Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pullman on religion

"Religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good."

- Philip Pullman

Friday, September 26, 2008

The History of Tea

For such a comforting beverage with such a positive image Tea has certainly had an exciting history. It has paid an especially prominent and controversial role in British imperial history, both in America and China.

Tea became popular in Britain in the late 17th century, and rapidly spread to all classes. Tea was a net drain on the economy, as it had to imported from China and paid for in silver (the Chinese didn’t want or need anything else from anyone at that point). The British government therefore imposed tax on tea. This didn’t really bother the Brits (it is estimated that over 95% of tea drunk in Britain was smuggled in) but it really upset the colonial Americans. The Boston Tea Party set off the American Revolution and led to the Declaration of Independence. To this day, tea is less popular in the USA than coffee, which the revolutionaries promoted as the patriotic drink.

Meanwhile, back in the East, those canny British traders had worked out a clever scam. India was growing huge quantities of Opium, which was pretty useless in terms of trade to the UK or internally in India. However, Imperial China had a big opium addiction problem which the emperors were struggling to control.

Chinese drug traders were willing to pay in silver for opium.

So, British traders picked up opium in India for virtually nothing, traded it illegally in China for silver, then paid for Chinese tea with the silver and sailed back home, making huge profits at every point.

This obviously worked really well for the British; less so for the Chinese, who eventually managed to seize and destroy an opium shipment (despite the corruption of the port authorities).

This kicked off the Opium Wars, in which Britain seized control of Hong Kong. There were vociferous British voices raised in opposition to these wars in Parliament, so one can’t really excuse the wars as a reflection of the standards of their time: people knew how corrupt and awful they were then, too.

Eventually, the British introduced commercial tea growing to India and the African colonies too. Today, India produces the largest crop of tea and drinks most of it internally.

John Griffiths’ book Tea: The Drink That Changed the World is full of interesting historical facts about tea – interesting reading for tea maniacs like me!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nationwide Mercury Prize

Let's face it, any award that Radiohead doesn't win is a travesty.

I can usually rely on the Mercury Prize to widen my aural horizons. Although before last week's awards I already owned three of the nominated albums, of course they didn't win and the prize went to Elbow.

Elbow seem a very blokey type of rock outfit and entirely charisma free. Us superficial types demand a bit of sparkly surface. Apparently, their win has increased their sales by like 263%. Not in this part of SW, however - the day after, my local HMV was almost sold out of Burial's Untrue (the favourite to win), with large stocks of Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid still on display. God, even the cover looks boring.

They are going to be on Later with Jools*** tomorrow, so I shall suspend judgement until afterwards. Maybe my aural horizons will be stretched.

In the meantime, Burial's Untrue is lovely. Belying its insurgent image, it's beautifully put together, very chilled and listenable.

***Yes, I know Jools is live on Tuesday nights as well now. I intend to avoid the live version afer last week's fiasco with Carla Bruni. Really Jools! Behave!

Carla. Now there's someone with almost too much sparkly surface.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Last Sunday was the second London Freewheel, where roads in central London were closed to traffic and open to cyclists for the day. My pic shows cyclists exiting the Mall through the Admiralty Arch.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Apocalypse soon

Only a few short months ago some liberal British journalists were lecturing us on the superiority of American Democracy – the enthusiasm and commitment of the US public in the nomination process, compared to our laid-back and terminal cynicism this side of the Atlantic.

Well, things have changed now.

The committed and enthusiastic Americans are swinging behind the seriously frightening Sarah Palin, who may well become President if John McCain pops his clogs.

The end is nigh.

Scary quotes from the papers:

“My Republican friend emails . . . and makes a prediction: ‘Remember, since Kennedy, only three Democrats have been elected President: LBJ = Small town, folksy Texas blowhard; Jimmy Carter = Small town, folksy Georgia blowhard; Billy Jeff Clinton = Small town, folksy Arkansas blowhard.’ Sarah Palin will be next but one President of the United States”. – Linda Grant, Observer 14/9

“The more the New York Times and Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there’s a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are that she’s new, she’s popular in Alaska and she’s an insurgent. As long as those are out there, these little facts don’t really matter.” – John Freehery, Republican strategist, to the Washington Post, reported in the Guardian.

On a more entertaining note, you can find out what you would be called if Sarah Palin was your mommy here.

I am Snooker Hinge Palin. Kinda cool!

talk like a pirate day

Argh . . .

yo ho ho & shiver me timbers

me hearties

. . . another barrel of rum . . .


Monday, September 15, 2008

The Duchess

In which a spirited Keira Knightley as the eponymous Duchess is abused mightily by her mother, husband and 'best friend' – and even more grievously by the clunking script and pedestrian direction, cinematography and editing. To cap it all, a thousand violins interject themselves whenever they spot an opportunity. Usually at a point where we are enjoying yet another long lingering close-up of Keira emoting moodily with fantastic 18th-century hair.

How I longed for the wit and stylishness of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

Ralph Fiennes’ performance as the Duke is pretty magnificent. But then – perhaps an easier role? (the patriarchal insensitive oafish bully showing flashes of humanity now and then) – and a decidedly smaller one, meaning there is not as much for the production team to tamper with.

My google stats show a consistent demand for The Duchess of Devonshire and Keira Knightley, so to satisfy my readers I just had to see this film! The things I do for you.

Friday, September 12, 2008

meat free me

Last night I helped save the word by eating a meat-free dinner – liguine olivieto, with liquidised olives and garlic mixed with chopped tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. I love it, but just as well I was alone in the house last night as the garlic was somewhat overpowering. Even though I did stack the dishwasher before going to bed I came down this morning to lingering garlicy smells in the kitchen. Not good with oats for breakfast.

Boris Johnson hates being told what to do by the UN and insists we should concentrate on decreasing the rise in the number of humans, not cows.

I’m thinking the world probably already has more humans than it can sustainably support, so really everyone cutting back on meat again is a good idea, a well as practicing birth control.

Poor moos are a very energy-intensive food source, and moreover produce huge quantities of methane, which is 25 times more powerful than carbon as a global warming gas. Cows produce milk a well, so milk and cheese are off the menu too!

In the 70s, meat went out of fashion and all the trendy nutritionists told us to eat plenty of carbohydrates, especially pasta and potatoes. Now pasta and potatoes are BAD – the Atkins diet has pretty much proved they cause weight gain, not meat. With the rise and rise of “nose-to-tail” eating, meat has become intensely fashionable again. Personally I can’t get enough of it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

colonial exploits

Busy reading Thomas Pakenham’s excellent The Scramble for Africa; quite a head trip. The colonial antics of France, England, Germany etc would be comic if their consequences weren’t so tragic. Especially intriguing was the France v England match in the Sudan, which culminated in a face-off in the malarial swamps of the Nile, in a place then called Fashoda.

The Sudan itself had been carried away on a tide of Islamic fundamentalism – it was the first modern Islamic fundamentalist state. Despite the headline demise of General Gordon at Khartoum at the hands of the Mahdi’s army, the British seemed quite happy with the status quo, and were in no immediate hurry to avenge Gordon’s death.

Then some academic read a paper at a geography conference which claimed that a dam on the Nile at Fashoda could literally stop the river and basically hold Egypt to ransom. This news electrified both the French and British colonial departments.

The French sent a secret expedition to Fashoda. Two hundred French forces traveled up the Congo, then dismantled their steamer and hauled it up over the Congo/Nile watershed. Then they reassembled it and sailed down the Nile to Fashoda, carrying with them crates and crates of champagne (how they kept it chilled is anyone’s guess).

Meanwhile, The British sent an army into Sudan under Kitchener – ostensibly to assist Italian forces who were escaping from their defeat in Ethiopia. When he arrived at Khartoum he opened further secret instructions to sail up the Nile with a fleet of gunboats and occupy Fashoda (and if the French were already there, to take it without firing a shot).

The French expedition refused to surrender and the whole thing kicked off, with the two countries coming to the brink of war. Eventually the French backed down. This was so humiliating for them the British changed the name of Fashoda, wiping it off the map. General de Gaulle regarded Fashoda as a massive setback for French prestige and honour, and apparently “the Fashoda Syndrome” still lurks in the depths of the French psyche.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

hip hip hooray

Good to know.

Howeve, Metro says the black hole might take 4 years to appear.

Let's see, 4 years - - - that takes us to 2012.

Isn't that when the Mayans predicted the end of the world???

Friday, September 05, 2008

Cy Twombly

Members’ private view at Tate Modern last night with Catriona. I remember being completely ravished by Twombly at the Whitechapel (I think) years ago – after this, I still like him, but there is a quantity of decidedly questionable stuff included in this show. The final “Bacchus” paintings disappointed me with their inflated size, reductive scarlet colouring and vapid brushwork – they seem totally devoid of the subtlety Twombly at his best so seemingly effortlessly achieves. Wincingly embarrassing too is the untitled series of nine paintings for the Venice Biennale – botched monochrome Monet lily ponds, some in 18th-century rococo formats which bring absolutely nothing to the experience.

The Quattro Stagione paintings in the room between these are hugely better; both versions elegiacally beautiful and evocative – Twombly at his best, creating a magically unlikely fusion of abstract expressionism with European classical reference.

Afterwards, we had dinner in the 7th floor cafĂ©. This was my second time in a row to be given a window table with THAT view! Sublime! And the food was good too – a short list, but well selected which made it hard to choose, especially on the pudding front. I had smoked duck, salmon and an elderflower panna cotta with berries and a brandy snap. Catriona also had the salmon but started with mackerel pate and had a chocolate tart with espresso icecream. Yum!

We knocked back a bottle of Viognier and gossiped about our ex-company (now very ex). Very last days of the Reich. As it staggered towards its nemesis, with the writing on the wall for all to see, and the MD blatantly stealing commission money from the employees, it had a series of burglaries. All the macs were stolen. The police couldn’t be less interested. Ha ha ha.

Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons
Tate Modern
until 14th September

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

notes on plastics

My world view has been thrown into confusion. Plastics are supposed to last for ever in the oceans, landfill, etc – this really has been reiterated again and again and I’m sure it must be true.

But how do we actually know??

Here at Hedgie towers, we are very good and have our own communal compost bin. So we actually throw away very little – five flats fill 1-2 wheelie bins a week on average, but we fill loads of orange sacks of recycling, and most of us throw organic waste in our communal compost bin for eventual use in our communal garden.

I reused a thick, sturdy plastic bucket (of the type dishwasher salt comes in) as my organic waste container in the kitchen. Potato peel, banana skins, coffee grounds and tea bags are the sort of things that have been deposited in this, prior to twice weekly visits to the compost bin.

It gets a wash every now and then when it gets too yucky (the compost bin outside is absolutely yucky; the flatmate has avoided compost duty like the plague since his initial visit to the bin some months ago; he was greeted too enthusiastically by all the wildlife that has taken up residence there).

Yesterday, to my horror, I found that my kitchen container was leaking. Its bottom has eroded in two places. I think our potato peels, etc, have eaten their way through the plastic. But surely this isn’t supposed to happen?

Have I found the solution to plastic pollution? A high strength solution of teabags and potato peel will soon dissolve the toughest plastic!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hadrian at the British Museum

Many years ago, in York, I bought a silver denarius (or sestertius, can’t remember which) featuring the visage of this august Roman emperor. My plan was to buy two and turn them into cufflinks. But the second has not been bought (finances; worries about desecrating heritage) and the coin lurks to this day in my cuff-link box.

Hadrian made a bit of an impact on Britain, with his wall, of course. But he seems to have been very fond of building projects all over the empire, and with the Pantheon in Rome achieved a whole new category of architecture.

The British Museum’s exhibition brings together wonderful sculptures of Hadrian from across the empire (making our bronze head dredged out of the Thames look of decidedly provincial manufacture). The most exciting of these is also the most recent – fragments of a giant sculpture recently discovered in Turkey in Sagalassos and now standing at the entrance to the exhibition.

There are also fantastic architectural models of the Pantheon and Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli – as big as a small town. The Tivoli model was made in the 1930s and lacks the recent discovery of a massive shrine to Antinous, erected prominently next to the villa’s main entrance (and where a highly eroticized massive marble Antinous in the guise of the Egyptian god Osiris was discovered back in the 18th century). Hadrian famously had his boyfriend declared a god – clearly, this is archeological proof. One wonders what Hadrian’s wife must have made of it. Also, why did the shrine remain ‘undiscovered’ for so long, when the pretty amazing sculpture had been found there hundreds of years before? Clearly, classical scholars felt more comfortable not unearthing evidence of Hadrian’s passion. I’m sensing homophobia at work.

The exhibition interestingly had a section on ancient Roman amphorae (Hadrian’s family was big in olive oil). The Romans were pretty organized – each amphora had information enough about weight, origin, packaging etc to satisfy the modern Brussels bureaucrat.

The most emotive section was one containing personal belongings of Jewish rebels found in the cave they hid from [genocidal] Roman troops.

I’m not sure about the reading Room as a temporary exhibition space. The circular ground plan fragments into awkward spaces and bottlenecks occur everywhere. The dramatic lighting plan casts your fellow visitors’ shadows onto the information labels, making progress really difficult. On the plus side, Panozzi’s wonderful dome pays appropriate homage to Hadrian’s prototype, its ancestor, in this interesting and worthwhile exhibition.

Hadrian Empire and Conflict
British Museum
until 26th October 2008