The art of distancing

In little more than a month, a whole new art form has emerged, the knowing dispersed performance. Like much art, it makes a virtue of its constraints. And it is already possible to see its evolution – in only a few short weeks – into something which transcends its origins.

This post is really all leading up to the final video – that’s the one to watch if you don’t have time and energy for all of them.

On 20 March, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra played an extract from Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Nothing out of the ordinary, it’s what orchestras do. Except that all the players were playing separately at home – and that as of 2 May it had clocked up 2.7 million views on YouTube, which is rather more than the size of an average concert audience.

Others were quick to adopt the same approach and by 15 April, the trend made it to the Guardian, which published a survey of the genre covering eleven orchestras across Europe and North America.

And of course you don’t actually need an orchestra or even other people – a little pizzazz goes a long way. Nor is the approach limited to music – the unlikely subject of a group of graduating medical students separately but collectively reciting the modern hippocratic oath is powerful in its own right, even without reflecting on why they are taking it so much earlier than normal.

But then things start to take a still more interesting turn. Production values go up, and place becomes important again. Magdalen College choir has been singing from the top of the college tower early on May morning for 500 years or so and they sang again this year, blending today’s choir with a recording from 2017, underlining the importance of where it should be done, as well as celebrating this year’s dispersed performance.

Even that, though, is still essentially reassembling the pieces back to how the whole would have been in more normal times. The fact that everybody is physically separated is still more constraint than opportunity.

And then little more than four weeks after the Rotterdam Ode to Joy, we come to the Juilliard School. They have made that leap to finding an opportunity. This is a performance which can only exist because of the way it has needed to be made. The frames of the video windows become boundaries to be played with. Gestures make sense only because the observer is a camera, or many cameras. Fingertips can make dance moves and reach to touch other fingers in distant places. Kitchens and bedrooms can be performance spaces and going into the outside world a liberation.

This is the art of distancing. It did not exist before. It will be fascinating to see whether it continues to exist afterwards.


Dark and light

Sometimes darkness is the best light.

A walk round Kew Gardens as night fell, very literally putting Chihuly’s glass sculptures in a different light, blending in with and standing out from their surroundings.

Functional illiteracy

Zion Gate, Jerusalem

Some random reflections from a visit to Israel. They have all the depth and insight you might expect from a tourist flitting round the country for a week.

Adapting your needs to your environment is ecology. Adapting your environment to your needs is power Some of that is power in a geopolitical sense. Some of it is the power from influencing what stories get told, whose history dominates. And some of it is the power to make the environment comply with your preferences and needs. It is the power not to compromise your identity. It is the power of having lifts which can be used by the observant on the Sabbath. It is the power of having a place to be at home. And sometimes it is the power to make other people feel – or be – not at home.

Trying to do things in a country where you don’t speak or read the language is one thing. Trying to do things in a country where you can’t read the script is something else again. Mostly the frustration is superficial – there are plenty of multilingual signs and plenty of people who speak at least some English, though both have an unnerving habit of fading away when they are most needed. But it’s real enough to bring home how hard the world is to navigate for those who are actually illiterate and how often the apparent modernisation and simplification of services can add to the problem, rather than reducing it.

Petrol pumps, it turns out, are an unhelpfully great example both of that and of the extent to which it is possible to spend time and energy trying to solve completely the wrong problem. We were on our second hire car, the first having broken down, and the second showing all the stresses of the 65,000 km it had already clocked up. Confidence was not high. But petrol needed to be bought, so off we went.  The first pump at the first petrol station refused to start.  The attendant motioned us to a second pump. That wouldn’t give us any petrol either. The attendant indicated that the problem must be with the car, some kind of blockage in the pipe to the tank. That seemed unlikely – the car was well worn, but the tank had been full when it was delivered to us, and the petrol must have got in somehow. So we tried another petrol station. Same result. That did seem to suggest that it was the car rather than the pumps which was the common factor. The prospect of needing a third hire car in three days loomed.

But the problem wasn’t the car at all. It was the fact that Israeli petrol pumps only like Israeli payment cards, combined with the fact that Israeli petrol pumps are both highly sophisticated and have instructions only in Hebrew. The answer, it turned out, was to pay in a different way. That’s probably more than enough wearisome detail (though that’s the simplified form of the story), but there is a moral. A small error in initial diagnosis led to the search for solutions being completely misguided; a bit more initial thinking about the set of things which might have gone wrong (and their relative plausibility and probability) might well have got to the right problem and the right solution much more quickly. And that wasn’t caused by stupidity (I like to think) but by a dangerous combination of over-weighting early indicators followed by the path dependence which came from them.

