qatsi: (meades)
Book Review: The Making of the British Landscape, by Nicholas Crane
Although I recalled being a little underwhelmed by Crane's biography of Mercator, I decided to give this one a go when I saw it in the work book sale. I'm pleased I did, because I found it quite well-matched to my expectations and also informative. Crane starts at the end of the last ice age; there's probably not much meaningful that can be said about "Britain" before that time. For some thousands of years after that, Britain was a peninsula attached to the European mainland by Doggerland. Hardy explorers were the first immigrants, moving north as the glaciers retreated. In parallel, Crane tracks the emergence of life in the Fertile Crescent, with the emergence of agriculture. It reinforces what a backwater Britain has been for most of recorded history.

Successive waves of migration brought technological developments across Europe and into Britain, with occasional evidence of structures remaining. Henges are something of an oddity, not much occurring elsewhere. Tin mining was probably the only innovation that was exported out of Britain. Solar fluctuations were a major hazard, causing little ice ages and depleting food supplies. About a third of the book is taken up with 8000 years of pre-Roman Britain.

The Romans did a lot of deforestation, but they were by no means the first. Britons were somewhat indifferent to Roman civilisation, and let it crumble (or made better use of the readily available stone) when they departed. Londinium was something of an exception, emerging without planning as a commercial centre with a bridge over the river and an adjacent port. Crane frequently uses archaic place names and reveals how they have mutated into modern ones. Angles and Saxons migrated into Britain, which declined, though outposts such as the Northumbria of Bede and Cuthbert were beacons of civilisation. The Viking period demanded more effective defence, and a return to urbanisation, sometimes too little too late. The Norman conquest overwhelmed Britain with European technology again, like the Romans had done, but there were still hazards such as plague that would cause abandonment of settlements from time to time.

The final third of the book focuses on the period from the seventeenth century to the present day, and although the Industrial Revolution occurred across the country, towards the end the book becomes increasingly London-centric. Britain again became an exporter of technology and the owner of an Empire; this period is now ending or has passed too, it seems. The book predates the Brexit Referendum, but it's not difficult to see from this book that history suggests a period of decline lies ahead.
qatsi: (urquhart)
Book Review: The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield
This had been on my to-read list for quite a while and the inconclusive aftermath of the [first] 2017 General Election seemed as good a time as any to pick it up, especially since there had been no rebirth of "Liberal England". (Not that increasing the Lib Dems' seats by 50% wasn't a good result - but it's still a fraction of the number in the 2010-2015 parliament).

Dangerfield identifies a prologue, and three main threads, in the politics of the period 1906-1914: firstly, he deals with the House of Lords, and its ubiquitous role in blocking Liberal policies from the House of Commons. Ultimately this behaviour resulted in the Parliament Act, but it's a situation that is still not fully resolved today. The three main issues are of Irish Home Rule, Women's Suffrage, and Industrial Relations. On Irish Home Rule, Dangerfield presents a curious picture in which the Tories seem to oppose change largely for the sake of opposing it; the Unionist position in Ulster is presented as extremist, and desirous of belonging to some fantasy Union that doesn't actually exist - a situation that hardly seems altered today with the DUP, given that I have never felt I have much in common with those who claim to represent Northern Ireland and its desire to remain part of the UK. On the question of suffrage, Dangerfield writes almost exclusively about the cult of personality surrounding Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Their campaign is presented as violent and absurd; but the debate and progress (or rather, lack thereof) on the issue in Parliament is presented as equally absurd, and it becomes difficult to work out which came first. On industrial relations, the situation is just a mess, but unfortunately it is reminiscent in some ways of today, with extreme and ill-thought grass-roots positions undermining and replacing more moderate Union leadership, and a range of attitudes among employers, from enlightened through to abusive.

