Friday, 30 April 2010

New technology - boon or curse?

My Luddite tendency is close to the surface. It emerged this afternoon when I visited my local library for the first time in a while to find that checking out books and returning them was now subject to a computerised do-it-yourself system.
I found a (human) librarian to whom to complain. I told him I had a horror of do-it-yourself checkouts at supermarkets and was appalled to find the same principle was being applied to libraries. Books are on a higher intellectual plane than cornflakes and toilet paper and should be recognised as such.
He agreed with me and implied that the whole procedure was a cost ie job-cutting exercise.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Paris, je t'aime - a week at a time


This lovely video by LibanPhotography reminds me of many happy visits to Paris. Although I'm a Londoner from the top of my loaf of bread to whatever Cockney rhyming slang is for toes, I'm not immune to the delights of the French capital.
I've been there in many guises - child and parent, husband and lover. I wish I could have visited more often in the latter category, l'amour the merrier.
The inability to speak anything other than schoolboy French is a blessing in disguise. From this side of the Channel, Parisians appear to be a discontented lot, whose world view is blighted by an inferiority complex disguised as arrogant prejudice.
But to travellers hitting the boulevards a week at a time, Paris is a city of great food, grand architecture, culture, style, and altogether the place to be.
Louis Armstrong's wistful accompaniment to the time-lapsed video by Liban Yusuf is wisely chosen.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Tate Modern needs a Gauguin crowd pleaser

Tate Modern’s Gauguin: Maker of Myth exhibition is due to open in September and cannot come too soon for me.
I so much want to rekindle my enthusiasm for Tate Modern and Gauguin is such a major artist it is difficult to imagine how the first London exhibition dedicated to the man in 50 years can fail to be a crowd pleaser.
Tate Modern has everything going for it apart from its art collection. The converted power station, which overlooks the Thames and St Paul’s Cathedral, is the perfect setting for a great art museum.
Unfortunately the majesty of the building overshadows its artworks.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Childhood memories - smells

This is the fourth in a five-part occasional series focused on my memories of childhood – more specifically what each of my senses recalls from more than 60 years ago when I was around five years old. I’ve excluded the highly personal (such as the smell of my mother’s cologne) and concentrated on smells that might strike a chord with readers.

1. November 5th and the evenings around Guy Fawkes Night smelled of bonfires and spent fireworks. We lived in a flat. On some occasions we went to a park to let off our fireworks but once my mother slunk into the street to ignite rockets as we watched from a second storey window. A couple of times we were smoked out by experimenting with indoor fireworks.

2. A round red tin of Gibb’s Dentifrice served as the family’s toothpaste. It had a distinctive taste but most I remember the smell as you unwrapped the cellophane from a new circle of the solid paste. The same tin served the whole family; you wet your toothbrush and rubbed its across the pink dentifrice. The block soon stuck to the tin and was eventually worn away. The unhygienic nature of the process never occurred to us.

3. Coal was delivered by coalmen and their horse drawn cart. It was dumped in coal cellars – the dust had its own particular smell.

4. Lavender was everywhere. The flowers of the plant were to be found in sachets to keep clothes and laundry smelling fresh. It was also present in toiletries. But I most remember the smell of lavender furniture polish. It came in large tins containing the waxy, mauve polish.

5. I was never destined for the high life. The smell of polished leather and wood the one time I was driven in a luxury car prompted instant feelings of nausea.

6. Bath salt cubes bought regularly for my mother as birthday and Christmas presents had a strong flowery fragrance even without being unwrapped.

7. I don’t think I ever had head lice but I do remember my mother washing my hair in a vinegar solution leaving my head with a strange smell.

8. Nothing since has been quite as disgusting as the smell of rancid milk from the sack in which milk bottle tops were saved at my primary school. Milk was distributed free in those days. In an early example of recycling, the discarded aluminium bottle tops were rinsed clean and placed in the foul-smelling sack by children who had been appointed milk monitors.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Don't you just want to scream - sometimes?

Don’t get me wrong – the rant has an honoured place in blogging. Often they are among the most humorous and heartfelt pieces of writing to be found in the blogosphere.
Up until a few years ago I followed the blog of a young woman, which I had stumbled across three or four years before. I’ll say no more than she was a Kiwi living in London. She wrote well and specialised in rants. Men, jobs, and the daily grind of travelling on the Underground were regular targets.
She may still be blogging somewhere but I think she gave up as she approached thirty. So I know that done well angry outbursts are very readable and having reached 65 it wouldn’t be too difficult to find subjects about which to fume.

