Autumn Moves

Autumn with leaves turning, nights closing in, and chilly damp rain, and we're moving house. I've never liked moving house, and I try and do it as little as possible. My father essentially moved house twice in his life: once as a child to the house where he grew up, took home my mother after they married and later me from the hospital, and once again to the apartment where he and my mother now live since I moved out of the house after university. That move was, on the other hand, the first time I moved, and I moved into a tiny one-room studio that contained everything that a young person needed: a bed, a single-burner stove, a refrigerator, a wine rack, and lots and lots of books and music. It was an easy move from that place to a larger apartment where I got a dog, more books and music, and a proper kitchen. I began to earn money and start travelling on my own, which is I think where the problems began. When one has money one tends to buy things, and when one travels one cannot help but bring home a few things; or, in my case, a few crates. I began a period when I became obsessed with collecting things: 'collecting' is a polite way of describing buying more of a thing than one actually needs. I collected antique clocks, Burmese bells, snuff bottles, every issue of Vogue and Vanity Fair, mechanical cameras, art books, and, of course, books and music. My CD collection became so sprawling and disorganised that I took them out of their cases and stacked them on spindles, slotted them into vinyl folders, or simply piled them on top of the stereo, and still they multiplied like rabbits. Things took a turn for the worse when I began collecting records: not vinyl, but shellac 78s, four minutes to a side, which meant that a complete symphony took up a fairly large amount of shelf space. It was only when I ran out of shelf space for the shellacs and the wind-up gramophones that I turned to vinyl. I moved into another apartment but didn't sell the previous one until much later, which meant that I had two apartments' worth of stuff that I tried to fit into every available nook and cranny: in my spare time I envisaged an ingenious method of shelving that would hang from the ceiling, ready to bury me in a torrent of pages and polycarbonate if there ever were an earthquake.

I don't know how people can have clutter-free, immaculately neat homes that look like modern art galleries, with just a few tasteful books on the bookshelf, just enough to make room for a framed photograph and an appropriately ugly souvenir from India or Africa. What happens when they buy a sixth book: does the least favourite of the five on the shelf one get kicked off the island and binned? Where do they keep their music? What do they do with the bank statements, gas bills, tenancy agreements, vehicle registrations, and other paperwork that begs to be tossed but can't be because some officious idiot in the future will want proof of one's continued existence? I think that these people are aliens, or at the very least spies who are living undercover. The thought of living without stuff horrifies me, just as the jumble of my living-room probably horrifies them.

My father continually laments the few items he lost during the move to the apartment. 'I had an Omega pocket adding machine,' he tells me. 'And a Rolex wind-up watch, the first thing that I bought after saving up my first paycheque. A galenium crystal for a radio. All gone now.' Only three things? I can think of about twenty books alone that I can't find after three moves; and that's just the books, and the ones that I can think of. I'm sure I lost much more than I don't even now remember having. I've been in this flat for three years, an eternity by London rental's standards. 'Wow, you've been here a long time,' all the letting agents say. I think forty years, which is how long my father lived in the house where I was born, is a long time. But in London anyone who hasn't bought a house yet is essentially nomadic, setting up camp, making a home, and then packing up and moving on. They do it on a cycle not dissimilar to changing one's mobile after the eighteen month contract is up: and before smartphones and automatic address book downloading, each new phone meant going through one's contact list and winnowing. 'Good God, I can't believe I still have his number. Should I keep it just in case he calls so that I know it's him and don't pick up by accident? Probably not.'

And so it must be with things, especially for a sideways move to a flat of similar proportions. Winnowing, like planting rice, is never fun. Just as one of Christianity's best inventions was Purgatory, where you were neither damned nor saved but held in a holding pattern, there should be one for things: the oubliette where the I may need this someday/I don't want to throw this away/I'll really offend so-and-so if I throw this away stuff can hide in crepuscular eternity. So tomorrow I'm off to Oxfam and hope that the person who gets my windowpane check tweed coat will love it as much as I did when I first bought it, or that the person who picks up my books will will do so with the same gasp of delight as I did when I first found them.

I wouldn't describe myself as a materialistic person: just one who is attached to many, many things. 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' What a wonderful idyll! What if that sentence read: 'In a vast echoey white space with halogen lamps and glass walls there paced a hobbit', would not the Shire seem less the idea of Home? No, no: I want a round door and a cosy curvy space full of comfort and familiarity; and once entrenched I am loath to leave.


Sunday Night with the LSO

It's taken me a while to warm up to the London Symphony Orchestra. I know that they're supposed to be the top orchestra in Britain at the moment, but I've always preferred the more intimate, family-like atmosphere that the Philharmonia exudes. There was a point when I was at the Royal Festival Hall so often that I started noticing when the flautists changed hairdos, and watched as the one cellist got more and more pregnant by the week and then disappeared. I finally realised what the problem was with the LSO: it's that by the time you get around to commuting to the Barbican from south-west London by tube and walking through the wind tunnel that leads to the Silk Street entrance, I'm in an irretrievably bad mood. Going to the Festival Hall is a few stops down the District Line, with any slack time easily taken up by a stroll along the South Bank, and a quick slurp at Wagamama before the doors open. Outside the Barbican is the City after hours, a post-apocalyptic wasteland where everything is shut and there are no taxis. Inside is the bare concrete madhouse maze from the decade of bad architecture, an overpriced cafe, and fairly rancid toilets.

But I was swayed by Sir Colin Davis's Sibelius 5 last October, when Arabella Steinbacher made her LSO debut; I was initially unimpressed by the idea of yet another lissome violinist making her mark with the predictable choice of the Beethoven violin concerto; but it was an above-average performance. And the Sibelius was nothing short of sublime. This evening I sat through a contemporary piece by a certain Helmut Lachenmann that no human being should be subjected to, those who have paid to be there. The payoff was Maurizio Pollini, who I decided I had better see before he shuffles off or retires in a wave of unobtainable tickets like Alfred Brendel. The sound that the LSO made in that space was at least as good as that of the Vienna Philharmonic I had heard there just a few months ago, and there was an arc of electricity that ran from the rich timbre of the strings to Pollini to Eötvos at the podium. It was a three star concert, and, as the Guide Michelin would say, vaut le detour.


The Mirror Over the Fireplace

Am I a bit of a voyeur if I like looking in people's windows? There's a row of very posh houses that I pass on my way home from the supermarket, and I peer like the little match girl into the very proper homes of the well-heeled, their Jaguars parked out in front. In the living-rooms the bookcases are stacked high against a pale-hued wall, and I am as amazed by their conspicuous display of good taste as I am by the immaculate neatness of the scene compared to the chaos of my own flat. I always blame it on having too little space, but I know that even if I were to be bequeathed a manor house (by that relative I've never heard of who lives in it, of course) I would probably have fifteen Georgian rooms of mess rather than my current (non-Georgian) one.

