Quotulatiousness

May 21, 2015

The Brunel Museum

Filed under: Britain,History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Brid-Aine Parnell talks about the Brunels — father, son, and grandson — and their impact on Britain during the industrial revolution:

When you mention Brunel to most people, they think of the one with the funny name – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A few folks will know that his father Marc Isambard Brunel was the first famous engineering Brunel, but not many will know that Isambard’s own son, Henry Marc Brunel, was also an engineer and finished some of Isambard’s projects after his death.

Between the three of them, the Brunels created landmarks all over the UK; perhaps most famously the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge, linking Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in Somerset.

That bridge, which Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed and often called his “first child,” wasn’t actually completed until after his death and only came about at all because Isambard was nearly drowned in an accident at the massive project he was working on in London with his father: the Thames Tunnel.

It is this masterpiece of engineering, which invented new methods of tunnelling underground and is why the Brunels are credited with creating underground transportation – and by extension, the modern city itself – that you see if you go along to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, London.

The museum itself is in Marc Brunel’s Engine House, built in 1842, the year before the Thames Tunnel was opened, for the engines that pumped to keep the Tunnel dry. The small exhibition tells the story of the design and construction of the 396-metre-long tunnel, the first to have been successfully built underneath a navigable river. The display panels also detail the innovative tunnelling shield technique invented by Marc and Isambard that’s still used to build tunnels today, although these days it’s machines doing the hard work instead of men. Back then, labourers would spent two hours at a time digging, often while also being gassed and showered with shit.

The River Thames at that time was the sewer of London and the tunnel was constantly waterlogged, leading to a build up of effluent and methane gas. The result was that not only would miners pass out from the gas – even if they didn’t, men who re-surfaced were left senseless after their two-hour shift – but there were also explosions as the gas was set alight by the miners’ candles.

Although it’s a tidy and well-kept little exhibition, it is not really why you come to the museum. You come for the underground chamber below, which was only opened up to the public in 2010 after 150 years of being closed off by the London transportation system. This is the Grand Entrance Hall to the Thames Tunnel, used in Brunel’s day as a concert hall and fairground and now in the process of being turned into a permanent exhibition.

May 16, 2015

London on film, 1890-1920

Filed under: Britain,History,Media — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

Open Culture posted this video which includes some of the oldest known footage of London:

March 12, 2015

Stephen Fry’s Key to the City – Exploring the Mysteries of the City of London

Filed under: Britain,History — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 6 Jul 2014

Stephen Fry discovers the hidden mysteries of the City of London, from the huge amount of cash in the Bank of England vaults to the terrors of Dead Man’s Walk at the Old Bailey. The QI host tours the City of London, discovering the hidden mysteries of this rich and powerful square mile. Along the way, he visits the Bank of England’s vaults, witnesses high drama at the London Metal Exchange as dealers buy and sell stocks, and experiences Dead Man’s Walk at the Old Bailey, where many condemned criminals trod their final steps. Plus, as a recipient of the Freedom of the City of London, Stephen finds out just what privileges this gives him.

H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.

February 19, 2015

“Faking it” versus “Keeping it real”

Filed under: Britain,Media,Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Neil Davenport reviews Authenticity is a Con by Peter York:

Everyone and everything today must, it seems, be ‘the real deal’ — they must be walking, talking embodiments of heart-on-your-sleeve authenticity. After all, no one wants to be accused of ‘faking it’, as Kurt Cobain put it in his suicide note. From pop stars to politicians, being real, being oneself, being transparent, is pretty much a pre-requisite for entrance into respectable society.

But social commentator Peter York believes there is something rather phoney in the need to be seen as genuine. In his short polemical book, Authenticity is a Con, York provides several deliciously scathing snapshots of the current tyranny of transparency.

For York, authenticity is the ‘absolute favourite word of shysters and chancers; of motivational speakers and life coaches dealing with “human potential”; of people who think “I’m so worth it”… people with only the vaguest idea of authentication and none at all about the philosophical back story.’ He traces the ‘me generation’ tendencies back to 1960s America. For York, the authenticity peddlers sell the idea that if you’re ‘true to yourself’ then everything else, from a satisfying career to successful relationships, will magically fall into place. York understands that the free-yourself psychobabble has always sounded preposterous. To lampoon it requires very little effort.

