Issue 105: 2017 05 18: FlowLight (Chin Chin)

18 May 2017


Clever, but will it work?

By Chin Chin

From time to time science produces something which is really useful.  The flushing water closet, for one thing: the self-sticking postage stamp for another.  Both ideas moved civilisation forward without any apparent downside.  Now at last, we may have another: step up, Dr Thomas Fritz of the University of British Columbia and David Shephard of ABB, inventors of FlowLight, a concept presented to the CHI 2017 conference in Colorado.  Like most great inventions it meets a real need, not an obvious natural need like gravity which was invented to prevent us all floating off into space, but something more subtle than that, something more 2017.  It was introduced to prevent the employees of ABB looking like idiots.

The trouble was that the employees of ABB, a top international engineering firm, are very talented people, and to get full value from their undoubted abilities their employer needs them to be tapping at their keyboards and navigating with their mouses every second of the working day.  Since they are highly-motivated, as well as having wrists and fingers of steel, this should not have been a problem.  Keep going, folks, and the office nurse has some cream if you find that you are burning your fingertips on the keys.  So, on they went – click, swish, click, swish – a fine modern company working away in the best of all possible worlds.

Unfortunately there was a problem and anyone who has worked at an office will guess what it was: distractions.  From time to time these eager workers would be distracted by colleagues just when they were at their most creative.  It was a difficult problem to crack, too.  Any number of things need to be discussed in a modern office, and anyway you cannot (without going mad) swish and click all day without respite.  The important thing is that your colleagues should be able to tell when you are being really creative and keep the distractions for the times when you are going slower in between.  What was needed was a system for telling colleagues which time was which.

Now ABB is an engineering firm so they approached the problem with ingenuity and invention, and out of that a convention was born.  Put a traffic cone on your desk if you do not want to be disturbed.  Then people would know to avoid you.

Sensible enough, you might have thought, but alas there were drawbacks to the system.  The first was how to obtain a sufficient supply of traffic cones.  I do not know how this is done if you are not in the traffic business, but presumably civil contractors must use them so I suppose there must be suppliers. Anyway, the company seems to have got over that particular hurdle.  The second was more difficult.  It simply isn’t cool to work with a traffic cone on your desk.  In fact, you look rather an idiot.  That would never do.  A better system had to be found.

It is here that FlowLight comes in.  Your computer measures your level of activity by counting the swipes and clicks and releases the information to a light on your desk which changes colour according to the reading.  Red shows that you are clicking and swishing like mad and should not be distracted.  A green light means a low level in these activities and that you can be approached.  The system has been a stunning success.  Such a success in fact that it has reduced interruptions by 46% and upped the output of ABB employees.  Such a success that experiments are being run in Canada to see whether the level of activity can be calculated, and thus the light controlled, by the heart rate, pupil dilation and brain waves of the worker.

No doubt the engineering involved is superb, but there seems to be a fundamental question.  Is someone’s time more valuable when they are swishing and clicking away or is it more valuable when they are sitting back in their chair with a cup of coffee reflecting on how to solve a problem?  There is no universal answer to that because it depends upon what they are trying to do.  Yet one of the best tests of a young professional is whether, if you set them a problem, they come back with a well thought through solution or whether they merely come back holding a pile of searches and spreadsheets claiming to have “researched” the issue.  Remember that Newton deduced the existence of gravity by contemplating on the fall of an apple and that Einstein deduced the Special Theory of Relativity by contemplating on the universality of the speed of light.  Not a click or swish between them.  In most problem-solving, 0 minutes of reflective thought is more valuable than an hour’s juggling information.

The risk, then, is that the system will backfire with employees being interrupted at the very moment when they should be left on their own to reflect, the moment when they are drinking a cup of coffee and doodling, the moment when they are explaining the problem to the person who is sitting at the next desk.

That isn’t to say, of course, that busy professionals do not need a way of indicating that they do not wish to be disturbed, but there are many traditional ways of doing that.  One is to close the office door or, if the office is open plan, to put something (okay, yes, a road cone if you must) on the desk.  Another is to have a part of the office reserved for those who wish to work in peace, rather like the silent compartment on a train.  Still, those systems are not quite sufficient on their own because they leave the question of how to deal with incoming calls.  Ignore them completely and you may upset your boss.  Take them and the caller, who cannot see what you’re doing, may bang on for an age.

The answer to that is to take them but to replace the greeting “hello” with a grunted “yes”.  That may sound abrupt but, provided that the “yes” comes out before the caller announces their name, it leaves you with an option.  If the caller is not someone you wish to speak to for long, you will have got across the message that you are really terribly busy and don’t have time to listen to them.  “He grunted before he knew that I wasn’t the chief executive”, they will say to themselves.  “Gosh, he must be terribly busy, poor chap”.  The call is kept short and no offence is taken.

If, on the other hand, it is the chief executive, you change your tone as soon as he gives you his name. “He was clearly very busy but, my word, his tone changed once he realised it was me”, he will say to himself with a smile.  “Clearly he ought to be rewarded for all the work he is putting in.”  How much more effective than starting off pleasantly and letting the irritation creep into your voice as the conversation goes on.

The world of office politics is a subtle one and the introduction of algorithms and the measuring of brainwaves may not be quite as helpful as the University of Colombia and ABB seem to think.  Never mind, I wouldn’t want to put people off trying something new.  Still, perhaps I could just mention, in case it is ever relevant, that following a trip down the M1 the other evening I can do a very competitive price in traffic cones.


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Issue 104: 2017 05 11: Badminton Horse Trials (Lynda Goetz)

11 May 2017

Badminton Horse Trials

Not just for the ‘horsey’ crowd.

By Lynda Goetz 

Teamwork after the event.

Really, you do not have to be an aspiring 3-day eventer or even a rider to enjoy Badminton.  Of course it helps, as with any sport at which you are spectating, if you have some understanding of the rules and the challenges.  It probably adds to your understanding if you have ever sat on the back of a horse, but there is a lot to enjoy even with the shallowest of knowledge and experience, particularly when it comes to the cross-country day.  Eventing is about teamwork, teamwork between horse and rider, and although dressage is a beautiful demonstration of this, cross-country evidences the trust necessary.

There are only six four-star eventing competitions in the world, of which Badminton* is the oldest and most prestigious.  It is the one all top riders aspire, not necessarily to win, just to be able to compete in.  It was first held on the Duke of Beaufort’s estate in 1949 and has been held annually since (although cancelled on several occasions, mainly owing to bad weather and waterlogged ground) and has been sponsored for the last twenty-three years by Mitsubishi Motors.  Eventing is a sport in three distinct parts – dressage, cross-country and show-jumping – and although at the lower levels all three can take place in one day, the four-star events (Badminton and Burghley in the U.K, Rolex in the USA, Luhmϋhlen in Germany, Pau in France and Adelaide in Australia) are staged over 3 or (more usually) 4 days.

Claire Abbot (IRL) and Euro Prince at the end of Savills Staircase.

Dressage takes up the first two days.  The FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) based in Lausanne, Switzerland and the governing body for equestrian sports, defines dressage as the ‘highest expression of horse training’ where ‘horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a pre-determined set of movements’.  With over 80 horses and riders participating in this year’s event, the judges were kept busy from 9 a.m until 5 p.m on Thursday and Friday last week with a brief lunch break, during which the crowds in the arena were treated to a freestyle dressage display.  At the end of the first day last Thursday, the Frenchman Thibaut Vallette and his horse Quing du Briot were in the lead with Bettina Hoy and Designer 10 of Germany in second place.  Both riders knew only too well that they could not count on keeping those positions.  With the elite of the horse-riding world competing in this event, they could only cross their fingers and hope.  Unfortunately for them, it was not enough.  By 5pm on Friday and time for the Stallion Display, the results board told a totally different story; M. Vallette was in 7th place, Ms Hoy in 8th and in first place was the Australian Christopher Burton with his horse Graf Liberty.  The New Zealander who was to win overall on Sunday was at this point only placed fifth equal.

Saturday dawned bright and clear.  With little rain throughout April, the ground was firm and the grass dry.  However, those easterly winds from Siberia were to ensure that the sunshine was not warming.  We left our hotel outside Swindon by 7.30 and arrived just after 8a.m, having encountered little traffic down the very narrow lanes you are obliged to use once the M4 has been left behind.  Many of the trade stands do not open before 9 and the Cross-country itself does not start until 11.30, but leave it too late and in spite of the impressive traffic management system in place you can spend a frustrating time queuing.

