Category Archives: Only loosely about London

Out with the old

Continuing with the festive theme started last entry (and why not?), I think I’d like to talk a little about New Year. Here in London, the New Year tradition is very simple. Go out and get absolutely hammered. If you want to really push the boat out, join the revellers in Trafalgar Square or by the river so you can hear the chimes of Big Ben as they sound. The New Year is obviously a significant day in the calendar, what with it being at the start and all. But I have to say that our tradition is lacking a little compared to those of other countries and even those of other parts of Britain.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the tradition of holding New Year on 1st January is actually not that universal. You’ve no doubt heard of Chinese New Year and are aware that it falls between January 21st and February 21st, depending when the new moon of the first lunar month falls. Well, there’s also the Tamil New Year, the Nepalese New Year, the Balinese New Year, the Islamic New Year, the Eastern Orthodox New Year and so many others that I can’t really be bothered to list them all. Suffice it to say that not everyone goes by the Gregorian calendar. Even in Britain, the New Year was only regarded as starting on 1st January from 1751 onwards. Before that, 25th March was the preferred date.

So anyway, how about the celebrations themselves? Well, we have the fireworks, of course, which are nice. And we have the New Year’s Day parade, which is also nice.

New Year festivities in Rural Scotland (NOTE TO SELF: Check this before pressing "publish.")

If you’re a bit further north, though, you might get something a bit more imaginative and a bit pagan. One tradition in Scotland and the North of England is that of burning out the Old Year. Grampian in particular has some rather interesting traditional customs. In Stonehaven, for instance, there’s a festival known as “Swinging the Fireballs,” where people, um, swing fireballs around and people let off shotguns to let the Old Year know it’s time to leave. However, there’s also the requisite eating and drinking, so it’s all good. In Burghead, there’s the more obscurely-named “Burning the Clavie,” in which a barrel of tar (the Clavie) is set alight, carried around the town and then fixed to a stone altar. The charred remains are considered to keep evil spirits at bay and thus are used as good luck charms. Allendale and Northumberland see similar festivities. Perhaps even the modern-day fireworks owe their origins to such customs as these.

Good fortune is a common theme of New Year celebrations – this may be traced back to the ancient belief that spirits lurked in the dark (and I’m not just talking about the whisky). If you don’t fancy a bit of a blaze, a lot of noise is considered an equally acceptable way to banish evil. A peal of bells from the church is one way of doing things. Another, if you’re a member of  the Berchtesgaden Christmas Shooters (Weinachtschützen des Berchtesgadener Landes) in Germany is to let off a volley of gunfire to symbolically shoot the Old Year. Similar symbolic shootings are held in Philadelphia and were once held in Angus.

After all that noise and merriment, assuming your hangover allows such things, feasting is traditional. The idea of a feast to mark the New Year dates back to the Romans (there’s that pre-Christian thing again). In Greece, a cake is served containing a coin, the finder of which will supposedly have good luck throughout the year, presumably unless  they break a tooth on it. That would be lame. Again in Germany, the eating of doughnuts is a New Year custom, along with lucky marzipan pigs. On the subject of pastry, Parisian bakers traditionally used to bake elaborate shaped pastries to mark the start of the year.

If you want to work all that off, as well as cut through your hangover, you may wish to return to London for one final New Year tradition. Brave or possibly insane souls in the Serpentine Swimming Club, Hyde Park like to go for an early morning dip in the lake. Talk about breaking the ice!!!! No, but seriously, they often do have to literally break the ice.

Anyway, Happy New Year, chums, and all the best for 2012. Show those Mayans who’s boss.

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Filed under Booze, Current events, Fashion and trends, Food, History, Only loosely about London

What the heck is Boxing Day, anyway?

Christmas has thus far been a 100% success, and now I’m settling down for the traditional Boxing Day power-down. Many will be out in the sales, fighting for bargains. Personally, I’m a bit old-fashioned, and treat the whole thing as basically “like Christmas Day, only more mellow.” If my choice is between fighting my way up Oxford Street and sitting around eating turkey and drinking port, you know which one I’m going for.