[…]

York’s sharp eye provides insights aplenty. There’s a hilarious dig at hippy ‘t-shirt and trainers’ companies such as Facebook or Virgin, whose informality disappears when they are challenged on something substantive (‘you get some very formal legal action’, quips York). He points out the irony of early- to mid-twentieth-century black musicians like Lead Belly, who wanted to wear smart suits and play hotel jazz, having to ham up a jailbird persona in order to sate their white audience’s demand for an ‘authentic’ blues performer. York also notes how, in the 1970s, the desire to be inauthentic, to not be ourselves or down to earth, was a mark of boldness and imagination. Think of the sci-fi-based, proto funk of Parliament or Funkadelic, or how working-class bricklayers donned tights and make up during the Glam era. Roxy Music made a career out of not keeping it real. They even prompted the NME’s Charles Shaar Murray to declare them a threat to Britain’s rock culture with, as York says, ‘their posey eclecticism, poncey retrofuturism and their wholly meretricious concern with appearances’. And then there’s David Bowie who elevated artifice, pretension and inauthenticity to the level of an art-form.

Today’s art-school poseurs, though, are as swept up with authenticity as anyone else. York begins Authenticity is a Con by visiting Shoreditch and noticing a product called ‘honest man’s beard oil’. As readers of Sunday supplements will know, east London has the highest beard count in the capital. York has great fun juxtaposing Shoreditch’s quest for reclaimed-floorboard authenticity with its entirely invented (read inauthentic) claim to be an artistic Boho enclave. ‘It’s a thing of surfaces’, writes York, ‘anti-bling surfaces that actually cost much more than the gold and glass and shiny marble of mainstream bling’. Indeed, Shoreditch and Hackney are the kind of places that have specially designed ‘old man pubs’ that don’t actually feature any old men drinking in them. York calls Shoreditch ‘applied authenticity’, which is about as accurate and as real a description of EC1 as you will find.

And yet the authenticity-marketing scam goes far beyond east London. For over a decade now, we’ve experienced what can be called ‘kooky capitalism’, wherein huge companies re-brand themselves as ethical, people-orientated cottage businesses. York supplements the idea of kooky capitalism with his concept of ‘micro-connoisseurship’, which refers to the ‘market for luxury, for superior, smart, snobby, value-added goods – “positional goods” of all kinds. We’ve got millions of micro-connoisseurs agonising about the thread count in sheets, the back-story of a recipe, the provenance of a shop.’

January 7, 2015

In praise of the bus, but not “the buses”

Filed under: Britain,Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Over at The Register, someone accidentally let Simon Rockman get up on his hobby horse and start yelling nasty things about buses:

A bus is a fantastically efficient way to move a large number of people. Buses however are not. They are a dreadful system for getting people to work.

The difference is not as subtle as that sentence may make it seem. What lies behind it is that when you want to move a large number of people from one place to another all at once, a works outing for instance, a Charabanc makes perfect sense.

But it doesn’t scale. If you want to travel by bus there needs to be a regular service. That means lots of buses have to waft up and down a route in anticipation of there being someone who wants to get on. In a major city, and I live in London, that’s good for some of the time. So long as there is a steady supply of people there can be a good number on the bus. This of course doesn’t work very early in the morning or late at night when there are not enough people.

What’s worse is that buses don’t go from where people live to where they work. Unless you live by a bus stop, in which case you have the kinds of people who hang around bus stops hanging around your house, you’ll have to walk to it. The same is true at the other end. Then you have to wait for the bus. If I walk down to my nearest bus stop and a bus arrives as I get there I think it’s a fantastic, special happening. If I walk out of my house and my car is there I think “that’s normal”.

December 17, 2014

Carrying The Load – London Midland & Scottish Railway Documentary

Filed under: Britain,History,Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Published on 20 Apr 2012

London Midland & Scottish Railway educational film that explains the role played by the railways during World War Two.

December 11, 2014

London’s Transport System During World War Two – 1941

Filed under: Britain,History,Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Published on 31 Mar 2013

Filmed after the start of the Blitz, ‘City Bound’ is an exploration of the daily commute into London from the suburbs in 1941.

