Monday, April 30, 2007

Save The Cottage Loaf

Above: Is the cottage loaf disappearing from our culture? I had to order this one from a local baker (cost 70p). The cottage loaf is a traditional English bread that dates back centuries – I feel I should form a Save The Cottage Loaf campaign (and be pilloried as a crank, a nimby and a reactionary running dog).

Asda supermarket are currently running television commercials featuring Victoria Wood working in the bakery department of a northern Asda store. In the first of a series of seven ads you see her “learning craft skills” and producing batches of “Hedgehog” loaves in a heart-warming (but very hard-working) atmosphere among down-to-earth Gateshead folk. It’s directed by Patrick Collerton (who did The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off).

The Guardian has a feature on it:,,2057748,00.html

The commercial makes me uneasy for three reasons:

1) It’s feeding us celebrities yet again.

2) It’s feeding us fly-on-the-wall “reality” television yet again (faked, like all reality television).

3) The basic sales pitch (that Asda is preserving the craft skills of hand-made bread) is a lie.

Asda, more than most supermarkets, is the ENEMY of food diversity. If a particular loaf doesn’t meet their production specifications it doesn’t get into the stores. How often do you see a cottage loaf in Asda? And because cottage loaves don’t feature in the supermarkets they cease to exist in the popular imagination, so less and less people are aware of them and take the homogenized goods on offer. Does this matter? I think so.

Cottage loaves have been baked in this country for hundreds of years, and were the ritual bread used in the wassailing ceremony (slices were dipped in the wassailing bowl and then hung upon the apple trees). They are mentioned by Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend (“My own exclusive breakfast, of a penny cottage loaf and a pennyworth of milk…”). They are as much part of our heritage as Westminster Abbey (that’s my entry for the pompous remark of the day award).

Robert Senior, at Fallon (the agency that did the ads) said: “Basically, if a brand or company doesn't have a strong moral compass then consumers are going to stop trusting you.” This advertisement does not prove Asda have a strong moral compass. It pretends that Asda are preserving “craft skills” when in fact the chain is destroying food diversity. On a wider level, Asda has a reputation for predatory pricing that undermines family-owned shops (including bakers) within the orbit of an Asda store, driving them out of business. They also have a reputation for rapacious purchasing that undermines family-owned farms, again driving them out of business. I’m sorry if I am ranting a little, but it is the dishonesty of the double-speak that annoys me.

By the way, I shop at Asda every week (recently converted from Tesco) and there are many things I like about the store. They have an authentic no frills style (they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are). You can buy Reese Butter Cups. The staff tend to be older and have better manners than the teenagers you meet at Tescos. You can see huge numbers of Poles and Lithuanians shopping there (which I find interesting, although I guess many people wouldn’t). You don’t feel you are being “sold” to (although in reality you are being sold to all the time – the supermarkets are masters of manipulation).

Above: While I was at the bakers buying my cottage loaf I also got these poppy seed rolls, which come from the Jewish tradition.

Friday, April 27, 2007

That They May Face The Rising Sun by John McGahern

I have just finished reading That They May Face The Rising Sun by John McGahern. It is a very beautiful book, and captures rhythms of colloquial speech very expertly. As I was reading I kept thinking the novel seemed familiar, until I realised that it was infused from start to finish with the poetry of the Lake Isle of Innisfree (one of my favourite poems).

John McGahern died last year, and That They May Face The Rising Sun was his last work. His work was banned in the Irish Republic because of the way in which it was seen to criticize the claustrophobic inhibitions and abuses of Irish provincial life. He was barred from working in his profession as a teacher (this is the sort of thing that you normally associate with the old Soviet Union!). Depressed by these experiences he moved to England for ten years before returning to southern Ireland as a smallholder farmer. He was also an accomplished short story writer (That They May Face The Rising Sun can be seen as a sequence of short stories featuring the same characters). His work is both funny and sad, and expertly describes complex characters living ostensibly simple lives.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Millennium Seed Bank

Above: Victorian collage of seeds, carefully collated and annotated. The display is mounted in an ornate frame, demonstrating the Victorian tendency to merge art with science (the two are regarded as completely separate these days). The obsessive way in which the Victorians observed and catalogued the natural world underpinned many of the great advances of the period (this was a time when almost every educated person was doing some form of research and development, even if just for their own personal interest, and coming up with insights that had great commercial potential).