The living-rooms follow a common pattern, dictated by the layout of the main space around a central hearth, which, because it is central London, is not used but is focal point of the room, adorned sometimes with the traditional grate and screen. Above it is the mantel, almost never with the usual triumvirate of clock and candelabra, but with something like an rough-hewn sculpture to demonstrate both cosmopolitanism and vaguely leftist liberal leanings. But above the fireplace is traditionally where either a prized work of art is hung, or, more significantly, a mirror, so that as the family was gathered around the hearth, they would simultaneously see a framed portrait of themselves as a family unit.

But more and more these days, it is becoming the most logical place to put a flatscreen television set. It's about the same size as the mirror used to be, you don't have to use up another wall for it, and it allows the living-room to retain its function as the primary living space in the house, since after dinner everyone inevitably ends up watching television, after all. But replacing the reflexive nature and significance of a mirror with something that by its nature requires one to be passive (this is not an indictment of television: I am in love with the medium) gives a primacy to the television set that almost requires it to be on; otherwise there is just a grey lump above the mantel. And interestingly this layout is replicated in new housing that is built without wood-burning fireplaces. I haven't invaded enough living-rooms in tropical countries but my general observation is that they are radial in focus, concentrated around a space defined by a sofa and armchairs, in the centre of which may be a coffee-table or rug.

I am obsessing over this not just because I'm mourning the death of the mirror over the mantelpiece, but because I'm wondering how to insert a 40-inch flatscreen television into the carefully-ordered chaos of my living-room. And because I would die several times over rather than have the sound anything but centred correctly, this means that speakers and cables have to be positioned accordingly. The only place that makes sense is to have it clustered around the fireplace, and that would means that the screen would go where the mirror is now: and the Girl in the Mirror would never let that happen.


Summer sounds

CD is certainly taking a long time to die. It's just a little older than I am, and the lifespan of a person is a long time to be using one format these days, though it can be argued that many lived and died during the heyday of the phonograph, which, despite the loud cries of protest this statement is no doubt eliciting from the rafters, is over. Not that the vinyl record is dead, but its heyday is over, and it's people like myself who like obsolete technology who are enamoured with it. Unless you're a hi-fi nut with an SME V tonearm and a Kontrapunt moving-coil cartridge and Whest phonostage. Now they, they're just showing off.

I grew up with CD, but there was enough old tape technology lying around the house for me to unravel, literally, by pulling out bunches of magnetic tape from cassettes to see how much of it there was in there. No matter how much Dolby noise reduction you applied to it, cassette tape technology was absolutely beastly, even when you sprung for exotic type IV chemistry. They snapped. They melted in the heat. They hissed like a feral cat. It's cassette tapes in particular that irk me, with their thin ribbons unspooling and knotting themselves; I love my 1/4 inch open reel recorder, and understand the role of studio master tapes in the production process.

The heyday of CD coincided with the time I was at school, coming of age, and being utterly defined by music. The only thing that mattered more than being cool was being unconventional, so no bestselling pop hits from the main floor for me. In Tower Records, which was where one went to get music, I would haunt the top floors and, in those days before listening stations, take a chance on a band with nice cover art for no other reason than that it was the only copy there. High school couplings, or at least flirtations and possibilities, were predicated on music. We didn't have to have to same taste in music, but we had to have the same taste for music. The same lust for music, for it to become utterly the moment, and take charge of your soul, et cetera. I couldn't imagine dating a guy who didn't have that lust; and I remember a summer afternoon with a McIntosh amp, the meters' needles rising and falling and peaking in a wonderfully graphic metaphor. I remember the amp but not much else.

As I write this I've got a download going in the background, and before any sharp intakes of breath let me hasten to reassure you that it's a legal download. This is supposed to be the future of music delivery; but I fail to be convinced. For all my love of vinyl warmth there's no way it can match the resolution of even a mid-priced CD player, in the same way that much as I love the old-fashioned look that photos taken through the Tessar-based design of the screwmount Elmar 2.8 it's thoroughly trounced by any modern Leica equivalent when it comes to basic image reproduction. I would expect the successor to CD to be an order of magnitude easier to use than CD, the way popping a CD into a tray is so much easier than dropping a needle onto vinyl, and for the realism of the sound to be worlds better than what one gets from CD. The equivalent of resolution (the sonic parallel to resolving power and megapixels) are sample rate and bit depth. CD gives us 44.1 kHz (the analogue signal is sampled 44,100 times a second) and 16 bit (2 to the 16th 'layers' of information per sample). I'm downloading an album that gives me 192 kHz at 24 bits, which is pretty impressive, except it sounds remarkably similar to the sound quality of a CD, despite the fact that it's been downloading continuously since dinnertime. I don't have to do this to myself, of course; there's a CD-quality version available, but whither progress?

The album, in case you're interested, is from Linn records and is Artur Pizzarro and Sir Charles Mackerras performing the 3rd, 4th, and 5th piano concertos by Beethoven. I recently bought the recent box set reissue by Richard Goode, which is not just a great performance but sonically as good a recording as one can get on CD. On the other side of the resolution median, I came back from Harold Moore's Records in Great Marlborough Street with, among others, Toscanini's Beethoven 7. It was only after playing it and not hearing much that I did some internet research and discovered that I had managed to fine one of the 'greatest' recordings of the Seventh (whose authority propels these epithets, I often wonder) but one of the poorest recordings. I have no idea how great it might be because I literally can't hear it, even after scrubbing down the record with the usual cleaning fluids. Pristine Audio, an internet site run by a man who presumably possesses a really good record cleaning machine, has issued their 'cleaned-up' version of this recording, just one of the many historic recordings they offer for download or burned onto a Taiyo Yuden CD-R. I decided not to get the sonically enhanced Toscanini but went for a Sibelius instead that was a mono recording with 'XR Stereo' applied to it. It sounds like a mono recording played back in a big room and then recorded with stereo miking, which might seem at first like a deprecatory description, but it actually sounds okay. Through headphones, it relieves one of the mono deadness that makes it seem like the sound is coming from the middle of one's head; through speakers it doesn't convince you that you're listening to stereo, but you do forget after a while that you're listening to mono. This is great news for the huge back catalogue of mono recordings out there, but at €14 per CD, it makes one think twice about how much classic performances are worth, and what would have been a £1 record exchange shop bargain has to compete with good modern recordings on the mainstream labels.

The summer crawls slowly by, and I try to catch the Proms live on Radio 3 while in the kitchen preparing dinner. If one takes an FM radio to the standing gallery at the top of the Royal Albert Hall, will the transmission from the radio arrive before the live sound? These are the thoughts my mind strays to while promming, which may tell you how much I'm engrossed by the music. I go to the Proms out of desperation every summer to while away the break between concert seasons, and every summer am disappointed by the lack of engagement of the arena setting. So most of my listening has been done camped out in front of the stereo, whether the source is mono LP or high-resolution download; but most of the time it's CD.

