Tag Archives: London

Yet another reason not to multi-task

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Readers of this blog will know that I have a real thing about mult-tasking, so I’m delighted to read this article on cell-phone accidents in the New Scientist, though not so happy about one of the recommendations. Road signage should be improved so the obstacles to phone users are more obvious ? How about advising phone users to get off their phone if they’re crossing the road?!

The questionnaire was posted to 15,000 Finns, and got just over 6,000 responses.  How effective is a self-reporting questionnaire on a topic like this?  You have to wonder how many people, Finnish or otherwise, are going to admit that they were texting while driving, or that they walked straight into the path of an oncoming cyclist because they forgot to look out for traffice while they were on the phone.

Cyclists have to live with the knowledge that drivers do things as idiotic as coming out of a junction while texting or dialling and looking down at the phone. It’s the fact that they were looking at their phone that means they didn’t realise how close they were to killing someone, so that’s already a whole group of people who the research won’t capture.  Likewise, if pedestrians had any idea what it would feel like if a cyclist + bike crashed into them,   they might consider that they had had a ‘near miss’ in research terms.  Cyclists know that a pedestrian with a phone is only a half functioning humanoid, and therefore has to be treated as if they are an accident already happening.   It would be instructive  to conduct a survey of cyclists on one day in London to ask how many near misses they had with someone lost in telephone-space.

Roadhugs

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Glad to see the new Roadhug campaign to get people to be nice to vulnerable road users by thinking of them as people you know, rather than just anonymous obstacles in your way.

The people who present the most danger to me on my cycle journey to work are Wandsworth mothers on the school run, and by far the worst are those with ‘Baby on Board’ in the back window.  The irony is that their oversized tanks which protect the passengers from everything from bulls to car crashes are also the perfect killing machine.  When they cut me up, pull out of turnings or open their roadside doors without looking, or leap over speed bumps at 30 mph because they can, I come close to pulling up beside them and shouting through the window ‘with drivers like you on the road, that’ll be your child one day”.  Now at least someone else has said it in a much kinder way.

 

Another group hit by library closures: the U3A

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Education: The Age of Uncertainty is an impassioned but factual article in today’s Independent about the effect that library closures are having on the elderly, and in particular on members of the University of the Third Age (U3A).

Ian Searle writes:

The mass closure of public libraries is hitting older people and retired people who want to learn and keep their minds active. The sort of learning that goes on in the University of the Third Age (U3A) – the learning that retired people do because they want to do it, not because they need it for their careers – will be worst hit.

It’s a convincing argument, and I hope that the 250,000 members of U3A lobby government to make it strongly, but the specificity of the statement above  bothers me: it blurs the effect that the closures will have on everyone else. As I pointed out in a recent entry, my local library at least was full of young people.  Learning and the opportunity to gain access to what libraries have to offer – including a quiet and warm place to think – are important at any age, whether you ‘need it for your career’ or not.  The concept of a career in itself is fast becoming an anachronism, as people have to adapt to a very unpredictable and insecure job market.

Argos? What about the library?

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I’d no sooner pressed send on the previous post about the wonder of libraries, than I happened to see a ‘heartwarming’ story in  today’s Evening Standard about a 7-year old  girl who came home to find £500 worth of brand new books from Argos waiting for her.

I put ‘heartwarming’ in quotes, because while it’s very nice for anyone to get £500 worth of something out of the blue, this  story rather sickens me. Where is there any mention of libraries?  How does such an act benefit the wider community over the long term? That’s what they’re there for: books are expensive, and to spend £500 on them when you’re a child is overkill. You’re not going to like all of them, you might only read most of them once, and if they’re popular books, there’s no reason to buy them new. Giving one child a mass of books looks good on paper, but it’s not half as fantastic as the library services that are already there. And thanks to the way that libraries serve their communities, the chances are Aurelia’s mum could have taken out a load of books in Polish as well – she certainly could in Tooting.