Tom Jackson (GBR) and Waltham Fiddlers at the Mirage Pond.

After a bacon sandwich and coffee (indispensable fare on such occasions) we were briefly seduced by the shopping, which incidentally is brilliant, before finding some seats in the arena for the Shetland Pony Grand National.  This is a light-hearted event with two heats and a final, ridden by girls and boys aged between 9 and 14, some of whom have in the past gone on to become well-known jockeys.  Their stocky little ponies seem to love the occasion and race round the arena jumping a series of small Grand National-style fences.  This is, however, not simply fun and games for riders and ponies.  The Shetland Pony Grand National is a non-profit organization raising awareness and funds for the Bob Champion Cancer Trust (Bob Champion won the 1981 Grand National on Aldaniti).  Last Saturday, Bob Champion himself was also there to speak briefly about his charity.

Part of the appeal of events like Badminton is the sheer beauty of the surroundings.  The part of the estate where the horse trials are held is the deer park, which covers some 6 square kilometres (1500 acres).  The arena, trade stands, car parks and the cross-country course are all within this area – plenty of space for the crowds of up to a quarter of a million people who attend, although at some of the fences the crowd can be five or six deep, making it somewhat difficult at times to see.  Fortunately, because there are 30 jumps and most people like to see as many as possible, there is constant movement around the viewing points for the jumps, so if you are patient it is usually easy enough to get a good look. Certainly last Saturday it was also preferable to keep moving – as that made it less likely you would freeze.  Four layers, including a heavy alpaca jumper, and a scarf and hat were not too much; indeed I was grateful I had been forewarned not to ‘go for elegance’!  I was impressed by those who were trying to enjoy picnics on rugs at various points around the course.  A very English response to weather, I know, but surely not really enjoyable!

Show jumps in the arena can be knocked down, although penalties are, of course, incurred for doing so. The cross-country requires the horse and rider to tackle solid, immoveable, ‘rustic’ jumps (e.g. walls and logs) as well as covering a good deal of ground.  On Saturday, anything over 11 minutes 45 seconds to get round the course incurred a time penalty – increased with every second over.  There are also penalties for ‘refusals’: 20 points for the first, 40 for the second and elimination for a third.  A fall by either horse or rider also results in elimination at this level.  This year’s course was designed by a new designer, Eric Winter.  Winter, an experienced course designer, has designed the course at the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials for 10 years and was Technical Delegate at Badminton 2011-14.  He was a competitor in 1991 and considers that cross-country should be about the relationship between horse and rider.  With this in mind, his course has a number of fences where there are alternative routes, not much longer, but which might better suit some horse and rider combinations.

This year’s course ran clockwise, the opposite direction to last year.  To the uninitiated and even to most experienced riders, the course looks difficult and this year’s was regarded as ‘challenging’.  Some of the drops are massive – for example, the one at the Lake complex – and few of the jumps are straightforward; although if they are, they are simply enormous.  The riders competing are the best in the world.  Even so, out of 80 starters, only 32 went clear on Saturday and 32 retired or were eliminated.  One British rider, Emily Gilruth, sadly suffered a traumatic brain injury when she fell early on at the third fence.  The event is clearly not without its potential for danger and drama.  Only two riders, Tim Price and Michael Jung, got round within the allotted time – which Eric Winter said was what he wanted; “The time showed the best of the best,” he said.

Chris Burton, in the lead after the dressage, lost his place after Graf Liberty had a stop at the Hildon Water feature, a jump which caused problems for a number of riders.  Ingrid Klimke of Germany, placed second after the dressage, was in first place after Saturday’s cross-country, but as is often the way in this sport, things changed again the following day.  Andrew Nicholson and his horse Nereo, the final team to complete the cross-country on Saturday evening and lying third as a result of that effort, picked up further in the show-jumping to become the overall winner.  The 55-year-old New Zealander, based in Wiltshire, was, in his own words, ‘lucky not to have been paralysed’ in a fall at Gatcombe in August 2015. After extensive surgery at the time and the rest of the season off, he made a complete recovery.  This is his 36th Badminton and he has finally proved he is ‘the best of the best’.

Even for those who have no aspirations or, as I said earlier, limited knowledge of the ‘horsey’ world, this is a great day out.  It is worth remembering that May in England can throw up a massive variety of weather and be prepared accordingly.  For those who don’t fancy picnics in Arctic conditions, there are all sorts of options from Champagne and Pimms tents and the stylish Nyetimber (English sparkling wine) converted bus to beer tents, bacon butties and fish ’n chips vans.  If the worst comes to the worst you could always picnic in your car, a good old British solution to our perennial weather problems.

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Issue 104: 2017 05 11: D***, and B*** (Chin Chin)

11 May 2017

D***, and B****

Swearing as an aid to performance.

By Chin Chin

Those who believe that peaks and troughs should generally cancel out will be relieved that there is a useful contribution from academia in this week’s press.  Following Oxford’s half-witted comment that diverting the eyes is a form of racism and their snivelling apology (which, instead of just confessing that they are idiots and promising that the backsides of those responsible would be kicked hard, bleated on about how their comments might affect the autistic), Keele University has stepped into the breach with a worthwhile piece of research.  Apparently swearing boosts athletic performance.  Whether you are cycling, gripping a bar or demonstrating fortitude by submerging your hand in icy water, swearing as you do so makes you do it better.

It is one of those moments when research produces evidence for something that many knew instinctively, exploiting the principle without understanding the theory.  The New Zealand rugby team begins its matches with a Haka, and, although I have no idea whether that includes swear words or not, is certainly fairly aggressive.  Boxers insult each other at the weigh in.  Footballers swear at those they are trying to mark.  Even at the boat race, that most Corinthian of events, the shouting of the coxes often has to be kept off the air.

It is not just in sports, either, that the principle holds good.  I remember taking a particularly difficult set of exams and receiving from my sister a photograph of Clint Eastwood.  I put it in front of me on the desk and, as the papers were being handed out, would catch his eye and mutter towards the invigilator those immortal words “make my day, punk”.  Actually, it may not have been such a mutter because the person in front of me look around very nervously and then asked to change his desk.  Still, I’m sure that it is what got me through the exams.

Now we understand the principle better, the question is how best to apply it.  Sometimes that can be difficult, even in circumstances where a bit of aggression would clearly boost performance; job interviews, for example.

No, no, I am not suggesting that you begin the interview by telling those interviewing you to “fuck off”.   That sort of language may be all very well at the end when they have just said “I am afraid that your impressive talents are not quite right for this company,” but right at the beginning?  No, better not.  A more subtle way of introducing a swear word into the conversation is clearly called for.

One possibility is to create a minor accident.  Knock your coffee into the interviewer’s lap, for example.  The advantage of that is that it leaves you with a choice of approaches.  You can either say “oh fuck” in a man of action challenging fate type of way.  That would be appropriate if you are being interviewed by an investment bank or possibly a property developer.   Alternatively, if the position is one which requires an apologetic demeanour, a Bank of England economic forecaster perhaps, you can get your swear word in by way of apology.  “Oh God, I am terribly sorry.”  Of course if the coffee is hot enough, the interviewer won’t focus much on which approach you took.

But what about meetings where you need to be hyped up but overt swearing would not do at all, a meeting with a Bishop, perhaps?  Then you may have to result to subterfuge.  That famous wit A.P.Herbert, on being invited to dine by the Master of New College, Oxford, took bets with his friends that he would say “arseholes” during the evening.  The occasion was a formal one and the expression not much used in polite society just before the first world war.  His fellow guests, or at least those who had taken the wager, waited in a state of excited expectation.  The soup course passed without incident.  Then came the fish.  “Ah, soles I see,” remarked Herbert, helping himself to the proffered dish and at the same time securing his winnings.

Another possibility would be to use an obscure swearword which only you would recognise.  The best place to look for these is in the Middle Ages when the prefixes “S or “Z” were used to denote the word “His”, the He in question being, of course, Christ.  Hence “Sdeath” for “His Death”, “Zounds” for “His Wounds” etc.  This system for inventing swearwords became quite developed and, although it may not have gone as far as “Sknife” and “Sfork”, “Sblood” was certainly in use for “His Blood” and “Struth” for “His Truth”.   Now, although if you strode into a meeting and began with the line “Sblood it is cold out there,” people would think you were rather odd, “Struth” is still in common use and you would almost certainly get away with that.

