Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Muddy Puddles and the Beetroot Sun

It's a cruel thing, the climate in south eastern England. Not (usually) in the extreme ways that other nations suffer; there are no monsoons causing annual flooding and suffering for thousands of already impoverished families, and there are no hurricanes laying waste to entire cities. But in a subtle way, us poor, pampered, had-it-too-easy-for-too-long Londoners are waging an ongoing struggle.

An example from my office this week: my good friend and colleague Anthony (not his real name; his real name's Sarah) had taken a trip away for the weekend. To put it as kindly as humanly possible, the man is a slap head. Ok, that wasn't very kind but I tried my best. Anyway, he is certainly lacking in growth in the upper regions of his head. Nature may have made a few errors here, since he's one of the beardiest people I've ever met, leading one to speculate that his head has been fitted upside down.

So Anthony had been on a weekend jaunt with some pals and it had involved some not inconsiderable quantities of alcohol. After finally emerging from the pit of his inebriation on Sunday morning, he decided a walk was in order, perhaps in the hope of outrunning the hangover which was clinging to him and weighing him down.

Now those of you in the UK may recall that last Sunday was a glorious spring day in every corner of our nation, and Anthony's location was no exception. As the sun beat down on his glowing pate, this small piece of tightly stretched skin gradually began to glow. At first, gentle iridescence. Then, a sheen of lubricating moisture appeared. Finally, as the minutes passed, it was possible to fry breakfast on it as long as Anthony remained relatively still.

Anthony did not realise this at the time, of course, since he was wallowing in headachey dehydration. However, as his humours returned to normal, the realisation dawned on him. Oh no. I'll have to go into the office like this.

As good fortune would have it, in the evening before returning to work the following day, Anthony needed to call me for a quick chat on an unrelated matter. Happily, he was kind enough to tell me all about his sore and peeling pate in its beetrooty state. That was jolly decent of him, because it gave me the time I needed to SMS a wide selection of other colleagues to ensure everyone wore their sunglasses to the office the following day. After the initial flash-mob desk attendance, many subsequent discussions and watercooler moments were conducted behind darkened lenses. Anthony glowed through indignance as well as sunburn, and thus our mission was accomplished.

I suppose it was a bit mean, but he took it well and let's face it, we've all been there. I have suffered the indignity of excessive, impossible to absorb, sun cream when trying to apply it in a daytime jaunt, and have been splashed in dramatic and artistic style by van drivers encountering muddy puddles. Who amongst us hasn't been caught in a heavens-opening torrent when wearing just our best T-shirt and nothing else (well, trousers, obviously, but you see what I mean...)

The London weather. It chews you up and spits you out. No wonder us Brits are obsessed by the subject. Anthony was just a statistic to be counted alongside its myriad victims. What would we do without it and its cruel sense of humour? Well, in Anthony's case, we'd spend more time enjoying the fresh air and less money on after-sun.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Endearingly Fluffy

Being a Londoner, I am absorbed by anything London related in the media, and currently I am transfixed by BBC2 documentary The Tube. It's a thoroughly fascinating insight into the London Underground, a fly-on-the-wall look at the people who work in the vast and most ancient labyrinth of tunnels, trains and tracks, and a glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes. We've met the people who have to close stations and open them the following day. We've met the men who remove and replace the huge posters you see opposite you when you're waiting for the next packed and sweatingly hot service up to Kings Cross on the Northern Line. There's been a chap whose job it is to shoot rogue pigeons with an air gun. We've even, rather gruesomely, followed the work of the crack squad of people who have the unenviable task of clearing up after someone has jumped under a train -- a tragically common occurrence, I'm sorry to report.

Tonight, though, it was the turn of Harry and the Fluffers to make their debut The Tube appearance. An amazing bunch. Vladimir is their leader, a Bulgarian who has worked in many countries, who just wants to work, and who is amazed by the what he sees as the uniquely British desire to "pay people when they don't work" (we presume he is describing welfare benefits). Meanwhile, Harry (one of his young charges) wishes he'd worked harder at school, as he'd like to be a nuclear physicist and work at CERN. And what does this crack squad of personages do? Rather disappointingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), they are not a special team of committed adult industry workers. Instead, they deep clean the stations late at night, after everyone's gone home. They jump down on the tracks with battery powered vacuum cleaners strapped to their backs, and set to work. You have to admire their unending good humour and desire to meet their deadlines before the systems starts back up again (perhaps they are motivated by a fear of electrocution -- or maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention).

