Category Archives: Culture

What goes around, comes around

When I was studying Psychology at university 20 years ago, one of my professors told me that after much consideration he had concluded that most natural phenomena and all human behaviours are cyclical. “Everything”, he said, “waxes and wanes.”

He cited the example of a driver given a ticket for speeding. Having been penalised, the driver reduces his speed in order not to get punished again. After a while, however, the driver forgets about his previous violation, and the effect of the punishment wears off. Consequently his speed begins to creep up to its previous, normal level, and before long he gets caught speeding once again. The second penalty produces the same response as the original punishment - the driver once again reduces his speed, but again only temporarily. In this way the cycle repeats itself continuously.

Map of England showing Alnwick, Northumberland.An article in the most recent weekend edition of the Financial Times made me wonder if this pattern is applicable to property. In What your money can buy in Britain’s best place to live journalist Christian Dymond “finds out what is selling - and who is buying - in the Northumberland market town of Alnwick”.

The article caught my eye because last November I celebrated Thanksgiving with friends who currently live in the village of Longhoughton, Northumberland, which is less than four miles from Alnwick. At the time I was surprised to learn that Alnwick had recently been chosen as the best place to live in Britain, but the FT article confirms the story and attributes it to a recent survey in Country Life magazine (let’s simply ignore the implicit assumption that the best place to live has to be in the “country”).

History, relatively low house prices, location, local identity, a low crime rate, schooling, health care and the local farmers market all contributed to Alnwick’s pole position. Alnwick Castle, used as a location for the two Harry Potter films, has been the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland since 1309, while its £7m garden project has brought major benefits to the town.

A final, clinching attribute, said Country Life, was that Northumberland is projected to have a smaller increase in new households over the next 20 years than any other county. Until 2006, at least, the figure given by Northumberland County Council is about 700 a year. And that is in a county of 2,000 square miles, with a population of just over 300,000, the majority of whom live in the south-east corner.

So, Alnwick has been chosen as the best place to live in Britain because few people are going to live there. Alnwick is popular because it will remain unpopular - or at least relatively unpopulated, for whatever reason - in the future.

I like that circular irony very much, and if it’s true, we can predict with some confidence that Alnwick will cease being the best place to live once it has become sufficiently popular to attract lots of people. What goes around, comes around. Everything waxes and wanes.

Baz’s Boheme

La Bohème On Broadway
Recently while in New York, my wife and I saw the production of La Bohème directed by Baz Luhrmann and currently playing on Broadway. This production has attracted a lot of media attention, not only because it’s directed by Luhrmann, currently one of Hollywood’s favourite directors, but also because it’s sung in the original Italian, features young, classically trained singers, and is playing on Broadway, an unusual location for “traditional” opera in New York.

My wife and I both enjoyed the performance, which was clearly the source for much of the style and content of Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge (this production of La Bohème is largely 13 years old having been first produced by Australian Opera in 1989). However, we wondered about the use of microphones during the performance. We couldn’t decide if all the singers’ voices were amplified or not. In the end we concluded they were all wearing microphones, but were perhaps being amplified to different degrees at different times. There was no doubt that the production’s sound quality was given a great deal of care and attention. Amplified voices are normally very easy to detect in traditional theatres, but in this case it really required some careful listening to work out what was going on.

A few days after we attended a matinée performance, Anthony Tommasini, writing in The New York Times, criticised the production’s use of amplification (see Look What They’re Doing to Opera):

…from a musical perspective, many veteran opera buffs will be dismayed, as I was, by the compromises the production has made, most grievously in its use of body microphones to amplify the singers and two digital sampling keyboards to fill in the instrumental textures that the meager (for Puccini) 26-piece orchestra leaves blank. Newcomers to opera who think they are experiencing the real thing are not.

The amplification of “La Bohème” at the Broadway Theater is far more subtle than the blasting sound systems so common at musicals these days. Still, the actual voices are flattened into an amplified wall of sound, and the spatial element of operatic singing, with voices coming from different locations on the stage, is completely undermined. It’s sometimes difficult, especially in the crowd scenes, to tell who is singing without checking to see whose lips are moving. And the voices are thrust at you, even those of the milk maids who, as they pass the city gates in Act III, sing a wistful little tune that is supposed to be subdued and gentle.

