01 December 2016

Time Was

Commuting by train used to be something to enjoy. Crammed into a narrow seat yesterday evening, one of the few which didn't have a reservation ticket on them, next to a man who wanted marginally more than his allotted share of the space available and opposite (I was sitting at one of the two tables provided in a Great Western HST carriage these days) two women burdened with far more luggage than a rush-hour train can comfortably accommodate, I looked back nostalgically on the days when there was enough room to spread out. If there was no-one to talk to (rarely the case) it was an opportunity to get some work done. When, I wondered, did I last talk to anyone on the train? (I think it was a Polish punk, last Christmas.)

Just then an old commuting friend - no more than an acquaintance, in truth, but years of daily travelling together creates a special kind of relationship - passed me on her way to a seat further up the carriage. And later, as we approached Didcot, she passed again in the opposite direction, heading for the lobby for a quick exit when the train stopped. A minute or two later I too made my way to the lobby, where she was standing looking out of the window. I wondered whether she would recognise me, as it was a few years since we'd seen each other (and then she was telling Lixin and me off for talking too loudly in the quiet carriage), but she turned round and remarked that she hadn't seen me for years. (I didn't remind her of the last occasion.) Better still, she said I looked younger. No suitable rejoinder came to mind - at least, not one that that would have sounded anything but daft.

We chatted about those long-gone days - whether I was still cycling to the station, about her remark one morning when the train was late that she (being endowed with a Latin temperament) was surprised that this did not result in civil disorder - and what had changed since. People don't chat on the train as we (and Chris, and Nigel, and Mark, and Alison, and Geoffrey, and Dorothy, and The Master, and many people whose names I never learnt, including my Latin interlocutor) used to. Instead they commune with electronic devices. As they do on the Tube, too, where that morning I had become impatient with people who forced me to take evasive action as they walked along seeing nothing but the screen of the device in their hands. We put it down to a general lack of civility, and then went our separate ways on the platform expressing the hope that we'd see each other again before long.

15 November 2016


I didn't see the promised Supermoon yesterday - nor even the stars.

I was out early, for the first time in a long time, to go for a run. The streets of Nottingham aren't the best place for it, and I didn't want to venture as far as Trent Bridge as I did five or six years ago when last I went for a morning run here (which resulted in a damaged Achilles, anyway). ‎2.34 gentle miles was enough - actually not so gentle given that the city has some significant hills in it. 

I wondered about the man I could see at his desk in an otherwise deserted first floor office, above (presumably part of) RBS. And the man, older than me (older even than me!) in suit, tie and overcoat, carrying a briefcase, on his way to his desk at about 7.10 am. I had just passed Eversheds' office and could not help but connect him and that building. How nice to have nothing more demanding in front of me today than to deliver a lecture on moral rights.

At the law school there are notices advertising a talk: something like "what life is like as a corporate lawyer, and why my colleagues hate me". Quite.

31 October 2016

Solid Air

For the final leg of my drive to Nottingham this morning, I put the roof down and turned the CD player up - driving up the M1 with the wind and sun on my face, John Martyn (my purchase from the Oxfam shop in Nottingham last week) playing at full blast, singing along to the extent that he was the sort of musician with whom one could ever sing along ("May you never" is suitable), with a broad grin perhaps for the first time in a long time. And what could be more appropriate as the theme song for an IP course than "Solid Air"?

After a struggle the last time I did the drive, having to cope with no clutch, which makes city driving tricky, and with a deafeningly failing wheel bearing just behind the driver's seat, the car was a pleasure to drive. So much better than the trip last week, which necessarily made use of the train while Adam fixed the car.

I found myself regretting not buying a double CD of The Doors in the Oxfam shop last week - it would have been ideal listening this morning - but when I returned today someone had beaten me to it. They did however have "Spooked" by Robyn Hitchcock, which I am sure will be an essential addition to my library - as well as the brilliant "Television" it also features "Trying to get to Heaven before they close the door". Two seminal songs, come to think of it. And I also found myself unable to resist a CD from the bargain selection, by Rumer, an artist to whom I was introduced a year ago ... I liked what I heard then, but that might not be the best basis for buying the CD, which probably doesn't lend itself to open-top motorway driving either. We'll see. I might be singing along to Nobel Laureate's Greatest Hits again tomorrow evening. Probably with the roof up, too.

11 October 2016

One year of love

If it's October, it must be time for another intellectual property training course ... so here I am having delivered the first half of the course, preparing myself for day 2, staying the night in a hotel room large enough to hold a sizeable party - so big that something feels as if it's missing - having taken a very enjoyable and rather nostalgic run to and around (only the Inner Circle) Regent's Park. My running restart programme is going well: I clocked about three-and-a-quarter miles this evening, and "lost" another mile or so while Garmin tried to find a satellite, so I reckon I did well over four miles in total. It loosened up my plantar fascia quite nicely, but the soreness is still persisting.

I'm sure that a few years ago, when I was commuting between Paddington and RIBA, I ran through Regent's Park in the evening, after dark. I remember the strange sounds that emanated from the zoo as I ran past. Tonight the gates were firmly closed, so I was confined to the roads - probably just as well, as it was dark enough to make street lights necessary. And I guess heading home from RIBA was never very late: one evening there I caused consternation by asking to be let back into my office at some unearthly hour like 8 o'clock. Too many years spent working in law firms whose offices were accessible 24 hours a day!

I had to postpone my second Tuesday at Nottingham Law School because of my prior commitment to CLT, but was due to take one seminar yesterday. The prospect of a trip of nearly three hours there, and back again only an hour later, didn't exactly thrill me but was manageable, and part of the price of having such a great part-time job. But at the time I was supposed to be starting the seminar I was in a traffic jam on the M1, where I had been for two hours before that: so Monday was also postponed to next week, when I will have an intense couple of days (and so, unfortunately, will the students). At least I was able to catch up on some phone calls from the stationary car.

At one point during my sojourn on the motorway I became aware that I could hear a cock crowing. Then I noticed I could hear more. I realised that I was alongside an artic piled high with unfortunate poultry in stacked-up cages. The curtain sides of the trailer were closed, but sufficiently transparent (I suppose to allow ventilation) to see some movement and to make out feathers. It upset me greatly to think of the distressed animals, no doubt baffled about what was going on (or, in a traffic jam, not going on) and unaware that they were probably heading for an unpleasant fate. Not that I imagine their lives were very pleasant anyway. When the traffic moved a few yards and I was able to get away from this neighbour it was a big relief. I wonder whether, if I'd not been able to get away, I'd have been able to resist the urge to get out of the car and liberate some of them: but when the thought crossed my mind I could see that any newly-freed chickens would probably get no further than the free-moving southbound carriageway and become roadkill.

06 October 2016

Like a Rolling Stone

Not sure about how accurately "tocad a toda caña!" translates Dylan's famous words (just audible, especially if you know what you're listening for). Google Translate, perhaps censoriously, fails completely. I love YouTube for the unexpected foreign subtitles it throws up.

The opening bars never fail to give me goosebumps. I wonder whether other people have the same visceral reaction to it? "Light My Fire" does the same thing.

Holding back the years

For many years I thought - I convinced myself - that running could slow down, or even reverse, the ageing process. It helped that I only started running in my mid-thirties, so getting fit made me feel a great deal younger. It dealt successfully with aches and pains that might otherwise have become a great deal worse.

For various reasons, including a broken arm and then a pretty severe case of plantar fasciitis, I haven't run a lot for more than a year. Having reached the stage in James Dunne's PF rehabilitation programme at which he says I can do a little running, I started yesterday with a gentle mile (three laps of the playing fields) and added another lap this morning. The years seem to be falling away already - I hope the same goes for the 20-plus pounds of extra weight that I have acquired since the start of my enforced rest.

At the same time, I've forcibly made myself younger by embarking on a new career - perhaps more accurately a new job, and resuming a career which I'd largely left behind ("largely" because I still have my Moscow gig, as regular readers of this blog - if there are any - will be aware). I've enjoyed teaching (which after all is little more than talking about myself, at least the way I do it is) ever since I first did it, which would be at Essex University in about 1992: only in the last few years have I become concerned with whether the students enjoyed it as much as I did. Several of the Russians clearly have done, and last year, to my delight, a wonderful former student from many years ago confirmed that she had done, too, which encouraged me (inter alia) to look for some more lecturing work.

