London Loop 13-14 – Harefield to Hatch End

Some random thoughts from today’s walk. And a few pictures.

Batchworth Heath

    • On a glorious June day, I met almost nobody in walking almost ten miles, including a stretch of two or three miles where I didn’t see a single soul.

White Heath Farm

    • Whoever knitted together stretches of path and field and woodland to make the London loop was a genius. Part of that genius is in making the gaps in the modern world seem much larger than they really are. But even genius can’t make everything vanish.

Second pylon

    • Another coal post, a relic of the 1860s, marking as it happens the boundary between Hertfordshire and long defunct Middlesex – and with a line clearly visible across the road, where modern road surfacing is still managed along those ancient boundaries.

Coal post on the Middx Herts boundary

    • I lost count of the buttercup covered meadows I crossed.

Woodcock Hill

    • The Loop is the London Outer Orbital Path, which makes calling it the London Loop redundant. On the other hand, just calling it the Loop would be incomprehensible. But I seem to be in good company. Or at least official company.
    • Navigating the Loop is entirely straightforward, except when it isn’t. Here you are on a fine broad path stretching enticingly up the slope ahead of you. There are no signposts or waymarks of any kind. Should you forge ahead? No, you should take the path on the left through the tiny gap in the fence, which barely looks like a path at all, even when you are standing right by it.

The way ahead

    • Wembley Stadium is more rural than you might think – and last seen in section 4, fifty or sixty miles back round the loop.

A prospect of Wembley

    • Trains on the London and North Western Railway, now operating as the London Overground, are air conditioned. This is no small thing.

LNWR Overground

  • It was a beautiful day for a walk.

Variable randomness

The main point of this post is to remind myself of how to solve a problem in the unlikely event that I encounter it again. If anybody else with the same problem stumbles across it, so much the better.

In these modern times, it is easy to quote a tweet on a wordpress blog post – you just put in its url and a kind of magic happens. Back in the olden days, life wasn’t as easy as that, but there was a third party plug in called Blackberry Pie which performed an equivalent function. It broke with an api change years ago, but I still have a handful of its shortcodes scattered across long ago posts.

Most of them are easy enough to fix – the shortcode includes the full link to a tweet which is easily extracted. But Blackberry Pie was smart enough to cope with just the tweet id, and there is no apparent way of recreating the full tweet url from that, since links always include the twitter username.

So I turned to Twitter itself for help.

And help there quickly came.

That looked good in theory, but I couldn’t make it work in practice non-programmatically, even with the authentication keys. Not to worry, more help was to hand.

Well I don’t particularly python, but I was game to try, though this was starting to turn into a more serious enterprise than the size of the task seemed to warrant.

But then I struck gold – though I nearly missed it.

My first thought was that this had missed the point altogether. The link structure

still seemed to need me to know what to put in for the placeholder Tweet_Maker_User_Name, which was precisely the problem I had in the first place. But then it occurred to me that perhaps it was a special code which effectively did the job of the api call and that only Tweet_ID needed to be substituted. And so it proved. The link resolved to the full standard url, username and all. Job done.

But I was still a bit curious about the apparently generic username placeholder and wondered whether it was documented. A search produced precisely one result, a Stackoverflow discussion of the question I had started with. One contributor suggested the Tweet_Maker_User_Name approach – and was squashed by another who made the same misjudgement I had. But the final reply gives the answer I had begun to suspect, that the link structure is not so much


Indeed, even substituting a valid but incorrect username doesn’t cause a problem, the link still resolves to the correct full url, fixing the wrong username as it goes.

Which leaves me with the intriguing twin thoughts that the use of usernames in twitter urls is to help human readers rather than having any technical significance, and that this redundancy appears to be very little known.

And a final serendipitous twist. The Stackoverflow question was posted on 22 May 2009, six years almost to the day before I was looking for the answer. It’s attracted a leisurely eight responses over those six years, the last and most useful of which was posted on 17 May 2015, immaculately timed to be there when I looked for it.

