23 May 2010

Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan


The beautiful ornament pictured above is known as the Alfred Jewel, which has been called ‘probably the single most important archaeological object in England’ by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which now holds the jewel in its collections.  Discovered in 1693, it was made over a thousand years ago for the only English king to bear the title ‘the Great’ – Alfred of Wessex, who reigned over a troubled kingdom in the 9th century. 

Aside from being a warrior king leading his people against Danish invaders and others, Alfred was also a dedicated scholar, with a keen interest in promoting the spread of literacy and a sense of national identity through the written word.  John William Cousin, in his 1910 work A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, described Alfred’s literary impact:

The earlier part of his life was filled with war and action, most of the details regarding which are more or less legendary. But no sooner had he become King of Wessex, in 871, than he began to prepare for the work of re-introducing learning into his country. Gathering round him the few scholars whom the Danes had left, and sending for others from abroad, he endeavoured to form a literary class […]  Though not a literary artist, [he] had the best qualities of the scholar, including an insatiable love alike for the acquisition and the communication of knowledge. He translated several of the best books then existing, not, however, in a slavish fashion, but editing and adding from his own stores.

It was this sense of scholarship and a desire to improve his subjects’ education that led Alfred to reproduce copies of Pastoral Care, a highly influential 6th century treatise by Pope Gregory I, translate it into the then current Old English, and distribute it to monasteries throughout his kingdom.  With each copy he is said to have included a jewelled aestel, or reading pointer, and it is believed that the Alfred Jewel is one of these.  It bears an inscription around its curved gold rim: ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’ - ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’.  Alfred’s own translation of Pastoral Care still exists, and it is the oldest known book written in English.    

Implements like the aestel are no longer in widespread use, but at the time they would have been practical objects as well as works of art.  Literacy was far from widespread at the time, and even wealthy and powerful individuals were not necessarily literate.  Reading was still considered a niche skill, generally practiced by priests and perhaps some merchants, and the assistance of a pointer may have assisted less confident readers.  Only a few hundred years earlier it was considered noteworthy that the 4th century St Ambrose could read without moving his lips:

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

17 May 2010

Windsor Castle

SONY DSC Located on a splendid rocky outcrop beside the winding Thames in a strategic spot guarding the western approaches to London, Windsor Castle has been the site of prominent fortifications for nearly a thousand years.  William the Conqueror erected the artificial hill that still forms the centrepiece of the castle grounds, and placed a wooden fort upon it.  Later came Henry II’s famed Round Tower and the vast curtain walls pierced with cross-shaped arrow-slits.  Later still came the beautiful late Gothic St George’s Chapel, the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, the most prestigious and historic order of chivalry in Britain.  Windsor is the world’s largest inhabited castle: it’s also a royal residence, said to be the Queen’s favourite home.

SONY DSCThe start of my visit involved a brief wait while fifty or so smartly dressed Scandinavians got themselves in order.  A Norwegian Army band, decked out in black-plumed hats and green epaulettes, then marched with trumpets blaring a jaunty tune, up into the castle and out into the Lower Ward near St George’s Chapel, where they performed a series of military marching tunes and a seemingly obligatory and not particularly martial Michael Jackson medley (The Way You Make Me Feel followed by Thriller). 

After a brief listen I took the opportunity to visit St George’s Chapel, a remarkably beautiful structure in the Perpendicular Gothic style with a superb broad fan-vaulted nave ceiling supported by external buttresses.  The choir holds the heraldic insignia of the current Knights of the Garter, resting above half-drawn swords to indicate eternal vigilance against threats to the Crown.  In the middle of the floor lies the tomb of three notable figures: Henry VIII, his favourite wife Jane Seymour, and the reunited body and head of Charles I.  But perhaps my favourite aspect of the chapel was the venerable graffiti markings, particularly near at the far end from the pulpit – one scoundrel found himself a quiet moment to scratch his name and the date of his visit: ‘John Frost, 1599’.


Then it was time to visit the State Apartments.  A small gallery displayed selections from the sumptuous royal art collection, including some works of the genius Leonardo – a deftly-realised sketch of a baby in his mother’s womb was startlingly realistic, and presumably drawn from an autopsy.  There was also a charming selection of royal photography from the Queen’s early years, when she looked like a regal Shirley Temple.

The Apartments were, as expected, an impressive spectacle, particularly the sweeping grandeur of St George’s Hall, in which 160 guests dine on a single table with suitable pomp: you’ve probably seen the documentaries showing how the table settings are individually measured out with rulers to ensure everything looks perfect.  Various treasures are on display throughout the Apartments, including a comically distended set of armour for a corpulent Henry VIII, and a small locket containing a humble slug of lead less than a centimetre wide, which pierced the shoulder and penetrated its victim until it nestled near the spine, resulting in eventual death.  Its target was Horatio, Lord Nelson, and the surgeon who removed the bullet after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar in 1805 wore it around his neck for the remainder of his own life. 

