Former Glory

In the Sixties and Seventies the Poet Laureate John Betjeman campaigned vigorously (and eccentrically) to prevent the destruction of Britain’s great 19th-century buildings – most notably Euston Arch, which formed part of Euston Station in London, one of several vast Victorian railway stations built in the capital during the 19th century. Sadly, he failed to preserve the Arch, but he succeeded later in saving St Pancras.

Euston Station, along with the Arch, was entirely demolished, and replaced with a hideous, now shabby and crumbling set of 1960s buildings. It is no joy to depart from or arrive at today’s Euston Station. The low-ceilinged railway shed is a stark contrast to the soaring arches of those at King’s Cross and St Pancras. It is hardly surprising that Euston Station is now also being considered for demolition and redevelopment. No voices are raised in favour of its preservation, as far as I know.

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But, of course, tastes change in time, and we sometimes come to appreciate buildings that we initially loathe, and vice versa. For example, I now loathe the childish post-modernist buildings of the 1980s that borrow ideas from everywhere and have none of their own, though they seemed quite fun at the time. But I still loathe the fake-archaic styles of Poundbury that Prince Charles loves so much, and which represents a complete rejection of progress and change, and I suspect that I always will.

Architectural la-la land.

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There are some great buildings from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, but so much was so badly built, using new and untested materials, that much of it became ugly, stained and unusable in just a year or two. It leaked, or people peed in it. These were times, also, when architects believed that they knew better how people should live than people themselves. Vision is one thing. but prescription is another.

Large Victorian buildings, on the other hand, were generally well built, and though they suffered the usual wear and tear, they stood and continued to stand reliably and safely, and continued to be enjoyed. Fortunately, destruction is no longer the fashion, and many of them have been restored and incorporated cleverly into larger schemes that combine the modern and the old, imaginatively and beautifully. Paddington Station, Marylebone Station, Liverpool Street Station, Fenchurch Street Station, Kings Cross Station and St Pancras Station are still largely intact and will probably stand for many centuries to come.

I was changing railway stations in London a few weeks ago, crossing the road from Kings Cross to St Pancras. It was a sunny evening and London looked splendid. Though building work and restoration in this vast area of railway shunting grounds, gasometers and warehouses isn’t complete, it’s wonderful, especially, to see King’s Cross restored to its former glory. For years the splendidly  plain functionalist façade was obscured by a hideous Sixties pre-fab-style ticket hall.

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Now the ticket hall has gone, and a vast modern replacement has been constructed to the side of the station, though it looks as if it has actually grown from the yellow brick.

The entire area between and behind the two stations has been brought to life with restaurants, bars, concert halls, apartment buildings and offices, giving the lie to the notion that areas surrounding railway stations must always be shabby. At the heart of the whole complex stand two great railway stations/hotels of very different styles-  Kings Cross (1852), presciently modern and simple,  and St Pancras (1868) unashamedly flamboyant and gothic.

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Would Sir John Betjeman like what’s been done? Probably not entirely. He would decry the modern additions, I believe, but might at least have applauded their daring and the quality of their construction, certainly in preference to the shabby make-do of the Sixties and Seventies.

To Scrape or Not to Scrape?

I gave my first concert on a plastic reed on Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t the Strauss Oboe Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall, fortunately, but rather an intimate family concert to celebrate her 95th birthday at my mother’s sheltered accommodation in Salisbury (see Being at your own Pre-Funeral). I believe the average age was a musically tolerant 80.

I am an amateur musician, and have been playing the oboe for nearly fifty years, on and off. Over the last twenty years, more off than on, unfortunately, though there have been bursts of activity when I’ve found a piano-playing friend. I’ve always struggled with the making of cane oboe reeds. It takes hours, most of them are no good, and the good ones last two weeks or so. I’ve also found that I can’t buy ready-made reeds that suit me. So recently I’ve become rather excited about the new ‘plastic’ oboe reeds produced by Legere (see The Artificial and the Natural).

Well, I bought four of them and whilst bicycling in the Dordogne two weeks ago I adjusted them to my own liking – ruthlessly removing the hump-and-spine features of the ‘European Scrape’. I don’t mean I did this whilst actually bicycling. I mean at the end of the day in hotel bedrooms when there was nothing else to do.

I should point out that they are expensive, which I take as a measure of how far oboists will go to solve the reed problem.

I am, on the whole, pleased with the result and I got one of the four reeds to the stage of being the best reed in the box. So I played on it on Saturday – Poulenc, Bach, Boismortier, Stravinsky and Rossini, with my brother (flute), his partner (violin), and my two nephews (piano and bassoon). The result did not provoke a riot.

