Timing is all.
I made the brilliant decision last night to stop off on the way home to do a little shopping in the centre of London.
Three and a half hours later, I got home, having walked nearly all of the way from Bond Street station to East Dulwich. (I did managed to find space on a bus from Elephant and Castle to Camberwell Green because, well, if you can’t find a bus at the Infanta, you’re really not trying very hard.)
And you know what? Despite all the rain, the overcrammed buses whizzing past bus stops, the fights at said bus stops, the umbrellas in the eye, the general lack of information and the many pinstriped fools acting as though the sky had fallen in because they couldn’t find a taxi to hail, despite all that, it was rather enjoyable.
An unexpected opportunity for a long city walk, carving a route from North West to South East, having almost normal human contact with Londoners along the way.
It almost humanised the place, broke, for a while, its pretence of being an unnavigably complex automatised system.
The unexpected laughs, such as walking down the Strand past a hundred or so gridlocked black cabs in a row, didn’t hurt either.
Ah, I sense a rather donnish meme starting to put itself about.
It comes via Davos Newbies, via Crooked Timber, via David Langford’s venerable Ansible, via “some kindly journalist” who summarised the 210 reasons proferred for the decline and fall of the Roman empire enumerated by Professor Alexander Demandt in his 1984 work, Der Falls Rom.
It’s tempting to select one’s favourites (’fear of life’, ‘culinary excess’, ‘bread and circuses’, ‘attacks by Germans’), but the 210 reasons are worth quoting in full:
Abolition of gods, abolition of rights, absence of character, absolutism, agrarian question, agrarian slavery, anarchy, anti-Germanism, apathy, aristocracy, asceticism, attacks by Germans, attacks by Huns, attacks by nomads on horseback.
Backwardness in science, bankruptcy, barbarization, bastardization, blockage of land by large landholders, blood poisoning, bolshevization, bread and circuses, bureaucracy, Byzantinism.
Capitalism, change of capitals, caste system, celibacy, centralization, childlessness, Christianity, citizenship (granting of), civil war, climatic deterioration, communism, complacency, concatenation of misfortunes, conservatism, corruption, cosmopolitanism, crisis of legitimacy, culinary excess, cultural neurosis.
Decentralization, decline of Nordic character, decline of the cities, decline of the Italic population, deforestation, degeneration, degeneration of intellect, demoralization, depletion of mineral resources, despotism, destruction of environment, destruction of peasantry, destruction of political process, destruction of Roman influence, devastation, differences in wealth, disarmament, disillusion with state, division of empire, division of labour.
Earthquakes, egoism, egoism of the state, emancipation of slaves, enervation, epidemics, equal rights (granting of), eradication of the best, escapism, ethnic dissolution, excessive aging of population, excessive civilization, excessive culture, excessive foreign infiltration, excessive freedom, excessive urbanization, expansion, exploitation.
Fear of life, female emancipation, feudalization, fiscalism, gladiatorial system, gluttony, gout, hedonism, Hellenization, heresy, homosexuality, hothouse culture, hubris, hyperthermia.
Immoderate greatness, imperialism, impotence, impoverishment, imprudent policy toward buffer states, inadequate educational system, indifference, individualism, indoctrination, inertia, inflation, intellectualism, integration (weakness of), irrationality, Jewish influence.
Lack of leadership, lack of male dignity, lack of military recruits, lack of orderly imperial succession, lack of qualified workers, lack of rainfall, lack of religiousness, lack of seriousness, large landed properties, lead-poisoning, lethargy, levelling (cultural), levelling (social), loss of army discipline, loss of authority, loss of energy, loss of instincts, loss of population, luxury.
Malaria, marriages of convenience, mercenary system, mercury damage, militarism, monetary economy, monetary greed, money (shortage of), moral decline, moral idealism, moral materialism, mystery religions, nationalism of Rome’s subjects, negative selection.
Orientalization, outflow of gold, over-refinement, pacifism, paralysis of will, paralysation, parasitism, particularism, pauperism, plagues, pleasure-seeking, plutocracy, polytheism, population pressure, precociousness, professional army, proletarization, prosperity, prostitution, psychoses, public baths.
Racial degeneration, racial discrimination, racial suicide, rationalism, refusal of military service, religious struggles and schisms, rentier mentality, resignation, restriction to profession, restriction to the land, rhetoric, rise of uneducated masses, romantic attitudes to peace, ruin of middle class, rule of the world.