Boxing Day is a holiday that only really exists in Britain and Commonwealth countries, and seems to mystify those from other countries. It’s really quite simple. It’s a bank holday to help you recover from Christmas. It falls on the Feast of Stephen, when Good King Wenceslas looked out (there was nothing on TV except the Bond movie, and he’d already seen Live and Let Die like ten times).

I’ve heard alternative theories as to the origin of the name. One is that it was the day when boxing matches were held. While there are many sporting events traditionally held on 26th December, including boxing in Italy and several African countries, this explanation has been dismissed by experts as “like totally retarded.” Another is that it’s when the churches broke open their poor boxes for distribution to the needy, or put boxes out for collections. However, the explanation that seems most widely accepted is that it was when households would distribute Christmas gifts of trinkets, food or money – to servants. The name seems to have first appeared in the seventeenth century, when earthenware boxes were the favoured containers. Such servants would largely be household staff, but later on this expanded to include postmen, chimney sweeps and anyone else who had helped the household during the year. Through the twentieth century, households grew smaller, employing fewer servants. Technological innovation also made running a house less labour-intensive, so the tradition of Christmas boxes died out. Except… not entirely. It’s still common to give a little something to your dustman, paper boy, secretary etc., only we don’t call it “boxing” any more.

Although Boxing Day is a largely British and Commonwealth phenomenon, it’s also a Christian festival. St Stephen’s Day also falls on the 26th, and various countries have their own ways of marking the occasion. In Ireland, there’s the Feast of the Wren, when groups of revellers would go from door to door, singing and dancing and carrying a dead wren on a stick. Feathers from this wren were supposed to be a charm against shipwreck. Latterly, a live or fake wren has been used instead, because seriously, guys. In Catalonia, there is a feast where local cuisine as well as the remains of the Christmas feast are served, which sounds more like my kind of party. Returning to Britain, the tradition in Wales was to flog your female servants with branches of holly for no reason. Ironically, there are no celebrations in Serbia, the country for which St Stephen is the patron saint.

I’m not sure exactly when it became this horrendous shopping day, but quite frankly I cannot be arsed with that sort of thing. I did my struggling through the shops in the week before Christmas and have no desire to repeat the experience.

Therefore, my plan is to continue with the gluttony and materialism until I pass out, before going for the traditional Quiet Pint with Friends. Merry Christmas, chums.

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Easy Steam

I don’t think I mentioned this before, but I’ve started a new blog in response to the level of interest shown in my entries on the subject of steampunk. Here it is.

http://realsteampunk.wordpress.com/

It’s called Real Steampunk and, as the name sort-of implies, it’s dedicated to real life examples of strange machines worthy of steampunk. I’m hoping to update on a weekly basis, although entries will be much shorter than you may be used to here on London Particulars. There’s only so much you can say about machinery before people’s eyes start glazing over, in my experience.

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On the bottom of the world

Today marks one hundred years since Roald Amundsen’s expedition reached the South Pole, winning the Race to the Pole and achieving one of the major goals of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

Look at this guy!

And heroic it was. There is no environment quite so barren and hostile to human life as the Antarctic. The name literally means “place where there are no polar bears,” so that’s one hazard you don’t have to worry about. There are penguins, though, which survive in the seas around the continent due to their evolutionary adaptations and the fact that they are funny. The continent itself, Antarctica, is the coldest and, perversely given the fact that it’s covered in ice and snow, the driest place on Earth. The phrase “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” was never more apt. Despite many expeditions south, the continent wasn’t even seen until 1820 and it wasn’t until more than seventy years later that it was considered worth exploring.

The impetus for the Heroic Age of Antarctic Expedition came from London, specifically Professor John Murray of the Royal Geographical Society, who suggested that an exploration of the forbidding continent would be a great boon to science. His suggestion was taken up in 1895 at the Sixth International Geographical Congress, also in London (I have to justify this entry in a London blog somehow) and in 1897 the Belgian Antarctic Expedition under Adrien de Gerlache made the first serious attempt at achieving this.

