Tuesday, 26 May 2015


I'm not sure if I've already mentioned this but, when we were in Budapest a month or so ago, we remembered how, when we'd been looking for a house, a local architect had tried to persuade us to take one that was potentially lovely although fairly, (all right, extremely), battered. He assured us that it would be ready within the year (the year being 1999), which was fine as our lease was only running out in a year's time.

I was all for it, but my husband, while seeing the potential, was a bit hesitant. He wasn't entirely convinced by the architect's promises.

On a walk in April of this year, (i.e. 2015, some 16 years later), we found ourselves in the vicinity of that house. As we had always half regretted letting it slip through our fingers, we decided to go and see how it looked in its reincarnated renovated form.

As it happened, we had absolutely no trouble recognising it. Here is why:

I think the only progress made in the last 16 years is that the renovators have bought some better fitting bin bags for the windows. Meanwhile, the organisation for which we were seeking a house has packed up and left Budapest. It may return one day - perhaps in a decade or two. Who knows whether the house will be ready by then or whether it will remain frozen in its melancholy, could-be-lovely state.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Modern Manners

At the moment, my life includes rather a lot of giving hospitality to strangers. I have been through similar phases before but one thing has changed since those earlier times. At some point in the interim, some bright spark decided that, along with each invitation, a request for information about guests' dietary requirements should be included. 

Whereas I was brought up to accept anything I was given, cutting it up and pushing it round the plate if necessary or rearranging it so that I appear to have eaten quite a lot of it  and am now too full to finish, the people of today seem to have no such qualms. To demand something special when someone has been kind enough to offer you dinner or afternoon tea or whatever would be extremely churlish, according to the principles I was raised on. Hah - here is a typical example of what happens now:

Friday, 22 May 2015

Calling All Bowerbirds

I love a good auction - and quite soon in London there is going to be a beauty. I don't actually need any of the stuff on sale, but I'd love to have some of it. If you want to disappear down a pleasant electronic rabbit hole for an hour or two, here is the catalogue link. It is in a good cause, provided you are fond of Bamber Gascoigne

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Print Me a Ming Vase, Darling

I am a crank about crafts. I believe we would all be happier if we made things regularly. This view has got me into trouble on occasion.

For instance, I remember asking a mature-age student radical, after he'd explained to me that until he was 35 he'd been a cabinetmaker, why he thought studying political science and anthropology was a better way to live his life. The question was evidence that I was a patronising snob, apparently.

But I wasn't being patronising. I genuinely thought spending your life making things would be a deeply satisfying way to earn a crust.

I even took my enthusiasm so far as to incorporate it into what I, totally absurdly, sometimes like to refer to as 'my career'. That is to say, I worked for a while at the Crafts Council of Great Britain, (now defunct, I believe), on their magazine, Crafts, (also now defunct, I think).

To my surprise, I soon began to notice that my colleagues at the council didn't appear to be quite as keen on crafts as I was. But perhaps, I told myself, it was just that they were English and therefore less noisy and demonstrative than me, an Australian (or at least a half-Australian).

That worked for a while but one day, during a discussion about how we ought to do more articles on textiles, the truth became distressingly clear. In the course of conversation, I let slip the fact that I liked making patchworks from old clothes.

The reaction was an icy silence. The magazine's editor, (a woman who is the only occasionally-sung inventor of the phrase 'Sloane Ranger', [Peter York sometimes mentions that it was her, but usually allows it to be assumed that he thought it up himself]), looked at me in horrified amazement.

'Ugh', she said, 'I hate making things.'

Looking back, I think I may be able to faintly discern some of the reasons that Crafts and the Crafts Council have both since vanished.

The council certainly didn't help itself, at least in my view by, in its dying days, organising a V & A exhibition that was supposed to showcase English crafts. I went along to this exhibition, with very -(naively) - high hopes.

My hopes, needless to say, were quickly dashed. While they did have the odd item of traditional, richly skilled craft, the exhibition's organisers  reserved their real excitement and enthusiasm for brand-new technology - most especially 3D printing.

The exhibition was my introduction to 3D printing. This was about 10 years ago and at the time I'd never heard of the process before. It seemed kind of amazing, if you find machines extruding things amazing, but nothing about it, so far as I could see, could be described as a traditional English craft.

Leaving that quibble aside, there is no denying that 3D printing has been on the rise ever since. Nowadays, most people seem to agree that the process is going to revolutionise everything from medicine to house construction. At an exhibition in Brussels the other day, I saw a bicycle on display, together with some armchairs, all produced by 3D printing. Everything in the exhibition was very impressive, inasmuch as things made out of plastic can be very impressive.

But, leaving aside the fact that, so far as I can tell a 3D printer has not yet managed to extrude a walnut-veneered Beidermeier chest of drawers or a mahogany library table with a gold-tooled leather top, there is one other aspect of the new global 3D-printing enthusiasm that bothers me: namely, the aspect that involves relying on printers.

