20 October 2008

The noblest river in Europe

Sir Roger made several reflections on the greatness of the British Nation; as, that one Englishman could beat three Frenchmen; that we could never be in danger of Popery so long as we took care of our fleet; that the Thames was the noblest river in Europe...with many other honest prejudices which naturally cleave to the heart of a true Englishman (Joseph Addison, The Spectator, 20 May 1712)

Aside from the petty prejudices of the age, the essayist Joseph Addison was right in espousing the prominence and supremacy of the Thames: its waters were the lifeblood of the burgeoning imperial capital and the flow of the river helped to place London at the centre of the world's economy by the 18th and 19th centuries. Until the 20th century the Thames was a busy thoroughfare of commerce, a provider of sustenance and a receptacle of refuse. While the river is still a busy route, its uses in the 21st century are typically recreational, with a great many tour boats plying up and down its length, and a minority also use it to commute to work from one of the river's many ferry piers. Cargo shipping moved to the Docklands and then further afield when larger vessels and containerisation meant that the Thames was too cramped, and in the past 50 years the worst excesses of industrial pollution has been expunged and marine life has returned to the river that was a biological wasteland in the 1950s. For example, recently scientists have documented the return of seahorses to the waters of the Thames.

Remnants of millennia of river history still lie scattered along the Thames, and it is the task of London's marine archaeologists to record the social history of the city through the artefacts that still emerge from its tidal beaches. Six months ago I went for an impromptu scavenge on the Thames' northern shore near the Millennium Bridge and found a few pottery remains and a mysterious nail. On Saturday I returned to the same part of town for a more organised approach, taking part in one of London Walks' special tours, known as 'Beach-combing on the Thames', led by Fiona, an experienced marine archaeologist.

A large gathering turned out at Blackfriars station for the walk, and our first stop was on Blackfriars Bridge for a quick familiarisation guide to the area and its history. While we listened, a peculiar drilling rig like a miniaturised North Sea oil station was probing the river bed, working out the best way to extend the station platforms out over the river with the minimum impact. Taking a quick left turn, we walked eastwards along the South Bank to a set of stairs and descended to the exposed low-tide sands, each wearing a single rubber glove to ward off the evil Weil's Disease that can sometimes infect stagnant water along the riverside. We looked like a troupe of treasure-hunting Michael Jacksons.

Fiona gathered us together every so often to go through our finds and inform us of the various uses to which this section of the river was once put. Several delvers found clay pipe bowls, including one that may have dated to the 1580s. Back then tobacco was so rare that smokers could only purchase it pre-loaded into a cheap clay pipe, and once the pipe had been smoked it was thrown away, often into the river if it was nearby. Certainly there were lots of pipe stem segments around - I had wondered whether they were electrical wire insulation, but it seems they were considerably older than that. The stems are impossible to date, but I have a small segment and I like to think it's from the 16th century rather than the 19th, although I have no way of knowing if I'm anywhere near right!

I found more porcelain fragments, shards of heavy brown pottery, and some iron nails from the shipbuilding industry that occupied much of the riverbank for centuries, but nothing particularly exciting. However, I did manage to ask Fiona about my mystery nail. She had pointed out that the area I'd found it in was known as Alfred's Docks, having been established by Alfred the Great in the 9th century. Apparently my find wasn't a nail - it was more likely the blade of a screwdriver or file. Again, there's no way of knowing if it's of medieval origin without expensive tests, and given the volume of shipbuilding on the Thames it's probably more likely to be Victorian than centuries old, but at least now I can daydream of some medieval shipwright cursing as his prize instrument spills over the side of a half-finished boat into the shallow muddy waters of the river, only for it to be exposed in the tidal flow centuries later so I could find it. It's a nice thought.

(Below, the area we examined. The remains of wooden pilings are what's left of large Thames barge beds where the flat-bottomed cargo boats used to beach)


On Friday night after work I went to Great Russell Street with Steve, Fiona, Philippa and Helen to view the British Museum's exhibition on Publius Aelius Hadrianus (76-138AD), better known today as the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It was located in the domed enclosure of the museum's old Reading Room, which is itself a tribute to the architectural heritage of Hadrian. In part the exhibition had been made possible by remarkable archaeological discoveries at Sagalassos in Turkey in 2007, in which a colossal statue of Hadrian was retrieved from the ruins of Roman baths. (There have been plenty more discoveries reported at Sagalassos since then). The larger-than-life head, leg and foot of the statue are the first items on display in the exhibition, setting the scene for the story of an emperor whose 21-year reign left a grand legacy.