Semi-education, sensuality, servility, sexuality, shamelessness, shifting of trade routes, slavery, Slavic attacks, socialism (of the state), social tensions, soil erosion, soil exhaustion, spiritual barbarism, stagnation, stoicism, stress, structural weakness, superstition.
Taxation, pressure of terrorism, tiredness of life, totalitarianism, treason, tristesse, two-front war, underdevelopment, useless diet, usurpation of all powers by the state, vaingloriousness, villa economy, vulgarization.
Be grateful for small mercies. Today’s Sun headlines with a real news story; the theft of a Leonardo. It would only have made page five, though, had it not given the rag the monster headline ‘Leonardo da Pinchi’.
Elsewhere, I’m stopped in my tracks by one of the women’s weeklies, which has the cover strapline “Help! My groom is legless and fighting my father”. I don’t know about you, but faced with that situation, my first instincts would be to intervene, call the police or fetch a bucket of water, not write to a magazine.
One of the underappreciated benefits of technology is that it provides analogies.
We’re used to seeing technology proceed from the lab to the world by analogy. A pointing device for a computer is like a mouse. We surf the addresses of the web by navigating. (Nobody said the analogies had to be consistent with one another.)
It’s always been like this. When automobiles arrived, it made sense to identify them as horseless carriages: like a carriage, but without the horse. The analogy keeps a helpful concept alive in the mind long enough for people to become adapted to the new consensus. So we move from the idea that automobiles are like carriages but without the horse to the idea that carriages don’t actually need a horse. Hence, now we tend to call an automobile a ‘car’; in other words, the same thing as a cart, a buggy, or a railway carriage.
This is the application of analogy to new developments. As I say, sometimes change brings with it a new analogy of its own.
Having just enjoyed a bank holiday weekend, brimful of relaxation and enjoyment, I expected to return re-energised and buzzing. Instead, I feel more drained than ever. I can probably explain why; I really needed another four or five days at least to unwind fully.* But I can’t describe it better than to say I feel like a mobile that’s been hastily recharged. While on my rest and recharge cycle I look and feel as though I have been topped up. It’s only when I attempt to do anything that I realise that I’m far from fully charged. I need to be drained right down, then recharged over a long period before I become fully functional again.
* Like a tensed spring that needs to be uncoiled, analogy watchers.
Londoners seem to have an ever-spiralling number of London-specific things to read. Of course, free local papers clutter up hallways around the country, but the density of them in London is indicative of the fundamental geographical confusion of the place. (I get sent material based on the fact that I live variously in East Dulwich, Dulwich, Dulwich Hamlet (whatever that thinks it is), Camberwell, Southwark, South East London, South London, and London itself.)
None of these are much use, nor are the paid-for rags, like the South London Press and the London Evening Standard. By far the most useful London publications are Time Out and the weekend Guide in The Guardian. The Guide wins by virtue of being small, free with the newspaper, and not full of smug, foolish reviews.
Finally, there is the London version of Metro, about which the less said the better for everybody.
The new arrivals on the market are far more interesting. The forthcoming London News Review looks to be promising enough to warrant an early subscription, particularly if it carries over the ground-level spirit of the same company’s email newsletter London by London.
Interesting for other reasons is the ‘official’ London newspaper, The Londoner. This is Mayor Livingstone’s propaganda tool, Red Ken’s redtop. I must admit to enjoying it, particularly its stridently progressivist Soviet tone. Ken fixes the buses, Ken wins the Olympics for London, Ken turns Trafalgar Square into a glorious continental piazza.
Ken, this month, reintroduces peregrine falcons into London. Down to only a handful of breeding pairs in the country 40 years ago, the falcons have found a way back, and are now said to be more numerous than ever. This includes a gradual colonisation of the metropolis. We are regaled with tales of peregrines hovering over the groundlings at the Globe theatre, peregrines nesting atop the Battersea Power Station.
Ken, even though you had nothing to do with all this, thanks for letting us know. The city seems a fraction less dour and we can look upwards to see, for once, something other than the endless convoy of planes scraping overhead.
Now I want London kestrels as well.
Five things that, as a kid, I wished to have when I grew up:
- Thousands of football stickers
- A glamorous duelling scar
- A team of huskies
- An underground palace with its own swimming pool
- A skidoo
Five things I have now:
- Thousands of books
- A slightly sore calf
- Two cats
- A house with its own garden
- A travelcard
Danny Mills may be a heads-down, foot-up skinheaded blunderbuss of a footballer, but he certainly knows how to give the English language a good boot up the fundament to remind it it’s in a game.