Thanks to Simon Dawson, Chris Yiu and Josh

And further thanks to Adrian Short for providing the perfect postscript:

All long help threads should have a sticky globally-editable post at the top saying 'DEAR PEOPLE FROM THE FUTURE: Here's what we've figured out so far ...'

Crotchet quavers

A decade is a long time in digital. Surviving one revolution is not enough any more.

There’s a small online music retailer called Crotchet. Its website offers a huge and eclectic range, intelligently curated. I have been buying CDs there on and off for 15 years or more.

Today I got an email confirming that a disc from my latest order is in the post. At the bottom was a terse announcement that the business is closing. The website has vanished, leaving only a longer version of the same announcement. The owners are apparently retiring. They haven’t sold, perhaps couldn’t sell, the business as a going concern.

I don’t know the story behind that, but I can make some guesses. Having eaten many of the physical locations where people used to buy music, the web is now consuming businesses, such as Crotchet, which had dematerialised the shop but still sold the product in physical form.

I don’t really want to buy CDs any more. They used to be an efficient way of moving data, but now they’re not. Buying the data not the disc is increasingly common and increasingly attractive. But even that is becoming old fashioned in a works of instant availability streaming.

The design of Crotchet’s website never really changed. What they were selling last month is fundamentally what they were selling a decade ago. That used to be enough for businesses to cascade through the generations. It’s not any more.

Perhaps this is my last CD.

Sur Incises

Music stands

The double bass is not one of the great solo instruments. Those who play it do not normally have starring roles in music in the classical tradition. It is not an instrument associated with drama and extroversion. It is large and often lugubrious, its very existence can be treated as an extended joke.

It was a joy to see all those stereotypes confounded in 20 minutes of bravura composition and performance at the Barbican last week. Nicolas Crosse, with the Ensemble Intercontemperain played a new piece by a composer I had never heard of – Asymétriades, by Yann Robin.

Crosse made the double bass produce a range of sounds I could not have imagined with an energy and attack second to none, partnered by a small ensemble of 15 players, who not only provided a foil for the soloist but themselves produced sounds which it was sometime impossible to work out quite where they had come from or what combination of instruments might possibly have produced them.

There was one other tiny detail which made the performance novel for me. The ensemble and the conductor had printed music on ordinary music stands. But the soloist had something a little strange, a tiny music stand on which you might have arranged a postcard or, at a pinch, a miniature score. From where I was sitting, I could see no more than that, so it was only after the piece ended and the stage was being rearranged that I saw the stand had in fact held an ipad.

A moment’s googling shows that ipad music readers are an entire category of their own (and have been around for several years, which suggests I don’t get out enough). It’s an unsurprising, inevitable development, even if I still can’t quite work out how Crosse was turning the pages.

But the question I am left wondering about is whether the ipad was intrinsic to the performance. The solo part was the most unrelentingly demanding of any I have ever seen. It wasn’t at all obvious when Crosse might have had the chance to turn a page had there had been pages to turn. Perhaps a way could be found, but there must be some limit case (even if this was not it) where the intersection of the technical demands of performance and the intentions of composer and performer make sheet music something close to a point of failure. And at that point, the ipad becomes essential: it gives the composer latitude to do things which he or she might otherwise be constrained from doing.

After the end of the main concert and after most of the audience dispersed, Michael Barenboim played Pierre Boulez’ two Anthèmes. He was alone on a stage large enough for a symphony orchestra, standing behind a music stand in a small pool of light. In the closing moments, the lights slowly dimmed to a complete blackout, leaving the hall in darkness. Except for the pale blue glow of an invisible ipad, illuminating Barenboim’s face from below.

The video below is a performance by Barenboim of Anthème 2, given at the Proms in 2012 performed with great virtuosity by both the soloist and the invisible sound engineers – with an entirely conventional music stand. Or rather with seven of them, lined up across the stage. He never turns a page: when he runs out of music on one stand, he simply moves on to the next.

Not all solutions are digital.

