December in Seville – Museo de Belles Artes

Take your passport for free entry into this wonderful example of a city gallery celebrating the work of its sons, if not artist daughters.

There is a lot of extraordinary medaeval – largely religious – art here. 


At last, something to smoke


It has been a quiet time on the cigarette advertising front. Those halcyon days of the Gauloises couple in the bath and the Pall Mall happy couples through the seasons. seem to have left us. The only narrative advertising at the moment is JPS (latest left). It’s couples again, one female, one male smoking, the other two watching them kill themselves. This time we are stuck in a queue on a dirt track of some description in Germany (check out the number plate); though there is some bunting on the side and a small roadside tent to suggest this is some festival thing. They have a cool box being used as a seat.

That is genius in comparison to West’s latest advertising. In-your-face West (right). Pretty  meaningless. “Gute Aussichten- Top Preis” Good view/outlook? This is all about price, though. 35 fags for 9 Euros. Red or silver. Made for good times, apparently.

And then there is…Down to Earth rolling tobacco. New up on billboards – though this one of an evening is obscured by a blue van. The campaign approach is not to disguise the harmful effects of tabacco; indeed, quite the opposite. They seem to be proud of their product’s contraceptive properties. Or even its carcinogenic qualities.

Thanks to Wikipedia for the following historical background to the product:

The company was founded in 1982 by Bill Drake, author of The Cultivators Handbook of Natural Tobacco, Robert Marion, Chris Webster, and Eb Wicks, a plumbing contractor who took out a loan to finance the startup. In January 2002 the company was acquired by Reynolds American and is now a wholly owned independent subsidiary of Reynolds American, which is in turn 42% owned by British American Tobacco. Japan Tobacco announced in September 2015 that it acquired the right to sell Natural American Spirit products in markets outside the United States.

Much ado about Bingo, Brighton Fringe Festival, 26 May 2019

I first encountered Lorraine Bowen probably about 15 years’ ago at the Brighton Fringe Festival topping the bill in an evening of cabaret in the extraordinary Spiegeltent. Her act revolves around sing-a-long tunes accompanied by her casio keyboard mounted on an ironing board. Her biggest hit, the Crumble Song, has now, apparently, been translated into scores of languages, two of which, Italian and Japanese, were demonstrated in this performance.

We last saw Lorraine Bowen on a barge on the Thames in 2011 where she performed Polyester Fiesta, a show celebrating 70 years’ of that most maligned of fabrics. I recall we complied with the dress code and won a prize for having done so. More polyester. So it was no surprise that there was lots of polyester on show for this curious – but huge fun – late evening in the Bosco tent (a variant of the Spiegeltent without the spiegels). This was a celebration of bingo – wrapped up in the music and sweets of the 1970s, with a bit of Shakespeare thrown in. There was audience participation, naturally, and prizes ranging from authentic signed photos of Shakespeare himself, packets of Smash potato, a tube of Smarties and a Curley Wurley. You get the idea!

Our host, Boogaloo Stu (Derek Daniels, left) played the ubiquitous night club compere of the 1970s. He was accompanied by pianist, Ronnie Hazelhorn (the surname might be wrong, but I presume he was named after the ever-present 1970s composer, Ronnie Hazelhurst), who was a sensation. On entering the auditorium, everyone received a bingo card and a pen. The card had a combination of 1970s song titles (for example, Save all your Kisses for Me), advertisement jingles (A Finger of Fudge) and Shakespeare plays (Hamlet). Daniels sang all of these as he waited for a line, then two lines, and finally a full house to be called. It was a live “Stars on 45” medley. For those of us who lived through this decade, it was wonderfully cringeworthy. As the words came so easily. There was also a section called Shakespeare or Shakin’ Stevens. This was more difficult than it sounds!

Lorraine Bowen provided a couple of interludes. She sang her Polyester song with audience help. She also revealed a magical London map dress. What she did with Croydon has to be seen to be believed. And of course, the Crumble Song. The Finale was a celebration of Clacton-on-Sea (right).

The show lasted about 80 minutes. It was great. Pure escapism made by three very talented performers. Daniels, in particular, who even managed Wuthering Heights! Eyes Down!


Pond update

Regular readers will know that we built a pond.  My beloved has been working hard to turn it from a wet hole-in-the-ground to a living ecosystem. And what an amazing transformation. Ok, it has become a bit green with algae, as anticipated. However, there is now an extraordinary bit of filter technology at work (top right corner of picture, Oase Durchlauffilter BioSmart UVC, 14000) which is slowly managing algae growth.