Which is how I came to be driving up the M1 to Nottingham on Monday morning, en route to start teaching intellectual property law to third-year undergraduates (level 6, as I have discovered having looked pretty stupid when I didn't understand the Regulated Qualifications Framework). Listening, as it happens, to the Adagietto from Mahler 5 which came on Radio 3 at an opportune moment - though it is not suited to listening at motorway speeds in an open-topped car. (The conductor was Kubelik and he took about 12 minutes, so a lot slower than Mahler.) Then a few minutes later came the Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde, a piece (the whole symphony, not just the last movement) which I need to put high on the list of "must-listens" which I am going to compile to get back into the habit of listening to music.

Two days, three seminar groups and one lecture later, and I was driving the other way down the M1, feeling considerably younger. So the title of this song by Simply Red is just right. I hadn't consciously heard it until I was introduced to this video recently - proof, again, of a powerful connection ... with a former student ... The video is full of scenes from the history of my father's side of my family, including the 199 steps leading to the church (and the Abbey) which my grandmother climbed so often that (according to family lore) she wore out the 200th one, and (presumably) the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. It doesn't show Spantons, but it's quite a nostalgia trip.

07 September 2016

Let It Grow

So much for the procrastination cure about which I wrote the other day. Let it grow, indeed. I've got to carry on until I get this out of my system. A couple of weeks ago it was Walt Whitman, yesterday it was Chekhov and today it seems to be the Grateful Dead.

In 1995, in the US for the Internet Law Symposium at which I had been invited to speak, I'd hired a car to drive from Seattle to Bellingham to visit friends - and, come to think of it, to run the Mount Erie race, billed as "Skagit County's Oldest and Steepest Road Race", which didn't put me off because it was the only race in the area that weekend. Point-to-point, finishing at the summit, then you had to jog back down again which was even more painful than running up the hill. To make matters worse, it was just a week after my first Marathon.

As the hire car was provided with a cassette player (remember them?), I invested in something to listen to - and, seeking to expand my musical horizons and unaware of who else would be speaking at the Symposium I bought this ...

Of course it didn't come ready-autographed, but I was rather pleased to have it to hand when I met Barlow. (He signed it with his email address, a very modern thing to do in 1995 - I have erased the second part although I imagine he hands it out fairly liberally. In fact it's on his homepage, and so are his phone numbers and real-world addresses.) A couple of years later he kindly gave me permission to reproduce his essay about intellectual property on the Internet, "Selling Wine Without Bottles", in my Sourcebook on Intellectual Property Law. What a nice guy. One of those people I'm pleased to be able to say I've met in my life, like Stephane Grapelli, Ted Heath, Simon Callow, Harold MacMillan, Jackie Stewart, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tippett, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Fallon, Dave Pegg, Eugene Ionescu, Joanne Harris, Jeffrey Archer, David Putnam, Michael Portillo and Roger Bannister (a rather random selection: please excuse me if I have omitted you).

And while I am on the subject ... I rather like his Principles of Adult Behaviour, although following principles set down by a member of the Grateful Dead reminds me of Hunter S Thompson offering advice on life. And having sought out that link I am reminded that this is all "Reading Galbraith" and I should occupy my time more profitably.

A great tape, too, which I enjoyed listening to frequently until car tape players disappeared.

Looks like rain

No it doesn't look like rain, for once, but it's a great song which has come to my attention in a very nice way and which cries out to be used here. I won't wait until rain threatens, which probably won't be long anyway. An added bonus is that the lyrics are by John Perry Barlow who, as readers of this blog might remember (because I have been known to mention it before) is the only member of the Grateful Dead with whom I have ever shared a stage - at the Internet Law Symposium, in Seattle, back in the days (1995 - I wonder how I fitted that in with everything else I was doing at the time: perhaps I wasn't teaching the LPC by then) when Internet Law was so new no-one except perhaps Barlow knew anything about it, and we were all making it up as we went along. Well, I certainly was. And at least I can claim to be a lawyer, not a retired cattle rancher and sometime lyricist.

Having spent several weeks hobbling around having (as I told my doctor the other day) bu****ed my plantar fascia - the usual problem, running too far too fast too soon once it felt a bit better - I have hit upon a magic cure, which isn't magic at all but perfectly well-known if you just know where to look on the Web (www.return2fitness.co.uk). And once I'd placed an order for a brace and some clever sticky tape, I used some of Mel's kinesiology tape and fixed the problem even before the delivery arrived.

There's a strip under my foot too, running from the ball of the foot to my old friend Achilles. Return2fitness.com suggested that taping and bracing overnight would show quick results, but I've been amazed at just how quickly it has worked. Had I tried it a few weeks ago I might have saved my entry in the Loch Ness Marathon but even if my plantar fascia will permit me to run there's no way I can get back Marathon-fit in a couple of weeks. Indeed I could have been cross-training, as in my imagination I hear many readers (many? who am I kidding?) telling me, but I really can't get into riding a bike around with no destination in sight, or swimming up and down a pool: I prefer to run pointlessly. How stupid is that? Don't answer that, on a postcard or otherwise: I know very well how stupid it is.

Now that I have reached my seventh decade, which is the way I like to express it because prime numbers are much more fun than ordinary ones, I'm taking on a lot more work. Is it typical of me to do the opposite of what most people do? I will be teaching intellectual property law two days a week, inconveniently at Nottingham Law School but if you ignore the fact that it's 130 miles up the road (and the railways do not offer a viable alternative from Oxfordshire) it's a great institution, and I expect to have fun. And I know quite a nice morning run along the river there.

01 September 2016

25 August 2016

The untold want

I was reading some guidance, which looked extremely useful, about a mindful approach to dealing with procrastination, a vice which has afflicted me since I was a child such that when our Latin teacher asked who in the class knew the meaning of the word mine was the only hand that went up. (Perhaps the others were just taking their time to get round to it.) Set aside five minutes to complete a task, and when you feel the urge to procrastinate don't try to overcome it but rather hold it in your mind, assess what it feels like, stay with the urge and then appreciate that you are able to feel it and not to succumb. Sounds good. I'll give it a try, later. First I have a few things I need to do ...

So today I found myself learning a bit about Walt Whitman. I've got a collection of his work on the bookshelf, but in fact I found what I needed on the web. It doesn't take  much to create a diversion from what I ought to be doing.

How I got to Whitman is another story, but it's relevant to a problem I am grappling with involving goals. So the couplet which I'd come across:
The untold want by life and land ne'er granted,
Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.
- once I'd worked out what it might mean (with the aid of some poetry discussion groups on the web), had quite a resonance for me. Particularly, it must be said, in light of a significant life event which is coming along tomorrow. There seems to be no way I can postpone it. It cannot be dealt with by procrastination.

The "untold want" which hasn't yet been granted to me could include those elusive goals. I'm pretty sure - in fact, I know - that there is a lot of other stuff included too, but I'm focussing on goals here. It might help me in my next Skype coaching session - I should think of myself as the voyager, sailing forth, to seek and find - to seek and find all sorts of things. Perhaps that's a particularly healthy attitude to have with tomorrow in mind.

Keep mediocrity at bay

An article entitled How to be mediocre and be happy with yourself  on the BBC News website caught my eye, partly because I had been discussing mediocrity only a few days earlier. That was in the context of whether I am a perfectionist, which I am pretty sure I am not, preferring spontaneity, authenticity and conviction to perfection. That only means, I think, that I wouldn't say perfection was the most important thing to seek - it might well be achieved while chasing other goals. But one thing I really don't like is mediocrity.

I don't think that I recognise much of what is discussed in the article as mediocrity. It seems to be more about ordinariness, some of it about disorganisation, some of it about the rejection of the demands of excellence and efficiency in favour of la dolce vita (Italy being held out as a paradigm case of mediocrity, it seems, although my paraphrasing might leave something to be desired) and to my mind those are not the same things. There's noting really wrong with the ordinary (although it can get boring if you have too much of it). I think Italy proves that you can create a lot of excellence without having to spend every waking moment striving for it.

I don't presume to say that never I produce anything mediocre. I'm sure this blog demonstrates that. But I try not to, although I'm not sure everyone else tries similarly. There's often a sense that mediocrity is good enough. I'm reading the latest Alexander McCall Smith book (well, it was the latest one when I started it, but that's  not a distinction that can last for long in his oeuvre) and was amazed to find an erratum slip apologising for the fact that all words ending in "-ize" (and I think words containing that string) had been automatically changed to "-ise". A computer was blamed, but in fact it seems to me to be a colossal failure of proof-reading. I suppose the only viable way to deal with the error was to issue the faulty copies with an addendum slip - it would be horribly expensive and time-consuming to pulp the entire print run and make thousands of new books. The result, I think, could rightly be called mediocre.

