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Blog : Posts from July 2009

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Repetition

In which art is repeated, repetitively


In amongst the brief list of things we did last weekend, I realised there’s something of a gap, one thing I missed out on listing. It was, though, one of the most distinctive things of the weekend. An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Fabiola, by Francis Alÿs.

Fabiola is, in essence, a fairly simple idea. Two rooms filled with closely-packed paintings, green walls with not much room for the green to show through. Each piece of art is made by hand, and each shows the same image: a woman in profile, usually facing left, veiled, usually in red. Most are paintings, some are works of cross-stitch or embroiders; one is a collage of seeds and beans.

It’s a simple idea, a collection that Alÿs has gathered over the past couple of decades and is still adding to. But, there’s something ever so unsettling about the whole thing. The same image, repeated over and over and over but never the same. The same image, tiling every wall. The same image, with so much effort put into its repetition. As I said, it’s unsettling. Like something from an M. R. James story, or possibly from a more-creepy Doctor Who episode. Of all the things we did last weekend, Fabiola is the one most likely to haunt my dreams many years from now.

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Good news, bad news

In which we discuss what it takes to make the local news


Regular readers will know that I find it pretty easy to get worked up about local news reporting.* I do realise, though, that they do tend to operate under tight deadlines and very low budgets. It tends to alter the nature of their coverage. We love to sit at home and watch the local news, to see what stories they have come up with; they love stories that are simple to report and aren’t too serious.**

However, we were still slightly gobsmacked by one of tonight’s news items. A local woman has lost a shoe, and is rather upset. And, erm, that’s it. She was enjoying a night out, her shoes were in her handbag, and when she got home one was missing. That was enough to get her a standard-size segment on the news. A missing shoe.

Our reaction, of course, was to say: well, if they were that valuable, that important to you, then why weren’t you looking after them better? If they’re still on your feet, for a start, you’ll know where they are. Even if they’re not, pay attention to where they are, if they’re that important to you.*** Unless, of course, you want to get on the news.

* especially if it involves the Grimsby Telegraph.

** Such as the time they interviewed me because I happened to be in their building. There’s still a picture of me hidden away on the BBC website, caught in mid-sentence in mid-interview, and therefore looking entirely and completely gormless.

*** I should point out that there was no suggestion that it might have been stolen from her bag; the tone of the story implied that it has somehow dropped from her bag.

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Synopsis

In which things are described, briefly


Underground; wandering; the Ministry of Truth; Trafalgar Square; bridges and cabmen’s shelters; a model home; inspirational food and drink; black and white photos; tourist crowds; Soviet badges; gay icons; the wrong pizza; a missed film; gin and vodka; a walk in the park; strange inflatables; shopping streets; more photography; a nice cup of tea; long queues; very big pancakes; even bigger plaster casts; and another cup of tea.

And then, home again. I should write some of it all down, before I forget it.

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Photo Post Of The Week

In which we look at an old diesel train and a newer steam train


Another thing I mentioned that I hadn’t posted really: some pictures of old trains. Which, I know, isn’t something unusual for this site. But I did rather like this one:

Hymek passing Washford, West Somerset Railway

Which, I like to think, could almost be a Western Region publicity poster – or rail safety poster, maybe – from around 1964. The impressive new Hymek diesel-hydraulic, made in Britain with the latest German mechanical technology, sweeping past Washford with a non-stop express to Minehead. Here’s some more, and a rather newer steam engine.

Carriage window, West Somerset Railway
Track circuit indicators in "Midford Signalbox", Washford, West Somerset Railway
60163 "Tornado", Washford, West Somerset Railway

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Retail Opportunity

In which we promote a good cause


The other week I mentioned, in amongst the other things I haven’t blogged about lately, the local football club’s plan to make lots of money knocking their ground down and selling the site to Tesco, disguised as a “let’s bring the World Cup to Bristol” campaign which they seem to be using to blackmail the city planning department. There is, of course, no need to build a Tesco on the site of the football ground. There are two other branches of Tesco within about fifteen minutes’ walk of the new site, two other large supermarkets within the same distance, and a very large Tesco about fifteen minutes’ drive away.

Unsurprisingly, lots of other people have noticed this, so I thought I would put a quick mention of them here. The Bristol Blogger has been looking at the football club and council’s published figures and knocking holes in them: here, here and here. Unsurprisingly, the city council’s marketing figures seem to be vastly overstated. Meanwhile, there’s a local residents campaign to fight against the Tesco plans. They’re called BERATE, and they’ve got a blog up, with links to their petitions; and old-fashioned paper petitions in a lot of the shops in the area. I’d imagine most people from Bedminster and Southville have already seen it, but they deserve as much publicity as possible.

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Independent

In which we fill the weekend with music


A bit of a musical weekend, this weekend. A bit of a busy one too: there’s always too much in this town to choose between.

