Sunday, 25 October 2009

Autumnal Nunhead

A lovely sunny Autumn day, so I went for a wander. . .

. . . the leaves have just begun to turn, and the trees are a blaze of variegated greens, yellows and reds.

I was somehow taken by these red berries against the green rubbish bin (!)

Near the junction of Nunhead Lane and Consort Rd there is this magnificent bay tree (? or so I'm told it is):-

On the corner, and along towards the green, it still seems quite summer-y. . .

I was also quite taken by this tree leaning (not, as it appears from this angle, against a house) on Scylla Rd.

Nunhead seems to be slowly losing pubs. In the last few years several have closed and the other week there was a for sale sign outside the Old Nun's Head. The Rye Hotel gastropub, however, was very busy today. Parked outside the pub were a whole bunch of classic motorbikes and sports cars. And chaps in flat caps chortling to each other.

Below are images of the view across the North end of the Rye from outside.
I didn't feel comfortable taking a photograph while they were all standing around, so I waited until some of the bikers set off...
. . . and then back to the autumnal trees. . .

Poem of the Week

The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse

To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complayne I, for ye be my lady dere!
I am so sory, now that ye been lyght;
For certes, but ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be layd upon my bere;
For which unto your mercy thus I crye:
Beth hevy ageyn, or elles mot I dye!

Now voucheth sauf this day, or yt be nyght,
That I of yow the blisful soun may here,
Or see your colour lyk the sonne bryght,
That of yelownesse hadde never pere.
Ye be my lyf, ye be myn hertes stere,
Quene of comfort and of good companye:
Beth hevy ageyn, or elles moote I dye!

Now purse, that ben to me my lyves lyght
And saveour, as doun in this world here,
Out of this toune helpe me thurgh your myght,
Syn that ye wole nat ben my tresorere;
For I am shave as nye as any frere.
But yet I pray unto your curtesye:
Beth hevy agen, or elles moote I dye!

Lenvoy de Chaucer
O conquerour of Brutes Albyon,
Which that by lyne and free eleccion
Been verray kyng, this song to yow I sende;
And ye, that mowen alle oure harmes amende,
Have mynde upon my supplicacion!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Small and Perfectly Formed

During the week we went to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe. This must be one of the very smallest Museums in London. Set in the building that used to house the steam engine that pumped water from the foot tunnel that Marc Brunel and his son - Isambard Kingdom - dug under the Thames between 1825 and 1843.

This was the first tunnel successfully bored under a navigable river, and was a wonder of the age.

The Wikipedia article on the Tunnel is quite comprehensive. The tunnel never did service the horse traffice it was intended for - the ramps at either end were never built. Foot traffic reached the tunnel through vertical shafts (you can just see the top of one painted blue to the far left of the picture above). The tunnel is till used to carry the East London Line of the tube network under the river. It is thus, as a panel in the Museum says, 'The oldest section of tunnel on the oldest underground railway in the World'.

What Wikipedia doesn't tell you is how small the Brunel Museum is. An upper floor has some lively panels explaining the tunnel project and what happened in the end, with a few objects (eg a note book, some engineering drawings). Below this is a small multimedia area (about 15 seats, a telly and a dvd player), and schools/children's activity space. A mezzanine level houses the entrance, gift shop and cafe in a space about ten yards by eight.

As for staff, he was sitting outside having a fag when we arrived. He meeted and greeted us, sold us tickets, told us the best away around the place so we didn't get confused, started the multimedia display up when we said we were interested in the film, and offered us merchandise from the gift shop. He didn't seem busy - in the 60 minutes we spent on the visit we were the only people there.

(And for the record, its Web site consists of just one page)

And yet it was really very intersting, and was a good visit. Being just on one subject, and with just one gallery, and a small one, you end up paying really close attention to everything there is. You focus, and miss nothing. The displays and panels are very good, and the story the Museum tells is extremely interesting (at least I thought so) - and a World first.

There is a planned development which would make use of the shaft down to the Tunnel for further displays and so forth, but they are still fundraising. I also gather that every so often (once a year?), pre-booked visitors can go down the shaft and explore the Tunnel (the trains are switched off on those days!)

So go, but, please, not all at once.

All around the Museum the street names reflect the tunnel and the Brunels, and it is set in an area of historic Rotherhithe.

