Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Coastal chilling

What a relaxing Bank Holiday weekend I've had tottering around the East Anglian coast with family, finishing one book and starting another, eating delicious, home-cooked food, playing around with my new digital camera, and generally just loafing around. Bliss. Back to London tomorrow where life cranks up several gears.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Aram sey

There's a humourous piece on the BBC about the "Indian queue" and one man's adventure to renew his driving licence in Delhi.

The article reminded me of my most recent visit to India last November. We wanted to transfer some funds and withdraw some money. We arrived at Siliguri's State Bank of India and joined the appropriate queue. After 30 minutes of waiting we arrived at the counter only to be told we were in the wrong queue and to please go stand in line at another counter on another floor. We went up a floor and stood in line. Another 30 minutes or so went by and we reached the counter. The clerk, with much pomp and circumstance, stamped various documents and then asked us to go to counter 12 on the floor below for some kind of authorisation. Counter 12 had another queue attached to it and with a sigh we joined it. At the end of this queue we got our authorisation and were told we had to see the manager for his authorisation. The queue to get into his office was also long, but at least there were chairs to sit on. And so it went on.

By the time we completed all our banking, it was 4:30pm. We had arrived at 10am.

Lengthy queues are a way of life in India and the best defense against them is resignation. On a trip through Rajasthan in 1996, our train broke down somewhere in the middle of the state. A few enterprising villagers sprang out of nowhere and set up a tea stall on the side of the tracks. I joined the queue, grumbling under my breath. The man in front of me turned around and said simply, "Take it easy, this is India, aram sey." It was a good thing I took what he said to heart because our train was stuck for 24 hours and all we could do was chill out, play cards with the conductor and exchange stories and jokes with our fellow passengers. It's one of the best train journies I've ever had.

Other links today:
+ Five things you probably didn't notice in The Shining
+ Exquisite, century-old postcards from around the world
+ 30 minute video mashup of Planet of the Apes and the Twilight Zone

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Clowning around

The last time I visited the circus, I was in India and 7 years old. It was night and we were at a mela with a merry-go-round and ferris wheel, and the circus was inside a stripy tent with no roof and the stars shining through. Ushers were selling ice creams and jalebis. I was in the front row with my cousin brother and getting agitated with excitement as the drums began to roll. I laughed at the clown, and "oooohhed" and "aaaahhed" at the trapeze girls. But the circus also had sad-looking elephants, bears and monkeys being harassed into performing by nasty humans, and I was on the verge of tears.

I never attended a circus again.

Somehow I've never managed to catch a Cirque Du Soliel show - I've always thought they'd be too glossy, too grandiose, too "annual New Year fixture" for my taste. So it was a real treat to attend my first circus show since I was seven and for it to be the sexy, irreverent, ramshackle and vaudevillian Circus Oz at the Royal Festival Hall last night.

I loved "Happy the Clown" walking upside down on the Festival Hall ceiling and getting very drunk in the process, the "trashy disco diva" stuffing her face with popcorn between contortions, and everyone - acrobats, aerialists, jugglers (eight balls!), clowns, musicians, BMX'ers - fighting to show off their skills in a mad blur of fire.

I even tolerated (just about) the obligatory and oh-so-fashionable "political satire" segments: the teetering pyramid of suited politicians taking a tumble; the "humanitarian cannonball" hurtling across the "razor wire of aggression" onto the "crash-mat of human kindness".

But the bits that had me swooning were the sexy duel between the stunt cyclist and a violinist, the quickfire comedy of the double-jointed dislocationist, and the Strong Woman's dance across the stage inside a revolving wheel.

Anarchic and exquisite. And animal-friendly. As circuses should be.

Related links:
+ Wanna join the circus? You'll have to sit for a circus degree first
+ A history of clowns

Other links today:
+ Bushisms make their welcome return
+ Can a concept exist without words to describe it?