What the research by Keele doesn’t tell us is whether swearwords still work if you have to hide them away.  Perhaps they do or perhaps they don’t, but the best plan must be to deliver them straight out with no qualifications.  It is here that I have something of an advantage.  Most meetings start by the participants stating their names and why they are there.  I wait my turn and, when the chairman looks in my direction, I simply say “Chin, Chin”.  He will think I am stating my name but actually, I know better.  To say “Chin, Chin” to someone is extremely rude if you are speaking Japanese.


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Issue 104:2017 05 11:Misty Distant Borders (J.R.Thomas)

11 May 2017

Misty Distant Borders

The books of Lord Dunsany.

by J.R.Thomas

Might the convulsions of Brexit lead to an unexpected side effect, the reunification of Ireland?  Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic, has suggested that the Brexit of the United Kingdom is an opportunity to test the will of the Six Counties to unite with the south; feeling perhaps the ancient animosity between the two religions in the North will be overcome by common cause in an European future.  Something suggests that might be a bit premature, but it does cast the mind back to when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, albeit an increasingly reluctant part.  The struggle for liberation and self-government, and that clash between the largely (but far from entirely) Protestant Anglo-Irish governing landowning class and the Celtic Irish rural poor was for much of the nineteenth century a backdrop to Irish life, often an uncomfortable one, but one where the parties got on with their existences as best they could.

Out of that came some wonderful writing and the flowering of a literature which still blooms strong.  W B Yeats will be known to our readers, as will Oscar Wilde, and possibly even Bram Stoker; but there was one more or less contemporary who outwrote and outsold them all, and yet is almost completely forgotten.  Edward Plunkett, 18th Lord Dunsany.  Dunsany was very much the Anglo-Irishman, his family being one of the ancient Norman settler families, but the Plunketts had a streak of radical rebelliousness that led to sympathy and indeed to open support by some of his relatives for Irish independence.  Dunsany himself was little interested in politics but deeply romantic and intensely interested in the Irish and Ireland, and its folklore and legends.  He made his name as a writer after the First War, writing a series of fantasy novels set in a fairy kingdom, Pegana, then widening his scope to poetry (he was a most gifted poet) and plays – being a key supporter of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the crucible for much of the revival of Irish literature.  In 1924 he wrote his perhaps best known book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, but also began the series of Jorkens novel’s, Jorkens being a clubman who tells tall stories, a sort of compatriot of Wodehouse’s Mulliner. But the book which Dunsany had most deeply inside himself, and which he wrote and revised over a long period, finally publishing it in 1933, was The Curse of The Wise Woman.  It was an immediate best seller (and prize winner), remaining in print until Dunsany’s death in 1957, and then being republished in 1972 and again in 2014.

The Curse of the Wise Woman combines many of Dunsany’s themes and interests: Ireland, the threat to the old ways of the new, rural against urban, fantasy, mystery, and additionally brings in some personal experiences.  Dunsany was a Unionist and served as a soldier in Dublin in the 1916 uprising there, but the motives of the various players in the Curse of the Wise Woman are scratched away at to reveal the complex, the humane, and the unexpected in men caught up in difficult times and stretched loyalties; one might well suspect that Dunsany himself had the same complications of belief and loyalty for all his outward conventionality.  Blending in is after all just an effective way of hiding.  Also worth remarking is Dunsany’s wonderful ability to evoke place with few words; his sketch of a man struggling to recall long past events, in a Spanish town during the time of siesta with the heat resting heavy on the town, a dog that will not settle, dust and glare, is a hot and sweaty minor masterpiece.

This book must have taken aback Dunsany’s regular readers; it opens in an ancient tired house where, the narrator explains, everything is old.  Not just that which is fashionable to be old, such as pictures and furniture, but everything, down to carpets and curtains.  The narrator is a schoolboy, scion of an ancient family, living there with only his father and a few servants.  He is about to go back to Eton for the autumn half, but would much prefer to stay at home in Ireland, to shoot snipe and geese on the bogs around the decaying house. Any reader who has visited Dunsany’s home, Dunsany Castle in Meath (still the home of his descendants) will recognise elements of the setting.

Events get underway with a simple but evocative description of a quiet night disrupted, a sequence of happenings that will gradually chill the spine of any reader of even moderate sensitivity.  There is no violence or gore; but the slow dawning on the narrator of what actually goes on under his very feet is beautifully portrayed; distant galloping hooves and the smell of tobacco bring home to him that life is much more dangerous and ancient allegiances much less settled than the seeming certainties of the morning of that day.

But at least he does not have go back to Eton.  His wish to spend the autumn among the bogs and fields around the house is unexpectedly granted; and he begins to discover layers of Irish life, life in the bog, that open his eyes to the unexpected and previously unknown.  Until a new threat arises.  That becomes the core of the tale.

The Curse of the Wise Woman is not for everybody.  A country sports fanatic friend did not see the point of it at all; indeed it is not a book about chasing snipe or waiting for geese.  Although this is to some extent an autobiographical book Dunsany was primarily a fantasy writer with a complex inner existence, and here those complexities and layers come prodding the surface of life.  It is not always obvious if what is happening is reality, or is unfolding in the narrator’s mind or dreams; you might ask if we have a narrator who is entirely telling the truth.  He is an Eton boy after all.

Put that aside for consideration on the third and fourth reading; treat the tale as … a tale; or maybe as the memoirs of an old man.  It is the record of an existence that Dunsany knew to be receding into the past, of happenings that hopefully his children would not have to endure.  But also of simple times that they could never savour, of a magical era spoilt by distant events and nearby machinery, of lives that had seemed to be based on ancient certainties but which now had to be played out on cracking ice.  It is about how the world slowly comes up to our necks, and how we may continue to breathe.

Some exceptionally good books were written between the two world wars.  The experiences of death on an appalling scale, and the politics of evil which arose so unexpectedly out of idealistic intentions to build a new world, seemed to produce writings of great power and insight, often with an economy and style which holds the reader late into the night until the last page.  This is one of the best; and it deserves to be much better known.

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Issue 103: 2017 05 04: Death in Oxford (Chin Chin)

04 May 2017

Death In Oxford

A question of aggression.

By Chin Chin

It was high noon as the man from the University strode in through the swinging door of Jake’s bar.  Jake stood there, his left-hand loose by his side as, with his right, he slipped off the safety catch of the shot gun which always lay hidden behind the counter.  This man looked like trouble and with Christchurch, with its sinister reputation, just round the corner, it was well to be prepared.  Who knew what the stranger carried on his hip under that gown, rippling so gently in the breeze.  Was this the day on which one of them would die?

The other drinkers froze, ready to dive for cover as the academic footfalls resounded on the wooden boards.  Would it be blood, or just a crème de menthe?  Look for the body language.  Watch the eyes.  That was the way to tell.

The mortarboard was off now and the man had reached the bar.  Jake’s hand was on the trigger but it was for the customer to place the order.  How would he react to the challenge in Jake’s eyes?  By staring straight back or by glancing away?

The customer averted his eyes.  It was only the slightest of movements and the casual observer might have thought that he was just making sure that he did not trip over the bar stool but, to Jake, it could only be one thing – racism.  Jake pulled out the shot gun and gave the customer both barrels; he was dead before he had time to reach under his gown.

My word, it had been a close-run thing.  Jake, only being a townsman, was not a regular reader of the Oxford University equality and diversity unit newsletter and it was only the press which had alerted him to their verdict that failing to look someone in the eye was a form of racist micro-aggression.  Not that Jake was actually black or brown, but he was descended from Saxon stock who had undoubtedly been subjugated by the Norman establishment.  There was no way that anyone coming into his bar would be allowed to micro-aggress him.  The magistrates would understand that.  He kicked the corpse into a corner and threw the mortarboard on top of it.