I've encountered mediocrity in other books, too - and I think I have already written about examples. Typographical errors, grammatical and stylistic howlers (why can no-one execute a simple parallel construction?), fact-checking failures (sewerage is not discharged into the sea, Greek is not written in Cyrillic) - my potential enjoyment of a book can be destroyed at a stroke.

I have encountered many fellow-lawyers who are content to be mediocre, too. Because the practice of law is no longer always concerned with a deep understanding of the subject but often with making the largest possible profit, competence is actually devalued. A former colleague could bill many, many more hours than I ever did because it took him so long to overcome his incompetence. (Which reminds me of a "credits" box we - to be precise, Nick Draper - once put in The Warwick Boar, sometime in the mid-1970s, listing people who had assisted in the production of the paper and adding that the process had been hindered by "incompatense".) I'm not sure that mediocrity is rewarded very often, although time-based billing does tend to have that effect, but it certainly isn't opposed and rooted out wherever it rears its ugly head. Perhaps it's the rejection of "elitism" which promotes mediocrity, though the better response to elitism is surely to celebrate everyone's authentic and committed achievement (another topic about which I have written before).

Yesterday I spent the hottest afternoon of the year in a basement room in the office of a firm of solicitors, presenting an update on data protection law. I hope the result was not mediocre. I worried for years that I delivered mediocre courses, and I have no doubt that sometimes they were just that. Then someone revealed to me, on the eve of a course that I feared was going to turn out mediocre, that some 20 years previously my lecturing had actually been very good. My confidence was suffering a bit before my data protection talk - given the subject, who could be surprised? - but by a happy coincidence my memory of that watershed moment received a prompt shortly before I had to perform. I might not be perfect, but perhaps if I have the stars I shouldn't ask for the moon.

26 July 2016

Going Home

A few walking interludes, but a good solid run across London yesterday evening to catch the train home. But, perhaps because I haven't been doing it for so long, I forgot the route - twice. From the start I turned off Bunhill Street towards Barbican tube station, and ended up taking an unfamiliar route to Blackfriars to reach the Embankment, then in Hyde Park I found myself at the Old Police House, having aimed for Paddington but taken the wrong path. I suppose it added a bit of mileage.

I normally reckon on an hour for this journey, and gave myself an extra ten minutes to allow for lack of training, so I made the train with that much to spare. A very satisfying outcome.

24 July 2016

I'm so tired

Alarmed to realise that I will be running a Marathon in nine weeks, and haven't made much progress in overcoming about a year of hard non-training, I did 10 laps of the playing fields yesterday morning (5K) at a reasonable-for-now tempo pace (8:13) and followed up with 7+ miles this morning, at a reasonable snail's pace. The first two or three miles were definitely of the run-walk variety, as I felt as if I'd rather be doing anything but running, but eventually my brain took over and reminded me that I'll never get anywhere without a bit of determination.

I felt a little disappointed about the performance, but the important thing is that no-one else will ever be remotely disappointed by it. When I run, I am in absolute control of what I get out of it, whether it's gratification or disappointment. No third party can affect that, nor can they share in the gratification or disappointment. Running is a perfectly autonomous activity, and that's a very strong attraction. Not that it isn't also a social activity, or that support and encouragement from others doesn't make a difference, but whether I perform as well as I can or not is entirely a matter for me.

08 July 2016

Strange Brew

David Cameron calls himself a "One Nation" Tory. So does Boris Johnson. In fact it's possible that most Conservative MPs do, as the notion is a rather flexible one. How many of them, I wonder, have read Sybil, Disraeli's great novel (my second favourite, after One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich), or Coningsby, its predecessor, in which he expounded the One Nation philosophy?
Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws . . .
I have a suspicion that many more Conservative MPs have claimed the "One Nation" label than have ever read the books.

When I first read Sybil, back in about 1979, it had a profound effect on my political outlook - reinforcing, I am pleased to say, rather than challenging, my beliefs. Those beliefs sustained me through several years as a very active member of the Conservative party, and through five election campaigns of different types of my own, including the 1983 General Election, as well as the election campaigns of many friends. They were, of course, rather unfashionable beliefs at that time, but when my friend the late Iain Picton described himself as a Disraeliist-Leninist many of us knew what he meant and might have adopted the label ourselves - although I was wary of bringing Vladimir Ilyich into the equation. It did rather suit Iain's approach, though.

It takes only a moment's review of the state of the country to work out that we seem to be further from being one nation than at any time in living memory. Our avowedly One Nation Prime Minister, trying to heal - or at least to bandage - a rift which has split the Conservative party since before I was ever a member (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I gave it up in 1993) has unwittingly opened more cans of worms than he could have imagined existed. The promise of a referendum should have been undeliverable, as in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats the Tories could never have held it: but, would you believe it, the Tories won a majority in Parliament (not, of course, a majority of votes cast) and had to do as they had promised. No big problem, the government must have thought: the "remains" (that brings to mind Robert Venables referring to the HR department at our former firm as "Human Remains", which I hope I can develop into a post-Referendum witticism) will win, because they (that is, broadly, the government, the opposition, the Lib Dems and most others at Westminster) have the best arguments. And the "Leave" campaign was distinctly lacking in star quality, until the only politician in the country with any significant amount of charisma decided to hitch his wagon to the Leave campaign, clearly hoping that it would lead him to No 10 via a glorious and narrow defeat in the referendum. But inadvertently the Leavers won - or, perhaps more accurately, the Remains lost. The similarities between their performance and that of England's footballers against Iceland a few days later are striking.

No-one actually played the race card in the campaign, but there can be no doubt that immigration became probably the biggest issue in the referendum. I have a privileged vantage point, I know, and my memory of the seventies is a bit faded, but I can't remember a time when race relations in this country were as bad as they are now. One Nation? I would laugh, were it not so tragic.

But even the setting of one group of people against another - a foreseeable consequence of the campaign, surely - is not the worst of it. The referendum was treated by a large number of voters as an opportunity to express their feelings about the government, and politicians, in general. Having been treated to years of austerity (during which the gap between the bulk of society and the super-rich grew wider and wider, with the poor becoming poorer, the neither-poor-nor-rich staying much the same, and the super-rich becoming more super-rich), voters were minded to vote, simply, for change. Encouraged by the Leavers to blame everything on the EU, they opted to bail out. Nissan workers in Sunderland, whose jobs only exist because the UK is in the single market, were among the many turkeys to vote for an early Christmas. The county council in Cornwall, where the Leavers were in a majority, is anxious to replace from central government funds the £60 million per annum in grants that it received from the EU: they have got to be joking. Ebbw Vale has also been singled out as a community in receipt of EU largesse which prefers to be out. Not because the voters thought about it, I imagine, but because they were offered an opportunity to tell the political establishment what they thought of it.

I just watched a clip of a BBC programme in which a young man (black English, as it happens) explained that he supported leaving because of the difficulty of finding good work. Partly he blamed the availability of cheap labour from eastern Europe, and surely that must be a problem for the labour market, but he also railed against "zero-hours" contracts and a lack of employment protection. What sort of employment protection will he get in a post-Brexit England governed by a neo-con Tory government (however often they trot out the "One Nation" rubric), freed from the constraints of EU directives? "Zero hours" contracts might be unenforceable in England as a result of Autoclenz Ltd v Belcher [2011] UKSC 41 and Borrer v Cardinal Security Ltd [2013] UKEAT 0416_12_1607 (and see this article) but anyone wishing to see the end of them would be well-advised to look to the EU, not HMG, for help.
The referendum campaign and its aftermath have revealed that the concept of One Nation is far, far removed from what we have. Indeed, what we have could be said to be the antithesis of what Disraeli hoped for. How the gap can be bridged, how England can be returned to its former tranquillity, is difficult to see at the moment, and it seems that the One Nation project would be better served by the flawed EU than a Conservative government.

01 July 2016

Моя страна сошла с ума (My country has gone insane)

Andrey Makarevich had a particular aspect of his country's foreign (or should that be domestic? President Putin would probably say it was, but then again so might Solzhenitsyn) policy in mind in this song, but the title is apposite. As, for the purpose of this story, is the language.