Friday, 23 April 2010

This sceptic isle, this England

There is a superficiality about the English that is very agreeable. It surfaces in the irony of our humour – there is no tragedy that cannot be shrugged off with a joke. We just can’t take ourselves too seriously. It is a very useful ability particularly in times of crisis from wars to weddings.
No one else, for example, but the English could have invented Test cricket. A game that can last five days and still end in a draw – and whose dream is thrashing little young Australia. This escaping the harsh edges of reality is evident from the popularity of The ‘X’ Factor to the current election campaign. None of the political parties admits to the harsh spending cuts round the corner.
But let’s not be serious. Despite the Scottish roots of the Royal Family (their German ones are deeper) the young Royals are representative of all that is lightweight in the English nature.
Party-mad, hard-drinking, promiscuous, indifferent to culture, and scant interest in religion.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

GC meets Twickenham's Naked Ladies

I took the train to Syon Lane, Brentford on Tuesday. My intention was to walk from Syon House four or five miles along the River Thames, where I could, passing through the old village centres of Isleworth and Twickenham when I was forced inland.
It is a part of London never before visited by me and my goal was Strawberry Hill, the “little Gothic castle” built by writer Horace Walpole in the second half of the 18th century.
To begin at the end, this was a disappointment. The whole building was swathed in scaffolding and plastic sheeting as it is subject to extensive renovation.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

I agree with Nick Clegg

“I think he is a desperate politician and I just do not believe him,” is how LibDem leader Nick Clegg today dismissed Gordon Brown’s late conversion to constitutional reform. It might take a while but whatever the General Election result, it looks like time is running out for the Prime Minister.
Before the surge in LibDem support the Tories seemed within a whisker of winning an outright majority or at least ending up with the largest number of seats in a hung Parliament. Both prospects are retreating.
There is the disgraceful chance of Labour having the lowest percentage of the popular vote yet the most seats though short of an outright majority. Clegg’s price for joining a Lab-Lib coalition would now seem to be Gordon Brown’s head along with a variety of other promises.
Step forward Labour leader-in-waiting David Miliband who I see has distanced himself from Brown’s position on Iraq ie the decision to invade was the right one despite the absence of weapons of mass destruction.
As for Tory leader David Cameron, to date his campaign has been inept and I can’t see him keeping his job long after May 6th if a coalition government looks like working. There is the outside chance of Cameron ‘doing a Clegg’ and dazzling at the next two live leaders’ debates – but I doubt it.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

"Do you think I meant country matters?"..... Hamlet, Act 3, scene 2

The c-word is in danger of going the same way as ‘con’ in French where despite the same likely derivation, its use as an insult conveys nothing stronger than ass or idiot. Its lost power means the word can be used in a movie title, as I have illustrated opposite.
I swear more than I should. It displays a poverty of vocabulary. But after a lifetime in the newsroom, it is a habit hard to break. But I'm trying and certainly I can’t see any necessity for bad language in my own posts. I can’t give the same assurance for some of my links such as Natalie Portman’s rap in my ‘videos clips I rate’ section.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Labour and the Tories have only themselves to blame for Nick Clegg's LibDem challenge

It is a great time to be following politics in the UK because no one knows how the May 6th General Election is going to play. Since a stellar performance by LibDem leader Nick Clegg last Thursday in the first televised debate between Britain’s party leaders, his also-ran party has raced to the top in at least one opinion poll.
It remains to be seen if Clegg can maintain this surge. The other parties will chip away at perceived weaknesses in LibDem policies – its espousal of Europe and some daffy ideas about the economy and law and order.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Watch Sophia Loren's mambo - the antidote for air traffic woe and the General Election


We are living here in Britain in history-making times. UK air space is closed because of the danger posed to aircraft by clouds of volcanic ash from Iceland, while last night the leaders of our three main political parties held a television debate for the first time prompted by May 6th’s General Election.
But rather than say the obvious – in the first instance it is good to be reminded that we dismiss the power of nature at our peril and in the second that such televised political contests are long overdue – I’m going to share with you a little piece of movie heaven. It is a 48 seconds film clip in which a 21-year-old Sophia Loren dances the mambo.
With my mother at home caring for my baby sister, some Saturday evenings I would accompany my father to the ‘pictures’. He had a taste for foreign films – the only title I remember from more than half a century ago was ‘The Wages of Fear’. The scene, though, that stayed most firmly in my mind was Sophia Loren dancing the mambo with Vittoria De Sica.
I don’t know why I didn’t track it down before now; it was easy enough given the magic of the Internet.
The movie was the third in the comedy series ‘Pane, amore, e’ (Bread, love, and…) The background to the comedy is interesting – Loren replaced Gina Lollobrigida - and more detail is available on this excellent link.
The film was made in 1955, which means I would have been 10 or 11 when I saw it with my father. Puberty may have already struck; certainly the image of her sensuous mambo was downloaded to my mental hard drive, so to speak.
Loren’s stunning looks launched her film career and she had a natural talent for comedy. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that in 1962 she won the Oscar for best actress for her performance in the harrowing war drama ‘Two Women’ – the first time it had been awarded for a non-English-speaking role.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Childhood memories - tastes

This is the third in a five-part occasional series focused on my memories of childhood – more specifically what each of my senses recalls from more than 60 years ago when I was around five years old. I’ve excluded the highly personal (such as, yes, the taste of mother’s apple pie) and concentrated on tastes that might strike a chord with readers.