The RRS Discovery, trapped in ice

Attempting a trip to the Pole with Victorian and Edwardian equipment was about the manliest thing you could do short of beating a bear to death with your penis (which, as mentioned earlier, was impossible in the Antarctic). So it’s a testament to human endeavour that there were so many expeditions over the following decades. Each one added a little more to the sum of human knowledge, both in terms of our understanding of this alien terrain and in terms of our ability to survive in such an environment. Meanwhile, they braved such hazards as hypothermia, extreme frostbite, starvation and the ever-present risk of being trapped by ice (several ships were lost in this fashion, and Captain Scott’s Discovery was frozen in for two years before being freed by dynamite and a fortunate thaw).

The Pole was one of the ultimate goals, and it came as a bit of a surprise when Roald Amundsen was the one to reach it. Not least because he hadn’t told anyone that was where he was going until he was well on his way. You see, Amundsen, for all he was brave and ingenious, was also something of a rogue. His original plan had been to reach the North Pole. However, his expedition had been held up by a lack of funds – at one point, he begged money from his own mother, claiming that it was for his studies (which makes me feel a bit less guilty about some of the things I spent my student loan on). By the time he had the money, the North Pole had already been reached.

Amundsen at the pole

Unfortunately, the South Pole wasn’t a viable goal either, for the simple reason that Captain Robert Falcon Scott of Britain was already planning such an expedition and a gentleman’s agreement was in place among the international geographic community to let him have his shot. No problem, thought Amundsen, and planned his expedition under the pretence of an Arctic voyage. Not even his men knew that they were aiming South until after they had departed, and he curtly informed Scott by telegram that the Norwegians were coming.

In Britain, we’re often taught about the heroic failure of Scott’s expedition. But the simple fact is that, having started the race, Amundsen was the most likely choice to win it. Whereas earlier expeditions were fortified by woollies and hampers from Fortnum and Mason, Amundsen copied the survival techniques used by natives of colder climes. Not a superstitious man, he planned his journey meticulously and left nothing to chance. Thus, while all the members of Scott’s expedition perished, Amundsen succeeded admirably.

While his voyage was a great acheivement for the newly-independent nation of Norway, his success was not universally celebrated back home. You see, he had broken a gentleman’s agreement, and that was Not the Done Thing.

Expeditions continued, and still do today. Modern equipment has revolutionised polar exploration, but let’s not forget the work of those early pioneers. Anyone for a brandy?

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Ten thousand thundering typhoons!

I’m not a huge fan of the concept of heroes. I find them generally rather unsatisfactory – I don’t see what’s so great about a character who’s so very good when it’s quite plain that there’s no other way they could be. I don’t know if that makes any sense. What I suppose I’m trying to say is that all too often, the character lacks any sense of realism. The more flawed the better.

This is why Captain Haddock is a hero of mine. He’s a bad-tempered, clumsy, middle-aged drunk. He’s impulsive, and prey to his own emotional outbursts. He’s a magnet for life’s little annoyances, whether of his own making or pushed upon him by whatever deity governs the Tintin universe. Yet at the same time, he’s also a very loyal individual with a strong sense of morals who is constantly battling his own failings to do what is right. This, I think is the appeal of the character – he is ultimately good, but it’s not easy.

Hergé, creator of the Tintin series, seems to have been Haddock’s biggest fan. The Captain was introduced in the ninth book, The Crab with the Golden Claws. In this, he was a purely supporting player, a pathetic alcoholic who hinders Tintin as much as he helps him. By The Secret of the Unicorn, two volumes later, he’s practically an equal protagonist. It’s quite clear that Hergé saw something of himself in the character, indulging as he did in the author’s own interests in exploration, fashion and the odd tipple. He also gave the rather introverted Hergé a means to work through and laugh at his own frustrations in life.