On Wednesday, in Manchester to give a course on intellectual property law, I presented myself at the hotel restaurant for breakfast. A young lady took my room number and showed me to a table. Her name badge, and indeed her accent, revealed that her origins lay somewhere else in Europe - further east. I couldn't read her surname, because of a combination of the lighting and my glasses, which are not intended to help with anything less than about 20 feet away, but judging by her first name I thought she was Slavic, but what I could see of the surname didn't seem Polish: so, thinking I was being friendly, I asked her where she was from.

Immediately the professional smile disappeared from her face and was replaced by an expression of anxiety. I felt terrible, even more so when her first reply was "I'm not Polish!". Perhaps reassured by the fact that I hadn't immediately told her to go back to whence she had come, her anxious moment passed and she asked me where I thought she might be from. "One of the Baltic states, I think", I said, and she said she was very impressed. "The middle one," she told me in answer to my next question, and I then proceeded to confuse myself about the very simple alphabetical order from north to south and place her in Lithuania - I hope that wasn't a mortal insult to a Latvian. But she went on to say that she was of Russian descent, and Russian was her first language.

I learnt from that experience that we all need a new way to talk to people who might find questions about their origin threatening. I have always felt awkward asking such questions (though I suppose the urge to be friendly has caused me to try to overcome it). It's perfectly likely that someone with a Polish name, for example, is descended from a Battle of Britain fighter pilot and was born in this country. If I'm confident that I'm talking to a Pole I can at least greet them and thank them in their own language, which saves having to ask any awkward questions. When I thanked a bank worker in her native Romanian, she showed me how her hand was actually shaking as a result. My Latvian hairdresser recently complained that she is forced to speak Polish most of the time, because her circle of friends in Didcot comprises mostly Poles (and, because there are so few Latvians to start with, that's hardly surprising): and of course she speaks Russian too, although I imagine a lot of people from eastern Europe might be less than happy to be greeted in Russian, especially as many or most of them are here to improve their English. (My hairdresser did give me a couple of words in Latvian, but they didn't take root in my increasingly unretentive memory.)

While I ate my breakfast, I mulled over how to deal with this novel situation. The sentiment that has to be communicated is "I don't care where you are from, but I am interested to know". The form of words also has to avoid the Polish fighter pilot (or other occupation) syndrome too - it has to allow for the possibility that the answer is, for example, Balham. It also has to recognise that treating someone as a visitor to "my" country could cause offence if they have chosen to make their home here. For the purposes of Wednesday morning, it was sufficient (when I sought out my Latvian acquaintance to apologise for causing any anxiety) to say "I hope you will be very happy here, as long as you choose to stay."

Fortunately, there's now a very simple solution to the dilemma: simply wear a safety pin, in a lapel or just on a shirt or pullover. It's a powerful symbol, so long as people understand it, and it immediately put me in mind of the paper clip in occupied Norway.

24 June 2016

Selling England by the pound

I have been getting more and more disenchanted with the political process for at least 25 years: a few days ago I started a blog post on this theme, quoting from A Day of Infamy | Coffee House: "I cannot recall ever feeling worse about this country and its politics than is the case right now."

Now matters have gone even further. Never have I felt as dismayed about the state of politics, the country, the continent, the world, as today. We have been let down by politicians abdicating responsibility for one of the most fundamental elements of our political and economic existence, by handing the decision on whether to remain in the European Union or leave it to that bluntest of democratic instruments, a referendum: and compounding their error by abjectly failing to explain to the voters how to make an informed decision. Had a majority in full possession of the facts voted to leave with a good understanding of what they were leaving, and what they were leaving it for, that would have been a very different matter.

Worse still, older voters have caused immense damage to the futures of their children, grandchildren and further generations. Figures which have been bandied about on the Internet purport to show that almost twice as many younger voters as older ones voted remain, but they did not prevail in a matter which will affect them much more than it will people of my age or older.

The campaign has focused on immigration, though much of it comes from outside the EU and the topic is therefore about half irrelevant (and to the extent that it is relevant, it ignores the contribution made to our economy by workers from countries such as Poland, without whom the service sector would grind to a halt). It has also focused on sovereignty, despite the fact that Parliament remains, and has always remained, sovereign - a matter which will soon, perhaps, be demonstrated when it refuses to pass legislation to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and make provision for Brexit. (A good friend, justifying his "leave" vote, cited as one of his reasons the way EU legislation was made, proposed by unelected Commission officials: just like in the UK, where legislation is drawn up by unelected civil servants before being debated in Parliament, exactly as happens in the EU - except that so much of the UK's legislation comes in secondary form, made by ministers using delegated powers, with Parliamentary scrutiny little more than a fiction).

And, as if to rub salt into the wound, there are at least a couple of leave voters - young ones - on media websites, being interviewed by news reporters, saying that they didn't think it would matter which way they voted, and actually they didn't want to leave at all. Proof, it were needed, that the whole exercise was not taken seriously enough. Proof of the infinite stupidity of some parts of the electorate.

I had my fill of political campaigning years ago. I am completely cured of any impulse to go out knocking on doors or handing out leaflets. But I feel not a little guilty about leaving this important matter to others - I thought it was in the hands of the professionals. Jeremy Corbyn is now threatened with a vote of no confidence: had I been him, or perhaps his evil Machiavellian twin, I would have been tempted to support the remain campaign as lukewarmly as I could get away with, in the expectation that when the Conservative Party and the government imploded I might pick up some rather juicy pieces ... But, as we can see, that would have been a very dangerous game. The prosperity and standing of our country is not something to be treated lightly.

21 June 2016

Life is for living

There was only one way to find whether I could run from Paddington Station to Mallow Street, and that was to try. I took my time, but I got here: just under 5.5 miles (about 9km) and an hour and 8 minutes running (not allowing for some short pauses), but I wasn't bothered about speed and the route was crowded too, as one always finds on a summer's day in central London. I managed to stumble, three times: once I went down completely, in the middle of Hyde Park Corner, landing on longish grass (which was just as well, as my injured shoulder took the brunt of the fall). That was caused by tripping over a kerb, stubbing my left big toe, and later on the Embankment I stumbled on an uneven paving stone. I guess I wasn't picking my feet up as far as I need to, probably an indication of lost endurance, but I don't feel after today's performance that it will be long before I recover that.

10 June 2016

Thunder and lightning

We didn't have lightning, but there was plenty of thunder as we ran along the Ridgeway, and as you can see it certainly wasn't very summery. As a way of filling a slow Friday afternoon, with no email traffic to keep me busy, it was a great idea, and the meditation aspect of running was very welcome. I had one particular thought to mull over while I was out: as it happens, it didn't get sorted out, but you can't have everything.

So, a gentle run, appropriate for a return after injury. It's now been 13 weeks: who'd have thought that a broken ARM could keep me from running for that long? Heading out for a longish run, on a Friday afternoon at that, must have been a bit of a shock to Lucy's system, and as I write she is stretched out on the study floor recovering. I am delighted to learn that I can manage the distance, even if I did have to walk from time to time and cut a mile or so off the usual route. I'll probably sleep soundly tonight - this evening, perhaps.

Although the song title isn't entirely apt, it's close enough. I enjoyed watching Howard and Trev (but not Keith), and was about to write that it means so much more when you've watched them live, met them and even exchanged emails, when I realised that I last saw them about ten years ago, which puts matters into a chronological perspective - something that I find uncomfortable whenever it happens. I'm not very happy with time at the moment (but was I ever?).

Another thing: I didn't choose it for the lyrics, but I've always loved them - and they seem particularly poignant right now ...

18 May 2016


The other day, I thought I might improve my mood if I listened to music. I pressed the "on" button of my Quad tuner (won, along with amplifier, pre-amp and electrostatic loudspeakers, in a competition over 30 years ago now) and Radio Three was playing the fourth movement from Mahler 5, the adagietto. Rather like the word "Marathon", the name has come to identify one piece - although, come to think of it, say "Marathon" to an American and they would assume you meant Boston or New York. Oh no, I thought, that's not going to see off the black dog.

But my insatiable curiosity took over, and before long I was reading about Mahler's most famous music on the Internet. I wanted to learn something about the mechanics of the music, in particular the overwelming key-change, but nothing I could find told me about it. But I did learn - actually, I think, I relearnt - that Mahler conceived of it as a love-letter to Alma (who responded exactly as he must have hoped), and importantly that it is commonly played far too slowly. It was a song without words. Mahler himself would get through it in seven-and-a-bit minutes, whereas Haitink would take nearly fifteen. Bruno Walter, who learnt conducting from Mahler, is the most likely conductor from the recorded era to do it as intended, and indeed it sounds very different at the tempo he uses. Any slower, and had the song without words had words it would have been impossible to sing. And it can see off black dogs.