Most people have heard of Hadrian's Wall, which was designed to keep the rampaging Scots at bay and protect the Roman realm in the north of England. But the greatest architectural legacy left by Hadrian's rule is probably the Pantheon, the magnificent temple in central Rome with an awe-inspiring domed ceiling that has been inspiring visitors for 18 centuries. Hadrian ordered it rebuilt in 125AD and it has stood ever since, although it was re-dedicated as a Christian place of worship in the 7th century. Hadrian also built the mammoth pleasure palace now known as Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli outside Rome, which is still visited by thousands every year to marvel at its ruins. The exhibition displayed a superb red marble statue from the ruins, depicting a capering faun with a lyre, and a vast scale model of the Villa, built by an Italian archaeologist in the 1930s.

The exhibition focuses on some interesting small points in Hadrian's life and times. For example, one useful tool for identifying statues of Hadrian is the rendition of his earlobes, which displayed the tell-tale crease of a potential heart disease sufferer (see this Western Journal of Medicine article from 1980). There's also a clay roof tile from the long years in which Hadrian's legions suppressed Jewish revolts in Judaea - the corner of the tile was imprinted with the iron-shod studs of a Roman legionary's sandals who strode over the tile as it was laid out to cool in the sun after firing. There are also the delicate yet remarkably well-preserved relics from the Cave of Letters, a refuge of Jewish freedom fighters (or revolutionaries, depending on your point of view) including Simon bar Kokhba, the last King of Israel. The sole of a sandal, a jewellery box, ladies' mirrors, and hand-written journals on thin papyrus have all survived down through the centuries.

Another portion of the exhibition deals with what seems to have been a consuming passion of Hadrian's life. While Hadrian was married to Empress Sabina, it seems that Hadrian's passions may have been reserved for his handsome young favourite Antinous. A colossal bust of Antinous displays a lush classical beauty, particularly its elaborately curled locks of hair, which spawned a fashion craze across the empire. After his mysterious drowning in the Nile in 130AD Hadrian ordered Antinous' deification. Such royal liaisons were not particularly frowned upon in the Roman world, although the importance of securing the imperial succession meant that delivering a legitimate heir was always of foremost importance. But the (in)famous Warren Cup, also on display, which in 1999 was the most expensive item ever purchased by the British Museum, shows that a wealthy Roman could commission expensive silverware depicting a gay tryst. Such items did cause the Victorians quite a bit of bother because they didn't comply with their romanticised view of the Romans' imperial spirit.

Hadrian did manage to secure his succession, but not through his wife Vibia Sabina, with whom he had an unhappy marriage. Instead he adopted a series of successors, thereby providing the stability that Rome needed and settling the ownership of the imperial throne for the next 42 years. He also constructed a great mausoleum for his own burial, one that still stands today, although it's been much modified and hacked about in the intervening years. A beautiful pair of enormous bronze peacocks from the tomb formed the last sight of the exhibition.

It was an enjoyable and informative exhibition, but I think we all agreed that the Friday night crowds were hard to handle, making it difficult to read the captions on the glass cases due to the prevalence of daft people who persisted in standing right up close and cutting out everyone else's view. What the British Museum needs is a roll of cheap gaffer tape to mark a line on the carpet: any closer than, say, 75 centimetres to the exhibits and an alarm bell goes off!

(Image: WikiCommons, Hadrian in armour, c.127-128AD, from Heraklion, Crete, located in the Musee du Louvre)

17 October 2008

Lovin’ an elevator

I had a proper London experience last night. I was on the way to Felix’s farewell drinks after work in a pub (the Phoenix, on Moscow Rd in Bayswater), and arrived at Queensway tube station. It’s one of those stations built on a small floor-plan like Covent Garden, so it has lifts to reach ground level, rather than the escalators in most stations. So the lift filled up to the brim with people, the doors shut, and it rose a whole 18 inches ... and stopped. It tried once more to ascend, and then moved no more. Oh bother.