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Reading vacation

Spent a glorious evening reading tonight. Now that I have moved within walking distance of work, I no longer commute 1.5 hours a day by Tube. Though I don't miss scrambling for seats or suffocating in a hermetically-sealed chamber each day, I do miss the (usually) uninterrupted 45 minutes of getting lost in a novel. Commuting, I got through a book a week. Now, I struggle to read a book a month. The simple solution is to cut down on going out. The less painful solution is to book some vacation time - say 2 weeks - not to travel anywhere but to lie in bed - or sit in a cafe with a comfy sofa - all day and read.

A work colleague of mine often takes 1 or 2 weeks holiday to do nothing but hang out on her boat (she lives on the river) and organic allotment. She has no desire to always be going somewhere (she does enough travelling for work).

According to the Observer, one book roughly every 20 seconds is published in the US alone. I am glad that I long ago gave up any ambition of ploughing my way through the [insert the latest "1000 books you must read before you die" list] but I still have a stack of books waiting for me. The pile never diminishes - I read too slowly these days for that to happen - but still I keep optimistically buying new books to read.

I'm now fantasising about a reading vacation.

Books waiting for me to read them:

* Damn those 3 for 2 offers at Waterstones!

Book blogs:
+ Bookslut
+ Amazon world: Some of Amazon's more interesting book reviews
+ Literary saloon

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Notre President soit un idiot

My friend sent me this (hi Beth!). It's from a company in the States that sells laptop bags to Canada (hence the French). The label says, in translation:
  • Wash with warm water
  • Use mild soap
  • Dry flat
  • Do not use bleach
  • Do not dry in the dryer
  • Do not iron
  • We are sorry that our President is an idiot
  • We did not vote for him

Other links today:
+ Date to save - dating to save people from Hell
+ "Black economy" not such a bad thing
+ Positive news from Iraq, for a change

Monday, August 23, 2004

L'Atalante at the Ritzy

At the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, I watched L'Atalante - Jean Vigo's last film before his death from tuberculosis in 1934 aged 29. I loved it - a mesmeric film of newly-weds travelling the waterways of France on a barge; with scenes that have an eroticism frequently lacking from most modern films.

The husband is content with the daily routines of barge life, but the wife begins to crave more excitement. At first the lovers' passion for each other is enough to sustain her through long days on the barge. Then she amuses herself with the eccentricities of an elderly crew member who has a woman in every port and a disturbing obsession with cats. Eventually she is lured ashore when the barge docks in Paris.

She falls for and then quickly grows tired of the Depression-era city's gluttony, lust and danger, and is filled with longing for her husband. The woman searches for the barge in vain, but the old eccentric eventually finds her and the couple are lustily reunited.

It's a simple plot that does not do justice to the movie's greatest achievement: the interplay of strong acting, complex characterisation and an overarching brooding atmosphere that conveys the myriad emotions that engulf most new relationships - from joy and ecstasy to resignation and compromise. The cinematography is intense, dreamlike, yet unsentimental.

It is a shame the film stock the Ritzy used jumped around so much it gave me motion sickness, and that the cinema had to slice off the top of the film to make the subtitles fit at the bottom. Oh well. Apparently the character Madonna portrayed in her book Sex and video for Erotica was inspired by Dita Parlo - the main actress in this film.

Other links today:
+ A funny thing happened on the way to the lynching (1924 photo). Surreal.
+ NPR special on the history of hostilities between the Middle East and the West, 1098-2004. Fascinating.
+ Fear itself: Learning to live in the age of terrorism. One man's terror roadtrip through Madrid, NYC, Jerusalem and on British Airways. Disturbing.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Dr Caligari on the South Bank

Last night we went to see the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - "a coffee-on-the-Left-Bank, furrowed-brow unfiltered cigarette of a horror movie" according to the National Review - in other words, a German expressionist horror flick from 1919.