I've finally run a proper distance again, though my injured shoulder still isn't entirely happy about it. I tried to to do the whole Zen running thing, concentrating on the moment, the breathing, the form - and not the speed. It was a Haitink run, not a Walter or Mahler: Sehr langsam, as the adagietto is marked.

30 March 2016

Something better change

If you've been waiting to read something new here, my apologies. I broke my left arm, skiing, three weeks ago. As far as this blog is concerned, that has two implications: first, typing with only one hand is extremely tedious and slow, and secondly I have no running to write about.

The French doctor who saw it shortly after the injury said I must keep my arm immobilised for 4 to 6 weeks. The doctor at the hospital in Oxford who saw it some 10 days later told me that his French colleagues tended to be rather conservative, and that English practice to get me moving it. I hope it won't be much longer as I am becoming bored with having it in a sling.

11 February 2016

The real Horatio Alger


My old friend and occasional running partner James Olcott started a blog about his father Bernard a few months ago. I met Bernard once: he was a prolific inventor and the founder of the first firm in the world to harness the power of emerging computer technology to the payment of the annual fees needed to keep patents alive. He was also, his son now tells us, lots of other things, and the weekly stories make for entertaining reading as well as being highly informative about all sorts of things. James paints a vivid picture of New York in the fifties and sixties, for one thing. It is well worth a read.

The blog is sub-titled "The real Horatio Alger". It may be that American readers understand the reference at first sight. I certainly didn't. Untypically, I didn't immediately search for the information needed to fill the gap in my knowledge. I was probably too busy trying to learn Mashina Vremeni lyrics, or baking flapjacks, or watching episodes of The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed, or reading Galbraith or one of the myriad other ways in which I fill my time in preference to working.

It seems that there should have been no gap in my knowledge to begin with, for I have read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* - in which HST (no, not High Speed Train) refers to the man several times and ends up by writing that he thinks of himself as a "monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger...a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident."

It seems to me that Thompson is confusing the man and the myth, and perhaps that James has done too. Bernard's story is a classic one of (something like) rags to riches - at least, it's about the success of the son of immigrant parents. That is the theme of Horatio Alger's work, for he was a novelist, and quite a prolific one, maybe the inventor (at least in the U.S.) of the "rags to riches" genre, although one might more accurately say "rags to middle-class respectability", which is a different (perhaps better, perhaps worse) matter. Alger himself came from a privileged though not exactly affluent background, went to Harvard (long before Galbraith), and became a Unitarian minister like his father - before being accused of "the crime of...unnatural familiarity with boys", which might deter later writers from claiming too much in the way of similarity with him. Perhaps James should compare his father with Ragged Dick rather than with that character's creator: as for HST, I think anyone with whom he compared himself is in deep, deep trouble anyway.

*No, I haven't seen the film. I haven't been able to enjoy a film made from a book I've read since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. How I am going to get on with the BBC's new War and Peace, I don't know.

08 February 2016

Blaming it all on love

It has been a long time since I ran more than 5K: quite a long time since I ran more than about a mile, in fact. Not this year, but today I changed that.

There have been many, many reasons for my lack of running. It boils down to a lack of willpower, of course. The weather doesn't help, but I missed the best of it today anyway (although I also missed the worst of it). Lucy and I set out not quite sure what was going to happen - well, Lucy never has any idea what's going to happen, as springer spaniels tend to exist only in the moment - the epitome, perhaps, of mindfulness, a topic about which I had been learning  and which I hoped to practise a little on my run.

Although the rain was holding off, it was cool (a friend who saw me setting off remarked that it made her feel cold just to see me, in tee shirt and shorts) and windy. Storm Imogen was coming in from the distant Atlantic. The wind was in my face heading out of the village, and partly so all the way along the Bargeway. Likewise when I reached the Ridgeway: I worked hard for a couple of miles before turning right to head down towards the village, and then with the wind at my back I was flying.

The time was not important, nor was the pace. I paused to take a photo, having seen with some horror how the Harwell site has grown since last I came this way. The large building in the picture, which resembles a sports stadium, is new and lies just behind the farm - and close to Dido and Aeneas, the prototype reactors.
Impossible to give a good impression of its sheer immensity, in what should be - is supposed to be - a protected landscape. I despair. Chilton is also spreading in that direction, and threatens to go even further up the hill, housing forced into open fields because the site insists on keeping room for expansion.

The point is that I forgot to restart my Watch after snapping that inadequate picture, but that I wasn't particularly bothered. It might have been interesting to see what my pace was once I hit the tarmac, with a strong tailwind, but I don't suppose it would have been particularly impressive. What mattered was that I ran, and ran for the regular nearly seven miles, and felt fine. And just a little mindful, too.

26 January 2016

Russian winter

For the second time, I extended my Moscow visit by a day, on this occasion so that I could see some of the sights. Unfortunately, two days in the preceding week that had to be devoted to obtaining the necessary visa meant that I really didn't have the time I needed to enjoy myself in Moscow, but as I was booked on an evening flight I had little choice - I suppose I could have found a convenient place to hang out with wifi and got on with some work ...

I began the day with some work, and a late-ish breakfast. I thought about going to the minus-second floor of the Petr I and using the pool and fitness room (and I bet there is a sauna too) but that was as far as it went. I packed my bags and left them in the hotel's baggage room to collect about 3.30pm, which I reckoned would give me plenty of time to get to the airport to check in for my 6.15 flight - how did I work that out, I wonder?

Bolshoi Theatre
My first goal was Red Square, as the whole purpose of staying for a Monday (as opposed to arriving early on a Friday for some sightseeing) was to go to Lenin's Mausoleum, which I had established is closed on Fridays. So I crossed Revolution Square, marvelling at how slippery Russian snow isn't compared with English stuff, and then found a way through some charming back streets and old buildings to Nicolskaya, a street of designer shops that puts Regent Street to shame, and which takes you to Red Square (between that cathedral of consumerism GUM and the rebuilt Kazan Cathedral, which apparently had been destroyed in Stalin's time).

Revolution Square

Kazan Cathedral
 Red Square has a sort of Christmas Market going on. Of course Russian Christmas is later than ours, but even so it was surprising to see so many Christmas trees and other seasonal stuff still in evidence - but someone explained to me that it is not uncommon to visit someone as late as March and find their home still decorated for Christmas: and if Christmas was arbitrarily set in the darkest time of the year, to provide an excuse for something to lighten the mood, you can understand why Russians might wish to string it out as long as possible. Daria had said I might like to visit the Christmasa market - but it didn't look exactly bustling, and seemed from outside more like an amusement park than what I understand by the expression - reminiscent of Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, the very idea of which appalls me.

Red Square was cordoned off behind a crowd barrier, and two militia men were examining people's bags before allowing them through. I had no bag, and they didn't need to check what was in the cavernous pockets of my ski jacket, so I walked through and across the cobblestones, marvelling at who and what must have passed over them in the past. Of course they might be recent cobblestones, but even so - do they easily take the weight of one of those new Russian tanks, the sort that broke down during rehearsals for last year's May Day parade?

The Mausoleum was, of course, closed. It evidently does not open on Mondays either. When it does open, there is a three-hour window which is why I'd turned up shortly after ten, but if it's closed all day that doesn't actually help does it? When I am in Moscow I feel the history all around me, but I don't seem to be able to get close to some of it.

Eschewing the State Historical Museum (which I must go to one day) and the museum of the war of 1812 (ditto), I headed for Tverskaya, thinking I was looking for no 8 which turned out to house a bookshop in one window of which was a display dedicated to what seemed to be a new biography of Visotskiy - a guitar (the guitar? I doubt it, though I probably saw that at the Taganka theatre five years ago) leaning against a chair, a microphone on a stand, and a bookcase piled high with copies of the book. But perhaps it was merely that today happened to be his birthday - a fact that had escaped me until Ruslan pointed it out, after I was back home.

I consulted the scrap of paper on which I had noted down the important information for my day at large in Moscow, and found that I had overshot - I should have stopped at number 6. Lonely Planet told me I was looking for a nondescript security door in the courtyard. At the entrance, a car trying to gain access despite the "no entry" signs was involved in a standoff with a much larger commercial vehicle attempting to come out, so I walked through the jam and there to the left was just the door I was looking for, beneath a sign reading (in Cyrillic) Transylvania, accompanied by a stylised illustration of a vampire bat.

