Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Stargazing Live: Australia

Rare sunshine at Jodrell Bank

On the day that Theresa Mayhem unleashes the hell of triggering Article 50 on the UK, it's good to be served a reminder of how insignificant our country and planet is in the grand scheme of things. And there is nothing like a spot of staring at the heavens to do just that. We are but a microscopic dot amongst billions of stars.

Stargazing Live has temporarily moved to Australia, probably because it's always cloudy and raining at Jodrell Bank, which kind of defeats the object of the programme. Although today it looks like the stargazers have moved directly into the path of Cyclone Debbie instead, which makes your average Manchester rain seem rather tame in comparison.

Plus from Oz you get an angle on the Milky Way that you just can't see from Europe. A scale model of the galaxy shows us where our solar system lies, on a surprising diagonal (which apparently explains why Australia gets a different view to us). Our solar system is the tiniest line on the Milky Way, which is itself just a weeny fraction of the galaxy. And then there's a whole lot more universe after that. As I say, it makes Brexit seem irrelevant. Almost.

It's presented as usual by Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain, who are sitting beside an empty billy can swinging above a campfire. You can reach them on Twitter. The sun is rising over there just as it's setting here. Saturn's rings are on good form, and the last star left in the sky is actually Jupiter. All of which should encourage the audience in its search for the elusive Planet 9 in our solar system. Apparently we aren't done with Pluto - there's another one out there somewhere.

A slightly eccentric stargazer tells us how the Aborigines use the stars to plan their farming. Another shows us how his bald head has come to resemble an observatory, and explains how telescopes don't take photos any more, but instead use fibreoptics to gather data about something I couldn't even begin to understand. Personally, I'm still big on the photographs, because I want to see what's up there and - well, they are rather pretty. Then there's the man who used the radiotelescope to communicate with the doomed Apollo 13 expedition. And then there's a group of people trailing through the blazing desert to try and find a tiny meteorite that has fallen from a comet. They are risking sunburn and dehydration - not to mention spiders, snakes and all sorts of other scary creatures. They can't talk much for fear of swallowing a fly.

But for Dara, trying to release his inner Attenborough (and badly), it's all about the kangaroos. Here they go, the giant "bouncing mice" hopping round and round the observatory. But then he goes and calls Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott "Clint Liftoff". That's what you get for talking too fast. Brilliant.

I highly recommend a visit to Stargazing's usual home at Jodrell Bank, by the way. We went last summer during a trip to Wilmslow. The sheer scale of that telescope is mind-blowing. And it rotates on train tracks. A lot of the Discovery Centre probably went over our reception-age daughter's head (I'd say age 8 plus and you're on to a winner), but she enjoyed a tour of the "history of creation" garden, moving the planets around the sun in a ceiling mobile of the solar system, talking to me through the "whispering dishes", dressing up as an astronaut and making a flag to stick on the moon. I also like to think that some of the interactive science exhibits about black holes in the Space Pavilion may have sunk somewhere into the back of her mind for future reference.

Apparently Brian Cox was on Postman Pat this morning. I wish my daughter wasn't growing up so fast and therewith growing out of CBeebies. I might have to sneakily watch it on iPlayer. Because I sure as hell don't want to see Nigel Farage's gloating face on the news today.

Friday, 24 March 2017


Working south of the river in Lambeth for a few years in my twenties, I used to walk across Westminster Bridge regularly, mostly for a bit of lunchtime exercise. I saw the London Eye being raised out of the river, Portcullis House being built, and the London Marathon run past. It's normally such a beautiful place to be, with the majestic Thames flowing beneath one's feet and really quite glorious architecture all around. Westminster Bridge always felt like a breath of fresh air, a wide boulevard on London's normally choking and congested streets. So it was with total horror that I watched the helicopter camera footage of a grey Hyundai charging along its pavements yesterday, ploughing into pedestrians before crashing into the railings of Parliament. Those lovely wide pavements had been turned into a weapon and used against our capital's citizens and visitors.

Having lived in London in July 2005, I remember the aftermath of a terrorist attack on our city all too well. The shock and disbelief, the sadness, the fear. The relief of a lucky escape for those who knew it could so easily have been them, of which thankfully I was one. But there was also the resolute determination amongst Londoners to rise up, come together and carry on as normal. And I know that London will do this again now, nearly 12 years on. It's a city that will survive anything that is thrown at it.

