Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Christmas Feast

At the beginning of December I attended a lecture at the British Museum on the origins of our modern Christmas celebrations in the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia. Basically, the early Christians stole Christmas lock, stock and barrel from the Romans (December 25th was the birthday of the god Mithras) and it is surprising just how much a Roman coming back today would recognise - feasting with family, parties with friends, gift-giving, “peace on earth goodwill to all men” - but even silly hats, jokes and japes, cakes, puddings and nuts, and (remarkably) gingerbread men. The idea of the ‘king of the feast’ - surviving in the form of a coin hidden in the Christmas pudding or the fève a lucky guest discovers in a galette des rois - comes directly from the Romans.

It made me think about how cultural traditions work - both in terms of the larger culture as a whole and in our individual lives. Repetition never repeats entirely exactly - traditions and lives evolve - but the repeated attempt at the ideal encourages comparisons and brings back memories of how it was when.

I am a hardened traditionalist, and I wholly concur with Felicity Cloake’s assertion in the New Statesman that “December 25th belongs to the birds”: a ringing defence of all things turkey and sprouting.

To be fair though, it is has become a traditional pursuit in itself to defend the Christmas turkey - the bird is entrenched in our tradition but it has always had its doubters. In their favour, turkeys are out of the ordinary (and therefore ideal for special celebrations), large (ideal for feeding multitudes), fairly bland meat (again, ideal for feeding multitudes) and relatively low-fat. Their downfall is a tendency to dry out in cooking. In my childhood the cure for this was to wrap the turkey in bacon and tin foil; these days soaking it for 24 hours in a brine bath is the fashionable option. But there are those who depart from the turkey route flagrantly - I remember as a child being totally shocked by a friend’s mother serving prawn curry as the Christmas meal. This was all the more outrageous as our family, good expats, stuck with resolute rigidity to the prescribed Christmas formula - even down to the brussels sprouts, which were a particularly exotic and hard-to-find vegetable in the 30˚C heat of an African midsummer.

This year, as I found myself alone on Christmas day, a turkey was out of the question, and I didn’t think a chicken would be Chistmassy enough. I decided to go for quail (which I’ve never cooked before) and went with a traditional pot-roast Spanish recipe: brandied quail with caramelised onions. But the accoutrements were the same as for the traditional English feast - bread sauce and roast potatoes, sprouts with roast carrots and macadamia nuts, and a gingered parsnip purée. I love sprouts but am not a fan of parsnips. I made an exception this year because (a) they’re traditional and (b) I have recently become a fan of ginger and a recipe for gingered parsnip purée intrigued me (it may have converted me; I will do this again). The recipe claimed it was a replacement for ‘outmoded’ bread sauce but I love bread sauce so had both.

My starter was a plate of smoked salmon on rye topped with home-made gently pickled cucumber slices and dill, snacked while watching the Christmas special Doctor Who, and to finish I had Passion fruit puddle pudding. I kept myself liberally quenched with poinsettias - Cranberry juice and Cointreau topped with Prosecco. Merry Christmas all!

Friday, October 12, 2012

We're all winners!

Hilarious response to the EU winning the Nobel Peace Prize:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Clapham's New Library Opens

In these austere times it is pleasing to report some positive news: a new modern library building has just opened on Clapham High Street. I went along today to use the fax machine (they don't have one yet) and take some snaps - please forgive my arty hipstamatics. I reported before about the building itself while under construction - the flats above have helped to fund the new public library facilities. The building itself seems to have taken ages to construct - almost as long as the much higher Shard, if my memory serves correctly. Last June they were expecting to be completed in September last year.

The flats tower above the library and the high street.

Builders are still busy completing the streetscaping at ground level - the paving does not appear at this stage to match the superlative standards of the Venn Street development.

A huge mural above the librarians' station maps out the interior space - two spirals curve out from the entrance and the desk - one upwards and the other downwards - around a central atrium rising the full height of the library space. A spiral staircase and a lift link all the levels. Books and other media line the curving spirals; reading areas, computer stations and meeting rooms lead off the spiral. The atrium houses a play space for children. It's like a mini Clapham version of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York
the ramp spiralling upwards
A view across the central atrium, with oculi allowing glimpses of the book stacks on the spiralling ramp
The spiral staircase

It all looks new and shiny, and the books have the feel of just having been arranged on their new shelves. Loads of users are already using the spaces - the reading and computer rooms look like they will be very popular.

