On sciuriology, pyrology and onycology

This is becoming something of a habit, I fear.  Once again, I appear to have been a purveyor of fake news.  In the last post, I plied you with false information about a species of squirrel that I imagined to have been a red squirrel.  I therefore issue an unequivocal apology for such a figment of my imagination and displaying my zoological ignorance in semi-public.  Notwithstanding the bright splash of what looked to me like red fur, I should have known and do know now that among other things, the ears were the wrong shape and the fur of the red squirrel is not just tinged red but is truly red.  This rectification comes as a result of an email — two, in fact — from one Mrs. J. R.  

J, in addition to her many organisational talents, is also an avid amateur sciuriologist, and she spends far more time walking the hills and dales of Britain and other countries than I have ever done and as a consequence has therefore had many more opportunities to observe these bushy-tailed rodents than I have.  J has now accepted my expression of deep regret over the display of cluelessness with the comment that “I remember red squirrels from my childhood and they were proper red!!”  And I add that she should  really know what “proper red” is!

Nevertheless, I might also add that much as I like to photograph these small mammals and think they’re quite cute, I’ve never quite been able to reconcile how people find them so endearing while their cousins, the rats,  are regarded with such opprobrium.  There must be a stink in the tail!  Is that what they say?

Now, apologies and confessions over, down to the last week’s business.

On Thursday, I met up with Roger, who, over the past four years, has been a regular photo companion.  We select an area of the city in which we then spend a few hours with  our cameras taking photographs and chatting about the state of the world and other such weighty matters.  On occasion, we even talk about photography and families.  Sometimes, we choose well and are excited about what we see; on other occasions, we are a little disappointed with what our choice offers us in terms of photographic material.

This time around, I suggested that few have a look at the great shame of Britain 2017, i.e., Grenfell Tower in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  This was a rather ugly 24-storey concrete, primarily residential, tower block in North Kensington built in the mid-1970s.  Originally, the top 20 floors contained 120 flats with the bottom four storeys non-residential.  A refurbishment in 2015–2016 converted two of these to residential use and the building also received new windows as well as new cladding with thermal insulation.

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 07.48.39

Grenfell Tower, before the fire

However, a disastrous fire broke out on the night of 14 June 2017, apparently started by an electrical fire caused by a faulty refrigerator in a flat on the 4th floor.  Moreover, it turned out that the cladding was faulty; the fire spread rapidly, too swiftly for many of the people in the upper floors to escape and as a result,  according to the Metropolitan Police, at least 80 people were confirmed or presumed dead.  The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea are the landlords of the building — it was Council housing — and, it seems, the bureaucrats and elected officials in charge had been negligent in so many ways. (Complaints from residents over the years about problems with the building had, at best, only been partially dealt with.)  In 2017, this is something that should never have happened. 

We had agreed to meet at Ladbroke Grove Underground Station in mid-morning.  In the event, I hadn’t looked at the last email from the evening prior and I continued on to the next station, Latimer Road, which is actually closer to the building.  Alighting from the train, I looked around to see if there was anything to see — and there it was, right in front of me.  Now, I remember watching the reports on the progress of the fire as it unfolded on that day two and a half months ago and remember being utterly horrified by the images that had appeared on TV and in the papers in the days following.  

However familiar I was with these images, nothing really prepared me for the three-dimensionality of what I saw perhaps 200m from me when I got off the train.  The blackness of the charred ruin that stood in front of me, gaping holes where windows had once been.  The utter desolation, especially of the upper storeys of the building was absolutely shocking.  The thought that prior to the fire this is where over 120 families had once lived was simply numbing. 

Grenfell First View

Grenfell (2)

Grenfell (devastation)

Having surveyed the scene, I got on the next train and rode one station back to Ladbroke Grove where we met up.  Walking along Lancaster Road back to the charred remains of the tower building, Roger’s face said it all, a repeat of similar emotions that I had had a few minutes earlier.  And as we walked around, looking at the building from various angles, and looking at the low rise Council houses in the area, we wondered about the emotions of the people living there, people who had physically been untouched by the fire but who, at the same time, much have been emotionally scarred by it, and scared by it, too.

The contrast between the burnt out remains and the placidness of the Notting Hill Methodist Church couldn’t have been greater.  

Grenfell Tower & Methodist Church (Roger)

Grenfell Tower and the spire of Notting Hill Methodist Church. (Photo: Roger Lee)

However, a closer look at the church and its surrounds illustrated the extent to which it was involved in aftermath of the disaster.  The area is festooned with yellow ribbons for the missing whose remains will probably never be identified; the pathetic notices pinned to the doors and railings asking for information about the missing.  And this, already two and half months after the this terrible accident.

Methodist Church

Grenfell (Where are they?)

We left Grenfell Tower not exactly feeling great but as we had planned to walk a cross-section of Kensington, we set off in a somewhat sombre mood.

Later in the day, Roger emailed me: ” I feel that Grenfell Tower should be left as is to prevent any amnesia and to offer a statement of the rottenness that is the UK right now.” I’m inclined to agree.  However, I did read somewhere that demolition of the tower is scheduled to start towards the end of 2018, so I suppose that others have different ideas about what should be done.  I suppose that the reports will inevitably be written and one would hope that they will also be read.  But will they be acted upon?  And will those who are responsible—directly and indirectly—own up or be forced to own up and be punished for their negligence.  Time only, will tell, I guess.

Grenfell (B&W)

I suppose, however, that one needs to put everything in perspective.  This is Britain in the 21st century; it’s not a war zone.  It’s one tower block and it happened over a single  day and the story is of an event of great suffering, one that should never have happened.  But it’s not Aleppo, Homs, Daraa, Hama, Damascus, cities in which vast sections have been totally destroyed, hundreds of thousands have lost their lives and millions have been made homeless and become refugees over a period of more than six years.  There’s disaster and there’s disaster.  There are many degrees of evil.  Notwithstanding the apparent negligence in Kensington and Chelsea, it’s not the true evil of either the Assad regime in Syria or ISIS.

However, that does not really detract from this calamity, which occurred in a part of London that houses some of the wealthiest people and has some of the most expensive properties in the country.  The proximity of the site of this devastation and the spaciousness of the streets around Notting Hill, perhaps no more than a kilometre away is almost as shocking as the results of the fire.  (Incidentally, the parliamentary constituency of Kensington, traditionally a safe Conservative seat, elected a Labour MP at the General Election three months ago, with a majority of 20 in a turnout of 38,677 voters.)

Notting Hill was really such a stark contrast to what we’d just seen.  Portobello Market was almost devoid of stalls—it was Thursday and we were late.  There were, however, some scenes that yielded a decent picture.  The bass player was singing his heart out and in a “dum-dum” one-two rhythm, up and down.  It was only when I stopped to look at the image I had recorded that I noticed that there was something missing—actually two of them—from the contrabass.

Contrabassist

Further along the street, I noticed these voyeuses espying the dance troupe that was on display for all to see.

Voyeuses

And then there was the courageous Indian gentleman who took a plunge, pressed a button and caused the door of this public loo to slide open.  He obviously wasn’t absolutely desperate as it took several seconds before the door slid closed again.  I didn’t hang around to see whether we was able to escape his fate post-pee.

Bravery

We followed this by walking through Holland Park, which neither of us had previously visited.  In terms of topography and greenery, it reminded us somewhat of Highgate Cemetery, which we walked to on our outing in early June to visit the late lamented Karl Marx and his expired acolytes.

Lord Holland

Lord Holland & exotic headgear.  Holland Park, London

We continued our trip along Kensington High Street, past Kensington Palace and across Kensington Gardens, which are all spacious and attractive. I think we were both wondering whether we should enjoy the experience of what we were seeing and passing through given what we had seen a couple of hours earlier. However, London really is unique among cities in that it has so many green spaces, large and small, from tiny squares to larger squares, to private parks and public parks and Royal Parks and other open spaces.  It thus seems as if the campaign to have London designated a National Park, led by a geographer, Daniel Raven-Ellison, doesn’t seem so far-fetched (see below).

London National Park

We eventually ended up at the Albert Memorial, looking quite magnificent if not a little overdone, recently re-gilded after several years behind scaffolding.  I assume that Donald doesn’t know about this because if he did, there might be one of these erected outside Trump Tower in Manhattan.  

Opposite the Royal Albert Hall, which is currently undergoing exterior refurbishment, we boarded a bus and parted ways at Hyde Park Corner.

Albert

The photography for the day didn’t quite end there, though.  As the bus trundled towards Green Park Station on Piccadilly, I noticed the ambulance to the right of the bus.  It looked like a regular ambulance but it caught my eye because of the spelling on the right-hand side.  “What on earth was a Welsh ambulance doing in Central London?” I wondered.

Welsh ambulance

Then, as I took a bus from Finchley Road on the last leg of the journey home, I managed to take the most flamboyantly coloured photograph of the day.  I was sitting near the front of the bus when a large woman boarded.  Nothing unusual there but as I sat behind her, I remembered that I had seen her on the same bus last year some time, or perhaps even the year before.  This lady had the longest, gaudiest, loudest, most stand-outish, outlandish false fingernails I have ever seen anywhere.  I tried photographing discretely from where I was sitting and she gesticulated, having an impromptu conversation with her neighbour on the seat.  All to no avail, however, as she performed her gestures too rapidly for me to take aim and fire.  However, as luck would have it, she alighted at the same bus stop as I did and we ended up waiting for the traffic lights to change so that we could cross Haverstock Hill.  It was then that I summoned up sufficient chutzpah to ask her if she minded if I were to photograph her hands.  My quick mental reckoning at the time was that nobody wearing claws like that would object to someone taking a photograph of them.  In fact, why else would she be wearing them at all if she didn’t want people to see them?  

And so it was.  I requested; she responded to my entreaty in the affirmative and then she posed with her hands on her ample belly for me. Especially for me!  Success!  It was only when I looked at the photograph later in the day that I realised how delicately poised these talons were on her rather tiny real nails.  

Nails

Oh well, everyone to her own.

Back to a very hot Tel Aviv soon before the next post comes due.

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Night in Day

Tate lights

Derived from “Forms in Space…By Light (in Time)” by Cerith Wyn Evans, Tate Britain

 

Real journalists, like amateur bloggers, sometimes need to find a story when there aren’t any real ones that present themselves.

Fortunately, this week has provided two big stories that have kept the print and broadcast media busy.  The first, as we all know, happened last week in Barcelona, after yet another vehicle in another city had been driven into innocent people walking along a busy street killing many and injuring more accompanied by another parallel act of terror perpetrated in the resort town of Cambrils, not far from Barcelona where the highly visual running over took place.  The Spanish police announced soon after that the terror cell had been dismantled but true to form, a dispute broke out between the Spanish government and the regional authorities in Catalonia over the investigation. Spain’s interior minister announced at a news conference that the alleged cell responsible for the attacks had been “dismantled” and its members all arrested while his regional Catalonian counterpart appeared to contradict him, suggesting more arrests could follow.  And more arrests did follow.  Barcelona: 1 — Madrid: 0.

The other big news story had little to do with earthly things and concerned the sun, which had been scheduled to vanish for up to six minutes over 12 states in America during the afternoon of Monday 21st August.  Why this natural event, which had been scheduled to occur millions of years ago and did occur as prophesied (by scientists, mind you, and not by God’s messengers), should have attracted so much media attention is a little beyond my ken — except that (a) little else was happening on that day and (b) what was happening was taking place in the United States where it could be oohed and aahed over by Americans. (Airlines should take note that the event took place on schedule).  And the television channels went to town.  The BBC News Channel, which prides itself on its round-the-clock reporting of worldwide news, told us at 17.59 hrs. that if we wanted to hear and see [real] news that we should retune the sets to the BBC1 channel because they were going to spend the next two hours showing us darkened skies from Oregon to South Carolina.  “Why?”, (I thought to myself).  It was so murky in London that I could just look out of the window and see darkened skies (followed by nightfall, I might add).  But I wouldn’t have seen the sun’s corona, would I?  In fact, these days, the sun has been rather absent from the sky.

The Economist newspaper, as is its wont, provided a realistic perspective for events.

https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/08/daily-chart-13?cid1=cust/ddnew/n/n/n/20170821n/owned/n/n/nwl/n/n/me/Daily_Dispatch/email&etear=dailydispatch

Spoiling the fun a bit, it told us that “The very fact that it is possible to see a total eclipse at all is a happy accident of time and space …  because the moon has slowly been receding from Earth ever since its creation … [t]o start with, it would have blotted out the corona as well as the disk, robbing eclipses of their silvery beauty. Millions of years hence …  it will never come close enough to create a total eclipse, and any inhabitants Earth then has will have to make do with annular ones. Human beings are lucky enough to live in the sweet spot in between.” Aren’t we just?  I had half-expected a tweet from you-know-who telling us that this dark bad day was caused by liberal elites in the Washington who were determined to rob good honest working Americans (not of the KKK or Nazi ilk] of daylight hours but one of his generals or some other relatively sane people in the Administration must have advised him otherwise in rather strong terms. 

https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21726681-months-eclipse-cultural-much-scientific-event-once-portents-terror

Now that I’ve spewed out some bile, I can safely return to  more mundane things.

Leaving the house the other morning, instead of heading towards either Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park or to Hampstead Heath, I decided to take a train into town and do my walk there.  I reckoned it might be too early in the morning to find anything of great interest to photograph but at least it would be a change.

I had walked hardly 100m from home when I discovered that once again, I was wrong.  They (a group of three or four labourers have been working for the past fortnight on doing something with the cables under the footpath on Haverstock Hill.  Quite what they’re doing, I haven’t been able to fathom but it has involved them lifting the paving slabs, presumably doing something to the cables underneath, smoothing the sand and then replacing the pavement, moving up the hill by about 10m every two or three days.

Parked at the end of our street is what is familiarly called in this part of the world a “Portaloo”, a mobile toilet (bathroom to Americans even though it’s not a room and it doesn’t have a bath).  This same structure attracted some attention when it appeared at the end of the street on the other side about three days before the lads arrived to start work.  Some people stared at it and three American tourists wondered out aloud what it might be.  They thought that it looked like a portaloo but they were wondering if it might be something else as it appeared to have no door.  What they thought it might be without a door, I have no idea and I didn’t venture to ask.  However, I did put them out of their misery by suggesting that the side of the cubicle that housed the door was flush with the wall it was parked against (if that is the correct term to use when describing a toilet that doesn’t flush).  

At any rate, when work began, it was moved to our side of the street—and until I photographed it, I hadn’t realised that the London property market was so inflated.  Parkheath is a serious estate agency in this part of the world and here they are, letting and managing a toilet!  Really?

Portaloo Parkheath

Anyway, continuing my downhill trip into Bloomsbury, my first port of call was not to a portaloo but to a real loo at Euston Station (there it costs 30p a pee, a terrible rate of exchange but absolutely unavoidable for a 72-year old a couple of hours after a glass of water and mug of coffee).  While drying my hands I heard a cellphone ring and it wasn’t mine.  However, always in search of a decent photo, I managed to snap one of my peers extract his phone with his right hand while his left one was otherwise occupied.  The resulting photo is not in focus and the transformation into black and white turned out a little grainy, which is just as well for everyone concerned—the object of the photograph, the photographer and you, the readers.  I can’t remember the exact phrase that’s used. Is it “A pee in the hand is worth two in the bush” or something like that?

Peephone.jpg

Coming out of Euston Station, it was early enough in the morning to catch at least one of the homeless men who find nocturnal succour on the steps of St. Pancras Church, crutch by his side and holdall for his bedding after he’s up and about for the day.  There’s usually at least one and often two or three of these unfortunate souls parked here early in the morning.

St. Pancras Homeless.jpg

Continuing southward alongside Tavistock Square, one is reminded of the sort of terror that occurred in Barcelona last weekend.  There’s a plaque commemorating the victims , most of whom were on their way to work on the Number 30 bus on July 7 2005 when they were blown to smithereens.

Plaque.jpg

And once down at Tavistock Square, opposite which I worked for two years three decades ago, I went to visit Mahatma Gandhi.  Every time I see him in the grey and damp of Central London, I shudder and shiver at how cold I think he might be, sitting there in his all-but-nothings, alone in contemplation.  Well-meaning people come and light candles underneath him, which must make him a little warmer and they bring him flowers, which must brighten up his day a bit.  They even leave him some food scraps when they can think of nowhere else to place their empty pizza boxes.

Gandhi

Having paid my respects the great man, I continued south towards Russell Square.  There, I was treated to what has become an increasingly rare sight—a red squirrel.  There are two species of squirrels live in the UK today: red and grey.  The red squirrels are the natives and have been around this part of the world, apparently, for about 10,000 years.  However, when grey squirrels were introduced from North America in 1876, they began to compete with red squirrels for food and shelter and push them out.  They also carry the squirrelpox virus, transmitting it to the reds who, once infected, die of starvation or dehydration within a fortnight.  It is thought that there are about 2.5 million grey squirrels in the UK and around 140,000 reds.

Red Squirrel.jpg

Continuing south along Southampton Row, I couldn’t quite believe my luck. I have been familiar with London’s open-topped tourist buses for years.  You know the kind of thing I’m referring to, where they rip you off at the beginning of the trip and then let you free to hop on and hop off at will (presumably when the bus has come to a standstill).  What I didn’t know was that wonderful Irish institution, Guinness Brewery of St. James’s Gate Dublin were the sponsors of the Big Bus—or so it seemed.  As for the taste and precisely what kind of character, I’m not quite sure.

Hops

Then just a few steps away, I came to realise that all has not completely vanished from the London landscape.  The red telephone box is no longer as frequently used as it once was so the scarlet women can no longer see much advantage in advertising their wares —or their unwears, as the case may be—inside this scarlet trading post.  However, it’s a sign of the times when the visiting cards have been enlarged to postcard size and placed the outside of the booth for curious passers-by to see and view and, if necessary take note[s].

Sign of the times.jpg

After this, I picked up walking pace, I turned off the camera and headed towards home.

Truth is,  I was so well pleased with this little foray into London that I did it again during the week, exiting at Embankment Station and heading off towards Tate Britain.  The aim was to walk back along the south bank of the Thames and end up at Tate Britain but the crowds were such that I decided against.  Nevertheless, there were some interesting items that pulled in attention.

One of these is that tourist attraction, another of London’s rip-off sites—The London Eye. I realised that all the photographs I’ve taken of this large wheel have been from the south bank of the river, either from underneath or “in profile”.

However, here I was, directly opposite on the north bank and although it’s still just a big wheel, it looks different in full frontal.  It’s also the sort of thing that offers you plenty of opportunity to edit in order to produce a pleasing picture rather than just produce a realistic image of what you’ve seen.  So that’s what I did when I got home.

London Eye Sepia

London Eye

I walked back towards the Parliament building and ended up on Whitehall, heading towards Trafalgar Square.  This wasn’t just an arbitrary or indiscriminate visit for what always intrigues me at these tourist sites is the behaviour of the tourists, of which, to all intents and purposes, I am one.  The two horsemen looked utterly and completely stultified—bored, in fact.  This one looked as if he had swallowed a double dose of Xanagis tablets prior to being displayed to the public.  His steed showed more signs of life than did he.  However, what attracted me here—once again—was the sign.  Given that it sounded as if few of the people who took turns to pose beside the horse spoke English with a non-native accent, I wonder how many of them were actually aware of the warning on the notice. And this is definitely a polite English notice, as they say “Thank You”!

Horses kick & bite

Finally, I leave you with another view of the windows above Boots The Chemist at 193 Oxford Street.  I reckon I’ll be back to take more of these pictures in the future for, in the changing lighting conditions, it never looks quite the same whenever you gaze at it.

Boots Oxford Street

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Monkeys, crosswords and a queue?

I begin this post with two confessions.  

The first is a sort of postscript to the last one in which I described my frustrations in attuning a session of a major world athletics event in teeming rain and frigid temperatures.  My admission is that I succumbed to my curiosity and watched sections of the session I had attended on TV in order to see what I had missed by being a drop in the spectator ocean and discovered that I had, indeed, fallen short on lots of what was going on.  The glory of TV, of course, is the close-up and the fact that the replays come at you thick and fast and from every possible angle.  Even the big screens at either end of the stadium don’t do justice to what’s going on around you.

The second disclosure is that if I didn’t know it before, there are several clear differences between a professional photographer and an amateur, even a keen amateur.  Besides the sheer quality and originality of the professional there is a simple fact — that whereas an amateur carries a camera with her/him much of the time, the professionals have one or more at the ready all of the time.  Thus, I missed what was my photo of the year — or what would have been my photo of the year had I been lugging my camera with me.  And what was it that escaped me?  Well, walking uphill towards Belsize Park Tube Station, I noticed a man freewheeling down the hill on his bicycle.  Nothing unusual about that.  You see all sorts of idiots — on roller skates and roller blades, skateboards and scooters — even a unicyclist careering down the hill along with the motorised traffic.  However, there was something a little different about this guy.  It wasn’t that he was talking loudly; that happens all the time as people scream into their cellphones to make themselves heard above the normal traffic din.  However, he didn’t have any earpiece that I could see and he certainly wasn’t holding the machine in his hand as is often the case.  What attracted my attention in the two or three seconds that he was within snapping range was the music instrument case he had strapped to his back.  Now there’s nothing out of the ordinary about that either.  I’ve photographed cyclo-cellists in Tel Aviv and velo-bassists on Hampstead Heath over the past couple of years.

Cellist on bike 1

Double bass

What made this guy on Haverstock Hill different was the fact that something the size of a large viola case strapped to his back, the top of which was open.  What was protruding from the top of this open case was the head of a very alive black dog that looked for all the world like a spaniel enjoying itself coasting down a busy London highway.  No camera and couldn’t get my cellphone out of my pocket in time even if I could remember what to do with it!  What a missed opportunity!  Quel dommage!

Anyway, back to the real picture world.  After the  deluge of last Wednesday evening when >40mm of rain fell on London and I shivered my way through several events at the Olympic Stadium, the weather picked up and by the Thursday morning, the sun was shining.  By Sunday, it actually felt as if it might be summer although the previous Sunday morning, summer had also appeared and lasted all morning but by the afternoon, it had become but a pleasant memory.

This Sunday, we decided to take advantage of the weather so we took ourselves off to Kew Botanical Gardens in southwest London, which basks in the glory of being London’s largest UNESCO World Heritage site and which we hadn’t visited for over 14 years.  It’s been around for over 250 years, extends over 120 ha and has >30,000 different species for visitors to gawk at and marvel over, ranging from fungi to some pretty large trees although I didn’t see any giant redwoods or Sequoias.  It has some wonderful landscapes and vistas as well as some iconic architecture from its two and half centuries.  Somehow, I thought it was quite far away but at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, it took less than 30 minutes, less than half the time it took returning by the same route later in the day.

There are lots of fascinating things to see in addition to the botanical specimens but to do it justice, like so many of the other places in London with large collections — museums and galleries and the like — one needs to make several visits so logic suggests and the institutions concerned keep reminding one that it’s worthwhile to take out a membership.  Having done that once already on this visit to this metropolis, I’m not sure that that is actually the case but we’ll see.

I was particularly enamoured of one evergreen, Araucaria araucana (often referred to in English as the Monkey Puzzle, as when it appeared in the UK in the 19th century, so odd were its leaves and branches that it was said that even a monkey would have difficulty scaling it). Its leaves are like thick, tough triangular scales with sharp edges and tips and have an average lifespan of 24 years thus covering most of the tree except for the older branches. It’s these leaves and branches that would have made life difficult for the monkeys! Native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina and the national tree of Chile, it is also called the Chile pine.  

Monkey Puzzle

Kew’s Monkey Puzzle

 

Now, being a crossword enthusiast (though not a particularly successful solver) I was reminded that Araucaria was also the pseudonym of The Reverend John Galbraith Graham, a Church of England cleric who was best known as a crossword compiler (a particularly English combination) for The Guardian newspaper.  What is often less well known and even more irrelevant is that the Rev. Graham also set crosswords for The Financial Times using the nom de plume Cinephile.  Nothing unusual about that except when you realise that Cinephile is an anagram of Chile pine, which is one of the common names for Araucaria.  So there.  True cruciverbalist trivia indeed! 

A recent addition to Kew is an installation known as “The Hive”.  As well as being an interesting structure to observe, it is described thus in the Kew website: “… an immersive sound and visual experience. The lights you see and the sounds you hear inside The Hive are triggered by bee activity in a real beehive at Kew.  The intensity of the sounds and light change constantly, echoing that of the real beehive. [It] was inspired by scientific research into the health of honeybees [and] is a visual symbol of the pollinators’ role in feeding the planet and the challenges facing bees today.”

Beehive Installation

The Hive

Beehive Inside

Skyward from The Hive.  (Lights triggered by bee movements in a real hive nearby — apparently)

As far as I’m concerned, the real architectural gem at Kew is the Palm House, a large 19th century structure constructed of iron and glass.  It was the ability to use of these materials that permitted those wonderful people, the curious Victorian naturalists and scientists, to construct a building that would allow them to cultivate tall palm trees, something their predecessors had wanted to accomplish but had lacked the constructional materials and techniques to be able todo it. 

Palm House

Walking through the Palm House, I couldn’t help thinking that it needs a good coat of anti-rust paint to keep it going but I’m sure that someone in authority might have actually thought about that.

Palm House Interior

After about 20 minutes in there, a peculiar feeling came over me.  Being a palm house, the temperature and humidity need to be maintained at specific levels and the combination of the two suddenly reminded of one of the reasons I’m in London, namely to escape the heat and humidity of August in Tel Aviv.  Whereupon I scrambled down the staircase from my “treetop” viewing point inside the Palm House and escaped into the sanctuary of a pleasantly warm Sunday afternoon outside in Kew Gardens.

There were several other displays of interest that we managed to visit and observe. One of these was a display of carnivorous plants one of which I show here for illustrative purposes.

Man Eater

These Sarracenia plants trap insects and other prey without using moving parts. They have static traps based on a combination of inducements and inescapability.   The trap is a vertical tube with a ‘hood’ extending over its entrance with a rolled lip secreting nectar and scents. Typically the entrances to the traps are one-way; in other words, the victims cannot escape.  It was at this point that I was engulfed by what I can only call a Roald Dahlian idea.  This notion was that there must be some enterprising geneticists in Israel and the United States who could genetically modify these plants so that they could grow large enough for me to be able to send a giant bouquet to some people I absolutely adore and then, when they open the package, the plants do their own thing automatically. 

Man Eater (2)

Well, it was just my imagination, really, after having received an overdose of fertiliser, no more than that.  Nevertheless, it amused me for a while.

Later in the week, while walking through Primrose Hill, I was reminded about why London’s Royal Parks always seem to look so well all the time.  A team of painters were out in force painting lampposts that have been around since the reign of King George IV in the 1820s.  

Painting done

Done and dusted

Just painted

Almost done

When I'm painting lampposts

In the process

… which, of course, reminded me of:

 

Continuing on and crossing the road dividing Primrose Hill from Regent’s Park, I decided to walk westward along the towpath of the Regent’s Canal.  Just before emerging at street level on Park Road, just south of Lord’s Cricket Ground, I encountered several large mansions on the side of the canal opposite — followed by a reminder of the Muslim presence in London in the shape of the Central London Mosque.  What I’ve been unable to ascertain is whether these large buildings are privately owned, part of the mosque complex or are connected to the residence of the U.S. Ambassador at Winfield House next door — an unusual juxtaposition for these fraught days, don’t you think?

Winfield House

Regent's Park Mosque

Penultimately, and as some people might have realised, I look at signs and sometimes photograph them. The one below is on the rear side of a building containing restaurants and cafés on Highgate Road.  When I had looked at it previously, I had read it as “Catering for breakfasts …”.  Well, you know, the medium is the message—which is definitely not the name of the book that Marshall McLuhan wrote half a century ago although many people will swear that it is.  However, when I read bean feast, I had no idea what a bean feast might be except that it might cause a lot of wind.  I subsequently discovered that it was an annual dinner given by employers to their employees or by extension any festive occasion with a meal and an outing, giving rise to the word “beano”.  Which brings us backto Roald Dahl, where in Charlie and Chocolate Factory, Veruca Salt says: “I want a feast, I want a bean feast. Cream buns and doughnuts and fruitcake with no nuts, so good you could go nuts”

Beanfeasts

Finally, as I lumbered up to the top of Primrose Hill the other morning, I got this shot.  I like it.

Greyhound Primrose

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On your marks

IAAF Feedback 2017-08-10 at 09.40.37

This arrived in my Inbox on Thursday morning.   The reason was that a few days ago, while out for a stroll on Primrose Hill, my partner of almost 51 years mentioned to me that she had been talking to our son just before we went out and that he had mentioned that they were going to take the grandchildren one evening the following week to the London Stadium (as the 2012 Olympic Stadium is now called) and perhaps we would like to join them.  We’re usually not all that bad of gauging one another’s reactions after 612 months of practice but this time, she got it wrong.

She had responded negatively affirmatively (which means, in other words: “No, thank you very much, we’ll pass on that if you don’t mind”).  When she thought of mentioning it  to me, my comeback was that I thought that it might actually be interesting to watch a sporting event live for a change instead of sitting in the living room and staring at a TV screen, so when I got home, I called Dov and asked which evening and then booked.

Of course, because I booked about an hour and a half later and the “system” allocates seats automatically but hardly systematically, I found that I was located two blocks away but in almost the same row.  Attempts to speak to a “person” — anyone, even a robot (and if you’ve ever called the Apple helpline, you know that you can have a reasonably intelligent human conversation with a machine before the machine transfers you to a real person, usually with an Irish accent, when it cannot deal with a query it’s not programmed to deal with) — were futile as I was informed each time that I could only book seats online and not over the telephone.  And so it was that I set off for East London last night, little knowing at the time that the next few hours were going to provide me with one of the most productive pieces of material I’ve had for the blog so far; it was as if it were actually designed specifically to enhance the kvetching of an ageing cynic. (To those of you unfamiliar with Yiddish, kvetching means persistent complaining, although that doesn’t really do justice to the  juiciness of the word).

Now, before I really get down to serious business, I have to make you aware that in this most English of English summers during which there have been perhaps three or four days over the past three weeks in which the sun has shone more or less unimpeded for a few hours here and there, yesterday, the day selected to spend the evening at an outdoor event of running, jumping and throwing in East London, was the winner of the gold medal — nay, a platinum one — for awfulness.  In a city in which the average precipitation for the month of August is 48mm,  the 24 hours from 00.01 until 24.00 yielded over 40mm.  Worse that awful — truly dreadful.

And now to business.  We met up at Gospel Oak, a station on what used to be called the North London Line and is now part of the London Overground network, for the trip to the Olympic Park.  The kids, aged 7 and almost 6 were truly excited; and to tell you the truth, I was, too and it takes quite something to make me excited.  However, true to form as a cynic, that feeling quickly dissipated.

It started with something to eat at the Westfield Mall, into which you are disgorged on exiting the train.  Located as it is in rip-off city in rip-off country, next to a major sporting venue on an evening on which a major sporting event is taking place, for what we were given it was, in gross understatement, pricey — even when the depressed state of sterling is taken into account.  But at least the flavours were super even if there were only minimal amounts of food to taste them on.  Not to worry.

Having sort of filled our stomachs, we set of for the stadium in the teeming rain, 13ºC temperature with a chill north wind that, incidentally, incapacitated my umbrella.  We followed the masses, assuming that they knew where they were going, and reached the outskirts of the stadium where we underwent an airport-like search for whatever and then followed the signs to the entrance to the section of the stadium in which our late-bought seats were located.  It was a longish trek — about 15 minutes to the security booth and perhaps another 15 until we reached our seats.  

Several things were worth commenting on at this stage.  First, I was struck by the sheer quantity of fast-food booths, shacks, huts and wagons, all selling their awful smelling stuff at prices that seemed to be gram for gram even more of a rip-off that where we’d come from.  The second thing that made an impression was the sheer enormity of the stadium, not that that was unexpected; but it was still impressive.  Television, being a medium of close-ups, doesn’t give you that feeling.  The third thing that made an impact was the noise — and this was before the evening’s activities had started and the stadium was perhaps one-third full.

Stadium

There was also a commentator. Or should I say there was a rasping male voice winding up the crowd, explaining this and that—mostly babble, blather and codswallop.  What I was to discover in the two and half hours that were to follow (I retreated, retired hurt, before the conclusion of the evening’s events) was that this voice never ceased for a second.  I hadn’t noticed it when I had watched the odd event on the TV in the days prior and when I tuned in again after the event, I realised that this voice was blurred and diminished, simply there as background noise behind the voices of the more restrained television commentators.  There was also a noise that resembled disco music.  Well, maybe it wasn’t disco music, I wouldn’t really know never having been to a disco or never having danced but it was music with a heavy beat and it was incessant, constant. persistent.

The evening’s events began with an unscheduled performance.  It was an additional heat of the Men’s 200m race.  The unfortunate Isaac Makwala of Botswana has been prevented by the organisers from participating in his heat two days earlier because it was feared that he was suffering from a virus and was therefore unfit to run.  When it was later discovered that he had indeed been fit because the diagnosis had been over-cautious, the organisers decided that he could run for a place in the semi-final later in the evening by running a solo heat in Lane 7, the lane in which he was originally drawn. Essentially, this was an individual time trial with a time of 20.53 seconds to better.  So Mr. Makwala streaked down the track in front us and qualified for the semi-final.  The crowd gave him a standing ovation the whole way round and he climaxed his performance by doing a series of press-ups as if to give the finger to the organisers who had screwed him up two days earlier.  At this stage, I began to ask the question that I would ask myself repeatedly over the next couple of hours as I shivered in the 13ºC temperature, with sodden footwear and trousers (this was August, remember): Why doe they call these preliminary races “heats”?  I’m cold and they’re running heats.  Something’s wrong.

Following Isaac’s performance, we were treated to two medal ceremonies for events that had taken place earlier in the day.  The usual ceremony — bronze disc for 3rd place first, silver gong for 2nd place, then the gold medal for the winner.  This wonderful ceremony took place while all concerned got drenched but that’s a small price to pay for glory.

CONSESLUS KIPRUTO

We got the Kenyan anthem, La Marseillaise, and the Star Spangled Banner and what amazed me was that [almost] everyone stood in an almost automated reaction to what was taking place.  The fact that they were standing didn’t, of course, prevent them from talking on their cellphones, texting and whatever.  

National anthem

The only people who seemed not to be standing were the members of the press corps but, as we know, the press is a law unto itself, as the beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister is beginning to tell his people repeatedly.  

Press stand

I thought it all a little odd; I can just about fathom why people might stand for their own national anthem or that of the country in which they are, say, visiting but to stand for a national anthem of another country? Why?  Respect for the athletes?  But we already applaud them, cheer them!  Why does sport have to display all this pseudonationalistism?  Then again, just before I left for the evening’s event, I had re-read a piece on national anthems that  I wrote a couple of years ago prior to revising it, so perhaps that influenced my level of world-weariness.  I had ended that piece with the following: “As the secular anthem of the national liberation movement of the Jews, [Hatikvah] was little different from other anthems composed as the same time. But as the anthem of a democratic state in which one in five of its citizens are unable to identify with the words no matter how hard they try, is it what Israel needs today to strengthen …bonds amongst its citizens? And it is not just the non-Jewish population of Israel that find difficulty with [this] national anthem. Many ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions in the state refuse to identify with it either, with Shlomo Cohen, a prominent Sephardi rabbi, and [a] spiritual leader of Shas, a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, going so far as to describe it at a party convention as “a stupid song”.  

http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/1.643690)

Then the evening proceeded with some running and throwing.  Three heats of women’s 3,000m steeplechase, 7.5 times around the track, up and down over the barriers.  There’s something surreal about looking at 15 women dressed in short shorts and vests or bikini tops standing around in the pouring rain waiting for someone to tell them when they can start trying to keep themselves warm.  

Steeplechase (3) Start

And then when they eventually got going, on the second lap around, they had to negotiate the water jump.  At least on this particular evening they didn’t have to worry about getting wet — or at least any wetter!

Water jump

Who would be a professional sports photographer?

While all this was going on, there were the heats of the women’s long jump and the mean’s hammer throw.  These were so far away that they might as well not have been happening.  Now and then, the raspy male voice would tell us how much further a British woman would have to jump or a British man would have to hurl the metal sphere  attached to some thick wire in order to qualify for the final round of jumping or throwing.  Some of this appeared in close-up on the two big screens, one at either end of the stadium — but I could have seen this from the comfort of my living room without quivering in the cold and wet.

Then came the event that it seemed that most people were waiting for, the first heat of the Men’s 5000m.  And why the eager anticipation?  Well, Sir Mohammed Farah (Mo, to everybody there) was running in order to qualify for the final on Saturday night).  For the first few laps, Mo didn’t exert himself unduly and was comfortable enough trotting along in 9th place.  

Mo

Then, he decided that he’d better make sure he’d qualify in order to participate in what is to be his last track race at the weekend.  So he moved up into 3rd place so as to finish among the first five.  But he didn’t appear to be exerting himself here either — just a gentle canter or trot.

Mo 1

However, the biggest cheer of the evening, even grander than that which Sir Mo received each time he passed in front of us and even more tumultuous than the one given to the unfortunate Isaac earlier in the evening, was reserved for one, Mohamed Sambe of Mauritania, who, unused to the weather conditions, suffered the ignominy of being double-lapped by most of the other athletes.  When he crossed the finishing line about 2.5 mins after the winners of his heat, the stadium exploded in cheers.  I had to explain to my grandson the following day that real competitors just keep running and don’t drop out just because they’re almost a km behind in a 5 km race!

Lap Lap

While all this was going on, the Women’s shot putt got under way.  And this being Britain, the members of the band of the Irish Guards blew these Amazons a fanfare as they entered the stadium.  As they marched off after tooting their bugles, I couldn’t help wondering how much water their busbies had absorbed or whether they were wearing waterproof bearskins, in which case they must have been somewhat waterlogged.

Buglers

Then right in front of me, the women began strutting their stuff or projecting their projectiles.  And although they were situated within good viewing distance and angle, you couldn’t hear or see what TV provides — the grunts and grimaces as the sphere leaves their hands.

Shot putt

The photographer might be in for a surprise, don’t you think?

Around about this time, the third heat in the Men’s 5,000 m was coming to an end and I decided to call it a night.  Things were getting a bit repetitive.  At least when you watch at home, you can turn the TV off or watch the first two laps, have a pee, make a cup of tea, do a crossword and then return 10 minutes later to see the end of the race—which reminds me of an anecdote attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham, the conductor, when he pronounced: “There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together.  The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.”  Here, at the Olympic Stadium you have to stay through the tedium of 12.5 laps, three times in the space of perhaps 45 minutes.  Aaaghh!!!

In fact, the last time I felt as bored as this was when I attended an International Sociology Association meeting in Madrid and I went to the Sunday afternoon corrida alone as none of my Israeli colleagues could work up the courage to accompany me.  By the time a fourth bull had been slaughtered in the ring by the superiority of the armed forces surrounding him and towed away to join the others as tomorrow’s steaks and the patriarch of a farming family on an afternoon’s outing of entertainment in the row in front of me had worked himself into a frenzy, brandishing his fist and screaming repeatedly at the top of his voice: “El toro no es bueno”, I concluded that the bulls never  really stand a chance.  The spectacle had been interesting up to a point rather early in the proceedings so I had little alternative but to get up and leave.  At least I’d tried it.  

However, I cannot end this piece on a totally negative note.  Was there anything that awed me in the three hours or so I spent at the London Stadium?  Well, surprisingly, yes.  The crowd and their reactions to events.  The military precision that accompanied the whole event.  In particular, I was impressed by the clockwork nature by which things like hurdles were moved into place while the runners were on the opposite side of the track, the whole business of wheeling them on and putting them in place was completed in the space of about 30 seconds.  Amazing really.  Television shows you nothing of this.

HurdleHurdle 1

The following day, while quizzing my 7-year old grandson, about what he remembered about the event (and he remembered it all, as far as I could gather), I asked him what he thought of Hedgehog, the championship “mascot”, whose job, I could only surmise, was to amuse the crowd, make them laugh, as if they wouldn’t be interested in the serious side of things.  His response was straightforward enough: “Stupid — I could do better!”

Hedgehog

By the way, in case anyone might be wondering, I did waste 10 minutes in completing the questionnaire that appears at the head of this post.  One of the questions asked about gender and another asked the age bracket of the respondent.  I’m sure the combination of 70-75 year old male will help explain the pickled nature of several of the responses.

Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with televised athletics in the future.  I might miss much of the backroom action and the crowd participation and noise but I think that I can manage without all of those.

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The difference an hour (or two) makes

Giacometti 1

So what’s a blog anyway?  One of my dictionaries defines it as “a truncation of the expression “weblog”, i.e., a log on the World Wide Web, a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, consisting of discrete, often informal diary style text entries or “posts” [all] written in an informal or conversational style”.  So I guess I might be doing OK then?

I note, in particular, the phrase “diary style text entries” and I suppose that a blog is a sort of diary except that there is a sharp difference between a diary and a blog.  Diaries were private things; they were usually written for private consumption to be read, if at all, only by the person who wrote them, at some indeterminate time in the future but before their demise prevented it.  In addition to the most humdrum of things, people who kept diaries—diarists—often wrote of thoughts or events that they wouldn’t have dreamed of mentioning in public.  If and when diaries were read by others, then it was generally because the diarist was already dead and/or notorious, infamous or scandalous — or that some historian needed the material it contained in order to make book s/he was writing more readable (i.e., racy and entertaining).

Blogs, then, are diaries of a sort that are conceived as public reading at the outset, which is why mine, at least, have to be “approved” before they’re published.  Still, I enjoy writing these little essays which illustrate what’s bugging me from day to day.  Normally, it’s nothing exceptional; occasionally, as in last week’s post, it’s something that disconcerts me and it’s only when I’ve written about it that I settle down again.

public.v.private

Public .v. Private.  Primrose Hill, NW3

 

Anyway, on to today’s musings of a muddied mind.  