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The oboe world is buzzing with curiosity about these reeds, so I’ve added my own comments in a short YouTube video – To Scrape or Not to Scrape.. I strongly believe that within a few years we’ll all be using them. Legere will inevitably produce different varieties and their materials will improve. Perhaps the price might also decline.

It’s years since I’ve played the oboe as frequently as I now intend to. Plastic has changed my life. Forty years ago when I began to play the oboe I could never have imagined that I might believe this.

Peas in a Pod

I bought four plastic oboe reeds the other day (see The Artificial and the Natural). They’re insubstantial but they cost a lot more than plastic bags. I won’t say how much because you’d wonder why anyone would buy them. But every oboist in his or her heart hopes that these plastic reeds will solve the nightmare problem that impedes our playing of the instrument. We’ve been waiting for them for decades and their arrival is nearly as exciting as the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence might be (see Out There).

They’re made in Canada, presumably by machines, and they all look alike, and all utterly different from the cane reeds we make ourselves and agonise over. They look more like ampules or syringes, something with a medical purpose rather than a musical one. But the most extraordinary fact is that they feel and play just like the ‘real’ thing.

I made the two on my left. The second has been on life-support for months. We oboists do anything to keep a good reed going, but organic substances don’t survive the mouth indefinitely.

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But,  strangely, these plastic reeds aren’t peas in a pod. Each one, though apparently identical, plays differently. Oboists all over the world have been buzzing with excitement since they were launched by Legere a few months ago, and we’re all wondering and discussing what we can and should do with them. They’re marketed as playable straight out of the box, but none of the four I’ve bought could possibly qualify even as a practice reed, let alone as a concert reed. But I knew that when I bought them.

So, all over the world there are oboists ‘scraping’ them, taking out the set of tools they use for cane reeds and adjusting them from the fixed profile they’re manufactured with to a profile that they’re used to, in my case an old-fashioned French scrape that produces a reedier tone than is currently fashionable.

Scraping is done with a reed-knife, mine a lovely implement made of Japanese steel strengthened with tungsten from the Hemerdon Mine in Devon. But scraping minute quantities of resinous plastic is a very different task from scraping cane. The blade seems sometimes to bite into the plastic. And I’m not yet sure whether my instincts about where exactly to reduce the thickness of the cane can be applied to plastic.

But I’ve had good results, more or less, and I’m hoping to use one of these four at a family concert on Saturday (see Being at your own Pre-Funeral). My hope is that if I can make two or three of these plastic reeds good enough then they will last for months rather than days and I will have years of happiness before me. The nightmares about oboe reeds (I have about ten a year) will be a thing of the past. I’m quite sure that within a few years plastic will predominate and there will be many different kinds to suit the tastes of all the different oboe ‘schools’.

I haven’t yet understood why all four of these new reeds are so much shorter than the two I made myself. Short should mean sharp, but we will know soon enough.

 

Out There

The night sky is more provocative when viewed from the countryside. In the city we barely notice it, but not only because there are more delightful things to distract us from looking – the night sky is obscured by the sodium yellow of streetlights and the glare of the high street. In the Dordogne, in the south west of France, the cosmos is harder to ignore, and  when I looked at it the other day it occurred to me that my feelings and thoughts probably didn’t differ markedly from the feelings and thoughts of prehistoric man as he gazed at the Milky Way 25,000 years ago from the mouth of his cave.

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He knew less about the world, about himself and about the universe, I suppose, though I’m sure he knew his constellations rather better than I know them (I only know the Plough). He had no other visual entertainment, at night, other than the embers of his fire. But he didn’t know anything about what he was looking at, about planets, galaxies, dark matter or the dark energy that is tearing the universe apart at every greater velocity, though, to be frank, we too know almost nothing about dark energy.

Perhaps he imagined that the stars spoke to him somehow, and augured good or ill for the weather or the availability of mammoth meat. Sadly, we know now that they didn’t and don’t. Millions of hours of signals analysis by SETI programs running whilst our PCs are at rest have as yet failed to find evidence of a signal in the noise.

But if there is one thing  I wish for in my lifetime (apart from world peace, the end of fundamentalist religions, universal democracy, a cure for cancer, the abolition of the unaccompanied madrigal and the Peruvian flute band) it is the discovery of extra terrestrial intelligence. Not just life, which would be interesting but neither amazing nor surprising, but intelligent life.

