Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: History

Tuesday November 13 2018

With blogging, excellence is the enemy of adequacy, and often what you think will be excellence turns out not to be.

Eight days ago now, Patrick Crozier and I had one of our occasional recorded chats, about transport this time.  Train privatisation, high speed trains and maglevs, robot cars, that kind of thing.  I think it was one of our better ones.  We both had things we wanted to say that were worth saying, and both said them well, I think.  Patrick then did the editing and posting on the www of this chat in double quick time, and I could have given it a plug here a week ago.  If I have more to say about transport, I can easily do other postings.  But, I had some stupid idea about including a picture, and some other stuff, which would all take far too long, and the simple thing of supplying the link to this chat here was postponed, and kept on being postponed.

Usually, this kind of thing doesn’t matter.  So, I postpone telling you what I think about something.  Boo hoo.  But this time I really should have done better.

There.  All that took about one minute to write.  I could have done this far sooner.  Apologies.

Sunday November 11 2018

Yesterday, I went on a shopping expedition which involved boarding a train at Charing Cross, which I planned to reach by going first to St James’s Park tube.

The first of the photos below (1.1) is of a taxi, parked close to where I live, with some sort of poppy related advert on it.  I like to photo taxis covered in adverts.  Temporariness, the passing London scene, will get more interesting as the years pass, blah blah.

Then, in Strutton Ground, just this side of Victoria Street, I encountered two besuited gentlemen wearing military berets and medals.  I photoed them both, with their permission, and I post one of these photos here (1.2), also with their permission.  Sadly, the other photo didn’t come out properly.

It was only at this point that I realised that, the following day (i.e. today) being Remembrance Sunday and what’s more the exact one hundredth anniversary of the Armistice of November 1918, London in the Westminster Abbey area would already be awash with Remembrance Sunday photo-ops.  My shopping could wait a while, and I turned right down Victoria Street.

The seven other photos below mostly involve small wooden crosses and dead autumn leaves - autumn 2018 arrived at Peak Dead Leaf yesterday - but they also include another poppy related advert, this time on a the side of a bus (3.3), which I photoed in Parliament Square:

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Sadly, the plasticated documents referring to “British Nuclear Test Veterans” (2.1) were insufficiently plasticated to resist the effects of the rain.  It began to rain some more when I was arriving at Charing Cross station and it did not stop for several hours, so I’m guessing these lists suffered further rain damage.  It’s odd how little sadnesses like this stick in your mind, in amongst the bigger sadnesses being remembered.

The autumn-leaves-among-crosses photos, all taken outside Westminster Abbey, are but a few of a million such that must have been taken over this weekend, in London and in many other places.  Is it proper to include two mere advert photos, even if they are poppy related adverts, in such poetically symbolic and dignified company?  I chose to do this because one of the things I find most interesting about these Remembrance remembrances is that, as each year of them passes, they don’t seem to be getting any smaller.  People still want remember all this stuff, even though all the veterans of World War 1 are now gone.  Hence the adverts.  If the adverts didn’t get results, they’d not be worth their cost.

As to why these remembrances continue to be remembered, and by such huge numbers of people, year after year, I think one reason is that each political tribe and faction can each put their own spin on the sad events being remembered, but in the privacy of their own minds.  For some political partisans, these ceremonies and symbols are a chance to wallow in the pageantry of patriotism.  For others, they are an opportunity to rebuke such nationalists, for stirring up the kinds of hostility that might provoke a repeat of the sad events being remembered.  “Patriotism” and “nationalism” being the words used to salute, or to denounce, the exact same sentiments.  But declaring red poppies to be a warning that the defence budget should be increased, or that they are anti-Trump and anti-Brexit symbols that Trump supporters and Brexiteers have no right to wear, would be too vulgar and partisan, so on the whole this kind of vulgarity and partisanship is not indulged in, not out loud.

The phenomenon of the political meeting where all present hear the same words but where each understands them to mean different things – I’m thinking of such words as “Britain”, “freedom”, “democracy” and “common sense” – has long fascinated me.  Remembrance ceremonies remind me, on a larger scale, of such meetings.  I attended many such little political meetings myself before I decided that mainstream politics was not for me, and switched to libertarianism, where meanings are spelt out and arguments are had rather than avoided.

For less obsessively political people, Remembrance ceremonies and symbols are simply an opportunity to reflect on the sadness of history in general, and in particular the sadness of the premature deaths of beloved ancestors – or, perhaps worse – hardly known-about ancestors.  We can at least all agree that premature death, in whatever circumstances, is a sad thing to contemplate.  And until young men entirely cease from dying in wars, Remembrance Sunday will continue to be, among other things, a meaningfully up-to-date event.