‘Between half past five and ten o’clock each morning five million people are moved from home to work by London’s transport system. Before this can be done, underground and overground transport must be cleaned and refuelled. Then from the outer ring of London, past green fields and suburban gardens, the move into London begins. Trains, motor omnibuses, and electric trams bring hundreds of thousands into the centre of the city, to work in the shops, offices, and factories of the largest city in the world.’
(Films of Britain – British Council Film Department Catalogue – 1941)

December 7, 2014

Kings Cross, 1956

Filed under: Britain,Railways — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Published on 26 Mar 2013

London’s King’s Cross station in the age of steam. Soon diesels would replace steam power and Mr Hammond, General Manager of British Railways Eastern Region, explains how he will reduce his fleet of locomotives by a factor of four. You can also learn how to swing a buckeye coupler. They are very heavy, but the shunter in this film makes it look easy.

November 2, 2014

QotD: The town of Reading

Filed under: Britain,History,Humour,Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

We came in sight of Reading about eleven. The river is dirty and dismal here. One does not linger in the neighbourhood of Reading. The town itself is a famous old place, dating from the dim days of King Ethelred, when the Danes anchored their warships in the Kennet, and started from Reading to ravage all the land of Wessex; and here Ethelred and his brother Alfred fought and defeated them, Ethelred doing the praying and Alfred the fighting.

In later years, Reading seems to have been regarded as a handy place to run down to, when matters were becoming unpleasant in London. Parliament generally rushed off to Reading whenever there was a plague on at Westminster; and, in 1625, the Law followed suit, and all the courts were held at Reading. It must have been worth while having a mere ordinary plague now and then in London to get rid of both the lawyers and the Parliament.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.

October 4, 2014

The “Herod Clause” to get free Wi-Fi

Filed under: Britain,Business,Humour,Law,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:48

I missed this earlier in the week (and it smells “hoax-y”, but it’s too good to check):

A handful of Londoners in some of the capital’s busiest districts unwittingly agreed to give up their eldest child, during an experiment exploring the dangers of public Wi-Fi use.

The experiment, which was backed by European law enforcement agency Europol, involved a group of security researchers setting up a Wi-Fi hotspot in June.

When people connected to the hotspot, the terms and conditions they were asked to sign up to included a “Herod clause” promising free Wi-Fi but only if “the recipient agreed to assign their first born child to us for the duration of eternity”. Six people signed up.

F-Secure, the security firm that sponsored the experiment, has confirmed that it won’t be enforcing the clause.

“We have yet to enforce our rights under the terms and conditions but, as this is an experiment, we will be returning the children to their parents,” wrote the Finnish company in its report.

“Our legal advisor Mark Deem points out that — while terms and conditions are legally binding — it is contrary to public policy to sell children in return for free services, so the clause would not be enforceable in a court of law.”

Ultimately, the research, organised by the Cyber Security Research Institute, sought to highlight public unawareness of serious security issues concomitant with Wi-Fi usage.

August 27, 2014

35 years later, Kate Bush returns to live performances

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:24

BBC News reports on the first live performance by Kate Bush since 1979:

Kate Bush has made her stage comeback to an ecstatic response from fans at her first live concert for 35 years.

Bush received a standing ovation as she closed the show with Cloudbusting, from her 1985 hit album The Hounds of Love.

The 56-year-old British star was appearing at London’s Hammersmith Apollo — the scene of her last live show in 1979.

Tuesday’s three-hour set kicked off a run of 22 shows, titled Before the Dawn, which sold out in minutes.

Afterwards, she thanked fans for their “warm and positive response”.

Backed by seven musicians, Bush opened the show with Lily, from the 1993 album Red Shoes.

There was a huge roar from the crowd as Bush appeared on stage — barefoot and dressed in black — leading her five backing singers.

“It’s so good to be here — thank you so much,” she told the cheering crowd.

She later introduced one of the backing chorus as her teenage son Bertie who, the star said, had given her the “courage” to return to the stage.

The first half of the show included the 1985 single Running Up That Hill and, from the same Hounds of Love album, the song suite The Ninth Wave — which combined video, theatre and dance to tell the story of a woman lost at sea.

After an interval, the second act was dominated by songs from Bush’s 2005 album Aerial.