As my younger daughter wisely observed to me the other day, while all our other gadgets leap forward in their speed and ability to perform miracles, there remains one area of machinery that seems to have got stuck in the 1980s and that area is: printers. You can flash pictures across the world in an instant, you can chat away to people in Australia while you sit in Europe, you can discover the dates of Carolingian dynasties in a millisecond, (supposing you want to), but, when it comes to printing out a letter, you are stuck in an earlier age of recalcitrant equipment, sweating and cursing as you wrench mangled, ink-smeared bits of paper from the maw of your printer, hovering beside it, like a nursemaid by a baby's cradle, for the entire time it is required to function (Warning: do not watch this clip if you object to swearing):

Given this reality, how is the 3D revolution going to work exactly? If we can't manage to produce a printer that doesn't jam, exhaust itself of ink or that powdery laser substance, (of which there always seems to be more than enough to blacken your fingers and add smuts to odd bits of your face, when you take the old cartridge out to change it), or simply go on strike for no clear reason at all, how are we going to manage to build whole cities with the things, as some people are predicting?

Or perhaps I have suddenly hit upon the solution to the inevitable post-automation rise in unemployment. All the people who used to make the things that the 3D printers will now be making for us will get lovely new 3D jobs instead - they will be paid to spend their lives standing beside the 3D printing machines, soothing them into operating without a hitch.

Or mightn't it be better just to go on using our hands and our eyes, slowly accruing greater and greater skill and gaining huge satisfaction from  making things ourselves?

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Too Good for Puns

It would be far too easy, when setting out to write about Cologne, to make some pathetic joke about 4711 or Eau de. But I'm not going to, because I am too genuinely impressed to start taking the mickey.

What I am impressed by is the Wallraf Museum - or more particularly by its curators, most especially the people who write the information that goes up on its galleries' walls.

At last I have found a gallery where they actually tell you something that is helpful, something that gives you a genuine insight into what the artists who made the work on display were actually trying to do, something that helps you understand the perspective of the people who first stood in front of that work many centuries ago. At last I have found a gallery that provides a few keys to start unlocking the world of the past, helping you to look - if only fleetingly and dimly - through the eyes of the people of the time.

I may be exposing my startling ignorance - far from the first time, alas - but until I went into the Wallraf, I was unaware that there was more than a decorative reason for the golden backgrounds in medieval paintings. One of the wall captions brought me this revelation:

"A gilded background is commonly found in mediaeval panel paintings because it is seen as the embodiment of divine light."

I should have guessed, I suppose, but I am remarkably unimaginative. It was wonderful to look at pictures like this with a new understanding:

Simone Martini, Siena c.1284 - 1344 Avignon, Mary with the Child 1316-1317

Again, a floor above, in a gallery of paintings made some two hundred years later, I came across one of those paintings that have always somewhat baffled me - the ones that show a carcase hanging in an unknown room. The wise soul behind the scenes at the Wallraf understood my predicament. After all my years of wandering round galleries, brow furrowed, wondering why people long ago painted pictures of raw meat, enlightenment came at last:

"This gaping, eviscerated carcase of a sow is hanging from a beam in the hallway of a farmhouse. All the details of the creature's body, its skeleton, the muscles, the layers of fat and the sinews are brightly lit. The shudder we feel at the sight of the pig's opened body is enough to remind us of our own deaths. The warnings against immoderation are given here with none of the joys of a narrative accompaniment":

Joachim Beuckelaer, Antwerp c. 1533-1574, A Slaughtered Pig

I won't go on and on and on, although there was so much of interest - explanations of pictures that were really a kind of prototype of today's graphic novels:

Labelled "The Passion in Cinemascope" this is by a Master of the Passion who worked in Cologne between 1415 and 1440. The painting was made between 1430 and 1435 and is called the Passion of Christ in 31 Scenes. If you can persuade two friends to lay their Ipads side by side with yours, you might be able to get an idea of the thing as a whole

This is captioned, "Narrating with pictures, Cologne style (as opposed to Gangnam style?). It was made by an unknown Cologne artist between 1450 and 1460 and is a Devotional Picture with 12 scenes of the life of Christ

of how egg tempera was made; of the evolving approach to landscape and portraiture; of how painters developed luminous colour through layering coats of paints .....

I said I wouldn't go on but I can't resist quoting from one more wall board, this one more general in scope than those I've quoted up until now. It is an introduction to an entire room. In this text, the writer tries to help the visitor understand the approach to existence that was prevalent at the time the pieces on display were made. There were many equally instructive wallboards in other rooms, deomonstraing, I believe, the thought that the people at the Wallraf museum have given to what the institution is trying to do.

I applaud them and I wish other art galleries would follow their example. Unfortunately, in my experience most museum administrations provide either bare historical facts about a painter - dates, who he painted for, very little more - or very abstract comments about harmony of colour and composition that don't clarify much at all. Here is how they do it in Cologne. It works for me:

"Vision and Reality
In this gallery one can feel the enormous tension which accompanied people's lives during the late Middle Ages, an era of change.On the one side was the daily reality that surrounded them: human environments from the town and country crept into the altarpieces in the form of backgrounds. On the other side there was the prospect of life after death. This was linked with hopes of eternal life in Paradise, but also with fears of punishment in Hell's fire. The painters developed specific forms and ideas to depict these opposites. One ingenious Cologne painter "portrayed" the river and land sides of his home town on the front and rear sides of a panel. But for a visionary subject, the apparition of Mary and Jesus, that same artist used a number of large rounded forms. They are arranged rhythmically, or indeed almost musically in his composition. A comparison between this "Glorification of the Virgin" and the neighbouring paintings reveals that such large, rounded forms were in fact a highly popular means of depicting mysterious and mystical visions of the end of time. Unlike people today, history was not regarded in the Middle Ages as flowing ever onward. The understanding of history at that time was "teleological", which is to say directed towards a goal. The goal and simultaneously the end of history was the Last Judgement and the Apocalypse, the Resurrection of Humankind, and the descent of the New Jerusalem (Paradise) to Earth. This serves as the common denominator of the quite diverse paintings in this gallery":

