Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Watty's all joyful:

It's my favourite day of the year. No, not because of Walpurgisnacht - I shan't be eating pickled herring today; perhaps I should.

No, today sees the publication of the Proms programme, which really does mark the beginning of summer for me. No highlights yet; I haven't had time to read it, although this looks particularly unmissable....
More later

Monday, April 28, 2003

Watty's feeling all literate:

Some more writing. I've been promising this for about a year now, and I finally did it:

It may yet see a revision or two, but it's substantially done. I have found some of the people from the bus, and they have promised not to sue. Next step is to send it to the two schools involved, and see if I can provoke a response of some kind, it being the 25th anniversary and all. You never know...

Also, the books list over there has been getting seriously out of date. I'm going to try to fix it, but the one thing I know for sure is that my nice idea of doing reviews for each thing I read is not really sustainable - it's a matter of time, I'm afraid, as most things are. Still, nice to be busy...

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Part 3:

  • I travelled on most of the elements of transport covered by the Travelcard, and it stuck me what astonishingly good value it is. For less than I paid for my sandwich at lunchtime, I travelled from Osterley to Wimbledon on the Tube, from Wimbledon to Merton, and then on to Elmers End via Croydon on Tramlink; then to Lewisham on a normal train (in spite of strikes); onward to Greenwich on the DLR; still on the DLR (once I managed to find the cunningly concealed Cutty Sark station) to Bank; and then tube - plus a stroll in the parks - back to Osterley. I'm sure I could sit down and work out how far that all is, but take it from me, £4.50 for that journey is ridiculously cheap.

  • No, my sandwich didn't actually cost £5 - I had some other things, too.

  • There are some wonderful roads in North Wales - if you're ever jaded by hacking around on motorways, try driving from Welshpool to Dolgellau.

  • There are some people who would like to hear from you if you do enjoy hacking around on motorways.

  • Chester is every bit as pleasant as I had always imagined. It contains what is now one of my favourite bookshops: partly because it sold me a copy of The Right Stuff for a pound; partly because it also sold me a splendid copy of Mahler 3 for next to no money; but mostly because it is on top of the City Walls - in fact, it is effectively in the City Wall. This elevates it enormously in my estimation. Good prices, too, if you're used to London.

  • I am trying to visit all four Tate galleries this year, while I am a member ('twas one of my birthday presents). I made it to Liverpool, and I'm extremely glad I did. Not only is the Tate much more comprehensive and interesting than I remember, but they had a quite stunning installation by Janet Cardiff, which made the whole weekend worthwhile. You can read about it on the page I linked to, but neither the description there, nor anything I might say here can convey the power and thrill of walking around this piece and genuinely feeling as if you are inside the choir. Nothing can convey the joy of hearing unexpected harmonies; the feeling that one of the singers appears to be slightly flat until you walk a foot or so to the left, and hear how exquisitely the voice harmonises with the one next to it; the sheer uplift of being in the middle of this piece when you are enveloped by one of Tallis' sudden bursts of joy; the sight of other people, walking around enraptured or the sudden glimpse of container ships on the Mersey just when you are convinced you must be in some gothic cathedral. Wonderful, and highly recommended. As is her other piece in the same display, a curious and witty examination of cinemagoing.

  • I also went to see the Beatles Story. It ought to be a tacky rip-off. Miraculously, it isn't.

Friday, April 25, 2003

Watty's wanderings, part 2: (before I forget)

A few observations on things I saw on the way to Portmeirion - and on the way back, come to that:

  • I walked on a part of this route one day; and I discovered our neighbourhood quarry at Kensworth. Apparently, it has an underground pipeline which delivers its products to Rugby, over a hundred miles away. At least it keeps the disruptive traffic down. I made a mental note to do more walking - I wonder if I can keep my resolution?