What struck me most of all, though, was a penchant we Londoners seem to have for nicknames. Harry and the Fluffers are an unlikely bunch, but revel in their trade name and are famous amongst their peers for no obvious reason other than this. This has something that has on multiple occasions exercised me. Just today, I was in a long meeting with a colleague (Rob -- I won't reveal more), and he collected several new nicknames which we all secretly hope will stick. One was "Risky Rob" (he is tasked with sorting out some "risks"), another was "Robbie Two-Cakes" (because he bought, and ate, two cakes). My personal favourite, born as he removed a large paper document created during the session from the wall, was "Wallchart Wob (sic)". It's not a subtle art, as you can see, but we all love it and chortle long and hard at our collective inventiveness. Ho ho ho (as Wob himself would say).

But it's not local to teams staffed with childish middle aged men who should know better. Oh no. London has a Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe). A Shard (32 London Bridge). A Wobbly Bridge (The Millennium Bridge -- there's not a Londoner in the whole metropolis who knows it's properly called that without having to Google it). The Waterloo and City line is know to all Londoners as The Drain. Even real names, like The Elephant and Castle, sound like nicknames. The Yeomen of the Guard at the Tower of London are Beefeaters. And the London constabulary enjoy a wide variety of invariably affectionate names, the bloody Rozzers.

Meanwhile, for reasons lost in obscurity, any latecomer to my office is called "Dave". I've even worked with a guy who was named after a famous golfer from the eighties for twenty years simply because he once wore a pair of checked trousers to the office. My own brother has called me Burt for my entire adult life (I have no real idea why).

And why do we do all this? Because we think we're funny. It's as simple as that. We're so funny we invent witty names for each other and everything around us. The Tube itself is, of course, a nickname, but such a common one that even TFL website previously linked to, the formal website of all London Transport, refers to it as, simply, Tube. What a drole bunch we are.

In the end, it's all part of what makes us culturally, of course. As ever, I dissect it but I too am just as likely to join in the fun. It's culturally in me. I'm quite happy about that. But Harry isn't. Having been unable to become the CERN physicist he once aspired to be, he wants to get away from London. We learn of his new objective. Harry wants to win the lottery, then buy ten homes, then sit in them and do "absolutely nothing" (one wonders why he needs ten homes for this). You have to admire the man, perhaps even warm to him a little. He's still a Larry Lightweight though.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Tête Moderne (part two)

Off we went, then, a quick hour brandishing cameras with like minded fellow snappers. Four Canon DSLRs, four blokes not being very cool wandering round a gallery together. Really, we're old enough to know better, but this didn't stop us.

The mission was simple: take the best photo of the day. That was about as complex as the brief got, and even then I'm not really sure it was the brief. For whatever reason, we ended up at the Tate Modern feeling pretty stupid, standing their with our cameras dangling, discussing which lens may be the most well-suited to the task. My friend Dave (not his real name -- his real name's Peter) was standing there with a huge 175-300mm telephoto lens ready for action. It was bigger than him. I was wondering what on earth he was going to do with that indoors in the bulb-lit museum, but off he went anyway. Presumably he intended to photograph the first floor exhibits from the third floor or something.

I opted for a 50mm fixed focal length lens because it was already on the camera. (Camera nerd factoid -- my 50mm lens has an aperture that opens up to f1.8, so takes good low light pictures indoors at fast-ish shutter speeds. Sorry -- deadly dull -- I won't do that again, promise...)

Meanwhile Anthony (not his real name -- his real name's Dave) was doing battle with the Auto point-and-shoot settings. He's new to his DSLR camera and we swarmed over him like flies, relentlessly poking him to tweak a setting here and a parameter there, switch the flash off, fiddle with the white balance. Having ground him down into photographic submission, it then remained for my last friend Peter (not his real name -- his real name's Anthony) to go off and show us what he could do. He was lens-switching -- unable to decide whether to go with the same fixed lens as me or a more general purpose wide angle zoom.

If you're still reading this and have followed me so far, you'll have realised that none amongst us was actually very interested in the wonderful art the Tate Modern has to offer. Instead, it had become a Canon Geek-Fest. Interestingly, what actually occurred was that we took a huge amount of photos of each other. It was much funnier to watch each other in action than it was to catch photos of static (and largely copyrighted) art. An abundance of portraiture was produced -- here are a couple of examples from those that I took.