Jake would have been less happy had he realised the seriousness of what he himself had done.  Destroying a member of an endangered species is an appalling cultural crime and there was no doubt that members of the University were becoming scarcer by the day.  For a start, there were those who could not meet your eyes.  Previously it had been assumed that they were modest or diffident or perhaps came from a culture where not looking directly into a stranger’s eyes was good manners.  The equality and diversity unit had scuppered that nonsense.  Now they were revealed as micro-aggressors, as were those who asked questions about genetic roots, told jokes or did anything else of which the University disapproved.  As the unit pointed out, suffering micro-aggression could lead to mental health issues so it was no surprise that the oppressed had turned on their tormentors, purifying the ancient spires with the disinfectants of bullets and cold steel.  Not since the days of Zuleika Dobson had the membership of the University fallen so suddenly.

So why had an agency of Oxford University embraced a policy which will eliminate a large number of its students?  Was it because they believed this stuff about micro-aggression?  No, obviously not, even academics are not as half-witted as that.  Was it then that Oxford undergraduates do not cut the mustard and need to be replaced with better ones?  That is more likely, and there is certainly evidence on which such an approach could be based, but, if it is the policy, then it is likely to fail.  Why would students from other universities subject themselves to this patronising regime?  No, it cannot be that.  What else then?  As any reader of detective fiction will tell you, if you want to solve the case, follow the money.  That is it then.  Get rid of the students and the resources of the University can be lavished on the dons.  That is a prospect rosy enough to provide the rationale for any number of quality and diversity units.

For Jake, though, it is all much simpler.  He was brought up in a city riven with conflict between town and gown and has had to earn his living while watching the snowflake generation of students indulging their susceptibilities.  This is the opportunity he has been waiting for.  Another member of the University walks into the bar.  Jake watches him come.  Surely he will glance away, if only for a moment.  Just for a second, he prays.  Just for a second.  Please, God, please, make my day, please…


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Issue 103:2017 05 04:Fading Icons:Modernism (J.R.Thomas)

04 May 2017

Fading Icons: Modernism

Architecture moves on.

by J.R.Thomas

Anyone For Tennis?   Le Corbusier and Villa Savoye

Where once there were Dukes, now there are architects.  Not so long ago your correspondent, lunching in a swanky West End private dining club, witnessed Norman Foster, the Lord Foster of Thames Bank (not to be confused with Richard Rogers, the Lord Rogers of Riverside – a little riverine rivalry there, one might think) arrive, at about 2pm.  Conversation stopped, lunchers turned and admired, and the table of ladies whom Lord Foster joined positively cooed.  After thirty minutes or so, during which he partook only of a glass of water, he left again, no doubt looking forward to an afternoon creating some great glass and steel icon for our planet.  The ladies looked bereft, though most of the rest of the room wondered what they had done to receive such a blessing, be it so brief.  No Victorian Duke would have had a more fawning and admiring reception; certainly no current politician would.

For architects are convinced that they hold all the keys to happiness; only they understand the human condition; only they can resolve the multiple clashes and contradictions that obstruct our way to the paradise on earth that they and their teams can provide.  And somehow they have convinced us, the mere working inhabiting public, of this power.  Politicians are felled by crosses on paper, political parties fade to nothing, and long held philosophies become objects of derision and contempt.  But architects stride on, like their great buildings, heads in the clouds and feet barely on the ground, unconstrained by such vulgarities as popular opinion or indeed the constraints of budgeting and finance.

How has this happened?  The Adam brothers knew that they had refined classical architecture into something that every Georgian gentleman wanted, but they did not pretend that it would make a heaven on earth.  The Wyatt’s adding pinnacles, and the Barrys refining the pinnacles into an interpretation of authentic medieval and Clough Williams Ellis taking the ornamentation off, were all keen proponents of their styles, but they did not think this made them masters of the built universe. (Indeed Sir Charles Barry, one of the most prolific architects of all time, positively disliked and avoided personal publicity.)  For the genius of the built form, who realised that in the manipulation of concrete and steel he could remake the human condition, we have to look overseas – to the remarkable person and mind of Le Corbusier.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was a Swiss of French ancestry who felt called to architecture, with a mission to make it reflect a new and more egalitarian world.  Part of that process was remaking himself – adopting the style of Le Corbusier (“The Raven” or “Raven-like”).  After the First World War he rose to pre-eminence in his chosen profession, melding the new factory-made materials of pre-cast and poured concrete with steel frames and metal windows in designs where the formation of the inside spaces dictated the outside appearance of the building.  He had not invented Modernism, but he seized it and made it his own.  The Modern movement had begun in Vienna with the works of Loos and Wagner, and in the US with Frank Lloyd Wright, but Le Corbusier was its greatest proponent.  It is perhaps typical of him that his first sizable work, a house for his parents on a Swiss hillside, ran so much over budget that his parents eventually had to  sell it; but it was elegant and revolutionary – its principal floor an open space with areas for various activities simply defined by columns.  The pattern did not change – this house at least had a sloping roof, but by the time he came to design the Villa Savoye for the Savoye family, a prestigious and well-funded project, Le Corb would only accede to roofs that were flat and interiors that were vast open spaces. The Savoyes strongly objected, fearing leaks, condensation, noise, and mould, but The Raven was not interested in the views of mere clients.  He insisted this would be cheaper, healthier, cooler in the summer and economical to run; even that the flat roof would be suitable for sun bathing and sports.  All the things the clients feared came to pass, including damp-induced pneumonia, but Le Corbusier was remarkably unsympathetic, even when the Savoyes sued him.  He did admit that the flat roof was there for purely aesthetic reasons but, as the house was to be a Modern icon, no other considerations were relevant.

Somehow this approach attracted clients rather than repelling them; and led to a dawning of self-knowledge among many architects that they were giants of taste and style.  This coincided with the cost of two massive wars bringing an end to financial plenty – and the passing of economic power from great personal patrons to corporations and public bodies, entities perhaps less certain in their tastes and more anxious to be seen to do the right thing.  As architects were confident that they knew what the right thing was – and as the simple forms and standardisations of Modernist architecture made it not only the right thing but also the cheap thing – it became the only answer to large projects.

Modernism was not just about buildings, it was about the whole of urbanism.  The projects that came under the hands of architects included great swathes of cities – often opportunities created by war.  In London, Chamberlin, Powell and Don designed Golden Lane and the Barbican, two vast and brutalist concrete housing estates in the City of London.  Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer designed and oversaw a whole new Modern capital city for Brazil, Brasilia.  And Le Corb himself was responsible for Chandigarh, a large chunk of the capital city of the Punjab, including a new set of public buildings.  Modernism ruled a concrete world.

For a while.  Le Corbusier died in 1965, swimming out to the sun, a simile he had employed much in life, though probably of a heart attack.  The cracks were by then appearing in Modernism, literally (along with mould, rust, leaks and delamination), and figuratively.  The world seemed not to have been improved by its new premises and mankind had not yet ascended to an earthly paradise.

And of course, things go out of fashion; brilliant young professionals have to prove their originality and intelligence.  Post-Modernism appeared, a reaction to Modernism it was claimed, led by Robert Venturi, which had regard to the vernacular and used ornament to make buildings more interesting.  In retrospect it was a singularly minor rebellion, sticking bits of tile and bright paint on what were essentially Modern forms.  Then the Classical revival was just that – a scholarly and very expensive continuation of classical Georgian architecture whose greatest exponent was and is Quinlan Terry.  Post-Classicism took classical forms and shapes and used them with modern materials (and modern budgets) to fit into historic street scenes, generally lacking excitement but in the right context proving acceptable to the public staring from the top deck of the Clapham omnibus.

And of course we have those giants of glass and steel, Milords Rogers and Foster, (and their lesser known brothers and sisters such as the late Zaha Hadid, I M Pei, and Renzo Piano) remaking the world in their own image, or at least, what they would like their image to be.  That, one might submit, is still Modernism, using modern materials such as triple layered glass, steel (still), rubber (for joints and roofs), all now capable of being bent and curved and twisted.  But still monolithic, still with function following form, and still towering above humanity who are allowed to scurry in and out but not to criticise or suggest.

But watch what happens next.  The increasing greening of the world may lead to truly new forms of architecture.  Traditional architecture – by which we mean Modern – puts very heavy feet on the earth.  All that glass and concrete is expensive in carbon terms and doubly so when the engineering of putting things together and then heating and cooling those vast glasshouses is costed in.  And then consider the urge cities have to renew so much of their built environments every thirty years or so; concrete and glass are dreadful materials to remove and reprocess.

