Trigger Warning

Book Review: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman
I’m behind on book reviews. This had been on my to-read list for a while when it turned up in the work book sale; when I discovered Reading Film Theatre is showing the film adaptation this term, it was queue-jumped to discover whether I would want to go and see the film. I think I probably will.


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The Dubliners

Through a variety of logical twists centred on other events, we opted for a short break in Dublin last weekend. Leaving directly from work, the flight from London City Airport was much less hassle than Heathrow, and although we didn’t depart at the advertised time, there seemed to be a fair bit of padding in the schedules. Transfer from the airport at Dublin was very straightforward with the regular bus service.

We arrived at the hotel to find we’d been “upgraded” to a “suite” in the “Georgian wing”. The room looked lovely, but was in fact rather noisy (poorly fitting windows looking out onto a main road) and cold (with minimal bedding, which we addressed and resolved the following morning.) We quickly established that a global search-and-replace of “English” with “Irish” had taken place: for example, “Full Irish Breakfast” and “Irish Breakfast Tea”. But fair enough, I suppose. We were, after all, in Ireland.

Fri 15th: Though cold, it’s bright and sunny at first, and we take in our surroundings. The Custom House is close by.

We move on to Trinity College, Dublin. The Book of Kells exhibition is expensive and badly laid out, but really it’s an excuse to justify the charge to see the books and the Old Library. The books themselves are interesting, although I’m disappointed I didn’t see any comparison to The Lindisfarne Gospels, especially as there’s a comment in the exhibition that one of the other books (The Book of Durrow) may have come from Northumbria.

Like the Bodleian, it appears that the books are filed according to their size.

Before lunch, we fit in a visit to the Natural History Museum. It’s small and quiet, but well-stocked and, compared to its correspondent in London, unreconstructed and of more concentrated interest. In the afternoon, we move on to see Dublin Castle and the cathedrals.

Sat 16th: The forecast isn’t good, particularly for later on. In the morning we visit the National Gallery, which turns out to be very interesting and well-stocked, though many of the names are unknown. Some of the Irish landscapes are particularly beautiful, though there are also some scenes in which nature has ceased to be beautiful and merely looks bleak. Later on we visit the National Museum of Archaeology. This is smaller than expected and balances the day, though it is quite packed with exhibits. The bog bodies are striking, if disturbing; the Bronze Age canoe is impressive. The Viking section is interesting; the museum finds a diplomatic solution to colonisation by describing the invasion of 1169 as “Norman”.

Sun 17th: It’s bright again, intermittently, and we go for another walk along the Liffey before heading up to the City Gallery. There are some interesting pieces, and a lot of modern rubbish, although among the contemporary collection, Close by Elizabeth Magill and Mist by Paul Seawright stand out. By lunch time, the city is heaving with crowds for the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final, but we catch the bus back to the airport. The trains from Paddington are replaced with buses due to engineering work, so we depart from Waterloo instead; a slow train, but not a crowded one.

Food-wise Dublin was disappointing, because it seems you are expected to pre-book (no doubt by “app”) everywhere. Even in a Japanese noodle bar the welcome was dampened by being told we’d have to be finished by 7:30. It was interesting that, like the UK, a significant portion of the hospitality sector is staffed by eastern Europeans.

Things conflate. The poor value of the accommodation and the impossibility of spontaneous discovery on the food front combined with the almost brainwashing-intensity signage of Irish (i.e. anti-British) history on every street corner to make me feel barely welcome. We left, taking the unused coffee sachets with us “in retaliation for the [lack of] blanket”. As I observed, the lack of blanket was probably “in retaliation for the [lack of] potatoes [in the 1840s]”. My overall impression was that (even allowing for the post-Brexit exchange rate) Dublin charges more-or-less London prices but doesn’t deliver as much.

