Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Explorations in time and space

Is this the best year ever for the exploration of the Solar System? The first detailed pictures and data of Pluto and its moons; The first landing on a comet; And yesterday's, not entirely unexpected, announcement by NASA that there is water on Mars in sufficient quantities to form streams and interact with the landscape in a similar manner to Earth. Any one of these would be jaw-dropping enough. We are becoming confident that we can understand - and see - processes going on 4 billion miles away.

And how ironic that if we look back a tiny amount in time - say four thousand years - we have almost no idea about what our ancestors were up to. Mrs C. and I spent the weekend on a fascinating tour of the prehistoric landscape of Wiltshire led by an experienced archaeologist. We looked at henges and barrows, marvelled at the intricate gold and bronze artefacts in the museums and pondered the meaning of such enigmatic shapes as the Stonehenge Cursus and Durrington Walls. And you can make up almost any story you like because nobody knows anything, they can only infer from the evidence, most of which relates to the dead. We don't know why they built Stonehenge or Avebury. We don't know why they buried people in long barrows, then switched to round. We don't know why they moved stones around inside the henges and what those stones meant to them, and why they ceased to use the sites hundreds of years before the Romans brought these islands into the modern historical era.

We do know that they aligned their buildings with the solstices and can infer, from the dating of the huge animal remains at Durrington, that they gathered in great numbers at the time of the winter solstice for feasting. What did they think as the sun rose on the shortest day of the year? Would it fail to return unless they implored it?  Did their ancestors live on up there, or on the Moon?

We know what the Moon is made of, and comets, and even that tiny remote Pluto has its own atmosphere, mountains and smooth plains. But why Wiltshire is covered with enigmatic monuments to a skilled people who, alas, left us not a word to tell their story - we are unlikely to discover.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Bad-mouthing the PM, or, Who's telling porkies?

A few years ago Lord Ashcroft, a wealthy supporter of the Conservative party, donated a lot of money to assist in the election campaign. He hoped to be given ministerial office as a reward. When it failed to come through, he resorted to writing a book about the Prime Minister and its publication this week, serialised in the Daily Mail, has included some fascinating insights into the early political life of our leader.

A distinguished Oxford contemporary claims Cameron once took part in an outrageous initiation ceremony at a Piers Gaveston event, involving a dead pig. His extraordinary suggestion is that the future PM inserted a private part of his anatomy into the animal’s mouth.
The setting was ... one of the finest quadrangles in Oxford’s Christ Church college. Often, the trio would be listening to the Seventies rock band Supertramp, and bantering inconsequentially about their love lives while getting stoned.

I am shocked. Shocked. To think that a man who regularly briefs the Queen on the management of her government could listen to Supertramp. I heard one of their records in the mid 70s and stopped listening after a few minutes and never heard them again.

As to the other revelations - well, the pig didn't mind, Cameron presumably didn't mind and it's going to keep the gag-writers and punsters happy for a while. And it probably isn't true, given the anonymity of the source and the weasel phrase "claims". I mean, I could "claim" that Lord Ashcroft got his money through crime, fraudulent accounting and the vilest forms of abuse of power. Has the noble Lord denied this claim? Must be guilty then.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Has Corbyn put his Foot in it?

This has been an astonishing year in British politics and it keeps getting more so. The Labour party has elected the most unlikely of candidates - Jeremy Corbyn - as its leader in scenes reminiscent of the election of Michael Foot, following James Callaghan's departure in 1979. Foot, a respected conscience for the Left and a man of considerable intellectual achievement, was also a non-establishment figure who believed he could change politics by doing it his way. He failed: up against the resurgent Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher, as passionate about her politics as he was about his, he did not appear as a credible Prime Minister.

Cameron is not Thatcher but he has led his party to what we all thought would never happen - a majority in the Commons and the routing of the leaders of the other parties (SNP excepted, of course). Labour has gone for the passionate man of conscience once again, a leader whose own loyalty to the leadership when he was on the backbenches was zero and who believes he can reach out directly to the electorate without the need of a media image. Sadly, we (as an electorate) can only form our opinion of the man through the media image and if he takes no positive steps to project one then it will projected for him, and given the hostility of most of the media to Labour, he will working under a huge disadvantage.

Even so, one might have thought he would have some sort of honeymoon period. Yet just three days after his election he was pictured at the Battle of Britain memorial service not singing (or mouthing, anyway) the National Anthem. Just as Michael Foot's image never recovered from his appearance at the Cenotaph wearing what was described as a "donkey jacket", the label of being disloyal will now be stuck on Corbyn and his disdain for managing the media will mean that no counter-image is put up against it. 

Does he really want to be Prime Minister? He won't last very long if he continues to give that impression, no matter how enthusiastic the crowds at rallies. It only took the Tories a couple of years to silence the "quiet man" [Ian Duncan Smith: Ed]. If Corbyn is still there in two years he will have done well.

Friday, September 11, 2015

"Great British" programmes that cannot fail

As the nation goes "Bake-Off" mad, and other similar titles are enjoying success on the screen, here are my pitches for the next ratings sensation. Commissioning editors, you know where to come.

Windermere? Rutland Water? Ruislip Lido? All worthy bodies of water. You can paddle in them, fish in them and chuck away your cigarette stubs in them. But which is best? Find out in "The Great British Lake-off".

The smooth ascent of a Boeing 737...the imperceptible lift of a Cessna...the gut-wrenching, pushed-back-against-your-seat thrust of a Learjet. Aircraft from around the country fly into Heathrow and out again as we decide the winner of "The Great British Take-Off".

There's cod and haddock, of course. But aficionados of fish and chips know there is only one type of fish to sample late on a Friday night after five pints. Yet there are so many ways of preparing and cooking it. Whose methods will prevail in "The Great British Hake-Off"?

Nothing can match the rivalry of keen gardeners, especially those with immaculate lawns to maintain. We've scoured the country to find the finest exponents of grass management, leaf removal and aeration techniques. One of them will be crowned winner of "The Great British Rake-Off"

[As there is only one qualifying village, plans for the forthcoming series of "The Great British Thake-Off" have been shelved: Ed]

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Dodging the bullets

I took the tube to Finchley Road on Tuesday and Wednesday for rehearsals and then a final performance with my AmDram group.  On Tuesday the outward journey was fine. I looked idly at my phone, as one does, during a lull and noted that the Met had severe delays, and no trains were running to Uxbridge, though there were services up to Amersham and Watford. Ho, hum. Fortunately, by the time I was ready for the return journey, this had turned round and I waited only two minutes for my train whilst hapless Watford-bound passengers could only stand and stare. Yesterday as I arrived at dear old Ruislip Manor station, but was still in the street, my phone once again displayed the dread warning of doom (for a new problem, not a continuation) and this was compounded by the arrival of a train exactly in time for me to miss it*. Not to worry, only six minutes to the next one so no harm done.

Bearing in mind that tube strikes were threatened for these very days - which would have made it impossible for me to make my appearance before my adoring fans (all two of them), there being no other practicable way of getting there - and you may imagine my feelings of gratitude for a successful couple of trips.

*Yes, the old problem of dashing through the ticket machines and up 42 steps, knowing all the while that the sight at the top would be passengers inside the train smirking as the doors closed whilst I remain without.