Tag: London

To the Reader

Saturday, 11 June, 2016 0 Comments

Ben Jonson’s most famous play is Volpone, the story of an ageing Venetian nobleman whose only passion is greed. The first three lines set the tone, when Volpone says:

“Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine, that I may see my saint.
Hail the world’s soul and mine!”

The poet and playwright Ben Jonson was born in London on this day in 1572. His father died shortly before his birth and his mother remarried a bricklayer. Ben attended Westminster School, worked as a bricklayer, fought in Flanders and became an actor and playwright. In 1598, he wrote Every Man in His Humor and in one production a young actor called William Shakespeare appeared in a leading role. Shortly after the play opened, Jonson killed Gabriel Spencer in a duel and was tried for murder. He was released by pleading “benefit of clergy” (by proving he could read and write in Latin). “Language most shows a man,” Ben Jonson said, “speak that I may see thee.”

To the Reader

Pray thee, take care, that tak’st my book in hand,
To read it well: that is, to understand.

Ben Jonson (1572 — 1637)


“Et tu, Brute?”

Saturday, 7 May, 2016 0 Comments

This year, the world marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the commemorations reflect a language that has become the global lingua franca for a creative economy that knows few geographic boundaries. Pedro Martín-Calero is an example of this globalization. He started his career as a cinematographer in Spain, but switched to directing and he now divides his time between Madrid and London, where he works with Colonel Blimp, a production company that makes a variety of media, including commercials, music videos and Shakespearian snippets.

“Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!” is one of the many memorable sayings from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Pedro Martín-Calero includes a pair of fearsome canines in his very modern interpretation of Julius Caesar, Act II Scene I.


The feast day of Saint Brigid

Monday, 1 February, 2016 0 Comments

“Anois teacht an Earraigh
beidh an lá dúl chun shíneadh,
Is tar eis na féil Bríde
ardóigh mé mo sheol.”

So wrote Raftery (1779 – 1835), the last of the wandering Gaelic poets. His verse says that spring is coming and the days will begin to lengthen, so he’s going to move out in the world once the feast of St Brigid has been celebrated.

Today, 1 February is the Saint Brigid’s Day that Raftery commemorated in Anois teacht an Earraigh (“Now, the coming of the Spring”), but there’s little evidence of the coming of spring where Raftery once roamed. The weather there is anything but vernal. To be sure, there’s “a stretch in the evening”, as the people say, but it’s wild, wet and windy in Mayo. An unscientific analysis of Raftery’s poem then might lead one to conclude that our winters are getting colder, not warmer, as some now claim. The poet certainly suggests that it was quite mild in early February at the beginning of the 19th century.

Why was the wandering poet Raftery so aware of St Brigid’s Feast? Back in his day, the first of February was considered the start of the growth season in rural Ireland. The date had long been held sacred as Imbolg, the Celtic festival of Spring, but after Christianity arrived, Saint Brigid was honoured instead of the pagan gods. The Greatest! She was a fifth-century mystic who became the patron saint of blacksmiths and healers. My mother always attended the “blessing of the scarves” in the local church on this day and, like many believers, she regarded the wearing of such a scarf to be far better protection against a sore throat than any amount of antibiotics. Saint Brigid was also the patron saint of poets, a second reason, perhaps, for Raftery’s mentioning of her feast day.

Being a saint, Brigid was able to perform miracle. Most of hers involved the multiplication of food such as providing butter for the poor, and the not-so poor. It is said that she once caused cows to give milk three times the same day to enable some visiting bishops to have enough to drink. As Irish monks wandered through Europe, they carried their belief in Brigid with them. In England, many churches were dedicated to her, most notably St. Bride’s Church in London’s Fleet Street. Designed by Wren, it was the spiritual home of the printing and media trades for 200 years. And now it’s in cyberspace — where most hacks and ink-stained drudges such as St. Matt (?) hang out.

RTE logo 1961 Apart from the blessed scarves, the last vestiges of the Brigid devotion in Ireland today are plaited crosses fashioned from rushes. In 1961, when the Irish Republic decided to launch a national television service, the St Brigid’s Cross was chosen as its logo and it remained part of the station’s corporate identity for many years before being reduced to such a stylized form as to be all but unrecognizable.