The latest generation of architects are thinking about buildings which use natural and renewable materials, which can be redeployed to cope with a changing world.  They know the rising cost of carbon and try increasingly to make their buildings less reliant on it – from wind turbines on the roof to ground source hear pumps via natural air movement within.  And most of all, they are conscious of the desires of the building users – who want some colour and fun and sense of participation (Kevin McCloud and his television series Grand Designs have a lot to answer for).  Architects can of course provide colour and, when it comes to fun, they can create catalysts for it – slides from floor to floor, decorations, hanging gardens with space to grow cabbages and roses.  They tend not to think they know all the answers but invite building users to participate in solutions for a better world.  We may just be at the birth of a new architecture, and if you remember that Modernism is more than a century old, that may be quite an event.

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Issue 103: 2017 05 04: Hidden Gems (Lynda Goetz)

04 May 2017

Hidden Gems

A short London walk with detours.

By Lynda Goetz 

I lived in London for eleven years, but when I visit these days it is as an outsider; not a tourist exactly, but definitely a visitor.  As a visitor, I often like to walk.  Walking re-familiarizes and brings me into closer contact with areas that have changed so much in the many years since I left.  Last week I walked from Gloucester Place NW1 to Percy Street W1, about a half-an-hour’s walk (without detours). Nowadays, of course, one does not have to peer at a pocket-sized A-Z, trying both to read miniature street names and to work out the best route, as most of us own those all-purpose pieces of technology still called phones, which allow us to follow the route suggested by Google maps using GPS.  Although detractors will perhaps argue that this means we walk heads down peering at our phone, this is no more true than suggesting that we had constantly to look at the A-Z.  There is time to look around.

Looking around in any capital city is always rewarding.  There is architecture, there is history and there are people; all fascinating, particularly so in a city that used to be home and workplace.  As a tourist one makes a conscious effort to see the sights.  In one’s hometown they are seen but not always noticed. Although I used to make a particular effort to look rather than simply see, time was frequently lacking for anything other than a fairly cursory glance.  Returning as a visitor one can linger a little longer, observe and ‘call in’ rather than glance and pass on by.  My stroll last Friday took me past St. Marylebone Parish Church, an imposing Anglican church on Marylebone High Street.  I realised that in all those years I had lived in London I had never managed to go inside.  So I did and was pleased to have done so.

The church was built to the designs of one Thomas Hardwicke, apparently a founder member of The Architects’ Club, between 1813 and 1817.  Construction was almost complete before it was decided that this church should become the parish church and elements of the exterior were made more grandiose; on the north side facing Regent’s Park, and giving onto what was then the new Marylebone Road, a Corinthian portico (six columns wide and two deep, based on that of the Pantheon in Rome) replaced the four-column ionic portico of the original plans.  The cupola of the original design gave way to a steeple.  The interior, which nowadays is light, airy and quite ornate with white stucco and marble mosaic floors, a marble pulpit and carved wooden pews, was not altered at the time, although modifications were made in the 1880s.  The bonus for me was that there is currently an art exhibition in the crypt, Colour a Kind of Bliss*, featuring six contemporary painters ‘concerned with different approaches to the use of intense energy and luminous qualities of colour’.  Should you enjoy contemporary art and its focus on colour then this is worth dropping in on.

On the other side of the road from the parish church is The Royal Academy of Music, one of the leading conservatoires in the world and a constituent college of the University of London.  A large part of the façade is currently protected by hoardings, as the buildings are being renovated and upgraded to improve the facilities offered to the country’s most promising young musicians.  The façade of the Royal Academy of Music Museum, previously known as the York Gate Collections (a reference to the location of the museum in a building designed by John Nash as part of the main entrance to Regent’s Park), is not so hidden and a detour into this small museum is well worth it, even if you are not a musician.

The entry to the museum is free, and currently available to visit are: the History of the Academy on the ground floor, including a Timeline wall (the Academy was founded in 1822); The Spencer Collection, a temporary exhibition (until March 2018) of instruments, manuscripts, printed music and curiosities donated to the museum by the family of the late Robert Spencer (1932-1997) ‘talented guitarist, lutenist, scholar and teacher’ whose collection displays his fascination with early music in all its aspects; and the Strings Gallery on the first floor.  The Piano Gallery on the second floor was closed on the day I visited due to classes taking place.  If it is this you particularly wish to see, you should ring ahead to check if classes are being held.  I was quite happy to visit the ground and first floor galleries, to listen to the music (which I am ashamed to say I was not able to identify) and view beautifully crafted instruments in their glass cases as I did so.  These include violas and violins made by the famous Cremonese makers Stradivari and Amati.  There is the ‘Archinto’ 1696 viola by Stradivari and a cello dating back to 1695 made by Francesco Rugeri.  In our throwaway age, it is awe-inspiring to think of craftsmen making instruments which can not only be viewed, but which are still occasionally played and produce a beautiful sound over three hundred years later.

Artistic ink portrait image described in the main text

The Union     by Carne Griffiths

My final destination on this walk was 14 Percy Street in Fitzrovia.  Fitzrovia is an area which, according to its neighbourhood website, lies about a mile (1.6km) north of Trafalgar Square and has the 189m BT tower (formerly known as the Post Office tower) pretty much at its centre.  ‘It is a proper quartier – a city district with a dense mix of residential, business, retail, education, healthcare and more recently art galleries’.  After making my way through areas like Wimpole Street and Devonshire Place, where it seemed quite normal to see healthcare professionals (complete with identification badges) popping across from one beautiful façade to another (behind which God-knows-how-many personal dramas were being played out), I arrived in Charlotte Street, an area brimming with restaurants serving almost every kind of food imaginable from elegant French to street Mexican.  From here I turned into Percy Street, a quieter street, at the Tottenham Court Road end of which lay No 14, home of Gallery Different.  This gallery space is available for hire and someone had told me that I could view some paintings by contemporary artist Robi Walters in a pop up exhibition, Morphosis, by West-Contemporary, which was on until 29th April.  It was a good way to end my afternoon walk, and Liam West, founder of West Contemporary, couldn’t have been more helpful when I contacted him to ask about the exhibition and when I turned up to have a look around.  Although I had gone to see the Robi Walters

A spiral of losenge shaped 'petals' with many hues but leading to an overall green tone

The Forest for the Trees            by Robi Walters

paintings, which are fantastic firework splashes of colour, worked of card petals spiralling outwards from the centre of the picture, I was also really taken by Carne Griffiths’ three paintings on display; essentially beautiful ink portraits splurged over with acrylic, whiskey and tea turning them into abstracts with titles such as The Union, the largest and my favourite.  Jim Threapleton, whom I personally had heard of only as a filmmaker, also had some impressive oil paintings in this exhibition, Nightwatch (Studies III, IV and V).  Liam told me that his work is already a part of many art collections both in the UK and abroad.  West Contemporary will be featuring Robi Walters in an exhibition in the autumn. Keep an eye out, and if you live or work in Fitzrovia, remember it is not simply full of clinics, restaurants and shops.

* On until 30th June, see London


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Issue 102: 2017 04 27: Earth Nearly Flattened (Chin Chin)

27 April 2017

Earth Nearly Flattened

Military response needed.

By Chin Chin

So they have had another go.  Just over a week ago, Asteroid 2014 JO25, over a kilometre across and travelling at 75,000 mph, missed the Earth by just over 1,000,000 miles, a near miss for a projectile of that size.  This lump of rock, known to the little green men as the Mother of All Asteroids or “MOAA”, will not be back for at least 500 years; so presumably the idiots who fired it wide have some explaining to do to their supreme leader.  They have probably already been executed.

It isn’t the first time, of course (and by that I mean it isn’t the first time we have had a lump of rock fired at us – I’m not suggesting the same little green men have been executed twice) because they had a go at the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013.  Then it was a meteor which exploded over the city injuring 1400 people.  Look it up on the Internet if you want full details, but even at a glance they are pretty dramatic.  The light from the explosion was brighter than the sun.  The airburst penetrated to more than 16 miles.  The energy released was about 30 times that resulting from the Hiroshima bomb.  All that may be impressive, but it is also a little worrying.  The Chelyabinsk meteor was only 20 metres across and flying at just under 43,000 mph.  That is much smaller and slower than last week’s effort, so you can’t help feeling that we have had a narrow squeak and that MOAA will be reprogrammed and sent back for another go in 500 years’ time.