There was about twenty people in with me, so there was no room to move and certainly not enough space to remove my jacket as the temperature rose. Luckily the air conditioning was working, although it did fall silent a few times, leading to an anxious few moments before it kicked back into life again. Someone pressed the emergency button to call the station staff to rescue us, but it took five minutes for someone to show up. He peered anxiously in through the lift door windows, tried a key in a service panel to no avail, and then muttered something in his walkie-talkie, defeated. His most decisive action was to erect an ‘out of order’ barrier in front of our lift, which sent a ripple of wry chuckling through the lift. Other passengers outside queued for the other operating lift and gave us pitying (or were they mocking?) glances as they shuffled past. As the minutes ticked by everyone remained generally good-spirited despite the lack of any communication from the station staff, other than the firm finger-wagging from the blue-suited chap when one of the Turkish fellows near the door tried to wrench the doors open with his fingers. I was glad to have my iPod playing to pass the time, as there was no room to rummage for a copy of the Metro in my bag and certainly no room to read it.

The end of our imprisonment came suddenly after twenty minutes: the doors made a small clicking noise and the Turkish guys heaved them open, allowing ‘fresh’ air in and permitting us to stumble back out into the waiting area. None of us bothered with the other functioning lift – we all took the 132 stairs to ground level, where an apologetic Underground staff member handed out free bottles of water to make sure we didn’t expire, or more likely, to lessen the likelihood of us using rude words. All in all, despite the maintenance cock-up it was a good example of English order and good humour: no-one panicked or griped during our involuntary imprisonment. Although if we had been in there much longer I think there would definitely have been frayed tempers. We might’ve needed a little more than a free bottle of water to keep us happy...

15 October 2008

'Hello, ladies!'

Adrien Brody
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
Harking back to the early days of my star-snapping efforts, this one from December 2005 at the public King Kong premiere bash in Courtenay Place in Wellington shows off Adrien Brody's aquiline features to good effect. My secret? Making sure to stand behind two rather short Asian girls who had the crowd barrier spot. They chatted to Brody but didn't get their heads in the way of the shot. Best celeb pic I've taken so far, I reckon.

13 October 2008

The campaign for a longer weekend

Forty-eight hours is clearly insufficient. It was an action-packed weekend here, and it left me wondering if the Government could consider offering hard-pressed citizens a form of restitution for the harsh economic climate by shortening the working week. Of course, there's likely to be a drastic shortening of the working week for many people in the City - from a full working week to a full non-working week - but I'm all for a slightly longer weekend if it means I can fit everything in. Altruist that I am, I'd be prepared to sacrifice a portion of my work week if it helped in some small way to bail out the economy. No, don't thank me.

Friday evening was enlivened by a Skype chat with Jennifer in Auckland to discuss our upcoming trip to the Middle East. That in itself doesn't necessarily spell a lively evening, but a contributing factor was the news that she and Andrew have decided to get engaged and married in short order. The ceremony is the day before they fly out from New Zealand, so now I'm officially going on my friends' honeymoon! We'll meet up and begin our travels in Amman, Jordan, on the 23rd. Luckily there won't be a problem with backpackerly room-sharing, mainly due to Andrew's prodigious ability to vibrate respiratory structures such as the uvula and soft palate to create a concatenous reverberation of cataclysmic proportions. (He has many other qualities, fortunately!)

Both Saturday and Sunday mornings I managed my usual jog along the boundaries of the Common, and on Saturday I went early enough to avoid the massed Harriers onslaught that often clogs the tracks I run on. I keep a keen eye out for rogue foot-sloggers, because the hardier (and stupider) types enjoy executing random overtaking manouevres whilst running towards me at full tilt, and I'm not really a committed enough jogger to bear a dislocated shoulder from a head-on clash.

On both mornings the dappled leaves of the trees were shot through with sunrays illuminating the dissipating morning mist, and the paths were covered with the crunching detritus that points to autumnal change, despite the clement weather.