  • I went checking up on Time Team - trekking around South London, I found two of the sites from the most recent series: Merton Abbey Mills, and Greenwich. Unsurprisingly, neither site showed any sign of having had enormous trenches cut into them. Surprisingly - to me, anyway - both the marvellous second-hand bookshops near those two sites have fallen into a state of some neglect. There is, as far as I can tell, now only one decent bookshop in Greenwich, and none at Merton. Which is not to say that I didn't find books there - I did - but that browsing was a depressing, rather than uplifting, experience. I fear for some of these places. And I do feel inspired to create my online bookshop database, but where would I find the time?

  • More later, possibly much later...

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Watty's been wandering:

All over North Wales and Merseyside, to be exact. Oh, and a trip on a tram in Croydon, too. And a walk in the country - the kind I don't often do nowadays. It's been a lot of fun, if tiring. I have several observations to make, not all chronological (where's the fun in that?) and not all in this post, but I'll make them anyway.

Apparently, bets are being taken now on the UK's first 100oF day happening this summer. If April's anything to go by, it's a dead cert. Twice in the course of the last four days, the thermometer in my car read 32oC - admittedly, the true temperature was around 26o or so, but even so - this was in the middle of April. Earlier in the week, it was snowing. I am naturally sceptical towards claims of significant climate changes, but I do wonder...

I have longed to go back to Portmeirion for nearly 20 years now, and on Friday, I finally made it.

A more perfect day for it I cannot imagine. Admittedly, the glorious weather brought out the tourists - but I can't complain, that included me. I wandered around, taking pictures like they were going out of fashion (the link should load quickly enough; they're all thumnails - some of the images are quite big, though), and trying to work out where the giant chess board had gone. I think I'm a little sad that the whole place is so determinedly commercial now - every building not given over to the hotel is a shop of some kind. The whole thing is very tasteful, of course, but I still would have preferred some of the mystery I remembered to still be evident in the closed and shuttered buildings to the insistence that I should buy yet more postcards, or fudge, or pottery, or watercolours, or whatever. But I wandered around the grounds a lot more than last time, and I photographed a lot more (oh, you noticed), and I definitely want to go back in fewer than 20 years this time.
And I discovered a real curiosity. I still don't quite know how to describe it; I imagine Derrida would have a field day with it. It's a map. A map, in the end, of an imaginary place, but nevertheless, a real map. In a way, it's a map of a map. I'll try to explain.

I imagine that most people reading this are at least familiar with The Prisoner; if not, feel free to go off and familiarise yourself for a while. The Prisoner took place in a location only identified as "The Village". Many (but my no means all, of the outdoor scenes were filmed at Portmeirion, but The Village was no more Portmeirion than it was Borehamwood Studios - it was a fictional place. In the first episode, Patrick McGoohan's character (I'll skip over all that "Number 6" stuff, shall I?) is seen examining a map of The Village. The map only appears in that one shot, and while it is clearly based roughly on Portmeirion, it is by no means a map of Clough Williams-Ellis' creation. However, imaginiation is no barrier to commerce, and on sale in the Prisoner shop in Portmeirion is a very accurate facsimile of the map of The Village. Now, this may be a unique map - a clear and accurate representation of an imaginary place, sold to people visiting the real place which inspired the imaginary place, but almost entirely useless to them in getting about, since some of the buildings and streets on the map are in the wrong place, while others simply do not exist. I almost bought one - I wish I had, now.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Watty asks for a moment's silence:

Hardly surprisingly, but all of a sudden, Concorde is to be retired. Quite apart from the entirely selfish reflection that I would have liked to have flown on her one day, it seems to me to be a terribly sad day for aviation, and technology in general. It seems that one of the leaps forward in technology has turned out to be a dead end, and yet it is still a staggering achievement by any standards. Launched into a fuel shortage, it really never had a chance on economic or ecological grounds - only mass-production, and acceptance by US airlines, could have made the critical difference - in the end a truly staggering amount of money was poured into the project, and even at today's hyper-inflated fares, it could never have recouped its development costs. But it was - is, still - the ultimate proof of the axiom that if an aircraft looks beautiful, it will function well. Supersonic passenger flight at the edge of space has been commonplace, if not common, for 30 years and more, and rarely, if ever, can an aircraft have fulfilled its design brief so well.