Distraught that he was left out of the Leeds team over the weekend, Mills complained on his personal website:
“…if I now said that I wasn’t wondering as to whether the manager was being completely straight with me, I would have to say that I would be lying”.
Mills’ use of the subjunctive is as delicate and controlled as his Row Z shooting, but dig through it and you’ll find a subtle version of the Cretan Liar’s Paradox. I can only assume this is to cover himself after the inevitable summons to the manager’s office. With about-to-be-smashed teacups already trembling, Mills would be able to point out with his customary gentleness that when he hypothetically lied about not calling the manager a liar, he was not to be believed as he was, of course, lying.
Who ever said that British footballers have no technical ability? This master of the syllogistic give-and-go is clearly due a recall to Peter “All I have learnt is that I have learnt nothing” Reid’s first XI.
Firstly, credit to the US Secret Service for having such an un-secret web presence. Even more so that they have a FAQ specially designed to answer kids’ questions about their work, including the intriguing information that secret service agents are expected to buy their own sunglasses.
One question leaves me cold, though:
Why do agents agree to “take a bullet” for the President?
The reason we agree to “take a bullet” for the President is based on preserving the ideals on which this country was founded, such as democracy.
Not only is the answer dismissively brief, it fails to explain what democracy has to do with it all. A fourteenth century version of this FAQ, replacing “bullet” with “sword blow”, “President” with “King” and “democracy” with “the divine election of monarchs” would make just as much sense, which rather suggests that the line is meaningless.
I always thought that K2, the second highest mountain in the world, was named after Mount Kanchanjunga, the third highest. This would make it one of the most curiously identified natural features around. In fact, it’s the only reason I know the name ‘Kanchanjunga’.
It seems that I was wrong. This climbing site explains that not only is the ‘K’ short for ‘Karakorum’, but the naming has more logic than I thought: K2 was the second peak in the Karakorum group seen by Colonel T.G. Montgomery, who described the range in 1856.
In 1938 Homes and Gardens magazine ran one of its ‘at home’ illustrated articles on ‘Haus Wachenfeld’, Adolf Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat. This eye-opening piece has been scanned. Curiously, I can’t find the full text on the Homes and Gardens website. I wonder why not?
(via things, again)
Say what you like about texting from mobile phones (please, be my guest), but I think there’s the faint image in it of a new form of rhyme.
When texting, the ‘autocomplete’ feature on my phone (or whatever they call it in the manual) takes a guess as to what word I’m typing. This could lead us down the path of information theory, but let’s not, eh? Instead, let’s consider typing a normal, everyday word.
To type ‘enough’ I hit the keys 3, 6, 6, 8, 4, 4. All the way through, the phone tries to guess the word I’m typing. Of course, it doesn’t know if I’ve finished or not. The best guess is usually a word with the number of characters I’ve typed so far (hm, we are doing information theory, like it or not). So, by the time I’ve typed 3, 6, 6, 8, 4 the phone is merrily guessing ‘ennui’.
‘Ennui’ - ‘enough’. It’s a form of rhyme, albeit a grudgingly semantic one. I know it’s not an aural rhyme at all, but if there’s another term that happily covers this kind of correspondence between words, it temporarily escapes me. Blame the heat.
The other one I noticed this morning, soppy old fool I am, is ‘lips’ - ‘kisses’. I’m sure there are many more.
(1) The Tent was halfway deployed before I realised that the back door cannot be locked and unlocked from the outside. The available options were:
- Sleep outside in the tent, leaving the kitchen door unlocked
- As above, but with the French doors ajar
- As above, but with the kitchen skylight open, and a ladder strategically available for the morning
- Sleep inside, slow baked by the brick kiln of the house
Sadly, only the latter option kept the house insurable (and, for that matter, protected against London’s burglar/axe-murderer/ghost population), so it won by a gloomy default.
(2) One thing I suspect I’ll never quite overcome is waking early in London, looking out at the grey-yellow sky and thinking “it’s nearly dawn”. It’s not. That’s just as dark as it gets.
(3) This morning I overheard a street-cleaner discussing with a friend the various local hidey-holes where he can stash his cart safely when he knocks off for a drink in the pub. It reminded me of the back-to-front topography that kids earn: knowing every alleyway, every dingy corner, every shortcut, but often not even the streetnames.