Back on the road, it was time to re-engage with Israeli traffic. I had read some fearsome warnings and there were indeed some slightly hair-raising practices. Drivers swap lanes with gay abandon, squeezing into gaps which don’t really exist, signalling their intention well after committing to the manoeuvre, if signalling at all. Bus stops – and stopped buses – appear without warning even on the fastest roads. Speed limits seem largely notional. The road signs are mostly tri-lingual, except at the occasional critical moment when they aren’t.

It could all have been terrifying. But it mostly wasn’t. That’s because although some of the behaviour seemed mad by sedate northern European standards, it was pretty systematically mad. Drivers had clear norms about how they drove and how they expected those around them to react. The fact that those norms were tacit and informal didn’t make them any the less real.

The trick wasn’t necessarily to drive in the style favoured by many of the locals. But it definitely was to learn to read the road through their eyes and so to have a sporting chance of anticipating what might be about to happen.

The battery in my camera was nearly flat. That was OK, I had a spare. The spare proved to be only half charged. That was OK, I had brought the charger. Except that it turned out that I had brought the charger for a different camera. So the challenge was to buy a new charger, or failing that a new battery. Initial googling was far from promising. The only realistic chance was going to be a fairly large and fairly specialised shop and there didn’t seem to be many of those at all, still less anywhere we were going. But there was a place listed as a dealer by Nikon, just a few minutes walk from the hotel we were to be staying at in Jerusalem.

Initial impressions were not good. What had looked like a small shopfront on a main street became a narrow passageway through an unprepossessing courtyard with a small room at the back, which contained a large photo printer, a friendly looking man, an air of general clutter – and no visible stock of camera equipment at all. There was no chance of such a place having the battery I needed. But the friendly man wanted to be helpful, so I told him what I was looking for. Without batting an eyelid, he turned to the shelf behind him and picked up the right battery – which as far as I could see was also the only battery.

The history of Israel is complicated, to put it mildly, More perhaps than anywhere else in the world, religions and empires are piled up one on another, with patterns of dominance shifting, sometimes over centuries and sometimes over days. I can offer nothing on the unravelling of that. But it does prompt a couple of more general thoughts.

The lesser one is the value of rules as a way of sustaining a system which nobody really likes but which is better not disturbed. The distribution of authority over the holy places of Jerusalem is determined by the status quo of 1757, but is further complicated by the fact that that status quo is not determinate. That is tricky in turn because the League of Nations mandate given to the United Kingdom for the administration of Palestine included an obligation to preserve existing rights in the holy places. And so it fell to a British civil servant in 1929 to document what they actually were. The intersection of civil service prose, religious division and several centuries of assorted bickering is something to behold. A few sentences give a good sense both of the document and of the rivalries it captures:

The pavement and the two external doors are the common property of the three Patriarchates. The Orthodox sweep the Courtyard and keep it clean and hold the keys of the external doors, but all repairs are to be conducted at the joint expense of the three Patriarchates concerned, or failing that, by the local authorities. […]

The steps leading up to the Chapel of St. Mary’s Agony are Latin property. The question as to who was to clean the lowest step, which is barely above the level of the Courtyard, was in 1901 the cause of a sanguinary encounter between the Latin and Orthodox monks. The position now is that the Latins brush it daily at dawn, and the Orthodox at times together with the rest of the Parvis.

This is all utterly bizarre, but – within limits – it works. And in a decidedly odd way, it says something about the ways in which governments can create value, which have echoes in more conventional areas.

The second and broader thought is about the power of story telling and the power to determine which stories get told. The latter is related to – but far from wholly determined by – wider political power. That is always true, but it’s more obvious in this part of the world than most, perhaps because it is more extreme.

One example is the excavation of a tunnel along the line of the western wall in Jerusalem – the famously visible part is only a small proportion of the whole; much of the rest is buried behind centuries of later development and specifically by the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. It is valuable archaeology, but it is not neutral: it is an assertion of the deep-rooted Jewishness of the Temple Mount against the counter position that those same walls are an intrinsic part of the Haram esh-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. And it’s a quiet demonstration of who has the power to tell the story.