No Expert -- Still Keen

Funny, But Not As Funny As Your Rubbish Pictures

In the end, the best picture was taken not by me, but by Anthony, or Peter, or Dave, or someone. It actually is an outstanding portrait, and, frankly, I'm really annoyed it wasn't me who took it since I'm such a camera geek I fancied my chances. But credit where due; here's the winner:

Yep. My friend took this. Damn him and his "I know what I'm doing" smugness! We need a rematch -- another London landmark to ignore as a team (suggestions welcome). Then I'll get him. You just wait.

To see the rest of Siddie Nam's photo highlights from the day, go here: "Crack Photo Team at the Tate Modern" .

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Tête Moderne (part one)

One of the tourist attractions I pass near every day is the Tate Modern, a large collection of some of the best modern art to be found anywhere in the world. There are works from as many well-known modern artists as you can think of, such as Picasso or Warhol or Hockney or Emin or a myriad of others, alongside more obscure presentations from people who have a degree of celebrity only to those with a deeper knowledge of the subject than I possess.

The building, right there at the southern end of "The Wobbly Bridge", is in itself fascinating. The museum holds its collection in an impossibly enormous brick building which was once home to Bankside Power Station. It has a vast and overwhelming indoor space called the Turbine Hall; a cavernous echoing chamber filled in modern times with the murmur of tourism punctuated with the occasional squeal of an excited child. It once held huge throbbing generators used to power nearby industry, shipping and manufacturing now vanished from the South Bank. Just next door is a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre which Shakespeare once performed in, and a quarter of a mile further on are the actual foundations of another Elizabethan theatre, The Rose. Walk past Wagamama and Starbucks, and you'll pass Winchester Palace and the Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind (another reconstruction, but beautifully done) then, via Borough Market (itself dating back ot the thirteenth century), you reach another edifice with one thousand years of history; Southwark Cathedral, currently juxtaposed with the as-yet-incomplete Network Rail works. Like many ancient and modern European cities, you can experience a millennium of history in just five minutes.

The Tate Modern is itself something of a paradox. No one would construct a monster like this almost entirely from brick in the 21st century. Over fifty years old, it now defies its own name and reminds us of our more recent history.

Today, the team and I have decided to grab our cameras and actually pop inside and have one of our occasional looks round. My prosaic colleague describes this as an "art or fart" session, but he is at least willing to give it a try. I guess modern art isn't for everyone, and, realistically, it's not always easy for someone who pops in just from time to time to read the mind of an artist who had apparently settled for simply organising some rocks in a certain way.

But there are some breathtaking works in there too. I am a Lichtenstein fan, and seeing his art up close and personally will lift my day. My friend applies an unsubtle test with which I disagree. He wonders if the the term "art" should reasonably be applied to something which didn't require any technical skill to create. In my view it's about the idea and the execution; if something is wonderful for some reason then why does the technical skill involved matter? This could apply to art, or music, or literature, or even a process or a machine. One can admire the thought processes involved in their own right.

The consequences of this disagreement make for an entertaining hour of lively debate. And just thinking about it in a brief lunch hour means that the artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have got inside our modern twenty first century heads and done their jobs.

So four old gits, each armed with our mid-life-crisis gadgety Digital SLRs, set off to take some snaps. How did we get on? I'll tell you in Tête Moderne part 2, later this week. Exciting huh?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Fog Dog Blog

It's foggy today in London. It happens every now and then, mainly in autumn and spring. Once upon a time, my parents tell me, there could be a pea-souper most days, caused by pollution and industry as well as weather, and there is no doubt that quite a few Londoners raised in the fifties suffer lung problems in their twilight years as a result.

But I digress. The rules are tougher now and heavy industry has broadly gone, certainly from central London. Instead, London's contemporary mists are a ghostly white and hang around lazily, obscuring objects any distance away. The Shard is more of a greenhouse. St Paul's has lost it's gothic dome. And dogs bark at you from hidden alleyways between garages.

At least, that's what happened today. Bloody thing. It's owner was walking it unleashed, and it had quickly secreted itself in a little nook, probably lured by an enticing aroma from a fellow canine (you know how it is). Then, as I walked along reading an SMS message on my Blackberry, the terror began: "Woof, woof, woof, woof, WOOF!"

It's possible, of course, that I surprised it. It certainly surprised me. My Blackberry flew into the air and luckily landed on a clump of grass preventing any real damage. (It's no fun damaging your Blackberry; I spilled wood varnish on one I used to own, and while there's no doubt it was shinier and more water-resistant, it was never really the same. Exactly what it says on the tin.)