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Immigration, Immigration, Immigration

Book Review: The Making of the British Landscape, by Nicholas Crane
Although I recalled being a little underwhelmed by Crane’s biography of Mercator, I decided to give this one a go when I saw it in the work book sale. I’m pleased I did, because I found it quite well-matched to my expectations and also informative. Crane starts at the end of the last ice age; there’s probably not much meaningful that can be said about “Britain” before that time. For some thousands of years after that, Britain was a peninsula attached to the European mainland by Doggerland. Hardy explorers were the first immigrants, moving north as the glaciers retreated. In parallel, Crane tracks the emergence of life in the Fertile Crescent, with the emergence of agriculture. It reinforces what a backwater Britain has been for most of recorded history.

Successive waves of migration brought technological developments across Europe and into Britain, with occasional evidence of structures remaining. Henges are something of an oddity, not much occurring elsewhere. Tin mining was probably the only innovation that was exported out of Britain. Solar fluctuations were a major hazard, causing little ice ages and depleting food supplies. About a third of the book is taken up with 8000 years of pre-Roman Britain.

The Romans did a lot of deforestation, but they were by no means the first. Britons were somewhat indifferent to Roman civilisation, and let it crumble (or made better use of the readily available stone) when they departed. Londinium was something of an exception, emerging without planning as a commercial centre with a bridge over the river and an adjacent port. Crane frequently uses archaic place names and reveals how they have mutated into modern ones. Angles and Saxons migrated into Britain, which declined, though outposts such as the Northumbria of Bede and Cuthbert were beacons of civilisation. The Viking period demanded more effective defence, and a return to urbanisation, sometimes too little too late. The Norman conquest overwhelmed Britain with European technology again, like the Romans had done, but there were still hazards such as plague that would cause abandonment of settlements from time to time.

The final third of the book focuses on the period from the seventeenth century to the present day, and although the Industrial Revolution occurred across the country, towards the end the book becomes increasingly London-centric. Britain again became an exporter of technology and the owner of an Empire; this period is now ending or has passed too, it seems. The book predates the Brexit Referendum, but it’s not difficult to see from this book that history suggests a period of decline lies ahead.

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Galaxy Quest

The moon landings hadn’t finished before I was born, but I am way too young to remember them. As a youngster and through my teenage years, though, there was news from time to time about the Voyager probes, and I am nostalgic for the BBC’s Horizon documentaries that followed each planetary encounter. Marking the 40th anniversary of their launch is the documentary film The Farthest. It didn’t appear in the listings for this term’s Reading Film Theatre, so I looked for other options. Working in central London gives you the widest opportunity and I found it was showing at Picturehouse Central, by Piccadilly Circus. Billed as a “no ads” showing, I was getting a bit restless after about 20 minutes of adverts, concerned that maybe I was in fact in the wrong screen, but it turned out all right in the end.

There are some negative points to the film. The music, like some of Murray Gold’s work for Doctor Who, was intrusive at times. For whatever reason, the director couldn’t resist the unscientific whooshing sound in animations as the spacecraft passes by the point of view of an observer in the vacuum. There seems to be quite an emphasis on the “human-interest” aspect of the Voyager programme, which is I suppose reasonable, but dwells in particular in the early stages of the film on the Golden Record. (It’s not without interest; in particular, it’s good to see Nick Sagan, one of the child voices on the record, reminiscing about his father).

There is also some politics. The mission was approved by Nixon, initially to cover Jupiter and Saturn only. This was a 1-in-176 year opportunity to visit all four major planets in the outer solar system (“The last person who had the opportunity to make this decision, Mr President, was Thomas Jefferson. He blew it.”) Curiously the film doesn’t delve into the process whereby funding for the project was extended to Uranus and Neptune, though it does cover the scientific aspects of that decision. (Voyager 1 was given a path for a close fly-by of Titan, which precluded it venturing to the other two planets; had the results of the Titan observation justified Voyager 2 taking the same path, the mission would have ended there).