And - although it seems unlikely - I do hope that somehow, one can be kept flying. Not just because it is a symbol of what the European aviation industries could do when determined; not just because it is the last great airliner (I can't tell modern jet airliners apart, and I'm interested in the subject); not just because it was the only aircraft to always be referred to as if there was only one ("Oh, look - there's Concorde"; never a Concorde); and not just because of the extraordinary sight and sound of the takeoff. No, I'd like to think that we could keep one flying as a demonstration that late twentieth-century technology could make things of beauty and utility, in that order. And I'd like to think that it could be kept flying long enough for the rest of the aviation industry to catch up...

Watty's under the weather...

I am sitting here in my office, peering out at the weather, and celebrating what must be some kind of record, even by British weather standards.

Last week, it felt like spring; grey and wet, but not as cold as it had been. After a couple of days of that, we had summer - clear, blue skies, warm sunshine - temperatures not far off normal June or July levels. Then, at the beginning of the week, autumn arrived - still the same crisp, clear skies, but the temperature dropped by about ten degrees. This morning, it's snowing. I give up.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Watty's feeling a bit cartographic:

I bought myself a new road atlas on Friday. About time, too - the old one had been shredded by assorted children, not quite yet old enough to appreciate maps as things of beauty. I happened to be in a petrol station, as one does, and I suddenly spotted the rack of maps. Now, I could easily spend an hour or so musing over various atlases, weighing up the benefits and demerits of what are essentially only slightly different versions of exactly the same thing - the roads don't change from atlas to atlas, after all. But time is short - I'm on my way home - and I choose the one which seems to have the best combination of durability and value; in the end, it's only a road atlas, it's not a proper folding map.

For proper folding maps have a special hold on me. I remember poring over Ordnance Survey maps - those beautiful old quarter-inch editions, the traditional red-covered one-inch series, almost as soon as I could read. One of the reasons I went to University in Edinburgh is because of my great aunt, who had a streetmap of the city in her front room. Often, when visiting, I would pull out the map and study it intently - finding what, I cannot say, but I seemed to find something new every time. There are those, I know, who cannot follow roadmaps; cannot relate the marks on the paper to the physical world; I think I understand how that can be, but I cannot imagine it. I used to think that I had an innate sense of direction, but I realise now that it came from studying maps of places until I could navigate around them with my eyes shut - as soon as I was in a strange place, I couldn't find North, except by blind guesswork. Having said that, one of my favourite stories about myself relates the tale of navigating out of the entirely unfamiliar town of Blackburn purely by the position of the sun in the sky.

I have maps all around me - there is a seventeenth-century map of Scotland above the desk where I'm typing this; there's a wonderful historical map of the London Underground in the bookcase just behind me; there are at least two facsimile old county maps in the drawers of this desk, and if I go downstairs, I'll easily find my huge Times Atlas of the World, and that's to say nothing of the maps and atlases in the car. And there's a kind of magic in them - they're not simply navigation aids, they're the keys to the world. With the right map, and enough determination, you can go anywhere, and it can't be just me who would (and does) make the occasional detour because I've spotted a new or interesting-looking road on the map. I often think that you could strand me anywhere and as long as I have a good book, I'll be fine. But the same is true - possibly more so - of a good map.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Watty's all apologies:

I turn my back for a minute, and somehow a fortnight has passed. I'm still here. Today's passing thought is:

Earworms. I can't claim to have invented the term, and I forget who it was, but I am plagued with these most days. You overhear something on the radio, or someone whistles a merry tune, and there it is - firmly fixed inside your head for the rest of the day. For a while it was children's television themes, from watching 'The Hoobs' or some such before breakfast; just today I realised that hearing a siren causes me to hum 'Fireman Sam' for several hours. If someone mentions a shark, I get 'Mack the Knife' for days afterwards. The only known remedy is something loud enough to drown it out. Trouble is, then you start humming that.... Still, better than no music at all, I suppose.