued this year. As if Irishness was no longer in fashion.

I have been reading Our Like Will Not Be There Again. It’s a fascinating collection of anecdotes, stories and folklore collected from the far west of Ireland by American writer Lawrence Millman. Millman’s ponderous personal comments occasionally intrude, but when he allows the ordinary voices to speak (recorded in a sort of verbatim style) it is a vivid evocation of a self-sufficient rural society in the tradition of Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou.

Millman wrote his book in 1970, and the Ireland he described has now almost entirely perished under pressure of urbanisation, escalating property prices and the relentless generic Oirishness promoted by the tourist industry.

Total eclipse of the...

A couple of weeks back there was a lunar eclipse at the weekend. As I live in an area where there is almost no light pollution I got a good view and took this photo. It happened about ten o’clock at night. The radio stations had been playing Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart all day. I went out onto the cool evening every ten minutes or so to watch the eclipse. My brother (drinking beer and watching Sky Sports) was totally uninterested and, on the one occasion I got him to go out and look, asked me what all the fuss was over.

Robert Graves, in his book The White Goddess, claimed to have discovered an ancient European-wide religion that worshipped the moon. He did this on the basis of textural interpretations of poetry myths (I mean myths that have been preserved in a poetic form, like The Illiad, not myths about poetry). No physical evidence of this religion has ever been found, and his ideas are largely discredited.

This shot shows the moon eclipsed. It is supposed to turn red at this point as the only light that gets to it is infra-red light refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere. As you can see, there is no sign of any red in my photo.

At a Lunar Eclipse
by Thomas Hardy

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon's meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven's high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?
Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,

Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

Looking like an idol from a south Pacific cargo cult

Sunday afternoon Helen B asked people over to see various cult movies. We watched The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Surf Nazis Must Die, The Last Days of Disco. After three films I felt I had had enough and went home.

Completely on my own in the evening listened to Crossing the Bar, Radio 3’s programme about the poetry of Tennyson. I listened to it in the big sitting room via the television (you can get most of the radio stations via Sky). It’s more comfortable than the dining room where the radio is located.

Tennyson’s poetry is deeply unfashionable, so it was a surprise to find this programme. It also included one of his mono-dramas that I was not familiar with. For some reason I felt guilty listening to the programme, like Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 taking refuge in the fragments of old lyrical culture (and rejecting the prescribed establishment canon).

Once you know about Tennyson’s poetry you start to see references everywhere. Crossing the Bar is a short poem about dying. Tennyson portrays it as a gentle slipping away from moorings under the Evening Star.

I studied Tennyson for A-level English Literature. This was one of the books that changed my life. I saw the world completely differently after I had read Tennyson.

My favourites include: Ulysses (has to be read in conjunction with The Lotus Eaters and Choric Song), Break Break Break, Tithonus (After many a summer dies the swan…), Now sleeps the crimson petal, Lady of Shalott, Morte d’Arthur. In Memorium A H H is Tennyson’s masterpiece. Maud is alternatively a paean to unrequited love and a keening evocation of regret.

The effect of learning huge chunks of Tennyson by heart is that it entered my subconscious where it has had a profound effect upon my process of thought. Lines come unbidden into my mind. The distilled Tennysonian feelings and emotions have become my feelings and emotions.

The poem Maud initiates strong feelings, and not just in English Literature students. The character Maud was based on a real person, Rosa Baring, who became the object of Tennyson’s youthful obsession. True to the poem, Rosa Baring lived in a red brick Hall with a “high hall garden” (actually a raised terrace – I’ve been there).

I once visited a village show and went into the church where there was an exhibition. I saw a floral representation of Maud (see above) looking like an idol from a south Pacific cargo cult. In the silence of the church, the dappled sunlight streaming in through the gothic windows seemed to make the image come alive.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tescos will be destroyed by imperial over-reach

Start The Week yesterday on Radio 4 included an item on the ubiquitous growth of Tescos and the effect it is having on the country (destroying local family-owned shops through its predatory pricing policies, destroying small family-owned farms through rapacious purchasing policies, homogenising everything it touches).

I used to like Tescos (four or five years ago) but now I hate the company. I know “hate” is a very strong emotion, but I chose the word with care. I disliked Tescos until last Saturday at about 11 am when my dislike turned very definitely to hatred.

Last Saturday at 11 o’clock in the morning I went to the Customer Service desk at my local Tescos to return six items (total value about £15). I explained to the woman behind the counter that they were part of a range, and that Tescos no longer did the entire range. Therefore the six products were of no use to me. All the products were Tescos own-label, in Tescos packaging. They were still in date (and Tescos still had them on the shelves even though they are no use without the other two items in the range). I asked for my money back.