There was an interesting item on this morning’s Today Programme about the Millennium Seed Bank, part of the Royal Botanic Gardens based at Kew. The project aims to collect seeds from endangered plants around the world, ensuring that biodiversity is preserved despite the alarming rate at which different plants are becoming extinct (seeds from all British plants have already been preserved). The seeds are put into glass jars and kept in underground vaults at low temperatures (this reminded me of the wheat that was found in Tutankhmen’s tomb – when it was planted and watered it started to grow, after three thousand years of being kept underground!).

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What does Switzerland mean to you?

I do a little freelance work for a financial services company. It’s not a big assignment – I meet the owner every three months or so, we have dinner while he pours out his problems (usually work-related), I filter them down into marketing proposals, his staff action them (or don’t), my cheque arrives in the post at the end of the next month.

Anyway, recently I’ve been asking: what image comes into the mind of the customer when they hear a certain word or brand name (and an image WILL come into their mind, whether they want it to or not).

In particular, what does Switzerland mean to you?

Above: Swiss chocolate and Swiss cheese. I was surprised to realise my ‘fridge is hardly ever without these items (some of the many things I buy without thinking). The cheese comes with genuine Swiss holes.

Above: the novels of Anita Brookner. She is not actually a Swiss writer but most of her books have a Swiss location or connection. I was introduced to her work by Helen B. Hotel du Lac won the Booker prize (Hotel du Lack of Interest I think The Guardian called it). Helen first started reading Anita Brookner because of the author’s connection with the Courtauld Institute. Anita Brookner’s writing is mesmerising. Nothing EVER happens. Her characters work in bookshops, go for walks beside Swiss lakes, experience life passing them by. And yet she makes these bland people seem sympathetic and absorbing. As a former copywriter I take a professional interest in this ability. Many times in my career I have been called upon to write about nondescript machines, incomprehensible financial products, electronic data storage systems etc. I used to console myself with the thought that even Kafka had to write health and safety manuals in his day job.

Above: Switzerland means The Reichenbach Falls. This is the location where Sherlock Homes battled with the evil Professor Moriarty and both plunged to their “deaths” although Conan-Doyle later revived Sherlock Holmes (including to help British Intelligence on the eve of the First World War in His Last Bow). I saw this advertisement in the Daily Telegraph and immediately wanted to take the Jungfrau Express from London to the Reichenbach Falls (note the ad’s use of long copy).

Above: The Matterhorn, first climbed by a British team in 1865. As a symbol of Switzerland it is hard to beat - clever of INVESCO to use it as their logo associating them with the solidity of the mountain, the cleanness of the snow, the aspiration of the soaring peak. Financial Services are synonymous with Switzerland (a Swiss bank account says more about you than cash ever can, to paraphrase American Express), although this association has not always given them a good image (ie Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s frequent anti-semitic jeers about the “gnomes of Zurich”).
Above: The Matterhorn also features in this novel by Michael Frayn. Frayn is one of our greatest living writers, although he doesn’t get the same kind of exposure as lesser writers such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes (I think all three are over-rated as novelists – they are treated by interviewers with the sort of reverence reserved for minor rock stars). Anyway, say “Switzerland” to me and I will think of the Matterhorn and then I will think of Michael Frayn – it’s the chaotic way my mind works.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Today is St George’s Day

Above: puppet St George and the dragon. Today is St George’s Day. There are widespread popular complaints that it is not a national holiday.

I was returning on the ferry to Holyhead once, and the boat was absolutely packed so that people were sitting on the floor and in every available space they could find. Once you got a seat you didn’t dare leave it in case someone else took it (plus it was a rough crossing and there was a great deal of projectile vomiting in the corridors, so it was dangerous to walk around). I managed to get a seat at a small side table, and the chair opposite was taken by an old man (Irish) just back from the Arran Islands.

We talked for most of the journey. He described his holiday in the Arran Islands and his life in England. Then for some reason we talked about the national characteristics of the inhabitants of the British Isles.