London Loop 11½-12 – West Drayton to Harefield

Black Jack's Lock

Before yesterday, I had never heard of the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act 1861 (and, alas, neither has Duty was payable on coal brought into the metropolitan area and boundary markers were erected at every plausible – and implausible – point at which that boundary might be crossed. It turns out that a surprisingly large number survive, most cryptically labelled ‘ACT 24 & 25 VICT CAP 42’ (using the reference system for acts of parliament used until superseded by the gloriously not-quite-self-referential Acts of Parliament Numbering and Citation Act).


Five DVDs and three questions

A new laptop with a new operating system to install.

Five DVDs

There are five DVDs, labelled:

  1. “1 – disc 1 of 2”
  2. “1 – disc 2 of 2”
  3. “2 – disc 1 of 2”
  4. “2 – disc 2 of 2”
  5. “3 – disc 1 of 1”

Five DVDs

First question

Q: In what order will the discs be needed?

A: 1, 3, 5, 3, 4, 1, 2.


Second question

Q: How do you install things from DVDs to a laptop with no dvd drive?

A: Through an external drive, of course, if you have one handy.

Third question

Q: Why is it like that?

A: There’s no knowing. But…

Installation media used to keep up with the machines they were aimed at. That wasn’t always good: Microsoft Office used to come on about 25 3½" discs, which was a daunting sight. But at least there was a hole to put them into. Floppy discs gave way to CDs, then CDs to DVDs – and there it seems to have stuck.

For other uses, DVDs have been overtaken by memory sticks. You would only need one, which would save on repeated disc swapping. And instead of having to put DVDs into an external drive most people are unlikely to have, memory sticks plug directly into ubiquitous USB slots. But this rather obvious solution has been completely ignored.

This is a top of the range, rather expensive laptop (alas, not mine). But nobody seems to have thought it worth troubling with the basic user experience of switching it on for the first time.

It’s harder to break away from the past than we like to think.

Move along now


Metropolitan Police: No loitering around this premise


Premises is an odd word. Like trousers, and few other words in English, it is grammatically plural while being physically singular. English isn’t the only language which does this: in Polish, doors – drzwi – are always plural, quietly implying a grandeur which single, slighter, entrances tend to lack.

Premise is an odd word. Unlike trouser, which doesn’t mean anything as a noun, premise not only has a meaning, but one which doesn’t obviously relate to premises (I have seen it suggested that premises comes from being the thing referenced by a legal document, or its premise, but have no idea whether that’s correct). Many English words have multiple meanings, but I can’t immediately think of another example of a noun where the singular and plural forms have two so very different meanings.

The plural of premise is premises.

The singular of premises is not premise.

Arguments start with a premise, of course. But it is arguments starting at premises which probably concern the police more.


The banality of public transport

After the end of the world
after death
I found myself in the midst of life

Every day, I would get the bus to the university. It rattled along stopping frequently, busy at almost every stop. There was just one request stop on the route, understandably so, because there was not much there. Occasionally somebody would ring the bell to stop the bus, but not often. On one side of the road there was a scruffy yard with the maintenance depot for municipal buses. On the other, a path going up a low scrub-covered hill, with some kind of sculpture just visible at the top.

It took me a while to realise that that hill had been a concentration camp and the sculpture a monument to those who had died there. The camp itself had been completely erased by the retreating Germans and almost no trace remains. It was the site of Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, later to become famous as the setting for the film Schindler’s List, but though the book on which it was based had been published a year or two before, the film was still several years in the future. Nobody much seemed to go there.

Trolleybus to MajdanekAnother time, another bus. I was staying with a friend in a small town just outside Lublin. We got the bus into the city. An open green area stretched away to the left. We passed a trolleybus going in the opposite direction with “Majdanek” on the destination blind. It’s just a place, a small suburb on the edge of a small city, a place where buses go. And it’s another concentration camp, another place where unbuilt green is the colour of memory. I’d heard of Majdanek, of course, it’s a name heavy in notoriety. But it had been an abstract place, I couldn’t have begun to find it on a map, I wouldn’t have known how to set about going there. Majdanek was a place of industrialised murder. But before it was that, it was just a place, and now it is just a place again.

