Friday, May 28, 2010

Victorian people

What I like about London, and it's something I sometimes 'forget', is just how many weird and wonderful events there are every single night. Gigs, viewings, cinema showings, sport events and talks.

I love a good talk about interesting, off-the-beaten track things. Last year I went to a great one given by two BBC wildlife camera man, and last night I went to see Daniel Maier, who writes for TV Burp, give a talk about "Ideas Man" Sir Francis Galton.

Galton was a strange chap, a quintessential Victorian who spent his life trying to measure the world, exploring the world, and inventing all manner of weird and wonderful things. He was very much into statistics, and Maier's explanation of how Galton had decided to work out if his new house could hold all the world's gold, was fantastic. Galton also had a terrible track record with animals, usually killing them, to put it blunty.

The final section, on how Galton had devised the perfect way to cut a cake was hysterical, with the Victorian gent landing on the perfect solution to stop the sides of cakes be left exposed in order to prolong its life, but all the time working to measurements of cake that made the need to keep the cake for more than one day irrelevant.

It was a very enjoyable, interesting and quirky way to spend an evening and if Maier does the talk at other times then it could be one to catch.

For the record, one of my favourite Victoria / turn-of-the-century figures is Emily Hobhouse, a Cornish woman who came before many of well known heroines of that age, who helped improve the diabolical conditions for the displaced in the Boer War, mainly women and children, and caused such a stir with her protestations, that she helped advance the peace talks between the British and the Boers.

She helped inspire Ghandi with her form of peaceful protests, so much so he called her "one of the noblest and bravest of women" while Lord Kitchener found her meddling so irritating she was known as "that bloody woman". This was the title of a book written about Hohouse recently, the author of which I interviewed for an article about a year ago in Cornwall Today.

In South Africa she is a well-known figure, with states and submarines named after her, and her story taught in schools. It seems a huge shame she is so unknown in the UK, and even in Cornwall, her county of birth.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Behind the scenes at the museum

Ah, the BBC. A fine, venerable institution, as old as slippers, as warm as a roaring log fire, full of heroes of yesteryear, and new names, keen to make an impact. (That should be read in a Terry Wogan ever-so-slightly patronising tone of voice).

I was inside the BBC on Monday, deep in its cavernous bowels, being ushered into a green room (yes, really) to take part in the first recording of Dave Gorman's show Genius. I was a genius. Or hoped to be, if my idea was to be discussed. Long story short, it wasn't. I got to read it out, but guest Chris Addison (who just does not look old enough to have two children) and Mel from Mel and Sue, didn't think it worthy of more discussion. More's the pity.

For the record it was a pay-per-snooze alarm clock that would deduct money from your bank account each time you hit it. Evil genius. I doubt I will get mention it on TV, but I may make the cut. The jolly farmer next to me did get to discuss his idea at length though so perhaps my grinning mug shall be on TV at some point. I'll let you know.

On the way in they have the Audi Quattro positioned prominently, a Tardis on display, and lots of large posters of grinning stars and people I've never seen before in my life. Everyone was very jolly, and sandwiches and cakes were laid on for us too. That's license fee value right there.

It was a fun show to be part of, due mostly to large amounts of audience interaction. I chatted to a nice girl (who may have been on drugs) who said she imagined portholes in peoples heads into which reality escaped, or could be entered (I forget which). She also explained her idea for telling good and bad actresses apart during rain-crying scenes, by creating eye-umbrellas which would ensure dry under-eye areas at all times, so you could see if an actress was actually crying during a scene in the rain, instead of just using the rain as her tears. Understand?

Minds, they work in funny ways.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Films and books

I like reading books, I like watching films, I like watching films of books I have read.

I watched Remains of the Day on Sunday evening. Perfect film to end a hot British weekend. The book is a fantastic tale, told in sumptuous, almost hypnotic detail, about a repressed butler's all-too consuming devotion to his Lord played out against the world-changing issues of time: the rise of Nazism, British appeasement, and hugely rigid and highly-defined class layers.

The film was an excellent adaptation. Not quite as strong as the book, in ways you'd expect – a characters internal monologue can't be utilised directly, for example – but still full of excellent set pieces and subtle but strong scenes of pathos and anger.

Christopher Reeve was excellent too as a congressman at the hall, and subsequently the new owner. It was the first time I've ever seen him in anything other than Superman and I thought he was excellent.

On a similar note, I finished reading Brighton Rock. I didn't really enjoy it that much, truth be told. They're making a film of that for later this year, which will star Helen Mirren, so it will be interesting to see how that does and how closely it matches the book. I imagine they'll lose a lot of the repetitive religious mutterings that overtook the strong story the book begins with.

They also made a version some years back staring Richard Attenborough, which is meant to be good, so I might try and watch that first too.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Panic at the airport

Airports are funny places, I've said it before. Yesterday, flying out of Rome I went through several emotions, mostly fear, frustration and mad running, as I attempted to grab an earlier flight home.