What was unique about the experience was that it was projected onto the wall of the National Theatre's 23 metre high Lyttelton Tower on the South Bank and accompanied by a live performance on the dulcimer by Geoff Smith.

We settled comfortably into the deckchairs on the outdoor terrace, and everyone cracked open the beer and wine, supped tea and coffee, crunched on snacks.

A drive-in movie, I suppose, but English-stylee.

Other links today:
+ Monkey portraits by Jill Greenberg
+ Gallery of 1920s and 30s Japanese children's book illustrations
+ Youth violence has Japan struggling for answers

Coin Street visions

Spent a chilled out day grooving to the beats of South African music at the Coin Street festival on the South Bank today.

The Coin Street development is a particularly interesting area of the South Bank, and runs 13 acres between Waterloo and Blackfriar bridges. In 1977, the area was derelict and an obvious target for commerical developers. The Coin Street Action Group protested the threatened commercialisation and successfully proposed an alternative vision focussed on recreational parks and social housing.

Alternative visions for the area continue today: there are plans for new housing cooperatives, as well as a public swimming pool and community health centre.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Photographer of the mundane

At my local bookstore today, I noticed that one of my favourite photographers of the American vernacular landscape has had his book, Uncommon Places, reprinted. Stephen Shore was art's equivalent of Jack Kerouac in that he found fame after a series of photographic road trips across America. He elevated the ordinary snapshot to high art, turned public into private space, and transformed the mundane - an empty parking lot, a plate of food on a table, a motel bedroom, a deserted gas station - into the mystical.
The internet - in the form of photoblogs - has provided an outlet for thousands of "photographers of the mundane". The two photoblogs I visit the most often are those of Heather Champ (click on each picture for the next) and R. Gardiner. I wish Amazon would hurry up and send my digital camera!

Related links:
More Stephen Shore photos

Thursday, August 19, 2004


An aural exhibition in which musicians have created soundscapes in response to the Victoria & Albert Museum's myriad rooms and spaces has completely derailed my idea of experiencing visual art.

At the V&A's Shhh... exhibition, Roots Manuva's "You Rang Me Lord?", for example, pounded through my headphones as soon as I entered the opulent, gold-encrusted, 18th century music room, immediately making clear the fact that the room was built on the spoils of slavery.

Ex-Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Frazer's ethereal and bewitching chanting elevated Raphael's cartoons to even higher dimensions.

And David Bryne's symphony of flushing toilets and gushing water in the V&A's disabled toilets meant I will never take visiting a public convenience forgranted again.

My favourite piece was the soundscape created by artists Jane and Louise Wilson for the Cast Room - the V&A's dark, dank and decrepit collection of High Victorian plaster cast sculpture. The happy voices of children playing - clambering over architectural ruins - abruptly and horrifyingly interrupted by the dull, silent thud of a body falling to the ground.

I'm seeing Edward Hopper at the Tate Modern next week. I wonder what music I should take to accompany my experience? Something plaintive, solitary, melancholy perhaps. Or something joyous and stirring to bring out new dimensions in his pieces. Listen to this space...

A tasty aside: a transformative experience of a different kind, afterwards, in the V&A cafe, where I had the most delicious and decadent pot au chocolat - so thick my teaspoon stood up in it. It's still sticking to my teeth. Yummmmmmmm.

Related links:
BBC review of Shhh...

Other links today:
The Armish have a website - yes, it's owned by an Armish!
Those kool Tokyo kats! (photos)

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The real London Underground

How the London Underground really looks. Isn't it beautiful?

Photographer R. Gardiner has superimposed a geographically accurate Tube (subway) map over a NASA satellite image of London. Why can't the maps on the Underground look like this instead of this (PDF).

The current map was originally designed in 1933 by Harry Beck - an electrical engineer who based the map on a circuit diagram (Flash).