Krakow departure boardStand on the platform of the railway station in Kraków and you will hear the same almost but not quite incomprehensible announcements of every station everywhere. Trains to Wieliczka, to Gdynia, to Poznań, to Katowice (fast or slow). Trains to Oświęcim. Trains to Auschwitz. Nobody turns a hair. Why should they? Catch the Auschwitz train if you want to go to Rudawa or Trzebinia. Catch the Auschwitz train if, these days, you want to go to the new station with the hard to pronounce foreign name, Kraków Business Park. Catch the Auschwitz train if you want to go to the end of the line.

The lines at the top of the post are taken from ‘In the midst of life’ by Tadeusz Różewicz, translated by Adam Czerniawski

On not going to Auschwitz

It is thirty years since I didn’t go to Auschwitz.  The memory of not going has never left me.

In 1985, I was living in Kraków, just 40 miles on the slow stopping train from Oświęcim. I could have gone there at any time, but I didn’t. And then I could have gone on a very particular day, but in the end, I didn’t go then either.

It started with a conversation with my cousin. I had been staying with him in Wrocław, where he then lived, but before the war he and his – my – family had lived in Tarnów, a small town almost 50 miles due east of Kraków. It is from Tarnów that the first transport of prisoners set out for Auschwitz on 14 June 1940.

Prisoners of the first transport to Auschwitz at Tarnów railway station, 14 June 1940

My cousin’s brother was one of the 728 men on that transport. He was prisoner number 71. He was 17 years old. He died at Auschwitz on 15 July 1941.

Zbyszek Matys

Auschwitz was liberated by the advancing Soviet army on 27 January 1945, seventy years ago today. On 2 July 1947, the site became a museum. And sometime that year or in 1948, my cousin went to visit. It is not within my power to describe that experience, and nor did my cousin have the words. Sometimes only poetry can carry truth.


When all the women in the transport
had their heads shaved
four workmen with brooms made of birch twigs
swept up
and gathered up the hair

Behind clean glass
the stiff hair lies
of those suffocated in gas chambers
there are pins and side combs
in this hair

The hair is not shot through with light
is not parted by the breeze
is not touched by any hand
or rain or lips

In huge chests
clouds of dry hair
of those suffocated
and a faded plait
a pigtail with a ribbon
pulled at school
by naughty boys.

The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948

Tadeusz Różewicz
Translated by Adam Czerniawski

My cousin had not been back since that first visit almost forty years earlier. Now he had decided that he should go again. I think he felt it as a compulsion, as an obligation, rather than a wish. He did not want to go alone, and asked me to accompany him. I am not sure why he chose me. I was both close and alien. We were family, connected by blood and history. But we were strangers, communicating in my stumbling Polish, interspersed with occasional words of German. And perhaps it was because I was both those things that he felt able to ask me.

We made arrangements. He would travel from Wrocław to Kraków, stay the night in my flat and then the next day we would go together to Auschwitz.

The day came. I prepared dinner, to his great astonishment, as he found the idea that a man might cook almost impossibly bizarre. And he told me that we were not after all going to Auschwitz. Four decades on, when the moment came, he could not bear to go. And so the next day, we didn’t go to Auschwitz.

Instead, we went the other way, to Tarnów. First we went to a small bakery, where my cousin insisted that we buy napoleonki – cream cakes providing a faint echo across the centuries that there are still places where Napoleon is remembered as a hero. Then we walked to the cemetery. At the gates, we paused to buy candles and matches, then went to find our family graves. There the ashes of my grandfather who died in exile, unable in life to return to his homeland, are interred with my cousin who died in Auschwitz, never leaving his country, but torn from it into a time and place of nightmare.

We tidied the graves a little, brushing away leaves and soil. Then we lit our candles, paused, turned, and walked away, leaving their small lights flickering behind us.

Tarnów Old Cemetery

We went back to the station from which that first transport had left, our train following the first part of the route it had travelled. At Kraków we parted.

That was the day I did not go to Auschwitz.

Minor editing changes and a photograph added, 27 January 2016