But the MPs in Parliament angered me yesterday. Not one of them was hurt, but they have made the incident all about them. They were drinking tea and ambling around lobbies in their safe little bubble while over 20 people sustained catastrophic injuries on the street outside. A policeman died protecting the MPs and their self-serving interests. Lucky Theresa May, instantly whisked off in an armoured car, while a man lay bleeding to death at her gates.

"This was an attack on democracy", they cried. Actually, thanks to fast-acting security services, he didn't get that far. The IRA did far more damage to government property and staff. And democracy? Yes, Parliament, that well known democratic institution, where (thanks to the first-past-the-post system) most people's votes don't end up with an MP representing them in the Commons, where the upper chamber's amendments to a bill can just be laughed at, and where we currently have an unelected Prime Minster being puppeteered by Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, meaning she is ignoring half the voting population's wish not to leave the European Union at all. No, this ended up being a dreadful attack on innocent individuals caught up in a horrific situation by a mere twist of fate, and terrible bad luck. Parliament is destroying democracy all by itself.

"No terrorist will divide us", they shouted. No, you are also too busy dividing the country yourselves, by doing nothing to stop the anti-immigrant sentiment and racial hatred in our towns and villages, doing nothing to allay the fears of EU nationals living here with perfect right to do so, doing nothing to appease the devolved nations, doing nothing to make the rich poorer or the poor richer and society more equal, and doing nothing to accept that a 50/50 vote is not a mandate to pursue a hard Brexit at all costs, leaving millions of us too upset for words.

"The emergency services are amazing," they cooed. Well, of course they bloody are. And all the more amazing for managing to keep going while you cripple them of funds and rob them of their morale. Thank goodness that St Thomas's Hospital lies opposite the Houses of Parliament so that medics could be on the scene on foot in seconds. But how many of those injured who had to be transferred further afield were kept lying in ambulances and corridors for hours because there are no spare hospital beds in London?

Think, MPs, of what you were spared. Think of the men and women outside on the street who were killed because he couldn't get to you. And may it make you more humble. You are the privileged ones, and you must never abuse your power.

And London, as ever, I love you. My thoughts and heart are with you today.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Replacement

The Hill House
Glasgow - city whose edges I have merely skirted, en route to the Highlands or Loch Lomond, or the Hill House at Helensburgh. A city I really only know only through the lenses of Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay and Taggart. But now there's this - far from the gritty tenements (but equally far from the school of Rennie Mackintosh) we find a bunch of trendy architects. .

The trendy architects splurge on champagne, have turntables on their drives for their fancy German cars, and live in houses and offices made almost entirely of glass. And you know what they say about people who live in glass houses.

Turntable for a fancy German car

Then one of them (Ellen) gets pregnant, not quite planned, but not properly prevented either. A rash moment, a bit of carelessness: well, we've all been there... (haven't we?)

Ellen is in the middle of a major project designing a library, a concrete cuboid structure that seems to based on a scheme of several Center Parcs chalets stacked skew-whiff on top of each other, with a lot more of that glass and not much thought about where to put the books.

But it's OK, because the architect - pre-Brexit - gets a decent maternity leave allowance (though she is determined not to have much time off post-baby) and is allowed to interview for her replacement.

The job goes to Paula, who is big on mascara and lip gloss, who has got a kid herself but feels finally ready to throw herself back into full-time work.

Paula is very good at her job. Then Ellen goes a bit paranoid on pregnancy hormones and becomes convinced that Paula is only good at her job because she wants to take Ellen's job off her, which is technically illegal. It seems Ellen has a bit of a background of instability and depression. Her husband was her psychiatrist (which surely is technically illegal too)?

But we can all relate to Ellen's fears - is it really possible to have a family and a career? Will she be as capable in her job once she has the baby and has to live without sleep? How much time will she need to take off work when her daughter picks up all the nursery germs so can't go into child care? Can you still look smart enough for an office job when you haven't had time to wash your hair, your clothes are smeared with yogurt and your fingers whiff of poo? And will she be able to give the baby all the love and attention he or she needs when she is expected to stay late at the office for a crisis meeting every other night?

