Austerity Max

The last 30 hours or so have seen the UK lashed by heavy rain and strong wind: it feels just like summer!  Sadly, this has all come too late for a great Sawston institution.

On Saturday morning, I wandered into the village to take a book back to the library.  When I arrived, the library was gone.  Not closed, but totally gone.  Apparently, it burnt to the ground – not sure when, but I’m hoping while I was away or I am even less observant than even I thought.  I know councils are trying to cut costs – but this does seem a bit extreme.  Perhaps it represents some canny work to make our council tax go further: it not only saves the cost of the library but will also bring in some much needed cash when the insurance company pays up.

Before lawyers become excited, I don’t think it was the council “arson” around – though unlike the Prodigy, I don’t imagine most twisted fire-starters admit their guilt quite so publicly.   There did seem to be some building work going on adjacent to the library last time I visited (pre-combustion) and I suspect this may be implicated in Sawston’s loss.  Either that or someone had a rather disproportionate response to an overdue book fine.

Given these difficult financial times, I suspect we may have lost our library for good.    I fear it’ll be Shelford or the Central for my storage-free reading needs from now on.  If I had one, I’d sport a black armband – or perhaps a minute’s silence would be a more appropriate mark of respect.  Shhh!

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Screen Test

Yesterday evening saw the end of the thirty second Cambridge Film Festival, an event which took rather longer than its name might suggest (in fact, it ran over some 13 days rather than half-a-minute).  2011 had represented my previous personal best at the festival (yes, I am trying to make blog capital out of the recent Olympics) with a total of three films viewed.  However, the arts need our support (now more than ever) and so I felt it was important that I make more of an effort this year.

Despite being away for three-and-a-half days of the festival (in Norfolk and Milan, since you ask), in the last nine days I have managed to see nine films.  My personal best is well and truly smashed (personally, I think it may have a wee bit of a drink problem) and, in fact, this represents the most concentrated cinema going of my life to-date.  The nine films were from seven countries in six languages (subtitles were provided for those not in English, my unaided language skills would have been inadequate otherwise) – and for five of the countries this was my first taste of their cinematic output.  All had something to enjoy though the Estonian take on The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky was very heavy going.  Admittedly, Mr D is not known as much of a funster – I did read Crime and Punishment a few years back and laughs were very thin on the ground – but the production was seriously opaque (so much so that on my return I had to Google the plot to try and work out what was going on: they did seem to have skimped somewhat on the original plot, cast and locations).  Still, if experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, then it was certainly an experience.  (BTW: What do you get if you want experience?).

For one film, there was even a Q&A afterwards with the film’s producer and one of the leads (acting, rather than electrical).  Sadly, the only question I could think of (but wisely didn’t ask) was how (or perhaps why) a character had planted lavendula stoechas and angustifolia in full bloom out in his garden in Brighton in February: I’m no Monty Don, but this is surely asking for trouble.   Still, I try not to allow small errors of detail spoil my fun – though could also observe that it is quite a hike from Brighton to find a sandy beach to ride your motorcycle along!

In addition to the films, my support has stretched to putting away a really quite impressive number of pots of artisan ice cream and slices of cake.  No-one said that supporting the arts was easy!  Last night, as a bonus, I also nabbed another celebrity for my Heat magazine strand: Simon Shaffer – Professor of the History of the Philosophy of Science and sometime TV science documentary presenter – who was, as is becoming typical of these encounters, somewhat shorter than expected.

Seeing so many films has been great fun and I’m wondering if should see visit the ciname more often without first having agonised over a range of reviews. Spontaneous, moi?  Today I find I’m missing all my friends from the silver screen and the friendly staff of the Arts Picturehouse plying me with sweet delights (though otherwise the foul weather has curbed my desire to go outside).  Perhaps its time to return to the theatre: it should have returned from its summer recess by now – but it has been nice taking my arts locally these last few days.

We’ve been lied to…

As readers will be aware, I am recently returned from Norfolk: one time home of the Iceni (though I don’t think there is any issue with Italian visitors these days).  Prior to my visit, I knew little about the county – and most of that was the line “Very flat, Norfolk” spoken by Amanda to Elyot in Private Lives, but written by Noël Coward.

I took my bike to Norfolk – though, as it transpired, it never left a rather stylish cycle rack at Wymondham station (but it seemed to enjoy its holiday).  However, even without using my velocipede, my keen cyclist’s eye was able to detect that Norfolk is far from flat: compared to South Cambs, the scenery is positively Alpine!  If you can’t trust an interwar comedy of manners for geographical information, where can you turn?  What next? Will I discover that insane canines and those from the south-eastern portion of the UK prefer to remain indoors at noon on sunny days?

