London Green

London green: green is perhaps not the colour one first associates with London – red, perhaps, or black – but maybe one should think about green.

London symbolsIf you ask someone what colour they associate with London, I guess most people would say red (thinking of London’s buses); or red, blue and white (the colours of the London Underground); or perhaps black (thinking of the black cabs). The colours of the Greater London Council are red and yellow, blue and white, while the City of London’s coat of arms show the red cross (and sword) of St George on a white ground.

Green is one colour people don’t usually associate with London. Perhaps they should.

Last week Mrs SC and I were in England, partly to visit my family, partly to snatch a very brief break for the two of us in London. It’s many years since we were both together in Britain in spring, and after a long, cold, grey winter it was wonderful to be greeted by London under the sun and decked in green. We only had two days, but took the opportunity to walk through five of London’s parks to enjoy the London green.

Henry Moore's Stone Arch across the Serpentine in Hyde ParkLondon is such a tourist magnate, with all its sights, museums, events and buildings that it can be easy to forget just how much green there is in the city too. I’ve grumbled here before about “densification” (in Swedish, förtätning). This is the distressing behaviour of modern city planners and developers who believe the best thing to do with an open space in a city is to build on it. Preferably something monstrous.

I presume such planners and developers don’t actually live in the cities they are keen to make more dense. I imagine they have their family homes or vacation houses in the open countryside somewhere. People who actually live in cities – especially densely populated ones; people who don’t have a second home to flee to – perhaps have barely the one home they can afford; for these people the city’s green parks and open spaces are an essential amenity.

They’re not bad for tourists either.

In fact, according to this article from The Independent a couple a years back, 47% of London is green space. Mrs SC and I only visited a very small part of London green, but it was very enjoyable.

London green: London skyline from Hamstead Heath (City)Our first day, we walked from our bed-and-breakfast hotel near Finchley Road up into Hampstead village and then across Hampstead Heath to Kenwood and Highgate, taking in this view across central London. There’s a bit of a haze in the photo, but you can see the City of London’s financial centre and the Gherkin building, and the Glass Shard at London Bridge. Just in front of it you should be able to make out the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

London green: London skyline from Hamstead Heath (Westminster)In the second photo you should be able to make out the London Eye and the BT Tower – the spindle-shaped building to the right. (It used to be called the GPO Tower when I was a boy, in the days when Britain had a General Post Office that also ran telecommunications.) Between the two, on the horizon you can also see the radio and television mast at Crystal Palace. Unfortunately the resolution isn’t good enough to make out the tower that houses Big Ben at Westminster – but take it from me, it’s there. (For a much more detailed – and zoom-able – version of this view, visit Will Pearson’s London Panorama project.)

London green: In Kensington GardensOur second day we entubed to Queensway and then walked through the chain of Royal Parks down to Whitehall. Starting in Kensington Gardens, we walked south and east to the Serpentine, the lake that snakes its way through Hyde Park. We followed the Serpentine along past Princess Diana’s fountain and the Lido – the Serpentine’s bathing beach – all the way down to Rotten Row.

London green: Cavalry horses exercising on Rotten Row in Hyde ParkRotten Row is the ride that runs along the south side of Hyde Park where the Queen’s guard cavalry regiments exercise their horses. One team cantered past, kicking up the dust.

From the far corner of Hyde Park we crossed into Green Park and walked on to the far corner near the front of Buckingham Palace. The Queen was home (the Royal Standard was flying), but she didn’t come out to say anything indiscreet to us.

London green: Selfie in St James's ParkWe crossed into St James’s Park, paused for selfies on the bridge over the lake and then walked on to Parliament Square.

The whole walk took about 2 hours. (We weren’t pushing it.) At Whitehall we caught a number 11 double-decker bus to St Paul’s and enjoyed sitting down on the top floor as the bus edged its way through the traffic. When we finally reached St Paul’s, we had a sandwiches sitting in the sun on the steps of the Cathedral with all the other tourists.

That wasn’t all we did in London, but I think it’s enough for this blog entry.

London green: Skyline from Hampstead Heath

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

18th April – decades of a date

18th April 1986 – I am 27 years old and it is my wedding day…

18th April, 1966
It is a *Monday, the first regular school day after the *Easter break. I am not yet eight years old. Am I looking forward to my day at school? I can’t be sure.
18th April, 1976
It is a *Sunday and I am three and half months shy of my 18th birthday. The day has no significance for me yet, and I have no memory attached to it. However, it’s about a month before my final school exams, my A-levels, the results of which will help or hinder the next few steps I take into my future. My preparations are well underway and the end of the academic year is in sight. After thirteen years of school I have decided, regardless of my results, that I will take a break, a year out, get a job if I can, travel if not.