'Young Iggy Peck is an architect
and has been since he was two,
when he built a great tower - in only an hour -
with nothing but nappies and glue.
"Good Gracious, Ignacious!" his mother exclaimed.
"That's the coolest thing I've ever seen!"
But her smile faded fast as a light wind blew past
and she realized those nappies weren't clean!'
(Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts)

The Replacement
reminded me of a former colleague of mine who was, in short, a trouble-making shit. She made everyone's lives a misery with her driven ambition. She was determined to oust the rest of us by sucking up to the boss and highlighting our failings behind our backs. She had no social skills other than bitchy retorts and a nervous laugh, or just sulky silences if she was in a bad mood. Our line managers entirely failed to grasp the situation, so when I had to have a period off sick after an injury, this colleague was chosen to stand in for me. Recovering and still vulnerable, I got back to work to find my office moved into, all the papers on my desk and the icons on my screen lined up with obsessive compulsion, a load of procedures changed without any consultation, and my job virtually taken away from me. It put tremendous pressure on me to have to prove my worth all over again when I was all too aware that I was performing below par.

Paula is also pushy and critical, charms the boss and the library client, tells tall tales, and makes changes to Ellen's designs without running them by her first. But there the similarities end. Because my annoying colleague probably meant well (in that she was just trying to get the work done perfectly) and didn't go round stealing babies or murdering people. For when Ellen's boss falls through a (controversially added) skylight in suspicious circumstances, it suddenly seems that Ellen's fears about Paula may have more than a little grounding.

Paula in fact turns out to be completely bonkers. Though it's not without reason. Her daughter had actually been killed in a hit and run accident a couple of years before. That would send the best of us mad with grief. And convince us of the unfairness of the world. All these people having children who don't treat them well, who don't love them enough, who don't deserve them. So it's no surprise Paula's got a bit of a vendetta against the woman whose maternity leave she is covering, who doesn't understand how lucky she is and who seems determined to put her job first.

It all comes good in the end, more or less. Ellen knows a mean trick with a torch battery and an airbag that allows her to escape from a locked car in a locked garage, Paula is led off in handcuffs, and Ellen finds her stolen baby underneath the skylight in the library and realises just what she could have lost.

Her marriage, however, doesn't recover. And she doesn't go back to work. Not that she seems to be missing much - all they ever did in the office was pout at the glass walls and fart around on Snapchat. So ultimately Ellen ends up with lots of quality time to spend with her daughter, which she seems to spend hanging out at the cemetery.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Where To Invade Next?

Our minor rebellion against Trump's inauguration on Friday was to pick up a DVD we've had out on rental for a while and finally watch it: Michael Moore's Where To Invade Next?

I think that most of the vilified "liberal elite" (for how terrible a thing it is in today's world to be intelligent, well-read and considerate!) probably wish that Michael Moore had been the larger-than-life figure on the podium in Washington becoming the 45th President of the United States instead of the belligerent orange Wotsit we can only hope doesn't kill us all over the next four (or - please no! - eight) years.

The film was made under the Obama administration, when if it weren't for the Republicans blocking every move he made, the country might still have stood a chance. Michael Moore went round (invading) various countries (mostly European) seeking out their best bits to steal, peacefully and politely, to implement back home. For the greater good.

Things like French school dinners, which look fit to serve in a gourmet restaurant. Or Italian paid annual leave, which runs at seven weeks, with an extra 15 days to cover your honeymoon if you get married, and an extra month's pay in December to help fund Christmas. Or the Finnish education system, which doesn't believe in homework and still gets some of the best results in the world. Or Slovenian universities, which don't charge tuition fees (remember when British ones were like that?). Or the notion of work-life balance in Germany, where your doctor can prescribe you a trip to a spa to relieve everyday stress. Or the Norwegian penal system, where prisons are open and the inmates trusted with knives in the kitchen as they work. Or the Icelandic police, who prosecuted and jailed the bankers who had bankrupted the nation in the 2008 global financial crisis, instead of bailing them out. Or the Portuguese police, who don't arrest people for drug offences any more and have seen drug use fall as a result. Or Tunisian women's rights to health care, family planning and parliamentary representation which, you know, exist.