(4) Transport Blog’s London Underground entries are well worth a read (via things), even if they are resoundingly negative in tone. Yesterday, leaving work, I heard the train arrive at the platform as I was halfway down the escalator. I pegged it to the platform and got there just as the last person got on board and the doors started to close. Some people I know would have stuck their bag in the doors and forced them back open, which is just the selfish urban macho behaviour I hate in others. I stopped running, and started to walk up the platform to wait for the next train. The driver had obviously seen me, though, because the doors rolled back open just for me. Thank you, driver. Nice one.
In which the author, noting the slightly hysterical tenor of the coverage of the heatwave covering Britain, suggests suggests that we all chill out by watching something reassuring.
In which, additionally, the author is discovered pacing his residence at three o’clock in the morning, hair down and trying to balance the need to open as many windows and doors as possible against the (little) encouragement needed by burglars.
Finally, in which the lamentably uncavelike build of London housing is bewailed across the capital as light sleepers discover that their walls have absorbed heat all day long and spend the short night busily radiating it back.
In the next sultry chapter: experiments with spraying the walls with water in the evening, and the disgorgement of the household into The Tent for the night.
The regular Sunday afternoon football used to be in Ruskin Park, down behind King’s College Hospital. It’s rather a nice park, with the grassy areas falling away to sunken gardens, a discreet bowling green, a playground for the kids, tennis courts, and a small strip of undefined grass where we held our scratch five-a-side games.
Earlier in the year, we found that the competition for that small patch of grass was getting too intense (it’s not easy kicking kids off ‘your’ pitch), so we upped sticks to Peckham Rye Common (literally: we have lovingly hand-crafted goals made out of plastic guttering). Being a common, it has more flat grass than we could possibly make use of, meaning that the pitch size has stealthily risen over the past few months.
An unexpected advantage of the move is that on Sunday afternoons, the Common is bursting with people looking to join in a kickaround. If we’re short of numbers there are usually a couple of lads standing behind a goal, looking wistful and trying to catch someone’s eye. We’ve had all sorts join in, from ball-hogging fancy dans to enthusiastic 12 year olds who get under everyone’s feet.
Last Sunday there were seven of us. Nearby, three toned looking lads in black singlet tops had just finished a park-style kickaround, and had sat down to enjoy the sun. We asked if they were interested in making up the numbers. They were.
In the way of these things, it was half-time before we got beyond names. The lads turned out to be three-fifths of a ‘male vocal pop group’. In other words, a boy band.
They have been holed up in a house together in South London while they record their first tracks for release in the New Year. This week we may get the full hand as they all seemed keen to take an occasional break from recording.
And how did they perform? As you’d expect, the footwork was good, but there wasn’t much of a creative spark, and little cutting edge.
If the heat continues like this for much longer, all stories will be Silly Season specials. Though few could be as perfect as the one about Plymouth Argyle FC signing a veteran left winger for the new football season.
Why schizophrenics don’t catch yawns
T.S. Eliot’s Usk “solved”
N.B. The Eliot article ends with this fine non sequitur:
Eliot came to enjoy alcohol after his second marriage in 1957, but was notorious for much of his life for his single dry sherries at literary gatherings. However, he always enjoyed crossword puzzles.
Matt Webb points to information on anarchist bees
Review of TypePad (paying version of Movable Type used to run this blog)
Other blogging moves: “Atom” 0.2 snapshot
How ever did ’siren’ (the creatures that lured sailors onto the rocks with their seductive songs) come to refer to blaring klaxons that warn us to keep away. I wonder, are we assumed to have learnt from Odysseus? Perhaps the superstition of turning your collar up when an ambulance passes is some distant echo of the sailors plugging their ears against the siren’s song.
Oh, and just because I covered the curate’s egg recently, Private Eye this week has one of the great Colemanballs:
“That was a sort of a parson’s nose innings - good in parts.”
From ill to illy.
It’s a sorry thing to say, but very few objects in my home give me a pure aesthetic thrill. One that does, that rustles up a tickle of joy every time I see it simply by virtue of its haecitas, is my Illy coffee tin.
Its smoothness, its elegant buffed metal sheen, the discreet illy logo and deliberately constrained text, all say (sotto voce) “style”. It perches in the fridge, untainted by the usual detritus of leftovers and speculative ingredients cluttered around it. It looks, in short, just as an Italian tin of coffee should.
