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Saturday, 23 February 2019

Reading between the lines

Our rail system is a well defended nightmare, the standard defence being it was worse when previously nationalised, and invariably the ‘stale cheese sandwiches’ come out as the ultimate proof that nationalisation was bad. I’m not convinced. What I do know is that we live in a different age characterised by too many people gobbling up finite resources – in this case seats on trains.

Even trains.

The free enterprise solution is to charge until the pips squeak, creaming of a proportion of profits in investment, the rest going to shareholders – including, no doubt, my pension fund. The other alternative is to regard rail transport as a public investment and subsidise prices via taxation.

Regardless of which side has the better argument, the existing reality involves standing on trains that sometimes never arrive – a metaphysical problem, and a fare structure that defies explanation. It's enough to drive people mad - which many Victorians believed. 

It is comforting in such circumstances to read old periodicals like Punch’ to see that, with regard to British railways, somethings never change. 

In a satirical side swipe at conditions then, ‘Punch’ suggested the following ‘Rules and Regulations for Railways:

Every passenger in the second or third class is to be allowed to carry a penny candle, or safety lamp into the train…as the directors have kept the public in the dark quite long enough.

No train is to travel slower than an omnibus, let the excursion be ever so cheap, or the occasion ever so joyful.

Cattle are to be separated from the passengers as much as possible, as it has been found, from experience, that men and oxen do not mix sociably together.

No stoppage at a railway station is to exceed half an hour.

No railway dividend is to exceed 100%....

No fare is to be raised more than at the rate of a pound a week.

No third class carriage is to contain more than a foot deep of water in wet weather, but, to prevent accidents, corks and swimming belts should always be kept in open carriages.

The ladies’ carriages are to be waited upon by female policemen.

Every tunnel must be illuminated with one candle at least.

Never less than five minutes are to be allowed for dinner or refreshment. (Perhaps the origin of the stale cheese sandwich with curled up corners)
Queen Victoria of course was above such things.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Babylon Berlin

Has anyone else watched Babylon Berlin? A rhetorical question, hundreds of thousands have, but for me it was a television highlight. I love the creative frenzy, the bittersweet melancholic vibe of Weimar and, despite the occasional flaky blips in the plot, Babylon Berlin captures the feel of an age. It’s also a fabulous noir series in its own right. On another note, I also appreciated that the production company had to build whole sections of interwar Berlin destroyed by the exigencies of war. Or should I just say the Russians and the RAF.

But over an above the production values, the beautiful and understated charisma of the lead actress Liv Lisa Fries, what for me was truly stand out, and which every time gives me the shivers is the Zu Ashe Zu Staub scene shown below.

The performance, the lyrics and the innocent ecstacy of those dancing are a perfect metaphor of a doomed generation. Watch it, and you catch the sleazy glamour that captured millions, psychic heroin in its purest form: the colour and ritual, the excitement of Hitler. And as you watch, you see faces and imagine them ten years later as a prison guard, a casualty on the Eastern front, a mother cowering in a basement as bombs raze cities and the Russians advance.

One critic questioned its historical accuracy: ‘…one cannot but be astonished at one glaring omission: Where are the Nazis? Babylon Berlin takes place in 1929. By that time, the National Socialist German Workers Party is long a fixture of German politics…with the exception of one throwaway line, there is no mention of Hitler at all. Right up until the very last episode, there are no Swastikas, no brownshirts, no marching, nothing.’Tim Pfefferle

The simple answer to that is how that one performance says what a thousand words might fail to do. Every viewer will have a slightly different response (other than those focusing on women's bottoms) And all of them, I suspect will be a variant of the interpretive video below.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Dormice, Tofu and Cows


Recently a section of the M1 was closed for twelve nights as contractors chopped down a number of trees in order to turn the hard shoulder into a fourth lane. The process involved blocking the motorway with machinery in order to protect endangered dormice who hibernate with their tails wrapped around their heads. It so happens that a small colony of this endangered species lives in the vegetation close to the trees. Snapped out of hibernation before spring by trees crashing down all around them would result in a lot of dead dormice unable to cope with the cold and lack of seasonal food. In consequence, the trees were cut very gently and lowered equally gently by crane on to the waiting lorries – blocking said highway for twelve nights.

It’s a heartwarming story, which illustrates the contradictions surrounding out attitude to animals. We build giant wind farms which shred and dice birds; we factory-farm chickens and worse (unless you're a chicken) we battery farm calves because of our dependence on milk and dairy.