1. Nothing ever tasted quite like sherbet licked out of one’s own probably grubby hand. There were a variety of ways eating sherbet. Dabs, sweets on a small stick which you licked and coated in sherbet, or more usually liquorice straws. These never worked and as a consequence the sherbet ended up deposited in your hand. To this day I’m still partial to ‘flying saucers’ – round rice paper sandwiches containing sherbet.

2. Bubble pipes were a cheap way of keeping children amused. The bubble solution was prepared simply by my mother mixing a soap detergent such as Tide or Omo in a small bowl with water. The taste of the bitter, abrasive detergent on a child’s lips and tongue is like no other.

3. My own children don’t believe me and I’m not prepared to experiment but I’m certain I remember eating cornflakes with hot milk and sugar. The cornflakes congeal and take on the consistency of soggy, tepid, cardboard.

4. Sips of adult beverages tea, coffee, and especially beer were so unappealing as a child it is a wonder how tastes change to make them palatable as you get older.

5. Salads, usually egg salads, were not complete without the tang of a dollop of salad cream. Sandwich spread sandwiches continued the salad cream theme but this time with unrecognisable crunchy bits.

6. To savour a chocolate bourbon biscuit it was necessary to pull the two sides apart, scrape the chocolate cream filling off with your teeth and then eat both biscuit pieces. But the real treat was eating chocolate cup cakes – the sweet icing first and then the cake.

7. Candy floss and to a lesser extent toffee apples were consumed in fairgrounds and at the seaside. Neither had the appeal of street food such as chips and chestnuts.

8. Much less fun was the taste of the healthy products given to children in post-war Britain. Cold liver oil capsules with school milk; National Health Service orange juice; and tar-like malt extract.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Poll dancing and the General Election

Modesty isn’t a necessary attribute for a blogger. I would have perpetual writer’s block, as would any columnist if we were in awe of the depth of our own ignorance. But today I have to acknowledge that the UK Polling Report blog knows a whole lot more about analysing General Election opinion polls than I do. I suspect a lot of media operations dip into its comprehensive knowledge of poll trends and its links to a gamut of political information.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A noble cause - the survival of Britain's pubs

Pubs are so important to the fabric of social life in Britain that all the political parties in the UK General Election battle are promising to help preserve this everyday institution where it is threatened.
Numbers are under pressure. There are around 52,000 pubs in the UK; that’s one for just over 1,000 per head of population. Last year pubs were closing at the rate of more than 50 a week. The latest figures suggest a fight back and the closure rate has been trimmed to about 39.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Transparency v. hypocrisy

Heather Brooke is the investigative journalist whose Freedom of Information Act requests launched what was to become the uncovering of the MPs expenses scandal.
The subtitle of her new book ‘The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy’ suggests there are still many dark corners that require exposure.
It takes exceptional diligence and resources to uncover the biggest deceptions. Without the Daily Telegraph’s efforts, the MPs would have been able to get away with blacking out vital details when it came to publishing the relevant documents on their expenses and second homes.
What worries me though is that the media in recognising the public’s appetite for such fare is hell-bent on exposing hypocrisy in all its manifestations.
So if any environmental or food aid campaigner jets off to an international conference, they are likely to be accused of profligacy and hypocrisy. Yet their contibution to changing world opinion would far outweigh the ticket price or carbon footprint of the flight.

Friday, 9 April 2010

How punk rock passed me by

To this day I don’t know The Damned from The Clash, The Jam from the Buzzcocks, the Ramones from The Stooges. By the mid-Seventies at 30 I was already too old for punk rock. I had a friend, Ray, who followed the Sex Pistols. He encouraged me to join him at one of their gigs.
A passionate Dylan fan, Ray knew his music. Without him I wouldn’t have gone down Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and stood for hours (seats were sold out) through both sets entranced by Dizzy Gillespie.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Chidhood memories - sights

This is the second in a five-part occasional series focused on my memories of childhood – more specifically what each of my senses recalls from more than 60 years ago when I was around five years old. I’ve excluded the highly personal (for example, my tailor father sitting cross-legged on his work bench before his knees gave out) and concentrated on sights that might strike a chord with readers.