Another is the museum at Yad Vashem. It is a memorial to the victims of the holocaust, but it is also more than that. There is nothing in the facts of the story told there which is different from other accounts. What is unique and uniquely powerful is the perspective from which the story is told and its expression in the very fabric of the building. In quiet, remorseless detail, the message is not just that the suffering was appalling and incomprehensible and that every death was murder, but that nobody came to help. And that is, fundamentally, the case advanced for the foundation of the state of Israel: not just the return to an ancient homeland, but the necessary creation of a place of sanctuary. Both physically and metaphorically,that is the end point of the museum, the place where there is new light. It matters who tells the story.

Yad Vashem - view from the museum to distant sunlit hills

Walking by water

The north Kent coast is a strange place at the best of times. Walking in thick mist makes it stranger still. Arriving at Herne Bay, the stub of a pier points to the pier head isolated a thousand metres out to sea – and barely visible as an unevenness of grey in a wholly grey seascape. The path along the coast is wide concrete slabs, leading into apparent nothingness. A little later, crossing a meadow, the towers of Reculver church suddenly emerge from the wider greyness, from invisible to apparent in a few steps.

Beyond Reculver, more miles of concrete slabs, first forming a sea wall a few feet above the flat marshes, then protecting low chalk cliffs from the beat of the sea. Above on the cliffs, Birchington goes by almost invisibly. The path and what passes for a beach are not welcoming. Nothing breaks the relentlessness of the concrete. Increasingly the cliffs themselves become artificial, bolstered by stone infills and then by entire brick retaining walls intended to keep the houses and gardens above from collapse. Some have passages apparently intended to give access to the beach below, including one with a balcony half way down, with half the protective railings missing and the stairs below long fallen away.

Walking in the endless bubble of mist with the beat of breaking waves is mesmeric. As the path follows bends in the cliff, there are no landmarks, no easy way to establish location. I am almost past Westgate before realising it is there at all.


Walking on water

I have always liked maps. And I have always been a little sorry for people who had the misfortune to live in places mapped by lesser agencies than the Ordnance Survey. OS maps have always felt almost more real than the reality they represented. Had anybody asked me whether I thought they were completely free of error, of course I would have said no – a moment’s thought about the complexity and level of detail involved shows that it could not be otherwise – but nobody ever did ask, and it never crossed my mind that reality would have the temerity to diverge from the stipulations of the map.

Until, that is, I found two very clear cartographic mistakes while walking the London Loop. The second was the more amusing, with paths confidently leading straight out across a lake. Before I got there, I assumed that there must be some kind of causeway not clearly marked. But there wasn’t, there was just water. I wrote at the time about how that must have come about.  What’s interesting now is that OS have – sort of – fixed it.

The first map is as it was a year ago, with the paths careering across the lake. The second is as it now shows on the OS website. It’s a pretty minimal change, with the bits actually over the water tippexed out, but still with odd stubs pointing to the long-vanished bridge over the long-diverted river, and with one path still overshooting the bank. But in doing that, the continuity of the right of way has been broken and that of the Loop with it. Maybe that’s an accurate reflection of a failure formally to divert the rights of way when the lake was created, maybe it’s just an oversight. And in practice it doesn’t matter in the slightest, since this is all in the uninspiringly named Roding Valley Recreation Ground, so nobody is going to build a fence.

Meanwhile, the removal of the green dashes reveals more clearly the black dots marking the boundary between the civil parishes of Loughton, Chigwell and Buckhurst Hill  – still following the course of the River Roding as it was before the lake was there at all. In some small ways the reality of the map really does take precedence over the reality of what is mapped.

Muphry’s law of virality

My tweets don’t go viral. They get the odd reply, a few retweets here and there, the occasional favourite, but almost always from first order readers – the decay rate on successive propagations is enormous. That’s not a problem – twitter is at its best for me as conversation rather than as broadcast. On rare occasions, something takes on a life of its own, and I almost wonder whether a threshold number of likes and retweets is itself a signal people use, perhaps unconsciously,  in deciding whether to send it further.

For no obvious reason, this one was different. Those six words, which are of course not my six words, say a lot. And the tweet rattled around the UK for a while before crossing the Atlantic to skip across US academia, popping up in New Zealand as the time zones moved before looping back to Britain.