This is a rather longwinded way of telling you that I went to see The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn last night at Feltham Cineworld, which is perhaps the most un-Tintin location in the world. As you’ve probably gathered, I’m something of a fan of the original books, so this was a film I simply had to see by law.

On the whole, I thought it was a pretty awesome film. It mashes up The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and bits of Red Rackham’s Treasure, with elements of original story to give the whole thing an overarching antagonist.

For a Tintin geek, there was a lot to enjoy. As well as the three books the story is based on, I spotted references to The Black Island, King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Cigars of the Pharoah, Tintin in America, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, The Shooting Star and Land of Black Gold. That’s excluding the overt references in the title sequence. There’s a blink-and-you’ll miss it cameo by Cutts the butcher and an appearance by Le Petit Vingtième, the rarely-seen newspaper that Tintin actually writes for. No doubt a Tintinologist could find many more.

The animation is worthy of note. It utilises motion capture, a form of animation whereby a real life actor’s movements are rendered in CGI. Attempts at full motion-capture animation have an unfortunate tendency to fall into the Uncanny Valley (see The Polar Express), and based on the early trailers I feared this might fall victim to that. However, it’s not so – perhaps because the film doesn’t go for outright realism with its characters, but caricatures. After the initial jolt, you quickly become used to the animation and get absorbed into the world.

The attention to detail in rendering said world is breathtaking. The setting is fairly ambiguous in terms of time and place, but nevertheless a stunning amount of work has gone into every setting. This is very befitting of something based on the stories (if not the ligne claire art style) of Hergé, who researched his artwork intricately. Such is the quality of animation that despite the obviously exaggerated characters, I often found myself forgetting that what I was watching was actually a cartoon.

I have to say, the film falls down a little where it departs from the original books. Trying not to give too much away, the flashback to Francis Haddock’s confrontation with Red Rackham in The Secret of the Unicorn differs significantly from the original album, abandoning Hergé’s meticulously-researched and historically-accurate sea battle in favour of a conflict in which, how can I put this, a ship swings over another ship by the rigging. Red Rackham’s treasure is no longer brought over to the captured Unicorn from the damaged pirate ship, but is a secret cargo aboard the man o’ war (how much cargo space does a warship have, anyway?) – that’s fine, but if we’re saying the treasure isn’t Rackham’s to begin with, the film’s major antagonist doesn’t exactly have the motivation to go after it. Given that the antagonist was basically invented for the film, this is a slightly bizarre point. Complicating matters further is that by the end of the film, they’ve decided that the treasure actually was Rackham’s, from “plunder[ing] half of South America.” I’m guessing this line was to set up a sequel centred around The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun, but it complicates further a plot that doesn’t make much sense.

That being said, there’s a lot to enjoy about this film. It’s a fun old-school action adventure reminiscent that stands out from the kids’ movie crowd. It’s more cartoony than the original comics, certainly, but if you can let that go it’s a fresh take on Hergé’s world. And if audience reaction is anything to go by, your kids will love it.

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If I were a rich man…

I hate money. Whoever said that money can’t buy you happiness was either a liar or very literally-minded.

You see, without going into too much boring detail, the nature of my employment is such that there is, occasionally, the possibility of my being without work. Now, to understand the significance of this, I’d like to take you on a journey across time and space, to a period long ago, back when it was… er, five years ago.

At that time, I also found myself unemployed, and went – for a very brief period – on the dole. Frankly, for the amount I got, it hardly seemed worth the effort. Anyway, a few months after I’d come off, I got a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions. It was a sinister thing in which they told me, quite sternly, that I was under suspicion of having committed fraud.

Well, this was a serious allegation, but I was quite sure there had been some misunderstanding. I went along to a little interview at which a middle-aged and slightly nervous-looking woman tried to act like a badass interrogator. She presented me with a letter in a manner that was possibly intended to be confrontational, but came off as if she thought it was about to explode. In this letter, National Savings and Investments confirmed that I had an account with them and, without getting too specific, there was quite a bit of money in it. This is a thing the DWP tend to frown upon when you’re applying for the dole.