There is a memory, and it might as well be from this day, the sun is shining above the Downs, the sky is blue and where it comes down to the south it meets a dark blue line – the sea. This is the year I discover punk rock, but not just yet. As I dress in the morning I am singing along with Johnny Nash on the radio:

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.
I can see all obstacles in my way.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me black,
It’s gonna be a bright, bright, bright
Sunshiny day.

18th April, 1986
I am 27 years old and it is my wedding day. The future Mrs SC and I will marry today in a civil ceremony at a house in Gamla Linköping. We have chose the short ceremony – three minutes long – and I have practiced saying “Ja!” with conviction in the right place.

It has not been a great year so far – Chernobyl, the Palme assassination, and I’m in a dispute with my employers over terms and conditions – but it’ll get better from here on, won’t it?

We have no money and have chosen to have a very modest day. No relatives from either side and as guests only our witnesses – friends we have got to know during the academic year. Merzad has come down from Uppsala where Agneta is studying. Stefan, who works with me, has come over from his flat in the town centre. We walk across town and on the way buy a bouquet of Marguerite daisies for Agneta. We are married by a man called Goding* – something the bride finds exceptionally funny – and then walk home again to open a bottle of champagne.

It is a good day, though I’m a little sad, afterwards, that no one from England came to surprise us despite their non-invitation.

18th April, 1996
It is an ordinary *Thursday in another busy week and we forget it has any significance until long after. It passes unobserved, our tin anniversary. The metal seems appropriate. It is not an easy time for either of us. We are both working more than full-time on interesting, challenging, all consuming projects over and above our regular jobs.

We live in Sundsvall in the north of Sweden where we have lived for eight years (and where we will live for another year and a half, though we don’t know that). We both have – by our lights – good incomes, but no time. No time. The dark clouds are gathering. The sunshine is dulled.

18th April, 2006
Two days after *Easter, we celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary (which we have learned is our porcelain anniversary). We are in Gothenberg and have hired the space of Skansen Kronan, one of the two outlying forts surviving from the old city fortifications. We have invited friends, old and new, from our two lives and our joint life. Not sure how many – 60 perhaps. The party begins in sunlight outside the fort and continues in the safe embrace of the deep stone walls. Food (catering), speeches (our Swedish friends and family), music (ditto), dancing (the whole party).

The evening ends for us, the key participants, in a taxi on our way home to bed. Let’s do it again, we say. We must do it again.

April 18th: Skansen kronan (not really - obviously an autumnal photo)
Skansen kronan (obviously not taken 18th April)
18th April, 2016
We remember our 30th (pearl) wedding anniversary a day in advance, but celebrations are limited to me watching her get into a taxi at six in the morning on her way to the airport. She is flying to Lisbon for her job. I sit at home, translating and writing teaching material and, later, a newspaper article tips me into bitter memories of failure. In the evening, we talk on the phone, half a continent apart. We promise we’ll celebrate together – a delayed celebration – when she gets home again.
18th April, 2026
Ah, who knows? Our ruby wedding. Where will we be and will we remember in time? At least we’ll both be retired by then. Time, but no money. Again… Well, a little money perhaps.

*No, I don’t remember days that were 18th April in all these years, or the dates of Easter in 1966 and 2006. But the Internet has its uses, and one is a plethora of calendars where you can check these things.

*Goding, which works perfectly well as a family name in English, sounds weird to Swedish ears since it’s a slang description for an attractive person – think “sweetie”. Mrs SC assumed the gentleman had taken the name, but I suppose he might have had an English Goding ancestor.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

There’s something in the Brussels Air

There’s something in the Brussels air – among other things the spores of yeast, and also the spores of art

Brussels Air - To peel a ball - 2To be sure, there’s more in the air everywhere than we can usually see – dust motes glimpsed dancing in the sunlight are not even the half of it. Just at present I’m going through a pollen reaction phase. I know that the Brussels air is laden with pollen because my eyes are itching and my nose is running, I just can’t see it. Can’t see it except after the rain when pollen scrubbed from the air scums puddles and leaves yellow-green lines on car windscreens where the wipers have rested at the end of an arc.

Brussels Air - Dekkera bruxellensis - English partBut there is something special in the Brussels air: spores of the wild yeast B. bruxellensis (aka Dekkera bruxellensis). Belgian lambic beer is brewed without the addition of brewer’s yeast. Instead the fermentation vessels, filled with barley malt and wheat mash, are left open and the wild yeast in the air that lands on the mash starts the fermentation.