Linn Records
Pristine Audio
The Proms


A short report on nothing at all

'O how I hate blogs,' moaned a friend of mine, who does not carry a mobile phone, and who writes for traditional media: newspapers, magazines, and a forthcoming book. His email floated in as I was chatting with friends on my various IM services, receiving Twitter updates, and thinking of a topic for my personal podcast. 'Any weasel with half a brain and half an opinion has a blog. Whatever happened to editorship? Whatever happened to meritocracy of good writing? And journalistic integrity and accountability?'

This, incidentally, is the theme of the recent thriller State of Play, starring the 35-percent-wider Russell Crowe. (Perhaps years from now, his oeuvre will be delineated by the thin vs the fat Russell Crowe, rather like Maria Callas.) It is based on a six hour long BBC series, and the screenwriters have done a magnificent job of adapting it to the big screen, losing very little of the depth of the original, and turning it into an elegy for the print newspaper and its role as the guardian of public accountability. There is a neat little dig at the new technorati in the form of a young female blogger, who is woken in the middle of the night with a distinctly Apple-like ringtone on her iPhone.

A new service has appeared on the iPhone called Audioboo, which is to podcasting what twittering is to blogging. One records short clips of whatever, and they appear on a feed in a Twitter-like manner. At the moment its celebrity user is Stephen Fry, who can make brief declamations about anything sound tremendously important and poetic; others, mumbling about their breakfast or their walks in the park, are not so lucky. I tried it out today and found myself informing my global audience that I was sitting in the kitchen and it was a wonderfully sunny day outside, and that the dog needed to go to the toilet. The truth is that there are now more avenues for self-expression than there is self to express. There is a global dissemination of inanity. Everyone twitters about what they had for lunch because eating is one of the few constants that are potentially of interest in a first-world society, and that you wouldn't be embarrassed for your parents (or your children) to read. 'Just had sex; multiple orgasms but got a bit dry toward the end' does not have its place in the Twittersphere. And now let's not go about rushing off to give a voice to the favorite flogging post of the disenfranchised, the African subcontinent: 'Nothing to eat again today; brother killed in genocide.' I'm not being insensitive, really I'm not. It's just the going off to give other people the chance to be silly is not going to make the inanity of our online lives (and let's face it, 99 percent of it is inanity) any less irrelevant.

It's true that the Chinese whispers of the social messaging sites can deliver news far more quickly than the news outlets, faster than the television stations can rush over an ENG team, and certainly much faster than the dailies can print them. A friend who was at the London demonstrations for the G20 summit noted that there seemed to be more photographers than protesters, and camera crews included a third person trailing the camera and soundman with an editing console. If the complaint is lack of news gathering and facts, rest assured that citizen journalism is alive and well wherever there is anyone with a digital camera.

My most recent acquisition is a tiny spy camera, the Minox B. With the draconian rules and general paranoia about privacy and No Photography signs everywhere, I decided that the best way to take pictures was without asking permission. The Minox was actually made for this task, designed to be as unobtrusive and silent as possible. It does not, for instance, play an artificial shutter noise through a tiny loudspeaker when you trip the tiny guillotine shutter. It hides neatly in a handbag. The time between taking the picture and holding the print in your hand is quite long: it first makes a trip to a handler in Germany, who then forwards it to Minox Laboratories, where it takes a few weeks to process, and then the whole package is sent back by post. So my post for today is quite the archetypal blog post: I went and did something perfectly banal (went to the park), took a picture, and blogged about it and posted the picture.


On the taste of water

As age creeps up from behind one becomes more content with simpler things. Water instead of tea or soda, for instance; except that water tastes stronger and more fortifying and more essential. One's morning cup of coffee tastes all the sweeter for being the harbinger of a new day that one is allowed to live and savor the fruits of the earth. The apprehension of the world; the taming of the senses: we learn to cut out what is no longer necessary. Over the years, we learn. We filter music out of noise, and come to love the most beautiful music of all, that which is found in silence. We learn to cut out the chaos of all that our eyes can see and focus on what is meaningful to us, that which we can paint, or frame in the rectangle of the viewfinder. We eat no longer to devour the world but to delight in the flavors and scents that set our heart beating with the language that it speaks, and the tapestry of memories it invokes. We breathe, we remember, and we teach. We pass on the arguments and the answers, the craft and skill that has become embodied in flesh and muscle and movement. And blind ambition and desperation and seeking give way to allowing things to be, and telescoping outwards from the individuality of selfhood to being part of mankind, and being content in the knowledge that if meaning is not found this this generation, perhaps we will come a little closer to it in the next. With this one must be content.


The Last Days of Kodachrome

There's some wonderful stuff going on in the world of photography. The unremarkable announcements at the latest photo trade show have begun to hint at the technological development in the realm of digital photography having reached a plateau: Canon and Nikon are so head-to-head that it would be foolish of them to hold back any new R&D in the hope of making customers upgrade, so I believe the cameras we are seeing are the height of the technology as it exists at present. Meanwhile, rumors of the death of film have been greatly exaggerated: if it is a death it is a slow one, and there's plenty of room in my fridge to stockpile enough to keep me going for some time. And more and more photographers who have dropped money on digital are talking, at least on forums, of a return to film. There are no new emulsions emerging (except for color negative, where Kodak is still continuing development for the movie market), and there have been a few lamented deaths, but Ilford, Kodak, Agfa, and the new niche players like Efke and Adox have decided on a stable of favorites to continue. And a few that I thought were dead are surprisngly still going: Kodachrome, which I wished a fond farewell when Kodak closed down the lab at Lausanne, still has some stock going around (most of it expiring in September of this year) and Dwayne's Photo in Kansas is still processing K-14. Kodak has declined petitions to continue making the film, so buying and using it won't change their minds. But out of nostalgia, out of respect, out of sheer obstinacy, and out of sheer love, it behooves us all who used and appreciated this film, which was somehow true to life and exuberant in its interpretation of color (a combination that cannot be approximated by Provia, no matter what anyone says), to shoot the last few rolls and not let them expire be binned to history.

And how much longer will Minox make Minopan and Minocolor in those wonderful little cartridges? I recently discovered that the film is still available, and processing still being done in Germany. I promptly bought a cheap Minox B off eBay and am experimenting with my first roll of 8x11. I was recently on the receiving end of some not very pleasant behavior when took a bit too long find a focus point with the Leica down at Farringdon, but no one is threatened by a Minox. At the worst they think you're rubbing your eyes with a harmonica.