Frankly, the whole thing took me by surprise. I’d never heard of this account, I’d never had any correspondence regarding it, even my parents weren’t familiar with it. I was asked why I hadn’t declared it, and I explained that I honestly didn’t know it was there. I also pointed out that there had been no activity on the account since 1994, and that it was unlikely, having been both unemployed and a student, that I would have gone without dipping into it. Unless I’d been planning to defraud the DWP since primary school, which is unlikely but possible.

Eventually I was free to go, it being determined that I had not been a child mastermind. My first move, as you might imagine, was to find out all I could about the account. Its origins were determined – it had been set up shortly after my birth and forgotten about. Next step was to get at that money.

Now, let me make this clear – National Savings and Investments hate you. I rang them up and explained the situation. They told me that I needed “a book” to get the money out. I asked how I could get this… “book.” They replied that I just had to tell them the last two transactions. I patiently reminded them that I hadn’t even known this account existed, and the chap happily explained that he could do nothing for me. So I tried writing, and received no reply. Eventually I gave up on the whole thing.

A few months ago – roughly five, in fact – it occurred to me that it might be sensible to try to get that money again. I was reminded of this by a call from my bank, reminding me of the existence of my credit card and overdraft, pointing out that these were costing me money every month and offering me a loan (which presumably would also cost me money every month). This NS&I account could take care of both of those, and isn’t that what those financial-advisor-type people are always telling us we should do with pecuniary windfalls?

So I went on the NS&I website to find out how I could get a new book. This had no information whatsoever. So I went to the Post Office (who run NS&I) and asked. I was told I had to write to the main office. Actually write. Compose a letter and send it. Now, I know the Post Office aren’t fans of the Internet, but for Christ’s sake.

So I did that. I included all the information I had. I didn’t know if it would be enough, because I had no idea what they required. The Post Office bods I spoke to seemed a little uncertain. I waited, and waited, and waited. After about three months, I was ready to write an angry letter, but then – at long last – I got a response.

It was a form. A form saying, “Yeah, you know that account, the one you sent us details about? Are these the details of that account?” Yes, I said, and posted it back. Then I got another form basically saying, “Are you sure these are the details of that account?”

This form also demanded a witness signature. No proof of identity, date of birth or address, they didn’t even specify who the witness should be. In other words, if an unscrupulous individual (other than me) got hold of the letter, they could just change the address details, fake a witness signature and get my book.

Eventually, a week and a half ago, the book finally arrived. I let out a whoop, as I was at that time living on beans on toast and the surprisingly nutritious gunk I’d scraped from under the fridge. I held off on buying a solid gold top hat, and went down to the Post Office. The photo of Postman Pat giving the finger should have clued me in that it wouldn’t be as simple as I thought, and so it was not. The woman at the counter explained that I would have to fill out a form, post it off and I would get the money in roughly two weeks. And I did ask – there is again no online facility for doing this, nor could I just give the form to them. Interesting fact – trying to get through a pane of reinforced glass really hurts.

After I’d recovered, I filled out the form. It asked for account details but again, no actual proof of ID beyond the book (which I’d have to physically send). Last week I got… a form identical to the second one, i.e. asking for my address, date of birth and an easily-faked witness signature. So I sent it off. Who knows what the next step will be? I tried reading some Kafka, but it offered little by way of practical tips. I’m starting to think maybe the Great Train Robbers weren’t bad men, just regular people trying to get hold of their savings who got pushed too far.

So here I am. I’ve been unemployed for four weeks, but I’m back in work on Monday. Going on the dole wasn’t an option, because of this account. But this account was of no physical use, because I couldn’t get to it. Meanwhile, I’ve been leading an existence of student-level poverty, with enough money to solve all my problems seemingly just out of reach. I don’t quite understand how my life turned into a 1980s sitcom, but there you go.

Anyway, to return to my starting point – money can’t buy you happiness, but I’d feel a lot happier knowing I can pay the rent next week.