There is now an array of water plants, including lilies, establishing themselves in the water.The pond was slightly  extended after my original dig in order to create a few steps on the three sides whose original form created an unhelpful sheer drop. The extension has enabled a few plants to be located around  all sides, not just one.

Stones have been placed on some sacking (which covers residual pvc pond lining). Though that in itself is a bit of a story. The local crows (right) were watching and decided, quite rightly, that sacking is a good building material for nests. It is spring after all.

Birds are, of course, rather privileged in our story. Their ability to scan the environment from vantage points helps in the pond’s development. A few days’ ago the pond was visited by a couple of mallards (left). And the first amphibian has arrived, a newt. One at the moment, but we are anticipating the newt word will get around.



Plants that are now living in the pond:


Just when I thought cigarette advertising was over in Germany…

…JSP is back with its “young people sitting outside” campaign. This bunch are seemingly moving house and having a cigarette in between the heavy lifting. As usual, two are smoking with the others looking on. The strapline does not make any sense to me “Mach den Umzug zum Umtrunk” – is that not something like “make the move to drink?” Whatever, it was not worth waiting for.

A random Saturday in Tate Britain

It must have been 20 years’ ago that I went to the Tate to see the Turner collection. I’d heard about it and thought it about time that I saw the collection for myself. Uninformed and unprepared, I looked at the pictures – particularly the later ones – not with awe, but rather with disdain. Part of the reason for this was my upbringing. My mother was an amateur and self-taught artist. She painted largely from postcards. Hers were the only pictures in the family house. My father framed them for her. Her masterpiece, Chester (left), has pride of place our bedroom. The problem was, however, that my mother’s art informed us more generally about what good art was. Consequently, Turner started okay with realistic landscapes, but went downhill rapidly when he started all of that light and abstract nonsense.

To get to the Turner collection at Tate Britain, one has to walk through the galleries for the 1920s and 1930s. These are two decades that I like a lot, and not just for British art. There are some old friends in there, not least the disturbing “Totes Meer” (right) by Paul Nash. The washed-up planes are a stark reminder war’s destruction; but I like to think that Douglas Adams borrowed this idea for the Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur and Ford are rescued by the the Heart of Gold in its infinite improbability mode only to find themselves at Southend, though with the buildings washing up on the shore rather than the sea.

Maybe Nash has some Turner in him? Certainly I like to think that Winifred Nicholson’s “Sandpipers” (left) from 1933 does. Though Nicholson did something that perhaps Turner did not do – he was very much a studio painter – incorporate real sand into his pictures. The abstraction is there, certainly.

Turner’s “The Chain Pier” in Brighton dating from 1828 (right) has all of the Turner qualities. Wonderful light, marine backdrop – here, ships and piers. There are some figures on the ships. The figures in the later abstractions are chilling, ghostly and translucent. For example, “A disaster at Sea” (1835, left) is thought to be the scene of the wreck of the Amphitrite, off Boulogne, whose cargo was 108 female convicts and 12 children, abandoned to their fate by the captain. They were supposed to be going to Australia.

Finally, the most curious of all, Napoleon on St. Helena (right) after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. There he is in full military uniform, as we all imagine him, against a backdrop of extraordinary colour created by an island sunset. Ah, the metaphors.

Dead Can Dance, Hammersmith Apollo, 4 May 2019

It was bucket list time again. I’ve been listening to DCD for many years, always beguiled by Lisa Gerrard’s extraordinary contralto, and Brendan Perry’s velvet baritone. Plus those instruments. And there they are in front of us in that cathedral of music, the Hammersmith Apollo, probably my favourite concert hall. The best seats we could get were upstairs in the circle, but nowhere in this venue is too far away from the stage. It is not a stadium. The acoustics are great – at least good enough for my tinnitus-trashed hearing.

They arrived on stage promptly, Gerrard wearing her trademark flowing robe, quasi-beehive hair and lots of spangly things. Perry doesn’t even try to compete; though the female keyboard player equally wears a long flowing dress, just enough to complement Gerrard and not to out-do. There are five other male players, three dedicated to percussion, another keyboard player and bass. But this lot are multi-instrumentalists and vocalists of the highest order.