Other links today:
Annie Mole's Going Underground blog
Essential reading to make your daily commute more bearable.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Digital camera heaven

I took all 12 rolls of film from my recent vacation to Colorado and New Mexico to my local photo store today and considered uttering my own last rites when they told me the cost. So I got back to the office and immediately bought this. Watch out for neverending useless photo slides on this site soon....

The Rat Pack

Went to see The Rat Pack at the Strand in Aldwych last night and was disappointed that the play did not even hint at the troubled off-stage lives of Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin and "Chairman of the Mob Board" Frank Sinatra. More concert than drama, the play nonetheless gave me a little taste of the three men's cocky nonchalence - their politically-incorrect and whiskey-drenched wisecracks and repartee.

And the theatre's snug confines seemed perfectly to double for the smoky atmosphere of the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, where the Rat Pack (including Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford) enthralled in the early 60s.

With a suitably fanatical crowd that would do a Rocky Horror Picture Show performance in Stoke-on-Trent proud, I eventually fell for the play's bland charms.

More links today:
Which Rat Pack member are you?
I'm Frank - go figure?!?!

Monday, August 16, 2004

London Mela 2004

Had a wonderful day at the London Asian Mela in Gunnersbury Park yesterday - henna tattooing; massages; face painting; Kathak dance workshops; pickles and chutneys for sale; pakoras, idlis, dosas and kulfi ice cream to eat; spiced orange juice to drink.

There was lots of music, from classical raags and folk music to bhangra and saccharine Asian pop.

The smallest stage produced the loudest and rawest sounds - hardcore, underground Asian rap and drum & base. Hosted by DJs Bobby Friction and Nihal, we danced to Sonik Gurus, Nasha Crew, Raghev, Twilight Players and Envy Soundclash. Handpounding stonking tunes that brought trouble as Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian kids tried to out do each other with their fists, feet and flags. The police presence in the crowd was phenomenal.

It took two hours to get out of the car park (more fool us for taking the car) - yet a wonderful meal of Jamaican curried chicken and rice at Ochi Caribbean in Shepherds Bush made up for it.

Other links today:

To me, the NYC visual landscape is synonymous with fire escapes (reg req)
I love mandalas

Where were you when Elvis died?

I was a small child and had only a vague awareness of who Elvis was (primarily as a sweaty, oversized man with a voice that made my mother swoon). We were on a family caravan holiday on a farm in Cornwall. I was lying on the bed reading a book about a Snow Queen. My mother was cooking. The radio was on. Then the music stopped playing. Soon after, my mother stopped cooking and started crying. Elvis' death made no impression on me at the time, but my mother's crying did.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Mannequin sculpture

And I thought they just appeared in store windows:
"To show that shop mannequins do not 'Just appear' in window displays I have produced this guide to demonstrate the skills and processes used in the making of a Rootstein mannequin. With top fashion model Lauren I will show you the work from concept to finished product."

This is why I pay my BBC license

Three new things I've learned from the BBC this week:
"African-Americans in the US, if considered as a separate country, would rank 11th in the world by gross national product.

"Pink was a boy's colour while blue was thought better for girls - a 'generally accepted rule' according to The Ladies Home Journal in 1918, which described pink as 'more decided and stronger" while blue was "more delicate and dainty'.

"The first sponsor of the Olympics, starting the trend at the 1928 Amsterdam games, was Coca-Cola."

Last life in the universe

Saw a beautiful and quirky movie last night at the Curzon Soho. Last Life in the Universe is a sombre and romantic mood piece by Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang about a young, obsessive-compulsive and suicidal Japanese man's brief connection with a young, impulsive and grieving Thai woman. Beautifully filmed and scripted. Art house cool at its best.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Olympian divide

So the Athens Olympics have begun with half the tickets still unsold? The threat of terror has been blamed but the spiralling cost of tourist accommodation couldn't have helped. My local radio station reported this morning that one hotel (a Bed and Breakfast) was charging 800 Euros (£536; US $988) a night - even though it was 50 miles from Athens.

