Monday, February 26, 2007

Training course in Croydon

I will be on a training course in Croydon for the next few days. About thirty people from the company are going on the course. I am feeling a bit apprehensive as no-one else from my location is going. I hope the others will be friendly (they won’t be unfriendly, but they could keep in their own groups and be cliquey and difficult to talk to). The course is being held at a big hotel (where I will be staying – I’ll have a fried breakfast every morning!). It’s good the company is investing in its employees in this way.

Some photographs I took when I was last in Croydon (about eighteen months ago):

Above: Most of central Croydon looks like this. Big companies, big hotels, emphasis upon commerce (it’s not really somewhere you would go if you were a tourist). In the distance you can see the sprawl of suburbia.
Above: Croydon has a very innovative business culture and a positive “can do” approach to things. The population of the borough is very mobile, and in any one year a huge percentage of them are on the move (either moving into the town or moving out). The new tram system is an example of Croydon’s forward thinking and liking for all things new.
Above: The shops tend not to be very inspiring – just the usual chain stores, although every kind of chain store seems to be represented. At the top of this pedestrianised street were two magnificent police horses. It was amazing to see horses in such an urban area.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Troy on Channel 4

During the week I watched the 2004 feature film Troy on Channel 4. Actually I just watched the first half of the film since I had to go to work the next day. I was very impressed with the film, although the dialogue was poor – eventually I just turned the sound off since I am very familiar with the Illiad (allowing for the obvious departures from Homer). The architecture of Illium was a bit too Minoan to be credible, but otherwise this was a magnificent interpretation. The subtext of the film was the apotheosis of mortal men into immortal heroes. For the record, I took the side of the Trojans (a futile gesture since the outcome is already known).

Heroes are important in Western culture because they allow ordinary citizens of a state to identify in a personal way with the national “story” (just as readers of a novel will identify with a book’s hero or heroine). If heroes do not personalise the national “myth” then national identity becomes remote and the population does not feel involved (humans are unable to view the world from any perspective except a personal one). In the last two decades heroes have been replaced by celebrities (who make no claims to be virtuous or self-sacrificing).

Above: Welsh rugby international Gavin Henson fulfills all the mythological criteria for a hero – setting out on a quest (restoring the reputation of Welsh rugby), passing a crucial test (maintaining a top level of fitness) and marrying a princess (his relationship with celebrity singer Charlotte Church). In these image conscious times he also looks the part of a hero (although The Guardian sneers at his Wave & Groom hair gel, fake tan and alternating silver and gold rugby boots). And in a twist worthy of all the usual hero monomyths he has been abandoned by the gods (the little tin gods that comprise the Welsh selectors) and dropped from the Welsh national side in the Six Nations tournament because of serious flaws (poor form, tabloid scandals and upsetting his team-mates with an indiscreet autobiography) that ironically elevate him to the status of tragic-hero (and thus will invite even more attention from the tabloid press since tragic-heroes sell).

The book Death Of A Hero relates to a Greek sculpture in the Getty Museum in Malibu. The ancient Greeks identified the political importance of hero cults, predominantly in defining what was virtuous in their society and providing a role model, particularly to young people. Heroes were especially important at times of social unrest or threats to the integrity of the nation.

Carnegie’s view:
Carlyle’s view:

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Various legends have accumulated

Jurassic sandstone boulder on a village green in the heart of the county. It was moved here more than 300,000 years ago during the ice age (and worn smooth by the waters beneath the ice). Various legends have accumulated to the stone over the centuries.

“What sort of legends?” you ask.

The stone moves around on its own at night, there is a hidden treasure buried under it, it marks the site of a long-forgotten battle…

Just the usual run-of-the-mill legends.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I felt like I was seeing an old friend again

Abstract sculpture called “Piscator” by Eduardo Paolozzi. It stands at the front of Euston Station. At one time in my life I used to pass it every day (and hated the sight of it). Then my job changed and I forgot about it. Coming across it the other night, I felt like I was seeing an old friend again. Still don’t know what it’s meant to represent.

The Euston Road has become a minor sculpture park. As well as Piscator there is the Newton statue by Paolozzi in the forecourt of the British Library. Also at the British Library are two Anthony Gormley sculptures of “planets”. There is a towering Thomas Heatherwick sculpture (Bliegiessen) at the Wellcome Institute. Plus the Greek Revival caryatids on New St Pancras church. And if you look carefully there is a statue of Britannia high up on the east side of St Pancras station (on top of a gable).