And all of that happened with two glaring typos in the ten words I had added from a mobile keyboard, which I am powerless to correct. All I can do instead is codify a corollary to Muphry’s law:

The probability of an entity containing obvious errors will increase in proportion to the distribution of the entity


It all started when Paul Clarke went to Sheppey.

Actually, it didn’t quite start there, because Paul had been responding to a tweet from somebody else a day or so earlier, which had caught my eye too, but didn’t react to with quite Paul’s alacrity (and can’t now remember whose tweet it was).

Anyway, Paul went to Sheppey, and took some photographs, as he does. That in turn prompted a bit of twitter chat about the minor islands of Great Britain, including an arresting assertion from Tom Loosemore.

It had never occurred to me that I might ever want to go to Canvey Island. I had vague associations with oil refineries, flooding, and distant cousins, last heard of decades past. As is often the way with islands, it’s impossible to go there by accident, it’s not on the way to anywhere else (unless you have a predilection to hitch a ride on an LPG tanker to Russia). Against all that, ‘unmissable’ seemed a sufficiently unlikely endorsement to be well worth investigating.

So yesterday I took advantage of perfect weather, cold, still and clear, to look for myself. In the absence of any greater attraction, the obvious thing to do with an island is to walk round it. So I did – though on a short January day and a not very early start, 15 miles began to feel a bit like a competition with the fading daylight.

But before that, it was glorious. Strong, low sunshine. An absolutely clear sky, broken only by the vapour trails of planes stacking and converging on Heathrow. Walking on the sea wall – more of an earth rampart most of the way round – a few precious feet higher than the surrounding land. The Ordnance Survey does not grace Canvey Island with a single contour line – so impressive chutzpah to whoever got away with naming Canvey Heights Country Park.

For the first couple of hours, I didn’t see another person – except a couple of children with their dog over on the mainland, a hundred yards and an hour’s walk away. Towards Holehaven Point, the first few dog walkers appeared, before reaching metropolitan Canvey a couple of miles further on. This is where the flood defences get really serious – the length of what in any other riparian town would be the promenade, consists of a concrete path with an eight foot wall completely blocking off the town. There are occasional glimpses of nothing very interesting looking through the heavily-gated gaps in the upper part of the wall which allow access, but were it not for the dozens of benches memorialising deceased Canveyites and a greater incidence of dog walkers, the town might as well not have been there at all. The one structure which braves the seaward side of the wall is the Labworth Cafe, which I might have been more tempted to stop at had I realised that it is the only building designed by Ove Arup, when he was an architect not an engineering company.

Round the corner and out of the sun, the temperature drops to a sudden chill. The last third of the walk, back round the north side of the island is less dramatic and the low sun is starting to get even lower. A lone small cloud appears – the inverse of a sailor’s trousers – as the bridge to the rest of the world finally comes into sight and the sun sets over the oil refinery.

Click on any of the pictures to see full size versions. Or see the full set.


Parks and Cemeteries

In a big, spawling city, you take your green spaces where you can find them. Some of them are parks. A few are the routes of long-closed railways. And some are cemeteries, high-density housing for the dead.

A pleasant weekend stroll from Crystal Palace to Nunhead takes in three parks, three cemeteries, and two nature reserves, one of which is a stretch of the abandoned railway which once connected Crystal Palace to Nunhead without the trouble of walking at all. It’s over sixty years since this line last saw trains, and it would be hard to guess that the path was once the track bed. It’s an odd thought that the last time I was walking in this neck of the woods, it was probably closer in time to when the trains were running than that time is to now.

The first of the cemeteries is Camberwell Old Cemetery, which is neither all that old, nor in Camberwell, but is part of the Victorian need for burial grounds beyond the capacity of churchyards. The layout of the graves is slightly chaotic and the ground uneven; faded, but with little sense of much past grandeur. It all feels quite enclosed until, in one corner, a vista opens across to St Paul’s and the shard, and the grey of the tombstones merges into the grey of the clouds and of those distant buildings.

Nunhead Cemetery is the oldest and grandest – and most faded – of the the three. Most of the memorials are in poor shape, some leaning on one another for support, others collapsing into the encroaching undergrowth. But there are two plots, a little apart from one another, bounded by neat hedges and with pristine gravestones, where order is preserved. They are graves from the first world war, the first of Australian soldiers, the second mainly Canadian. There is no indication of how death brought them to Nunhead – perhaps they died of wounds having been brought back across the channel for treatment.