And so, year after year, these ceremonies continue.  Will this year’s anniversary come to be regarded as Peak Remembrance?  We shall see.

Saturday November 03 2018

Seen recently on Facebook:

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I like all the reflections in the background.  And what happens to the guy’s head.  Real Photographers tend to avoid all that stuff. I seek it out.

Is this a reference to Brexit, Trump etc., or am I reading too much into this?

I have just been contacted by Christian Michel for the title of my annual 6/20 talk at the beginning of next year.  I kept him waiting for a day, because I wanted to get this more right than I would have if I had just dashed off a reply in a few minutes.  But the job got done, as best I could manage.

Here it is: “The difficulty and the ease of the making of and the distribution of cultural objects: A history of human civilisation in three layers”.

Does that explain itself?  It doesn’t?  Maybe you should attempt to attend.  Maybe I’ll write it out beforehand, read it out on the night (that often works very well), and post it here.

Friday November 02 2018

I do like Dezeen.  Mostly it’s just Posh Modernism, but every so often it reports on something a lot more interesting.

Like: what is now the world’s tallest statue, four times the size of the Statue of Liberty, recently erected in Gujarat state, India.

This looks for all the world like it’s Photoshopped, but it truly isn’t:

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Vallabhbhai Patel (31 October 1875 – 15 December 1950), popularly known as Sardar Patel, was an Indian politician who served as the first Deputy Prime Minister of India. He was an Indian barrister and statesman, a senior leader of the Indian National Congress and a founding father of the Republic of India who played a leading role in the country’s struggle for independence and guided its integration into a united, independent nation. ...

Prediction: a Global Big Statue Race.

Thursday November 01 2018

In this:

Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook have a combined market capitalization of $3.7 trillion, equal to Germany’s gross domestic product last year.

Quoted at Instpundit by Stephen Green, who says that this is an “incredible figure”.  It certainly is very big, if that’s what “incredible” means, when you are describing a very big number.

I recall speculating here (by quoting Bill Bryson) that a reason why Modernism is so monochromatic is that there was a time about a hundred years ago when the two hardest colours to get right in painted form, and hence the two most modern colours, were: black; and: white.

Early, monochrome photography was also a big reason for architectural modernity not to care about colour.  The most modern buildings were the ones that looked like black and white photos.

This has been a long time changing, but changing it finally is.  There was Renzo Piano, and his brightly coloured buildings near Centre Point in London.  And now here comes this, by Jean Nouvel:

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It’s the right hand of the two towers that I’m concerned with here, not with the other tower, or not with the crane or the bridge, bonuses though the latter two undoubtedly are.

Jean Nouvel has tricked his tower out in red, white and blue.  It’s in Marseille, and is called La Marseillaise.

My immediate reaction is: a bit of a mess.  Looks like he did this with three cans of spray paint, and in about twenty seconds.  But, if I got to see it in the flesh, with all the complexities of the detailing, I might well like it a lot.

But my opinion about the beauty or lack of it of this building is beside my point, which is that colour is finally creeping into fashion, as part of architectural modernity.

It has taken a long time, because architectural fashion always does take a long time.  This is because architects, unlike more regular artists, peak very late, a bit like classical conductors and for the same reason.  Which is that architects (like conductors), in order to peak, have to be very powerful, by which I mean, liked and supported and paid for by lots of other powerful people.  Powerful people tend to be old.

And sure enough, when I looked up the architect of this tricoloured tower, Jean Nouvel, I learned that his is now 73, having been born in 1945.  In other words, he is now entering the architectural promised land, that land being where he can design buildings exactly as he pleases, and the clients build them and reckon themselves lucky to have got him.

I could now add other coloured modernism photos, and make further points about why this trend is now happening, and happening so powerfully.  But the trick with blogging is to keep it brief, and if a subject matters to you, to come back to it again and again, while linking back to earlier pieces make the same big point.

So, expect plenty more here about coloured architectural modernity.

Tuesday October 30 2018

A year ago I did a posting about Twentytwo Bishopsgate, which is about to be the tallest Big Thing in the City of London Big Thing Clump.  It featured this explanatory image of what was then about to happen to that Big City Clump:

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I’m not sure what the current status of “1 Undershaft” is just now, which is potentially the biggest Big City Thing of the lot.  I seem to recall reading that there were delays.  The internet now seems rather coy about this project.  22 Bishopsgate, however, is roaring upwards.

And no photo I have so far taken of 22 Bishopsgate illustrates the scale of this roar better than this one, which I took yesterday, when on my way from Angel to the City, which means that I was approaching the Big City Clump from a northerly direction:

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What we see there is what used to be one of the City’s biggest Big Things, the NatWest Tower, or “Tower 42” as they now want us to call it.  Behind it, dwarfing it, still not as big as it will be, is 22 Bishopsgate.