A cow only produces milk when pregnant, so, from 15 months it is artificially inseminated again, and again, and again; and each time the calf is removed within 36 hours so we can consume their milk from plastic bottles with green tops. Whilst the cow may bellow for days at the loss of her calf, the calf will, if it is female, follow the same path as its mother, and if male, disposed of or merchandised as veal.

This makes me sound like a militant vegan, but I’m not. I love dairy and meat and like many, compartmentalise what I love from the reality of how it’s produced. It’s yucky morality, but then so are the alternatives.

Those who urge upon us the merits of cutting out meat except for very special occasions (if they’re super tolerant) have a fair point if their argument is solely animal welfare or indeed human health. Arguments linking the issue to climate change are less defensible. Increased quinoa production are making some Peruvians rich but devastating the soil. Avocado production is devastating forests, and Almond production in California consume 8% of the state’s water supply – or Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. Vegan foods are high in airmiles, and in the case of Soya is largely GM. I’ve heard the argument that meat provides only 18% of the calories in the human diet and yet accounts for 85% of farmland. But anyone can play that game. Calorie for calorie, lettuce consumes much more land than pig production.  

The elephant in the room is population growth, which is inimical to democracy and planetary health. It’s not something popular opinion likes to face squarely. It’s easy to see why. We could wait for God, War, Gaia or bird flu to cull us. We could embark upon the process ourselves, but then again, what moral dwarf would undertake that?

I'm afraid until the big event, we must bear the lectures from those who exhort us to eat only lovingly reared animals that they can afford but others can’t, the ominous preaching of Bono and the Davos crowd who warn us of climate change as they flit to and from on gas guzzling jets, or else trouser huge subsidies on green energy.

The sad thing is, the rich will always eat meat. Witness the Middle Ages when barons feasted on hogs, swans, capons, venison, beef, pike and farmed rabbits, whilst the peasant made do with beans and a sliver of bacon. Those lower down in the food chain, whether animal or human eat what they can, the poor in a future world perhaps learning to like tofu or insects. I’m sure some enterprising souls will rummage around for hibernating dormice.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Revolution, Sheep, And Bouncing Heads

I have a bookish knowledge of the English Civil War, The French, and Russian Revolutions. Words tell me how savage they were (though the real savagery of the English Civil War is often glossed over). As a child, I loved Baroness Orczy’s ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’, my first introduction to the French Revolution.  In those books the revolutionaries are incomprehensibly vengeful and savage, a thoroughly bad lot, lopping off heads willy-nilly. The aristocrats, on the other hand are well dressed and fragrant, especially the women. Similarly, in Boris Pasternak’s ‘Dr Zhivago’ the subtext is that it is really quite shameful that the Russian Revolution, these peasants and workers, got in the way of the good doctor’s romance. The Spanish Civil War, similarly. Why did the Republicans do such beastly things to Catholic priests?

A study of history will tell you why—but again, only in words.

Not until now have I witnessed in others and experienced it in myself a similar visceral hatred and contempt for those who govern us, and as those who know me will testify, I’m an exceptionally mild man. Herefore, it must be said, that when the tumbrils come, Madame Defarge will have a companion, though my knitting won’t be a patch on hers. We live in interesting times.

But away from blood and bouncing heads, a few days ago we strolled along a section of Offa’s Dyke to Redbrook. Strolled is a nice word. It involved a bloody steep climb to get there. Along the way we  passed an interesting tree (See what an uneventful life I lead, finding trees interesting) But some trees are interesting, especially when they bring back childhood memories of tree-goblins and gnomes. I convinced myself that on the other side of the trunk was a wooden door, and from the branches elves peeked out at me. When we’re all consumed by violence and blood, they’ll be still there wondering where we’ve all gone.

A little further on we saw a shepherd and his dog in action. On one level it was very picturesque seeing how with a few yips and yowls and a clever dog a field full of browsing sheep could be herded into a neat and small unit set to be moved. There was though one sheep, one small rebellion. It wanted no part of it, ignoring shepherd and dog in search of grass in an adjacent field. The rebellion was short lived, though it had nothing to do with shepherd and dog. The sheep made one tiny mistake. It looked back at the flock, uniform, compact and together. It paused, me willing it to go on – eat that damn grass – go for it!  Do sheep sigh? I imagined it did. Slowly at first but gathering pace it joined the flock, shepherd and dog looking on.

We walked back home, wondering as to who or what represents he Shepherd and Dog in our society? Media or police? At least we’re not led to the abattoir - other than exceptional circumstances.

One last look at the tree where the gnomes live.