Incidentally, because the Royal Standard was flying on the flagpole of the Round Tower, the Queen was in residence when I visited.  This doesn’t necessarily mean she was physically present – she may well have been busy doing royal things elsewhere during the day.


Above, clockwise from top left: The Round Tower; Guardsman on sentry duty in the Upper Ward; St George’s Chapel exterior; further view of the Round Tower garden.

13 May 2010

UK General Election: Votes per MP

The UK general election held on 6 May elected a Commons with no single party holding a majority.  The election was held under the old first past the post voting system, which favours the two largest political parties at the expense of the smaller ones.  While some newspapers have drawn attention to the disparity between the percentage of votes cast for each party and the percentage of seats that each gained, it’s also interesting to examine the number of votes cast for each MP gained.

Naturally there is a caveat.  Strictly speaking the election isn’t over yet – due to the death of a candidate, one electorate contest has been postponed until the end of May.  So the figures below will alter slightly once those votes are included. 

Here’s the numbers as they stand now, in order of votes received.  Parties receiving under 100,000 votes, aside from the Alliance, which returned one MP, have been omitted. 

UK General Election 2010: Votes cast per elected MP

Party Votes MPs Votes/MP
Conservatives 10,706,647 306 34,989
Labour 8,604,358 258 33,350
Lib Dem 6,827,938 57 119,788
UKIP 917,832 0 -
BNP 563,743 0 -
Scottish National 491,386 6 81,898
Green 285,616 1 285,616
Sinn Fein 171,942 5 34,388
Dem Unionist 168,216 8 21,027
Plaid Cymru 165,394 3 55,131
SDLP 110,970 3 36,990
Ulster Unionist 102,361 0 -
Alliance 42,762 1 42,762


The existing system has disadvantaged far-right political parties like the BNP and UKIP, and many will not see that as a great shame, me included.  But they were the most disadvantaged by the current system, receiving 1.47 million votes without winning a single seat.  Not far behind and on the opposite end of the political spectrum are the Greens, whose widely spread but thin support base meant that all the 285,000 Green votes only elected one MP, the party’s leader Caroline Lucas.

The Conservative and Labour parties received similar levels of return on their voting turnout, electing one MP for every 33 to 34,000 votes.  (Sinn Fein achieved the same result, and the SDLP wasn’t far off).  Of the prominent minor parties, it is the SNP and the Lib Dems who have the most to be disgruntled about.  The 6.8 million Lib Dem votes were 3.4 times less effective than those cast for the Conservatives and 3.6 times less effective than those cast for Labour.  SNP votes were approximately a third as strong as those cast for the two major parties.

Obviously, under a system of proportional representation such electoral disparities would be eliminated. 

12 May 2010

She & Him

SHE and HIM-thumb-565x392 

She & Him with the Chapin Sisters

Shepherd’s Bush Empire

10 May 2010


Sometimes the mood of a gig can be judged by the taste of the sound tech’s choice of intro music.  So the choice of musical selections by Arthur Lee’s influential but often forgotten group Love for the pre-gig entertainment at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire was a clear indication that She & Him, otherwise known as Zooey Deschanel and M. (Matt) Ward, have impeccable taste in music.  

While there is a certain vogue for actors attempting to cross over into the world of music - I’ve written about this before – Zooey Deschanel, known for her work in films including Elf, Almost Famous and (500) Days of Summer, is regarded as one of the most multi-talented.  Her voice has the advantage of clarity and purity, while retaining a charming hint of untutored naivety, which acts as a refreshing counterpoint to the sea of autotuned robot pop-tarts and soulless show-off foghorns that currently dominate the pop charts. 

Deschanel’s voice is decorated by her musical partnership with talented singer-songwriter M. Ward, which has seen the pair’s shared love of the Beatles and Phil Spector Wall of Sound-era pop, with a sideline in fine country ballads, create a stylish amalgam of tunes and lyrics that evoke the strongest years of the pop groups who lived and played in thrall to vocal harmonies and rhythm guitars.

The ‘She’ in She & Him is quite as beautiful as you might have heard, which certainly does their chances of success no harm.  In a baby-blue sleeveless dress with white shoes, like Lily Allen minus the urchin overtones, Deschanel chirps at the microphone, rattling her tambourine or pecking at the organ.  Her vocals range effortlessly from perky girl-group pop to pin-drop sultry torch song elegance to plaintive country simplicity to rousing Beatlesque chorusing.  Delightfully, when she’s particularly caught up in the set’s rockier performances she expresses her excitement by bounding on the spot like a rapt three-year-old at a birthday party.