It will happen one day, though perhaps not soon. It won’t be communication, and it won’t be conversation unless we discover something even more remarkable, such as a Star Trek style warp drive that could take us or our signals faster than the speed of light. But simply to receive a ‘signal’ would be the most remarkable thing, to know that there are others out there, like us. And I believe they would be like us. Not to look at, of course, though I suspect they would have at least two eyes and at least two hands, but in terms of the cluster of things that go with intelligence.

Intelligence, the purposeful pursuit of knowledge, control and cooperation, is unimaginable without language, self-consciousness and thought, and the recognition by every intelligent creature that there are other intelligent creatures like them. Indeed language could only develop in a community of conscious creatures. And I believe that ethical systems inevitably follow, because one creature must, in virtue of language, be able to imagine itself as another. Perhaps even religion follows, at least for a while, until intelligence prevailed, though, to my mind, religion is false as science and a misleading foundation for value.

There must be intelligent life out there somewhere. We can’t be alone when there are billions of galaxies containing billions of stars. Even if intelligent life arrives late in the evolution of living things and doesn’t last long it would surely last long enough for there to be some ‘chatter’ radiating outwards (episodes of the alien version of The Archers, the Eurovision Song Contest, the speeches of Fidel Castro, and other entertainments) even if there were no formal signal replete with indicators of intelligence such as the atomic weights of the elements.

But if they set about sending a signal, what would they want to tell us? How to make fusion work? How to avoid annihilation? And what would we send them?

If I were the editor of transmissions into the unknown I would want to convey both knowledge and the idea of value. I doubt that intelligent life could evolve without both. So I would transmit the energy levels of fundamental particles, such as we currently understand them to be (or some such quantity if what I’ve suggested doesn’t make sense). These would indicate how far we’ve progressed in understanding the framework of the universe, and I presume they would be immediately recognisable in virtue of their ratios to each other. And I would send the whole of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

What else would be worth saying?

 

Control Freakery

I was astonished and appalled to hear of Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, especially because of the reasons he gave for it – that ‘Vladimir Putin has his country under control.’

I was reminded today, at the Gardens of Marqueyssac (8.80 EUR and open every day of the year), of how much I dislike control. The gardens comprise several acres of topiary overlooking the Dordogne. My friend Caroline and I bicycled from Siorac en Perigord, an easy mild up and down of about 20 km, on empty roads in bright late summer sunshine through a largely uncontrolled landscape. Uncontrolled, but not unmarked by man.

These gardens, by contrast, illustrate man’s appetite for crushing domination, his determination to tame, torture and distort nature so that nothing of wildness, or colour, or spontaneity remains. Of course, Topiary can be an amusing adjunct to a garden that is more than simply sculptural or architectural, a garden, for example, containing borders and flowers. Perhaps, for a very few moments, if you’re in the right kind of mood, a bush that looks like a bunny rabbit can amuse.

But if all that you can do with your trowel and your master’s degree in landscape architecture is trim and shape, then it’s not enough. If you like box and little else then these gardens might indeed be your Garden of Eden, but if you find it a gloomy shrub, and if its imperfections worry you, or if you dislike its sour smell, then these gardens will depress you, unless, in your view, control is the highest aspiration of mankind.

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I greatly prefer the illusion of wildness that the English Garden cultivates. If there is control (and of course there must be) then it is subtle. It is exerted only so that flowers and shrubs can thrive as themselves. Set the starting conditions and step back, barring a little weeding and dead-heading.

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So should it be in politics. What is it that Trump could possibly admire about the kind of control that  Putin has achieved, or, in fact, failed to achieve. Total control of the press, of the judiciary, and the political landscape. Total control over his own wealth. Total control over his henchmen – well, perhaps not entirely. Is Russia a country to emulate – where corruption is rife, where bureaucracy stifles enterprise, where homophobia and racism thrive and are not discouraged by the state or by the police, where lies surround every foreign military adventure?

Is that what Trump wants for his own country? This kind of total control?

Look at these ailing, distorted box hedges and lament. Gardens need freedom, as do nations.

 

Solutions, Ideas and Creativity

I watched The Man Who Knew Infinity the other day, in which the fabulous Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) didn’t play the usual fortunate dimwit, but rather the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who not only knew infinity, but could perceive complex mathematical theories, and the properties of numbers almost instantly as if he were simply looking out over a landscape and seeing objects that were just there.

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There’s a moment in the film when his sponsor, the mathematician G H Hardy (played rather splendidly by Jeremy Irons) asks him where his ideas come from. Ramanujan looks puzzled. It’s a question he cannot answer. He simply ‘sees’ theories, or solutions, or patterns in mathematical or logical space. Where he has trouble is in developing painstaking proofs of his theorems so that others can be persuaded of their truth, others who lack his capacity instantly and ‘simply’ to see the correctness of a theorem.