I opened the door (there was a notice, incomprehensible to me, in Russian on it, but as I couldn't do what it told me, if indeed it told  me to do something, I took the risk that it wasn't anything serious) and found myself at the top of a flight of stairs leading down to a Soviet-style cash desk behind which sat a Soviet-style impassive woman. Russians, particularly those who grew up in the Soviet Union, strike me as a very impassive people. Beneath the surface they are warm and friendly, but they seem to have acquired an outer persona which gives nothing away and allows nothing in. It is not hard to understand why.

Passing a rack of what seem to be music-related postcards - no Mashina Vremeni, but the Putin-supporting Valeriya was in evidence - I descended into the shop. It comprised several rooms, crammed with CDs and vinyl from floor to ceiling. Below the shelves along the walls were drawers which, when pulled out, were also filled with CDs. I have never seen a record shop like it.

I quickly found the Visotskiy section, but my brain was suffering a bit of Cyrillic overload and I didn't pause long to examine the CDs. Thinking to explore the rest of the shop, and to find some Mashina Vremeni CDs, I wandered through rooms devoted to several different types of Metal, blues, rock-and-roll, jazz, another genre that evidently includes Cliff Richard because there was a boxed set of his works, and much more. The classical section, perhaps just as well, appeared to be closed, with a chair blocking the doorway. Steve Hillage caught my eye, and Kevin Coyne and Siren, then a whole section of King Crimson alongside The Beatles and the Rolling Stones (Crimso might find that rather flattering). And in the far corner, filed away (I think) alphabetically, the first four Stackridge albums - the American CDs. Amazing. I thought about taking a photo to prove it, but refrained. In any event, to enhance the Soviet-style shopping experience, one of the assistants was following me. He might not have worried about photography, but I didn't want to get into an argument which would be made immensely more complicated by mutual incomprehension.

Instead, I asked him whether he spoke English - my most-used piece of Russian, of course. His response suggested that he thinks he does, a little, but he was wrong: my Russian is better. "Mashina Vremeni?" I ask him, and he leads me back to the cash desk. It turns out that Russia's most successful rock band is filed away just across the gangway from Russia's most popular bard - indeed, at one time at least, her most popular man, of any calling.

My new acquaintance started pulling out Mashina Vremeni CDs and placing them, for my perusal or perhaps for me just to buy, on the cash desk. Before long there were about 20, and I notice that this doesn't even include Reki i Mosti. Then he started producing Andrei Makarevich's solo work - and, who knows, given time he might have got onto Margulis's and Kutikov's solo albums too. I looked politely though the second pile of about 20 CDs, then consulted the price list. Each CD carries a code number, like greetings cards in English shops, so I had to match them against a list on the wall. The range was extraordinary. Some of the classic MV CDs - Part Time Commander of the Earth, Good Slow Music - were about the full price you'd find in a London record shop, although allowing for the cut-price rouble that's actually about twice London prices (I wonder how much they were on sale for at the Palladium in December, when I didn't even get to see the merchandise stand?). Mashiny ne parkovat was 750 roubles, which seemed about right, so I chose it - and it opens with one of my favourite songs. As for what else is on it, the album-art Cyrillic script is particularly hard to decipher, so I took my chances with it. The cashier rings it up before I can communicate that I haven't finished yet: but as I was the only customer in the shop, I guessed it was not a problem.

Then on to Vladimir Visotskiy. I wanted some help, but my shadow had gone: when he reappeared I was holding a double CD of VV's war songs, and he managed to convey to me that this might not be what I was looking for. (I had spotted the word "воина".) But what did I want? I've since learnt that Gorbachov authorised the release of a complete edition of VV's recordings, which appeared in 20 volumes, and there appeared to be many if not all of them here. I could have done with a "greatest hits", but there didn't appear to be one. I ended up with a single CD entitled "monologues" (the opening track being a song I know - "я знаю", I tell him - and love) - live, with lengthy spoken introductions which I will struggle with for a long time - and a double the title of which translates as "on the big wagon" (something that the artist never was, it now occurs to me). The prices were very reasonable, so I added them for less than the price of one Mashina Vremeni album.

And I suppose that when you don't really know what you're buying, so long as it's the right artist it doesn't matter which CDs you choose.

I walked back to Teatralnaya and, with one change, headed to Shabalovskaya, one stop further out from Oktyabrskaya with which I had become so familiar. It's not really very far from downtown Moscow - the next station is Leninsky Prospekt, which is still pretty central - but the feel is very different. This is definitely suburban Moscow, all blocks of flats and ordinary, day-to-day shops rather than offices and public buildings. Lonely Planet told me to head south on Shabalovka, but street names were again hard to find - strange, because usually in Moscow there are plenty - then take the first right. It said five minutes, I think, but perhaps the snow made me slower: however, soon I found myself outside the formidable and clearly ancient brick walls of the Donskoy (no, spellchecker, not Donkey) monastery. I had to walk round much of the wall, past crumbling brick towers, before I reached the entrance, and the passage leading into the monastery was covered with a fantastic array of frescoes and script. How do they survive in this climate?

Inside the fortified walls, it's like a religious city. Monasteries were clearly much more than religious houses in medieval Russia. The Donskoy commanded a major route into the city, at a time (1591) when there was a real danger of invasion - not that Russia has ever really been free from the danger of invasion, or actual invasions. There's a cathedral, and as if that isn't enough there's also the New (or Great) Cathedral - and all this in an enclosed space in suburban Moscow! I passed a grocery shop - продукты - and it looked as if the monks are the producers not the customers.

As I was here to see a grave, I sought out the burial plots - and there are several. (I later learned that there are also a couple of large pits containing the cremated remains of victims of Stalin's purges.) Consulting a sign which directs visitors to the graves of famous people (conveniently arranged so that I had to stand in a snowdrift, although it turned out that the same plan is posted in each different plot so I didn't actually have to look at this one), I discovered that the one I am looking for is not mentioned. In fact, few dates from the 20th century appeared in the long list. So I walked around, relishing the tranquillity of the place, and marvelling at the way the pathways have been cleared only for part of their length, so I found myself having to plodge through deep snow from time to time.

Still I couldn't find my goal, and I had expected it to be pretty prominent. I asked a lady in a fur coat (well, most of the ladies I saw were in fur coats, and so were many of the men). "Sorry", she replied, with a rather Gallic shrug, taking me somewhat aback - Natalia's advice about not asking babushkas for directions because they would be unlikely to speak English being not disproved but certainly shown to be valid only up to a point. So I approached the uniformed man in the glass booth in the middle of the compound - it occurs to me that there are glass booths containing a uniformed person all over the place in Moscow, on the street, at the bottom of escalators on the Metro, and evidently in monasteries. In answer to my opening gambit he admitted to no knowledge of English, but at the mention of a name he indicated with hand gestures that I should either go round to the back of the Great Cathedral, passing it on the right hand side: or alternatively that I should go through it, which seemed less likely.

I met my fur-clad interlocutor again, and with hand signals, shrugs and odd words indicate that I have received directions, and off I went. In no time I spot what I am looking for, distinguished only by the photograph of the occupant and the extra space around it.
Solzhenitsyn's grave
 The notice I had seen near the entrance was only in Russian, so I had not been able to ascertain whether it meant that photography was permitted or forbidden, but the word не did not appear and there was no line through the illustration of a camera so I thought a photograph would be allowed. Anyway there was no-one watching - as far as I could tell ...

After that I headed off to the Metro station again, nodding gratefully as I passed the glass booth, the occupant of which acknowledged my thanks. I added an extra change to my journey to Arbatskaya, because I got off the first train at Oktyabrskaya and had to catch the next one to go an additional stop - or so I thought, though looking now at the Metro map I can't work out how I made the journey. Having already visited Moscow's best record shop, I wanted to go to its best bookshop, despite the fact that it would be full of things that I would not be able to understand very much. Dom Knigi was easily found on Novie Arbat, opposite Tarantino, the restaurant I'd been to with the students last year, and turned out to be a wonderful bookshop like big English ones - not at all the Soviet-style shopping experience I'd had earlier or seen in Russian Language and People on the BBC back in 1980, and with which I'd once been familiar at Foyle's.

Fiction was on the first floor (or second floor, in Russia) and there I found banks of paperback editions of classic literature. I didn't want Воина и Мир, which is long enough in translation, or Доктор Живаго even though the author's near-namesake was very much on my mind... Again I struggled with Cyrillic alphabetical order, before realising that finding Tolstoy (dead easy: many very fat books to look for) then working back would easily lead me to what I wanted.