To leaven all this dry stuff, here are a few pictures I thought were particularly charming - or, in the case of the last one, just very, very striking and somehow more modern than its time:

Somehow I didn't write down the details of this, but a great many nuns get massacred, St Ursula may be involved and it is all set beside the city of Cologne. I am especially fond of the fish - and the fisherman look a bit like something out of Tove Jansson's Who Will Comfort Toffle. The next few pictures are all of it. Again some friendly Ipads laid side by side may allow a full view of the entire thing

Look, look, there is Cologne cathedral - and, so remarkably, it is still there today

Perhaps I went overboard a bit with this picture (overboard, geddit? Yes, it's true, I can't really completely rid this blog of puns) but for some reason it appeals to me a lot and I've not seen anything quite like it

This was captioned, "And One More Spoonful for Daddy" & the text explained that every single object in it has a significance beyond the ordinary, (loaf of bread & jug of wine point towards Last Supper, etc). It is by Jacob Jansz who worked in Harlem between 1483 & 1509 & it is called The Holy Family at Table. It was painted between 1495 & 1500

 I was too hopelessly sloppy to note down who painted this lovely tryptych, but I like the animals and the background landscapes shown in the next few photographs of details of it

This is the Birth of Christ by Aert Claesz (Aertgen van Leyden) who lived in Leiden from 1498 to 1564 and painted this between 1525 and 1530. I find it fascinating - that great red figure with its back to us; and look at his(?) shoes

If you want to see more pictures, you can look at Swanning around, my tumblr account, or my Instagram, zedmkc - I will try to get round to putting more up there before too long. I only saw a small bit of the collection, so I will also add more to the tumblr next time I visit Cologne.

Oh crumbs, I almost forgot - the museum also contains possibly the ugliest thing ever produced in the Middle Ages, something they describe as a piece of Medieval multimedia - that is to say a painting with horrid ceramic heads sticking out of it. If you're going to the Wallraf with children, for goodness sake don't let them see it; it's the stuff of nightmares, it really is:

Made in Cologne between 1425 and 1435, but no-one is owing up to it, it is called Christ on the Cross between Mary and John

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Why I Am Buying a Mask

A long train journey provides an opportunity to catch up on old New Yorkers. In a slightly too lengthy article on developments in artificial intelligence, in the issue of 19 January, I just read this passage::

"By scanning facial action units, computers can now outperform most people in distinguishing social smiles from those triggered by spontaneous joy, and in differentiating between faked pain and genuine pain. They can determine if a patient is depressed. Operating with unflagging attention, they can register expressions so fleeting that they are unknown even to the person making them. 

[Its co-inventor] often emphasizes that this technology can read only facial expressions, not minds, but Affdex is marketed as a tool that can make reliable inferences about people’s emotions—a tap into the unconscious."

Right - that is the last you'll see of me (inasmuch as you have seen anything of me to begin with) - I'm off to scour the Internet for a full-face mask.

Friday, 15 May 2015

I'm On the Train

Actually I'm not. But I was a couple of days ago, and I will be again tomorrow, and it made me a bit gloomy. Not all of it; I love train travel. But one aspect on this occasion troubled me. It's not something new; I think I've always been vaguely aware of it. Until the day before yesterday though I'd never focussed on it properly before.

And who knows, perhaps I'm making too much of it. Maybe I'd just got into a slightly pessimistic mood because I spent most of the journey reading Deception by Edward Lucas, which is about the largely unrecognised danger that Russia poses to Western countries. It is a very good book, but not exactly cheery.

Anyway, as the hours passed and the countryside of Europe rolled by the window, I began to realise that, extremely quickly, I was growing ridiculously territorial about the little space I occupied in the train carriage I'd chosen. After a mere couple of hours, I started to feel that this was my domain and people shouldn't think they could just march right in and spread themselves out, if I hadn't invited them.

Before I knew it, I was brimming with resentment. At each new station, I would see a fresh horde of passengers scrambling on, and I didn't feel welcoming. As they rumbled suitcases up and down the aisle or tramped through in backpacked troops, scouting for seats, I felt cross at their presumption. What gave them the right to come in here and take up my space? How dare they, these invading aliens? Why didn't they just rack off somewhere else - ideally, back to wherever they'd come from?

So much for tolerance. But let's hope I'm just a particularly unpleasant human being. If not, I'm worried. If other people experience the same kind of thing - if they also rapidly start to feel they have rights over train carriages or corners of cafes or cosy little back rooms in country pubs, places that they are only passing through themselves, places they don't really have any emotional investment in, then heaven help us when it comes to our feelings in our own homes, our own regions, our own districts when faced with the arrival of the homeless and the desperate, who these days are increasingly flooding across the world,

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Having a Lend

I was fairly astonished by the dress Mrs Cameron chose to wear on the day after the UK election, espeacially when it was claimed that it cost £915 - how could any dress cost that much, let alone such a horrid one?

But then I looked in Stella magazine, and I realised Mrs Cameron had actually been doing the best she could. The clothes Stella was proposing were so very much worse than what she had on that I had to conclude British shops are full of nothng but unwearable things and Mrs Cameron simply took the least unwearable thing she could find.