The spiral of the Saint Brigid’s Cross invokes the pattern that the seven stars of the Plough asterism makes in the night sky during the course of a year. The Plough turns through the seasonal year like the hands of a clock and it is now bringing us into the spring of renewal. Anois teacht an Earraigh…


Waiting for the Barbarians in Paris, Berlin, London

Sunday, 15 November, 2015 0 Comments

«la France sera impitoyable à l’égard des barbares» said French President François Hollande in response to the Islamist terror that left 129 people dead in Paris on Friday night. Hollande’s evocation of “the barbarians” makes Waiting for the Barbarians, written by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in 1898 and published in Egypt in 1904, seem particularly prescient today.

In a huge square in an unnamed city (Athens? Rome? Constantinople?), the emperor is preparing to present a “scroll” that is “replete with titles” to the designated barbarian leader. Not that the brutal fighter will care. He can take what he wants, anyway, and there will be no negotiations. As Cavafy notes, the barbarians are “bored by rhetoric and public speaking.” Oratory and punditry, laziness and luxury have made the empire cynical and soft and the citizens have lost interest in politics: “What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

Cavafy delays until the last two lines before tossing in the hand grenade. The crowd is, in fact, waiting eagerly for the barbarians: “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

One can picture a decadent polis, after a lengthy culture war, longing for a radical solution to the empire’s crisis. Cavafy’s bigger point is that barbarians have been at the gates since the dawn of civilization and their presence always poses an existential test for leaders and nations. When the barbarians arrive, when concert-goers and diners are being slaughtered, action is needed. That’s why the supine appeasement Cavafy brilliantly evokes in Waiting for the Barbarians is so loathsome.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What laws can the senators make now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
     He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
     replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
      And some who have just returned from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933). Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard


There will be a drone for that

Monday, 19 October, 2015 0 Comments

Imagine you’re a well-off citizen of the United Arab Emirates and you’re planning a shopping trip to London. You may be looking for a bargain apartment in the “golden postcodes” of Belgravia or Knightsbridge or just some hummus at Fortnum and Mason, grocer to the Queen. There’s a problem, though. The UAE has advised its citizens to stay away from “hazardous” parts of London, including Oxford Street, after two incidents in which Arab visitors were robbed by thugs brandishing guns, knives and hammers.

Solution? A personal drone that could follow a tourist through the city’s “unsafe” neighbourhoods and alert private minders or the police about an impending threat. And there’s a startup for that. Gofor was founded in San Francisco by Alex Cornell and Phil Mills and they envisage a future where drones are affordable and abundant. The sky’s pretty much the limit they believe when it comes to what personal drones that can do: “location scouting, HD documentation, personal security, telepresence, internet range extension.”

The optimistic Gofor vision is based on human kindness, but evil does exist and bad people might be thinking about the usefulness of drones for their purposes, too. Would it possible to equip a drone with a high-powered rifle, shoot a target and then crash the perp into the Thames Estuary? No sign of killer or weapon; the perfect crime. Sounds like pulp fiction but drones do have a history when it comes to negative headlines.

Inevitably, there will be calls to ban personal drones. First, however, comes the registration. The US Transportation Department is announcing today that it will soon require registration for all unmanned aircraft. Will drone sellers be required to collect customer information? This is a developing story.


7/7: A decade later

Tuesday, 7 July, 2015 0 Comments

The sworn enemies of civilization attacked London on 7 July 2005. On that day, four Islamist suicide bombers carrying rucksacks of explosives killed 52 people in the worst single terrorist atrocity on British soil. In the decade since, the adherents of the barbarian ideology that inspired the London bombers have shown that they are willing to use any means to murder the young, the old and the innocent. Regardless of class, faith or colour, the killers strike again and again. Being in the wrong place when the time comes, on a beach in Tunisia, say, does not shield one from those who violate every human norm in pursuit of their caliphate dreams. Being human is sufficient guilt for the death sentence carried out by the jihadist.

In June 2007, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a column for Vanity Fair titled Londonistan Calling in which he explored the racist fanaticism that had taken hold in many of London’s mosques and schools. Snippet:

“It was argued for a while that the 7/7 perpetrators were victims of unemployment and poverty, until their remains were identified and it became clear that most of them came from educated and reasonably well-off backgrounds. The excuses then abruptly switched, and we were asked to believe that it was Tony Blair’s policy in Iraq and Afghanistan that motivated the killers. Suppose the latter to be true. It would still be the case that they belong to a movement that hates Jews and Indians and all kuffar, or ‘unbelievers’: a fanatical sect that believes itself entitled to use deadly violence at any time. The roots of violence, that is to say, are in the preaching of it, and the sanctification of it.”