This single benevolent act by Argos benefits one child for a very short time, and in a very limited way (though the benefit to Argos is probably much greater and longer lasting). The Evening Standard story completely disguises the wonderful services that local libraries provide their communities and have done for years. Why would they do that? Why would they continue to propagate a fiction that if you don’t have books at home, then there’s nothing for it except to wait for your local chain store to air-lift a box of them into your living room, when there are magnificent libraries everywhere, at least for the moment?

The wonders of a library in Tooting

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Tooting Library 2006

Tooting Library in 2006 - it's been completely revamped since then

For as long as I can remember, I have had difficulty concentrating, to the extent that libraries are the only reason I have ever achieved anything. It doesn’t matter how much space I have at home, or how much time and opportunity I have, when I need to concentrate and get any kind of mental work done, I have to go to a library. I’ll buy a day membership to a University library, travel for more than an hour, do anything just for the peace and concentration it affords.  The quality of work I do in libraries is so much better than anywhere else, that I have vivid memories of what I read and when, going back decades.

I’m in between courses, so whereas for the last couple of years I could have taken myself to the Institute of Education library, I’m now without anywhere to work.  After two years of having an oasis in the middle of Bloomsbury to work in, I’m lost. So on Saturday, I went to Tooting Library, knowing that they have a wonderful quiet study area upstairs. It was the most useful and enjoyable two hours work I’ve done in weeks.

The reason I’m blogging about this is because since the threats to library services started last year, I find myself arguing with people (middle class employed people, by the way) about why we need to keep them.  They talk vaguely about ‘everything being digital’ and ‘you can get it all online’ and ‘books are dead’ or reduce the argument to idiotic in the classic sense:  ‘they never have anything I want’ or ‘it was closed when I went’.

To reduce the concept of a library to a repository of books is to miss the point, in my view. On Saturday, the study room and IT facilities were full. People were having to book slots and come back later to use the computers (and there are a good number of them). All the seats in the study area were taken. There were a lot of young people, and a lot of old people, and a very broad ethnic mix. A lot of them, like me, had gone there to study, some had gone to read the newspapers. I was so grateful for the quiet, but also for the encouragement you get when you’re in a place where everyone else is trying to do the same thing (people say they go to the gym for the same reason, even though they could work out at home).

As Sadiq Khan pointed out in his open letter to Edward Lister of Wandsworth Council in February about library closures in Wandsworth:

Popularity and utility cannot only be measured by the number of books issued in any given year – there is a wider social benefit to a community that comes from the local provision of good IT facilities, or a quiet place for children to do homework.

Well said. It’s not just children either. At a time when more and more people are losing jobs, having to retrain, competing for an ever smaller number of jobs, and have less and less disposable income, libraries are a lifeline. When councillors think they can turn off this particular service, I wonder if they understand it at all, or even know what value it has in their own communities. It is particularly important if the government, as it claims, wants to get young people into work. You have to support that kind of initiative with places to study.

Given the wonderful service that libraries and librarians offer (I don’t think anybody’s put it better than Philip Pullman in his speech about library closures), I find it disgusting that anyone should suggest that volunteers are the answer. I know a number of librarians, and I am trying to envisage how they and I would feel when some financially independent do-gooder turns up at the library and turfs them out of their means of employment, as if their knowledge, experience and education, let alone their need for a job, was insignificant.

Surely before we go down that route, there is an option for some kind of light-touch membership system. If people will pay to go to the gym or belong to the National Trust, can they not pay something to use a library? Keep it free for students, the unemployed, the retired and those on benefits, but offer membership options.  The trouble is that sadly, not enough people are convinced that they’re worth fighting for.

 

 

 

Ebb and Flow

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One of my favourite landmarks by the Thames

To the Peacock Theatre yesterday afternoon to see ENB school’s performance. Well, to be honest, mainly to see my friend Chris Hampson’s new piece for the men, Flow. I always have to remind myself how young these dancers are. When they graduate, musicians can get away with being a bit teenagery, geeky and badly dressed with a slouch even though they can play the oboe rather well, but dancers have to be fully finished human beings as part of what they do, and hell, were they good yesterday.