If you don't believe me, just look at these garments, which I don't believe anyone could be persuaded to wear voluntarily, let alone pay good money for - they seem almost wilfully designed to make the person inside them look an utter dork:

 And, no, so far as I can tell neither of the above outfits are meant for pregnant women.
I'm ashamed to say this could have been me in 1975 or so, but I have learnt my lesson since then
Yards and yards of buttoned denim flapping round your ankles. I fear a repetition of that 18th century suicide who left a note that said, simply, "All this buttoning and unbuttoning

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Hey Mr Postman

I've never been convinced by Tolstoy's "all happy families are alike" statement at the start of Anna Karenina. It's not a claim that can ever be proved or refuted definitively, of course, especially as the terms are never sufficiently defined. All the same, judging purely by my own small experience of family, I can't help having my doubts.

For a start, I regard myself as coming from a happy family, and yet my parents are divorced. I suspect Count Tolstoy would therefore argue that a) we aren't actually a proper family and b) we can't possibly have been happy. Yet we are - or were; sadly, my father is dead - in our own peculiar way.

Additionally, I have now created my own offshoot of the mother-ship family unit, and, while I would claim it fits fairly neatly into Tolstoy's category, I can't say it looks particularly like anyone else's version of a happy family

On the other hand, had Tolstoy rejigged his statement and started Anna Karenina with the statement, "All post offices are alike", I wouldn't be able to raise a single objection. I probably wouldn't have gone on to read the rest of Anna Karenina, mind you, but would that have mattered? At least the great man would have been articulating a genuinely unarguable, universal truth.

Sadly, Tolstoy let his readers down on this point - which was why it took me until last Tuesday afternoon to recognise it for myself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was in a post office at the moment that the revelation came to me.

Strangely enough, in superficial terms, the post office I was in was actually somewhat unusual. That is to say, it was not grimy, or cluttered with cheap plastic gadgets and second-rate cookbooks that no-one would think of buying unless they had been driven mad by standing in a queue for over half an hour. In fact, it appeared to have been fairly recently renovated. Instead of dirty linoleum floors and bare fluorescent tubes on the ceiling and dirty little marks on the wall where a decade ago some notice had been sellotaped to the effect that post office workers were no longer supplying some service the public wanted or that the Post Master General had decreed that customers couldn't send parcels between the hours of three and four thirty on Thursday afternoons, there were clean floor tiles and the walls were freshly painted. I suspect there were countless plastic-coated wire bins, filled with discounted neck cushions and fridge magnets and  CDs of the collected works of Nana Mouskouri, lurking out the back, where they'd been shoved during the recent renovations, but on the day I was there the place felt curiously spacious - and almost, (but not quite - stuffiness is a prerequisite of post offices), airy.

Still the main ingredients were present. To begin with, there was the traditional post office queue. And behind the counter there was the same combination of personalities that occupy positions behind all post office counters all over the world.

At the end nearer to me - teller number 4, as the computerised queuing system called him, (no, I don't know why the numbering system started in the distance and moved upwards as it grew closer to the customers) - was the obligatory slightly prickly old guy with thick glasses and unwashed hair, the one who refuses to smile or meet your eye and, if he possibly can, continues a conversation with one of his colleagues while serving you. To either side of him, (tellers numbers 3 and 5), were the standard pair of middle-aged women, both of whom appear to spend their spare time experimenting with harsh shades of hair dye - usually in the bright orange spectrum. The scrawny version with wacky spectacles, whose main pleasure is telling customers that things are not possible, sat to his left; the overweight one, who is usually dressed in something floral that looks like it might once have covered a sofa, to his right.

Teller number 2 was missing, and teller number 1, way out on a limb on his ergonomic chair at the far end of the counter, was the perennial young guy, the one who has either a nose ring, or tattoos, or a pink mohican, the one who believes he is still autonomous and hip and is only doing post office work for a year or two, before departing in a blaze of some kind of glory, (little does he know that he will in fact eventually become teller number 4, complete with the glasses, the prickly manner, [it's the disappointment, I'm guessing] and the unwashed hair.

All of them exuded the universal post office worker air of tired, very barely concealed irritation. I suppose the job is pretty dull, and I can see that it must be annoying to have to keep getting up to go and fetch parcels from the back. Rifling through folders to find the right sort of stamp, turning your body slightly to reach the weighing machine on which you place envelopes, must also get tiresome. Nevertheless, the level of dispiritedness among post office workers seems disproportionate. It is as if expectations have been severely dashed, as if each one of these workers entered the employment of the post office with glittering visions of themselves engaged in some other kind of activity dancing in their heads,

What were they imagining, I wonder. There can be few jobs that are more straightforward, where there is less scope for self-deception about glamour in the workplace than a job in a post office. What is more they do have stamps, (not the adhesive kinds but the inky ones you thump down on documents - I saw quite a lot of that going on during my time waiting, and no-one can convince me that that part of the job isn't downright therapeutic).

I suppose though that it's the customers that get them down.

Not that we are all bad of course, but I have noticed that, if you end up waiting in there long enough, (and you usually do, not through choice), there is generally one customer who turns up and decides he cannot tolerate the way the post office is run. The most memorable I've witnessed of these characters was many years ago in a post office in Kensington Church Street. That strange creature who claims to have wifelets came among us and before very long he decided to kick up a fuss. I suppose it was predictable that he would have a sense of entitlement - although up close his unattractiveness is considerable, I guess there must be women out there who cannot see the man for the house he owns and the combination of their fawning attentions, his title and his considerable inheritance may shield him from the fact that he is ugly and charmless to the naked eye.