What’s left, then, is the story of the science and the scientists. The many interviews that are spliced together over the course of the film are mostly – though not exclusively – now of old men, itself a sobering thought. The “technology freeze” for the mission was in 1972. The computing power of Voyager is minuscule by today’s standards but was leading-edge at the time – the first spacecraft that could be re-programmed en voyage. The revelations of the Jupiter observations in 1979, including its satellites and ring, were followed by the majesty of Saturn in 1981. Problems with the motors on Voyager 2’s instrument arms had to be resolved after Saturn. The flyby of Uranus in 1986 unfortunately coincided with the Challenger disaster. Although a success scientifically, the tilted planet was surprisingly bland and un-photogenic. In 1989, Neptune was more spectacular.

In 1990, Voyager 1 took the famous Pale Blue Dot picture, a frippery in scientific terms, inspired, as were many things in the programme, by Carl Sagan. It is the most distant human-produced artefact and is reckoned to have left the solar system in 2012. Both Voyager probes are still in contact with the NASA mission, with light signals taking more than 19 hours between Voyager 1 and Earth. As Lawrence Krauss observes in the film, it’s almost certain that the Voyager probes will survive longer than humanity, and also almost certain that no other civilisation will ever encounter them. But there’s the Golden Record, just in case.

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I pass Old Oak Common depot on the way to work every day. Sometimes I’m getting a little extra shut-eye, but sometimes I look out of the window, and one day, a few months ago, I saw a banner advertising an open day at the depot just outside Paddington. I decided it would be something a bit different to do, and bought myself a ticket for the event, which took place yesterday. Billed as celebrating 111 years of the depot, and featuring “Legends of the Great Western”, it was in fact something of an inflection, with the imminent introduction of the IET electric trains on the Great Western line, and the re-purposing of the site to function as the depot for the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) trains.

The website proclaimed “We expect demand for this event to be high” and the directions for getting to the depot suggested “we expect queues to form in two directions”. They weren’t wrong. After catching the train in to Paddington and backtracking along the Bakerloo Line to Willesden Junction, I found myself shortly after 10am in a slowly moving queue. There were some disturbing people who knew the Up and Down speed limits as we crossed the bridge over the West Coast Main Line, which also passes nearby. There was also the guy who worked for Network Rail who observed the irony that he has to fly from London for meetings in Edinburgh because the train is too slow and expensive. All in all it was a half-hour shuffle to get through the gates.

Once inside, the main attractions were, obviously, the locomotives, mostly from the BR diesel era but with some older steam locomotives, and one, very special, visitor: 60163 Tornado.

Those who take these things more seriously were constantly jostling for photo positions, and didn’t hold back from instructing others to “get out of the way”. For the most part, I think it was good-natured, though obviously some would have preferred access to the site without the inconvenience of other people. At the modern end of the spectrum, there was one of the new Class 800 series, Queen Elizabeth II. I do feel there’s something missing. Just painting the name on the surface feels a bit indifferent from a polished nameplate, but that’s the modern rail system for you. We weren’t allowed inside, so it remains a mystery for a little while longer.

All in, it was a fun few hours, and we were lucky with the weather.

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Completing the cycle

Two last Proms, this week, completed the season’s cycle of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos (omitting the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini).

On Tuesday the Oslo Philharmonic were conducted by Vasily Petrenko. They began with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite – an abridged version of the ballet music which was effective, though perhaps one of those pieces which is better in full. Leif Ove Andsnes was the soloist for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4, the last and most overtly modernist of his concertos. It was a popular performance though I found it difficult to tell whether it was the music or Andsnes’ playing that was very percussive in style. He gave us an encore of a Romanza by Sibelius – a composer whose piano pieces aren’t highly rated, but this could almost have been Chopin.

The second half of the concert was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12 (“The Year 1917”). The programme notes suggested this is in fact the “Lenin” symphony that the composer claimed for many years to be working on. The results would suggest either that he was lying, that he didn’t put much effort into it, or that he completed it and sat on it, waiting for the right moment. At the time I found Petrenko’s tempi a little on the fast side and the snare drum a little too insistent; but, listening to the CD I have of Barshai/WDR Cologne, I think Petrenko’s tempo may have been the better after all. The middle movements weren’t memorable and perhaps a bit of a disappointment, but the finale certainly produced a classic Shostakovich faux-triumph, as if he were saying to the authorities, “There, that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”. The concert finished with an orchestral encore of Vocalise, making it the second time I have heard a version of that this season.