Kate Bush BBC ad

July 26, 2014

QotD: French “ultra-liberalism”

The French press, media and intellectuals castigate ad nauseam what they call the ‘ultra-liberalism’ of the present-day western world: and their characterization, as intellectually lazy as it is inaccurate, now goes virtually by default. Very few are the commentators who see through its inaccuracy. That a country whose public sector accounts for more than half of economic activity, and which is as highly-administered as France (and, it must be said, often well-administered, for who would not rather go on the Paris Metro than the New York Subway?), cannot plausibly be described as ‘ultra-liberal,’ ought to be perfectly obvious even on the most casual reflection, but alas it is not. If France is ultra-anything it is ultra-corporatist, but even that would be an exaggeration. And so present discontents are laid at the door of ultra-liberalism, though in fact a considerable proportion of the resentments and discontents of the young who approve of M’Bala M’Bala are attributable to the rigidity of the French labor market, which is caused precisely by an illiberal nexus of protections and restrictions.

The problem, then, is not ultra-liberalism but insufficient liberalism. The difference between France and other western countries, incidentally, is one of degree and not of type, though even degree can be important: illiberalism in the French labor market has in a matter of a few years turned London into one of the largest French-speaking cities in the world.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Illusions of Control in the Omnicompetent French State”, Library of Law and Liberty, 2014-01-07

April 16, 2014

Handel’s Messiah – the Live Aid of 1750

Filed under: Britain,History,Media,Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:08

In the Telegraph, Michael White explains why Handel’s Messiah really was the 18th century equivalent of Live Aid:

Every year, his masterpiece reliably comes round, filling musicians’ diaries with unending renditions of the Hallelujah Chorus and “Surely he hath borne our griefs” (or “worn our briefs” as choirboys have it), like a tonic for the flagging bank balance. And it will be the same this week, with a performance of some kind or other guaranteed to come your way, unless you’re living in the Outer Hebrides without a choir in sight or sound.

But for good measure, there’s also a BBC TV programme on Saturday in which the historian Amanda Vickery is looking at Messiah’s back story. And it seems her interest isn’t in the piece as a gift to musicians but as a gift to the poor — focusing on a London performance in 1750 that was, as she says, an 18th-century precedent for Live Aid.

This performance took place at the Foundling Hospital in London, which these days is a museum but was then a children’s home attracting the support of celebrated figures in the arts world. Painters including Hogarth gave it canvases to exhibit; composers such as Handel gave it music to perform. And the funds raised helped keep it going — in something like the manner of that other famous children’s home, the Ospedale della Pietà, Venice, where Vivaldi gave his services.

[…]

The only problem was that Handel depended for commercial success on operatic ventures that proved disastrously expensive and went sour when public tastes changed (as they always do). Hence his interest in writing English oratorios: they were cheaper to produce than opera, avoided over-priced Italian singers and attracted decent audiences.

Hence Messiah, which was written not for London but for Dublin, where it was premiered in April 1742. A large crowd was clearly expected because notices published in advance begged gentlemen to leave their swords at home and ladies to attend “without Hoops”. The critical information on those notices, though, was that making room for more people would “greatly increase the Charity”; because even this initial Dublin try-out was a fundraiser, designed for the relief of prisoners and an infirmary.

So it was good causes that helped swell the turnout. And from what we know of how it went, the audience was high-minded, entering into the spirit of an entertainment that was happening in a concert hall but none the less used sacred texts.

Jonathan Swift, the Dean of Dublin’s Anglican Cathedral, had initially tried to stop his choir being involved, on the grounds that a concert hall wasn’t the right place for such things, and that one of the soloists, Susannah Cibber, was a woman of loose morals. But when she sang “He was despised” she did so with such beauty that another clergyman in the audience stood up and shouted “Woman, thy sins be forgiven”: the kind of engagement you might wish of modern audiences, if only they could be distracted from their iPhones.

March 21, 2014

Kate Bush announces series of concerts in London

Filed under: Britain,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 14:23

The Daily Mail describes it as a residency at the Hammersmith Apollo in London:

Kate Bush is to return to the stage in London — 35 years after she retired from touring after just six weeks on the road.

She will play a 15-date residency at the Hammersmith Apollo which was the venue for a celebrated concert film she made in 1979.

The 55-year-old made a surprise announcement about the shows — to be called Before The Dawn — on Friday morning, with the first taking place on August 26.