The illustration on the cover identified Cancer Ward for me. The Gulag Archipelago was in a different section. The First Circle I could spot easily. But I still had to go to another bookcase altogether before I came across a copy of Один день Ивана Денисовича - only 165 roubles, and it contains four other stories too including Matryona's House which I remembered reading long ago. I might stand a chance of getting through something of that size in Russian, and anyway it makes a fantastic and very reasonably-priced souvenir and it's nice to have bought it in what was the top bookshop in the Soviet Union, even though that state disappeared so long ago.

Old Arbat is a part of Moscow I'd wanted to see - I remember a scene from Доктор Живаго being set there, perhaps in this very (extraordinary) building.
But Arbat Street itself is about as authentic as Oxford Street. Fortunately touristy souvenirs were something I wanted, so I spent some of my remaining roubles on scarves and some more on fridge magnets for my colleagues - an exercise in British irony, aided by the Russian variety which has caused the creation of a range of fridge magnets depicting their president in various guises (one in typically macho pose with the slogan, if I have understood correctly, "make my day" in Russian), and more showing Lenin or Stalin. I selected five, and the assistant pointed out that their special offer meant I could have another for nothing, or another 100 roubles (which is not very much more than nothing), so I picked up one showing Yuri Gagarin, placed it with Putin, Stalin and Lenin in the basket she had brought for my selection, and said "поехали!". To my delight she laughed. It is immensely satisfying successfully to make a joke in a foreign language.

I regained the Peter I by about 3.30, having returned to Arbatskaya metro station thinking to take the blue line to Biblioteka Imeni Lenina (Lenin's Library) and there changing to the red line. Well, I did that, but without having to take the blue line at all. Both stations (and more!) formed what in London would be considered a single station, connected underground, so all I had to do was follow the signs and walk. And to think that when we dined at Tarantino I followed Tim's directions to Smolenskaya, changing from red to blue at Biblioteca Imeni Lenina to get there, then walked back a long way!

In other circumstances (less snow) I might have walked back to the hotel and enjoyed Alexandrovsky Sad, but gardens are not at their best when snow-covered so the Metro to Teatralnaya/Okhotny Ryad/Ploshad Revolutsii (another multiple station) was the better choice. I collected my bags, used the facilities and headed back to the triple Metro station. My bag had to go through a scanner at the insistence of a bunch of very friendly security guards - you don't get them like this in other countries, I'm sure - and then I arrived at Paveletskaya where it seemed the aeroexpress has recently departed and it would be 20-something minutes before the next one. It never struck me that I should check train times to the airport - I assumed they'd be every ten or fifteen minutes. I occupied the time with a cup of coffee (Americano, having learned a lesson about cappuccino with UHT milk at the Tretyakov's café on Friday) and a muffin, having eaten nothing since breakfast. By the time we reached Domodedovo I had less than an hour before the flight was due to leave - fortunately with so few people able, or wanting, to travel between Moscow and London, check-in, passport control and security were almost deserted.
Paveletskiy Voksal. Somehow the typeface is just right.

On the plane I completed the FT weekend crossword before we reached Kaliningrad, including making up a hand-drawn grid.

Here's a pertinent song by Hungary's most successful rock group (yes, really), Omega:

22 January 2016

One day

I love my visits to Moscow for the crazy things that Victor dreams up to do as much as for anything else.  On the train from Didcot to Reading, from where I would take the coach to Heathrow, an e-mail came in from him telling me that he had a great idea about how we should spend the evening.  I was to go straight from the airport to the Tretyakov Gallery, where there was an exhibition of paintings by Valentin Serov, and meet him there.  It closed at eight, so I would have to hurry. Victor told me that I should take the metro to Oktyaberskaya and walk from there. With my luggage, in the rush hour, with icy pavements, and in temperatures of at least -10, that sounded like quite an undertaking.

I emerged from the metro station and tried to orientate myself. I knew that one of the big roads beside it was Leninskiy Prospekt, but that wasn't what I wanted. A sudden dearth of street signs lost me a few minutes, and when I did orientate myself I found I had to cross about 16 lanes of road. However I could now see bridge ahead of me so I knew the Moscow River must be there, and I was heading the right way.

I thought it wise to confirm where I was going by asking a passerby. In fact I asked two, choosing (as Natalia had advised me on my previous visit) a couple in their twenties who, happily, responded to my opening question by saying that yes, they did speak English. They also told me that the building that I was heading for was indeed the right one, but warned me that there was a two-hour queue to get in.

There was indeed a long queue, I walked along it the main entrance where Victor had told me I should meet him. Sure enough I heard him call my name, and he sent a security man to move the crowd barrier and let me in. I put my backpack through the scanning machine, and marvelled at how I had bypassed what I now know to be one of the five longest queues seen in post-Soviet Russia.

Once inside, of course, there was the small matter of queueing for the cloakroom. In winter in Russia, no one goes anywhere without bulky items that need to be checked in. So we joined the queue, which was making remarkably slow progress, until some alternative idea occurred to Victor and he left me to keep our place while he pursued his inspiration. It turned out that he had decided that a bank of left luggage lockers provided a solution. No matter that the only vacant ones had no keys.

No matter either, it seemed, that my backpack was an extremely tight fit. Indeed, in pushing it in, I drew blood from the base of one of my fingernails. That's a part of the body which bleeds copiously, and there was nothing I could do to stem the flow. Fortuitously (or, as I know now, As Russians might say "accidentally", the same word having several English equivalents), a couple of paramedics happened past and Victor recruited their assistance. They took me straight to a side room, which appeared to be an office and their break room as well as being available for medical treatment. Victor reassuringly left me in their hands, although we had established that they spoke no English, and one of them proceeded to bandage my finger. It was not a simple matter of applying a sticking plaster: it involved an antiseptic wipe, a meter of gauze, and quite a lot of sticky tape. The end result certainly looked impressive. I was instructed to leave it in place for десять часа - 10 hours. That much I could understand. «Десять?» I responded in surprise, and he confirmed that I was right. (When I experimentally took it off later that evening, I realised how right he was.)

Victor reappeared, and suggested that we might go for refreshments. On the basis of the information that he had previously given me, I thought the exhibition was about to close but assumed (as I have to when I'm with him) that he knew what was going on. So we went to the cafe, and I ordered a cappuccino which turned out to be made with UHT milk. The less said about that the better.

Finally we got into the exhibition. About the first picture facing us on entering the main room is the artist's most famous work, Girl with Peaches.

Serov was primarily a portrait painter; clearly he painted everybody who mattered in turn-of-the-century Russia. There were royals and nobles all over the place. There were also some other celebrities - I was pleased to recognise a portrait of Rimsky-Korsakov. In addition, were some nice landscapes. However the exhibition was heaving with people which made it more than a little difficult to see some of the pictures, and despite notices prohibiting photography many of them had their mobile phones out.

The report into the death of Alexander Litvinenko had appeared only a few days before I left for Moscow. Many people had helpfully advised me not to accept cups of tea from strangers. Just outside the exit, the army had set up a field kitchen to cater for the people in the two-hour queue in freezing temperatures. Victor grabbed a cup of tea for each of us. I didn't have a geiger counter about my person, so I risked it. Very nice, and extremely welcome, it was too.

The exhibition was originally due to close that weekend. It had apparently got off to a slow start until one VV Putin had visited it and given it a certain cachet. The gallery director had announced on the evening I went there they would close the doors as normal but keep the gallery open all night if necessary to allow those who had got in to see the exhibition. Shortly afterwards, it was extended for another week. Going to events with Victor is not only exciting, but also a privilege. Only afterwards did I fully appreciate how lucky I was to be able to see the most popular art exhibition in modern Russia.

19 January 2016


I scraped the ice off the car windows, inside and out, this morning so I could make an early start. My neighbours, returning from Florida as I prepared to set off, reported that the temperature was minus 3. My early departure was necessary ‎because I have to hand in my visa application before 10 so I can fly to Moscow on Friday, where minus 3 would count as shirtsleeves weather.

At the station, a robot announcement tells us that the 0820 to Reading and Paddington - a civilised train, not too early and almost empty on account of its having started in Oxford - is delayed. That's all: just delayed. Later a figure of seven, then eight, minutes is mentioned, along with the useful information‎ that the fastest train to London will be the 0820 from platform 5. So, no change, except for the odd eight minutes.