Spring is here and the daffodils are out, and in the sunlight even the most mundane things are gorgeous and textured and contrasty. If this isn't a time for Kodachrome, I don't know when it is. Between now and September I'm planning to shoot as much as I can on this film, and see through the eyes of this film: a world that's both real and larger than life.

Picture: Victory in Europe, June 1945


Mr Wang and I

It has occurred to me that this blog, intended to be as much a journal of my consumption of media as a critique and discussion of it, has been somewhat moribund of late, and as a consequence of this negligence, not a result of a dearth of excellence but an abundance, there now exists a potential risk of personal amnesia, and these encounters with the sublime relegated to the status of dates in an abandoned diary, of a scribbled appointment that serves, hardly even, as an aide-memoire to the concert or play in question. To be concise: I am beginning to forget; and with modern media, like films and music, there is still always the possibility of retrieval, whereas with plays and concerts, the intersection between performer and audience is there but for the magical two hours spent in each other's company: and then it is gone.

And there are so many wonderful moments to be cherished. At the Royal Festival Hall I have been indulging in my favorite musical form, the violin concerto; tonight I had a chance to see Anne-Sophie Mutter, the woman who ushered in the procession of young women who form a strange nexus between beauty, musical accomplishment, and adoration: mostly male, tinged with the sexual; a moderately good looking girl with fantastic talent or, at least, fantastic potential, who is transformed by her playing. But while Anne-Sophie Mutter is cold and Germanic, precise in her execution but distant, Julia Fischer, also from Germany, is flawless but radiant. After the intermission she took a seat in the stalls behind me, and would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the men who literally stumbled into the aisles to congratulate her. Perhaps less of a virtuoso, but more vibrant as a performer, was Janine Jansen, who is taller and better looking than her album covers, and was a wonderfully expressive on the Beethoven; oddly enough, the Tchaikowsky, which she just released on Decca, is less brilliant, at least through the stereo.

I've developed a strange attachment to the lower right-hand section of the stalls; it's far less expensive than the coveted middle section, and it goes against the grain of the conventional wisdom that being on the left allows you to see the pianist's hands, or the performer in a concerto who stands to the left of the conductor. I've found that I enjoy being near the double bass players, perhaps a remnant of my party days when I would spent night clutching my drink and leaning against the subwoofer in a club: I like being near the low notes. I like being far back enough for the orchestra to be a coherent sound, but not underneath the dreaded overhang of the balcony, where the reflections begin to throw everything into a muddle. More than once I've noticed a man with thick black glasses sitting in the corner seat of the choir, clutching a programme. He rarely clapped, but merely surveyed the orchestra impassively. I'd noticed that the programme often noted, amidst multinational banking companies and the like, the sponsorship of a donor named Mr Wang. If I were Mr Wang I would probably sit there myself: not in the fifth row centre, but breathing down the necks of the bass section.

Speaking of having one's own orchestra, I had a chance to finally see Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National Theatre, with the gollum-like Toby Jones playing the role of Ivanov. Marvellous comic timing, and a moving performance from Joseph Millson as the dissident, but the play creaks along and begins to show its age. There is a brief portion at the beginning which is Stoppard's wordplay dialogue at its best, and reminds us what a comic writer we have lost now that he has become Serious. Following on the heels of August: Osage County, perhaps the London theatre scene is looking up.

Other notables: Sergey Khachatryan making an astounding entrance into the local concert scene; Hélène Grimaud mannish in unflattering all-black like a ninja, but more than making up for it with Beethoven's Piano Concerto 4; and Essa-Pekka Salonen at his best with the Symphonie Fantastique. During the winter months, the music has to cope with a special challenge: my tendency to narcolepsy after a long walk across the footbridge from the Embakment underground station. Music either grips you and leaves you at the edge of the seat, or fails to engage, in which case I curl up and begin to doze in my seat, as many of the people around me do. Unlike theatre or television, music is a language that I am just beginning to understand, but like a play, you are either interested in the story it has to tell or not. Mr Wang, who broke into rare applause after Ashekanzy brought Beethoven's Fifth to a close, would undoubtedly agree.


The Knowledge

Taxi drivers in London are famous for possessing 'The Knowledge', the product of a two-to-three-year course of intensive study and practice during which they memorize streets, places, restaurants, embassies, and the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B. The information they ingest during this period is supposed to be at least equal to that of a degree course at a university (it depends on the university, one would presume). I've wondered for some time whether or not The Knowledge is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the age of GPS devices, or whether the traditional black London cab is being threatened in any way by the proliferation of 'radio taxis', or licenced minicab services which are booked by telephone and who charge by distance. You can't hail them off the street, which is a great joy of the black London cab; the sight of the lit sign above the windshield is one of the happiest images one can lay eyes on when it's freezing and the rain is coming down and you're dead tired (subliminally recalled in the opening titles of the new Doctor Who; the Tardis, after all, is the little box that will take you anywhere). I still swear by the London black cab, even if they're heavy and environmentally unfriendly, especially the old Fairways; and I still think there's a place for The Knowledge, even as I support the licenced minicabs as a more welcoming entrance route for migrants who don't want to invest in several years and the price of a real London cab.

Over the years, though, 'The Knowledge' has come to be a mystical thing, an idea of knowing every nook and cranny of London; even lifelong Londoners are in awe of it, because even they will admit they know a few neighbourhoods very well, but certainly not all of London. Not even the editor of Time Out, I'm sure, knows everything about London, and keeps the knowledge up to date. There's grungy London, glitzy London, historical London; the city as seen by foot, on bicycle, above ground, the Underground; there's New London, the areas recently colonised by immigrants from a particular region and where others would rather not go. I used to think I knew London well enough until a few friends from out of town dropped in and I was showing them around; I realised that outside of the comfort zone of my own borough, I was reaching for the same tools that every tourist uses: the A-Z, the Tube Map, the Transport for London website, and the latest Time Out or the Sunday Times Culture section. I wonder though if there's anyone who doesn't reach for these at some point. The Knowledge, at least in that sense of mastering the city, will always be just out of reach. As for taxi drivers, they just know how to drive. They do it really well, but they don't know London. Nobody does.


All about the music

'And so I said to her,' the woman went on, leaning back in her chair and waving her flute of champagne, 'it's absolutely dreadful, you know. How some people have no consideration for their loved ones, no consideration at all.' The voice was low and mannish, the sort you associated with country homes and horses and another gin and tonic, Muriel, if you please; it seemed to float out at us not just from the other side of the tree under which we had spread out picnic, but from another era. She continued: 'I myself think, personally, that the best thing you can do for a loved one is make your own preparations for your funeral. In fact I myself have already picked out all my hymns.'