“The Welsh pray on their knees and prey on their neighbours” he said. “The Scots keep the Sabbath and anything else they can lay their hands on. The Irish don’t know what they’re fighting for, but they’re prepared to die for it anyway.”

Pause. He looked at me steadily. The boat lurched from side to side.

“And the English?” I asked him. “What do you say about the English?”

“The English are a self-made nation” he said, “thus relieving the Almighty of a terrible responsibility.”

Above: St George’s Day used in a marketing promotion.

One of the developments I have been recording over the past few years is the rise of English nationalism. It is one of the few examples where you can see an historical trend manifesting itself before your eyes. Over the last decade we have seen English nationalism go from relatively rare phenomenon to mainstream opinion (although it has not yet crossed over into political demands – mainly because politicians don’t know how to respond to it).

In the two hundred years since the Napoleonic wars English nationalism has been an inert force. To understand this we have to realise that nationalism is almost always the reaction of a people and culture that feels itself (rightly or wrongly) under threat. England has traditionally been such a safe and secure place to live that there hasn’t been any need for nationalism (even at times of greatest threat during the First and Second World Wars “England” was able to mobilise international coalitions to repel external enemies – I use the inverted commas since international perception equates the United Kingdom with England).

It is probably too early to try to identify with any accuracy what may be causing national unease and anxiety. Commentators have suggested the following (in no particular order): the rise of Scottish nationalism with its anti-English bias (the “support any team but England” prejudice is seen as grossly insulting); the botched attempt to cut England up into self-governing regions; the (apparently officially failed) policy of multi-culturalism which has often resulted in English culture being air-brushed out of existence; the Scottish accent of the New Labour government; the very high rate of immigration from Eastern Europe; the emergence of politically correct versions of history which attempt to apportion guilt and blame; the rise of “home grown” Islamic terrorism etc etc.

My own view is that the causes of English nationalism are probably more subtle and go back several decades (although possibly brought to a head in the last ten years). I see English identity as being inextricably bound up with English rural life. There is no such thing as an English urban identity (rash statement I know, but even London is typified as a collection of villages).

Even when the majority of English people (who I define as people who call themselves English) live in urban areas their instincts are to move out to suburban areas (imitation villages with mock Tudor houses in tree-lined avenues), buy second homes in pretty rural villages, or (ultimately) retire to the country.

This is a very ancient impulse and probably dates back to Anglo-Saxon times (the invading Saxons abandoned the Roman cities and settled in the countryside, unlike the Franks in Gaul who kept Roman city culture alive). Even in the medieval period London was the only sizeable English city (in contrast to Italy which had many large city states). Pevsner in his book The Englishness of English Art stressed the importance of the romantic landscape in English national expression.

Over the last fifty years the decline of the English countryside (and decimation of wildlife), the pollution of the rural environment, the increasing ugliness of urban townships, the increase in motorised traffic, the obsession of the government with city-based policies, the menacing image of the “inner city” etc have all contributed to a crisis of English national identity and an anxiety that “England” was disappearing, thus leading to a rise in English nationalism.

But that’s just my view – the real reason might be something entirely different.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in Euston Road

Façade of the old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in Euston Road. I used to walk past it every day on my way to work. Although the Euston Road is busy, this little corner always seems quiet.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor. A militant feminist, she was active in all sorts of women-only initiatives including founding the Ladies Residential Dwelling in Bloomsbury – a sort of collective of professional women, socialist women and suffragettes. In 1866 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson founded a dispensary, and in 1872 this became the New Hospital for Women where women patients were treated exclusively by women.

The building on Euston Road dates from 1889 and incorporates a foundation stone laid by the then Princess of Wales. In the 1970s there was a proposal to close the hospital and this provoked a furious campaign that continued until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher confirmed it would stay open and granted investment funds of two and a half million pounds. The campaign is important in historical terms in that it represented an attempt to maintain the status quo in public services against powerful pressures (not least inflation) that insisted on cutbacks.

As we know, Margaret Thatcher’s decision to save the hospital was out of character, and her main instinct was “modernize” even if it meant painful cutbacks. This is the option France is currently facing (and will decide in the election this weekend which course to take). It can rationalize its society and enter the (not always pleasant) modern world or it can preserve its institutions and drift into a comfortable decline.