It started off with Big Pink Cake. Or, at least, the Big Pink Cake Indiepop All-Weekender, starting off on Saturday at the Cube. It offered free cake, so really there was no choice. Plus, Dimitra is always saying that we should go and see Pete Green, largely because he’s one of the best stars of indiepop to emerge from Grimsby in recent years. He does things like: release songs to benefit the Lincolnshire Wolds Railway,* too.

So, we ambled down to The Cube on Saturday afternoon for the free c… I mean, for the first stage of the Big Pink Cake weekend. The first few bands, including Mr Green, were to appear in the bar, which is really rather cramped. We saw a stream of bands play to the small crowd: The Short Stories, Countryside, Secret Shine, and at least one other band that weren’t on the roster. The singer of said band held up their CD and said that anybody there could have a free copy; the audience carefully avoided eye contact. No Pete Green though. He’d been moved to today’s setlist. Ah well.

After nipping out for food at Café Kino, we returned for the evening bands, over in the cinema. Being a cinema, each band had picked a film to be screened behind them, their choices all rather interesting. There was: something black-and-white from late-50s Britain,*** chosen by French band Electrophönvintage; La Dolce Vita, chosen by The Westfield Mining Disaster; Convoy, picked by Amida, March Of The Penguins accompanying Santa Dog, and classic British film Les Bicyclettes de Belsize showing behind The Pocketbooks. That does, really, tell you more about each band than I could explain myself.**** We weren’t really impressed by the sound quality, though, or the way that the first song of each set turned into a sound check. I definitely wasn’t impressed by the rather rude people in The Pocketbooks’ entourage who got up and started dancing, getting in everyone’s way and being generally annoying and offensive.

The Big Pink Cake weekender did – being, you know, a weekender – extend through to today, with an afternoon of bands at the Mothers Ruin. The bill included Pete Green (moved from Saturday, apparently) and Tender Trap, a band beloved of all C86/Sarah tweecore fans and/or economics experts everywhere. However, we didn’t go along, because we’d left on the Saturday feeling relatively uninspired. As luck would have it, in our meal-break down at Café Kino, we spotted a poster for a rather better-sounding gig that was on at the same time. So, instead, we spent our Sunday afternoon at the Scout Hut down on Phoenix Wharf.

At the Scout Hut we saw Jam On Bread and Mat Riviere, in the middle of a joint tour, supported by local band Boxcar Aldous Huxley. I’ve seen Boxcar Aldous Huxley before, and they were very good then; they were very good again today, with tales of Francis Dashwood, the responsibilities of the free press, and messianic movements in 19th century Canada. They were followed by Mat Riviere, who performed kneeling on the floor with a variety of keyboards and samples; and Jam On Bread, who had both a ukelele and a beard, and played both brilliantly.

I was sitting listening to Jam On Bread’s***** set, and I couldn’t help thinking: you know, his accent sounds a bit, well, Grimsbyish. Not really northern but not really southern, a bit flat and dull but with the full complement of vowels.****** But, of course, he couldn’t be: it might be a small world, but there’s no way that two stars of pop music, both from Grimsby, would both be playing gigs in Bristol on the same afternoon. And then: his lyrics mentioned that he wasn’t Swedish, because he was born in Grimsby. Gosh.

We didn’t get time to speak to Jam On Bread after the gig, so I didn’t have time to confirm his Grimsbyness face-to-face; but the internet seems to think it’s true. So: we did get to see a top Grimsby-born indiepop star this weekend, after all. It just wasn’t the one we’d been expecting to see when the weekend started. I think we might well have seen the best one, though.

* one of the country’s shortest steam railways, and hence in need of the donations. It will, if ever finished, be notable for being the country’s straightest steam railway, a good ten miles long and with utterly no curves. At present it runs for about a quarter of a mile, but it does have a somersault signal, which is obviously a plus point.** I should point out that Pete Green’s song does largely blame Richard Beeching for the line’s original closure: in reality it didn’t shut down until 1970, whereas Beeching was sacked from the British Railways Board in ’65.

** I believe they built it with spare parts bought from the Ffestiniog after the abandonment of that railway’s mechanical Tanygrisiau resignalling scheme, but I could be wrong. If any LWR or Ffestiniog people who know better read this, feel free to correct me.

*** easily dated from the railway carriages featured, if we’d got a better look at it

**** No, really, it does; although it would take rather more space to explain why. Maybe that will be a blog post for next week some time.

***** His real name is Steve Carlton, or at least, that’s what it says on the Internet

****** To be contrasted with the nearby Hull accent, which only uses one vowel. “E hed e slerce ef terst, smerked e feg, end went dern the rerd”

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Transmission

In which FP complains about the telly.


For someone who always complains about there being nothing good on TV any more, about it never being worth watching, I definitely miss it when it goes away. Even when it only goes away partially. For the past few weeks, we’ve hardly been able to get a watchable signal on the digital channels. Every second or two the picture breaks up and the sound goes off, and we lose track of what’s going on.