Now five hundred years seems a long time away.  Go back 500 years in history and Henry VIII was still with his first wife.  Still, when a deadline is coming up, time can move surprisingly fast.  Those last few weeks before tax returns fall due, for example.  One minute, there are three months to go.  The next, it is 30 January and you are grabbing desperately for pieces of paper.  500 years may seem a long time now but I think we had best get going.

That is all very well, but what should we do?  A pre-emptive strike seems the right thing.  Let’s “take care of it” by whacking them before they have learnt how to deliver an asteroid on target.  Obviously we cannot send a carrier group to another galaxy, so it has to be some sort of spaceship.  Maybe that one called “Tardis” which looks like a telephone box from the outside…  Oh, I think I hear the telephone ringing.  Excuse me.  I must just answer it.

“Who are you please?  You have interrupted my writing.”


“You must know who I am.  You rang me.  Tell me who you are.”

“I am Who”

“Look, I really haven’t time to play some silly guessing game.  Just tell me who you are.”

“I am Doctor Who and I have rung to tell you that the word “Tardis” is copyright protected as is the telephone box idea.  If they are going to launch a spaceship to save the world they’ll just have to disguise it as something else.”

Ok.  Well, in that case we’ll disguise the spaceship as a portaloo and call it “the Turdis”.  That should foil the copyright lawyers.  Hopefully it will foil the little green men as well since they will be expecting a telephone box.  We might even manage to catch them with their trousers down.

However, it is not just a question of dispatching a spaceship and supporting flotilla.  You have to decide where to send it all to.  That might not matter too much initially; precedent favours sending a strikeforce off in the wrong direction to begin with.  Still, in the end it has to arrive at the right planet and one of the difficulties is that we don’t yet know which one that is.  Or to be more accurate, we didn’t.  But this week, bang on cue, scientists have discovered a new planet, euphoniously named LHS 1140b, which has enough liquid to support life.  Of course that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the home of the little green men but I suspect that the scientists are telling us much less than they know.  In fact Jason Dittmann of the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Massachusetts rather gave the game away by saying “we could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science, searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.”

That’s exactly it, a “target”.  They have found the nest of the little green men and in his heart Mr Dittmann knows it.  Now we know where to send the spaceship, although I don’t suppose that it will be entirely straightforward.  That little “b” at the end of the planet name suggests a problem.  Anyone who lives in North London will tell you that a suffix like that means a flat so we can expect the home of our trigger-happy asteroid launching friends to be sandwiched between LHS 1140a and LHS1140c, each a law-abiding planet of the greatest rectitude.  How like modern terrorists to embed themselves between innocent civilians.

Still, technology is advancing and, as LHS1140b is 40 light years away, we have 460 years in which to develop it.  By then we should be able to produce portaloos which can strike with surgical accuracy, destroying the guilty and sparing the innocent.

Although 460 years is probably enough, the risk is that the green men send agents provocateurs to disrupt the development of our response.  Probably they are already among us.  America and Russia are now each accusing the other of interfering in elections.  More likely that work is being done by beings from another galaxy, disguised to look like us so that no one notices them.  When you think about it, there are quite a few politicians who would look more natural with aerials coming out of their heads, and that suggests a test which could become a feature of election campaigns.  Show the candidates on television with the addition of aerials and then speaking in a Dalek voice.  The public would soon be able to sort the sheep from the goats; in any case it would be a great deal more amusing than televised debates.


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Issue 102:2017 04 27:Slaves of the machine (Part II) (Neil Tidmarsh)

27 April 2017

Slaves Of The Machine (Part II)

An epic and extraordinary journey through a hostile sci-fi universe.

By Neil Tidmarsh

I’ve seen the future, and it’s a right cock-up.  Machine-driven, yes, but get this – the machines have turned into humans, and the humans have turned into machines.

Strictly speaking, I haven’t seen the future – I’ve heard it, I’ve spoken to it. Anyone can – just ‘phone 0343 2222222.  Some of you might recognise that number (yes, I can hear your moans of anguish and screams of terror), but for those of you who don’t know it, who even now are reaching for your phones to experience the future in all its weird science-fiction madness, I should warn you.  This is the number of none other than (I hesitate, trembling with horror as I brace myself to spell it out) – Congestion Charging London.

I drove in central London last Friday, so I owed Congestion Charging £5.75. (I live inside the zone, so I get a resident’s 90% discount; that should actually translate to £1.15 for one day, but understandably they don’t want to mess around with such paltry sums, so the resident has to pay for at least a week – that’s £5.75 – even if he drives for only one day.  I have no complaint about that – I’m well past caring about such trifling injustices – £5.75 is still less than the £11.50 non-residents have to pay for a day, and much less than the £57.50 they have to pay for a week).

So I phone that number and follow the familiar route through the many-layered and many-optioned menus of its automated system.  Yes, I want to pay the charge.  Yes, I am registered.  I input my account number.  I input the pin number.  No, I don’t want to pay for today only (spot the logic-gap there; I do want to pay for today only, but if I choose that option here, the system will calculate the sum owing as £1.15 and then collapse into a hissing, sparking, smoking heap of over-heated silicon chips when it tries to process the payment).  No, I don’t want to pay for tomorrow.  No, I don’t want to pay for yesterday.  Yes, I do want to pay for some other period.  Yes, I do want to pay for a week.  Starting today, Friday 21 April.

A moment’s pause while the machine calculates the amount owing.  Nearly there now.  In just a moment, I’ll be free.  I’ll be £5.75 poorer, but I’ll have paid my debt and I can move on.

The machine speaks.  “£57.50” it says.

What?  No, that’s wrong.  That’s the weekly rate for a non-resident.  This hasn’t happened before. What’s going on?  I must have made a mistake.  I must have pressed the wrong button, chosen the wrong option…

I hang up and try again.  Account number, pin number, yes, no, no, no, yes, etc, etc.  And the amount owing is…


So I haven’t made a mistake.  The mistake must be elsewhere.  It must be the machine’s mistake…

It’s then that I have that revelatory glimpse of the machine.  I see him cleary, in my mind’s eye.  He’s no longer a machine, oh no, he’s a human being at its most human – lazy, stupid, inefficient.  He’s slouching in his chair, his are feet up on his desk.  He can’t be bothered to get this right.  It’s Friday evening, he’s pissed off that everyone else is down the pub and he’s still stuck here, on the last shift of the week.  There’s a fag in his hand, the top buttons of his shirt are undone, his tie is hanging loose, his eyes are on the clock.  No, he’ll be buggered if he’s going to make an effort at this end of the day.

I hang up and try again, this time choosing an option to speak to a real human operative.

“No-there-is-no-fault-on-your-account,” I am told.  “You-are-still-registered-as-a-resident.  Yes-there-is-a-fault-in-the-system. No-I-cannot-change-the-system.  No-I-cannot-help-you.  You-owe-£5.75-but-you-must-pay-£57.50.”

What? Can’t you just take payment for £5.75?”


Ok. I wait to be connected.  It’s getting late, I’m tired, I’ve been on the road all day, there’s washing to do, ironing to do, food to buy, a meal to cook, the last episode of Decline and Fall to be watched (already two weeks old and about to disappear from catch-up for ever).  But I wait, patiently, because we’re nearly there…

Connected at last. But my heart sinks when I realise that I’m back in the automated system.  Never mind, it’ll be different this time.  I go through the menus again, and at last the automated voice tells me that I owe


The machine takes a drag on his fag.  His feet are still up on his desk.  He looks me straight in the eye, and a ‘give-a-shit’ smirk spreads across his stupid face.  He blows out a cloud of noxious smoke and slowly raises his fag-free hand to give me the middle finger.

My whole being begins to throb with fury.  I hang up and try again, once more choosing to speak to a ‘human’ operative.

“Yes-there-is-a-fault-in-the-system.  No-I-cannot-help-you.  No-I-cannot-change-the-system.  The-payment-lines-are-no-longer-open.  Call-back-tomorrow-and-we-will-take-payment-then.”

Hang on a second, I say.  I have to pay today or I’ll be penalised for late payment.  If I leave it until tomorrow, I’ll be charged an extra ten quid, nearly, for being overdue.  I’ll have to pay £14.  And that will cover just the one day itself, not even the full week.