Glyndebourne is one of the most magical places one can visit during the summer in Britain. It was a wonderful excuse to buy a new dress, something which I am always up for; and Kate Royal was singing the soprano role in Carmen. It's an easy opera in the sense that one knows it well and doesn't really need to watch the surtitles intently and can enjoy the music. And while one cannot fault the standard of artistry at Glyndebourne, the music really does take second priority to finding a good picnic spot and lounging about in its transcendentally beautiful gardens. It was a bit like being back in college: one did have to go to class, which could be enjoyable in its own right, but the real learning that happens at university occurs while lounging about in the quads with friends. Glyndebourne is like Glastonbury for the fat cats of the land, the well-heeled, the men with protuberant tummies who have feasted well on the fruits of the world, the women, coiffed and manicured, who have also feasted well but dieted even better. 'For instance,' she continued, 'I am sixty-seven. My sister was sixty-nine when she died and her affairs were completely in order.'

We tuned out from the conversation and set about unpacking our picnic. We felt we knew something about picnicking from our outings at Oxford, but we were surrounded by professionals, who arrived with coolers, giant hampers clinking with bone china, crystal glasses, salt shakers and pepper mills, and tables that magically erected themselves like Transformers, folding chairs, and I swear I saw one family of picnickers who brought a little houseplant that they ceremoniously installed as the centrepiece of their table. We had ordered a picnic from the in-house provider, and had unwisely declined the offer to rent us folding tables and chairs. The ground-rug they had provided was generously spacious in its tartan splendour, but the dinner in the cooler, when unpacked, was more resplendent than the mat could handle: potted lobster, cold roast beef with horseradish, and a summer pudding the way it should be, puckeringly tart yet sweet and lusciously fruity at the same time. I also learned that there is a subtle art to sprawling in the ground while dressed in formal clothes and eating a picnic while making it all seem casual and summery.

As for Carmen itself, it was not bad. Kate Royal's eagerly anticipated aria at the beginning of the third act was articulate and moving, while the rest of the cast was more than competent. But like the Proms, which we had attended the previous evening (Julia Fischer playing Brahms's violin concerto), there was less of a sense of engagement with the music than at an average evening during the concert season, or, in this case, the opera season. The venue, perhaps? The festival setting? The general atmosphere of summer and of being on holiday? Whatever it is, I'm looking forward to the start of the concert and opera season and my favourite row at the Festival Hall stalls. And I really do wonder if there is any festival that can bridge the gap between Glastonbury and Glyndebourne: I still think there's a lot I can do for my loved ones besides picking out the hymns for my funeral. How terribly inconsiderate of me.

Dinner at the Connaught

The restaurant at the Connaught, like the hotel itself, used to be a stuffy clubby little place, a bit little like eating dinner in a library, with a heavy air of masculine pulchritude hanging over everything. The food, though, was excellent, under the hotel's in-house chef, a French-British melange of choices printed on a confusing, overstuffed menu. Their signature was the second tablecloth, unrolled ceremoniously just before dessert.

Now all that has changed. I haven't stayed at the Connaught since its renovation, but the rooms are supposedly larger and brighter. The lack of a lobby is made up for by a new gallery that runs along the outside, facing Carlos Place: nothing like the see and be seen drama of Claridge's, its sister hotel, but cosy and intimate. And the restaurant is now Helene Darroze at the Connaught. Was it coincidence that they chose one of the very few female Michelin chefs to take over the most masculine of dining-rooms in London?

The room itself, incidentally, has been lightened a little, with brighter lights, softer furnishings, and less of a sense of enclosure, but the wood-panelling is still there. We went there on the evening after it opened so we expected some faults in the service but attentiveness in the kitchen; and, most of all, the assurance that the chef would be present, as, indeed, she was. She prowled about the restaurant dominated by a long table on which were piled two huge wedding cake-sized mounds of butter, and various cheeses. A bright red ham slicer glided around the restaurant, dispensing paper-thin slices of Bayonne ham.

It seemed a shame not to have anything but the degustation menu, which comes out to about £100 per person, without wine and incidentals. There is a point at which haute cuisine goes beyond a line of competence, and enters a sacred realm of expected excellence where you're not supposed to worry if the scallops are overcooked or the oysters are slightly off. All that is taken for granted: cuisine becomes a language, the meal a kind of poetry, and like poems or paintings or music, something is being said. Helen Darroze, if she were a writer, would be post-modernist masquerading as a classicist, with a wry sense of humour under a facade of po-faced seriousness. Her flavours are bold, but measured; the combinations of textures unexpected and occasionally transcendental. The standout memory of the meal was the tartare of oysters on which was poured an unctuous sauce of pureed haricots blancs: you have the wildness of the sea and the grit of the earth in a single mouthful. Other combinations jarred like a bad couplet: the ballotine of foie gras was encrusted with nutmeg and cloves, which was completely unnecessary and just wrong; it made you feel as though you were having very good food while having your teeth drilled at the dentist. Even the finale of the second dessert, 100 per cent chocolate, went one step too far with a chalky, bitter cacao base, clogging the smoothness of the other perfumes. An impressive tea menu that even good Chinese restaurants in London fail to offer was presented alongside tisanes made from fresh stalks snipped off a few plants in pots that had miraculously appeared at the centre table.

The service, which we expected to be spotty, was absolutely flawless, in that telepathic French way that kicks Mr Ramsay's out of the game. The food was intelligent and thoughtful, but when one pays that much for a meal sometimes you just want it to be damn good, and there was only a single moment (two for my date) when you close your eyes and experience an explosion of pleasure in the mouth; of the sexual kind, almost. I was wondering as we waited for our taxi in the blossom-scented lobby (we had begun at seven and it was now almost midnight) whether we had set the bar too high for Ms Darroze. I believe now that it is she who has set the bar high for herself, and in the ocean of mediocrity that is the French restaurant scene in London, this can only be a good thing.


On Facebook

How difficult it is, really, to say anything truly original about Facebook. No one really expected it to take over our internet lives the way it has; no one really understand why, out of all the social networking sites, it emerged as dominant; no one can really predict what is going to become of it, whether it will die by the wayside like so many other internet phenomena, or whether it will become an internet-within-the-internet: a safe sandbox in the wild wild west of all the rest of the internet, with its fictitious personae, its masquerading identities, its child molesters, its identity thieves, its hackers with malicious code ready to jump into your computer and turn your life upside down. And, as icing on the cake, it has Scrabulous.

What makes Facebook different is that people are, generally, who they say they are. It's easy to spot a charlatan because he or she will be lacking in friends who vouch for this person's identity; even a group who conspire to create a fictitious persona will eventually run out of numbers. And if the conspiracy grows too large; then, well, it isn't much of a conspiracy, is it? Identity on Facebook has one foot planted in 'real', i.e., non-online life; you meet someone, and then keep in touch via Facebook; you find an old classmate, and then meet up in person. Anthropologists and historians from the future who are researching the current period in wester civilisation will suffer not from paucity, but from plethora, of information. All of everyday life is archived on public and private servers, somewhere, from personal websites to darker side of humanity, in chatrooms where individuals with names such as alz36697_tg trade pictures of children or information on which public urinals are the sites of anonymous sexual activity. Facebook is, literally, the face of the internet, as opposed to its groin. It's a happy, shiny, beaming face, where all acquaintances are friends, messages are polite, and everyone gives cutesy virtual gifts and plays little games and quizzes.

It's also wonderful for studying the dynamics of social networks, as a social networking site is likely to be. Like Google's ranking system, the processing of finding and making friends operates on the basis of eigenvector centrality. It isn't so much how many friends you have, but how important your friends are. So you can be very outgoing, but your five hundred friends who have less than a hundred friends will not matter as much as the few dozen friends you have who are immensely popular. Inbound popularity (people like you and want to be friends with you) counts differently than outbound gregariousness (wanting to be friends with everyone). These people are like the Van der Luydens in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, whose scarcity makes them sought after, and whose friendship becomes a societal badge of approval. Not, of course, that I'm doing anything like counting the number of friends that I have.

The feature that I love most about Facebook is the newsfeed. For someone who has moved around a lot and left groups of friends in various cities, some as near as Oxford, some on the other side of the world, receiving a terse report that so-and-so is getting married, has broken up, has just had sex (isn't that what 'has changed from "single" to "it's complicated"' means?), etc., makes me feel connected and still part of their lives; even as, at the same time, it can drive home the reality that one is very far away.


Chasing Times

Summer is upon us without it having passed through spring; and though May is only halfway done I'll dare to throw a clout, as well as a jugful of cold water over myself to ease the heat. The foreign students have arrived in London; you can hear the nasal accents of the Americans from the other end of the tube carriage. It is blindingly, stiflingly, insufferably hot. I perched myself above the frozen food section in the supermarket and rolled myself over the open top of the deep freeze as though I were on a spit. But everyone looks good in the afternoon light as they soak in the sun at the outdoor tables of the pubs, the city is bathed in a wonderful glow with dark blacks in the shadows and subtle gradients running up the domes and rooftops, and music is in the air. I suddenly remembered Snow Patrol's hit, 'Chasing Cars', from two summers ago. Record companies who are pushing a song by having it played on the radio incessantly want this sort of association; because the song is everywhere, you don't associate it with a place, but with a time: what you were doing in your life, whom you were dating, how you were feeling. I'm currently listening to A Fine Frenzy on my player, but I opened the window and let Snow Patrol blare out into the street as I was preparing dinner, for old time's sake.

When everything is glowing in the late afternoon light I mourn the passing of Kodachrome, of Technical Pan, and of Polaroid, all of which I would have turned to on a day like this. I miss my home darkroom, also known as the kitchen, where I would have chemicals and developing trays beside the chopping boards and food. It had the advantage of being my own place, where I knew the equipment by heart, and things would be where I left them; but frankly, I'm surprised I'm alive. I'm surprised the dog survived, even after lapping at a dish filled with selenium toner. I've found darkroom space in London, albeit at the other end of the city, and for the first time I have a properly-ventilated space with automatic multigrade heads which switch contrast at the press of a switch, huge developing trays with chemicals mixed and ready for you, and several archival print washers. The main drawback is that now I don't have an excuse for my crappy prints, which look especially bad when I'm working beside professional printers, creating gloriously perfect images with efficiency and precision. I was testing out the darkroom space in the ambition of going on to do some alternative process work, so I wanted to get my head back in the game by making a few prints just to see if I still could; apparently, I can't. So I'll be roaming the city with ordinary HP5+, because that's what I know best, and doing standard 8x10's until I'm up to making interpositives for contact negatives.

As I thumbed through my archive of negatives to try my hand at the enlarger again, I realized that they were arranged more or less chronologically from the time I bought my Leica and started taking photographs, through some of the best and worst years of my life. They weren't many years; they just felt that way. I stopped long before I came to England. The summer of 2006 was a decisive one for me; it was when I started being happy again. I stopped experimenting with exotic emulsions; I ditched the heavy 75mm and learned to shoot wide, and have stayed with the 35/2.0 since then. I shot two rolls in 2006 and then went trigger happy in 2007. This summer, maybe I'll actually make a few images worth keeping.


Turning to Tibet

It's not often that I find myself compelled to write about political subjects, given that most of the time it's hard to get me to try and wrap my head around political topics and current events; but the latest wave of Tibet-related protests in London in Paris is beginning to verge into the realm of the ridiculous, with people leaping off parapets wielding fire-extinguishers or trying to smother the torch with a blanket or, presumably, just blowing really hard and hoping the flame will go out like a birthday candle. The slogan they are chanting is, for the most part, 'Free Tibet'.

How can one question the moral rectitude of the Free Tibet movement without sounding like an imperialist apologist? It should fit neatly on my ideological shelf as a self-proclaimed left-leaning liberal. In writing this I don't in any way claim to know much beyond the first thing of what the Tibet issue is all about. The problem is, I don't think most of the protesters do, either. 'Free Tibet' is a nice slogan with a nice ring to it, but as a directive it has absolutely no political reality: China is not going to partition off the Tibetan plateau and give them independence. The Chinese belief in a single unified state that must be maintained at all costs, even of violence, is an idea that dates back to the (perhaps mythological) unification in 221 BC. So what are the protesters realistically demanding of Beijing? 'Free Tibet from human right violations' makes more sense. But then why stop at Tibet? China has to reform on all sorts of human rights issues in all areas; and this is a process that will take time. Now is a good time to start; but it's not going to get done in time for the Olympics.

Beijing is giving the Tibetans what they are trying to provide to the whole country: infrastructure in the form of roads, electricity, telecommunications, and transport links to the rest of China; Tibetans don't seem to be as grateful as Beijing thinks they should be. The natural result of better connections is an influx of outsiders, internal migrant of (largely) Han Chinese from other regions. They are the owners of the homes that are being burned and shops that are being looted. The riots are thus a domestic conflict that are (very broadly) analogous to the sort of civil strife that erupted in Northern Cyprus; and the Chinese government did what all governments are supposed to do in situations such as these: try and keep the peace. The Chinese army's methods of keeping the peace are undoubtedly worth questioning, but it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is their responsibility.

There is a great deal that can be put right in Tibet; the hold of the monasteries over the people and their faith is still strong, and this faith, both in itself and because it gives the exiled Dalai Lama hold over the region's people, make it a threat to unity and government. The problem is that an entire way of life and culture and enmeshed in this faith, and the efforts of the government in Beijing to respect and preserve this culture are clumsy at best, and ruthless at worst. Monasteries lie half-deserted; ancient scrolls are crumbling in the damp. Tibet is the problem child of the Chinese government, and the truth is probably that Beijing has a weak hold on the region, and more importantly, an even weaker understanding of what the Tibetans are unhappy about. They don't know what to do, and they don't know what's going on. Neither do the majority of the protesters.