It worked, but only just. You'd think upgrading someone to an earlier flight would be easy, but it comes with surcharges and taxes and incurred costs. Or it would, if the carrier's computers had of been working. They were down though, so they sat there, looking all Italian, shrugging their shoulder nonchalantly, "Waddya want me to do about eh", they seemed to say.

Nevertheless the company who had flown us out there was very accommodating and said they would do it for us (me and another journo), via their booking agency. They did. But, despite the man at the check in desk refreshing his screen like there was no tomorrow, nothing came up on his system. Much confusion all round

So instead I spoke to man at the check-in desk instead: "We're trying to pay, we can't pay over there, and there are seats free, what's the loss?" and he relented, letting us through…at the exact moment they check-in for the flight was closing. We had about 35m before boarding. Could be close…then we saw the passport and security queue. Long…very long.I shouted to everyone, "really late, missing flight, please let us through"…amazing how kind people are when a mad English man is shouting broken sentences at them.

We went through, panic rising all the time as the clock ticked down 20 minutes to go. Then the man from the booking agency rang. "It's sorted, you're on the flight." "Great, we're going through security" I said. "Make sure you make the flight, otherwise you'll have missed the plane and your seats on the other plane will be gone" he replied. Great, just what I wanted to hear. We hurtled through security, no time to put belt back on, went careering on towards the gate to reach…a dead end. What?

A nice Croatian man said, "There's a train, it will be here in a moment". Four or five minutes pass. Getting close now. Throat very dry, nerves rising. Train arrives, pulls in, doors don't open for 30 seconds…it’s a test train (A TEST TRAIN!). One minute later, real one arrives. All fine, zips to gate, we get out, and arrive…boarding delayed by 10 minutes.

A New Zealand man says, "I saw you running, thought we were late or something". He was off to New Zealand. Rome to London to Hong Kong to NZ. That last leg would take 11 hours. Our globes and maps must not give true perspective on distance. You could fly to LA from London in 11 hours. And that's across the globe. I am confused by distance.

Still, made the plane, sat down, arrived home three hours earlier, in daylight, at no extra cost. Exciting. Sort of.

Monday, May 17, 2010


I've never been to Norfolk but it's a place that literature has taken me to, twice. Firstly, in Ishiguro's heartbreaking Never Let Me Go (that's not a flippant assessment, it's one of the saddest books I've ever read (but don't let that put you off, it's stunning)), and recently in Graham Swift's Waterland. Norfolk it seems, is a sad land. Flat, barren, wet, cold and wild, and full of tragedy.

Waterland, set across a span of history from the 1800s, through to the 1980s, is an amazing book that deals with themes covering the family, childhood, work and love, and perhaps most grandly of all, the idea of history itself. Swift tells a tale interlinked by the history of the fens of Norfolk his forebears rise to prominence through land reclamation and ale brewing, his protagonist's childhood spent living with his father and mentally ill brother, and the repercussions the events of this time come to have on his later life, when he teaches history in the fear-of-nuclear-Armageddon obsessed world of the 1980s.

Swift was shorted listed for the Booker for this novel, but lost out to J. M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K. He subsequently did win with Last Orders in 1996 though, which was made into a film with Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Michael Caine.

There's a film of Waterland too, made in 1992 and set in Pittsburgh (with flashbacks to Norfolk – phew). Reviews don't seem stunning but I would be intrigued to see if the film could in anyway capture the book's crushing sense of despair and futility that creeps along in the background, interspersed by moments of halcyon days of childhood, however fleeting they may be, before its gut-wrenching ending.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What goes up...

I can remember, when I were a lad, helping my Dad navigate endless pages of Teletext share prices at the end of the day, trying to understand what the endless rows of capitalized digits and letters actually meant. My Dad had, and still does have I believe, a canny knack (a jazz musician from the 40s, Canny Knack), of being able to spot a company whose shares were about to soar, but then he would always forget to buy them and watch forlornly as they rose in value, daily, on that digitized Teletext display page, leaving him and his fistful of pounds behind. Ah well...

I am now endevouring to follow in his footsteps (somewhat) but entering the world of stocks and shares. Buy low, sell high, greed is good, money money money, all that. Might as well yes? It's been two days. I have lost money. I am excited, it is quite fun. I suddenly feel immense loyalty to the two companies I have invested in. I hope they do more 'good' business to help their shares go 'up', rather than performing 'badly' and therefore going 'down'. Apologies if the financial language there confused you.