I was left with my heart racing, over-dramatically fearing a full-on assault from a pack of wild hyenas or some other panting, drooling horror. But, having got it out of its system, the stealthy doggy ambusher mooched off to exploit the foggy cover and scare some other unsuspecting victim half to death.

I gathered up my Blackberry and tried to compose myself, eventually pulling myself together and continuing my journey unscathed. I tried not to eye the possible fog-bound ambush points suspiciously, but a terrifying near-death experience like mine (well, perhaps I exaggerate) is bound to unsettle you.

The fog cleared up by around mid morning and it became a beautiful spring like day. The dog probably doesn't even remember. Or maybe it was just saying hello. I don't know. Let's hope we get bright spring-like mornings from now on though. Who knows how much this has damaged me psychologically? If there is any more fog, I suggest you keep your distance, in case I come over to you and lick your face.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Running off

I have the good fortune to have collected a small but not inconsequential set of young children in recent years (that'll be it now though; I've figured out what's causing it). And while parenthood is obviously a hugely rewarding privilege, there can be no doubt that at times the little monkeys can make you want to scream and shout and jump up and down and rant and rave and pull your hair out.

Now, I'm not about to turn Siddie Nam's Too Wordy For Twitter into a blog about parenting, or a whine bemoaning my lot in life. But I need to get this off my chest, so if you'll indulge me just for today I'd appreciate it.

It's the running off. Just that. Not the getting up for no reason in the middle of the night. Not the relentless asking of the same questions ("are we there yet?"). Not the single shoe by the front door when you're already late going out. Not even the tomatoey patina coating face and clothes following spaghetti bolognese (you'd think I'd learn). Just the running off. I want it to stop.

 Running off

Sometimes my children are scarily computer literate. Recently my five year old was left playing educational games on the CBBC website, only to be discovered later trying to book a flight on EasyJet. Despite this, they're not yet reading my blog. So I fear this plea may fall on deaf ears. But let's try it. Kids: can you PLEASE stop running off.

We took them to The Imperial War Museum on Sunday (I'll tell you a bit more about this another time). The journey involves a walk, a train and another walk. As we left the front door, off one of them went down the road, and the other instinctively followed. When we got to the station, off they ran again. At the destination station: whizz. Away like greased lightning. The walk to the museum was punctuated by minor bids for freedom. Next, at the museum: "kids, this is a museum, please don't run off" -- yeah, right.

The way back was full of several more escape attempts, and at the station, they ran off once again. All of this was helped along by miscellaneous climbs up anything climbable, and the collecting of random natural treasures such as sticks, pebbles and squashed desiccated earthworms. Oh, and sometimes, because it's just so much fun looking for them, they chose to hide, too.

On the road home, my little boy, just five years old, said suddenly and tearfully, "Daddy, why is it so far? My legs ache... Daddy, Daddy, WAHHH...!" Soft hearted fool that I am, I carried him to the front door. Little treasures. You gotta love 'em.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Siddie Nam's Too Wordy For Twitter...: The pointy bit at the top -- relinked!

The thing is, I had to blog a jumble of letters and numbers for security reasons. This has removed my current front page article, "The pointy bit at the top". I wouldn't want you to miss it, so in case you were looking for it please see here:

Siddie Nam's Too Wordy For Twitter...: The pointy bit at the top

Sorry for any inconvenience. Back with more soon!

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The pointy bit at the top

On a near-daily basis, I have the privilege of visiting the centre of my home town, London, UK. I make no bones about it; I love London. The whole world is here, as you can hear by simply trying to pry into unintelligible conversations on the tube (and that's just the student Aussie bar staff). It has a huge history too; of dinosaurs and mammoths, Neolithic settlers, Romans, Angles and Saxons, Normans, Tudors, Stuarts, Victorians, lots I've missed out, and us. So we have history, and culture from around the world, and this in turn leads to wonderful arts, incredible cuisines, and architecture. And on it goes too. In my lifetime London has evolved hugely.

The problem of course is that this diversity does not always result in good things, even if you acknowledge that a modern metropolis like ours has to live and breathe, and move forwards. For me, my inner jury is still out (if you see what I mean) on the subject of The Shard. (By the way, I like to add helpful links, but be warned: follow this only if you want to link to what is surely the world's MOST up its own bottom internet place. Sorry, the author of this Blog is NOT responsible for the content of external sites!)