I’d agree that amplification certainly does change the sound, but I am not convinced that it is necessarily worse. Some singers struggle to project their voice in large, modern venues, so the “subdued and gentle” sounds can be very difficult to hear. Furthermore, who’s to say what the “real thing” is in opera? Like all art forms, opera has changed over time, and the characteristics and conditions typical of Monteverdi are not the same as those of Bizet or Strauss. How do we know that Mozart wouldn’t have embraced the microphone had he been given the chance? Opera fans should not be distracted by concerns about the illusory “real thing”; instead, they should jump at this chance to see the latest thing. It’s unlikely to be around forever.

American tidings

Some reflections on being in America:

  • At breakfast in the Brooklyn Diner on 57th Street Bing Crosby is singing about "tidings of comfort and joy", while the headline in the New York Times states "Bush has widened authority of C.I.A. to kill terrorists". Some tidings, some joy.
  • The Borders bookstore on Broadway states books are sorted "Alphabetical by Aurthor".

An American December

December is going to be a busy month. I haven’t posted anything to this weblog as yet, and the rest of the month doesn’t look good, given that my wife and I will soon be in the US for two weeks.

I’m looking forward to our trip, despite the travelling and, what I assume will be, increased scrutiny from US customs and immigration officials. It will be a chance to take stock of the public mood at an unusual time of year in an unique period of US history.

Luckily for me, BBC 4 has just begun the re-broadcast of Alistair Cooke’s 1972 television series on the history of America (see Alistair Cooke: America 30 Years On), so I can brush up on all the US history I never learned. Episode one was televised tonight and the series continues for the next twelve days. Unfortunately we’ll have left before it finishes, so I’ll have to record some of the episodes that we miss.

A diversity of food

Yesterday, while waiting in line for the cashier at the grocery store I looked to my left and right. On my right were lots of exotic convenience foods, such as single servings of Thai pineapple rice, and on my left I saw “instant Miso soup”, “Organic Japanese green tea” and bottles of Sake. This was in a small urban branch of Sainsbury’s, although admittedly it was in central London.

I can’t think of an aspect of British life that has changed as much as food in the last three decades. If you transported someone here from even 1980 they wouldn’t recognise the country’s culinary choices at all. Prospect magazine wants to provoke a debate and so has asked Did British food really get better? It’s an interesting question. There can be no doubt that British food has changed.

Bookish Martel man wins Man Booker

Life of Pi book coverAn acquaintance of mine, Yann Martel, won the Man Booker prize last night for his novel Life of Pi. His life will almost certainly never be the same. As I write, he’s being interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today after having been up all night partying somewhere in London.

The best newspaper coverage has been in the Guardian. The day before the winner was announced, novelist and prize judge Russell Celyn Jones wrote (Read between the hype):

The whole point of the Booker prize is to bring attention and new readers to such books that would otherwise struggle in a market dominated by commercial fiction. Life of Pi is a good example.

More can found in the following two Guardian stories. The first, more interesting piece, is about Yann; the second focuses on the prize itself.

I can’t comment on his book because I haven’t read it. I hardly ever read fiction. Real life is so fascinatingly bizarre who needs to make stuff up?

Time for another genius?

Earlier this month Martin Kettle questioned the current state of the piano recital in the pages of The Guardian (Why are today’s concert pianists so boring?), and Susan Tomes responded in kind by suggesting that the modern music business is the cause of the pianists’ demise (The visonary thing).

It seems however, that this complaint is not new. Arts & Letters Daily has compiled a number of links to celebrate the work of Glenn Gould, who would have turned 70 today had he lived. Among them is an essay written in 1983 by Denis Dutton (The Ecstasy of Glenn Gould):

Though the world of music and art has always been thought to thrive on novelty, history teaches us that it often rejects the imaginatively new simply because it is too new. Examples are limitless, but I have in mind something that interested me back in the late 1950s. It was then common to complain that virtually all of the younger generation of pianists (and not only pianists) were musically indistinguishable from one another. All very fine technically, so the story went, but what of spirit? They all played "like machines," devoid of temperament, of individual personality.