Note that he didn't bother with us. He took nothing from Britain.

America, Moore concluded, had much to learn. Although some of the ideas (appropriate punishment, prosecuting fraudsters) were actually American in origin. They've just lost their way somewhere along the line. No more so than now.

And it made me despair that the British government is now rejecting Europe and all of its brilliant ideas in order to suck up to the lies, mysogyny, extreme right-wing policies and racism of the Trump administration. All because he dangled a little carrot on a stick (yes, little, yes, orange, from the man whose name means fart) and Theresa May is desperate for some sort of trade deal after she makes us turn our backs on the great European Single Market in pursuit of her Daily Mail Brexit. It's disgusting. It's embarassing. It's frightening. How can any of this be happening in 2017?

And given that some countries in Europe have different (and better) laws and rights to Britain, it rather flattens the Leave campaign's argument that Brussels was dictating everything we did and that we needed to "take back control".

So where would my family most like to escape to, once Brexit trashes our lives completely and Trump annexes what's left of the UK as another American state, compounding it with the rising hate crime on our streets, no environmental regulation of what little manufacturing is still functional, and no free health care for anybody?

Well, Finland looked pretty good, with its belief that children should be allowed to just play rather than being trained to perform in standardised tests and nothing more. With our daughter due to sit SATS next year, that has big appeal. She's at a good school which does its utmost to make learning still fun within the draconian confines of Gove's 1950s National Curriculum, but it breaks my heart that she will only get the one childhood, one chance at schooling, and it has to be under this sodding Tory government. Who only care about neat handwriting (when nobody handwrites anything in the real world any more), fractions and archaic grammar rules. (Don't get me wrong, as a linguist I love grammar, but not taught like this.)

We do our best to make sure our daughter does lots of art and play and sport outside of school - things that even Mrs Thatcher let us do in our infant school in the 1970s - but why not go somewhere that just encourages it from the get-go?

Posh hotel: the SAS Radisson Royal

Finland was the first place my husband and I went on holiday together, in 2001. It was also the first place we stayed in a properly posh hotel, as top-end business accommodation in Helsinki sells for half price in July and August, when all the Finns retreat to their summer houses. We had a fun few days exploring the capital and its waterfronts and gardens, and all of its architectural styles - the yellow and white palaces reminiscent of St Petersburg, its orthodox and unorthodox cathedrals, its modern art galleries and colourful art nouveau quarters, the fortress on the island of Suomenlinna and Saarinen's unusual granite railway station. We then caught the catamaran from the South Harbour over to beautiful Tallinn in Estonia for the second half of the week.



...and Unorthodox.

Railway station

Like St Petersburg

Art nouveau

Modern art gallery


Kaivopuisto Park

But I am not sure living so far north, with all that dark in winter and all that light in summer, wouldn't send me just a teensy bit mad.

So where else? Well, those school dinners in France were something else... Scallops, followed by lamb and couscous, followed by creme caramel. They even have a cheese course. How lovely to see kids tucking into a hunk of Camembert with not the red wax husk of a BabyBel or a Cheestring wrapper in sight. It's been much commented on that when they eat out, French kids just eat normal food, unlike their British counterparts, whom restaurants here expect to feed a rotation of fishfingers, beefburgers, chips and pasta in tomato sauce ad infinitum. Although our brats' fussiness seems to be infiltrating across the Channel these days - in Annecy last year it seemed every restaurant offered a menu enfant at vastly inferior gastro quality to the dishes on the a la carte.

Lake Annecy lunch

And if Marine Le Pen wins the Presidency, France will become as much of a no-go destination as the US.

So is it time to make my husband learn German? Angela Merkel has an open-door policy for refugees, but by the time Theresa May, Boris Johnson and David Davis have finished offending her in their failed Brexit negotiations, I doubt very much that will include the British.