This photo is of the interior of a temple in Tibet, taken less than two years ago.


Out and About

A old friend in town is good enough excuse to splash out on dinner and a show, welcome relief from the piousness of staying in, cooking one's own meals, and watching DVD box sets. I have discovered a hitherto dormant aspect of my brain that goes aghast at miniscule discrepancies in expenses, while the other part of the brain tries to console it by going shopping on eBay. I've had an extended attack to trying to be pious of late, partly out of guilt from the excesses of the winter holidays, and was beginning to be mired in the stygian gloom of the Exercise of Moderation.

To add to the drudgery was the prospect of spending the day sitting atop a sightseeing bus or in a capsule of the London Eye, so it was a great relief to find that my friend, whom I hadn't seen for almost seven years, had worked out in advance what she wanted to see and do in London, and we simply met up for an impromptu dinner at Bibendum, chosen on the basis of the fact that she would be coming from Sloane Square. After recent forays to Moro and the Wolseley that had left me profoundly unimpressed, my expectations weren't too high. We managed to get a table, a good one at that, without a reservation, on a Friday night, which I have to compare to the Wolseley, who stuck my date and I the previous week at half past six and ejected us onto the pavement two hours later. The food at Bibendum was excellent: not mind-blowing, but consistent across starters, mains, and dessert, which is more than I can say for the Wolseley.

The play we watched, also organised at the last minute, was Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, Christopher Hampton's translation of her Le Dieu du Carnage, which is also playing in Paris at the moment. It hadn't opened when I booked it but it was being heavily promoted on Radio Four; I managed to avoid reading any reviews until Saturday. It is thoroughly enjoyable, and almost impossible to believe that it was not written by an Englishman about the English bourgeoisie. It was played as a comedy, which I understand from the reviews is not what Ms Reza would have wanted; but the fact that we laughed did not make the lacerations and the tragedy of the piece any less acute. Do audiences in Paris sit solemnly with furrowed brow through Le Dieu du Carnage? More intelligent people whose job it is to do so have written many reviews and analyses of this play, but I must point out that the telephone, the intrusion of the outside in the dynamics of the two middle-aged couples, defined them as adults and as children: one character's mother constantly calling reduced him to infantile rage; whereas their son, calling at the end of the play, forced them to become grown-ups once again, to adopt the authority of one who knows what one is doing.

After the play was done my friend wanted to go clubbing, which was a perfectly reasonable idea since it was ten o' clock on a Saturday night, and she was leaving the next day. It was with great relief that I was able to indulge in my Exercise of Moderation and go home to my torrents of the last few episodes of House, which should have downloaded by this time.


Playing catchup on television

The holidays went by in a catchup blitz of staying current with what's showing on television these days. Most of the year I do try to spend my time outside of work reading, listening to music, and thinking noble thoughts, in addition, of course, to surfing and clicking much too often on the 1-click purchase button on Amazon Prime. But during the holidays my brain goes on vacation as well, and I allow myself to slide into the guilty pleasure of hours with the medium I grew up with and still love the most.

Heroes picked up its pace, finally, though creator Tim Kring should stop apologising to his viewers; it's his show and he can take it in any direction he wants. If we don't like it, we'll stop watching. Season One ended with a bang and the eleven episodes of Season Two that have been aired continue to be the most interesting programming on the small screen. Battlestar Galactica is wisely wrapping up with its main cast largely intact, a graceful and well-timed exit. Grey's Anatomy, on the other hand, should have ended with the third season: it would have been right on so many levels. Meredith gets her man, Christina has an unhappy ending, and they move forward from their internships. The attempt to try and squeeze more storylines from these characters is making a travesty of them, and Ellen Pompeo is looking even more haggard than ever. Brothers and Sisters chugs along gracefully in Mexican soap-opera fashion, with good-looking characters and fuzzy feel-good family scenes: it feels great while you're watching it, but if you blink for a moment then you cease to care.

Of the new series that started this autumn, I found Journeyman incomprehensible; Bionic Woman showed promise but unravelled all to quickly to be Alias's idiot ugly sister; Damages was sharp and tightly-written but seemed to wrap itself up after thirteen episodes. If the second part is at least as good as the first it will be a pleasant surprise. But the future doesn't look bright for any of the shows: the writers' strike means that the hiatus will begun soon; and even if the strike were to end today, the weekly momentum of production will have been lost.

And I still mourn the cancellation of the best series that appeared last year and ended after a one season's worth of great writing: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was to the West Wing what Firefly was to Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a one season coda to a seven-year opus. Studio 60 was intelligent, sexy, and involving, but couldn't get out of the shadow of the Wing. It was with a sinking feeling that I picked up the remote and powered down the television. With great reluctance, I decided that it might actually be time to get a life.


His Dark Immaterials

The two hours spent watching the first installment of His Dark Materials, on screen as The Golden Compass, weren't a complete waste of time. The movie was not unpleasant: fluffy bears, snowy scenes, and a world where everyone has pets; and, like every action adventure filmed in the last few years, features Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee. The Sunday Times gave it four stars. The Economist's Intelligent Life placed Pullman in a succession with the Bible and Milton, and wrote that the author expected just a handful of people to 'get' the story, but found it a pleasant surprise when it achieved the cult status that it did.

I think I am one of those few, we unhappy few, we band of heathens, who don't get it. I have to admit to not having read the books, though not for want of trying; if it is as representative of the novels as Disney's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was, then perhaps I am doing Pullman a great disservice. I both agree and disagree with Pullman when he says that literature should be a 'theatre of morality'; I think that some literature is, and has great value as such; and then some literature isn't, and that's okay too. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which he disparages, isn't; but it is firmly rooted in another tradition, that of the epic, with clearly defined forces of good and evil; and there is tremendous popular appeal in this because you don't have to think about what makes them good or bad.

What makes The Golden Compass confusing is its resemblance to Lord of the Rings (not just in casting Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee) but in the trilogy format, and the strange resemblance to a Bond film in having a secret laboratory with white curvy walls in the middle of nowhere. Now in a Bond film this would be inhabited by an arch-villain with clearly evil intentions (e.g., blowing up the world), but here the great revelation is a machine that separates kids from their pets; okay, daimons. Which doesn't really seem like enough provocation for the 'war that is coming'. Without the ramifications of allegory, The Golden Compass, as a film, fails to satisfy.

This doesn't mean I'm giving up on Pullman, though; I just might spend the winter holidays curled up with the trilogy. And there was a brief moment of nostalgia for Oxford, and the airship 'ferry' that took Lyra away to the great city is certainly an improvement on the Oxford Tube or the First Great Western service to London.