The cumulative effect of reading about these is to reveal how safe and orderly Britain is today, given that only the suffrage issue is incontrovertibly resolved (though, in Dangerfield's writing, the Suffragettes' campaign is the most consistently violent of the three); the polarised political situation on Brexit and its economic implications does bear some resemblance with the industrial issues of a century ago. Dangerfield doesn't actually synthesise how these threads caused the death of Liberal England, rather assuming the general atrophying political climate (which again, is surely echoed today) produces this outcome, but leaves the outbreak of World War I as his ending point. The choice of the word "England" in the title would make our contemporary sensitivities bristle, but Scotland barely gets a mention at all, and there's not much about Wales either.
qatsi: (baker)
I was hesitant about booking a holiday in Portugal in mid-June, but was persuaded to go ahead. We had a good time - eventually - although, really, much of it was too hot for me; generally into the 30s and possibly hitting 40°C in Lisbon yesterday.

Things didn't get off to a good start, when we tried to check in on Thursday evening, 12 hours beforehand; BA's website just gave us an error message and told us to go to the airport. So we waited for the exit poll, raised our eyebrows, and went to bed, getting up the following morning at ridiculous-o'clock. There was an unexpected queue at 5:30 in the morning at the entrance to Purple Parking, but the airport wasn't too busy.

Unfortunately, we were told, BA had overbooked the flight. We were given standby boarding passes and told to wait. Later, we were told to take everything airside. This didn't seem entirely correct, but it was a new experience, so we did exactly as we were told. Security, however, insisted that our hold baggage had to go back to the drop-off desk; so, we did that, returned, and ended up having to run through Heathrow Terminal 3's delightful "retail experience".

We made it onto our flight, but our checked baggage did not. Though we both had suspicions, we weren't informed of this until a semi-decipherable tannoy announcement at Lisbon told us to go to the baggage enquiries desk. Many years ago I had a colleague to whom this happened, and I knew his luggage had been couriered to his hotel by the evening, so I had hopes this was a standard process. It seemed to be so; but BA promised the luggage would be on the afternoon flight, and it wasn't. Our hotel was informed that it would be on the overnight flight, and it did indeed turn up by the following morning, but it didn't make for the most relaxing of starts.

Fri 9th: Arrival, somewhat discombobulated. The Metro appears to be straightforward to navigate and we head to the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, which houses a considerable collection, including some interesting Persian carpets and Turkish ceramics. We walk across the Parque Eduardo VII to the Aqueduto das Aguas Livres, a survivor of Lisbon's 1755 earthquake.

Lisbon - Aqueduct



Sat 10th: After reacquainting ourselves with our possessions, we head off to explore the city centre - Baixa and Chiado. It comes quickly to our attention that there are many people wandering around the streets more-or-less openly offering drugs; one assumes that the police don't care much.

Lisbon - Elevator


Later in the day we head over to the Castle. As well as taking in the building and museum, we pause to listen to the tango band rehearsing on an outdoor stage in the gardens.

Lisbon - Castle



Sun 11th: We take a tram to Belém. By this point it is becoming apparent that the Vivagem cards for public transport (basically like Oyster in London) aren't of the greatest quality (they're made of cardboard) and are prone to failure. Although the card only costs 50 cents it's quite annoying that you have to be so careful with them. The tram is packed and Belém is even busier; it's about a half hour queue in baking sunlight to get in to the Mosteiro doe Jerónimos, which is very ornate but otherwise not especially spectacular. The queue for the Tower on the riverfront is shorter, though not trivial.

Lisbon - Tower of Belém



Mon 12th: We head out to Sintra. The train from Rossio station is straightforward, but once there, the Rough Guide map isn't entirely clear and the text doesn't explain strongly enough that you should get the bus to the palace at Pena. Naïvely I reckon it's about a kilometre, but I haven't allowed for poor signage. We do eventually make it on foot, but our patience is tried. Fortunately, it's worth it. We return via the Moorish Castle.

Sintra - Pena Palace


Sintra - Moors' Castle



Tues 13th: Another trip to Sintra, this time for the Palácio Nacional and the Quinta da Regaleira. Though I've only visited the house at West Wycombe Park, the cave system in the grounds at Regaleira suggests to me the Hell-Fire Caves; the Initiation Well seems like an inside-out Tower of Babel.

Sintra - Initiation Well



Wed 14th: We wake up to the news of the Grenfell Tower fire; after the attack in Borough Market and the coalition of crackpots, it adds to the stream of disturbing UK news. We spend the day in Lisbon, firstly in the Alfama district, visiting the Paneão Nacional (Pantheon), São Vicente de Fora, and the Water Museum at Barbadinhos. Although there's an exhibition we're really there for the steampunk of the preserved pumping station.

Lisbon - Barbadinhos Steam Pumping Station


Later we trek out to Estrela; the basilica is disappointing, but the nearby park is pleasant and a granizado is refreshing.

Thurs 15th: More museums. There's a queue of about 15 minutes just to use the automated ticket machines at Cais do Sodré station, but once we get to Alcântara, the streets are quiet. The Museu do Oriente is excellent, but sadly it's almost deserted. After lunch we go to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which has a respectable number of visitors but is far from busy.

Lisbon - Musical Instruments of the Chinese Opera at Museo do Oriente



Fri 16th: We take a long-distance trip to Porto. We're a bit pressed for time, given the hilly nature of the city, so we don't venture too far from the centre, and don't make it to Vila Nova da Gaia, where the wine lodges are. But we do experience a Franceshina for lunch, and see the famous Lello bookshop.

Porto - Bridges across the Douro


Porto - Lello Bookshop



Sat 17th: It turns out the botanical garden is closed, so we skip that part of the plan and move on to the Decorative arts museum. After lunch we take in the small Casa Museu Dr A Gonçalves. Although Lisbon Airport is chaotic and the check-in machine tells us to go to gate "undefined", the flight home is smoother. I notice smoke on the ground as we ascend from Lisbon Airport and wonder if it's a wildfire; we are oblivious to the catastrophe going on a few hundred kilometers away, though the train to Porto passed through Coimbra. On return, only about half of the electronic passport gates are in use for some reason, and Purple Parking's IVR is awkward and unforgiving, hanging up rather than repeating a question when you didn't hear it clearly the first time.

Lisbon was busy, but it didn't strike me as particularly commercial: the metro doesn't start until 6:30 in the morning, and there are often long intervals between trains. Likewise, the local trains were patchy - good for Sintra, but not so good in the direction of Cascais. Food was good though sometimes slow, and the hawking waiters in the city centre were even worse than the drug-dealers and selfie-stick sellers.

Lisbon - Trams

qatsi: (dascoyne)
Book Review: The Secret Life of Ealing Studios, by Robert Sellers
The work book sale is a charity sale; but unlike browsing through a second-hand or charity bookshop, the books are completely unsorted (with the exception of children's books, and large-format volumes, which are filed to one side), so you have to look through everything. This provides scope for serendipity, such as this one, which I doubt I'd ever have discovered otherwise. The book covers the period from the late 1930s, when Michael Balcon took over, through to the late 1950s, when it was sold. It's very clear that Balcon was the controlling mind of the studio throughout; in the war years, he was determined to play his part in the domestic war effort, and after the war it was very much his view of Britain that was portrayed in Ealing's films.

The book aims to record personal experiences, so there are many first-hand interviews with people who worked in all sorts of back-stage roles. The picture that emerges from them could almost form the plot of an Ealing film itself: most (but not all) people felt there was a close family atmosphere (certainly "who you knew" was often a factor in getting through the door); there was a lack of rank in some aspects (but a clear class distinction in others), and general consensus with occasional artistic differences. In the era before health and safety there were near misses from time to time, which can be told quasi-comically now, but were no doubt sometimes more serious. Another theme that emerges from the book is the intransigence of trades unions at the time, doing what would be considered nowadays far more in the area of restrictive practices than could be justified by protecting their members' interests. Indeed, it's implied that Peter Sellers' observations of Ealing technicians while working on The Ladykillers was put to full use later in I'm All Right Jack.

After the war years and the comedic post-war heights of films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and Passport to Pimlico, the studio slowly declined in the 1950s; to some extent this was probably due to its small scale operation, but also to Balcon's limited vision in being prepared to face the future. The site was sold to the BBC and the company was absorbed into MGM. However, after an uncertain period from the 1990s, it's good to note that the studio has survived into the twenty-first century.

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