It looks like we could do with another Glenn Gould.


How do you like your toast? Delia Smith suggests:

“When the toast is done, remove it immediately to a toast rack. Why a toast rack? Because they are a brilliant invention. Freshly made toast contains steam, and if you place it in a vertical position, in which the air is allowed to circulate, the steam escapes and the toast becomes crisp and crunchy. Putting it straight on to a plate means the steam is trapped underneath, making it damp and soggy. If you don’t possess a toast rack you really ought to invest in a modest one.”

On the other hand I have just found the antidote for Delia’s recipe in a recent Letter From America by Alistair Cooke. In writing about the lack of toast racks in America (!), he attributes the following quote to Mark Twain:

“In the heyday of the industrial revolution it took the mechanical genius of the English to devise a receptacle which guaranteed to deliver in the shortest possible time toast that was both cold and hard.”

I’m with Mark Twain.

Some Very Local History

“You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings it did not replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, 2 December 1987

A photograph of Campden Hill Gardens, Kensington, London in 1905.
Looking south along Campden Hill Gardens, Kensington, London in 1905.

Earlier this week in the local studies section of my public library I found this photograph taken in 1905 of the street in which I currently live. Note the complete absence of automobiles and the tall chimney at the end of the road, part of an engine house that was destroyed in the 1970s. I live on the right hand side of the street, about half way up towards the chimney.

Some months ago just out of curiosity I searched for the street on Google, and I found a memoir written by Elizabeth Anne Slusser née Burbury (1915-1991), who lived in the house next door to mine from 1915 to 1939. Elizabeth Slusser appears to have had an interesting life. She was born in London to a wealthy and well connected family. In her memoir she describes annual holidays to Brittany and the year she spent learning Italian in a Catholic convent in Florence when she was just seven. She describes her home in London a little, and mentions her subsequently famous neighbours several times (Dame Marie Rambert and her husband, the theatre impresario Ashley Dukes, lived just across the street).

[Elizabeth’s parents met in Tasmania, but moved to England soon after marrying. Once settled in London her mother, Daisy Burbury née Guesdon, “founded a literary salon at 32 Campden Hill, Notting Hill Gate, which was frequently visited by Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Maurice Baring and others. There is a statue of her in the House of Commons as the Virgin Mary, with her daughter Norah as the infant Jesus.”]

Elizabeth’s memoir comes to an abrupt end in August 1939, but not before she mentions that her family’s home was one of the first in London to be destroyed by a German bomb in 1940. I can vouch for this fact because I now live next door to the four new homes that were subsequently built on the bombed site in 1955/56.

These four homes are all contained in what must be the single most ugly building on the street. In typical post-war fashion, the developers allowed function to completely overwhelm form, but then they compromised the functionality by squeezing far too many features into the limited available space. Each of the four houses was provided with a small covered car port, which cannibalised a significant portion of the ground floor and yet can only be used for the smallest of contemporary automobiles. In an effort to save costs, cheap and ugly materials were used to construct the building. Even the window boxes, which can probably withstand an earthquake, are made of cement and permanently affixed to the exterior walls with steel rods. What was the architect thinking?

Imagine my surprise then when during my visit to the library, I also discovered a 1962 article from Homes and Gardens magazine featuring the house next door. Apparently, it was the home of two television celebrities, Peter Dimmock and his wife Polly Elwes. He was a presenter on the BBC’s flagship sports programme Sportsview, while his wife presented a current affairs programme called Tonight.

A scan of two pages from Homes and Gardens magazine published in 1962.
32 Campden Hill Gardens in Homes and Gardens, 1962.