Anyway, on Tuesday we did not manage a Marquess, (or not one I recognised). Instead, we were served up a pantomime Frenchman, straight out of Allo Allo, (or my idea of Allo Allo, as I've never actually watched it). He was dressed in torn jeans, espadrilles, a battered straw hat and a blue artist's smock. He carried a woman's (as an Anglo, it looked to me like a female accessory, but these foreigners ...) shopping basket, which had a silk scarf tied to one of its leather handles. He sported a droopy moustache and a pair of David Hockney tortoise-shell spectacles that had lost one arm - these last I think were by way of a prop, as he spent more time gesticulating with them than wearing them, (although possibly, had he worn them, he might not have got confused about how the system at the post office worked in the first place and the resulting fracas might never have occurred).

Anyway, whether because of his tendency not to wear his spectacles or for some other reason, the Frenchman failed to spot where the queue ended. He then attempted to barge in and be served ahead of a pensioner with a hearing aid. The pensioner was standing at the part of the counter presided over by the scrawny woman with the flame-dyed hair and multi-coloured glass frames. She took the opportunity to give the spectacles waving Frenchman a tongue lashing.

Having tried and failed to fight his corner, he retreated and started trying to wrangle the other waiting customers onto his side instead. As his approach was to complain about 'These bloody Belgians', he made very limited progress. In fact, I had the impression he might end up with a fight on his hands. Sadly though, as events were accelerating to a showdown I completed my business. As I'm not a fan of boxing and I'd already wasted enough time, I left before anything kicked off.

What I did find out later though was that all post offices are also alike in inefficiency. Having gone there for one purpose - to send a letter by express trackable mail - and having been given a tracking number that I was assured would enable me to follow my envelope from Uccle to my bank in London, (and having paid the amazingly enormous amount of 35 euros for the service), when I sat down the next morning at the computer and fed the number into the computer, this is all I got in reply:

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Meanwhile in the Nest

The boss of Twitter may be inarticulate, (see yesterday's post), but the members of Twitter are often witty and fun. Today, I was reminded of this when Timehop threw me back the Tweets from a game some Tweeters played a while back, (four years ago, as it happens).

The idea of the game was pretty simple: people were invited to contribute the names of cooking songs. Here are some of the suggestions that I found amusing, with attributions, where available:

"It's a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll", (contributed by the Northern Territory News, apparently);

Paul Young's "Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you";

"Yabbie Road";

"The chops are burning", by Midnight Oil;

"Happiness is a warm bun", (my brother came up with that one);

"Still haven't found what I'm cooking for" (a Tweeter called @dkfcdotnet);

"Addicted to l'oeuf" (@kandidan);

"Please cheese me";

"We are the champignons" (@JonPowles);

"House of the rising bun";

"I'll never find another stew";

"Let it brie";

"The first time ever I saw your plaice", by Roberta Flack;

"Peas train", by Cat Stevens;

"You've got a friand", by James Taylor;

"Bette Davis eyes (#cannibalcookingsongs)";

"I left my heart in San Francisco (I never cared for offal)".

So many people tell me they don't like Twitter, that it is vicious and vile and a seething tank of hatred and horror, but I think these kinds of games, (which happen quite regularly - and always spontaneously), show that there is the odd pocket of sheer silliness in there too. And silliness, surely, is never a bad thing.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Chief Twit

"As we iterate on the logged out experience and curate topics, events, moments that unfold on the platform, you should absolutely expect us to deliver those experiences across the total audience and that includes logged in users and users in syndication."

This breathtakingly meaningless sentence was created by the Chief Executive of Twitter recently. The brilliant Lucy Kellaway dismantled it with great skill, for those of us who don't understand modern English.

Monday, 4 May 2015

A Dollop of Trollope

On a long car journey recently we whiled away the time listening to Nigel Hawthorne read The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I had tried to read the book myself several times, egged on by numerous enthusiastic friends and acquaintances, but the first dozen or so pages always found me marooned.

With Hawthorne, we sailed through what I'd have to say are fairly dense thickets of exposition and reached the heart of the matter. Which didn't turn out to be all that wildly exciting. Of course, it would be more than possible to recognise a great deal that is relevant to politics now in the text - and also to make out what turned out to be a prescient, if sadly ignored, lesson in the portrayal of the damage that the Radicals' reform-for-reform's-sake zeal ended up causing. All the same, the stand of the Warden seemed slightly pointless, ultimately, and, whether or not Trollope intended it, the character I particularly liked was not the saintly figure of the title but his son-in-law, the extremely flawed, but very human, Dr Grantly.

I'm quibbling though. The lack of thoroughly gripping or convincing plot didn't really matter. Two other aspects of the book made it fun for me. The first was Trollope's excellent characterisation. Take Sir Abraham Haphazard as an example.

Trollope describes this eminent lawmaker as having“the appearance of a machine with a mind”.

He goes on to tell the reader that Haphazard was “a man whom you would ask to defend your property, but to whom you would be sorry to confide your love. He was bright as a diamond, and as cutting, and also as unimpressionable. He knew everyone whom to know was an honour, but he was without a friend”

“Sir Abraham was a man of wit, and sparkled among the brightest at the dinner-tables of political grandees: indeed, he always sparkled; whether in society, in the House of Commons, or the courts of law, coruscations flew from him; glittering sparkles, as from hot steel, but no heat; no cold heart was ever cheered by warmth from him, no unhappy soul ever dropped a portion of its burden at his door.”