Brussels Air - Ne touche à rien - Don't touchNow, though the yeast spores do exist in the wild in the air of the Senne river valley where Brussels stands, and though lambic beer was originally brewed – 900 years ago – just from these wild open-air spores, more recently the lambic process is started within the brewery. After all this time there is a higher concentration of wild yeast in the air of the brewery and so the process is more reliable nowadays than perhaps it once was.

Theoretically, though, anyone can make beer in Brussels – just expose some sweetened barley porridge and let the wild yeast get to work. Not that most people do. It’s far too much trouble.

Anyone can make beer – just as anyone can make art

And anyone can make art out of anything.

Brussels Air - The biography of objects 02 - carpet, wild yeast, fixative resin plus Ombre indigène - videoMost people, though, don’t have the eye to see what might be art in the world around them, and only some of those who have the eye also have the cast of mind, the urge, the skill, the talent, the time and patience to create art from what they see. It’s as though the spores of wild art in the air that settle on everyone, that are breathed in by everyone, have to find the right person. The right vessel in which to start the process of fermentation. (To take the metaphor further, just as today there is a higher concentration of yeast spores inside breweries, I suppose students in art schools are more likely to breathe in a higher concentration of art spores.)

WIELS café spaceAll this is brought to mind by the Edith Dekyndt exhibition (I keep wanting to call her Edith Decadent) at the WIELS Contemporary Art Centre here in Forest/Vorst. The WIELS centre occupies a former brewery and several of the great copper vats in which lambic beer was once brewed share space with the cafe and bookshop on the ground floor. Up above are four floors of gallery space, two of which at present are given over to Dekyndt’s exhibition Ombre Indigène (Indigenous Shadow).

Brussels Air - The biography of objects 07 - carpet, wild yeast, fixative resinEdith Dekyndt is a Belgian artist who is clearly very inspired by science in general and biology in particular. Judging by the examples of her art on show, she is fascinated by the appearance of material that has been subjected to some sort of biological influence. Yeast for example, which she has persuaded to grow as a fungal carpet on a woven carpet.

Brussels Air - One Thousand and One NightsSome of the works on display have been created specifically for the space and make references to the history of the brewery and the brewing process. The installation called One Thousand and One Nights is a carpet made from dust collected from around the gallery over the period of the year. A light illuminates a shape on the floor and the dust is swept and raked within the lit shape. From time to time the light shifts and the gallery guard has the job of repositioning the dust in the new shape the light creates on the floor.

Brussels Air - A portrait of things - vivarium, fake fur textile, humidityThe temperature and humidity of the Senne valley, and the water of the river, are also key elements in brewing the local beer, and these elements Dekyndt also makes use of. A kind of long narrow aquarium bottomed with artificial fur fabric and with condensation beading the glass. Petri dishes with cultured bacterial growths – again, bacteria from the air we breathe. Projected slide image after projected slide image showing the range of colour and form the bacteria take.

Wiels Centre for Contemporary ArtI come out of this exhibition fascinated. A little disgusted, true, but definitely fascinated. I also come out a even more impressed by the amazing filtration job my nose, mouth and lungs do – and the protection afforded by my immune system – given the range and volume of the micro-organisms, unseen, that I am breathing in from the Brussels air.

Is it art? Yes, it is. In the same way as written science-fiction is literature (which I believe to be true). This is science-art.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Terrorism – a proper response

Every so often someone asks me how I feel about terrorism. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened again yesterday.

My day

Old chairs in a windowYesterday, as I write, three bombs were detonated in Brussels, a city where I live on and off now while Mrs SC is working there for an international organisation. Now it happens, just at present, I am away at home in Gothenburg while my wife is at home away in Brussels. The news of the first bombing – the two bombs at the international airport – came through in a news flash to my phone yesterday morning at 8.51. I know this because I was dictating a diary entry at the time and I mentioned the time when I broke off to check my phone.

The media reports were calling the airport “Zaventem”, which is its proper name, but as everyone in Brussels seems to call it “Brussels’ airport”, my first thought was that Zaventem must be the other Brussels airport, the little one out of town which the budget airlines and charter companies use. This meant I wasn’t too worried for about half an hour.

Then I realised the little airport is Brussels South Charleroi. The media reports were actually about the main international airport. And now I heard about the bomb on the Brussels underground in the rush hour. Things became more urgent.