The woman told me I couldn’t have my money back without a receipt. She pointed to sign above her which said the same thing. She said I could choose alternative goods from the same section to the same value.

Normally this wouldn’t bother me. I would have got soap to the value of £15. Or multivitamins. Or cough mixture. But that woman was so rude in her manner it annoyed me. She ENJOYED being unhelpful.

I am not really the sort of person who makes a fuss in shops, but I asked to see the manager. The woman told me that the manager would only tell me what she had just told me (she ENJOYED telling me this). I insisted on seeing the manager.

The woman made a telephone call and a few minutes later the “Duty Manager” arrived. He was aged in his early twenties and was obviously not a real manager (he was wearing the ordinary Tescos uniform, and when I asked him what sort of manager he was, he admitted to being the head of the meat section). He told me (politely) I couldn’t have a refund.

I told him the policy was ridiculous. I had bought the items at the store and they were clearly Tescos products. Not giving refunds for own-label products was incredible.

I asked to see a manager who was capable of making decisions. The woman (by this time looking very smug) told me the store manager was away. I asked to see the most senior person in the store. She made a phone call and a few minutes later a young woman arrived who listened politely to my story and then told me I couldn’t have a refund. She pointed up to the sign that said you couldn’t have refunds. The Customer Service desk woman looked triumphant.

At that point I gave up and went away. I will probably throw the unwanted products away. Instead of doing my shopping at Tescos (I spend £120 every week) I went to Asda.

Tescos is at the point where it has grown so large that it is losing touch with ordinary people (assuming I am ordinary). They also have a problem with the quality of staff they are recruiting since the Customer Service desk woman had a massive attitude problem. Tescos will be destroyed by imperial over-reach (but how much damage will they do before that time comes?).

Monday, March 12, 2007

The National’s version of The Man Of Mode

Wednesday 28th February.

Waking in my tenth-floor hotel room, I drew back the curtains to see Croydon wet and grey in the early morning light. The view from my window was extensive, and I sat on the edge of the bed and watched misty low rain clouds move towards me across a shallow urban valley to spatter on the side of the building and then pass over. I went down to the dining room for a big breakfast – all around me were other business people sitting isolated but with an air of confidence (when they moved they seemed to have a smooth gliding motion, as if they were machines rather than people).

During the morning I worked on editing a book the company wants to produce. The draft has been done by a freelance, but she has obviously just downloaded several articles from the internet and stitched them together with very minimal changes. I will have to rewrite all of it, every single word, to ensure it is presentable and doesn’t violate copyrights (actually I quite like doing this kind of project, even though I am never credited as the author).

From one o’clock until six I was in one of the training sessions. We looked at various kinds of communication. There were two coffee breaks when we sprawled on sofas in the central area, asking each other questions.

The afternoon’s training ran over six o’clock, and as soon as I could I left the business suite and went to the station (ten minutes walk). Buying a ticket at one of the machines, I rushed down onto a train going to London Bridge (and beyond to Bedford). This train was excruciatingly slow, and stopped for ages on a viaduct just by Southwark cathedral (“It always does this” a woman said to me, obviously noticing my impatience).

Arriving at London Bridge at five past seven, I caught another train to Waterloo (marginally quicker than walking) and then ran to the South Bank. I got to the National Theatre five minutes after the play (The Man Of Mode) had started. I had arranged to see the play with Robert Leiper (in London for a couple of days from his current residence in Paris) and was concerned he would be kept waiting, but he had already claimed his ticket from the Olivier Desk and gone into the auditorium.

I waited outside for fifteen minutes until the end of the first act when one of the ushers took me into the dark interior and guided me to my seat next to Robert Leiper.

We had the best seats in the house. There were two reasons I wanted to see The Man Of Mode - it had had extremely good reviews in the national press, and I had seen Etherege’s Love In A Tub some years ago so I knew his work was very clever and interesting. Love In A Tub had been put on by the drama department of my college (apparently the first time it had been put on for two hundred years).

The National’s version of The Man Of Mode was a modern production and was actually two plays in one. There was Etherege’s Restoration drama (themes of corruption, falsehood, the unsatisfying quality of decadent living) combined with a visual satire of modern London. It was incredibly well done, with so much happening that I felt I would have to see it twice to take it all in.