“And so he glitters along through the world, the brightest among the bright; and when his glitter is gone, and he is gathered to his fathers, no eye will be dim with a tear, no heart will mourn for its lost friend.”

Also always of interest to me are any descriptions of food provided by a novelist. Trollope gives us not one but two meals, plus an intriguing post-prandial interlude. That is more than enough to make me his fan.

The first meal Trollope provides for us is the rather marvellous breakfast provided at Dr Grantly's establishment:

The breakfast-service on the table was equally costly and equally plain; the apparent object had been to spend money without obtaining brilliancy or splendour. The urn was of thick and solid silver, as were also the tea-pot, coffee-pot, cream-ewer, and sugar-bowl; the cups were old, dim dragon china, worth about a pound a piece, but very despicable in the eyes of the uninitiated. The silver forks were so heavy as to be disagreeable to the hand, and the bread-basket was of a weight really formidable to any but robust persons. The tea consumed was the very best, the coffee the very blackest, the cream the very thickest; there was dry toast and buttered toast, muffins and crumpets; hot bread and cold bread, white bread and brown bread, home-made bread and bakers' bread, wheaten bread and oaten bread; and if there be other breads than these, they were there; there were eggs in napkins, and crispy bits of bacon under silver covers; and there were little fishes in a little box, and devilled kidneys frizzling on a hot-water dish; which, by the bye, were placed closely contiguous to the plate of the worthy archdeacon himself. Over and above this, on a snow-white napkin, spread upon the sideboard, was a huge ham and a huge sirloin; the latter having laden the dinner table on the previous evening. Such was the ordinary fare at Plumstead Episcopi.

He then moves on to the rather less satisfactory dinner that the Warden finds for himself in London, while trying to keep out of sight of Dr Grantley:

He was rather daunted by the huge quantity of fish which he saw in the window. There were barrels of oysters, hecatombs of lobsters, a few tremendous-looking crabs, and a tub full of pickled salmon; not, however, being aware of any connection between shell-fish and iniquity, he entered, and modestly asked a slatternly woman, who was picking oysters out of a great watery reservoir, whether he could have a mutton chop and a potato.
The woman looked somewhat surprised, but answered in the affirmative, and a slipshod girl ushered him into a long back room, filled with boxes for the accommodation of parties, in one of which he took his seat. In a more miserably forlorn place he could not have found himself: the room smelt of fish, and sawdust, and stale tobacco smoke, with a slight taint of escaped gas; everything was rough and dirty, and disreputable; the cloth which they put before him was abominable; the knives and forks were bruised, and hacked, and filthy; and everything was impregnated with fish. He had one comfort, however: he was quite alone; there was no one there to look on his dismay; nor was it probable that anyone would come to do so. It was a London supper-house. About one o'clock at night the place would be lively enough, but at the present time his seclusion was as deep as it had been in the abbey.
In about half an hour the untidy girl, not yet dressed for her evening labours, brought him his chop and potatoes, and Mr Harding begged for a pint of sherry. He was impressed with an idea, which was generally prevalent a few years since, and is not yet wholly removed from the minds of men, that to order a dinner at any kind of inn, without also ordering a pint of wine for the benefit of the landlord, was a kind of fraud,—not punishable, indeed, by law, but not the less abominable on that account. Mr Harding remembered his coming poverty, and would willingly have saved his half-crown, but he thought he had no alternative; and he was soon put in possession of some horrid mixture procured from the neighbouring public-house.
His chop and potatoes, however, were eatable, and having got over as best he might the disgust created by the knives and forks, he contrived to swallow his dinner. He was not much disturbed: one young man, with pale face and watery fishlike eyes, wearing his hat ominously on one side, did come in and stare at him, and ask the girl, audibly enough, "Who that old cock was;" but the annoyance went no further, and the warden was left seated on his wooden bench in peace, endeavouring to distinguish the different scents arising from lobsters, oysters, and salmon.

Having furnished such a wonderfully vivid picture of what it was like to try to find a meal in London in the 19th century, if you didn't know your way around, Trollope goes on to introduce us to a phenomenon that I had never heard of - and that I rather wish still existed - the cigar divan, (and his description makes me wonder what exactly was offered in the guise of coffee - or is it simply that the Warden is by this time very, very tired?):

"... as he paid his bill to the woman in the shop, [the Warden] asked her if there were any place near where he could get a cup of coffee.”

“Though she did keep a shellfish supper-house, she was very civil, and directed him to the cigar divan on the other side of the street.

Mr Harding had not a much correcter notion of a cigar divan than he had of a London dinner-house, but he was desperately in want of rest, and went as he was directed. He thought he must have made some mistake when he found himself in a cigar shop, but the man behind the counter saw immediately that he was a stranger, and understood what he wanted. "One shilling, sir,—thank ye, sir,—cigar, sir?—ticket for coffee, sir;—you'll only have to call the waiter. Up those stairs, if you please, sir. Better take the cigar, sir,—you can always give it to a friend, you know. Well, sir, thank ye, sir;—as you are so good, I'll smoke it myself." And so Mr Harding ascended to the divan, with his ticket for coffee, but minus the cigar.”