When I took this photo, such is my eyesight that I wasn’t sure if I was looking at the actual Tower 42, or a reflection of it in the glass surface of 22 Bishopsgate.  It just seemed too small to be the actual Big Thing itself.  But clearly, it is.

In the graphic above with all the names, Tower 42 is now so small and so antique that it doesn’t even get named.  It’s the dark one on the left, behind where it says “Mitsubishi Tower”.

Sunday October 28 2018

Recently I and Patrick Crozier visited the Grafton Arms.  I rather like this pub.  These guys also like this pub, because of the Goon Show.  Apparently the Goons wrote some of their scripts there, in an upstairs room.

A fact commemorated by this mirror behind the bar, which I only noticed on this visit:

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If you look carefully there, you can see me and my camera.  Well, it is a mirror.  I should have tried to include Patrick.

What took Patrick and me to the Grafton Arms was that we had just been doing one of our recorded conversations, and we needed refreshment.  Tune in to the latest one, by going here.

My favourite of these conversations so far has been the one we did about WW1, concerning which Patrick is something of an expert.  Our next, or so I hope, will be about transport, concerning which Patrick is also something of an expert.

Thursday October 25 2018

Remember those performing horses of Warwick Castle, galloping up and down on a thin rectangular arena, telling the story of the Wars of the Roses.  Course you do.  I showed you a spread of photos of them, but wasn’t that impressed with how those photos came out.

Well, after the show, all of us friends and family of one of the performers went backstage, so to speak, to shake hands with the guys in their armour and to say hello also to the horses.

And the photos I took of the horses seemed to me rather better:

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It helped that the horses were standing still.  It also helped that the background was much easier to choose and mostly looked quite different from the horses heads.

I also prefer the way horses look when they aren’t wearing complicated costumes.  There’s nothing like quite like a horse, unclothed, in sunshine.

That hoods that a couple of the horses are wearing are not cruel.  They’re to keep the flies off their eyes.

The actual war horses that fought the Wars of the Roses would have been a lot stockier and heavier than these horses.  These ones are retired race horses.  Which is okay, because they are actors.

Tuesday October 23 2018

I tried to put together a more complicated posting about, well, wait and see.  But it is taking too long, so here is something simpler.

A favourite blogger of mine is Mick Hartley, who oscillates between the insanities of the anti-semites and the Islamists (heavy overlap there) and photos.  Photos by himself, and by others.

The photos by others are often antique and black and white.  His photos are in colour, and they are typically very colourful indeed, especially when the sky is very blue

Colour is an obsession of Hartley’s, both when it is present, and when it is not.

Here is a photo I recently took, which is the sort of photo Mick Hartley would take, if he ever went West:

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That’s the Victoria and Albert Museum, unless I am mistaken (as I might well be), photoed by me from the big old road that goes from the Albert Hall (and more to the point from the Royal College of Music, where GodDaughter 2 had been performing) down to South Kensington Tube.  This I know, because of a photo I took of a street map, moments after taking my Hartleyesque photo above:

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That being the relevant detail.  I never regret map photos.

By the look of it, the V&A is a building I should explore.  Especially its upper reaches.  Maybe there are views.

Saturday October 20 2018

Again with the maybe-betrayed-confidence-but-I-hardly-think-so routine.  Michael Jennings tells me and whoever else he told, on Facebook, that he liked this Forbes piece, about how Digital Currencies And Credit Cards Have Subways To Thank For Their Existence.

Quote:

The following century ...

… i.e. the twentieth century …

… saw an explosion in urban populations, and a requisite growth in the world’s railway network, but this was not accompanied by a substantial changes in the world of ticketing. Manually-operated entry gates to train stations had slowly become more common, but most public transport passengers continued to rely on bits of paper – or occasionally, metal tokens – to get around their city.

In 1950s London, this was starting to cause problems. The Tube network was bigger and busier than ever, which prompted operators to consider installing automated gates, like those in NYC. “We knew that this would help ease congestion, but it was complicated by the fact that London has always had fares based on distance,” Shashi Verma, Chief Technology Officer of Transport for London (TfL), told me, “Standard metal tokens weren’t an option.” So, the then-named London Transit Authority started looking at alternatives. The result, which was released to the world in 1964, was the printed magnetic stripe. The idea of using magnetism to store information had been around since the late 1800s, and magnetic tape was patented in 1928 by audio engineer Fritz Pfeulmer. But transport was its very first ‘real-world’ application. A full decade before the now-ubiquitous black/brown magnetic stripe was added to a single bank card, it was printed onto millions of tickets for the London Underground.

