Monday, 30 May 2011

The Griftpark, Utrecht

Utrecht is famous for a half-finished Cathedral and a very old university. Nobel prize-winner Gerard t'Hooft works there. It also has a fine example of what the Dutch can do with a poisoned industrial site when they decide to get serious. It's called the Griftpark.

Okay, the Good Burghers of Utrecht did not put the street art there, but someone did and it's not half bad. There were at least two groups of people - okay, attractive young women - exercising that evening, look closely at the second photograph up and you will get the general idea if not many details.

There's also a restaurant, Griftpark 1, which I really should have taken some food snaps from. If you're in Utrecht for the evening, go eat there, especially in summer. You will be pleased you did.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Gumball 3000

On my way into work yesterday I passed through the Covent Garden Paizza. And saw, well, this...

It was the pre-start show for the Gumball 3000 rally. The other day our managers did a thing called a "Mood Survey" to see how we felt about a) the day ahead when we arrived at work, b) the day we'd had when we left work, c) the future. We weren't too sure about the future, but the present got quite high marks. When they asked, I said that one reason I had voted NO to the future was the upcoming office move. It was a quality-of-life thing, I said. Because they don't hold pre-start shows for the Gumball Rally in the City.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Desert Island Discs: 1980's to Now

I have to tiptoe round the 80's. There was so much good music, a lot of which can be dated to within a couple of months. Who now remembers any of those British Jazz-Funk acts, every band given the Trevor Horn touch of magic, everyone who ever fronted for Stock, Aiken and Waterman, or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis? And how quickly it was trampled on by the behemoth that was dance music? Hand Held In Black and White is the last record that reminds me of how I could feel a sense of possibility in a gust of wind, in the sun reflecting from a window, in the sight of a pretty girl.

After that, my world started to close in, slowly so that I didn't really notice it. The gap between the upbeat, club-oriented music I was listening to and the increasingly withdrawn life I was leading became greater and greater. I had terrible insomnia for two years in the mid-Eighties, changed jobs and choose my first property not wisely and, unknown to me, was heading for a fall. But the music was so bright and shiny.

The Fall was alcoholism. While everyone else was having the Second Sumer of Love, my liking of a tipple turned into an actual problem. I spent six years as a practising alcoholic, with a ghastly dry drunk in the summer of 1991, when I was crazier than when I was under the influence. I called AA one grey, damp October morning 1993, after I had been unemployed for fifteen months. A couple of years later, I heard Not An Addict on MTV and it knocked me out.

"It's over now, I'm cold, alone / I'm just a person on my own / Nothing means a thing to me / Oh, nothing means a thing to me". Underneath all my appearance of normal living, that is still how I feel. As for Fast Love, George Michael's hymn to casual sex and the sexiest video you will ever see, and that includes anything with Shakira in it.

Most of the recent music I like - from chillwave and progressive house to The Script - has a little touch of jazz, or blues or 80's soul. You might not think Bach has anything to do with blues or jazz, but you would be wrong. His compositions have the same sense of being snapshots of a endless flow of music that Coltrane's records do: a record of a constantly evolving flow of thoughts about melody, harmony and rhythm.

The record companies had a notorious cull of their catalogues and artists in the late 1980's - there's a line in a Missy Elliott track "since Elektra dropped Miss Anita Baker". But CD's, PC's and the internet allowed the musicians came back with a vengeance. There's so much music around today, and a lot of it is excellent. Fire up your iTunes and look at the radio.

Somewhere, a young man is walking down the road at three in the morning after a late-night session with friends. She was there, they exchanged a kiss in the kitchen. It's warm and the air smells of early summer. He doesn't have to be in college until eleven that morning. And this is playing on his phone's media player...

Monday, 23 May 2011

Desert Island Discs: 1960's - 1970's

Somewhere in the late 1960's, a young man is leaning out of his bedroom window. He's been reading, perhaps Dostoyevsky or Robert Heinlein. It's late, and the warm wind is blowing through the trees. He can hear each leaf rustle against the other. He might be anywhere but in the London suburbs, and in his heart he is. Anywhere but here, with this soundtrack...