Mrs SC has an arrangement with her office that lets her come in late on Tuesdays so she (and I when I’m there) can go swimming. When I finally reached her – by text message – she’d just got back from the swimming baths and was getting ready for work. She hadn’t heard about the attacks.

During the day, contact was a bit difficult. Presumably the mobile net was overwhelmed by traffic. However, we managed to exchange texts several times during the day and finally were able to talk in the evening. I spent the day on and off line – sometimes fielding questions from worried friends and family members (especially the more elderly and less e-literate ones), sometimes following the news updates on the social and news media, sometimes doing something practical. I dusted and vacuumed the flat. Then I went shopping. Then I made a batch of pancakes and ate them all. It was only afterwards (when I was feeing a bit sick) that I realised I’d forgotten to use any eggs.

Mrs SC got through on the phone at last around 6.30 in the evening. She told me her story.

Her day

When she left the flat in the morning, she discovered the metro wasn’t working, so she took a local tram towards the city, but that came to a halt just two stops up the line. So then she tried to catch a bus, but that also came to a halt just a few stops along. After a lot of uncertainty, a couple of security personnel turned up and told everyone on the bus and milling around at the bus stop that there was no public transport into or out of Brussels centre. It seems this information was not given over the radio to the bus or tram drivers; they were just told to stop. The security people recommended that the passengers did not go on into town on foot, but return to their homes.

Mrs SC walked a part of the way home, but then went into a cafe for a late breakfast. That was when she learned more about the bombings and finally got through to her (Swedish) boss who had been trying to reach her. He wanted to know about another Swedish colleague who was visiting Brussels, but because my wife wasn’t in the office she couldn’t go to find out what had happened to him.

This was also when she got through to her work (or they reached her) and she discovered her immediate (Brussels) boss was actually close to entering the Maelbeek metro station when the bomb went off there. The boss didn’t realise what had happened – just understood that the station had been closed – and instead walked to work.

By this time the authorities had gone out with a request that everybody stay indoors and off the streets, so Mrs SC decided it was better for her to stay on in the cafe. She was there for at least two hours, following developments on social media and news websites. This was when she was able to post a “safe” notice to Facebook and a photo of the café looking very peaceful, which helped allay fears for some friends I’m sure. After that she decided she would be better off at home, and because there was still no public transport, she walked. The weather, she said, made it a very nice day to be out walking.

When she got home – or on the way – she finally heard officially from her employers that all their members of staff were accounted for and were safe.

Yesterday – among all the other messages – was one: “I expect now you’ll be moving back to Gothenburg as soon as you can.” And another: “How can you live in a dangerous place like that?”

To which the answers are first “No”, and second, “It’s as safe as anywhere else.”

Terrorism – the proper response

Terrorism response - Blossom
I grew up in England during the worst of the Troubles. Between 1973 and 1976 (when I was betwen 14 and 17), the IRA carried out a series of bomb attacks aimed at pretty much the same sort of targets as the current IS terrorists. Railway stations and airports, tourist attractions, crowded shops, theatres and arenas. The media – perhaps repeating the language of the security services – calls these “soft targets”.

The only new element in the current wave of attacks is that they are suicide attacks. Even that’s not exactly new. I realised today, listening to the Belgian public prosecutor’s press conference that the French word for suicide attacker is kamikaze, which takes the concept back a good 70 years.

The objective of attacking “soft targets” and of trying to cause as much destruction and disruption as possible, of course, is to instil terror in the population being targeted. This is what terrorism means. The success of the terrorists depends on the extent that we allow ourselves to be frightened – terrorised – by them.

But really, why let ourselves become frightened?

Yes, of course, in the moment when we are subjected to an attack, we may be frightened. If not immediately, then in the aftermath. It’s a normal human reaction. And someone with direct experience of such an attack may even become permanently traumatised – there’s no shame in that.

But there is shame in letting ourselves be terrorised by these attacks if we haven’t been directly affected. That is cowardice – and, frankly, stupidity.

Rhetoric aside, we are not living in a war zone. We are not in a state of desperation. We have been targeted by a few petty attackers who have let themselves been fooled into giving up their own lives for a worthless cause.

Seventy years ago the people of Europe had every reason to feel traumatised after six years of total war. Today the people of Syria have a reason to feel terror after suffering five years of a brutal civil war. But the wave of Syrian refugees are not fleeing to Europe because conditions in Europe are no better than in Syria. By comparison to Syria, Europe today is an oasis of peace. A few random suicide attacks are not going to change that – unless we let them.

