Sun, 26 Jan 2014
New Tate Britain

I had to fit some new brake pads on the bike at the weekend and to test them I went out for a ride. So down to Millbank to have a look in Tate Britain. I knew there had been some changes recently.

New brake pads: what a difference they make! I should definitely fit them earlier in the future. One of the four I replaced was almost bare metal ...

The Tate has recently re-opened a lot of new and renovated areas, including its rotunda and staircase. It's a beautiful and light space at the front. The gallery also feels larger (it's always seemed much bigger on the inside) and shows more of its art. A really great improvement to a great gallery. The Whistler resturant downstairs (named for the murals created by artist Rex Whistler) also looked very stylish and swanky (from the outside). Must visit!

I took some pictures. This is another big positive at the Tate: pictures are allowed and no one's bothering you about having a backpack on your back, unlike other galleries.

Atkinson Grimshaw, Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887 (link) :

Sun, 19 Jan 2014
Getting Poetry

I've never managed to read poetry well. I often find it hard to read and parse, hard to find the rhythm and then perhaps hard to put aside and come back to. Poetry has been such a central part of our literary tradition however that I feel drawn to trying again every now and then. I want to "get" poetry.

Part of the problem I have is knowing how to speak the poem properly: picking up the proper cadence, the pauses and breaks. It's very different to prose and the way it is written down and structured sometimes seems to make it harder to get through. Hearing a poem read well helps a lot, and there have been quite a few learning opportunities recently.

The Radio 4 program Radio Heaney last week was a very good retrospective of some of the great man's radio appearances over the years. He was deservedly popular so we're lucky to have plenty of recordings of him and his work. His reading of Digging is beautiful and moving.

On Saturday, Jeremy Irons read T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets which I am looking forward to listening to (maybe with the text in front of me).

In addition, I've been wanting to read Clive James' well received translation of Dante, Alice Oswald's Memorial and more Eliot. The list is a lot longer and stretches to the classics like Byron and Keats. Maybe some practice and persistence. Like I say, poetry takes a little bit more work.


By Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

The BBC Radio 4 program Poetry Please is often a pleasant part of a Sunday afternoon.

Thu, 09 Jan 2014
Sir John Soane's Museum

Lincoln's Inn is well known as one of London's "Inns of Court", the professional bodies barristers belong to. A large square to the east of The Strand, Lincoln's Inn Fields also contains a very good little museum, Sir John Soane's Museum. Visiting the museum to have a look at the Alan Sorrell exhibition, I had a good look around Soane's house.

Sir John Soane was an architect from very humble origins (son of a bricklayer) who married into a lot of money. He had a long and very successful career, designing buildings like the (old) Bank of England building and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The house is a well preserved time capsule from the 18th Century and supposedly not too different from the way he left it when he died in 1837. It is absolutely full of stuff: paintings, books, sculptures, furniture, drawings, clocks, architectural models, roman and greek antiquities. Even a crypt containing the the sarcophagus of Seti I (from 14th Century Egypt). It really is an amazingly eclectic and diverse collection of things and quite a warren of rooms, corridors and floors.

It's quite cramped in places, with so much crammed inside (and visitor numbers are restricted), but well worth a visit. It's free as well.

It's home to some very good paintings, including Canaletto, Piranesi, Turner and a lot of Hogarth. Hogarth's Rake's Progress is in Soane's collection and I was lucky enough to be in the painting room when a museum guide described the paintings within and went through each of the series. He described Rakewell's progress from wealth to Bedlam. An unexpected but excellent talk. I definitely have a much better appreciation of Hogarth now.

Wed, 01 Jan 2014
Person of the Year 2013

Thinking about who my person of the year would be, in the spirit of Time magazine.

I considered Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Like what he did or not, he's certainly made a massive impact on the debate over our government, privacy and counter-terrorism/crime.

In the end however, I feel that the person who was most inspiring in 2013 was Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who spoke out for education and against the Pakistani Taliban.

At the age of 12 she was writing a blog that was picked up by the BBC. At 15 the Taliban shot her. She recovered from very bad injuries and now continues to speak out, even though she may never be able to return home because of the continued danger to her life.

A very brave girl and a real inspiration. This is the sort of person a country like Pakistan needs. More Malala and much less of Ehsanullah Ehsan.