I've been through at least four collections of music. The first two on black vinyl, the third on cassette, and the current one on CD. There is so much to choose from, I may as well pick from my favourites at random. Summer In The City brings back a memory of walking along St Martin's Lane at the age of twelve, Mustang Sally of swimming at Plumstead Baths and Sugar Sugar of slot car racing at the Richmond Vineyard.

In the summer of 1971 I was interning at the Isle of Grain Power Station as part of my OND in Electrical Engineering. Top of The Pops was Thursday Night Compulsory, and the men there used to greet Pan's People with remarks like "I've seen better in Rochdale" and made remarks about Curtis Mayfield that can't be repeated in these PC times. On came Carole King. I knew what she was going to sing and inwardly shuddered at what these men might say. To my utter surprise, they fell silent at a song that talks about the end of a relationship - perhaps they knew about "staying in bed all morning just to pass the time".

This next song was Hall and Oates' calling card. Wow. What can you do with lines like these: "think I'll spend eternity in the city / let the carbon and monoxide choke my thoughts away / and pretty bodies help dissolve the memories / but they can never be / what she was to me"? It's linked with the memory of a hot chestnut stand on Tottenham Court Road in the winter of 1974.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Blog's Second Anniversary

This blog has now been going for two years, mostly three entries a week. According to Google Stats, since July 2010, when Stats became available, I have had 1,800 page views - which is exactly 1,800 more than I either thought I would get or intended to get. The most popular are about various recruitment scams - followed by a post about my holiday in the Algarve.

For almost all of that time I've maintained an output of three posts a week, most of them fairly lengthy thought-pieces. I haven't had the urge to change the name of the blog, or my profile, or its look, since I settled on the current look. It started as a place to rant about work, and I still do that, but it's developed. It's still about my life, and my life is mostly about what I'm reading and thinking.

It's nice that somebody has read something I've written, but it's not essential. So what if no-one reads me or you? Almost nobody reads almost everybody: there's a reason an editor can name all the top-selling writers in their field. At any time there will be only a few hundred people who can make a living from the speculative creation of art-works. George V Higgins remarked in his classic On Writing that statistically you have a better chance of being a Congressman than a fiction writer who makes a living from their craft.

The point is that the we write. As if we were being read. We practice a craft, we observe its disciplines. We produce, and courtesy of the Internet, we can publish. That makes us writers. Sales make us successful writers - or not. An un-successful writer is still a writer, they're just not going to get laid on the strength of it.

Keeping up three posts a week isn't as easy as it sounds, even with practice. I draft the text in Evernote whenever I get an idea and then edit and polish it on the Sunday before publication. Thanks to the way Blogger lets you specify a date when you want to publish and then does it for you, I usually stack three posts up on a Sunday for the coming week. So I don't have to worry that "I haven't posted today". If I really have run out of ideas, that's when I post some photographs in the Things I Saw Where I Lived and Walked series or put up a favourite piece of music from You Tube.

So another year of blogging beckons. I know that in it, we will be moving offices from heavenly West End to the Liverpool Street Industrial Estate, and very probably experiencing the first re-organisation and redundancies for just over two years. I will have to decide to renew my annual membership at the Third Space. I intend to get the front garden re-built and go on at least one more week-long foreign trip to the country. Then there's work, the gym, movies and occasionally just plain dossing around. I have no idea if I'll ever get into another relationship again, let alone this year.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

What I Read and What's Missing

Nicholas Nassem Taleb, author of The Black Swan, does not read newspapers. Rightly he considers that most of them are full of junk press releases and what amounts, especially to a someone who used to be a trader, to very old news. I have finally reached the stage where I think that reading newspapers and even listening to the news on the radio leaves me feeling less informed than before I started. I don't even read the Sunday papers, the FT Weekend or The Economist - not since I realised they were being written about a parallel universe.

When I was a teenager, I read Motoring News for the reports of Grand Prix races - no multi-billion dollar Formula One TV coverage in those days - Model Cars and Model Car and Track both about slot car racing (yes really), and for a while I read Melody Maker until the NME became the only music paper anyone needed to read. The Financial Times was irrelevant and Private Eye was incomprehensible. (Try making sense of Le Canard Enchaine and you'll get the feeling.)

Now I read Private Eye and Art Monthly regularly and Vanity Fair, Tatler or Esquire or some other such life-style magazine every now and then. Put Kate Moss on the cover and I'm going to buy it. On some kind of whim, I've just taken out a subscription to the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, which at £39 including membership of the BSPS itself, is a pretty good deal. If you're into the philosophy of science. I gave up on Sight and Sound a long time ago: if I read any movie magazine at all, it's Little White Lies, the house magazine of the Curzon Cinemas. I don't read book reviews, I prefer to browse, and I can do that because my local bookshops are Foyles and Blackwells. Every now and then I sample a music magazine, but mostly I rely on Last FM or Amazon reviews to point me in an interesting direction. If I hear about a band, I'll look them up on You Tube first, then I might buy the CD or download. If I really need a movie review, I'll read Roger Ebert. There's a reason he's a millionaire. I buy 'zines to cover the fringe stuff, and I can do that because I have the newsagents of Soho on my doorstep.

It's all interesting but like the mainstream media, but it's the sparkle on the waves. It's not the currents and it's not the tides. The rubbish on the streets of Naples, to take a current story, isn't about trash bags not being collected, it's about the grip of the Camorra on the government of Campania. That story doesn't get covered, but Berlusconi's posturings do. On the other hand that story has been running for decades. The mainstream media doesn't describe the currents and tides that make the stories break on our beaches. Recent historians prefer froth to trend as well: the shelves are currently groaning under the weight of books about Britain in the twentieth century, each volume covering a decade in hundreds of pages of detail that make less sense that a Jackson Pollock.

The tides and currents are made by demographics, criminal organisations, industry and legislation, not by culture and certainly not by party political maeouverings. Businesses have a strong interest in keeping what they are doing quiet: if I was a doing to the British economy what a modern CEO does every month, I would hide behind commercial confidentiality and a harum of hard-faced blonde PR's too. I don't have the time or resources to investigate it. I don't know who is supposed to be: not journalists and judging by what gets circulated by The Bank's Economics department, not the research departments of large companies either. I don't know where you find the serious stuff. I have a suspicion that it isn't on the Internet and it costs fairly serious money. Actually I have a suspicion that it doesn't actually exist.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Junk Press Releases - and What GDP Is and Isn't

There's a thing called churnalism, and even a website that lets you see if a story is just churned, that consists of re-cyclying press releases and passing the result off as news. Almost everything you read about The Bank is churnalism - and what we the staff get to read is even less informative than the press releases. I don't know who does The Bank's PR, but she could get a job with Max Clifford keeping stuff hidden anytime. Anyway, on the Saturday after the Royal Wedding, the final straw just landed on my back.

The story was in the Daily Mail (it was on the table where I had breakfast) and was from an alleged professional services firm called RSM Tenon, to the effect that the two long weekends in April will cost the UK economy up to £6bn in GDP and up to £30bn in "lost productivity" - whatever that is (and it's a number so large it can only be related to turnover, not value-added or profits).

Which just proves that Messers Tenon and the others have no idea what GDP is. It's measured in two ways: expenditure and revenue. The two should balance - though not in a given period - and systematic differences are often taken as a measure of the size of the black economy if revenue is less than expenditure (and presumably cash flight if expenditure is less than revenue plus change in savings). The three components of revenue GDP are wages and salaries, corporate profits and a small fiddle-factor, excuse me, adjustment for notional incomes. When there's a public holiday, all full-time workers get paid anyway. Temps don't, but a lot of them are doing jobs that need doing on public holidays and carry on, so it's only those who are doing jobs that can be suspended for a day that miss a day's billing. But that money goes into the company's profits, so it has a net effect of zero. As for corporate profits, way more businesses are open for trading than you might imagine: what closes are their head and back offices, and that makes no difference to anything. The production is mostly offshored to places where the workers don't get days off for Royal Weddings, so that doesn't stop. As for the effect on sales, well, if you need to replace your washing machine (this is not autobiographical) you need to replace it and all that happens is that you order it on Tuesday 3rd May instead of Friday 29th April. It's deferred, not abandoned. This doesn't even effect GDP figures for the quarter, because both days are in the quarter. It all nets out at about zero.