The ‘Him’ lurks at the fringes of the stage, marshalling the music from stage left, issuing plangent surf chords and slide guitar ruminations, with the odd interjection of smooth backing vocals.  The quietly-spoken Ward brings a commanding knowledge of rock and pop history to Deschanel’s songs, and is happy for her to dominate the spotlight.

Highlights from the 90-minute set: the pair ditched their band for The Miracles’ You Really Got A Hold On Me, and captured the audience with just bare voices and acoustic guitar.  The lead single from Volume One, Why Do You Let Me Stay Here, was as insanely catchy as on record, with the peerless Ward guitar break perfectly executed to seal an exuberant pop moment.  This led straight into This Is Not A Test, with its euphoric chorus outro a declaration of optimism and let-it-go release.  In the first encore Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven was Ward’s rock ‘n roll party piece to shake the room.  And to close, Deschanel’s spine-tingling performance of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put A Spell On You displayed room-filling vocal prowess (see below).  It’s left ‘til last because like Twist & Shout on the Beatles’ Please Please Me, once you’ve given a performance like that there’s no return. 

While the first She & Him album was something of a cult affair, the recently issued Volume Two has crossed over into mainstream success, reaching number 6 on the US pop charts.  This poses an interesting question for Zooey Deschanel – does she still want two careers?  Because if last night’s performance was anything to go by, the star power of She & Him easily matches her considerable acting talents.


Earlier, support act the Chapin Sisters, the nieces of folk singer Harry Chapin (of Cat’s In The Cradle fame), impressed with their close vocal harmonies and the quality of their melodic country-folk performance.  Reduced from their initial quota of three voices to a mere two by the pregnancy of one sister, the remaining Chapins gave a strong showing, appearing in long white dresses reminiscent of a Greek chorus.  They also provided skilful backing vocals and supporting instrumentation for She & Him’s set, bringing out the rich harmonies that are layered through so many of their recordings.  There’s a nice clip of them performing last summer below, in which they cope admirably with a slightly unruly son on stage. 


One theme of the evening was the running battle waged between the Empire’s ushers and the attending crowd, who had been asked not to take photos or videos of the bands.  Many disregarded the request and the auditorium was constantly illuminated by the ghostly glare of LCD screens as they snapped away.  I can understand the urge to secure a souvenir picture of an event, but the desire to spend a significant portion of a gig viewing the action through a tiny screen seems a foolish one, not to mention the irritation it causes to people like me who find the screen glow a distracting nuisance.  But the main objection I have to serial amateur photographers is that it’s simply bad manners – artists don’t want every live performance to be scrutinised for a pratfall or wardrobe malfunction. 

That said, I am somewhat torn on this point because I’ve linked to a fan video below from a London gig a few days earlier, with Deschanel decked out as a 21st century Karen Carpenter.  Perhaps in the future it will become standard for bands to release entire gigs in video format, either free or at a small cost, but until then I suppose we have to put up with a bit of surreptitious recording.  But can’t you work out a way to do it without turning your screen on, people?

See also:

She & Him & Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Why Do You Let Me Stay Here? (500 Days of Summer alternate video)

She & Him – Thieves (Live on Jimmy Kimmel Live)


She & Him – I Put A Spell On You (Live at Koko, 7 May 2010)


The Chapin Sisters – Remember When The Music (Live in Nova Scotia, August 2009)

03 May 2010

The Wallace Collection

SONY DSC Tucked away from the crowds of Oxford Street in leafy Manchester Square, a grand former French embassy now houses one of London’s lesser-known art galleries.  The Wallace Collection, located in Hertford House on the north side of the square, contains the art riches of the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the philanthropic son of the 4th Marquess.  Its collection of European paintings is particularly strong, with perhaps its most famous canvas being Franz Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier from 1624.  In addition, there are plentiful collections of bronzes, ceramics, and several rooms containing arms and armour from the late medieval period through to the 19th century. 

Today I paid my second visit to the Wallace Collection – the first since my initial visit two years ago.  In 2008 photography was not permitted, but now the curators have sensibly allowed non-flash photography so I was able to document some of the excellent exhibits.  And unlike the British Museum, which I stopped in to visit afterwards, the Wallace wasn’t heaving with visitors, despite it being a rainy Sunday.  And did I mention entry is free?

Stitched Panorama

Stitched Panorama

Stitched Panorama

[Three Wallace Collection panoramas, showing the luxurious fittings of Hertford House.  The red room on the first floor contains The Laughing Cavalier – centre of the right wall.  The empty room is temporarily without exhibits.  Impressive wallpaper though]


[Clockwise from top left: 17th century Dutch portrait; 16th century German knight’s armour; French mantel clock from the 1730s; Indian ceremonial silver mace, late 18th century]