A single moment stands out and haunts me from the whole show. It was in Ernst Meisner’s joyous piece done to the Rachmaninov two-piano suites. Surrounded by Stravinsky, John Adams & Bach, Rachmaninov on two pianos could have sounded a bit arch and fruity but it didn’t, because the choreography rode the waves of the music so you felt like you were surfing it, not watching it. The single moment in question was when a line of dancers formed stage right, and in unison, turned their heads to watch an imaginary object pass overhead. The ‘imaginary something’ was a musical phrase. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in a ballet, so simple it hurt.

There was something similar in Chris (Hampson’s) piece to the Bach C minor double piano (violin) concerto.  A simple flowing arm movement found the music in the music in a hundred ways, and in the slow movement, the soloist turns his head slowly to the back, then looks quickly to the front when the solo instrument enters, as if he has suddenly ‘seen’ the music.  A security guard in the audience was so taken with what he had seen that I saw him in the lobby trying out the recurring arm movement in different ways, amazed at what it felt like to move to music. Actually, that didn’t happen, I dreamed it last night, but that’s how intoxicating it was to watch.

I’d never really got into John Adams’ music before seeing Hallelujah Junction at the Linbury, which I loved, and Christopher Tudor’s piece to another Adams’ score made me realise this is my kind of music. Just wish there’d been more of it.

It’s no reflection on Michael Corder’s choreography, which is always  musical and sensitive (and the dancers did it excellently), that his piece to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks annoyed me. It’s not him, it’s Stravinsky, or rather ‘Stravinsky’ (as Taruskin might put it). I’m bored with ‘Stravinsky’, bored with the fawning ideology that presents him as the natural progression of music in the twentieth century, from which there can be no rhythmic going back. I spent the piece trying to work out what annoyed me about it, and concluded that the trouble with music that is consistently unpredictable is that it’s also consistently forgettable. The metrical ambiguity and change and melodic fragmentation leaves you with nothing but a series of passing snapshots, like watching a crowd in an electric storm at night.  It’s not even that I particularly dislike the music, it’s just  more analogous to a painting than to a dance. It has texture and flashes of colour, but no temporal quality. You can only stand as an observer and take in a moment at a time and then pass to the next one.

And so to Giselle Act II, which was the second half of the programme. Again, nothing against the dancers who did brilliantly, and I think the concept of doing a whole Act of a classic is great. But oh lord, this  Giselle of all things needs to be taken apart like an old sports car and put together from scratch.  It’s presented as a classic ballet blanc when even in 1841 it was nearer to Phantom of the Opera or Wicked. Giselle is the gothic ballet par excellence, so has enormous resonance for an era obsessed with  Twilight, but this production  glosses over that in a schoolmarmy, worthy way so that ironically, all the life really is taken out of it – the true corpse is the ballet, not Giselle the person.

There’s also something about listening to a recording of the music (complete with reverberant acoustics that suggest a concert hall a hundred times larger than the Peacock) that gives an auditory  unity to the score which ruins the surprise and melodrama of it.  I’ve  just been re-reading Marian Smith’s excellent Ballet & Opera in the Age of Giselle, and her argument based on utterly convincing evidence, is that we miss the point if we don’t understand how much Giselle borrows from the methods of opera.  The score is in many places made up of recitative-like interjections and abrupt changes suggesting verbal drama, but once it’s been engineered and passed through a sound system, and in the absence of life in the form of an orchestra or conductor it is flattened and straightened out into an acoustic sausage that is 80% sawdust. And what on earth is that darn fugue doing in the middle of this production? There are those wilis, being all 19th century and weird and gothic, when suddenly they do a kind of  Mark Morris style celebration in the forest to a fugue that is surely the most pointless episode in the history of ballet.

But that’s a side issue, a symptom probably of being in the middle of writing a dissertation on relationships between voice, gesture, music & communication. You notice these things when you look for them. In total, it was a magnificent afternoon, and I was in awe of the dancers’ extraordinary abilities and commitment. It’s for this that I’ve preferred spending my life in the dance world rather than music.