More on Piscator:

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I was curious to see the Shadow Chancellor

Above: Apologies for this picture of George Osbourne (standing), which is very blurred. I didn’t take my camera to the meeting so was unable to get my own images. This picture was taken by a very elderly gentleman with shaking hands (he later e-mailed it to me).

The front page of The Guardian today featured the results of a poll showing that David Cameron’s personal approval rating stood at 42% as opposed to Gordon Brown’s 29% and Menzies Campbell’s 17%.

Whatever you think of politics (and I am always very sceptical) this turnaround in the fortunes of the Conservative Party is remarkable. I hated John Major’s government and thought they were rotten and corrupt. Now it is the Labour Party that appears dishonest, corrupt, war-mongering, bullying, wasteful with public money, contemptuous of ordinary people. The Conservative Party image is fresh, interesting and full of ideas. There was a time, say five years ago, when no-one I knew admitted to supporting the Conservatives. Now everyone seems to be a Conservative.

An example is Jason Kramer, a Finance Manager with a multi-national company in the Midlands. He recently renewed his membership of the Conservative Party after a lapse of several years. Last November he drove down from Bromsgrove to a town near where I live to see Shadow Chancellor George Osbourne talk to a meeting of local Conservatives. At first we were going to meet afterwards for a meal, but I was curious to see the Shadow Chancellor and so he got me a ticket. I was surprised at how easy this was. There were no security checks or police on the door or anything (and no "minders" to suppress dissenters).

Anyway, I wrote this up last November, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t post it (mainly because I didn’t want this site to become too “political”).

The meeting was held at a girls’ grammar school, a 1950s building of brown brick, vaguely Scandinavian in style (as if modelled on Norwich City Hall). The night was freezing cold, a bright moon in the sky. I met Jason Kramer in the little car park and we went in through the front doors, across a vestibule, and into the school hall.

About a hundred and fifty people were at the meeting, most of them quite elderly. The audience sat at individual tables around the room. Three big tables in the centre of the hall were covered in white tablecloths and piled with food. Three big Union Jack flags had been put up, inbetween the long black and white photographs (rather faded) of school form groups from the 1950s and 1960s. A stage filled the end of the room, and a table had been set up on the stage, presumably for the speaker. The doors to the hall were wide open at first, which made the start of the meeting very cold.

We sat at a table where six people (three couples) had already taken their places. We all chatted for a while (nothing particularly political – just chat), and then everyone got up to get food from the buffet tables in the centre or drinks from the temporary bar which had been set up at one end. The food was very impressive – it was all homemade, and there was plenty of it (sandwiches, pastries, pies). There were several MPs from neighbouring constituencies in the room and they went around the tables introducing themselves. The meeting was supposed to have started at seven, but seven-thirty arrived and then eight, with still no sign of George Osbourne. Someone said he had been held up at a previous meeting.

Eventually the Shadow Chancellor arrived, accompanied by the local Member of Parliament. They made a circuit of the room, shaking hands with everyone and asking how they were. Presumably because Jason Kramer and myself were interlopers the local party managers didn’t let George Osbourne linger at our table.

George Osbourne didn’t go up onto the stage but stood in front of it and began talking to the meeting. He mainly focussed on pensions, describing how pension funds had been taxed so that the United Kingdom has gone from having the best pensions provision in Europe to being no better off than spendthrift countries such as France or Germany. He talked about general government spending and how much of the money had been frittered away with no real results.

His talk was punctuated by interruptions from six or seven middle-aged men sitting together. They all looked alike, being short and round (very fat) with striped shirts, dark suits, bow ties (hair longish and grey, most of them had spectacles). I thought at first that they were hecklers who had somehow got into the meeting, but although their interventions were hostile, loud and arrogant, they were fairly courteous in listening to George Osbourne’s answers. After a few of their questions it became apparent that the men were doctors and consultants from the local hospital who had heard about the meeting and come along (there was no controlled entry). They jumped up from their chairs like little fat jack-in-a-box characters. They complained that the National Health Service needed a lot more money whichever party was in power (it was hard to understand what they really wanted other than "more money").