“The place seemed much more suitable to his requirements than the room in which he had dined: there was, to be sure, a strong smell of tobacco, to which he was not accustomed; but after the shell-fish, the tobacco did not seem disagreeable. There were quantities of books, and long rows of sofas. What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book, and a cup of coffee? An old waiter came up to him, with a couple of magazines and an evening paper. Was ever anything so civil? Would he have a cup of coffee, or would he prefer sherbet? Sherbet! Was he absolutely in an Eastern divan, with the slight addition of all the London periodicals? He had, however, an idea that sherbet should be drunk sitting cross-legged, and as he was not quite up to this, he ordered the coffee.

The coffee came, and was unexceptionable. Why, this divan was a paradise! The civil old waiter suggested to him a game of chess: though a chess player he was not equal to this, so he declined, and, putting up his weary legs on the sofa, leisurely sipped his coffee, and turned over the pages of his Blackwood. He might have been so engaged for about an hour, for the old waiter enticed him to a second cup of coffee, when a musical clock began to play. Mr Harding then closed his magazine, keeping his place with his finger, and lay, listening with closed eyes to the clock. Soon the clock seemed to turn into a violoncello, with piano accompaniments, and Mr Harding began to fancy the old waiter was the Bishop of Barchester; he was inexpressibly shocked that the bishop should have brought him his coffee with his own hands; then Dr Grantly came in, with a basket full of lobsters, which he would not be induced to leave downstairs in the kitchen; and then the warden couldn't quite understand why so many people would smoke in the bishop's drawing-room; and so he fell fast asleep, and his dreams wandered away to his accustomed stall in Barchester Cathedral, and the twelve old men he was so soon about to leave for ever. ”

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Blowing in the Wind

Have you noticed how certain words and phrases you have never heard of before suddenly emerge as normal parts of everyday speech - or at least they become a regular part of the vocabulary of people who talk on Radio 4 and who write columns in newspapers?

These neologisms don't always last for long, although sometimes they become part of the linguistic furniture for decades. Whether they are fleeting or permanent is irrelevant in my experience, since I rarely manage to grasp precisely what they mean, no matter how long they hang around.

At the moment, the two that I seem to encounter daily are:

1. "binary". Things are very rarely binary apparently. We should not be presented with choices that our merely binary. Problems do not submit to binary solutions. What is the alternative to a binary solution? A solution in triplicate? A pluralist solution? No solution at all is usually the answer.

2. "transactional". I first heard this at dinner one evening when the EU official next to me observed that "Britain has always preferred a transactional approach" to the Union. The next day a young pregnant woman told me that her obstetrician was good but very "transactional". Since then it's been a "transactional" snowstorm, hardly a conversation has gone by without someone referring to something as being "transactional". No idea whatsoever what it means. It's a good yardstick for working out whether someone's a bit of a bore though - if they use it, chances are they might be.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015


1. Does anyone else routinely, to their own bafflement, read newspapers from back to front - that is to say, starting on the last page and moving systematically to the front page?
2. If anyone does, are they also baffled by their behaviour, or can they provide a rationale for this quirk?
3. Does anyone else find that they don't get through the weekend papers until the week after the weekend after next (partly because on the weekend that each set of new weekend papers appears, they are still working their way [backwards] through the ones from two weeks earlier - this dilemma  is sort of akin to compound interest, in a remote sort of way.
4. If anyone else does get out of sync in this way with the weekend papers, have they noticed that the weekend papers actually improve by this crude form of cellaring? The stuff that seemed absolutely cutting edge in its hot off the press relevance has usually been superseded by the time the articles in question meet the eye. Which means there is much more time for the really interesting articles.
5. Speaking of which has anyone else caught up to the point of reading the Guardian of Saturday 18 April, and, if they have, did they read the astounding article about Cordula Schacht, daughter of Hitler's Minister of Economics, suing Random House for royalties for the Goebbels family because a Random House published biography of Goebbels uses quotes from Goebbels's diaries?

When Random House replied by offering to pay Schacht royalties, provided she give the money to a Holocaust charity, she refused the offer. Rainer Dresen, general counsel of Random House Germany believes that other publishing houses have paid for the use of Goebbels's diaries and Random House is the first not to. "We are convinced that no money should go to a war criminal" he is quoted as saying, "I [do]not want to believe that anyone can claim royalties for Goebbels's words".

The questions this story raises are endless. I will leave others to ask them and, with luck provide some answers. I am too angry to think rationally on the subject.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Perfect Pets

I was listening to a radio discussion about the latest iteration of the film Bladerunner the other day. At the time I saw the film - ie when it first came out - I thought it was mainly a metaphor for "the human condition". That is, the desire of the replicants for a longer lifespan was really a human desire in mechanical clothing.

What I didn't foresee all those years ago was that, within my lifetime, conditions anywhere in my world might begin to mirror those in the film. A trip to Shanghai cured me of any illusions on that score. Or, to put it another way, if you want to know what Shanghai's like, watch Bladerunner..

And, while elsewhere urban environments haven't quite reached the constant warm rain and overwhelmingly dense population stage, slowly but surely the first generation of pre-replicants have been creeping into our lives. No, I know we haven't got things that are indistinguishable from humans yet, but we have got gadgets that it is very easy to anthropomorphise, and some of us at least are already starting to get in a muddle about the dividing line between machine and cuddly little animate being.

The first time I realised this was when those funny round vacuum cleaners that speed about people's houses first appeared. As soon as I saw them for sale, I found them appealing. The only reason I didn't buy one was that I was told they can't cope with old rugs - the fringes make them miserable, apparently. However, I wasn't surprised when I read that people who do buy them start to grow as attached to them as if they were a family pet. When they break down, their owners take them back to the shops they bought them from but, when offered a new replacement, they often get upset. They don't want a lovely shiny thing in a box out the back; they want the one that's part of the family. "No, no, you've got to fix our one", they cry, "he's special".