Comfortable decline remains comfortable until the inevitable moment when you fall off the edge of a cliff.

Margaret Thatcher’s intervention didn’t save the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in the long term. The Euston Road building closed in 2002 and the hospital “merged” with UCH’s Obstetric Hospital. The massive new UCH on the corner of Euston Road and Tottenham Court Road will have an “EGA Wing” which will open in 2008 to treat women only.

Institutions are almost always bound up with the buildings they occupy (which influence them in a whole range of ways - physical organisation, mental image, public access etc), and probably this is the end of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, whatever it says on the government press release.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Known as “The Hack”

Postcard of George Hackenschmidt, champion wrestler and author of The Way to Live in Health & Physical Fitness (an early example of the self-help genre).

He was born in Estonia in 1878 and died in London in 1968. Known as “The Hack”, he usually won most of his matches within ten minutes. He was famous for his bearhug which would almost crush opponents to death. He was the first wrestler to acquire a world profile, and entered popular culture as a result of winning three thousand bouts between 1889 and 1908. As well as wrestling he was proficient in swimming, running and cycling (and could lift a horse and walk around carrying it).

Only five foot nine and weighing fourteen stone four pounds, Hackenschmidt prevailed over his opponents through a technique that combined speed, skill, and strength. Super-confident in the ring, he would take on all comers to wild applause and was famous for never committing fouls. Outside the ring he was quiet and thoughtful and developed a philosophical approach to gymnastics, athletics and weight lifting (including his book The Complete Science of Wrestling).

He was one of the first since the ancient Greeks to promote physical education and practical ways to attain a “perfect” physique. At a time of imperial expansion and domination his example was of great interest to military scientists, social scientists and geneticists. In the popular imagination his image helped form modern ideas of masculinity that are still current today.

Now he is almost completely forgotten, his picture on a postcard shuffled among a box of odds and ends in a dusty second-hand bookshop.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Reason enough to endorse his succession

Prime Minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown was on the front page of Saturday’s Guardian launching his new book on eight outstanding individuals from the last hundred years (Edith Cavell, Cicely Saunders, Aung San Suu Kyi etc). Each of the eight has changed society (sometimes changed nations) by the force of their principled leadership against prevailing opinions and prejudices. The book (set out as a literary pantheon) is seen as a move to capitalize on Gordon Brown’s reputation for gravitas, and also signals a covert attack upon the cult of celebrity (if this were to be a sustained feature of his premiership it would be reason enough to endorse his succession).

In the meantime the cult of celebrity continues unabated, with increasingly unreal “reality” television, lives “transformed” by ever more grotesque makeovers, an endless procession of glitzy couples and individuals set up and then pulled down and then finally destroyed by a media leviathan that could be allegorized by Goya’s painting: Saturn Eating His Own Children:

What is behind the seemingly endless craving for fifteen-minute-fame and the insatiable desire of ordinary people to recreate themselves as celebrities? I think in part we are seeing the emptiness of contemporary lives and an anxiety caused by the failure of organized religion, the ending of life-long careers, the discrediting of national institutions, the disintegration of family life and a general erosion of all the other aspects of society that gave an individual a sense of identity and security. Instead of the old class-ridden structure with its endless permutations and gradations so that everyone had their “place” (and were often kept in it!) we have now gone to the other extreme of a society with only two classes – Nobodies and Celebrities.

Marketing has to share some of the blame for the dissatisfaction of individuals with their current lives. Consumer goods and services are no longer providing the “complete satisfaction” they did in the past, and often the accumulation of more “stuff” comes with greater anxiety instead post purchase relief. The challenge for brands will be to offer reassurance and identity as integral parts of their offering (they are already doing this to a certain extent, but it needs to be taken to a new level).

Historical note: Gordon Brown’s new book reminded me of The Temple of Worthies at Stowe:

Friday, April 13, 2007

My new health regime

Recently I've been thinking more about my health and how I can avoid getting ill (I had a really bad bout of 'flu in January, and it made me realise how vulnerable the human body can be). Anyway, here's my five step health regime. It's just commonsense ideas really.

1) Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. I always have vegetables with my evening meal, but recently I've been taking fresh fruit to work rather than go to Sainsbury's and buy sandwiches. So this is my typical lunch. I try to buy fruit locally and in season (obviously this doesn't apply to things like bananas.

2) Drink two litres of water per day. I used to drink coffee and tea constantly, especially at work. As soon as I finished one cup I would get another. Then I just gave it up and started to drink water. Usually I bring a two-litre bottle of water in to work and put it on my desk and do not leave to go home until it has all gone. This is the single best thing I have ever done for my health. If for any reason I do not get a full two litres of water I start to feel really ill. I must have been INCREDIBLY dehydrated when I was drinking coffee all day (I still have cups of tea, but I never touch coffee now). Our brains are seventy per cent water, so even a small amount of dehydration must have an effect on our mental processes.

3) Walk or run three miles per day (objective to cover a thousand miles in a year). This is a struggle to do, but so far I’ve kept it up (more or less). I started by getting up an hour earlier and jogging round the lanes (exactly three miles) but I only managed to keep this up for two weeks. So I started using my lunch break at work and just walking round the block three miles. Or taking three separate one-mile walks (makes the day go quickly). One of the marketing executives was trying to tell me that walking isn’t much good but I don’t see the difference in walking three miles in forty minutes or jogging three miles in twenty minutes (walking isn’t aerobic, but that’s not what I’m after).

4) Get at least seven hours sleep per night. Not much progress with this one - there always seems so much to do, plus I get easily distracted with books or television (for instance Newsnight last night had a fascinating focus group looking at Tony Blair’s “legacy” and this took me over my 11pm cut-off). I’ve compromised by getting as much sleep during the week as I can, and then making up the lost hours at the weekend, so I’m getting an average of seven hours per night.

5) Take the following supplements – zinc, omega 3, glucosamine. Doctors say you can get all the nutrients you need from a balanced diet, but I think supplements are the best way to guarantee this. Also, you’d need to eat a lot of fish to get 1000 mg of omega 3 per day.

See also

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dragonflies are beautiful insects

I was walking beside a motorway (the footpath was screened off by a metal fence) and noticed a dragonfly circling me. I put out my hand and it landed (see above). It stayed there quite a while, unafraid – until eventually my arm got tired and I waved it away.

Dragonflies are beautiful insects, with delicate wings and striking colours. They prey on other insects and, contrary to popular belief, never bite humans or animals (the folk name “Horse Biter” probably comes from their habit of circling horses to feed off the inevitable flies). They have fantastic compound eyes with thirty thousand different light-sensing facets arranged so that they have 360 degree vision (isn’t the army is trying to develop a sighting device based on the structure of the dragonfly’s eye?).

Most of the dragonfly’s life-cycle is spent underwater in a laval stage, emerging to the surface for a few weeks before dying. Fossils have been found of prehistoric dragonflies with a wingspan of about thirty inches. They can reach flying speeds of up to 38 mph.

Images of dragonflies have been found on Bronze-Age seal stones in Crete. Generally in Europe the dragonfly has a sinister reputation (undeserved). The earliest recorded use of the word Dragon-Fly is in Francis Bacon’s rambling Sylva Sylvarum of 1627.

When I was about five or six I remember the teacher at the school I went to reading aloud a story about three elves or dwarves making a boat called the Dragonfly and sailing along a river. I think the book was called The Little Grey Men. Since then I have always had positive feelings towards dragonflies (shows you power of pre-adolescent conditioning).

Above: modern sculpture of a dragonfly at a commercial exhibition (click on the image to get the full impact). Dragonflies are one of the defining motifs of Art Nouveau style. Art Nouveau was greatly influenced by Japanese art, Japan being a culture where dragonflies are respected (Akitsushmi, which means Dragonfly Island, is an ancient name for Japan).

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

In The Fold by Rachel Cusk

Have just finished reading In The Fold by Rachel Cusk. It was a bit disjointed at first, but as the story progresses you realise this is part of the structure. Nothing much happens in the book – the narrator (first person) has a Grand-Meaulnes-experience at an impressionable moment of his youth and uses it as the aspirational theme of his life (an example of self-actualisation, someone inventing the person they want to become). Later he revisits the place and family that had so inspired him, to find all his illusions undermined by a disappointing reality.