After his talk George Osbourne took questions from the floor. One question about repealing the Human Rights Act received applause from all over the hall. Jason Kramer asked him a very obscure question about money flows (mainly so he could tell people later that he had taken up the issue with the Shadow Chancellor).

There was a vote of thanks, and then the meeting came to an end.

Monday, February 19, 2007

"We need twelve..."

Above: HMS Prince of Wales in 1941 (a battleship not a carrier - later sunk in combat due to lack of air cover). The two new aircraft carriers are to be called HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. Will two new carriers be enough?

Last week the Head of the Royal Navy (Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sir Jonathon Band ) threatened to resign over the lack of funding for capital ships.

On Sunday I had a conversation with a friend I knew at university who went into the Royal Navy (the Navy sponsored his course at university where he was known as “Captain Pugwash”). What he said about renewal of Trident was interesting. Need to stress that he is not by any means a unilateral nuclear disarmer – he was arguing from a strategic standpoint.

“We need twelve aircraft carriers if this country is going to fully protect all its interests around the world. Two are not going to be enough. If we have twelve we will be impregnable – no-one will be able to touch us.”

“That would be an incredible cost.”

“Not really. And anyway, what is the cost of not being adequately prepared? I would rather we had twelve carriers than renewed Trident.”

“But that would mean giving up our nuclear deterrent.”

“No it wouldn’t, it would just mean not buying an over-hyped weapons system from the Americans. We would still have land based nuclear weapons. And in any case nuclear weapons are not a deterrent.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because we would never use them first. We have told the world: no first use. Against that backdrop the idea of defensive nuclear weapons is meaningless.”

“But what if we were attacked? By China say. Or Russia became dangerous again.”

“If there was a nuclear attack on this country and three or four major cities were destroyed the first priority of the government would be to ensure survival of the British nation by avoiding any further damage. There would be no retaliation because that would invite annihilation. When you really think about it, the concept of nuclear deterrent is meaningless. But if we had twelve aircraft carriers we would not only be an invincible regional power. We would be able to protect our interests in every part of the world. No-one could touch us.”

Above: another of my brother's books (he buys them second hand). “Little Ships” refers to Royal Navy Coastal and Light Forces. The sort of ships that carried out the St. Nazaire attack.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Cecil Rhodes soufflé was a specialty of the house

Above: one of the entrances to the Trocadero.

Designed by W.J. Ansell, the Trocadero opened in 1896 as a luxurious restaurant with incredibly opulent interiors (which still exist under the later re-modellings). The owner was J Lyons & Co. The menu included many Kosher dishes. A typical meal would consist of twelve courses with seven wines. The Cecil Rhodes soufflé was a specialty of the house. High tea included eight types of sandwich, a course of cakes, French pastries and biscuits, and a course of macaroons.

The Trocadero today is a strange mixture of upmarket and downmarket elements (looking at it from a marketing point of view they seem to have lost their way in terms of brand personality). I often go to the cinema there, and Bar M is a nice place to have a coffee, but the restaurants are a bit trashy. The CC Club is an amazing nightclub (using the LA definition of the word amazing, ie “really cool”).

The Trocadero will be undergoing a refurbishment soon, so perhaps it will all change again.

More on the Trocadero:
More on the CC Club:

Thursday, February 15, 2007

In Our Time talking about Joseph Conrad

As I drove to work this morning I listened to Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time talking about Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart Of Darkness. It was an extremely interesting programme, although I missed the end of it. All the rest of the day I was thinking about the things that were said.

For the last seventeen years of his life Joseph Conrad lived on the outskirts of Luton at Someries Farm. It’s private property but you can see the house from a distance. And you can look around the ruins of Someries Castle nearby (which you will have completely to yourself, since very few people know the ruins are there).

Luton itself is a surprisingly nice town, with an art deco town hall.

Someries castle:
Luton Town Hall:
My favourite Conrad book:

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Book now to avoid disappointment

Today is St Valentine’s Day.

“The planet of love is on high” as Tennyson would say (the planet of love really is on high at the moment as Venus is very visible in the night sky).

I saw this poster in a shop window.

I like the idea that by booking in advance you can avoid the let-down that St Valentine’s Day inevitably brings.