Inevitably, many of the city's hoteliers and merchants are angry at the lack of tourism, and feel the much touted regeneration of Athens will pass them by and could even lead to higher taxes.

Meanwhile, Greek activist group Anti-2004, continues to assert that the Games have intensified the violation of Athenian civil and environmental rights:

"The democratic rights and the civil freedoms are shrinked. A new terror legislation comes to complete the existing one. The streets are full of cameras supervising and following up the citizens.

"The working relations get worse and unpaid overtime and intensive work are established. There have been already 13 victims who died during the Olympic works' performance.

"The natural environment in Attiki is plundered. Free, public, mountaineous and coastal areas are filled with buildings and they are given to individuals for their own benefit.

"The public debts have been inflated. For the irrational cost of Olympic Games the working class is called to pay, while the current, as well as the previous government, promotes new measures of frugality."

Other Olympian links:

Gene doping: Genetically engineered athletes
Sex at the Olympics
Olympics' digital security unprecedented
Olympian struggle: Fans face boot for eating or drinking wrong brands at games
Office Olympics: Lift waiting, staple chase, diskus throw, chair rowing and 4 minute sandwich challenge

Build a better Bush

Here's mine; where's yours?

Other links today:

Girl's First Communion invalidated over wheat-free wafer
Welcome to Marlboro Country

Friday, August 13, 2004

Terror on my mind

"After seeing 14 Middle Eastern men board separately (six together, eight individually) and then act as a group, watching their unusual glances, observing their bizarre bathroom activities, watching them congregate in small groups, knowing that the flight attendants and the pilots were seriously concerned, and now knowing that federal air marshals were on board, I was officially terrified."

Nothing to fear but fear itself? An intense account of skyborne terror struck me with both fear and scepticism. Genuine or not, the piece's dramatic narrative certainly makes this a "page turner".

Other links today:
Inside Al-Qaeda’s hard drive: Budget squabbles, baby pictures, office rivalries - and the path to 9/11

Planet twinkie

Every time I go to the US I have to eat four things at least once: biscuits and gravy (this last trip at Albuquerque Airport on my way back home to London), corndogs (three times - all at Sky City Casino, Acoma, New Mexico), Dairy Queen vanilla soft serve ice cream (Durango, Colorado - but I couldn't find it plain as I prefer, so had to have it Blizzard-style with chunks of peanut butter cups), and Twinkies (two in one go, in a gas station in Denver).

Twinkies come in all colours and are 100% artificial. Because I love them (but only once every few years), my heart went out to this 30 year old Twinkie. Its keeper says: "It's rather brittle, but if you dusted it off, it's probably still edible".

Wanna eat some Twinkies sushi?

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Backlash against blogs

The backlash against blogs has begun. I blame the Democrats: bloggers at this year's Democratic National Convention failed to live up to the hype with their non-journalistic "see me, hear me!" musings. CNet's Charles Cooper: "After spending years belittling the shortcomings of the mainstream media, they had me expecting more. Instead, I had to content myself with gems such as, 'Bill Clinton looks really small from the upper tiers of the Fleet Center'." CNet's picks of the blogosphere.

Stealth marketing

I know it's self-referential for bloggers to refer to news related to blogging, but I can't resist this piece from Guardian Online: companies such as Ford and Olympus are searching blogs as a way of monitoring brand appeal. Olympus, for example, send new product details to important bloggers to gauge opinion ahead of launch.

This reminds me that last year, Ford paid British novelist Carole Matthews to feature the Ford Fiesta prominently in her next two novels.

This also reminds me of Magda in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, employed by marketers to spread the word about brands in clubs and bars, disguised as a member of the public.

Will such "surreptitious" marketing tactics work in the blogging world, whereby companies court and seduce influential bloggers with new products to extoll online?

Of course!

Other links today:
Koko the gorilla calls for the dentist
Turkmenistan leader orders palace of ice to be built in the desert