The IRA attacks of my childhood achieved nothing beyond murdering a small number of people and injuring a larger group. Those attacks did not instil terror into the general population then. There is no reason to expect these IS attacks will be any more successful now. And there is no reason to allow them to be any more successful.

So the proper response to terrorism, in my opinion, is not to give in to terror. Be more cautious, perhaps, be more alert if that helps you. Don’t discount risk, but keep a sense of proportion. You can die crossing the road – in fact you are much more likely to die crossing the road than as the victim of a terrorist attack. Are you terrified to cross the road? Of course not. So why give in to terror in the face of the far more remote chance of getting caught up in a bombing?

If you can, react to the terrorists by doing the opposite of what they want. Don’t be frightened, be friendly – more friendly – to your neighbours and to strangers. Don’t hate, be loving – more loving – to your family and friends. Be brave. Hold your head up. You are not a coward. The cowards are the terrorists themselves – and the people they cow.

Street orchestra in Brussels

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Particular smells

Particular smells can be immensely evocative. Think of the smell of new cut grass or of damp wool, of wood smoke or the perfume of a rose

Human beings are visual creatures. For most of us sight is the most important of our senses, and the one we use most often to understand our world. This is not true for the blind or the partially sighted, of course, or for certain other individuals, but it is true by and large for the majority of us.

However, we all know that sight is just one of several senses. Growing up, we are often told we have five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). This platitude is the origin of references to the “sixth sense” – that mystical extra ability that some people are supposed to be gifted with that lets them read another person’s thoughts, see dead people or look into the future.

Of course we all have more than five senses. For example, we all know about – but often seem to forget – our sense of balance. Many of us also all tend to underestimate our abilities to use our senses other than sight. We even sometimes need to be reminded of our other senses. It’s a common instruction in creative writing classes, for instance, to remind students to think not just about how characters look, but also to think about how they sound. To ask: If this character was a fruit, how would he or she taste? To imagine a fabric or a structure in terms of how it feels to the touch.

Our sense of smell is one of the senses that most often gets passed over. Conventional wisdom chimes with scientific research to suggest that humans do not have a very developed sense of smell. (Although some modern research challenges that.) And yet I think most people can agree that a particular smell can be immensely evocative.

Think of the smell of new cut grass or of damp wool, for example, of wood smoke or the perfume of a rose or lavender. I would guess that at least one of these scents conjures up a very vivid image in your head, and very possibly a specific time and place too.

Last year I came across an article about a “smellmap” of Amsterdam. I was in a hurry, but it seemed a good subject to return to later for a Stops and Stories article, so I bookmarked it and moved on. As usually happens, I then forgot about it until this weekend when I was looking through my notebook for inspiration. I found the link and went back and read the article properly – and then started to follow the associated links.

What a wonderful treasure trove!

Let me introduce Kate McLean, PhD student at the Royal College of Art in London, “a multi-disciplinary artist working in visual and olfactory communication.” She has one foot in the world of science, the other in the world of artful cartography – and her nose in the air. If I’ve understood things right, she started out trying to find ways to make visible statistical information. (The fat consumption of the average Scot sculpted in beef lard was one example!) She experimented with the other senses – but struck gold when she started looking at how people perceive their environments in terms of the smells around them.

She has carried out research and exhibited her work in various cities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, Amsterdam and Singapore, building “smellmaps” and creating “smellscapes” with the help of local people who have joined her on her “smell walks”. These visualisations of the way people perceive and feel about the smells around them are necessarily subjective, but at the same time may give a valuable insight in how people experience their local environment. An insight that might be useful for urban planners, for example. Her work is showcased in portfolios on the website of Sensory maps.

The video clip of her smell map of Amsterdam is visually very satisfactory, but I most liked her Paris Postcards Poster – a distilled creation made after an exhibition in Paris. At the exhibition a series of small bottles containing scents collected in Paris were available for visitors to sniff. Then they were invited to write down on a post-it note the place and/or feeling they associated with the smell and stick their notes on a board. See the poster here (it is a pdf file that you can zoom in on to view and read more easily.)

Finally, if you are tempted (as I am) to try creating a smell map of your own, Kate McLean has produced a “Smellfie” or do-it-yourself smell map kit. Again, it’s a pdf document – in the form of thirteen slides – which you can view, download and print out.

And I can’t do better to conclude this week’s article than borrow Kate McLean’s valediction: Happy sniffing!

The featured image at the head of this is a screenshot of the front page of Sensory Maps. The image is copyright Sensory Maps/Kate McLean and no tresspass is intended.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.