“No. I-assure-you-that-will-not-happen.  I-have-put-a-note-in-your-records.  You-will-have-to-pay-only-£5.75.”

I phone back the next morning.  I explain the situation.

“You-are-one-day-overdue,” the ‘human’ says.  “You-must-now-pay-£14.  For-the-day-only.  The-resident’s-weekly-charge-is-no-longer-available-because-you-are-a-day-late.”

I want to scream, shout, kill something.  But I bite my tongue and sit still.  Don’t lose your temper with them, I tell myself.  They can’t help it.  It isn’t their fault.  You are a victim of the machine, but they are its slaves.  They’ve been its captives for so long that they’ve turned into machines themselves.  Poor bastards.  I explain everything again to this particular poor bastard, as clearly as I can.

“There-is-a-fault-in-the-system.  I-cannot-change-the-system.  I-cannot-help-you.  You-must-now-pay-£14.  You-can-write-to-us-and-appeal-for-a-refund-if-you-wish.”

An appeal?  I see the machine – the system – the master of the poor human-turned-robot I’m talking to – standing bleary-eyed and naked in a bathroom.  This is Saturday morning, after all.  He’s pale-skinned, pot-bellied, skinny-shouldered.  In one hand he holds the first fag of the day – he takes a drag on it and convulses in a bout of gut-wrenching coughs – and in the other he holds a sheet of paper.  It’s my appeal, which I’ve submitted in an alternate reality where I’m even more naïve than I am in this one.  He reads it slowly.  He scratches his head, ignorance and stupidity furrowing his primitive brows.  Then he wipes his backside with the appeal and flushes it down the toilet.

Is there someone else I can talk to, I ask?  Your supervisor, perhaps?  Your manager?

A pause, then a team leader comes on the line.  “I-cannot-help-you,” he says.  “There-is-a-fault-in-the-system.  I-cannot-change-the-system.  You-must-pay-£14.”

Something explodes in my head.  I’m blinded by a red mist of rage, deafened by a blast of anger.  I don’t know what I say (I fear the worse, but my wife – who couldn’t help overhearing – assured me later that I was spookily calm and polite, perfectly coherent and articulate) but there’s a pause as the team leader goes off to confer with yet another poor bastard.

“Someone-will-call-you-on-Monday” he says when he returns.  “We-have-your-land-line-number-and-your-mobile-number.”

I breathe out slowly.  “Thank you.”  I’m about to hang up when one other thing occurs to me.  “By the way, when the automated system asks for my pin number, it won’t accept my pin number.  It will only accept my wife’s pin number, presumably because she is the actual account holder?”

“Yes. That-is-correct.”

“Ok.  Then perhaps that option should be changed so that it does accept any valid pin number on that account?  Or, if that’s too complicated, then surely it would be simple enough to change the message from ‘Now enter your pin number’ to ‘Now enter the account holder’s pin number’ ?”

“No. I-cannot-help-you.  It-is-another-fault-in-the-system-but-I-cannot-change-the-system.”

I hang up quickly before another explosion can tear my head open.

Monday morning.  No call.  Monday afternoon: silence.  What’s going on?  Amazingly, they are trying to call me – but, predictably, they’ve got the wrong number.  I learn later that they input one digit wrong in our land-line number when setting up our account.  But late afternoon an urgent message does reach me in a round-about way too complicated to go into here.  Someone called Richard (name changed to protect the whatever) – didn’t give a surname – from Congestion Charging is trying to contact me.  He’s left a number for me to call back.  Oh good, a direct line number?  No. An extension number?  No.  Oh God, no, it’s that 0343 2222222.  Nevertheless I grit my teeth and make the call.  I fight my way through the automated menu.  And then:

“We’re sorry to keep you waiting.  Please continue to hold.  We expect to answer your call in – more than ten minutes.”

I wait. The minutes grind by.  The message repeats itself a dozen times, two dozen times.  And then a real human voice:

“Our-system-is-down. I-am-unable-to-open your-file-while-system-updates-take-place.  I-can-only-answer-general-queries.”

But I have a specific query, I say.  An urgent one.

“Then-I-cannot-help-you.  You-must-ring-back-in-an-hour-when-the-system-updates-have-completed.  Good-bye.”

The machine – the system – has passed out after a three-hour lunch-break down at the pub.  There he is, under his desk, snoring and farting away, flat out in a puddle of vomit.

I hang up.  An hour passes.  My blood-pressure rises.  I phone again.  I fight my way through the automated menu.  Again.  Then “We’re sorry to keep you waiting.  Please continue to hold.  We expect to answer your call in – more than six minutes.”  Oh God. And then, finally, I’m through to a human being.  “Richard” I gasp.  “I must speak to Richard.  He asked me to call back.  It’s urgent – ”

“Who-is-Richard?  I-do-not-know-Richard.  There-are-many-people-working-here.  Which-one-is-Richard?  I-cannot-tell-who-is-Richard.”

I ask – none too politely, none too quietly – to speak to a manager, a supervisor, someone who might know the names of the people who work for him.

“I-cannot-transfer-you-to-a-higher-level-without-authorisation. The-system – “

I hang up before I can say anything I regret, though I suspect I’ve already said it.  I wait, calm down a bit, then phone again.  I am at least calm enough to give my account number and pin number to the woman who answers.  She examines the notes on my file and puts me on hold while she makes enquiries.  I wait.  And wait.  She returns.  Richard, she has discovered, works in another department, in the payment department.  She transfers my call. I wait.  And then;

“ – – – – – – – – -“

Someone – Richard? – is trying to talk to me, but I can barely hear him.  The line is too faint.  He raises his voice until he must be shouting, and I can just about hear him apologising for the bad line, telling me to hang up and he’ll call me back.  And indeed he does, straight away.

“Good-afternoon.  My-name-is-Richard-“

No. Stop.  That isn’t right.  I don’t want to take the piss any more.  Richard isn’t a robot.  He’s a human being.  In fact, he turns out to be a representative of humanity at its very best.  Caught between an enraged and deranged customer shouting at him on one side, and an inefficient, inflexible and yet unchallengeable Stalinist system on the other, he remains miraculously calm, polite, efficient and helpful.  He’s ready to take my payment. But:

“That’ll be £6.90” he says.

What? But I only owe £5.75!

“I’m afraid the only way to get it through the system now is to pay £1.15 for last Friday, and then £5.75 for a week starting today.”

For a moment I’m tempted.  What’s an extra £1.15?  Isn’t it worth paying, just to get this over and done with?  To escape from this nightmare?  To stop losing time?  God, I must have wasted whole days on this farce…  But then the red mist rises.  No!  Don’t let them get away with it!  It’s a matter of principle!  I owe no more than £5.75! I will not pay more than £5.75!  I will not give way to extortion!

I’m aware that I’m shouting again, and I suspect that I’m barely coherent.

“All right” Richard says uncertainly.  “Let me discuss this with someone else.  I’ll just put you on hold for a moment.”

He puts me on hold – and the line goes dead.  I stare at the phone in disbelief.

The system grins drunkenly, and gives me the middle finger again.

That’s the last I hear from Richard, I think.

But the phone rings almost immediately.  It is indeed Richard.  He apologises, and says “Right, ok, I’ll take your payment of £5.75, if you’re ready.”

At last!  At last!  A miracle!  But he doesn’t sound too sure of himself.  Am I about to fall into a trap?  The machine – the system – has turned his back on me.  I can’t see what he’s doing but I can hear his imbecile giggling.  I suspect that he’s preparing a nice juicy penalty notice for me, which he’ll hit me with in a week or two’s time, fining me hundreds of quid for late payment, or incorrect payment, or…

Are you sure?  I say.

He’s not sure.  Wait, he says, I’m just going to put you on hold while I double check.

I wait, on hold, and then he returns.

“All right” he says.  “This is what we’re going to do.  We’ll take a payment of £1.15 off you – that’ll pay for last Friday.  But last Friday only.  You’ll have to pay separately for this week if that’s what you want.”

I think about it as it slowly sinks in.  That’s fair.  That’s reasonable.  And I’m not really bothered about this week, only last Friday.  I’m willing to pay £5.75, but if there’s no other way…

So I pay £1.15.  He takes my card details and we’re done.