Overall, the space feels modern and generous. I have some niggles with the finish, which lets the standard down - the exposed concrete ceilings look like they've been demanded by an accountant late in construction rather than originally envisaged by the architect. The librarians' space will probably need to be redesigned - it's way too small and encourages spiralling gaggles of users to besiege the poor duty librarian from all angles - while I was there fights were erupting amongst library clients (over where the queue was) and the librarians themselves appeared stressed.

Noise levels are quite high - the central atrium and hard surfaces throughout create an echoing acoustic, and the children's play area generates a large amount of noise to echo.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Well, this month saw the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen - London was positively awash with festivity (as well as rain). Here are some of my photos of the Jubilee preparations.
All of London is excited for HM Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee
Official Jubilee Shop in Hyde Park
Union Flags lining the Mall
Stage set up outside Buckingham Palace for the BBC Jubilee Concert
Covent Garden
Adjusting the flags in the Apple Market, Covent Garden
A Classic Jubilee entrance to Harvey Nichols
Witty Jubilee windows by L.K. Bennett, one of Kate Duchess of Cambridge's favourite shops
Harrods made a full-scale Jubilee effort with its store decorations

A Jubilee crown designed by Paul Smith in the Windows of Harrods. Harrods commissioned international designers to each design a crown for the retailer's Knightsbridge store's windows.
Oxford Street, London
God Save The Queen in Selfridges windows
A colourful corgi getaway in Selfridges windows
The Changing of the Guard in Selfridges windows

Jubilee-themed windows in Ann Summers
Bond Street
Lever House lavishly decorated with Union Flags
The Thames the day before the flotilla pageant. The giant photograph was of the royal family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace during the Silver Jubilee.
Early (hardy) birds for the Jubilee flotilla river pageant - a full 25 hours before the event, with arctic temperatures and heavy rain forecast
A splendid array of alcoholic drinks and party paraphernalia in the window of Laithwaites
Konditor & Cook's Jubilee cakes

London Underground poster

The Jubilee week cover of TimeOut Magazine

Quote London

“We seek cities because there are a greater range of girls at the bar, of reproductive choice. Number one. Number two is there are better outcomes for health and wealth. And now we care more about the environment, and cities are better for the environment. But above all, talented people seek cities for fame. They can’t get famous in the fucking village.”
- Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, in New York Magazine

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Eurovision 2012 - Baku

Well, 2012 was a vintage Eurovision I thought, and I applaud Sweden’s worthy win with Loreen’s Euphoria (although I was sneakily hoping those Russian grannies would take the prize). I watched most of it but my heavy social schedule on Saturday took it’s toll and I fell asleep during the scoring and awoke to find it was all over.

Memorable moments have to include Albania’s bonkers screeching lady (which nevertheless scored quite well - scary, Europe!):

As well as the above mentioned Russian grannies:

I think the Russian entry marks the moment when an Eastern European country knowingly sends an ironic entry into the competition.

France’s Anggun and her gymnast backing troupe were superb:

And Italy’s Amy Winehouse tribute was also a favourite:

Gaitana from the Ukraine stole the show with a storming performance: But what to say about the UK’s Englebert Humperdink? I am sorry, as his song was quite pleasant and certainly deserved to rank higher than second last (becoming something of a fixture for the UK). I thought his performance on the night however was below his best. A grand old artist needlessly humiliated by the BBC.

We in the UK must try to get over our tendency to be too cool for school about Eurovision, take the piss mercilessly, and then be furious the others don’t vote for us.

Well done Loreen! Next year in Sweden.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Boris's brush with art criticism