It is cold comfort today to ponder the thought that the roots of Islamist violence are in the preaching of it, and the sanctification of it, but it is remains the bitter truth.

07/07 London terror victims


I said, pretend you’ve got no money

Monday, 6 July, 2015 0 Comments

“I said, pretend you’ve got no money,
She just laughed and said, Oh you’re so funny.”

Common People, Pulp

In May, the Greek newspaper Athens Voice suggested that the woman who inspired the Pulp song is Danae Stratou, wife of Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek minister of Finance. Ms Stratou studied at Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London between 1983 and 1988 and is the eldest daughter of a wealthy Greek businessman.

That celebrated Paris Match spread in March raised eyebrows and generated questions about the contrast between Syriza reality and rhetoric. Yanis Varoufakis was a player. He remains a puzzle. “I wear the creditors’ loathing with pride,” said Minister No More.

Common People


Stand up!

Monday, 20 April, 2015 0 Comments

The haptic sensor in the Apple Watch sends pulses to remind the owner to stand up every hour, along with a text message. “You’ve been sitting for a while. Take a minute to stand up,” a sample text reads.

“If I sit for too long, it will actually tap me on the wrist to remind me to get up and move, because a lot of doctors think sitting is the new cancer,” says Tim Cook, the Apple CEO. Cancer is a disease; sitting is a behaviour, but the point is taken. So, stand up today and take a walk. The London-based Art&Graft design studio shows how it’s done.


Churchill: The central act was the dead body in a box

Friday, 30 January, 2015 1 Comment

“This was the last time that such a thing could happen. This was the last time that London would be the capital of the world. This was an act of mourning for the imperial past. This marked the final act in Britain’s greatness. This was a great gesture of self-pity and after this the coldness of reality and the status of Scandinavia.”

The state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill took place 50 years ago today and Patrick O’Donovan covered the ceremony for the Observer. Rarely has journalistic prose matched an historic occasion so well. This is magnificent:

“But really this was a celebration. And however painful, most funerals are just that. When a man is buried, those who are still alive crave some gesture of respect that cannot help the cadaver. And this gesture is made over and over again by Christians and Communists and humanists and the unconcerned. It is a proud half-conscious assertion that man is not an animal that dies alone in a hole. It is almost a gesture of contempt to the face of death. And once or twice in a generation, a dead monarch or hero is chosen to epitomise a whole nation’s assertion of continuity and dignity. And because the central, the overwhelming fact was the dead body in a box of oak at a certain time and in a special way was, for all public purposes, Britain and more than Britain, this assertion was unbelievably eloquent over this corpse.

It was a triumph. It was a celebration of a great thing that we did in the past. It was an act of gratitude to a man whom we can no longer help or please. The many heads of state there were appropriate but not important. We were not sad. We knew for whom these bells tolled. We knew the man whose body we removed in such unimaginable splendour. And because he was us at our best, we gave him a requiem that rejected death and was almost a rejoicing.”

Winston Churchill by Robert Elliot


The Belmonte club

Saturday, 13 December, 2014 0 Comments

“My mother is Irish, my father is Neapolitan. I was born in London but raised in West Cork. I’m a singer-songwriter living in London.” So says Francesca Belmonte. For the last five years, she’s been the lead singer for trip hop star Tricky, co-writing and performing on his latest album False Idols. Now, she’s striking out on her own.


Bowie here, there and everywhere

Saturday, 15 November, 2014 0 Comments

On Monday, David Bowie will offer the world an early Christmas present in the form of Nothing Has Changed, which covers his music from 1964 to 2014, with some previously unreleased material among the 59 tracks in the three-disc box set. To coincide with this cornucopia, Bowie has issued a très noir video of the first track, Sue, featuring the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Filmed in New York and London, the clip was directed by Tom Hingston. And for those who can’t get enough of the stardust, Hamish Hamilton has made a film about the closing night of the Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year. As we look back at what’s taking shape as Bowie’s legacy, let us not forget that he once said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”