Bush talked about a desire to return to playing live in an interview three years ago, saying she would love to play again before she became ‘too ancient’.

She was just 20 when she completed The Tour Of Life after topping the charts with Wuthering Heights the previous year.

Over the years, theories about her absence from the stage have included her perfectionism, a fear of flying and the death of one of the tour crew, lighting director Bill Duffield, during a show.

But in a rare interview with Mojo magazine in 2011 to mark her comeback, she explained that her years of silence on the touring circuit were simply down to the sheer exertion of the ordeal.

‘It was enormously enjoyable. But physically it was absolutely exhausting,’ she said.


LONDON – 12th MAY: English singer Kate Bush performs live on stage at Hammersmith Odeon in London on the penultimate date of her European tour on 12th May 1979. (Photo by Peter Still/Redferns)

January 28, 2014

The last Frost Fair on the Thames

Filed under: Britain,Environment,History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:29

The famous river doesn’t freeze as it did during the Little Ice Age, so the very last Frost Fair was held in 1814:

Painting by Luke Clenell, entitled The Fair on the Thames, Feb'y 4th 1814

Painting by Luke Clenell, entitled The Fair on the Thames, Feb’y 4th 1814

It is 200 years ago since the last “frost fair” — an impromptu festival on a frozen Thames, complete with dancing, skittles and temporary pubs. Could such hedonism be repeated today?

Londoners stood on the Thames eating gingerbread and sipping gin. The party on the frozen river had begun on 1 February and would carry on for another four days.

The ice was thick enough to support printing presses churning out souvenirs. Oxen were roasted in front of roaring fires, drink was liberally taken and dances were held. An elephant was marched across the river alongside Blackfriars Bridge.

It was February 1814. George III was on the throne, Lord Liverpool was prime minister and the Napoleonic wars would soon be won.

People didn’t know it then but this “frost fair” — a cross between a Christmas market, circus and illegal rave — would be the last. In the 200 years that have elapsed since, the Thames has never frozen solid enough for such hedonism to be repeated.

But between 1309 and 1814, the Thames froze at least 23 times and on five of these occasions — 1683-4, 1716, 1739-40, 1789 and 1814 — the ice was thick enough to hold a fair.

Update: Over lunch, I was reading Correlli Barnett’s Marlborough and came across this description of the onset of winter in 1708-09 (and a frost fair that the BBC didn’t list):

And for Europe too the coming of a Whig administration in England was a fateful event. The Whig leaders were hot for the exaction from Louis XIV of ‘no peace without Spain – entire’, without any compromise whatsoever. Yet in the winter and spring of 1709 even such inflated war aims began to look practicable. Before the Duke at last closed down the Oudenarde campaign in January 1709, long after the normal time for going into winter quarters, he had retaken Bruges and Ghent. And the siege of Ghent witnessed the onset of an enemy even more terrible to France than Marlborough. In the last days of 1708 cold of unimagined bitterness closed on Europe like a trap. At Ghent the sentinels of besieged and besieging forces alike were frozen to death at their posts. And this was only a beginning: after a short and deceptive thaw in January, the cold set in like another ice age, the people of Europe cringing month after month under a bruise-coloured sky heavy with snow. On the frozen Thames at London Bridge there was an ice fair; a little city of booths and stalls stretching from bank to bank, and bonfires twinkling across the ice in the polar gloom. From Brussels Marlborough was reporting to Heinsius in February:

    The continuall snow as well as hard frost will, if it continues, kill al the cattel of this country and bee very inconvenient for our garrisons, for even in this town we have no forage but what we bring dayly by carts …

The port of Harwich was ice bound; so were the Dutch ports. There were ice floes in the Channel. Even the mouth of the Tagus at Lisbon was frozen. It was fortunate indeed that the Duke had not carried out his post-Oudenarde plan to invade France, or his army might now have been lying somewhere between Abbeville and Paris, with seaborne supplies cut off by ice, and dependent for subsistence on what it could find in the French countryside.

And in France, already impoverished by war as she was, famine had come in the wake of frost. The cattle died; the vines split. In the towns and the country the starving wandered in search of food in ragged, despairing packs. The very fabric of French society seemed in peril from the effects of the cold.

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