As you can see from the accompanying image (caution, it’s a long download at 644Kb), the article was illustrated with several images which give you a good idea of how it was furnished and a sense of what it must have been like to live there in the early 1960s. Ironically, Mrs. Dimmock is quoted as saying:

“A home should be warm and comfortable and reflect the personalities of its owners; above all it should look lived in – no museum effects for me. I don’t care for ultra-modern styles, they’re too apt to feel unfriendly.”

Well that might all be true, but did you look at the place from across the street before you moved in? Warm and comfortable? I don’t think so. More like sterile and frightening.

I don’t know when Mr. and Mrs. Dimmock moved out, but the house was sold late last year and in February workmen began to knock down all the internal walls and rebuild the insides from scratch. I wonder if the finished home will be “warm and comfortable” or more in keeping with its “ultra-modern” exterior?

I can’t wait for the new owner to move in next month, so I can recommend the local library.

British Efficiency?

“The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?”
US President Gerald R. Ford, Chicago 1978

Nick Denton has written an interesting piece on The myth of American efficiency, and it has motivated me to write about a similar subject, one that I’ve been thinking about for some time and might be called The myth of British resistance to change.

I moved to the UK ten years ago, in April 1992, and I’ve been thinking about the changes I’ve seen take place here during the last decade. The changes I have in mind are those that have occurred in the frequent, ordinary activities that fill daily life, and upon reflection I’m surprised to find they all appear to be positive improvements. Of course, this is very much a personal view, and other residents of the UK may not appreciate these changes to the same extent.

Retail Banking

I moved to Britain after accepting a job with a classical music agent in London, and one of the first things I needed to do was open a bank account. I visited my local branch of Barclays Bank thinking it would only take a few minutes to apply and deposit my savings, but quickly discovered that in Britain banking was not so simple. In addition to a lengthy application form, the bank required a letter from my employer confirming my employment and six weeks in which to process my application!

I couldn’t believe this inefficiency. A few months earlier in Toronto, I had opened three accounts at the same bank within 15 minutes. I complained to my employer’s accountant about the British delay, and she kindly called the manager at the company’s bank (a different bank in a totally different part of London) who provided me with a chequing account by the end of the week (still poor service by Canadian standards).

(As an aside, I had a Kafkaesque experience a few years later when I returned to university. I negotiated a government-sponsored loan through Barclays Bank, which agreed to lend me the money on condition that I open an account. I did so immediately, and had access to the loan within two days. So whereas it took six weeks to deposit money, it only took 48 hours to borrow it!)

Ten years later, the vast majority of my banking is done electronically and the last account I opened was done so on-line without talking to a single bank employee. I now pay all my bills using the telephone or internet, only visiting a bank on the very odd occasion when someone sends me an increasingly rare cheque for deposit.

Retail Food Industry

Food retailing has been very competitive in the UK for years, but technology has really improved its customer service recently (see my previous blog on Re-engineering the Grocery Shopping). So much so, that I rarely visit any of the large grocery stores anymore (What bliss this is! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate not having to waste time shopping!).

Telephone Bills

Ten years ago it was difficult to obtain an itemised telephone bill in Britain. Not only was it a special request, but all calls costing 40p or less were lumped together anyway. You could only obtain specific information about expensive, usually long-distance, calls. Now I can view my telephone bills on-line, including all the information about every single call, and pay them automatically via direct debit. The process has become truly paperless. I can even download all the information and manipulate it to my heart’s content in my electronic spreadsheet to obtain a complete picture of how I use the telephone. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other; from not enough information to almost having too much.

Arts Marketing

When I first moved to the UK, arts organisations used to charge £5 annually for the privilege of adding you to their mailing list! Consequently, I did not subscribe to any such lists. Now, having obtained my name and address when I purchase tickets, they send me brochures and pamphlets regularly for free. It took them a while, but British arts organisations now understand the need for self-promotion and they are beginning to learn how to do it. Fund raising will be next.

In all these ways living in Britain has improved. No doubt there are others as well. I know that many people complain about the deterioration in transportation and educational standards here, but these issues rarely affect me. Perhaps the key, no matter where you live, is to be selective. Seek out those things that work well wherever you are, and avoid those activities that don’t work until they get better. Now I know why I don’t own a car!