I miss Transport Blog.  The old link to it no longer works, and it would appear that it is no more.

Friday October 19 2018

Over the summer, a friend of mine was performing in a show at Warwick Castle about the Wars of the Roses.  And early last August a gang of her friends and family went there to see this, me among them.  It was a great show, albeit wall-to-wall Tudor propaganda, and a great day out.

Warwick Castle is quite a place, being one of Britain’s busiest visitor attractions.  It’s No 9 on this list.

I of course took a ton of photos, and in particular I photoed the horses in this show, the crucial supporting actors, you might say.  The stage was out of doors, of course, and long and thin, the audience on each side being invited to support each side in the wars.  Long and thin meant that the horses had room to do lots of galloping.

None of the photos I took were ideal, but quite a few were okay, if okay means you get an idea of what this show was like:

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The basic problem, I now realise, is that the horse heads were at the same level as the audience on the opposite side to my side.  As Bruce the Real Photographer is fond of saying, when photoing people, you start by getting the background right.  And I guess he’d say the same of horses.  Well, this time, for these horses, I’m afraid I didn’t.

So it was a case of nice legs, shame about the faces.  (That link is to a pop song from my youth, the chorus of which glued itself to my brain for ever.  I particularly like the bit where they sing: “Shame about the boat race”.)

I recommend the show’s own Real Photographer, for better photos, potted biogs of the leading historic characters, and a little bit about the enterprise that did this show.

Thursday October 18 2018

Russell Roberts, Tweeting in response to a Tweet that has vanished, but it’s still worth quoting:

If you think the economy is a zero-sum game and getting rich makes people poor, you have trouble explaining the last 250 years. That wealth can be created and not just rearranged or come at someone’s expense is so basic but may be the single most important insight of economics.

I prefer “fixed-sum” to “zero-sum”, but otherwise, my sentiments exactly.

I am not now Tweeting, merely perusing the Tweets of others.  If I were Tweeting, this would be a Tweet.

Tuesday October 16 2018

I’ve asked it before and I’ll ask it again.  Why do I regard most of Modern Art as silly, yet relish real world objects which resemble Modern Art?  Objects like this:

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The above photo was taken on The last really fine day of 2018, just minutes after I had taken the one in that earlier posting.

You don’t need to go to an exhibition of sloppily painted abstract art, when the regular world contains wondrous looking objects like that.  And what is more, they are wondrous looking objects which have worthwhile purposes.  This wondrous object is for supporting and protecting workers as they work on a building.

Here is how that same scaffolding looked, unwrapped, about a month earlier:

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I particular enjoy how the sky changes colour, in my camera, when a big white Thing is inserted into the picture.  (This afternoon, I encountered this, by Real Photographer Charlie Waite.  Same effect.)

Thank you to the (to me) invaluable PhotoCat, for enabling me to crop both of the above photos in a way that makes them more alike in their scope and which thereby points up the differences.  I’m talking about the invaluable Crop But Keep Proportions function that PhotoCat has, but which PhotoStudio (my regular Photoshop(clone)) 5.5 seems not to offer.  (I would love to be contradicted on that subject.)

Despite all my grumblings about how silly most Modern Art is, I do nevertheless greatly like the way that this Big Thing (the Reichstag) looks in the pride-of-place photo featured in this BBC report, an effect which presumably makes use of the same sort of technology as we see in my photo, but on a vastly grander scale:

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I have to admit that this is several orders of magnitude more impressive than my scaffolding.  (Maybe that was the last really fine day of 1994.) My scaffolding looks lots better than some badly painted little abstract rectangle in an Art gallery, but it’s not nearly as effective as the Reichstag, as wrapped by Christo and Partner.

Because this Big Wrapped Thing was so very big, and because it is such a very interesting shape, it really does look like it added greatly to Berlin, in that summer of 1994.  I entirely understand why all those people assembled to gaze at it.  Had I been anywhere in the vicinity, I would have too.  And had there been digital cameras then, I would have taken numerous photos, as would thousands of others.  Thus giving permanence to this vast piece of temporariness.

Because, what I also like about this Reichstag wrapping is that, just like my scaffolding, and just like all the other wrapping done by Wrapper Christo and his Lady Sidekick, it is temporary.  That BBC report calls it Pop-Up Art, and it is of the essence of its non-annoyingness that any particular piece of Pop-Up Art by Christo will soon be popping down again.

This Reichstag wrapping happened in 1994, but is now long gone.  Did you disapprove of what Christo and his lady did to the Reichstag?  You just had to wait it out.  Soon, it would be be gone.

Do you think scaffolding, especially when wrapped, is ugly?  Ditto.