OrbitYesterday Boris Johnson wrote such an extraordinarily provoking column in The Telegraph and on his blog that I broke a lifetime’s resolve and left a comment (on the blog). A couple of hours later my comment disappeared, so I thought I may as well vent my reactions more fully on my own blog.
In his column Boris reacted to two small criticisms made of the AcelorMittal Orbit by the BBC’s arts correspondent Will Gompertz: he felt it was too small and was a pity entry wasn’t free (Anish Kapoor, the Orbit’s sculptor, is on record as being against the entry fee too). Boris’s bile knew no limits and from these minor and entirely reasonable personal comments Boris concluded that the BBC as an organization was biased towards the Labour Party and that the next BBC chief must be a Tory.
I’m very disappointed in this; I hope his column was flung off two minutes to deadline (apparently a common practice) and doesn’t represent Boris’s considered opinion. I imagine he would have lost a few votes if this had come out before the election.
The BBC was set up during the last major financial crisis in the 1930s by a political establishment concerned to neutralise extremist views in the UK media. They succeeded brilliantly. However it seems the modern Tory’s attitude to public service broadcasting is far closer to that of Goebbels and Stalin than it is to their own Tory forebears. Today’s Tories are clearly absolutely determined to create a Fox News in the UK – with all the consequent divisive coarsening of public debate that will result. It’s worth noting the BBC had its worst clash ever with the (Labour) Blair Government over Iraq – and despite the Hutton enquiry the public still believed the BBC’s version over Tony Blair’s. To this day the BBC remains the most trusted news source for the British public - vastly more trusted than, say, The Telegraph itself.
Boris complains the BBC is suspiciously interested in the Leveson enquiry despite the public not being that interested.
Whether or not the public is interested in the Leveson enquiry, the apparent wholescale corruption of our political classes, the police, and the intimidation of celebrities and members of the public alike are clearly issues which go to the heart of our democracy, as Boris as a senior politician should realise.
Boris also claims that public funding somehow corrupts the BBC. As Boris’s Mayoral salary is also publicly funded, and he enjoys a generous £250,000 per year from The Telegraph for his journalism, will he abstain from claiming his Mayoral salary? - Mrs Thatcher of course didn’t claim her salary as PM back in the 80s.
About the Orbit I tend to agree with him that it’s better and more interesting close up – at least as far as I could see from the BBC television pictures. However, you can’t have it both ways – it’s either a monument to the public munificence, advanced aesthetic taste and civic pride of Mr Mittal and Boris Johnson or it’s a commercial fee-paying attraction. As Boris knows, the famous bread and circuses of ancient Rome were free to Roman citizens - that was the entire point. The London Eye was always meant to be a fairground ride – the Orbit is supposed to be public sculpture. And the £15 entry fee is on top of the £10 fee you have to pay to get into the Olympic grounds – so despite what Boris claims it does work out as considerably more expensive than the Eye to go up a not very tall stationery tower. Boris should have insisted on slides!
Boris’s tiresome diatribe has been dissected brilliantly by Dave Hill in The Guardian, who particularly points out Boris’s dodgy denial of any links to Rupert Murdoch’s News International during his election campaign. Boris’s full-throated diatribe against the BBC will, of course, endear him to the Murdochs père et fils, whose long-term objective is to eliminate their rival media organization in order to maximize their own personal profit and influence.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Pasties in high places

Loving all the Tory pratfalls, keep ‘em coming!

David Cameron’s lazy schoolboy spinning of his purchase of a pasty in Leeds (larded with slightly too much convincing detail) is inspiring satirists everywhere. Damien Thompson in the Telegraph is particularly amusing:

“A PM who finds it easy to scoff
"I love a hot pasty,” declares the Prime Minister, and I believe him. My source in the Downing Street kitchen tells me: “Mr Cameron is the most peckish PM I can remember, bless him. He finds the servings at the No 10 dinners a bit stingy, so we often send up a Greggs pasty or 'steak bake' as a little amuse bouche he can enjoy before joining his guests. Sometimes I’ll drizzle garlic butter on the pastry – that always goes down well!”
Even then, however, Dave finds room for a night-time snack. “Greggs do a lovely Belgian bun, ever so moist, and we send a couple upstairs just as the PM is settling down to catch up on The Killing. Last week I thought he needed an extra treat, so I put a little jug of cream on the tray. He didn’t complain, let’s put it that way.”

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Quote London

"But London has cause to feel particularly proud of the thrusting generation of moderates whom the capital shaped in various well-endowed institutions and at soirees held in their honour at the highest level of metropolitan society, before sending them off into the Middle East to work their magic. Think of Saif Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad and his wife – perhaps Vanity Fair, which last insisted London was swinging in 1997, could return to do a sarcastic "Class of" feature on the capital's most eye-catching governance alumni.

It took root under Thatcher but it was Blairism that presided over the capital's transition into full-blown creep haven – inevitable, given Tony's pathological admiration for the super-rich. The result is that it is now standard to note that there are two Londons: the one where all but a few thousand of the city's millions live, and the one where, when yet another Mayfair restaurant opens selling £70 steaks, the black Range Rovered clientele cannot get a table for weeks on end.

From the outside, the one increasingly eclipses the other. And thus, if I might make a pitch for inclusion in Pseuds' Corner, London is contracting as an idea. Where previously outsiders could get a sense of the richness of the city's culture, it is now increasingly difficult to get a sense of much else than London's richness – while for insiders, the sense of exclusion from that richness becomes more pronounced. The greatest city in the world does not care to accommodate its key workers within a one-hour, overpriced commute of their jobs, but plays enduringly attentive host to some of the most grotesque horrors of the age."