The real pleasure only starts, though, when you take it out of the fridge. The coated metal is cool, but not painfully so. This is the first delight. The second is that as it is exposed to the warmer air of the room it gains a featherlight condensation, the gentlest acknowledgement of its chill freshness. The third, oh rapture, is removing the lid.
The lid is deep, nearly an inch. And it unscrews. Unscrewing a deep metal lid could be excruciating. Just thinking of two rough planes of metal scraping over each other makes my back teeth ache. But the design of the tin is so artful that all that is required is the fingers rested around the lid and a soft half turn. There. Even as I catch the first mouthful of the aroma, already I’m looking forward to putting the lid back on.
The perfection of this simplest of objects drives me mad. I imagine convocations of Italian tin designers arguing late into the night over the precise size of the lid, the length of the movement, the size of the tin itself, so that it may sit exactly in the curl of the hand. They repair to the bar, remove their jackets (this is serious stuff), furiously point to the photographs of Futurist or Roman objects (depending on inclination) they have brought to add weight to their case for a lid taller than a thumbwidth, or text only in the bottom half. In a corner, the illy semiologist furiously strikes through any text not considered absolutely necessary for the communication of the soul of a coffee tin. Late that night, someone steals back to the office with the perfect design. The rest continue to argue, about everything and nothing.
Some weeks later they reconvene at the same table in the same bar. There is a loud discussion of the merits of the new figure-hugging Italian football team shirt before someone, apologetically, turns to the matter at hand. Each tries to stifle the tension he is feeling, but under each open collar an adam’s apple bobs uncertainly.
The prototype tin is produced from a white cardboard box and placed on the table. It is beautiful. At first nobody dares touch it. They even look at it only glancingly, for fear. Finally, soaking up the deference of the others, the alpha designer leans forward, and exercising the absolute minimum of movement, grazes the lid open with the palm of his hand.
There is applause, laughter; there are hugs; more wine is ordered. It will be a long while before each of them saunters home in the warm night air to his apartment, jacket slung over shoulder, proud of his part in the achievement.
I know it can’t possibly have been like that, but for the pleasure that tin gives me, I hope it was.
The worst of London:
Midday. The sun has been pulsing down all morning. Everything is making everything else hot.
A spotless BMW pulls over to the side of the road. The chauffeur gets out and bustles round to the left rear door. After opening it, he stands there protectively, managing his face so as not to show disgust.
A woman’s hand reaches down from the car. A jewelled bracelet slides down her wrist. Her expensive nails scratch against the pavement as she tries to steady herself. The heat from the paving slab must be burning her hand. Perhaps she hasn’t noticed. She starts to vomit in the gutter.
As I walk past, she raises her head to catch her breath. I already knew how she would look: nostrils fluttering, eyes wide with kohl and coke.
She goes back to being sick as a dog.
It’s such a pleasure to arrive home to my busy corner of South-East London in the evening. Work is in a dismally genteel portion of North London that would love to be Hampstead but doesn’t quite know how to go about it. I don’t know what Sigmund saw in it.
But once I’m south of the river it’s a different story. After the train has negotiated the shabbily trendy Peckham Rye it heads off down a secondary line, and quickly ducks into terraces of trees. Soon enough, I’m walking down the main road.
Just time to nip into the DIY shop before it closes. Then see what the local flowerselling mogul has left at the end of the day (irises yesterday). These days he’s so busy running his floral empire that he only comes out front to provide change in notes from the branch-thick roll kept in his market man’s apron. With his open-neck shirt neatly tucked into belted trousers, he’s old school South London and no mistake.
This time a young girl (a niece?) serves. We manage the whole transaction with the few consonants expressed coming entirely from my side of the counter. Being younger, she modulates “Alright?” to “Ao’ai-ai-ai?” in proper Estuary fashion (my wilds-of-Essex upbringing gives me a more clipped version: “A’righ?”).
Then, out to choose from the local foodstores. Certainly not the sleek and expensive deli: special occasions only. The famous specialist cheese shop will not be required tonight either (its tempting vegatable samosas will have sold out at lunchtime). The organic greengrocer is a popular choice for evening shopping, but tonight I’m visiting the Turkish ’supermarket’; at first glance it seems to be one of those London food stores where everything is squashy and dust-covered. Except that everything here — the boxes of vegetables outside, the cold counter full of home made mediterranean foods — is crisply wonderful.
Some Cyprus potatoes (from the north of the island, presumably), some salad, some Green & Black’s chocolate just in case, and home to forget that tomorrow I’ll have to head off to the barren steppes of the Finchley Road once again.