This is basic first-year undergraduate economics (or if it isn't, it should be). A Business Editor should know it, just as they should know that any "story" about the "costs / benefits to industry" from the CBI or the NIESR is utter propaganda. (People don't get happier when they start earning more than the median salary (NIESR), and low-wage immigrants have contributed 0.5% of GDP over about four years (NIESR)? Well. Gee, who would have guessed the employer's tame "economists" would put out stories like that?) Twaddle like that should not be published. I am not going to speculate on the motives of an editor who puts trash like that on their pages.

That's it, I think. No more British newspapers. No more Today programme. As for the rest of the BBC - no. I'm not sure what I will use or read, but I will be giving it some thought.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Original Muscle Car - Ford Mustang 289

I was visiting the lads under the bridge in Richmond one Wednesday evening recently (that's code for the Richmond Men's Meeting) and so had to play the game of Find-The-Last-Parking-Space-By-The-River. I found one, and I found this just across the road from where I parked.

I think it's the first model, and the badge said it was a 289, which translates to a hefty 4.7 litres. No more need be said.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Pembroke Power Station - A Memory of Summer

Back in 19... never you mind, I spent six weeks on the construction site of Pembroke Power Station in Welsh Wales. It was on the south bank of the river River Cleddau, not far outside the town of Pembroke. It was a 2000MW oil-fired unit, with 4x500MW steam turbines, and a separate 40MW (I think) gas turnbine - aka jet engine! - unit to handle peak demand. When I was there, the first turbine was almost commissioned, while the fourth was still being constructed, so every stage of the installation and construction process was visible. I was a summer employee (no "internships" then - I was actually paid: £15 a week plus board, I believe) with the Southern Project Group (SPG), which was part of the then CEGB responsible for building power stations and the like. It was all good relevant stuff for a teenage boy doing an OND in Engineering.

During the day I would climb and crawl over open-grid flooring, accompanying one of the SPG engineers as they tested the installation of various bits of kit, armed with a device called a Megger that tested for electrical continuity and I suspect insulation leaks as well. The details are fuzzy now. Each level was referred to by its height about sea level. The highest was something like the 143 - and when you looked through the open-grid flooring, it was a long way down to the concrete floor.

I stayed in the Labour Camp, as it was known, with the luxury of my own room with sink, when the personnel officer moved me to what amounted to the officer's quarters. In the evenings I would go for walks round the country lanes, just to tire myself out, and on Saturdays I went into Tenby, more than once walking all the way. It's about two hours or so, but through some very pleasant countryside, and more than once someone would stop and give me a lift. Those were different times. I'm not sure I walked back though - I think I took a bus to Pembroke. One afternoon, an engineer decided we should walk up the chimney - there was a circular ladder running inside the four chimney pipes inside the concrete shell. It took us about an hour or so - it was eight hundred feet - and the view from the top was utterly spectacular. It felt like you could see over the horizon.

For no reason, I looked it up recently. A new one is being built on the same site. The old one was taken out of service in 1997. I have lived through the life of a power station.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Maria Pages Dunas

Where else would you see sand drawings following each other with astonishing fluency, a couple struggling to make contact through thin drapery, a woman with the most beautiful arms (yes, really) in the world clacking castanets with astonishing virtuosity and dancing to music ranging from european jazz / new age piano to straight flamenco guitar and Arab percussion and singing that went from flamenco to pure arabian.