In all three cemeteries, but more among the newer graves than the older ones, I was struck by how many of those lying there were described as being asleep. Death, of course, has many euphemisms. In American English, though not yet in British English, it seems hardly possible to speak of somebody having died with so harsh a verb. I have made no scientific study – indeed I have made no study at all – of the language of tombstones, but my impression is that the prevalence of the language of sleep was much higher in the Camberwell cemeteries than in others I have been to. It’s entirely possible that there is no real difference, and so nothing to explain, but I wondered idly whether something as simple as a stonemason’s pattern book might affect the words chosen by the grieving. It might have been Mr Henry Daniel, Mason, whose fine memorial stands prominently in Nunhead Cemetery and who was, it seems, ‘for many years connected with the Highgate and Nunhead Cemeteries’. But more likely not, since he departed this life, rather than falling asleep.

20161022_47Between the two Camberwell cemeteries, One Tree Hill would offer a panoramic view across London, were it not for the fact that there are many more trees than one. The one true tree is an oak under which Queen Elizabeth is said to have rested in 1602 – though the present tree was planted only in 1905 by the leading lights of the splendidly-named Enclosure of Honor Oak Hill Protest Committee, and in any case it’s not clear what on earth she would have been doing there in the last year of her life. Perhaps she fell asleep there, but she did not then depart this life.

Brush up your Shakespeare

On the weekend of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death day, a curious commemoration ran along the south bank of the Thames. Thirty seven screens showed thirty seven short films, each summarising and encapsulating one of Shakespeare’s plays.

A lot of thought, wit and good humour had clearly gone into the making of the films. A lot of organisation and technical problem solving must have gone into getting the screens up and running (an achievement emphasised as much as undermined by the fact that on the first day quite a lot of them didn’t work). So it was a shame that even when it all worked, it didn’t really quite work.

Joan of Arc and the London Eye

There were several overlapping reasons for that, some more obvious than others. Each film was trying to do a lot, with a mixture of scenes from staged performances and scenes shot in the locations where the plays were set. Sound was an inevitable problem: quieter dialogue got lost altogether and even the more energetic action stood little chance against passing trains. And it is the nature of the experience that you always arrive in the middle, trying to make sense of things without a great deal of context (and long drawn out credits did little to encourage people to wait for the beginning again). The Shakespearean in our little group was a bit confused. The non-Shakespearean was baffled.

Titus Andromicus under Hungerford Bridge

And yet. Some scenes worked really well. Petruchio chasing Kate round a villa in Padua was visually clear with rapid fire dialogue which was almost all audible. Modern dress Henvy VI on the streets of Spitalfields, interspersed with library footage of rioting and disconcertingly anachronistic decapitations, had enough visual power to hold attention even when the words were inaudible and incomprehensible.


The idea of making films like these was a great one. The idea of bringing Shakespeare’s art to life on screens along the river was another great one. But two great ideas combined don’t necessarily add up to a great experience.

All of that is another reminder – if one were needed – about the need to design services to meet the needs of users in the circumstances in which they actually are rather than in some idealised form it would be convenient for them to be. But those are thoughts for another time and place. Shakespeare can stand up to some pretty rough treatment, and often has done. But these films could be more powerful shown in a different way. I hope we haven’t seen the last of them.


Harvesting sunshine

A walk in the Cotswold countryside to the slightly unlikely destination of a solar farm. The panels are in long lines, following the slope of the field, protected by strong metal fences, warnings of death and lines of cameras – but with not a single person anywhere to be seen. SecurityThere is a public footpath through the middle and around the perimeter which hasn’t exactly been blocked but which avoids attracting any attention to itself – only the Ordnance Survey offers any confidence that it exists at all. I wonder whether to be a walker here is to be instantly suspicious, but the cameras do not turn, and even poking a camera over the fence prompts no reaction.

The solar panels stand in grassland which would be hard and inefficient to keep tidy with machinery. There is of course a simpler and long-established method for keeping parkland tidy – and so the impersonal modernity of renewable power generation is supported by some gently grazing sheep. It’s tempting to call it Combined Sheep and Power.

Combined Sheep and Power

Along the way, the light and clouds keep shifting, the threatened downpour never quite materialising.