This is, apparently, all down to Planned Transmitter Works. So that, next year when the old-fashioned TV signal goes off, we will have a bright shiny new world of digital channels that run on high power and have perfect reception. Allegedly. For now, we’re forced back onto our old-fashioned channels, with their slightly fuzzy pictures and none of this new-fangled “plus one” gubbins. It’s slightly annoying: now that we’re used to watching the digital channels, to have them suddenly disappear again. Oh well. Maybe we should take a step further back, turn off the TV, and read a book instead.

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Photo Post Of The Week

In which we go to Glastonbury


Talking of summer storms: we popped down to Glastonbury the other month, for a poke around the bookshops, and for a walk up to the top of Glastonbury Tor. As we did so, the heavens opened, and we, and all the other tourists making the climb, got soaked.

Glastonbury Tor

We watched the storm motoring its way off across the Somerset Levels, away to soak the distant hills.

View from Glastonbury Tor

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Weather Ever Changing

In which things get sweaty


I had hoped that a thunderstorm would clear the air, get rid of some of the humidity, cool things down a bit. Unfortunately, nothing changed. We had the thunderstorm, and half an hour later the ground was dry and the weather was still hot, muggy, and sticky to the touch. Oh well. Summer isn’t nice when it’s too hot to think.

Things I was going to blog about recently but haven’t: the rather silly “let’s bring the World Cup to Bristol” proposals, which seem like nothing more than a plan to blackmail the council planning department into letting Tesco build a new Ashton store, two minutes down the street from the Sainsbury’s that’s already there. Plus, the Easton Arts Trail, a rather enjoyable wander round which, already, was nearly a fortnight ago. Not to mention pictures of old trains from the weekend before that, and all the other things we’ve been getting up to lately apart from the strange foreign dirty movies. If it’s too hot to leave the sofa, it’s definitely too hot to blog

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High Speed News

In which we look at trains and the money behind them


Today’s big news story: the East Coast rail franchise is to be temporarily taken into state hands, because the company running it, National Express, has decided that they can’t make the huge wodge of cash that they have promised to pay. Which, to be honest, many many people could have told you was a little unlikely.

The East Coast route has always been seen as a bit of a cash cow, ever since it has been operated by a single company. Back in the 1930s the LNER, the aforesaid first company to own the route from end to end, was struggling somewhat, as most of its profits came from servicing the declining heavy industries of the North-East. So, it negotiated itself away from the non-compete restrictions which hampered its London-Scotland timetable,* and started to introduce faster, record-breaking, headline-grabbing expresses. They introduced the longest regular non-stop train service in the world, and the fastest type of steam engine in the world; and introduced innovations such as at-seat radio services, and the “in-flight movie”. The route has stayed at the forefront of speed, technology and publicity ever since, and at several times has featured the fastest trains in the country.**

By the time privatisation came along, the East Coast route was one of the few profitable rail services in the country. It was quickly grabbed, by Sea Containers, the shipping company which had already bought British Rail’s Sealink shipping line. And everything went smoothly, for some time, because the route did indeed make plenty of money.

In this decade, though, there were problems. As the line was seen as a cash cow, other companies started running competing services over what was already a very crowded and busy route; and their franchise payment went up to £130million per year. Sea Containers tried to bring a court case arguing that there wasn’t enough room for anybody else’s trains on their line, but the case failed. The company started hinting that it was having trouble making money on the route, and that its position was financially unsustainable. In October 2006 the company filed for bankruptcy protection in the USA, and told the British government that they would walk away from the East Coast route if not allowed to renegotiate their contract. A month later, the government told Sea Containers that their franchise was being withdrawn.

In the auction for the rights to run the route from 2007 onwards, Sea Containers played little part, holding a 10% stake in a joint bid made in the names of Virgin and Stagecoach. The winner, though, was National Express. They promised to pay £1.4 billion in total, to operate the route from 2007 through to 2015. Rather more, in other words, than the £130 million per year that Sea Containers had had trouble meeting. You have to wonder what was going on in their decision-making. It must have been obvious to them that the line would have trouble generating that much money. Did they really think they had enough spare cash elsewhere to prop it up with?

It’s not surprising at all, then, that they haven’t managed to keep the line running. It’s more surprising, though, that it apparently took National Express 18 months to realise that their sums were a bit off. Never mind the recession: passenger figures were already falling well before National Express took over, which was partly why Sea Containers had trouble. Maybe they thought they could get things to turn around faster. Evidently, though, they made a mistake somewhere. That still leaves this, though, as one of the more predictable news stories of this part of the decade.

* ever since the mid-1890s, the East Coast and West Coast companies had had a minimum-time agreement restricting the point-to-point average speed of their trains to around 50mph, following the dangerous “Race To The North” competitions of 1895.

** For the past 20 years almost it has had its own specially-designed trains which are capable of 140mph, until recently beating every other domestic train in Britain – but for the whole time, it’s been in the slightly silly position of having a top speed limit of 125mph, leaving that speed advantage unusable.

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