Rachel Cusk is a fine writer, and she must be recording her descriptions and dialogue from life, since they ring so true. In particular I liked the way she conveyed the sense of separateness that comes from living on a farm (not really isolation, more a feeling that a farm is a little world within itself, and that nothing in the outside world has any relevance). She also draws some very funny portraits of adults from the 1960s generation (examples of staggering selfishness combined with a capacity for self-deception and self-justification).

The 1960s generation is a loose term that refers to people who were in their 20s and 30s anytime between 1955 and 1980. Generally portrayed as an exciting period of peace movements, free love and experimental lifestyles, subsequent generations have been critical of the selfish way in which the 60s generation consumed resources in excessive post-war materialism (as one commentator raged: “this country experienced one thousand years of continuous expansion, and THAT generation wasted it all in a decade”). Apologists for the period point to the necessity of youth rebellion as a response to the crushing moral authority of their parents (“there was no way they could ever live up to the expectations of those who had won the Second World War – their only option was to destroy society so they could find some room to live”).

Marketing footnote: the 60s generation are now entering retirement and are being segmented as SKI-ers (SKI meaning Spending the Kids’ Inheritance – typically cashing-in family assets and using the money to fund a conspicuous level of consumption).

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I'm back at work now

Above: painted Easter eggs in a shop window. I prefer Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. They have the sickly after-taste I’m so fond of (and a taste of the 1970s since the eggs are relatively unchanged since they were launched in 1971).
Anyway, I'm back at work now. It's cold (the heating was off over the weekend). The cherry tree outside the office window has blossomed so that I can hardly see out. I'm mostly on my own since everyone else has gone on a training course (the one I was at a few weeks back). Work at the moment consists of a range of different projects - all I seem to do is push each one forward a little bit then wait for someone else to do something. I'm hungry so I'm going to Rico's at lunchtime.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

“Clothed in white samite”

Easter is approaching, and this is the time when all sorts of traditions and folklore customs in the county come to life - although sometimes they don’t come to life, but only echo (and with such slight vibrations that only a careful listener can pick it up).

Above: Recently I was in an old church in the middle of the county. Looking around, I almost stumbled over this medieval recumbent effigy of a woman wearing a wimpole. There was nothing in Pevsner about it. The surface of the stone was worn almost smooth, giving the blank face a creepy appearance. A notice affixed to the wall (in the usual way of these things) said that the effigy was washed down every Good Friday by the virgins of the village and then decorated and garlanded with flowers. Presumably the name of the woman had been lost and over the centuries the memorial had become representative of generic female virtue.

In a society that seems to have lost all practical use for virginity it is easy to misunderstand the importance of the issue in the pre-modern period. In the middle ages it was all about the transfer of land within family clans. Women had to be virgins before marriage and faithful after marriage because it was vitally important (literally life or death) that land was transferred through a legitimate line. The legitimate successors then had responsibility for feeding and housing the extended family networks who lived off the land, from the manorial knights and churchmen (usually family members) right down to the subsistence pay-sants. Adultery brought shame on the whole family (this is still the case in some ethnic communities in the United Kingdom) and could lead to ALL a woman’s children being doubted and declared bastards, with the land possibly going to a remote relative (and disaster, hunger, humiliation falling on the original family and their hangers-on). It was a cruel system of social control.

It made me think about ways in which virginity has been fetishised by society, even to this day. Here are a few images, in no particular order and not intended to be an exhaustive study of the topic. Just my meandering thoughts.

Above: A pre-industrial village was a society under constant surveillance. Everyone’s sexual status, at all levels, would be known. For knightly families this has been recorded in the funeral hatchments (carried in the funeral procession) preserved in most churches. In the photograph above you can see two hatchments. The left-hand one was for a virgin (plain black background and golden border) whereas the right-hand one was for a wife whose husband survived her (split white and black background). It’s a complicated heraldic code that covers every eventuality. Other markers would be paper crowns with ornate rosettes that would be hung up in a church every time a virgin died. Incredibly some of these paper crowns still survive. I havn’t found any (so far) in this county, but there is a village in Dorset where you can still see some examples.