Posters on the platform explain that FirstGroup has taken the "unprecedented " step of removing its name from that of the railway it operates. The company tells us that it sees itself not as a franchise but as a custodian (using a clumsy split infinitive in the process).

‎What fools do they take us for? The First brand is so toxic, it's no surprise they want to hide it. Some people might mistake the revived Great Western Railway brand for that of an efficiently-run public service.

At Reading a woman sits next to me and proceeds to attend to her makeup. When did this become acceptable behaviour, I wonder? Casting a glance at the end result, I think her time was wasted anyway.

11 January 2016

Музыка под снегом (Music under the snow)

The day after witnessing the final appearance of my favourite band (so, with a vacancy to fill), I was at what might have been only the second UK appearance of the prime candidate for the position of my new favourite. They didn't quite make it, but it was a good evening.

I'd like to write a great deal more about Mashina Vremeni at the Palladium on 20th December, but there's relatively little I can tell you. Astonishingly, not one word of English was spoken by the band - and I know that Andrey Makarevich speaks it pretty well, from seeing him interviewed on TV. You'd have thought that they would tell the audience in the local language what song was coming next, given that they were in a country where their repertoire would be less familiar to an audience than back at home. Especially as at least one of the songs appeared to be pretty new. You might also have thought that they might tell us who was whom (I knew who most of them were, but that's not the point: and in particular who was playing lead guitar following the departure of Yevgeny Margulis?). At the very least they might have said "thank you" when the audience applauded, just as Paul McCartney (and no doubt others) have said "спасибо" when playing to Russian audiences.

It wasn't necessary to look far for the reason. In fact it was all around  me. The audience was almost exclusively Russian - Tor and I might well have been the only non-Russians in the place. But it would have been nice if someone had spoken from the stage to us, and any other new English fans who might have been there. Of course I started listening to Mashina Vremeni to improve my Russian (did I really write "improve"? From this low a base, it's not very accurate to use that word - "to learn some Russian", perhaps), but I wasn't expecting such an immersive experience as this.

I can't even tell you much about what they played. Povorot, of course, and the screen helpfully displayed the lyrics so I could try to sing along with the chorus. Poka gorit svecha, thankfully, and Marionetki (even if I hadn't recognised it I'd have identified it from the graphics). Razgovor na Poyezde was in there somewhere too (notice that, just as they didn't bother to speak any English to me, I am not bothering with Cyrillic). Krai was a new one on me but it had the lyrics on the screen. Krisi (which may or may not be subtitled "Pezniya o Putine" - song about Putin) featured: pretty obvious what that title refers to. No Prazdnick nachinaetsya seychas though.

I got so lost that I'm not even sure whether they performed Musica pod snegom - however, here it is anyway. Still enjoying listening to the music, even if I feel rather let down.

Amazingly Agnes

I looked back at my recent posting about Stackridge's Final Bow, having found myself this morning unable to get "Amazingly Agnes" out of my head. I wrote in the earlier post about the verbal wit of their early songs, which has been rather lacking in later material: what better example than a song in which cruel, stool, Timbuktu, mule, bull, and fool are made to rhyme? I speculated that perhaps what was missing later in the band's history was Crun's lyrics, but Agnes turns out to be James Warren composition. As is "Anyone for Tennis?", which was also on my mind earlier - "silver hairs are sprouting from my cranium/now cramp has stopped me mining for uranium ..." (On the other hand, the band occasionally produced some really crass lyrics: "Dangerous Bacon" comes to mind, with embarrassing references to the Holocaust and rape - that's a "Smegmakovitch" lyric, I think, a pseudonym for James, Crun and Mutter working together, and I suspect they cringe when they think about it, although they certainly performed it as recently as 2007, which is only "recent" in the case of a band that lasted for 46 years. Apart from that, it's a nice little song, but to me it's a huge "apart from ...".)

08 January 2016

The Final Bow

Stackridge have been part of my life since 1973, and on 19 December 2015 they played their final gig at the Fiddlers in their home town, Bristol. Being without a ticket for that evening until almost the last minute (being the band's lawyer has its perks, in addition to an acknowledgement on their last CD) I bought tickets for the previous Saturday in Bridport too - so saw two of their last four or so appearances.

At Bridport, their manager Mike volunteered that the band was better on this last tour than ever (which means since 1969), or the best they have ever been, or something. Who am I to disagree? But I will anyway. It was the first time I had seen this line-up, and they were superb, but to me Stackridge were always the band I saw at Newcastle City Hall in October 1972, supporting Lindisfarne, who had just released Dingly Dell, on their home territory. (I'd gone understanding from the ticket that the support band was some label-mate of the main attraction called Genesis, and was very pleasantly surprised to find they'd been substituted, even by a band I'd never heard of.) James and Andy were still present in the 2015 line-up, but the rest weren't. Mutter (whose own band was support at Bridport and the Fiddlers) put in a couple of guest appearances, and I had the pleasure of meeting Bill at the Fiddlers (adding the last autograph of the original line-up to be reverse side of my Stackridge Rhubarb Thrashing Society membership card), but of Crun there was no sign and Mike Evans would, unfortunately, hardly have been welcome.

The last line-up are certainly excellent musicians, and they have some great material in their repertoire, and they made the best of it with some fantastic arrangements - "Fish in a Glass" (previously one of my least favourite Stackridge pieces, from an album that largely makes me cringe) with ukuleles, which also featured in the lovely and much newer song "All I Do is Dream of You". Much of the earlier material, though, was lacking something - they played pieces like "Lummy Days", "Syracuse", "Teatime", "God Speed the Plough" and the three great songs from The Man in the Bowler Hat ("Fundamentally Yours", "Last Plimsoll" and "Road to Venezuela") so they sounded as much as possible as they do on the record, even down to Clare playing what often sounded very like Mike's original solos, raising interesting copyright questions in my mind. But without Mutter's flute some of them sounded thin.

I also find most of the recent material - meaning, I suppose, later than the first three albums - inferior to the earlier stuff. There are some super songs from the later period - Red Squirrel and Long Dark River from their most recent album, A Victory for Common Sense, for example, and I've even come to like "Highbury Incident" and the aforementioned "Fish in a Glass" (I always liked "No-one's More Important than the Earthworm", the only evidence that Gordon Haskell was once a member of the band - for two weeks, as James explained in his introduction) - but they don't have the quirkiness, or even eccentricity, of the early stuff. "Al I Do is Dream of You" is wonderful, and in a similar vein (to my mind) to "Teatime" (the first song played at the first Glastonbury Festival - indeed, as Andy mentioned, the first note at the first Glastonbury, and it was a B, which he played by way of illustration), but it lacks the verbal wit of the earlier song and the main reason it stands out is the ukuleles - including Eddie strumming away behind his drum kit. Perhaps what the new material lacks is Crun's lyrics? I might be utterly wrong but it's an interesting idea that just crossed my mind.

Stackridge 2015 also missed Crun's presence on stage, and Mutter's. James has always been an entertaining frontman, but in a dry, low-key way, while Andy is not really a natural frontman at all, and among the many things that stood out about the band back in 1972 was that Mutter, Crun and Mike contributed so much to the general madness of a Stackridge gig. There was also the giant cardboard cut-out gnome presiding over the stage, of course - and when gnomes were outlawed a few years ago a large part of the band's appeal disappeared, for me. I defiantly wore my gnome badge at the gigs, though.
 And the Mutter badge, which Linda, his wife, told me they have on a noticeboard at home:

Perhaps what all this means is that with the passage of time Stackridge became just a bit more serious than they were all those years ago, and perhaps that's just a universal progression. But it means that, while I was very, very pleased to be part of the final event in their career (notwithstanding talk from the stage about next year's reunion), I was celebrating memories at least as much as I was enjoying the present and mourning the demise of the latest incarnation of the band. They had much more than just the name in common with the group I fell in love with in 1972, but to me there was a sense that Stackridge had really ceased to exist many, many years ago (I'd say after Bowler Hat). Other fans, if they read this, will disagree, some of them vehemently, although I am certainly not devaluing Stackridge 2015. Perhaps I'm wrong to compare them with their younger counterparts: and now I think of it, I'd hate to be compared now with my 16-year-old self. The final iteration of Stackridge were definitely a fine band, which I'd have gone a long way to see (in fact I did, though not from Tokyo or Philadelphia, like some people I met at the Fiddlers). It's just that I'd have gone a great deal further to see Stackridge Mark I.