I did not try to create my own set list, but I think this one from Nantes is about right. I was wondering two things before seeing them. First, would this be the Dionysus tour – a promotion for their current album which, although good, probably will not go down as their best? Second, will they be generous? The answers were no and yes. In fact, they played only “Dance of the Bacchantes” from Dionysus. The audience were attentive, knowledgeable and appreciative. Gerrard started cautiously. I don’t know much about singing, but voices are delicate things and when one has one like Gerrard’s, I suppose they need warming up before the owner lets rip on songs like “Sanvean” and “Avartar”.

The same could not be said of Perry whose opener, “Anywhere out of the World”, set the pace like a football team trying to tire out the opposition rather than outwit them on the field. His voice started to break up about half way through the set, he left the stage seeking some palliative. “My voice is fucked”, he said as he departed. On his return, the treatment seemed to have been effective. He got through “The Carnival is Over” a song about freaks in the circus visiting his childhood home in East London in the 1970s. As the set list shows, there were two encores. Perhaps one too many for Perry. And this is very much the start of the tour. Fingers crossed for him (a couple of nights’ rest) and future audiences.

That aside, this was one of the most memorable musical performances I can remember, The players generate a consummate sound, very much appreciated by Gerrad who, like a conductor of an orchestra, asks the audience to applaud particular players and sections at the end of the piece. The DCD percussion section is clearly integral. For my untrained ear they were beat perfect.

Two hours in total. Pure pleasure for us, hard work for them.

Building a pond

It has taken over 18 month to build, punctuated by physical injury (my back is not the strongest) and, of course, the seasons. But it is now full of water. It measures 2.5m x 4.5m and at its deepest, 1.4m. That is a lot of digging. That is a lot of stuff from a hole, mostly gravel and stones.

When one looks at the tutorial videos on Youtube, they are always very geometric, dug into rigid soils (clays) and not as deep. The process of lining seemed very simple. In our case, not so easy. The gravel is not so stable and in the digging – easily collapsing in the hole that had been dug. The topsoil in the west of Munich is not very deep, around 10-20cms only.

OK, so then wet sand is used to deal with the gravel and stones. That is quite a task, rather like plastering a wall (right). Fortunately, the temperature was about 8 degrees Celsius and there was little wind. This meant that it did not dry out too much and blow away. Overall a good couple of hours devoted to that task. We did not have enough sand (125kg), so we raided the grandson’s sandpit to finish the job. Hence the contrasting colours.

We bought the lining and underlay last summer – a little too optimistically. But they were there to extract from the garage when ready. The underlay came in three strips. It is made of a very light textile; it looks like blotting paper, but was surprisingly strong. It gave some shape to the hole that I had dug. Stepped on one side (where the most rigid soil was) and sheer on the remaining three.

And then the big one, the lining. This is a very heavy PVC and, naturally, comes in a single piece. We first had to unfurl it and essentially drag it over the hole like one of those enormous sheets they use in swimming pools to keep in the heat overnight (right). And then we had to entice it down into the hole. It was robust enough to take our weight, though we changed our shoes into something more slipper like, just in case. It took about an hour to fold the lining in the right places. We created pleats around corners. We gave it a lot of slack (below left).

And then the moment of truth. A pond is still only a hole until it has water. We have calculated it holds about 9000 litres. We trust that is enough weight to hold the whole thing together. We attached the hose to the tap and then turned it on. Slowly it filled.

Obviously now this is just a hole with some water in it. We need plants, additional rocks around the edge and for nature really to contribute. We know there are frogs and newts in the vicinity. We also know the local birds are excited about having a large water source. Though we need to make some perches for them as it would be easy to fall in and drown. We are also going to get some native fish. They are primarily the reason for the depth. Winters can be punishing and water readily freezes. Though I challenge nature to freeze water to 1.4m!


Greta Thunberg – she’s got them rattled

Greta Thunberg (left) has risen from unknown Swedish schoolgirl to omnipresent climate emergency ambassador and conscience. I first heard her speak – not in person, but through a link in my Twitter feed – when she addressed COP24 in Katowice, Poland. My first impression was one of awe, not because of what she was saying, but that her message was given in perfect English and in front not only of the international delegates, but the world’s media as well. Some feat for any 15 year old. But Greta Thunberg appears not to be just any 15 year old. And I think some in power are beginning to realise that.

She went to the World Economic Forum at Davos (on the train) where the real unelected power wielders and brokers go annually to make things worse. She told them – and us – that she and her peers are not looking for hope but rather action. She wants us to panic and act as if the house is on fire, because it is on fire. Again, I marvel at the language skills and composure. The message is unequivocal.