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The name’s Bond

This weekend found me back West at the parents’ place for a specific task. The Da has been streamlining his car collection, and my assistance was required to move one of them. The vehicle being disposed of was a Bond Minicar.

Now, you say “a Bond” in a car context, people automatically assume you mean an Aston Martin. A Bond Minicar is actually pretty much the opposite of an Aston Martin. It looks like what you’d get if you didn’t bother to get your Reliant Robin neutered and it mounted a Ford Anglia.

The vehicle on the left is a Bond Minicar. Not the Da’s one, but very similar. As you can see, it’s tiny. The chap who took the Da’s one described them as “the original Mini.” Actually, they’re smaller than that. We were able to fit it into the back of a Transit van for its trip to its new home. Four of us were able to physically pick it up with ease. Picking a car up is the manliest thing I’ve done since that time I ate a steak while smoking a cigar and wearing a Stetson.

To understand the appeal of the Minicar, you need to know a little about the history of motoring in Britain. In 1949, when the first Bonds were built, car ownership in Britain was nothing like as widespread as it is now – cars were simply not affordable for most families. Often, the family runabout, if you had one, would be a motorbike and sidecar (Dad driving, Mum riding pillion, two kids crammed in the sidecar, God hopefully on your side).

Enter Lawrie Bond, an engineer who had made military components during the Second World War. He aimed to produce a small, economical car for the average family, and the Minicar was the result. Period advertisements show a family of four happily chuntering along in their spacious automobile, which suggests that either people were about half the size back then or the publicity department was being economical with the truth. In reality, the Minicar was a very basic vehicle. It used a Villiers motorbike engine with no reverse gear which was actually mounted on the single front wheel. Due to the car’s tiny turning circle, however, the lack of a reverse gear wasn’t a huge issue. The Deluxe version had electric windscreen wipers (believe me, chums, you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to clear a windscreen in the driving rain with a manual windscreen wiper).

This basic nature was the main attraction of the vehicle. You see, with its tiny engine and its three wheels, it wasn’t technically a car. Technically, it was a motorbike. You only needed a motorcycle licence to drive one and, crucially, you only had to pay a motorcycle’s road tax, purchase tax and insurance. For all I joke about them, you can see the appeal of such a car to the motorbike-and-sidecar families.

The Da’s is a Mark G, which was first manufactured in 1961. This included such luxuries as opening windows and door locks. The Da’s is notable for the fact that it was the first one with an opening boot (which raises the question of whether early Mark Gs had boots you couldn’t get into) and is thus An Historic Vehicle. Unfortunately, in 1962 a crippling blow was dealt to Bond when the government reduced the tax on four-wheeled cars. Thus, immediately, much of the appeal of the Minicar was gone, and people started to favour cars that might actually get you laid.

Bond produced a follow-up, the 875, which (worryingly) could do up to 100mph. Bond Cars Ltd. was bought up in 1970 by Reliant, whose name is legendary (notorious?) in British motoring circles for the three-wheeled Robin and Regal (best known as Del Boy’s van from Only Fools and Horses) models. However, the Bond name lived on in the form of the utterly bizarre Bond Bug, seen above. This was essentially a sports version of a Reliant Robin, and one can’t help wondering if there was one guy at Reliant who was a bit embarrassed that they’d taken his joke suggestion seriously.

These days, all these three-wheelers – the Minicar, the Robin, the Regal, the 875, the Bug – have a cult following. Perhaps because they’re so unusual, perhaps because they represent a niche market, perhaps because they appeal to the British sense of the ridiculous. If any car personifies the “lovable loser,” it’s the three-wheeler.

"You plonker, 3PO."

One final note. The chap who designed the Bug, Tom Karen, would go on to design the Landspeeder from Star Wars. This means that technically, the Bond Minicar is the ancestor of the Landspeeder. Next time George Lucas decides to tinker with the original films, do you think he could be persuaded to put Luke Skywalker in a Minicar? That would be so awesome.

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