The Mayflower pub is built close to the landing steps from which the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America, and is a well-known old pub with terrific views over the river from its own jetty. I haven't had a pint there in years, but have very fond memories...
There has been a lot of gentrification around about here, with wharves and warehouses converted to house yuppy flats and 'creative' industries, but although it feels a bit twee it hasn't been badly done.
This tiny little area is very close to the Rotherhithe (road) tunnel - which is horrible. But the chief attraction for those who live there is, I guess, its nearness to the centre.
Finally, we stepped out briefly and surveyed the river under which Brunel's tunnel still travels. 1200 feet wide at this point, it very hard to grasp what runs underneath...

Spain Tour 8: On Cowardice

Next we headed out to Fuente De. Climbing the road into the valley (about a kilometre above Potes). A cold, airless morning. We knew that at the top of the valley there was a fairly high mountain, but there was a cable car up it. We would ride that, if there was space. However. It. Looked. Like. This.
Right at the top of that picture, a long way away and very high up, you can just make out the top end of the cable. Even when they were closer they looked unnerving. There were lots of spaces. We put it to the vote. Three out of four said No.

So we stayed on the ground and looked at some relics of earlier cable cars.

And then we crept away and went home.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

On Continuity

Memory is notoriously untrustworthy and fragile. Be that as it may, I do trust to a strange rememberance of a time when Andy Crook acted as a sort of sensitive cultural pilot. Although it seems odd now, I distincly recall that he was the person who lent me the first of the Discworld novels, when it first came out, and who got us all sitting around the radio in college one evening in 1978 to listen to the first ever broadcast episode of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

And now in the space of a few days we have Radio 4 broadcasting Eoin Colfer's authorised sequel to Hitchhiker and a brand new Discworld novel. I really need Andy to tell me what to think about them, but as he isn't here right now (he's in SW London), here goes...

Unseen Academicals - 37th in the Discworld series. Its about football and the wizards. It is pretty good. Somehow, it reminds me of Monstrous Regiment (perhps because when Pterry writes about the working classes and violence there is a certain similarity?). I'm not going to talk about plot, character or jokes. If you are interested you will have already read it - or be about to. So in either case I'd be doing a disservice. But there is one other area where it reads as typical Pratchett. He has never been that interested in the detailed consistency of the series from book to book. In fact I always thought the whole point of Thief of Time was to allow him to do pretty much as he wanted in that regard, without the fans getting niggled.

And yet. In this book, football is reinvented, and indeed a new, air-filled ball is introduced. The game is made more civilised. All fine, except that it seems to ignore the byplay around Captain Carrot and his inflated pig's bladder in Jingo. The Captain Carrot who doesn't appear in the latest book at all, because of course he would be the ideal referee, and the main plot just wouldn't quite work. Now it is clear that Pratchett knows and understands this discontinuity and just doesn't want to let it get in the way of his story. Fair enough - its his universe, after all. It's just that this time I felt the gap a little bit more clearly...

Anyway, on to And Another Thing. The next bit of HHGTTG. Part six of three. I haven't bought the book (yet - I probably will for completeness), and I admire Colfer (Artemis Fowl, The Wish List, etc). But first and foremost Hitchhiker was a radio series, and that is the form where it worked best, so when Radio 4 announced that they would broadcast it as Book at Bedtime I decided I just had to listen to it first.

A big mistake. A huge mistake.

Because it was Book at Bedtime. A solitary voice reading a condensed version of the book. Dull. No Peter Jones (or Stephen Fry). No music. No BBC Radiophonic Workshop. No Simon Jones. Nothing. I suspect that if in my mind Hitchhiker wasn't actually all of those things, and more, it would have been OK. But it is. So it wasn't.

I just couldn't listen to it and had to switch it off.

There was no continuity with the past, no sense that this followed on from the earlier stuff; it just fell depressingly flat. Either it is just me, or the BBC got this one horribly wrong. Once upon a time, I feel sure, Andy Crook would have warned me.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Silly Billies

The Guardian is doing rather too much of this recently.
Taking a press release or some other spurious commercial message and turning it into pseudo-journalism. Using it to pad out a column, or create a semi-news story at best. I've written before about the annoyance caused by Stephen Fry and his obsession with all things Apple. Now (or rather a few days ago) we have Lucy Mangan banging on about Ikea Billy Bookcases.

Let's see if we can understand what happened. Ikea decide to do a bit of a publicity thing about the fact that their basic, unstylish bookcase (Billy) product range is thirty years old. As a further hook they set up a competition for people to send in their favourite Billy-related photos and hacks.


There really appears to be something called Ikeafans ('Personalising the Ikea experience'). See Whether it is a real group or a marketing gimmick I don't know, but go to the site and you can see photos of some American's glass-fronted Billy shelving that houses her stylish collection of designer handbags. You can also read the exciting story of someone who vacuumed a spider up from behind their Billy. Riveting.