Which sounds a bit silly, until you start to see how sweet and pliant robots can be.

Or possibly I'm just unusually susceptible to the charms of small machines. I certainly have lost my heart to another example of the genus, which I see from time to time in the big park near my house.

The park contains a lake and around the lake are sloping lawns that often need cutting. Rather than a team of men with noisy mowers, the local authorities have chosen a robotic machine for the job. It rushes up and down the grass with what I regard as a touching eagerness. When it has finished its tasks, it scampers back to its master's side. Without waiting for any kind of reward, it manoeuvres itself into the correct position and trundles obediently up a ramp and into the trailer its been brought to the park in. You can see the man in charge finds it extremely hard to restrain himself from giving it a grateful pat.

Here is a video of the dear little thing at work. It comes from the machine's makers - who are a company called Dvorak, so I assume they are very clever Czechs or Slovaks - and it doesn't quite capture the machine's cuteness, (the machine, by the way, is called a Spider). All the same, if you watch it, it will give you a faint hint of its charm:

So. while someone in my house has just got themselves a small dog, I am not yearning for anything fluffy. Why would I, when I could have a Spider. Like a dog, a Spider comes when you call it. Unlike a dog it doesn't demand food or walks and there is no need to arrange for it be looked after when you decide to go away overnight or for a weekend.

Friday, 17 April 2015

King Lear - Northern Broadsides

It is astonishing that Jonathan Miller is so little used as a director in British theatre. If I ruled the world, he'd be opening a new production every week, (it sounds a lot, but he's no spring chicken so we need to wring the most we can out of him, while we still have him).

In my experience, the plays performed under his direction are intelligent, surprising, entertaining and moving. But others seem to disagree. There is some vague idea abroad - started I think by Stevie Smith, who wrote a mean little short story about Miller as a child (a spoilt child, as she saw it, or a, heavens forbid, precocious child; too often a "precocious" child is really a child who has not been thoroughly and effectively squashed) - that he is egotistic, whereas, at least as a director, he is the least egotistic person alive. His approach to plays is to read the script closely and try to animate it, without the use of gimmicks.

Meanwhile, the likes of Rupert Goold are feted. They are good at hysteria and pyrotechnics. They are good at the kind of productions Hermann Koch describes so well in his rather horrid novel Summer House with Swimming Pool:

"It was the first time I'd been invited to a Shakespeare production. I'd already seen about ten of his plays. A version of The Taming of the Shrew in which all the male roles were played by women; the Merchant of Venice with the actors in nappies and the actresses wearing rubbish bags for dresses and shopping bags on their heads; Hamlet with an all-Down's-Syndrome cast, wind machines and a (dead) goose that was decapitated on stage, King Lear with Zimbabwean orphans and ex-junkies; Romeo and Juliet in the never-completed tunnel of a subway line, with concentration camp photos projected on the walls, down which sewage trickled; Macbeth in which all the female roles were played by naked men - the only clothing they wore was a thong between their buttocks, with handcuffs and weights hanging form their nipples, performing against a soundtrack consisting of artillery barrages, Radiohead songs and poems by Radovan Karadzic. Besides the fact that you didn't dare to look at how the handcuffs and weights were attached to (or through) the nipples, the problem once again was a matter of how slowly the time passed. I can remember delays at airports that must have lasted half a day, easily, but which were over ten times as quickly as any of those plays."

Miller meanwhile understands that a director is not a primary creative artist but an interpreter. He studies the text, he works with the actors, together they read the playwright's words closely. Thus they are able to bring life to a script, while remaining faithful to it. This is integrity in theatre. There is too little of it on the stage these days.

Anyway, I went to see Miller's production of King Lear, performed by the Northern Broadsides company. It is touring Britain. If you get a chance, go and see it - tour dates here. It is really, really good.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Ypres Faces

I've already covered my favourite place in Ypres on this blog. It is St George's Chapel.

The chapel was built after the First World War and so I am able to wholeheartedly approve of it, without any quibbles about whether it should have been left as it was. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I am not as certain about whether the fabric of the old town should have been rebuilt or, instead, left, as some proposed, in ruins - a warning to those thinking of embarking on future wars.

Anyway, no doubt to the relief of the town's inhabitants, Ypres was rebuilt, and, if you can leave aside the question of whether or not it should have been restored at all, you have to admit that what you see at Ypres is an extraordinary feat of restoration. It is also a very pleasant place to visit:
More importantly for someone with my particular obsessions, it is a place with many faces on its walls. Here are some of them:

Okay, this isn't really a face, but a faceless helmet; don't quibble so


I'd look fed up if they'd stuck plastic electricity boxes all round me

I think he's got a headache from all that weird blue light going across him

No plastic boxes, no blue light bar, this one looks relatively relaxed

The sculptor doesn't seem to me to have made much difference between Mozart and Beethoven - the latter simply looks more cross

This fellow appears on the building in the picture above


I have to admit that it took me a few visits to notice how many faces there are at Ypres. You have to look upwards - on the cloth hall alone there are dozens, way up near the roof - I'm still trying to decide whether they are all completely different or whether they start repeating:


If faces don't appeal to you there are always ships:

and pretty brickwork: