Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

The decorative pumpkins above were part of a Holborn florist's display, caught when I visited Chord.

These scary critters are from the halloween window display of our local Clapham burcher's, M. Moens & Sons. They always have the most imaginative jack-o-lanterns in these parts!

My attempt at carving this year!

Trick or Treat!

A New Life at the Globe

A New Life is about the life of Thomas Paine and is by  politically radical English playwright Trevor Griffiths, whose stage work peaked in the 70s but who has since been working as a screenwriter. His biopic of Thomas Paine fell through, so the Globe offered him the chance of reworking it for the stage. (2009 is the 200th anniversary of Paine's death.)

John, Caroline and I went on the last night when the Globe offered groundling places for £5 each. It was my first time at the Globe as a groundling! - Exhausting! - standing was hard on my hips - one really has to fight to keep one's sightline free, and the actors jostle you frequently (this production used the pit to the fullest extent for crowd scenes)

The playwright and a few celebrity actor guests were there, also politicos and lefties, school groups and tourists. An interesting audience. We thoroughly enjoyed the play, despite its faults.  Knowing next to nothing about Thomas Paine, it was interesting to learn more (Griffiths wove in many quotes from Paine's works).

The structure though was exhausting. Three hours on your feet is quite tiring - the first half told the whole story of the American Revolution, so it had a self-contained story arc - at the break one could assume the play was finished. But no - the second half took us to France for the French Revolution (another virtually completely self-contained story arc, with different characters). John seriously suggested leaving at the interval, but Caro and I were keen to stay to the end.

It was all fascinating, and the production and acting were wonderful (Dominic Dromgoole directed), and the audience was terrifically engaged, but the structure of the play let it down as a drama. It was very 'biopic' - just so much raw chronology on display. For me, not really a major problem as it was interesting to learn about the character but this certainly was no A Man for All Seasons or even Amadeus, let alone Shakespearian history. However, individual scenes and the dialogue were highly entertaining, and the production was energetic, imaginative and flowing. The entire cast deserves high praise (the majority play several characters each) but special mentions have to go to Keith Bartlett as the narrator (Benjamin Franklin) and John Light as Thomas Paine himself - in the thick of the action for a full three hours.

The play proposed Paine as a naive idealist whose radicalism was betrayed by both revolutions he helped inspire - the American Revolution compromised by wealthy individuals and corporations (Paine was very anti-slavery and a total egalitarian) and the French ignored his message of non-violence (he voted against the execution of Louis XVI). Finally he returned to America, where he was completely sidelined by puritanical society (he was an aggressive atheist). His funeral was attended by only 6 people, two of whom were freed slaves.

Candle lit vigil

more candles
Originally uploaded by Matt Eason

Last night a candle lit vigil was held in memory of Ian Baynham and other victims of homophobic hate crimes.

The vigil was well attended, and a moving and uniting experience. I think it was particulalry shocking that Ian Baynham was murdered in Trafalgar Square - the very centre of London - and in a relatively gay-friendly area too.

After a two-minute's silence the comedienne Sue Perkins read a list of names of people lost to hate violence. It was shockingly long.

More photos of the vigil

Sarah Brown at the vigil - photo from the organiser, Mark Healey's, Facebook album of the event.

Friday, October 30, 2009



“British artist Conrad Shawcross has constructed a giant, site specific, mechanical installation in the Kingsway Tram Subway, Holborn. This vast underground tunnel is a remarkable and fascinating survivor of London’s tramway heritage which has been closed for public use since 1952.

Chord is Conrad Shawcross’ most ambitious and complex work to date. Conceived specifically for the long subway, the artist has built two identical rope machines that weave a thick hawser from 324 spools of coloured string. These vast machines will begin back to back in the centre of the space and then gradually move away from each other slowly down the subway following the old tram tracks. Like two huge spiders, they slowly travel through the space over the course of the exhibition.”
- from the Chord pamphlet

I finally visited Conrad Shawcross’es brilliant installation in the Kingsway Tram Subway in Holborn yesterday. The location itself if wonderfully atmospheric - the subway has been out of commission since 1953, and obviously not accessible to the public since then, although it has been used as a location in films.

The exhibition is free, although one has to book in advance and arrive ten minutes before at a marshaling point - a guide then takes your group down the atmospheric tunnels to the artwork.

The huge weaving machines twist in the darkness, creating a multi-coloured hawser between them. Over the course of the exhibition, the rope grows longer as the spinning machines move down the tram tracks.

They make the most amazing sounds - mechanical but organic. Comparisons to huge spiders are powerfully evoked. Weaving and spinning are fundamental manufacturing processes which we tend to undervalue these days, but weaving and spinning for the ancient Greeks were symbols of destiny and fate. Las Hilanderas by Velázquez is a meditation on the myth of Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, turning Arachne into a spider for her pride in her weaving skills. Conrad Shawcross’es Chord is a very modern approach to human solutions to the inevitability of the passage of time.

Conrad Shawcross
Kingsway Tram Subway,
Southampton Row, Holborn,
London, WC1B 4AP

8 October - 8 November 2009
For tickets -

More photos of this installation and the subway are on my flickr stream.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Media homophobia on the rise?

It’s been a good week for twitter, with two major victories for UK tweeters, over the oil company Trafigura and the columnist Jan Moir of the Daily Mail.

Jan Moir’s vile column on the tragic death of Stephen Gately was deeply shocking and rightly aroused a huge reaction across the UK and Ireland. Special credit must be paid to the Mail’s own readers, who overwhelmingly rejected Moir’s sentiments in the comments section. The twitter reaction was such that “Jan Moir” topped the trending topics chart throughout Friday, but #janmoir and “Daily Mail” also trended in the top ten yesterday and “Daily Mail” remains trending this morning.

The PCC received an unprecedented number of complaints - so many their website crashed on Friday afternoon. Celebrity tweeters such as Stephen Fry joined in the condemnation, and M&S and Nestle demanded their adverts be pulled from appearing on the article page. Eventually, the Daily Mail pulled all advertising from the page.

With Charlie Brooker in the Guardian accusing her of gay bashing, Jan Moir released through her paper’s PR officers a self-serving “apology” which really just compounded her original homophobic rant.

Why did she do it? In the wake of last weekend’s furore over Danii Minogue’s (quite tame) comments on XFactor, why did the Daily Mail think they could get away with it? Were they deliberately courting controversy and sales?

Or is it something more sinister? Many have considered Jan Moir’s article the worst case of blatant media homophobia in years. The Daily Mail is a right-wing newspaper and if the polls are to be believed we may be only months away from a Conservative government. The Tories’ gay-friendliness has been exposed in the last few weeks as a tissue thin veneer: they are more than happy to partner up in Europe with extremely homophobic eastern European political parties. Moreover, apart from apologizing for Section 28 they lack any real gay equality policies and have opposed Labour on this issue - Cameron himself voted against the repeal of Section 28 in 2003.

So, is Tory ambiguity on LBGT matters encouraging the re-emergence of rabid homophobes in the right-wing press? Of course, with only one article it may be too early to say, but we should maintain vigilance. It is most gratifying and grounds for optimism that Jan Moir’s rant was so comprehensively rejected.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Trafigura again

My third post in a row about this; sorry. I have got really worked up by a company which allegedly caused 15 deaths and injured thousands of innocent people in the Ivory Coast; then attempted to subvert the reporting of parliamentary proceedings in the UK. Check out their Wikipedia entry - apparently they have also gamed the legal establishment in The Netherlands, preventing relevant evidence reaching the victims in their London suit for compensation (an agreement in this case was reached last month).

Trafigura are suing the BBC news programme Newsnight for libel.

I quote directly from Carter-Ruck's (Trafigura's lawyers) press release announcing this lawsuit, dated 15th May 2009 and currently available on Carter-Ruck's website:

"Speaking today, a Trafigura spokesman said:

“Trafigura has today brought libel proceedings against the BBC over its Newsnight broadcast. This decision was not taken lightly.

Trafigura has always accepted that the Probo Koala ‘incident’ is a matter of public interest and has never objected to the media reporting on it responsibly. However, the BBC’s one-sided reports on 13 May were wildly inaccurate and libellous, leaving us with no choice but to take legal action. There was no justification or public interest in the BBC misleading its viewers in this way.

Trafigura has always denied that the slops caused the deaths and serious health consequences presented by the BBC – a position fully supported by independent expert evidence which will be presented to the Court in due course. As the BBC is well aware, these matters are already the subject of a personal injury action currently taking place in London. It is deeply regrettable that the BBC felt it appropriate to prejudge those proceedings in this sensationalist and inaccurate way.”

The trouble is, this statement appears to be in conflict with the Minton Report. The Minton Report was commissioned by Waterson & Hicks, another law firm acting on behalf of Trafigura, in the aftermath of the Ivory Coast disaster. Basically, the company was attempting to ascertain privately whether the human tragedy in Abidjan could possibly have been attributed to the dumping of slops from Trafigura's ship MT Probo Koala. And the short answer appears to be yes (check out the link above, it's a very interesting document).

The thing is, the Minton report is dated 14th September 2006. In large part it contradicts the press release quoted above, issued 15th May 2009.

Newsnight's 13 May 2009 report

defence of democracy in Britain

The legal gagging of the Guardian reporting on Parliament is such an outrageous attack on our right of free speech I have written to my MP Kate Hoey, through the They Work for You website:

Dear Kate Hoey,

I was alarmed and concerned to hear that the Guardian is being legally prevented from reporting on MP's Parliamentary questions.

My understanding was that the public's right to know what is happening in Parliament was established in the 18th century by John Wilkes. It is a savage indictment on the state of our democracy today that this public right can be so casually overturned by what appear to be narrow commercial interests (The Guardian is also prevented from identifying them) who have instructed the legal firm of Carter-Ruck.

Is it possible for Parliament to prevent such legal abuses happening in the future? I look forward to hearing your views.

Yours sincerely,

Edward Clarke

From the Minton report on the toxic waste from Trafigura's ship Probo Koala dumped in landfill on the outskirts of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 2006 (Abidjan's metropolitan population is in excess of 5,000,000 people):

"Hydrogen sulphide (H2S) is a corrosive gas. It is highly toxic. At low concentrations the gas has a strong unpleasant odour. UK Occupational Health guidelines allow exposure to 5ppm for 8 hours or 10ppm for 15 minutes. Between 20 and 100ppm the ability to smell the gas is lost. Negative health effects, such as eye irritation may be observed as low as 20ppm. Prolonged exposure at these low levels may result in pharyngitis and bronchitis. Between 250 and 500ppm, pulmonary oedema may occur. Above these levels, other effects may occur such as vomiting, breathing difficulties, loss of consciousness and death. A single breath of 1000ppm concentration in air may be sufficient to induce a coma and death"

[UPDATE] Carter-Ruck abandoned their injunction at 13:08 today, in response to the social media firestorm reaction to their attempt to gag the British Parliament (twitter trend map above). The Guardian reports that the gag on them has been lifted. Hopefully, this episode will awaken our MPs to the need to reform libel law in Britain.

Guardian ordered not to report on Parliament

Democracy is entirely dependent on a well-informed citizenry. Free speech and a free press is vital to democracy's continued healthy functioning.

Therefore, the legal gagging order against the Guardian reporting on an MP's question in Parliament is absolutely deplorable. The Spectator speculates what the gag could be about - of course, we have no idea until the gag is lifted. Here is the key part of The Spectator's report:

"Remarkable, even by the appalling standards of our libel laws and addled judiciary. This appears to be the question in, er, question:

From, “Questions for Oral or Written Answer beginning on Tuesday 13 October 2009″

N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura."

The Guardian reported last month on how Trafigura attempted to cover up the dumping of toxic waste in one of the worst pollution disasters in recent history

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Stephen Fry on Channel 4 News

Absolutely blowing the Tory spokesman away: