Al Gore – What if

By Erik Charlton from Menlo Park, USA

When I am home alone, I usually eat with some video accompaniment. At the moment that is dominated by Trump’s impeachment hearings and the commentaries by Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah. Meyers has his near-daily, ten minute “Closer Look” monologue (search through Youtube). Funny, interesting, intelligent. And when it ends, the algorithm directs me to more of the show which is quite show-biz focused. Not my bag. Last night, however, it took me to clips of him interviewing Al Gore, the former US Vice President who almost became President in 2000. We got Bush instead. In light of my previous reading of Rob Hopkins’ book, What if? What if? But we are where we are.

OK, it seems that I’m now bingeing on Al Gore. Back in 2008 he did a TED talk. I watched it this morning over my lonely breakfast. Two observations to share with my readers. First, When Gore was VP, he had to deal with conflicts which he classified as local, regional and global/strategic. Each level requires different skills, organisational forms and resource allocation. This is the essence of decision, to reference the title of Graham T. Allison’s famous book. Environmental issues, argues Gore, fit into three categories, too. Climate change, however, is global/strategic. That means global organisational forms, global resource allocation and a pooling of skills and knowledge.

Second, investments in tar sands and shale oil are “sub-prime carbon assets”. Remember, this was just at the time of the financial crisis. On reflection, he is wrong. Sub-prime mortgages nearly brought down the the global economy; in the end it enriched those who had caused the crisis. No bankers went to prison, austerity was inflicted on the victims of the crimes not the perpetrators. The bankers were rewarded with positions in Government (Trump administration, for example). By contrast, climate change will bring down civilisation. Those investing in the extraction of carbon from the earth and burning it will not be rewarded this time around. Economics is within our control, it is a human construct. Climate change is physics. We’ve got 10 years. We’ve got the technology.

In the UK there is a general election next month. Let us start there. Let us make GE 2019 the climate election, not the Brexit election.

Post script: Gore says, I paraphrase, let us make it that in the future great orchestras, poets, playwrites are able to create their art with the knowledge that the current generation of leaders did indeed do the right thing.

Hopkins on imagination and What If?

I’ve been working my way through Hopkins’ book (left) over the last few days. It has left me thoughtful. As readers already know, this book prompted me to end my addiction to Twitter – without which I would currently be reading tweets rather than writing and reflecting.

But what is “what if”? It is predicated largely on the realisation that things have to change. There is one thing the climate emergency absolutely forces us to do, that is to conceive of a climate catastrophe. We cannot avoid it. It makes “what iffing” so much easier. We can get roads closed – albeit temporarily – and turn them into green spaces, play areas, spaces to meet, discuss, choose, decide. This is what happened in Tooting High Street in London, the bus terminus turning circle, was closed on Sunday in July 2017; the A259 trunk road through Hastings, where I live, was closed for a day in September 2019 and transformed into a music stage, a bicycle repair workshop, an arena for a wheelie competition and a  political discussion and debating area, amongst other things.

“What if every university declared a climate emergency and all of its courses were taught through that lens? What if we created a fossil-fuel-free energy system within 20 years? What if every new house built generated more energy than it consumed? What if urban agriculture became utterly common place? What if our cities became huge biodiversity reserves? What if single-use plastics were something we only saw in museums?” Schools are perhaps more aware of climate change than are universities, but they maintain a pedagogy that, according to Hopkins, suppresses imagination in their forced pursuit of grades, regulatory approval and attendant rankings.

Hopkins takes us to various places where examples help with our often depressed imaginations: Totnes in Devon (not so revealing); Liège in Belgium (ever so revealing). Liège, a city I pass through frequently on my way to Munich by train, set itself a challenge back in 2013 to create the means to grow the majority of the City’s food on the land in the immediate surrounding area. Liège now has mass co-operative food projects, vineyards, organic mushroom growing off coffee waste, a brewery, sustainable distribution and restaurants. There is a Co-operative of Co-operatives that has political and economic bargaining power. What if?

The book is not just about climate change. Readers are asked to consider wider issues mediated through liberated imagination,  but that itself requires major structural changes to education and the reversal of trends against art in schools. Unrestricted play – play of the imagination, unmediated by technology – argues Hopkins, needs to start in school and migrate to the workplace and community.

Another major inhibitor of “what if-ism” is our own health. Modern life is stressful and society itself is plagued by anxiety and deeper mental health issues. These block imagination in a way, perhaps, that is functional for the economic and political forces of inertia that at best shape our lives, at worst, destroy our humanity and with it the environment that sustains us. But stress is also a chemical process that impacts on the Hippocampus – our “hub of memory” in the brain. We damage it at our peril, affecting both long- and short-term memory. It is the interaction between the two, notes Hopkins, that facilitates imagination – and with it, future scenarios.

Then there is nature; actually, we are at our least stressed when with trees and listening to birdsong, it seems. From my own experience, I know my own blood pressure is reduced by contact with nature. Here in Hastings, a walk along the beach is only matched by half a bottle of wine in efficacy. One of these is healthier and indeed cheaper than the other. This realisation makes the transformation of our towns and cities into green zones logical and politically feasible: parks, playing fields, city farms, swimming pools and gardens are all exploitable in this respect.

We have a general election imminently in the UK. There are rumblings of alternative models – the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was laughed at when he suggested that we should work only for four days per week rather than five, despite there being plenty of evidence that such working arrangements do not come at the expense of productivity. Working longer does not benefit society. To be laughed at over this is bizarre. The PM, Boris Johnson, was laughed at when he claimed trust was important in government and society. That I can more understand as a response.

We have to get smart.

 

William Blake exhibition, Tate Britain

I did not know much about William Blake before this exhibition, still popular despite starting on 11 September, though no booking is needed now. It is walk right in. So, Blake was an illustrator/poet/artist. He innovated technique (“tacky ink applied under pressure”) and created some curious juxtapositions including the Pope and the Devil together in Hell (1794-6, right) – Blake was devout, but obviously not catholic.

His book illustrations are absolutely exquisite; for example, for the epic poem, America, A Prophecy (left). The colours are beguiling. His figures are extraordinarily classic; Greek, even. The bodies are all muscular, perfectly formed and, often, naked. Though his older figures wear beards to die for. His favourite materials seem to be watercolour and paper.

Despite earning quite a bit of money in his time for illustrations, etchings, etc. (the gallery is keen to do a currency conversion for visitors to judge for themselves), he often had to rely on patrons to get through. He found himself being commissioned to produce major sets of illustrations of key works of literature or biblical stories, that perhaps, his heart was not in. This bondage, as I sense he saw it, eventually led him to fall out with most of them doing much damage to his relative wealth and equally mental health.

Regular readers know that I am always interested in artistic ghouls, many of which are found in the German and Low Country traditions, for example, this. Blake seems to be good at ghouls as well. For example, the Beast from the Sea (1805, right). He also does a lot of ascent into Heaven or descent into Hell (A Vision of the last Judgement, 1808, left). This theme is, of course, a religious staple as well as good material for Dystopians like Bosch and Martin de Vos. Still perfect bodies though.

Some are bizarre hybrids. And small. I particularly liked images from his Small Book of Designs which includes a curious image of the bearded man with a “number of monkeys, baboons & all of that species” (1790, right). Quite what is going on, I do not know, but the natural world is clearly important to Blake. It might be that this is an acceptance of ancestry; but for a pious man well before Darwin, that seems a shade unlikely.

In contrast to most artists with exhibitions of this nature – a whole life – Blake was consistent. He strayed very little from what he did – and clearly did well. There is no “green” period or any major disruption in style. Despite his depression he never did a Goya or Bacon (or they never did a Blake, I suppose). By the end of the exhibition I was a bit weary arising from the sameness of the images and the kind of character that persists with something that, in Blake’s case, stopped selling.

 

Tim Minchin, Hammersmith Apollo, 14 November 2019

Eight years’ ago, I bought two tickets to see Tim Minchin play the comedy prom at the Royal Albert Hall. Actually, I did not. The credit card was not accepted and I did not notice until the tickets didn’t arrive. By which time it was too late. 14 Months ago, I bought two tickets to see Tim Minchin play the Hammersmith Apollo on 14 November 2019. The tickets arrived about 2 weeks after purchase. I put them in a very safe place. I inspected them regularly to ensure they were real. Last night we cashed them in (left).

I can vouch for Brian Logan’s review in the Guardian. The summary on Wikipedia gives a sort-of set list.

When one is at the proms, just before the performance starts, a polite message goes around to turn off mobile phones. For this show, we are invited just to turn off our fucking phones and watch the show as a unique event. I sensed, probably, 100 per cent compliance (I remember having my mobile semi-confiscated at a Jack White concert in Munich once, not very friendly – Minchin’s approach seems much better).

Anyway, yes, he did start with himself and a piano. Then he revealed his 8-piece band (they were excellent, by the way). I now know that a male mid-life crisis is defined in terms of when one starts looking at time in decades instead of years. We learned about his formative years playing piano two nights-per-week at the Butterfly Club in Melbourne and that he is rather wealthy courtesy of the hit-musical, Matilda. He owns a house on the east coast of Australia and asks himself how he can be depressed with all he has. After living in LA for four years directing an animated feature and have it cancelled by Universal after they bought Dreamworks in some sort of tax write-off, does that explain and justify his feelings? We got all of that in the first half in monologue and music.

Tim Minchin performing in 2007, courtesy of nekonoir

The second half was much more upbeat. Optimistic, playful even. He clearly delighted in presenting his 8-minute rock opera, Cheese (and the audience enjoyed it, too). Cheese celebrates the art form – or maybe takes the piss out of it, not sure which – and sanctions camp double-ententes and debates about food allergies.

Minchin is best, though, when he is angry. The high point – and it was a serious summit – was his paen to Bob Dylan. Minchin told us that he is not a Dylan obsessive, but by goodness, could he write a song. Or two. Minchin picks up his acoustic guitar and feigns an attempt at emulating Dylan. The result…the best thing I have seen and heard in a good long time. No one escapes. Rightly.

My last tweet

I was on the train heading to work reading a book; namely, Rob Hopkins’ What if: Unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. A hardback book purchased from my local independent bookshop, Printed Matter, in Hastings. It is a time-consuming business, reading books. I’d devoted a few hours to this book on Saturday, albeit in a lovely cafe with coffee and lunch. I carried on through my commute because it was reasonably easy to manipulate on a full train.

Hopkins discusses the issue of lost time…something that I have discussed in this blog previously (written at a time when there were fewer mobile phones and no Brexit). Hopkins reveals that a major contributor to lost time is social media. Twitter in particular. It is true, I have spent a lot of time there reading the opinions of those I trust, appreciate and genuinely learn from. I also spent a lot of time reading the opinions of those I profoundly disagree with – fascists mostly. Or fascist sympathisers. I followed these ugly people in order to avoid being in a bubble of self-flattery, which is the danger with social media. I took that from a book as well.

On Monday I deactivated my Twitter account. On Tuesday I took the Twitter icons off my mobile and tablet. I unpinned twitter from my computer desktop. How am I coping? Fine. The irony is, though, the book that finally pushed me to deactivate was endorsed on Twitter.

Another concert this time going to type

We have seen Richard Hawley a few times now. Unlike with Neil Hannon, the format is pretty much text book. Hawley leads, a reliable and familiar band support; and so was it when we saw the band at the Brighton Dome on 18 October 2019. The set is familiar. But not. Hawley promotes his latest album, Further, but the tracks are seamless in their alignment with his back catalogue, with the exception, perhaps, of Standing at the Sky’s Edge (from which he let Down in the Woods absolutely and brilliantly rip). No criticism. The set is a crowd-pleaser. The performance is polished. The guitars and keyboards are beguiling. Hawley engages with the audience periodically and swears (we are ruled by “cunts”, he tells us). A few audience members get an earful. Just short of two hours on this last night of the tour is most satisfying. We’ll be there for the next tour and primed with a new album.

Oh no! Not another review of a Divine Comedy gig?

 

I know, a bit boring. I was not going to do it. But live The Divine Comedy – the vehicle for Neil Hannon’s quirky, often conceptual, pop music – evolves compellingly. What do I mean?

Hannon released his latest album, Office Politics in the summer. He is currently on tour with it, hence the show that we saw at the Brighton Dome on 16 October 2019. It is a non-prog concept album. There is a theme of the daily drudge and meaninglessness of work infused within. The title track has much that we recognise in the modern office: zealous employers, impropriety with photocopiers, powerpoint presentations, etc. It is funny and very Neil Hannon, at least lyrically, if not in vocal style.

The album also has some – what Hannon himself referred to as – radio hits on it such as Norman and Norma which reminds me very much of Billy Joel’s destructive couple, Brenda and Eddie (Scenes From An Italian Restaurant). Though Norman and Norma rescue their relationship by 1066 re-enactments. Brenda and Eddie are not quite so lucky. There’s the Life and Soul of the Party – a homage to awful office Christmas parties. Again, much for us to relate to. Unfortunately.

What I thought was the stand-out track on the album, You’ll Never Work in this Town Again, translates well on stage and keeps the working – or in this case, non-work – theme going. I’m a Stranger Here, additionally is a wonderful mix of time travel, work and alienation?

OK, so to the show. The set has a very large clock hanging behind the players. There are two doors, one in, one out. There is a desk with an aged monitor sitting on it (the office is seems dated around the early nineties, though references to zero-hour contracts and copies of the Human League’s Dare album as part of the cover art suggest a certain temporal confusion). A telephone receiver is used as a percussion instrument (right).

Hannon enters the stage from the in door to cheers. He is dressed in a bright red/orange suit (we know that on other dates he has a blue and white suit). In contrast to previous concerts we have seen, Hannon concentrates on the singing – only on a few occasions does he pick up his acoustic guitar.

I was wondering whether Hannon would attempt to present The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale. This seems to be a paen to old synthesiser technology. It is really a list of former machines with obvious nostalgic attachment. On stage, this track works so well. This is almost Stockhausen in its composition. Coupled with some simple but effective lighting, I could have listened to this all evening.

Incidentally, did I miss Opportunity Knox where Billy Bird leaves without a word? We got Come Home Billy Bird

Then there is Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company, a celebration of the former New York business of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Hannon uses this as an opportunity to complete the theatrics. A number of the crew don brown coats and hats and start dismantling the drum kit, removing the doors and covering the keyboards with dust covers. This provides the excuse for the encore to be quasi-acoustic (left). The Encore leaves Office Politics behind (though having already presented National Express, Indy Disco, Absent Friends, A Lady of a Certain Age and Something for the Weekend) and presents two favourites and Hannon anthems: Songs of Love and Tonight we Fly. This is Hannon really at his best, surrounded by trusted musicians and a platform for his wonderful lyrical and vocal range.

Band: Andrew Skeet, Ian Watson, Simon Little, Tim Weller and Tosh Flood.

Left Luggage Facilities, Köln Hauptbahnhof

There was a time when the left luggage facilities at Köln Hauptbahnhof were the coolest anywhere in Europe with their wacky underground storage mechanism. No more. A brief update, they have been replaced by more conventional storage lockers, though compensated by making them multi-coloured (left).

A sad passing.

Lucky Strike stories in six words…everywhere

There are more of these on the streets of Germany than I could be bothered to get off my bicycle and photograph. Shocking blitzing of city streets with advertising for deadly products.

The first one(left) is something to do with travel: “Spinning world. Finger out. Case pack”.

The second (right) – forgive me here  for the bad picture, but it has been sunny in Germany- the nuance here  is a bit too much for me  – “Ask. After the bill. And number”.Hmmm!

Third (left) “Chance opportunity. And grab. No regrets”. Death.

The Ammer-Amper Radweg (AAR), Bavaria

Starnberger See from Gasthof Cafe Seeseiten

I am trying to get my fitness up to a decent level. I always feel that I should be able with ease to do 80kms in a day. 4 days’ ago I did 67kms from Munich to Starnberg to Tutzing and felt pretty well trashed after it. Yesterday I have had another go with better results. I did not manage more kilometers largely because I ran out of time. I started out heading from Munich to Dachau along the Würm cycle route. Relatively easy, but once in Dachau the cycle routes become less visible. I was looking for the AAR. Having found the Amper River heading into the town, I quickly saw the route markers and followed them. Short into the ride, the path gives two choices, one north to Allershausen and Moosburg, the other South West to Eching am Ammersee, Kempton and beyond. I took the northern route thinking that Freising would be a good destination – a terminus for the S-Bahn to get me back again.

This is not the prettiest route, there is quite a lot of intensive arable land. At this time largely growing sweet corn, but it has its moments. The Amper, like many rivers, just attracts flora and fauna; and when the sun shines, even a view from a utility bridge looks exquisite (right, just through Dachau). The route on a summer Wednesday was not very busy. It is fair to say that it would be peaceful if part of the route was not directly under the flight path of Munich airport. For a good part of the day, a constant stream of parallel planes preparing to land on the parallel runways threatened the enjoyment. But I suggest that riders persevere because the route does eventually move away and the peace is restored. There is a lot of water; not only the river, but also many pools (left), at least one of which (very close to Würmmühle, supports leisure swimming (it has a pontoon and steps to access the water). There is also a lot of forest; on a hot day, a good forest can be really cooling and also dampen any sounds that might be coming from planes or the nearby motorway.

I made it to Kranzberg but failed to see any directions towards Allershausen, so I opted to follow a sign for hikers directing them towards Freising. Not a bad idea, though the path ran out at Giggenhausen (5km short of Freising). A bit of road had to be done; though it was not too bad. Freising is nice. Good decision.

So today, I went back to Dachau and took the southern route. I had intended to follow the route all of the way to Eching and then move on the Herrsching where I could pick up the S-Bahn. It was not to be for a number of reasons. Though a key one was finding myself on the wrong side of the river necessitating a bit of tracking back to find a bridge. Many of said bridges are wooden (right close to Olching). Plenty of picnic places, but not many other eating opportunities. I found one Gasthof that was open (Gastätte Amperlust).

The southern route is much like the northern route. There are also some aeroplanes, though they are a little higher. There is lots of arable land to navigate. Plenty of forest, too. I only managed as far as Fürstenfeldbruck (40 kms from my starting point). Eching was signposted as another 22kms and Herrsching maybe 10-15 beyond that. With the time available that was too far. So I took a path to Munich via Aubing. And as ever, one finds things that one does not expect. For example, Puchheim, wonderful cafe/chocolatier (left with coffee at €1.60!).

Finally, there is always the thrill of industrial archaelogy. Now, it is quite normal to demolish buildings that are old or are no longer useful/functional. So to come across a large, derelict industrial building is unusual and quite exciting. I have no idea what it was, but it was worth a picture (right). It does look like it will be demolished shortly.