Mozart, it is said, could simply ‘see’ a whole symphony, in all its complexity, all at once.

In fact the question ‘where do your ideas come from?’ is a misleading one. We tend to ask it when someone’s gift of solving something, or creating something, is so extreme as to seem unimaginable to us more ordinary mortals. But we’re all performing the trick of seeing solutions and ideas every minute of every day.

I was thinking about this when I was designing a system for a client in Peterborough two weeks ago. My job was to work out how time@work, our software for Professional Services Management, could meet the requirements of an engineering firm that designs control systems for factory floors. The challenge was that they already had a very sophisticated system which, for one reason or another, they needed to replace. I spent the first two days trying to understand their current methods and procedures, thinking all the time, ‘How on earth are we going to do all that?’

But time@work is a flexible system, a set of tools that you can put together in many millions of different ways, almost in the way that you might construct a tune, or a symphony, from notes. And suddenly I ‘saw’ how to fit our components together to do what they needed.

‘Where did the idea come from?’

Well, that’s a pointless question. It didn’t come from anywhere. There is no ‘process’, no algorithm you can apply to derive a solution from the facts, the requirements, from the bare bones of a problem. True, you can sometimes attempt a ‘brute force’ approach to problem solving, trying every permutation of components until, hey presto, the pieces snap together, but the ability to recognise a ‘good snap’ when you see it just moves the mystery to another place.

Finding solutions to problems in business procedures and systems isn’t easy, though it doesn’t rank with ‘knowing infinity’, but it shares the same characteristics. Imagination of any kind isn’t a ‘process’, or a method. All of us, all the time, simply do things and never think to ask ‘where the idea came from.’ We think up sentences, and put our ideas into words. We don’t ask ourselves ‘Where did that sentence just come from?’ Where does what we want to say ever come from? Where would we look for the process that generates sentences? And, come to that, where do recipes come from, or bicycle routes?

The great gifts that geniuses such as Ramanujan and Mozart possessed are the gifts that we all possess, with the volume turned up very high indeed. Perhaps if we could all do what they could, the supper would never get cooked, and man might soon become extinct.

I am with the great philosopher Wittgenstein on the issue of so-called ‘philosophical problems.’ We invent them, and keep our philosophers in (ill-paid) work, by asking illegitimate questions. ‘Where do ideas come from?’ Nowhere. Somewhere. Everywhere. They just happen. We simply ‘see’ solutions. Most of us.

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Hardly Surprising

It is hardly surprising that prehistoric men and women selected the Dordogne as their get-away destination of choice 25,000 years ago and more. The roads are empty, the landscape is beautiful, the climate is pleasant, the food is delicious (though goose features a little too often on the menu), and the land is fertile and well watered. It must have been the perfect place for painting and sculpting, hunting woolly mammoths, or simply chilling at the mouths of caves – a haven then, as now, from the filth and pollution of the city. And property prices are not high.

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You can even get a moderately good cup of tea, which I put down to the English influence between 1154 and 1453 (the anglophile Eleanor of Aquitaine, in particular, so splendidly and authentically played by Katherine Hepburn in A Lion in Winter, poured tea with great delicacy, and was particularly fond of Darjeeling, which I do not prefer). And if cave life palled in prehistoric times, the area is dotted with beautiful country hotels and restaurants. True, there were no digital networks, but there were spears.

How like ours their hands were! Five fingers!

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Human life hasn’t changed in its essentials in 25,000 years. Judging by this prehistoric cave mural humans looked roughly the same then as now. After all, only around 1,250 generations of human life have come and gone since then (if we assume that most children were born to mothers aged around 20). Evolution has rendered the male jaw less resolute, but you probably needed more of a jaw to hunt the woolly mammoth than you need in today’s gentle work place. But the leather miniskirt is still popular.

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Then, as now, humans probably sat at the mouths of caves (once they’f finished hunting or gathering) to talk about how so-and-so said such-and-such a thing about so-and-so to so-and-so. Gossip has always been the mainstay of human life and no doubt it provided the impetus that got homo sapiens through the ensuing 25,000 years.

I and my friend Caroline are bicycling in the Dordogne for a week. It is quite hard work, rather up and down, and the temperature is high. But it is glorious countryside. We don’t bother with cave paintings and the other dank delights of pre-history. We got that sorted at least twenty years ago. But yesterday we were pleased to pass through the village of Sireuil where a replica of the great Venus of Sireuil  stands by the road as you approach. The original was found in 1900 when a local famer stumbled over the remains of a pre-historic art gallery. Even then, the countryside was attuned to the possibilities of tourism.

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