After my Saturday run I met Steve, Fiona and Helen at London Bridge for a day-trip down to sunny Brighton, where the temperature was even higher than London. We fuelled ourselves for an afternoon's wandering by lunching in a cheery South American-style cafe that provided excellent pizzas for a mere £3. Soon afterwards we strolled out on the pier, wandering through its garish attractions. Then we ambled westwards along the stoney beachfront, before loitering in the sunshine by the old ruined pier and briefly dipping our toes in the chilly English Channel.

To top the day off we visited the splendidly exotic Royal Pavilion, the oriental palace erected by George, the Prince Regent, who later became George IV (1820-30). I'd visited once before in 1997, but it's still a superb sight, particularly the awesome spectacle of opulence in the banqueting hall with its enormous crystal chandelier suspended from the claws of a fearsome eastern dragon. Alas, they still don't permit photography inside, ostensibly to protect the furnishings and fittings from wear and tear, although we did wonder if the no doubt substantial payments rendered by a bride and groom having their pictures taken inside somehow prevented this wear and tear from occurring.

The next day I paid a house call to Battersea to visit Raewyn and Mike and their new son Lucas (now 5 1/2 weeks). I'd seen him a month or so ago in the Chelsea & Westminster, but he was a bit tube-y back then. Now he's got the frog leg kick going with his spindly little legs and is a bona fide milk-drinkin' machine, so he's probably growing in an Incredible Hulk-like fashion.

After the visit I took the train into town and saw Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day at the PCC. Featuring Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew, a down-on-her-luck governess in pre-war London, who chances onto a job for an American would-be starlet, Delysia (played by Amy Adams), who's having man troubles - to whit, she's got three of them, and only one of them really loves her, but he's the one without a fortune to his name. You can see where that's going, obviously, but this is a frothy confection of a film, not to be taken too seriously. Adams is excellent as the flouncy, kittenish Delysia, and McDormand does a perfectly serviceable English accent in a role that might not have been perfect for her. My favourite line from the film, in which Delysia reveals the extent (or lack thereof) of her movie career to date, captured the screwball '30s comedy feeling of the movie's first act:

Delysia: ...and I was in Four's A Crowd. Did you see that one?

Miss Pettigrew: Oh yes! Who did you play?

Delysia: The crowd.

This week is another busy one: there's Felix and Gavin's farewell on Thursday, and a bunch of us are going to the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum after work on Friday. Can't wait!

10 October 2008

A notable first for Bangladesh

(Pic: AFP)

Today in Dhaka, Bangladesh triumphed in the first of three one-day internationals against New Zealand, registering its first international win against New Zealand, which had been expected to win the series in a clean sweep. Now the only nation yet to be defeated by lowly ninth-ranked Bangladesh is England, which has only played eight ODIs against Bangladesh since 2000, compared with New Zealand's 12 matches as of today.

In the leadup to this series the Bangladesh team was rocked with the defection of 14 players to the rebel ICL, seeking financial security. When the defectors were banned from playing for Bangladesh for a remarkable ten years each, onlookers wondered if this enforced depletion might send Bangladesh cricket spiralling even lower. But despite the number of defectors being substantial, it's worth pointing out that many of the defectors were players at the end of their career, who were not in the front line team. Indeed, the 14-man Bangladesh squad named for the New Zealand ODI series boasted a total of 532 one-day caps between them despite including three uncapped players. On game day Bangladesh was able to field an experienced side, choosing to include Naeem Islam as the only uncapped member of the playing 11. Indeed, given the inexperience of the New Zealand batting lineup, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Bangladesh took the most experienced and suitable batting lineup into the match.

On a low and slow wicket Bangladesh won the toss and asked New Zealand to bat first. This proved to be the right decision, as the top order batsmen failed to cope with the Bangladesh bowlers. The right arm fast-medium pace of opening bowler Mashrafe Mortaza (10-3-44-4) accounted for the New Zealand top three of Ryder, McCullum and How, along with dangerous tail-ender Kyle Mills. But it was the run-rate constriction applied by the trio of spinners, Shakib Al Hasan, Abdur Razzaq and Naeem Islam that killed off New Zealand's innings most effectively: each bowled ten overs for less than 35 runs. From the feeble depths of 79-6 in the 21st over, it took the usual lower order batting revival to drag New Zealand to an acceptable total. Jacob Oram managed some clean hitting on his way to 57 from 89 balls, while captain Daniel Vettori contibuted a valuable 30 from 57 before a useful cameo by Tim Southee at the close, who finished unbeaten on 19 from 14, having struck two fours and a six. New Zealand finished its 50 overs on 201-9.