Anyway, Ikea get out this publicity meme, which then promptly infects Guardian writer Lucy Mangan. She manages to eke out an otherwise wafer-thin column by going on at length about her own Billy bookcases. She manages to announce that she has 21, and specifies which size she likes best and... Oh give me strength.

Let us set the record straight:
(1) This is not journalism. It may not even be proper writing.
(2) What it is, is very annoying.
(3) The Billy is far from being the best Ikea bookcase or shelving system. For me that would be Ivar (if you have to buy Ikea). Far superior.
(4) Yes, we have one Billy. I doubt we will be buying any more.
(5) You wouldn't get that much shelving from 21 Billies. Certainly not enough for a decent collection of reading material (the Ivar now, you can also use for double stacking, another point in its favour).
(6) It is illegal in this country to write about Ikea in a national newspaper without mentioning the horrible carparking and stupid checkout arrangements (the Guardian by convention is also obliged to speculate on the stories claiming a link with the Nazis). It is a simple exercise to show that in order to purchase 21 Billies Lucy Mangan has allowed Ikea to remove a subjective seven months from her conscious life.

And finally. There is one great woman writer (ie one great writer) still with the Guardian, for whom twee and wittering are allowed in small measures. Clearly, that is Nancy Banks-Smith. Mangan still has quite a lot to learn....

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Spain Tour 7: Up at the Monastery

High above the campsite sat the monastery of of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Famous for its major relic- the largest remaining piece of the true cross - and its associations with Saint Beatus of Liebana.
From Wikipedia:

According to tradition, this relic is that part of the True Cross that Saint Helena of Constantinople left in Jerusalem. From there, Saint Turibius of Astorga, Custodian of the Holy Places, took it to the Spanish city of Astorga. When the Moors invaded Spain in 711, the relic was hidden along with others in a fold on Mount Viorna in the Liebana Valley, next to St. Turibius' relics. Both relics were eventually transferred to the monastery that became immediately an important place to be visited by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Documents dated 1507 state that, "since time immemorial" the Jubilee is celebrated every time the saint's feast-day falls on a Sunday.

Fr Sandoval, chronicler of the Benedictine order, this relic is the "left arm of the Holy Cross. It was sawed and assembled post-mode Cruz, leaving intact the hole was nailed down the hand of Christ". The vertical bar is 635 millimetres (25.0 in) long and the crossbar is 393 millimetres (15.5 in) long. The cross has a thickness of 38 millimetres (1.5 in)[1]. It is the largest preserved relic of the True Cross.

The Wood was embedded in a Gothic silver gilted cross, manufactured by a workshop of Valladolid in 1679. It lies in housing of golden wood in a baroque, domed, early 18th century chapel in the north wall of the church, looked over by an effigy of the chapel's founder, Francisco Gómez de Otero y Cossío (1640-1714), inquisitor of Madrid and archbishop of Santa Fé de Bogotá, who was born locally.

We went inside and could just see the window in the gothic cross, but I for one could not make out any wood.I found the stories around Saint Beatus (c.730-800) in some ways more interesting and accessible. A monk, theologian and polemicist from around the Picos area. He is not that famous today but his Commentary on the Apocalypse was hugely influential at one time (often referred to just as a 'Beatus'). He took part in the religious disputes of his day, and arguably his writing helped to inspire the early Asturian movements that eventually resulted in the expulsion of the Moors from Spain and its re-establishment as a Christian kingdom. The Wikipedia article is helpful - see here - but the whole story is a complex one, and the details are fascinating. The books about Spain I decried in On Holiday Reading are, to be honest, quite helpful in this regard.

The monastery itself seems set up for far more visitors than we saw. There is a huge car park, and multiple bench seating for a (rather weak) video show. Presumably it is inundated on special feast or holy days, or whenever the Cross is brought out on show.

We spent very little time on the monastery, however. There is a very nice cloister, with a series of images from Beatus's Apocalypse, which is cool and restful, and the church associated with the monastery is worth popping into for a look (and a squint at the relics), but we were more interested in the walks around about.

Scattered across the hillside around the monastery there used to be a series of hermitages - tiny dwellings where hermits would be found - now marked by small chapels and other commemorative buildings. Walking up the paths into the hills to look at these, we came across some quite astonishing views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

The photograph above doesn't really do justice to the glaringly white patch of snow we spotted in the arms of the distant mountain range.

Nor does this next one really give a sense of how high up we felt we were.

These next few give a sense of one or two of the small chapels commemorating the hermits. At night they are lit up and look quite exotic and surprising from below.

And we were surrounded by butterflies...