- Marina Hyde in the Guardian

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Design Museum Heads West

The Design Museum is in the news because of its annual Design Awards (Designs of the Year 2012 exhibition now on at the Museum) and because the museum itself is on the move across London from Shad Thames to the old Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park - its best frenemy the V&A will be a near neighbour in South Kensington (target date 2014).

While part of me is thrilled that someone is giving this mad 50s folly a new lease of life (Grade II listed, no less, and apparently regarded as second only to the incomparable Royal Festival Hall in post-war British Modernist importance), the bigger part of me is sad the Design Museum will be leaving Shad Thames, which it has graced since the 1980s. I imagine it will be replaced with more expensive flats with river views, impoverishing the cultural life and diversity of this stretch of the Thames immeasurably.

Also worrying is what they intend doing to the old Commonwealth Institute building (Sir Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, 1960-2) , an architect’s flight of fancy if ever there was one, a triumph of form over function or even reason:

“Regarded by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London, after the Royal Festival Hall, the building has a low brickwork plinth clad in blue-grey glazing. Above this swoops the most striking feature of the building, the complex hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof, made with 25 tonnes of copper donated by the Northern Rhodesia Chamber of Mines. The shape of the roof reflects the architects' desire to create a "tent in the park" . . . The interior of the building consists of a dramatic open space, covered in a tent-like concrete shell, with tiered exhibition spaces linked by walkways. “

Those links include swooping stairs down to a floating mezzanine level beneath the immense expanse of that magnificent roof. This grand flourish is extravagantly wasteful of space, which no doubt the Design Museum covets. The proposed remodeled interior designs I have seen sweep away the stairs, walkways, floating mezzanine, etc, and close up that central block of empty space. The original complex and delightful spatial interplay is completely annihilated in favour of a grim heavy concrete platform with a rather mingy oculus allowing a partial view of the roof. My criticisms are purely aesthetic here - no doubt in practical ways the redesign will make the space function far more efficiently as a gallery, as well as generating more usable floor space. It’s just sad that something so intrinsic to the building will apparently vanish in the process. John Pawson has a lot riding on this - a very modish architect, most of his projects so far have been either commercial or private commissions by the super rich; this will be his first major public project. His brand of highly aesthetic minimalism seems a refinement of 60’s Brutalism - the movement which reacted forcefully against the effete and almost rococo modernism represented by the Commonwealth Institute. We shall see whether the styles can harmoniously cohabit.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

More here

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Building The Big Society

Building The Big Society
Originally uploaded by hedgiecc

CallmeDave and Boris helping out in the window of Trinity Hospice Shop, Clapham High Street

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Sex with a Stranger

Stefan Golaszewski’s new play Sex with a Stranger running at the Trafalgar Studios this February is cut from unpromising cloth: a plot so slight it is barely there - a mundane tale of squalid infidelity - and a cast of three (as in “there are three in this marriage”). Out of these elements he manages to weave a totally engrossing and thrilling evening of theatre, hugely aided by stunning performances from Russell Tovey, Jaime Winstone and, making her West End debut, Naomi Sheldon.

The theatre is tiny, with the audience on the same level as the actors - they are literally close enough to touch; the audience exits treading over Ruth’s (Naomi Sheldon’s) shoes and mobile phone. This intimacy allows a naturalistic and detailed mode of acting: every tiny flicker of an expression registers; the actors are almost in close-up - yet Golaszewski undercuts this by presenting the story in broken fragments of scenes, jump-cutting backwards and forwards in the story, making the audience piece it all together.

The technique is cinematic but perversely, as Golaszewski pushes it to extremes even television wouldn’t pursue, it becomes highly theatrical. The anti-chronological development scrambles the emotional flow for the actors as they have to present widely varying emotions and interactions within split second changes. This clearly also presents challenges for the technical team, which they rise to with aplomb (as do the actors - there are lots of clothing changes: Mr Tovey is memorably down to his pants in one scene. I think “theatrical viagra” is the term I’m searching for).

As the play progresses we begin to understand this is about a relationship in crisis but in denial - what is unsaid becomes more important than what is said. The play delivers some magnificent pregnant pauses - Ruth’s silent entrance with an iron and ironing board is a stunner (as is the ending of the play). Golaszewski’s trademark off-kilter humour shines throughout.