Hwet!, For I Shall Disrobe

The trailer of 'Beowulf' had already put me in a Freudian state of mind when I headed across London to the BFI Imax theatre to see it in glorious 3D. 'Give me a son,' Angelina Jolie says in a Transylvanian accent, stroking him with the tip of her braided ponytail. 'I will make you strong.' She seemed to be reading off a list of things that guys like to hear when you take them to bed, so I wasn't at all surprised when the crowd at the sold-out showing was largely male. Besides, if there's one person with breasts that seem to be in 3D even on the television, it's her.

'Beowulf' is far from being the first film to be shot and released in 3D, but it's the first complete film in the recent revival of the format, when technology has allowed it to be actually convincing and not leave you in a nauseated state. It's an excellent choice for the attempt, with a strong, driving plot and universal themes, and there's a nice circularity to the first work of the English Literature canon being used as the basis for a new level of reality in; and the epic was, after all, oral in its first inception. Hwet! And look! It's movie experiences like this that keep us going to the cinema.

The film was a romp from beginning to end, a wall-to-wall Freudian playground. Beowulf, the hero, fights Grendel completely naked, with his genitals obscured behind a jug or a screen of smoke; Grendel is, naturally covered in a translucent viscous liquid, and as he advances over the cowering girl, he drips huge gobs of pre-cum like an overenthusiastic teenager off-camera from above. Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother struts in on sixth-century demonoid stiletto heels, and seduces him while, quite literally, stroking his sword. She takes from him both the male sword and female cup; she keeps the phallus but spits the vagina back at him when she terminates her protection.

The lack of dialogue synchronisation, quite jarring on certain occasions, was reminiscent of budget films made without timecode or pilot tone, and was a reminder of how rudimentary the technology is, and to what degree this new format of storytelling is in its infancy. The most difficult recreations for any visual effects teams are human beings in natural surroundings, so while it's easy to make convincing monsters, getting people to look right and getting the audience to have a sense of where they are in the 3D setting is always challenging. With the opening shot of Robin Wright Penn I mentally groaned to myself and thought that everyone was going to look like cardboard cutouts, but as the film progressed I realised that in general close-ups and far shots were convincing, and it was just that Robin Wright Penn simply has a very flat face.

Each age, I suppose, gets the retelling of Beowulf (the tale, as well as the hero) that it deserves, and both technologically and thematically, this was definitely a 'Beowulf' for our time.


The Summit in the Alleyway

Every city has its own pact between it and those who live there; each one, individually. Oxford, but for a few, those who stay become part of it, is haughty and peremptory: it opens its gates, its college courtyards, its libraries, to those who give to it their intellect and consent to carry its standard. The place is pompous and full of it but if you believe in the myth you won't fail to be moved, rather like enjoying the company of a likable braggart. As I rode my bicycle into town for some much-needed repairs I sailed down Broad Street (or rather, wobbled; my front wheel had come loose) past the Sheldonian in the late-afternoon sun and wondered how I could desert this place that had been so good to me; it had, quite honestly, offered me little in the way of learning, but much in the way of redemption.

London is another beast altogether. Whether or not you drink the Kool-Aid, Oxford advertises what it's all about quite openly: welcome to the seat of learning; this way up the ivory tower, mind your step and wipe your feet please. I'm sure London can pull up and boast of a Higher Purpose just as quickly; in fact, it can pull up just about anything. Former hub of empire, centre of government, hub of trade and finance; the city is multitudinous, and there are no gates. You enter through an alleyway and emerge into a row of Georgian mews and wait for a definition to present itself to you, the way information packets are handed out to freshers. What is this city about?

At first glance it appears to be centred entirely around money: making it, spending it; it whirls as it is flushed away like the crowd that disappears into the bowels of the underground at half past five. If you walk down King's Road on a Saturday afternoon it's gorgeous and lush, as beautiful as it is inaccessible, like the impeccably dressed woman who looks me up and down with that imperceptible smile on her face: I'm from another world than yours. I imagine it to be a world devoid of those wire-frame racks which lurk like an out-of-season Christmas tree in hundreds of thousands of flats across the country, festooned with knickers and dishtowels. But just as I've found that window-shopping in Chelsea is a perfectly pleasurable pursuit in itself, I think there's a third response to looking at the convertibles whizzing past and the terraced apartments in Kensington, which is neither that of feeling like the little match girl or setting one's jaw with grim determination that all this, too, shall be mine, mine! one day: the simple, quiet realisation of the fact that this is not my world. But I am looking forward to the London that will become mine, by discovery, by creation, in the way that though I will never be a member of All Souls, I do have my favourite seat at the Bodleian.

There is a pleasure in performing something perfectly, like playing a piano piece one knows by heart or executing a well-loved recipe; but there is another pleasure in discovery, in learning, in mastering what one does not know. London was, among other things, the starting-point for geographical expeditions during the age of exploration. There is a certain irony in the fact that perhaps the best way to get to know London is to approach it as would an adventurer, turning the corner into an alleyway that yields unexpected delights, and then to plant a flag, marking it as part of one's own private empire within the city.


Wadham Gardens On a Summer's Day

'Take with you a ground rug or folding chairs,' we were instructed the day before the performance of Romeo and Juliet in the gardens of Wadham College, which I have to admit (intercollegiate rivalry notwithstanding) is one of the prettiest colleges in Oxford, and its lawn were bright and green and shimmery in the afternoon sun. The performance did not take place in the hallowed space of the centre college quad, of course, but in the garden to the right of the main buildings; against the backdrop of a wall, a 70s Volkswagen van and a tent had been parked, to emphasize the idea of Shakespeare being 'on tour', and which served as the backstage for the square of wooden planks that had been laid down. The idea that the six actors simply piled into the rickety old VW camper and meandered away down the motorway to their next touring gig was somewhat mitigated by a gleaming, comfortable modern bus parked nearby.

It was a small, intimate crowd of theatregoers in a lazy summer mood, and sweet alcoholic drinks were being served; thankfully, they opted for a play everyone knew by heart, it was difficult to imagine mustering the focus to get through, say, Henry VI Part III while semi-drunk on sugary Pimms. As the play moved into the second act the audience, especially those sitting on the ground, were perceptibly more and more horizontal, and the actors glistened in the summer heat. Or perhaps Juliet was really feeling the potion.

Despite the obvious professionalism of the performance, there was something very local (not amateurish; local, more so than if it had been on the stage of a West End theatre) about the fact that Shakespeare was born just a few miles to the north and it was first performed fifty miles to the east; and the garden setting, taking away not just the dimmed, fan-shaped theatre and the proscenium, but the very structure of a theatre in the form of a building, was a wonderful reminder of how 'theatre' is about an agreement between the players and the audience: we say entertain us, and they do; they say, this is Verona, and we believe them. Oh, and the play, of course. For a summer afternoon in Oxford, this play was just the thing.