Optimists in the New Zealand camp would have immediately looked back to Bangladesh's last ODI against Australia in Darwin on 6 September, in which they restricted the world champions to 198-5 but still managed to slump to a hefty loss due to an inept chase. But while New Zealand has a reasonable bowling attack, it doesn't compare with Australia's firepower. Bangladesh's run chase in Darwin was marred by an inability to construct prolific partnerships aside from the 60-run stand for the fourth wicket between Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan. In addition, they were batting with only ten men, as bowler Shahadat Hossain was absent injured.

Still, with 201 on the board and a chase at four runs per over required, New Zealand would've fancied its chances to stage an Australian-style fightback - Bangladesh are known for their jittery approach to chases. Unfortunately for New Zealand, the modest total meant that Bangladesh could pace their innings and avoid the dangerous stroke-play that has undermined their efforts in the past. While opener Tamim Iqbal fell for a run-a-ball 12, the rest of the Bangladesh top order showed more stickability, knitting together two match-winning partnerships: 67 for the second wicket and 109 for the third, the latter of which is a record for the third wicket in ODIs between the two countries. The two star performers in that partnership were the young opener Junaid Siddique, whose 85 from 137 balls was his first half-century for Bangladesh and earned him the man of the match award, and the experienced captain Mohammad Ashraful, whose blistering 60 not out from 56 balls included five fours and a six to seal the chase. At no stage were New Zealand's bowlers able to clamp down on the Bangladesh innings.

So, Bangladesh's much deserved first win against New Zealand ended up being a comprehensive seven wicket victory with 27 balls remaining. Coming into the match New Zealand was hoping for a clean sweep to secure a number 2 world ranking. Now New Zealand has a single day to regroup and remind itself that a series defeat against Bangladesh would undermine much of the progress made in the one-day game over the past few years. The second ODI will be held on the same ground on Saturday, with Bangladesh pressing for another upset victory. Good luck to them!

07 October 2008

À quelle prix l'amour?

Ah, French films. Nothing like a bit of subtitling, eh? They give you the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of your fading high school language lab skills, and you come away with the impression that a film of middling quality gained a soupcon of sophistication, exoticism and gravitas thanks to the ever-present sans serif blanc flickering at the bottom of the screen. The cinema could be rented out en masse for a Deaf Association evening and it would make little difference, apart from missing out on the cheeky Gallic tunes that bounce with bossanova urges or sway with chanteuse-y sexuality.

French films are the staple of most film festivals, because they're a seldom-seen treat and a welcome antidote to the drudge-work of generic Hollywood fare, even when the French films in question are following the same genres as their LA-grounded brethren. This is because France, a nation of philosophy graduates, still holds the notion of the cinematic auteur in high regard, despite the brutal reality of 21st century film-making rendering the economics of the model troublesome at the very least. Witness the challenges faced when Hollywood money and the influences it brings are circumvented: the massive European co-production of the Stalingrad siege epic Enemy At The Gates, (2001) starring Jude Law as the least butch Soviet soldier ever, or the similarly scattershot potpourri of Astérix Aux Jeux Olympiques from earlier this year, featuring cameos by Michael Schumacher, Zinedine Zidane and Amelia Mauresmo.

Euro-blockbusters are unlikely to conquer the world; cosmopolitanism doesn't play in the Megaplex in Peoria, Illinois. But when French filmmakers stick to their strengths, keep the budgets manageable, and invoke the great Gallic traditions of film farce, they can consistently keep the viewers interested. This is particularly the case in the English-speaking world where such films are lapped up by those of us with Arts degrees and a penchant for emerging from a cinema with a self-satisfied sense of sophistication-by-proxy and infused with the romance of the French idyll as laid out on the big screen.