Soon to be (at least temporarily) Europe's tallest building, The Shard next to London Bridge station (Wikipedia's refreshingly simple site -- what a relief) is undoubtedly a huge engineering achievement. It is spectacular; once I thought the Guys Hospital building right next door was something of a giant, but The Shard just dwarfs it, almost crushing it under an arrogant city-financed boot. And it's not even finished yet. There's a bit of glazing still to do, I dare say it needs a coat of paint on the inside, and then there's the pointy bit at the top.

I saw a documentary somewhere about it. Apparently, the top section is over 500 tonnes in weight, and has been constructed in Yorkshire. It will be delivered in various pieces, which will then be reassembled at the top and complete the job of making The Shard shardy. It will be hoisted into position by a huge crane currently bolted to The Shard's side (the fearless or mad operator of which has balls as big as very big balls).

All very awe inspiring. But it's Olympic year, and London is a building site in anticipation of being the centre of the world's attention in August. Everywhere I go there are new hotels presumably hoping to charge thousands of pounds per Olympic week. There are builders and plant everywhere, including, rather inconveniently, a construction obstruction on my walk to the office. Forget the Olympic Park itself, that's the least of London's worries. I counted twelve cranes from my office window alone which will surely have to go to avoid making us look like a hoist-based construction theme park when the Olympic cameras arrive. The Shard is no exception. Can all these disparate builders do it in time? Watch this space.

Meanwhile, The Shard pokes further upwards, violating both sky and skyline. How sad that from Hampstead Heath's Parliament Hill, the direct line of sight silhouetting St Paul's Cathedral now incorporates The Shard as a backdrop. My beloved London moves on, and I acknowledge and even embrace its evolution. But one of my favourite views vanishes. It's a little thing, but still it makes me kind of sad.

Update 2 May, 2012: Just watched a documentary on Channel Four about the Shard's construction. They're all mad! But it's just about ready - no going back now.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Car troubles in the big smoke.

My car has, annoyingly, suffered a tedious malfunction. It's such a pain. Anyone who has ever driven will probably sympathise, but I don't need sympathy. I just want it fixed!

I have some groovy electronics in my motah (for non-Londoners, this is how the natives describe their automobiles -- they mean "motor"). These electronics can control every rollable window. I can lock and unlock the boot (trunk, if you're from the US). I can adjust the wing mirrors. I can secure every door. I can even make the car fly (oh no, sorry, that's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; thinking of something else...). Anyway, all this clever-dickery happens at the push of a button on the driver's door. Well, at least, it did.

Yesterday, none of it worked properly. Suddenly, when driving along, the windows began to operate themselves at random. The interior lights started believing they were in a small disco (not a full nightclub, more like the family party you have in a church hall when your grandfather reaches eighty-five). The clock on the dashboard started telling random times (unless my car has become a Tardis, but given how little I can get in the boot, that seems unlikely). I couldn't get the passenger side door open -- it was hermetically sealed shut by Volkswagen's uber-locks (these are German cars -- they make their security devices Siddie-proof).

Sigh. I have no idea what's wrong with it. Suggestions welcome. In the meantime, I am reminded of a breakdown in years gone by when I had a cheapo motorised heap which really did deserve to go wrong much more often. And it did. Regularly.

These days, no self respecting Londoner would dream of attempting to drive into Central London. They have the Congestion Charge at rich-person-only prices, and you need to know in advance you definitely have a reserved parking space or you may as well forget it. But back in the day, I used to take my chances. I was young and naive. On this particular day, I had the good fortune to break down on Tooley Street, a main artery for South London traffic looking to drive across London Bridge.

As luck would have it, I managed to overheat on a hot summer's day right in a spot where just a single line of traffic can get through the lights. I used to enjoy summers in this particular car; it was always overheating and I would have to cruise around with the heater on full blast on the hottest days just to draw warmth away from the engine. I also used to travel with numerous bottles of water to replace the fluids lost to perspiration under those circumstances. Honestly, was I not the coolest guy in the whole of London town? No, I wasn't.

As the clouds of steam erupted forth from my blown radiator cap, the line behind me started to beep, honk, and swear. "For [goodness] sake mate," someone nearly said, "will you move your [steaming] heap of [junk] out of the [blinking] way?!" This may not be an exact quote, but you get the idea. Embarrassingly, a police car driving the other way also stopped to enjoy the view, immediately blocking the opposite route out of London in that helpful way the police have, and substantially worsening the situation. Leaving their own car parked like a traffic island, they sauntered over to help me push my stricken vehicle to the side of the road. Then they said, "You can't leave that there, mate..."

Ah, the happy memories of it all. You have to wonder in this day and age if it's all more trouble than it's worth. Take my advice. Walk.