Teletext was a funny old service, it would always revolve around to the page you wanted after endless refreshes 8/13, 9/13, 10/13 until you were about to reach the one you wanted, before it would randomly jump to 12/13 leading to huge levels of exasperation as you had to wait for it to work its way around again. I used to leave Teletext on when big football matches were taking place, just to hope the little pixilated name would flash up Giggs, 34, or Kanchelskis, 74. A different world that.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Turning 25

Ah age, what a strange concept. Time, moving on, marking it off as random days pass. Can you really be sure it is the day you were born? In all those days are we sure someone didn't lose count and we're running a day behind or ahead?

Well, of course not, but you know, it's an interesting idea. I turned 25 the other day. A nice round number to turn, I went silver at midnight, just for a flash, then back to skin and things. I think I've done enough things for being 25, run a marathon, given a speech, written for the nationals, seen a solar eclipse, that sort of thing. But some people are millionaires by now, or have won Olympics gold medals, so I guess it's swings and roundabouts.

I was ill on the day itself, great. It was day 8 of a 10 day cold/infection that seems to be going around. It was not enjoyable. But I screwed it and had some whiskey and food and an enjoyable day was the outcome.

Mostly though I thought, in passing, not in some great deep thinking away, about where the next five years will take me. It will be almost to the day that the next election takes place, my life in fives mirroring our new coalition government. Me as the nation, like a poor, less relevant or accurate Saleem Sinai. We'll see I suppose, where it all goes, whether it's up or down, forwards or stagnation.

So, advice and tips please, what things should I do between now and 30? Serious, fun, silly, all welcome. But nothing cliched or impossible.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Brave new worlds

This morning, in the queue to vote, I got caught up in some electoral confusion as the ballot officials managed to get their numbers confused (how do those people get those jobs? any security / criminal checks? Who's in charge of dispensing the boxes? I digress...). As I stood there, watching the three of them recite a list of arbitrary numbers to one another, I said to the chap behind me, "We need that electoral reform, eh?", he nodded, said,"Yeah..." and that was that.

Elections are funny things. This was my second, but the first of much significance. I remember my Dad refusing to tell me who he voted for in the 1997 Labour landslide and I invested a lot of meaning in this, this sacred act of voting meant that even my own Dad wouldn't, or as I viewed it, couldn't, tell me who he had voted for.

Now, everyone bangs on endlessly about why you must vote Labour or Lib Dems, but just not Tories, for all kinds of reasons, in openly public arenas such as Twitter and Facebook. Yet, place people in a box, with a piece of paper and a pen(cil), and all the online posturing goes out the window. I imagine a lot of people may vote very differently from how they act/talk in public, where they are acting in an effort to keep up of appearances with, or an unwillingness to disagree with, the views and ideals their chosen social networks / friendship groups talk about and promote.

The Americans must find out one month sprint election process very odd, when set against their eight month effort which begins with primaries in various states for leadership choices within their own parities, before moving on to the epic cross country traversing they must endure between NY and San Fran.

Imagine, DC (Cameron, not Washington), might have to travel, at most, between say, Plymouth and Newcastle. Barely a stone's throw in the US. Such a small country.

Whatever happens tonight and into tomorrow, there was a definite sense today that, even if only seen through the highly distorted leftist view of Twitter, people realised today was a day that could shape all our lives for the next four or five years time. Especially for those, like me, who will be going through some (potentially) highly transformative years in our lives, as we move out of post student years, and on towards our 30s, and the ideas of mortgages, housing, children, schools, education (x3) and all the other trappings of the endless momentum of time.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

More books

Read a few books recently.

An Artist in a Floating World
by Kazuo Ishiguro. Very enjoyable and thoughtful story set in post war Japan that deals with, through a domestic setting, the way pre-war and post-war society reveres, then reviles, those who led them into the war, be that through political decisions or propagandist art. Interesting stuff and as well told as ever by Ishiguro.

The Buddist of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. A great, spiralling story of growing up in the London suburbs. Set in and around London I knew some of the locations and streets, even if it was based in the 1970s. A great mix of high realism and slightly mad story plotting combined to make a highly enjoyable, and without being pretentious, profound novel on the ways of parents, children and growing up interlink.

Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg. Melvyn Bragg has had a tragic life. His first wife killed himself and he had two breakdowns before he was 31. True. This book, 550 pages long, is that entire story of Joe (read Bragg) meeting Natasha (his wife, Lisa) and their life growing up until her death. It's sad to know that happened to a man who is so watchable on interesting shows, but it's sadder still that I just found this book so boring. So much telling and not showing. The amount of times that Natasha is described as "wonderful" and "one in a million" by other characters, without any hard proof for us, as the reader to understand this, drove me mad.

She says nothing of note, nothing funny, interesting, clever, profound, nothing.

She does write a book, but we see nothing of this process, we are just told that she begins it, then finishes it. It is published and reviewed favourably. Talented, clearly, but so in your face with the fact that "this is what happened, take my word for it", that I found it tiresome to be given no chance to see anything, but instead be force fed the story.