Of course, film scholars will say that the art of the French farce has been in decline since the peerless works of Jacques Tati, whose silent film comedies of the 1950s, Les Vacances De Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958) defined the genre, and later helped to make Rowan Atkinson very rich indeed by providing the lion's share of the inspiration for his Mr Bean character.

But the last ten years has seen a steady stream of quality middle-of-the-road French farces, and if they're not of the same exemplary Tati quality, they have still entertained and showcased French talent. Key among these offerings are the 'Francois Pignon' films:

- Le Diner Du Cons / The Dinner Game (1998)
- Le Placard / The Closet (2001)
- La Doublure / The Valet (2006)
- L'Emmerdure / A Pain In The Ass (to be released Dec 2008)

...so called because the lead character in Francis Veber's comedies always has the same name. Friendly-faced Daniel Auteuil often crops up in these.

And that's where Hors De Prix (Priceless, 2006) comes along. In La Doublure, the hapless valet who has to pretend to date a gorgeous supermodel (Alice Taglioni) to save the marriage of a rich politician (Auteuil) is played by Moroccan-born everyman Gad Elmaleh. And wouldn't you know it, in Hors De Prix Elmaleh plays... Jean, a hotel waiter pining for the attention of a luscious gold-digger. So far, so the same.

It doesn't take a European Space Agency rocket scientist fresh from the jungles of Guiana to work out that the gold-digger in question is played by a beautiful French actress. But the producers have gone all out on this particular femme fatale, because Irène is played by none other than the luminously beatific Audrey Tautou, she of elfin charms who captured the hearts of cinema-goers worldwide in Amelie (2001) with such an intensely popular performance that the streets of English-speaking middle-class suburbs are now littered with little girls bearing the name, having been christened in her honour. Moving on from being cast as a generic girlfriend in L'Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment, 2002) and the stultifying nonsense of The Da Vinci Code cash-in, here Tautou is in her element.

The plot of the comedy is hardly revolutionary: gold-digger Irène, in Biarritz and on the make, mistakes shy waiter Jean for a multi-millionaire; Jean falls madly in love with her despite not being able to foot the bills for her platinum card shopping habits. Cursing her error, Irène moves on to her next target, but Jean is determined. He has a stroke of luck in his campaign to win Irène's heart when he stumbles into the role of kept man for a handsome widow with expensive tastes and a few years on the clock. Irène's impressed, and teaches Jean the tricks of the trade - the art of conversational seduction. You can see where this is going... and there's no surprises when we arrive at the inevitable happy ending.

It would be foolish to ignore the qualities Tautou brings to the role. Aside from her acting chops she is also absolutely stunning in every scene. Seriously, I mean it. Wearing the most remarkable of couture and with a look that could floor any straight male within a hundred paces with the merest glance, Tautou has had a film built around her - every shot is designed to make sure we know that she is the epitome of wily feminine perfection. Seldom has anyone approached the rarified blend of beauty, grace and humour of the timeless Audrey Hepburn, but give Tautou more roles like this one, and she'll definitely come close.

Aside from the magnetic Tautou presence and the warm everyman charms of Elmaleh, the film handles the knockabout comedy role with aplomb. In the funniest scene, the newly-confident Jean struts up to the restaurant table at which Irène is entertaining her wealthy elderly businessman suitor and asks the fellow for a light, and in the gesture prominently displays the diamond-encrusted wristwatch that his mistress-patron has just bought him for the princely sum of 30,000 euros, causing Irène to splutter into her bouilliabase with admiration. In lesser hands, this would be an indictment of fickle, pointless consumerism. But in this mythical land of wealth and privilege, Jean shows Irène that he's her equal, and from then on a golden sunset finish is surely just around the corner.

Normally this sort of formulaic silliness irritates me, but it's hard to be a stickler when a film is as much fun as Hors De Prix. There are no heavy moral considerations at work here either - the fact that Irène and Jean are both selling themselves is not the point. This is fantasy at work, and the sumptuous revelry of the super-chic resorts of Biarritz and Nice lulls the viewer into a dreamy reverie, lost in the idle lifestyles of the rich and beautiful living the sophisticated party lifestyle and finding true love in a make-believe world of blue skies and never-ending sunshine as the gentle wafting breeze floats in from the languid Mediterranean and makes everything perfect in the end. Vive l'amour!