The hardest thing is knowing that just as we want to go and live somewhere else in Europe, we will no longer have the right to.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


Well, it's been a while. Brexit, Theresa May's incompetent government, Labour's utterly ineffectual Opposition to the incompetent government, and now the prospect of Donald Trump becoming US President this week have made me lose enthusiasm for pretty much everything, and this blog is one casualty. It's no longer fit for purpose. Times have changed. I don't want to watch television because I don't want to see the news. I don't want to travel anywhere because the pound is worth peanuts and I am embarrassed to be associated with a country that has become xenophobic in spades, bullied and dictated to by the right-wing press, and is now overrun with people too ignorant to spot the lies they are being drip-fed.

So I need to change tack, and write something more appropriate for the times, or something that might actually do some good. I am still mulling over ideas.

But a documentary last week about a London NHS trust, filmed at St Mary's hospital in Paddington, London, made me angry enough to seek an online outlet to rant. And this is currently the only one I have.

There is no escaping the fact that the NHS is currently in dire straits. Theresa May and Jeremy (cough)-Hunt may claim otherwise as they sing "lalala" with their fingers in their ears before cutting off more money and handing out more private contracts to Richard Branson, but the rest of us can see it's cash-starved and desperate. Nobody wants to get ill ever, but now there is little guarantee of speedy or safe treatment if we do.

They may be contemplating (or actually) leaving in droves, but right now, the NHS is still staffed by brilliant, caring doctors and nurses. But it's bloody difficult getting to see them. And this documentary showed why. Two highly experienced and skilled surgeons with two urgent patients to treat, and yet both were kept waiting for hours by managers trying to secure each an intensive care bed, none of which were available in the hospital. So the surgeons just sat around, scrubbed up and ready to go, for hours, waiting and waiting. One eventually got to operate, on a lady from Norfolk with a ruptured aorta. The other, treating a man with an oesophageal tumour, had to wait until the next day. So these surgeons were effectively paralysed, unable to attend to more routine matters, or perhaps see outpatients or catch up on paperwork, because they were on call, waiting for the go-ahead. They were frustrated and cross and tired, and had been at the hospital for hours before the operations were finally allowed to take place late in the day, all of which surely has to compromise patient safety. Seeing clinical experts sitting around DOING NOTHING, wasting all their years of training and and practice and research was beyond farcical. It was utterly maddening. All because the government won't give the hospital any more money to open up more intensive care beds.

And there were no beds anywhere else in the hospital either. People were unable to go anywhere, even if they didn't need to be in hospital any more, because there's no money to fund social care either. Managers were sitting in meetings seriously debating whether it was acceptable to turn endoscopy suites into makeshift wards, or to lie adult patients alongside children in the paediatrics unit. The lack of beds meant routine operations were being cancelled to allow for emergency life-saving operations to take place, thus causing delays further down the waiting lists for those with long-term but less urgent needs. Possibly then making them become urgent. And when serious cancer treatments and surgery get delayed, it reduces their chance of success. Everything just gets worse, people need more treatment, and the whole system grinds to a halt.

The Red Cross has likened the state of Britain's NHS to the humanitarian crisis of a warzone or a Third World country. How can this be happening? The NHS has never had everything it needs, it's never been performing as well as it could, and there undoubtedly has to be major changes to how it operates and how it is paid for, but to deliberately starve it of funds like this, ready to usher in some American style privatisation, is beyond despicable. This government just does not care. As long as rich Tory MPs can get to see their private GPs and consultants, as long as City bankers have their health insurance schemes, they will never give a shit about anyone else. Welcome to Brexit Britain, which sold itself on a lie and a false bribe about the NHS on the back of a bus.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Rillington Place and Back In Time To Brixton

Two programmes revealing Notting Hill's murky past. Now its plush white porticos house millionaire financiers, famous spin doctor politicians and massive basement conversions, but once, long before Hugh Grant set foot in its doors, it was such an impoverished, dingy and dismal place to live that it wasn't even remotely near the tip of the radar of "up and coming". It was wrecked, miserable, and racist.

And never more so as when Reg Christie and his wife Ethel moved down from Sheffield in the 1940s, to make a fresh start on their marriage after Reg had been AWOL for nine years, eventually turning up doing time for crimes unspecified. He claims Notting Hill is up and coming. But he's a big fat liar.