I thank him and say goodbye, but he has one last suggestion.  He recommends that I sign up for Autopayment.  For £10 a year, the system would automatically take payment whenever it saw my car out on the street in the zone.  I wouldn’t have to bother with paying by phone or on-line; I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting to pay and incurring a penalty; and best of all it would charge by the day, not by the week.

I’m tempted.  It would save me a lot of money and bother.  And then I catch one last glimpse of the machine, the system.  He’s nodding eagerly, grinning and leering at me, his eyes gleaming with a stupid peasant’s greed and cunning.  With one hand he’s giving me the thumbs up, with the other he’s gesturing to me to give him my credit card.

I laugh.  How can I trust a system which has been fighting me tooth and nail for the last three days, trying to take money off me which I don’t owe it?  No thanks.  Goodbye.

And that was that.  At last.  Unless of course a penalty notice hits me in a week or two’s time, fining me for not paying the full £5.75, or being late, or…

The irony is that I approve of congestion charging.  I’m one of its few champions.  I live in central London so I support anything which might improve the air quality here.  I hardly ever drive; I travel by bus (which congestion charging subsidises) or by that other miracle of Transport For London, Santander bikes.  By the way, it always amazes me that those two bodies – congestion charging and bike hire – are complete opposites as organisations while both being under the same Transport For London umbrella.  If you phone up bike hire with a problem, they’ll solve it straight away.  They’re efficient, enabled, flexible, customer-leaning, service-oriented.  Whereas Congestion Charging is… well, don’t get me going again.

I caught that last episode of Decline and Fall on the BBC iPlayer in the end (there – not all machines are bad, are they?).  I was pleased that the TV adaptation had more heart and warmth than the original  – I’ve always found Waugh’s humour just a bit too cold and cruel.  But then I wondered what that savage bad-tempered old satirist would have made of congestion charging for London.

He’d have torn it to bits and buried it six feet under.  And it would have served it right.

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Issue 102:2017 04 27;Keeping the Sky the Limit (J.R.Thomas)

27 April 2017

Keeping the Sky the Limit

Ely and Seville.

by J.R.Thomas

Sometimes it is worth going to a lot of trouble just for a moment’s pleasure.  Any reader who wants to see one of the best views in England might, if they find themselves at a loose end and have spare money for a train fare, arrange to travel from East Anglia on that strange rural railway byway which winds through Thetford Forest and eventually gets the traveller to Cambridge.  But the object of the exercise is not Cambridge, but Ely; and not to even leave the train in Ely, but simply to look out of the right-hand side windows as the train passes through the long abandoned marshalling yard.

Not to look at rusting rails, but to raise your eyes to the heavens – for you will see what must be the best view (from public transport certainly) of any English cathedral.  Ely is one of our least known but most original and striking cathedrals, a monstrous galleon of stone carved into soaring fantasies.  If it is known at all, it is for a legendary tale that, if it happened, certainly did not happen in the present cathedral – the tale of Ely as the last redoubt of the Saxon, Hereward the Wake, in his defence against William the Conqueror.  Charles Kingsley, that great Victorian writer of stirring children’s literature, guaranteed to inflame the weakest patriotic instinct, retold this already exciting story with magnificent colour illustrations.  In his version Hereward retreats finally to the Isle of Ely, in the eleventh century still an island amongst ponds and reed beds linked by winding and obscure paths. When the Norman knights find their way through, Hereward makes for the top of the cathedral tower, which the knights burn – a tale which appeals to an early version of the Dunkirk spirit; a story for a nation which finds much glory in honourable defeat.  Some of it is true, so far as we can determine a thousand years later, but the cathedral bit certainly isn’t. The present building was begun shortly after Hereward’s time on the site of an older much smaller church.

Ely is one of the great medieval architectural glories of England, with two towers, the central octagon and the west tower, each reaching well over two hundred feet high and in their height and shape creating  a most distinctive skyline.  The building is enormous – to reflect its status in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as one of the most power bishoprics in England.  That was Ely’s highest point politically  and economically; then gradually the town declined into a forgotten backwater, and even the draining of the fens to form very productive agricultural land could not reverse its slow decline.  But that economic failure has left us with an aesthetic delight.  There is not a building in the little part-medieval, part-Georgian, town that is higher than four stories, and the cathedral soars above it all.  Soars, you might think, in status as well as physically.  Ely is not a prosperous town, its preservation reflecting poverty rather than, as at, for instance, Seville, a conscious urge to preserve a glorious past.  Ely’s ancient buildings are overlaid with alien modern tat, standard shop fascias and infillings of cheap modern machine brick.  But the cathedral is serene in its ancient work, just honest antiquity, no cheap scrubby intervention or improvement.  So powerful is it, so strongly does it dominate, that none of the modern inflorescence at its feet detracts at all.  Even more wonderful, the flat landscape means that not only does the cathedral ignore the slightly grubby town but dominates the landscape for miles around.

It is indeed the Isle of Ely, let us not forget.  The whole bundle is sitting a little higher than the former wetlands around it.  So it is visible for many miles; the cathedral towers appear early from every distant approach to the town.  Driving on the dead straight roads (except for their unexpected 90 degree bends trying to head you into a ditch) through black fields of vegetables, that stone silhouette slides along the horizon, always watching your approach.  If Kingsley gave us some false history you can entirely understand why.  The idea of the Normans creeping ever closer to the Wake’s last defence, with Hereward watching from the great tower, is much too good an image not to use.

And best of all; for those of a solitary and romantic bent, the population of Ely is small and, it seems, not especially god-fearing, but the Church of England continues to provide a full service religious experience in its Fenland flagship.  So, if you are inclined, go to Ely in winter, when the dawn mists rise off those fields that are in their hearts still fens, and the streets are slippery and empty.  Slip into the cathedral through the south door, and follow the few lights that are left on (for sake of greenness or economy, it does not matter, though candlelight would be better still) and sit at the back of an 8 o’clock mass in a side chapel.  There was one celebrant and two worshippers on Christmas Eve morning last year, and the sense of faith and mystery beat very strongly.

So to compare and contrast, something the same and utterly different: Seville, hence our strange swerve earlier.  Seville Cathedral also dominates a great and flat landscape, visible for many miles around, and is the centre of a city whose best years are centuries behind it.  But the modern revival of Andalusia has created a threat – a rapid expansion of the urban zone of which Seville in the regional capital – but also an opportunity – the wealth to restore and maintain the city centre in all its tightknit baroque mystery.  Like Ely, the cathedral is one of the great medieval glories of the western world, and like Ely, it arose on the footings of something much older – a mosque, one of the greatest of Moorish Spain.  More survives of this than the new visitor might suspect, including the entire cathedral tower, now housing a great peal of bells but formerly the perch of the muezzin whose job it was to call the Moorish city to prayer five times a day.  Not a job for the weak legged you might think, but there is a reason for the wide and shallow staircase of that great tower – so the muezzin could ride a horse to the top.

The Catholic church, now the cathedral’s occupant, continues to thrive in the faithful Catholic south; Seville is as packed for services as Ely is empty; though somehow even with an enormous congregation and an equally enormous crowd of tourists wandering about in a little corralled area by the west door like cattle newly come to market, there is a surprisingly devout atmosphere here too. Something about the singing and the organ and the incense and even the drover stewards shouting “shush” make it very firmly a place of God still. (Though mammon and lavatories are available if required in the gift shop in the south transept.)

Seville has also preserved its cityscape remarkable well, the buildings are higher and the streets narrower but City ordinances say no more than six floors, enabling the cathedral to sail confidently above them, a flat sea of roofscapes deferring to the sublime cathedral tower.

Except for one thing.  To the west of the city there has recently arisen a tall circular blue office tower, not unhandsome but totally alien to this brick and stone and stucco low-rise city.  The blue pole sits apparently empty, the Spanish recession having done nothing for its lettability – though one would like to hope it might also be Seville businessmen declining to endorse such a banal blot in their cityscape.  The fact that it is the only building that challenges the cathedral makes its presumption worse still, but as it is the only intrusion, offers a possibility of redemption. Some caballero, please blow it up, fell it, like the alien it is.  Make an example to any others with similar intent.  Keep yourselves Ely-like, an example of ancient glory overpowering all.

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