The arms give it away. It has to be Maria Pages. I caught Dunas at Sadlers' Wells on Friday, and was entranced, amazed and reminded that Ms Pages is one of the sexiest women alive. Oh and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui can dance a fight between two of his shadows.  Luke Jennings' review in the Guardian is a neat description. He's missing the point when he says that Ms Pages doesn't seem to change her style to match the settings and work of Sidi Cherkaoui: she doesn't need to. Some artists don't, not many, but she is one of them. Miles didn't change much in his playing against the changing music his sidemen made either. I can tell you, the audience I saw it with were entranced.

I'm off to see the Dutch National Ballet next Friday. I'm sure they will be wonderful, but they won't be magic and they won't weave everything Pages and Cherkaoui did so seamlessly and entrancingly.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Holiday In The Algarve (5): Trains at the Praia de Barril

Portugal isn't really very wide. About two and a half hours flat out on the N125 and A22 from the west coast to the Spanish border. I took the scenic route through endless acres of orange, lemon and olive trees from Silves across to the N270 to Tavira, where I joined the N125 and turned left to the praia de Barril. The beach is across the marshlands on an island: you can walk across or you can take the train.

You have to walk across this pontoon-supported bridge to get from the mainland (you're looking at the mainland) to the train station...

Once there you can either walk or wait for the train - take the train. And click on the photograph to get the exquisite detail of those rails...

The locomotive is a little diesel dressed up to look cute...
But there's two of them, and the line has a passing loop  (which makes it an official Proper Railway)...

 ... those points don't have any levers, you just drive your train at 'em and bump 'm over to where they need to be. This trip does not happen at high speed.
 Once at the other end, everyone jumps off pretty quick and return passengers board.

While the surfer-shop guys unload the freight. You don't want to know how little strapping they used to hold those surfboards.

It's a neat little bit of entertainment for €5 the round trip, and that walk will feel way more than a kilometre when you do it under the hot midday sun.

When visiting the praia de Barril, eat first. The restaurants are ghastly. By British standards they're ghastly. I have no idea who designed the shops on the beach, but they weren't Portuguese.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Holiday In The Algarve (4): The Perfect Saturday Afternoon Beach

So after the praia de Barril, I went down the coast to Fuzeta, on the basis of Just Because. And a good thing too, because there I came across Perfect Beach Type 2. It's small...

 It's located in a small town that still has its own life... this case, fishing.

 It has a couple of huts serving beer or coffee...
And on Saturday afternoon it has the chirrupy sound of people enjoying themselves.

These guys playing bowls...

 or these guys shooting the breeze about whatever it was. Local politics or business, maybe.

I'm guessing that most of those people knew each other by sight, a whole bunch had been to school together, and maybe any one of them knew the names or identities of at least another ten. It was like everybody knew everybody else knew how to behave and what they'd be doing, so no-one was surprised or upset. There's an age-related cycle of activities: in your early teens you jump off the wall into the river; later on you sit around looking cool and pretty, spinning out a Coke or an orange juice for two hours; then you hang out at one of the bars, being edgy and serious, before calming down, moving to another bar, and talking about football. Finally, you play boules or talking town politics.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Holiday In The Algarve (3): The Wild and Secluded Beach

This is a beach on the Atlantic coast of the Algarve. That's all I'm going to tell you about it. It's mine, mine, I tell you. It's my secret, my precious beach, yes, my precioussssss...
Okay. I'm calming down now. What makes a perfect beach? I discovered there are two types of perfect beach. This is type one: wild and secluded. Serious waves, pristine sand, a couple of pieces of driftwood, rocks to create sculptural interest...
a good cafe / restaurant, a long walk with the waves occasionally splashing up my legs, not many people, and did I mention clear blue skies, the silvery light on the water....
About a third of the beaches on the Atlantic coast can only be reached by dirt path through coastland like this...
Those beaches are for hard-code surfers and privacy-seekers. Plus they don't have restaurants or cafes. Never mind having one as good as this...
Don't let the appearences fool you. The Sunday I was there, they had a party of ten middle-class bikers for lunch at 2:00 pm. When I popped back for afternoon cafe com leche and cake, the bikers were suiting up to go. This is the octopus salad I had...
and I ate it looking out at seas like this...

(I've loaded the full-size file - it's worth clicking on the link and taking a look at the big picture.)