The drawback of seventeenth-century plays is that they can sometimes appear irrelevant to the present day (obviously this doesn’t apply to Shakespeare). But the modern interpretation of this production was so accurate that I immediately recognised the London it portrayed. The authenticity was very convincing, and the play was colourful, lively, full of visual jokes (chav fashions, parkour leaping, the Matthew Bourne version of Swan Lake etc). The cast were mostly young and unknown, which was an advantage as there were no colossal thespians trundling around the stage. The hero (anti-hero?) Dorimant was played by Tom Hardy, seducing his way through the cast with such a high level of charisma that there were gasps of recognition and indignation from the young woman next to me (“I’ve been there!” and “you liar!”). He also had considerable stamina, considering the number of scene changes over three hours.

In the interval we went to the bar and I ordered a half-bottle of champagne which we shared between us (I wasn’t trying to show off, champagne was just the easiest thing to buy). Robert Leiper was full of his plans for setting up a small business based in Paris (would he be allowed to do this without French citizenship?). He insisted on going down to the cloakroom and retrieving some of the stock he had already bought, wrapped up in big bulky packages. We took these packages back to the crush bar and despite the lack of space (we were literally in a crush) he crouched down on the carpet and opened them up. In the process he knocked over the bottle of champagne, which had been placed on the floor, and it gushed over the patent leather shoes of a man in his late-fifties (dark suit, gold-rimmed glasses, crinkly grey hair) soaking his foot. Robert Leiper’s apologies were so inadequate that I felt indignation on the man’s behalf.

The second half was just as good the first with an incredible performance by Nancy Carroll. Despite this being a three hour play there was no point when I felt the time was dragging. Later when I tried to analyse why I had enjoyed the production so much, it occurred to me that I had experienced Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state.

It was late when we emerged from the theatre. Needing something to eat, we crossed over Waterloo Bridge (the bridge obliquely features in the song Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks, and was also where Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markow was assassinated by being stabbed with the tip of a poisoned umbrella in 1978). We went into Smollenskys on The Strand, which was still serving meals. I ordered a fishcake with vegetables of the day – the fishcake arrived brick shaped, covered with an orange sauce and so ornately garnished that it looked like an elaborate blancmange.

Robert Leiper hardly touched his food, talking excitedly about his plans to set up his business. He talked at me for about twenty minutes describing all the people who would want to buy his product / pay for his service, but without any evidence that these customer segments actually exist. When I asked if he had a business plan this was dismissed as if of no account.

None of this surprised me. When you work in marketing you get used to meetings where ideas are floated that are supposedly so unique that the normal rules of marketing don’t apply (in reality, the rules of marketing always apply, but unfortunately not everyone can understand them). I tentatively suggested some market research to validate the assumptions he was making, but was told (at some repetitive length) that market research doesn’t work.

The only point at which I managed to stop his gush of supply-side enthusiasm was when I asked about the sales process – how would he find his customers, how would he pitch to them, how would he get them to part with their money. This received a grudging acknowledgment that sales was an unpleasant necessity (in reality sales is the only thing that matters, everything else being a variation of admin work). I told him that even the most favourable sales ratios are based on one sale for every twenty expressions of interest, which is a gruelling pace of qualifying, pitching and closing for someone untrained in sales techniques.

“I feel like throwing a bucket of cold water over you” I told him.

We finished our meal and paid the bill. Between us we only had a tiny amount of change (less than £1) to leave as a tip. Robert Leiper described how he had left a tiny tip at a restaurant in New York and the waitress had been so outraged she had followed him out onto the street and thrown it at him.

It was raining outside but I managed to get a taxi quite easily.

More on Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state:

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Abstraction seemed to be the theme

Most of last week I spent at a training course in Croydon. The course was held in two business suites on the first floor of a big hotel. I stayed at the hotel on the tenth floor.

The hotel was very much an establishment for business people – crowded at breakfast and in the evening, deserted during the day (the same was true of the streets outside). After a couple of days a weird sense of disorientation came over me. It was as if I had been taken out of my normal life and dropped down in a parallel universe where nothing was really real.

Two nights I had dinner in the hotel restaurant, all the tables occupied by individuals dining on their own. The food (a downgraded version of nouvelle cuisine) was placed before me on the abstract marquetry of the table top. Abstraction seemed to be the theme of the hotel – abstract swirls on the carpet, abstract art on the walls, even my presence was in a way abstract, since it had no permanence beyond the four days.

All the time I was in the hotel I was conscious of a faint humming from the air conditioning. There was also the subdued noise of the traffic beyond the tinted plate glass windows, moving in continuous streams backwards and forwards. The only other noises were the whispered conversations of the guests talking to the staff, and the occasionally rustling of their gratis copies of The Times and Daily Telegraph.

The effect of twenty-four hour air conditioning was to leave me feeling dried out and exhausted.

By the third day I felt I was going mad.