1. Racing tipster Prince Monolulu was a colourful sight in the West End of London when I was a boy. His eccentric clothes complete with ostrich headdress and his street cry “I gotta horse” made him a local celebrity. But he was also known nationwide through movie newsreels of major race meetings. At his peak he was said to be the most famous black man in Britain.

2. Though living in a working class area, children wore dark blue or light favours (badges) on Boat Race Day supporting respectively either Oxford or Cambridge University.

3. Transfers. These days they are marketed as removable tattoos. You would place the transfer on the back of your hand, lick it, and careful peel it back to reveal a bright picture of, say, Beano character Dennis the Menace.

4. My ‘Babar the Elephant’ book was too spooky for comfort with its brooding atmosphere featuring its elephant hero and handwriting-style script.

6. A coal fire was a source of fascination for a child as flames licked round the nutty slack. But in all other regards it was a nuisance, which was destined to be swiftly replaced by gas and electric fires. A fireguard was necessary not just to keep children at bay but also to prevent exploding fragments of coal shooting across the room.
Fires were difficult to get started and required a gas poker’s help. And they were messy and dangerous to clean afterward because sometimes the ashes were still alight.

7. Wallpaper designs of the day provided a child the opportunity to see faces in the patterns.

8. Waking to an eerie light – not a Close Encounter but the discovery that it had snowed heavily overnight and the snow was reflecting back light from a street, whose ugliness was to be disguised for a short while by the white blanket.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A nice cup of tea - an appreciation


Binnie Hale's 'A Nice Cup of Tea' dates from a 1937 West End show. For all the Starbucks coffee shops on every corner the song is as quintessentially British now as it was more than 70 years ago.
Whether it's limbs lopped off in a train wreck or just the start of a new day, life looks better with a nice cup of tea. The fireman is unlikely to throw a blanket around your shoulders and say, "Here y'are mate a nice skinny latte."
I used to be a bit of a tea snob. Warmed teapots and loose tea; Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey - you name it and I had an opinion. I'm happy enough still drinking green or jasmine and even chamomile.
But these days edging nearer the abyss, I'm content with a PG Tips teabag and a dash of milk. On special days I might wash the mug first and take the teabag out before drinking.
I've found that even stripping away what were once essentials - first sugar and then caffeine - I can still find pleasure in the beverage.
Binnie Hale's song includes the extraordinary couplet "Anyone can have me vote and chuck it in the sea/But by golly there'd be trouble if they tried to touch me tea."
A thought on which to ponder as the country faces a month of electioneering. We'll be reaching for a nice cup of tea to take away the bitter taste of the half-truths and false promises we'll be asked to swallow in the party manifestos.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Grapefruitcrazy's predictions for the General Election 2010

So the General Election is to be on May 6th – no surprise there then. The dissolution of Parliament next Monday cannot come a moment too soon. Cleaning out the Augean Stables of the corruption that has been rife in almost every corner of both Houses is Herculean in scale. The opening of the post-election Parliament on May 18th with its transfusion of new blood will be a start.
But it will be many years before the bad smell left by the MPs expenses scandal lifts over Westminster. Like so much outrageous conduct the attempted cover up was as disgraceful as the original offences.
With a month to polling day I’m going to make some predictions about what may happen, while freely admitting that my wishes are father to my thoughts.
Most importantly I expect the Tories to win a working majority such is the British electorate’s disillusionment with Labour.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Formula One - a sport even sillier than golf

Here I was all these years thinking that golf was the silliest sport in the world when all the time it was Formula One motor racing.
Too lazy to get out of the bath I was obliged to listen to too many circuits of the Malaysian Grand Prix on my out-of-reach portable radio yesterday.
There might be sense if the fastest car won. On the contrary there was some intervention by the weather during a practice session that saw the fastest cars start at the back of the grid making it impossible to win.
Neither does the ablest driver necessarily win. The winner in fact requires a fast, reliable car but also back up from a team that has mastery of tyre technology and meteorology. Races are won and lost in the pit stops and tyre changes as much as the straights.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof - an appreciation

I have to share my pleasure with you watching Cat On A Hot Tin Roof again after what must be 20 years. Part of the Paul Newman season at the British Film Institute on South Bank, the film was shown yesterday evening.
Just in case you haven’t seen the Richard Brooks-directed movie, which dates from 1958 and runs 108 minutes, I’ll refrain from any spoilers. It is a must for all lovers of popular cinema.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Hunting - the big issue for the new parliament?

Tory leader David Cameron has pledged to introduce a free vote in the Commons on whether the ban on foxhunting should be lifted if he ousts Gordon Brown in the coming General Election.
I’m content enough with this position as long as there is no behind-the-scenes arm-twisting by Conservative Whips. I hope the move would be soundly defeated.
I’d rather cut my arm off with a broken bottle than be associated with any body of people who seek the death of an animal in the name of sport rather than food.