More on paper crowns:
More on garlands:

Above: Britney Spears, who became (briefly) the most famous virgin in the western world when she announced she was going to remain chaste until she married. The media sensation this produced was in inverse proportion to the same outcry there would have been a hundred years ago had a famous young unmarried woman announced she wasn’t a virgin. Britney Spears, obviously, is an incredibly influential figure in youth culture.

Above: Like A Virgin was the song that transformed Madonna from a rising artist to a global star. The lyrics are about someone regaining the status of a virgin. You would think this was no longer such a big deal, but it obviously struck a chord with millions.

Above: The frontispiece of Country Life magazine still presents a traditional image of virginal young girls about to be married (although recently married women have also featured). These “girls in pearls” are portrayed as the virtuous offspring of the aristocratic class. Here we see the daughter of a duke metaphorically “clothed in white samite”.

Above: Anne-Marie Duff as Queen Elizabeth I in the BBC drama The Virgin Queen (with Tom Hardy playing the Earl of Essex). Elizabeth I used her virginity as a way of acquiring political status as a single woman ruler. In part this may have been due to the Protestant Reformation in which much of the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary was subliminally transferred to the cult of the Protestant Virgin Queen (see Alone Of All Her Sex by Marina Warner for more on the BVM).

Above: After virginity is lost the blood of requited love is “proof” that the hymen was unbroken (sorry to go into anatomical details). Blood of Requited Love is one of Manuel Puig’s most subtle novels. It describes an exchange between a construction worker and his former girlfriend looking back on their relationship of ten years previously.

Marketing footnote: The Virgin brand name started as a mail-order company founded by Richard Branson. It now covers over two hundred companies operating in fields as diverse as air travel, rail travel, music, finance, mobile phones and soft drinks. The name “Virgin” is regarded as one of the group’s most valuable assets.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


There was an item on the Today Programme yesterday about Luton’s attempts to improve its image. I am very familiar with Luton, it is near the top of my Top Ten favourite towns. It is one of the most interesting towns I know.

Three examples:

  • The Wenlock chapel in St Mary’s church includes an arch that is a wonder of late medieval architecture – one of the finest in Europe.
  • The Arndale shopping centre had a fountain inside which featured gigantic pink flamingos (plastic?).
  • On the southern edge of Luton is Luton Hoo, a big stately home where a Russian princess set up a replica of the imperial Russian court that lasted well into the 1970s.

But the best thing about Luton is the people. I made many friends there – loyal, courageous, clever, hard-working, tough when they need to be, always glad to see you. Nowhere else seemed to have the same kind of people.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Music that creates distinct cultures

I’ve been doing a fair amount of walking recently, enjoying the change of winter into spring. Yesterday I borrowed Kim Blacha’s iPod to listen to on a three-mile walk to get the newspaper (rather than using the car and adding to my carbon footprint). Actually I didn’t formally borrow it – I just picked it up and gave it back to her afterwards.

Listening to someone else’s iPod gives you all kinds of insights into what sort of person they are. I made up my mind to listen to everything as it came up, even tracks I would normally skip through (Never Forget by Take That, Eternal Flame by the Bangles, some drivel by Jamiroquai). A lot of the music was fairly predictable for Kim Blacha – How To Save A Life by The Fray, Looking For Love by Karen Ramirez, Lovefool by Cardigans. I thought Who Knew by Pink was quite moving and listened to it twice. But I was stopped in my tracks (I literally stopped to check what I was listening to) by Branka Parlic playing Metamorphosis 2 by Philip Glass. This particular noise outclassed everything else on the iPod.

Later I looked at Kim Blacha as if seeing her for the first time.

Later still I listened to Branka Parlic playing Gnoissienne No 1 by Erik Satie.

We know that every distinct culture in the history of the world has produced music, but I think research should be done on music that creates distinct cultures (this is obviously happening on the popular level with the link between fashion and particular bands, but I think there might also be more subtle connections that are being missed).

I once read Image Music Text by Roland Barthes and didn’t understand a word. I read it again (after some prompting by a friend) and began to get glimmers of understanding. I then read it a third time and it became one of the books that changed my life.