But then I fall back into Brexitland. Thunberg has had her platforms. Great theatre. But surely it is time for her to go back to school (she has been on school strike, each Friday, since September)? Seemingly not. She fronted an international school strike on Friday 15 February 2019. And this really got the goat of the politicians. In the UK, the British Prime Minister berated the strikers accusing them of wasting teaching time (that of their teachers and increasing their workloads)* and damaging their own education as a result. Her spokesman said “That time [school time] is crucial for young people, precisely so they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates we need to help tackle this problem.”This was a well rehearsed ignorant response to the strikers.

In the USA, veteran – and I mean this in a pejorative sense – Senator, Dianne Feinstein (right), patronised a group of young people lobbying her to support the Green New Deal – claiming that her long service in the Senate and her recent re-election vindicated her position and that they should wait their time and listen a little bit more.

As the young people keep trying to tell policymakers, there are plenty of top scientists arguing for action to little effect. And by the time the young people become scientists, policymakers, etc. it will be too late. That seems genuinely difficult for the politicians, in particular, to understand. I have two observations. First, the politicians are rattled, being upstaged by articulate children who are supposed to comply. Even if the British Prime Minister does not understand the climate change emergency she reveals the true deficit in the democracy – and political system more generally. The system cannot manage fundamental change of the kind needed to meet the challenge with its hackneyed metrics for “wellbeing” such as economic growth (GDP) which positively counts environmentally destructive activities such as deforestation, but not positive elements such as caring, non-consumptive leisure, re-use and most conservation including energy efficiency. It cannot countenance universal incomes, reduced working hours or wealth redistribution.

My second observation is a concern. Thunberg is now 16 years old. She was at COP24 and Davos. These are invitation only. And neither were cost-free. Who is behind her? Now I sense that she is not going away in a hurry; but the going will get tough as she fronts up more action in the coming months and years. Politics is an ugly business and the gloves will come off. I hope there are some good people behind her. Please.

*  The irony here is that the government through targets and prescriptive teaching has wasted more teaching and learning time than any school strike could match.

Update – Thunberg goes to the EU:


Thunberg: Jan Ainali

Feinstein: Now This News

Brexit – playing chicken

So, whilst on her flight to Sharm El Sheikh to attend an EU summit that also incorporates Arab countries and leaders, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, confirms that she is not ready to put her deal back to the Parliament for a “meaningful vote” – and maybe not until 12 March. Her “team”, she says, is off back to Brussels on Tuesday to resume “negotiations” with the Commission. This is a game of chicken, and one would not bet against her holding her nerve, even if she loses the vote again. Matthew Parris recently wrote the following extraordinary capitulation to what for many had already been clear, she is not like the rest of us confronted with serious reality:

Then there is Giles Fraser. To be fair, one of the few leavers trying to offer positives to Brexit (though not very well or convincingly). His line of argument, inferred by some as being fluent, is that Freedom of Movement has caused family breakdown and taken away the sense of responsibility that offspring should have towards looking after elderly parents, particularly female offspring. If we did not have freedom of movement, we’d likely stay close to where our parents live (even though they may have retired to the coast, or indeed Spain) and keeping a sense of community. I trust the Honda employees in Swindon will bear this in mind when the factory closes in 2021. The most cogent critique comes from Frances coppola. Worth a read.

Interestingly, the Brexit debate has only recently turned to the negative aspects of freedom of movement. For the government, this is an inherently good thing. It is perhaps the sole reason for all of May’s red lines that so restricts the country to one option, hers. But of course, the implications are that it gets more difficult – by which I mean bureaucratic – to travel across Europe. Visas are probably going to be necessary, and additions to driving licences. Petty, but tangible restrictions on movement. The irrepressible Julia Hartley-Brewer recently celebrated her arrival in Switzerland where new signs welcome EU citizens and British passport holders to the same channel. However, the Swiss know that British passport holders are important tourists. One wonders whether the same will be true of travel to Slovenia after Britain’s top diplomat, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, described the country as a former vassal state of the Soviet Union? He’s got form at the moment. He upset the Japanese by writing to them to tell them to get a move on over a Free Trade Agreement. And as we know, the nationality of his own wife is a bit of a mystery to him.

Has political leadership ever been so incompetent and the discourse so facile?