He's also a voyeur, a philanderer and a murderer. Strangely incongruous with the shuffling, mumbling, balding, bespectacled moper he appears to be. He is repressed with palpable tension, yet his morose, put-upon wife merely shrugs as she comes across yet another blood-stained mattress, or sees him digging a shallow grave next to a rosebush. It's so dark in the house thanks to the wartime black-out that it's hard to see or be sure of anything. There is an eerie atmosphere, threatening hallucination, uncertainty and death. Ethel gets cross if she finds Reg flirting with a prostitute or a lady visitor, but her anger soon collapses into terror when Reg finally lashes out, nearly strangling her over the kitchen sink. Ethel runs away to her brother's, but a niggling, pleading letter from Reg makes her return, only to find the coat of a missing woman hanging in the hall.

The story begins with a hanging too - and this man's story is still to be told. More next week.

The family in Back In Time to Brixton are later to arrive in Notting Hill, attending the carnival in 1999, the last year of their journey tracing the story of a typical Jamaican family in London arriving on the Windrush in 1948. Their first night in London is in even less desirable accommodation than Rillington Place (though at least it doesn't come with its own murderer) - an underground bunker near Clapham South tube station that had been used as an air raid shelter in the war. It's already equipped with rickety bunk beds and a bucket, which is all the authorities think people need. That and corned beef. Thankfully soon the family can move into a poky one-room bedsit, and then gradually work their way up through life and jobs in Brixton. But the struggles and attitudes the families faced in London, the xenophobia and mistrust, the outright abuse, make me wonder if Britain has learned nothing in the past sixty years. The tabloid headlines of the Sun in the sixties echo those of anti-migrant stance seen in the Mail and Express today. It's shocking, despicable and depressing.

The Irwins are as interesting and entertaining as the Robshaws last year, only a bit cooler, and definitely better dancers. The dad has even been on Gladiators. Brixton, like Notting Hill, has changed immeasurably since the arrival of the Windrush generation. At the far end of the Victoria Line, the tube station now blasts out classical music to keep the hooded teenage hoodlums away. It was a short bus ride from my house in Clapham, but I usually only ended up there to see a gig at the Academy (Belle and Sebastian, Starsailor, and James' great reformation in 2007) or a film at the Ritzy. I suppose I had my own prejudices: memories of the news footage of the riots in the 1980s, that the shops and bars were better (or at least more convenient) on my doorstep in Clapham, or that Brixton was just too busy.

And speaking of busy, 1999 was coincidentally the only year I went to the Notting Hill carnival. I had a lovely time eating jerk chicken and fried plantain at the street food stalls, listening to the steel bands, and cheering on the colourful floats and befeathered, whirling dancers. Such a fabulous, life-affirming, vibrant, energetic sight. Until I decided it was time to head home to Clapham and realised there was about a million people between me and the nearest open tube station; the entire million seemingly moving in the opposite direction to me. The crowds meant I never could face going back. But it was fun while it lasted.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Great Canal Journeys

Loch Eil and Loch Linnhe

Another series from the wonderful Timothy and Prunella. Floppy hats, lots of whisky and wine, and the following of dreams.

Two of the series were dedicated to crossing Scotland, with not a narrow boat in sight. The first episode travelled the length of the Caledonian Canal, seeking out Nessie along the way, and passing through the locks of Neptune's Staircase near Fort William before heading out to the open sea.
Very dark - Neptune's Staircase

Last night Tim and Pru started in Balamory, ahem, Tobermory on Mull, where I was disappointed to see that Archie's castle isn't actually pink. They then braved (but were defeated by) treacherous seas on the crossing to Iona, eventually having to resort to the heaving and tilting Caledonian McBrayne ferry instead, the only local vessel strong enough to withstand the waves. On Iona, stranded by the storm, they reflected on this important place of pilgrimage. Once the weather improved, and after bypassing a terrifying looking whirlpool, they crossed the Crinnan Canal by puffer ship to Loch Fyne. Fresh lobster on board, but not an oyster in sight.


We made our own pilgrimage to Iona in 1995, to see John Smith's grave. Thankfully the ferry crossing was smooth, the journey made only mysterious by mist. If nothing else, this series always serves to remind me that life is short, memories may not last, that a loving partner should be cherished forever, and that seeking out harmless pleasures on a daily basis is possibly the secret to a happy existence.