On Thursday, the BBC Symphony Orchestra were conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The concert began with Taneyev’s overture The Oresteia. Taneyev has always been an under-rated composer and this was an interesting piece, assembled from themes from his opera, though in the end being spun out into a separate work. For an overture it’s quite long at around 20 minutes, rather like some of Tchaikovsky’s pieces. Kirill Gerstein was the soloist for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This was a successful and contrasting performance to the fourth: much more lyrical, and Gerstein seemed to apply himself to the piano with more sensitivity.

In the second half, we had Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. I’d seen this before, and although I thought it was all right, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to go to see it again specifically. But, in the way that expectations sometimes have of being overturned, Bychkov really put the orchestra through its paces and produced a powerful and dramatic performance, certainly a good way to end my promming season.

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La forza del destino

I was uncertain how popular Prom 54 would be, and I was pleased to be twelfth in the queue, although I knew this wouldn’t necessarily mean a spot on the rail. For once this summer the afternoon was pleasantly warm. The queue did fill out considerably later on.

We were due to move up at 5:15 and go in to the Royal Albert Hall at 5:30, with the concert starting at 6:30. There was a lack of progress and information, and nothing seemed to be happening. Finally, the queues were moved up to the doors, but the process stalled again. Security sensibly decided to run the first few people, including me, through the bag search, and I was then able to read the notice: the concert would be delayed by 15 minutes “due to the late arrival of the orchestra’s instruments”. Well, that’s a new one! We assumed they must have been stuck at Heathrow (though, objectively, there’s equal odds they could have been stuck at Milan).

Finally, at about 6pm, we started moving in. As we descended into the bowels of the Hall en route to the Arena, I could hear (but not quite recognise) dark, brooding, bass music. Were the orchestra still on the stage rehearsing at this late hour? It turned out they were, and as I ascended the stairs into the Arena, I finally recognised the music: We were entering the Hall to the march The Pines of the Appian Way from The Pines of Rome, the final scheduled piece of the concert. What a privilege to enter in this way, especially into this British simulacrum of the Colosseum! As a signal event, it reminded me of the “swans” flying over the Royal Albert Hall prior to the Fifth Symphony in the Sibelius cycle of 2015. As the orchestra rehearsed the music, we correspondingly rehearsed our applause, genuine but perhaps with a hint of irony. I found myself comfortably on the rail; some of the people in front must have headed for seats, or to the left-hand side of the Arena (conventionally the front row splits 50-50 between season ticket and day Prommers, but it’s not always observed, and this season’s changes due to building works have made it particularly unworkable).

Adhering to its revised schedule, the concert proper began with the Filarmonica della Scala Milan conducted by Riccardo Chailly and violinist Leonidas Kavakos in Brahms’ Violin Concerto. It was a fair but not brilliant performance. At points the tempo was slowed right down, an interesting interpretation but one that did not add anything particular, in my opinion.

The second half programme was the reason I’d picked this concert: two of Respighi’s Roman tone poems. I saw the full trilogy in 2014, just before I had a holiday in Rome, and it was good to take this opportunity to revisit The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome. Fountains has always seemed to me to be the weakest of the trilogy, so I was pleasantly surprised as I found the orchestra really did bring it to life. Pines, on the other hand, has always seemed to me to be the strongest, so would the orchestra fulfil its potential? They certainly did. You always wonder whether a “native” orchestra “feels” the music of its compatriot composers better; on the evidence of this performance, I’d incline favourably to the theory. Fresh, energetic, reflective – they were all of these. The birdsong fitted seamlessly with the orchestral playing, and the recapitulation of the Appian Way was just as spectacular as the rehearsal, in this perfect venue for such brash music. I could see the orchestra had the music for the overture to La forza del destino on their stands – presumably prepared as an encore – but the delay to the start of the concert had thwarted it; it seems the curse continues.

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