One day in the middle of the week, I was sleeping peacefully, enjoying the first night of proper sleep following several nights of short bursts during which I seemed to check the time at what appeared to be regular intervals of two hours.  Then, at precisely 04.43, a phone rang somewhere close by, too close to my liking.  There’s something about phone calls in the middle of the night that I particularly dislike (mind you, some people—even I, sometimes—would say that 04.43 is just early morning but on this particular morning, it was definitely the middle of the night).  Either it’s the harbinger of bad news, somebody else’s problem—usually that of a family member—which needs solving magically and instantaneously, a miscalculation of time zone differences in which hours have been added on at source rather than subtracted or, as happened many years ago when an unstable acquaintance of our son decided to bug him vicariously using us as a substitute by calling us from the United States on a fairly regular basis in the middle of the night, there’s a prankster on the prowl.  In this case, at any rate, it was the good lady’s cellphone that was ringing and she eventually managed to tell me that one of our daughters was calling, which I thought, in my stupor, couldn’t be good news.

Shocked out of my torpor, I tried calling back but to no avail; I sent a text message to ask if everything was OK but got no reply.  So what to do but to send a text message to her twin who lives next door.  No response.  Given the choice one has these days for non-verbal communication — WhatsApp, text messages, Messenger, &c., I tried some of the others but was just as unsuccessful.  All I wanted to do was to return to a state of somnolence but I was under strict instructions—very strict ones—to discover the cause of the disturbance, so reckoning that by ten to seven in the morning, I wouldn’t actually be waking anyone in Tel Aviv, I called and before I could even to utter my quasisomniloquy (how’s that for a neologism?) the response came:  “Good morning, Saba (Grandad)” from my almost-5 year old granddaughter who, given that I hadn’t yet spoken a word had obviously observed my visage on the cellphone at her end.  “She’s in the loo but she’ll be out soon”.  Not quite what I needed to know at ten to five in the morning, London time.  But the information we were seeking was indeed forthcoming about 30 seconds later.  “Everything is OK.  Why are you calling?  There aren’t any problems here.”   

So, then, why had we received a phone call while I could have continued doing something healthy and useful (in other words, sleep)?  Then just after 7 a.m. London time, on having breakfast an hour later than usual, the explanation (and apology) arrived.  The 6-year old granddaughter next door had opened her mother’s iPad and pressed the FaceTime icon (by accident, we were assured).  So this contemporary issue of communication had been elucidated.  It had been caused by a finger pressed in the wrong place at the wrong time—which, for some peculiar reason reminds me of Donald Trump.  (I must have been reading the leader in this week’s issue of The Economist before falling asleep.)

 

On another issue, one of my pet gripes concerns misspelled signage.  These are most frequently encountered on menus and such things where the proprietors wish to make as many people as possible aware of what it is they have on offer. So rather than have people try to unravel culinary wonders in Hebrew, Polish, French, Mandarin, Basque or whatever, they translate it into a kind of pidgin English.  It’s pretty certain that they’ve never heard of, let alone practised, proof-reading.  

Occasionally, you also come across some wonderful examples on street signs where the name of the personality or event after which the street has been named has been incorrectly spelled or transcribed.  This seems to occur most often when the name of the personality concerned was originally Polish … Russian … French … Whatever … but the signage appears in another language and thus the transcription is performed phonetically.  However, it’s uncommon to see such misspelling in an officially monolingual country such as the United Kingdom, in particular when the name concerned is in English and only in English.  Yet, this is what I saw in Hampstead the other day along a stretch of street that I have walked for the past 17 years without ever having noticed it.  I wonder whether it was a genuine error or just a piece of mischief by a teenage tile maker many years ago. 

 

Rqsslyn Mews

 

A little bit further along on the same walk through Hampstead, I came across this beastie, which was stationary at the time while the driver and enforcer took what she felt was a well-earned nap.  You can’t say that they don’t warn you that you’re about to be caught.  However, I find the whole thing extremely creepy; I mean there’s something awfully Orwellian about it, don’t you think?  Are they just cameras or are there also audio devices attached?  I suppose I could call Camden Council and ask but then they might log the telephone call and tag me electronically as a potential nuisance.

1984?

 

Returning home from Hampstead down the hill at Willow Road, I encountered this forbidding sky.  I might add that the weather in London has been atrocious for much of the time we’ve been here but nevertheless a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of Tel Aviv.  As I walked along, I had an epiphany when I realised the essential difference between summer in London and summer in Tel Aviv.  In the former, you get damp from the outside in while in the latter, it works from the inside out. 

Foreboding

 

(By the way, 2 Willow Road, part of a terrace of three houses, was designed by the architect Ernő Goldfinger and completed in 1939.  It’s been managed by the National Trust since 1995 and is open to the public and was was one of the first Modernist buildings that the NT acquired, a decision that was controversial at the time. Goldfinger lived there with his wife and children until he died in 1987.  One of the architect’s neighbours was the author Ian Fleming who had previously been among those objecting to the demolition of the cottages removed to make way for Goldfinger’s house before World War II.  As a way of getting his own back, Fleming named an infamous character in one of his James Bond books after his hapless neighbour, apparently basing some of the fictional Goldfinger’s characteristics on the supposed characteristics of the authentic one.  The real Mr. Goldfinger sued the real Mr. Fleming and was awarded costs and six free copies of Goldfinger!)

While in Hampstead, I also went to check up on the street café that I photographed last summer in order to see if it was still in business.  At first, I thought that perhaps it had shut down but discovered that it was simply a matter of my having arrived too early.  When I came back the following day at a later hour, it just opening for business as usual.

Telephone café (closed)

Telephone café (just opening)

Telephone café (open)

 

Exiting Regent’s Park the other morning with the telephoto lens on the camera, I finally got a shot I’ve been looking at for a while — the spire of the Shard, designed by Renzo Piano, which is visible from all around London, sandwiched between the twin spires of a church just off the park.  I could view London from the top of the Shard for the astronomical price of £30.95.  They offer a £5 reduction for advance tickets but whereas that might be an incentive in a country with stable and predictable weather patterns, you might book the day before you wish to go and then discover that your head is in the clouds when the appointed hour arrives.  Nevertheless, I might one day pay the full price just for the fun of it.

Shard+

Oh, yes.  I almost forgot.  The Giacometti exhibition at the Tate Modern (see the top of this post) was definitely the highlight of the week.

Finally, I leave you with a thought.  Is a piece of music that has been discovered and published posthumously a case of decomposition?

 

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