Despite its relative abundance of contour lines, Norfolk is much flatter or more rural (or both) than my usual choice of holiday destination (which would either have mountains or be a city).  Nonetheless, it is not without appeal: it is home to some rather fine country houses and many very attractive towns and villages (most with churches of quite excessive size) and some rather fine scenery, often in close proximity to water.

Many places are the proud possessors of quite splendid, if somewhat overblown (and rather unexpectedly pronounced) names: as just a single example, I regularly passed through Swanton Morley which must surely be Sheridan’s younger brother.  However, Watton provided the best place name I saw on my travels – it is twinned with the Rhineland town of Weeze, though sadly the Germans would lose a lot of the fun with their soi-disant “correct” pronunciation of the word.

As I was on holiday, I undertook my self-imposed mission to sample the local cakemakers’ arts: it’s tough work, but someone has to make the sacrifice.  Many decent offerings, but my top venue recommendation would be the Tea House in Norwich (just off the very picturesque Elm Hill).  Not only fine cakes, but an attractive location and lovely staff.  In fact, I rather liked the city of Norwich – though as with so many of our cities, you wouldn’t want to drive there – and could imagine living there quite happily.  The only downside is the fact that it’s a little remote, in fact Norfolk as a whole isn’t really on the way to anywhere: well, not since the North Sea formed some 8000 years back.  Talking of which, Norfolk does seem to be shrinking as a county through the erosive power of the waves: I’m not saying anyone needs to hurry unduly to see Norwich while they still can but you might want to get your skates on if you have an interest in Happisburgh.

Vehicular nomenclature

There was a period in my (relative) youth when many manufacturers were content to give their cars only a number to identify the basic model.  Peugeot still uses this method, while only one letter away Audi name their cars after ISO216 paper sizes and Citroen go with the related envelopes.

Others do make more of an effort. In the recent past, Volkswagen have named their cars after ball games (Polo and Golf are clear enough, but I’m not sure about the rules of Passat), canids (Fox and Lupo) or winds (Scirocco).  However, I recently spotted the new VW up! (please note the exclamation mark is the work of VW rather than the author).  I’m not sure if we should expect to see the VW WALL-E or the VW Strange next: are they running through the oeuvre of Pixar or the names of quarks?

Talking of unnecessary punctuation in car names, what is one to make of the Kia cee’d?    It clearly isn’t a possessive and it seems unclear what letter (or group of letters) have been replaced by the apostrophe.  My theory is that the word must be taken from the Kx’a family of languages from Southern Africa and is some sort of click consonant – though this does not help me with pronunciation.

Naturally, I drive a Toyota iQ – which is clearly an entirely sensible name and very cheap to run (or in my case, mostly to not run).  I assume it was named after a cool, modern, hi-tech version of the letter Q.

40 Nights in the Wilderness

Well OK, it was only seven nights and it was in Norfolk, so no-one could take me to a high place to tempt me with dominion over all the kingdoms of the world, however, in terms of the world of 21st century communication it was very much a wilderness.

I was staying in a place without wifi, but in this age of 3G (soon to be 4G) communications hadn’t expected that to be an issue.  I possess a modern smartphone which usually allows me to remain in touch, and even blog, when away from the wifi – but not, it transpires, in Norfolk.    Whilst O2 makes up a substantial portion of the atmosphere (though less than in the past), its rays struggle to penetrate the county of Norfolk.  For much of the week, even a weak 2G signal was hard to come by – service seemed even worse than in Wales which, at least, has the excuse of its challenging topography.  I found only three places with a 3G signal: Wymondham station, Norwich city centre and, weirdly, Barton Turf staithes (which was the most remote location I visited – but obviously a priority for O2).

I know that Norfolk and its inhabitants are the butt of many a joke, with the locals allegedly being shocked by the electric light and the wheel – but in the case of modern communications this would seem to be no joke.  Norfolk must lie beyond the hegemony of the iPhone (which is now so ubiquitous that even I have one, which goes to show how far from “cool” Apple has sunk.  Then again, these days it does rather seem to have given up innovation to spend more time with its lawyers) as many of its features are unusable over most of the county.

Still, the isolation was a learning experience for yours truly.  Whilst I am not of the generation that has a panic attack if unable to check their mobile for more than 5 minutes, I found that do like to check on my electronic “life” every couple of days.  I also found that I missed the iPlayer: the radio was once again rendered all too missable.  It would seem that whilst I like to visit the countryside, I’m a city boy at heart (yes, I know that technically I live in the countryside – but I’m only a short, flatish bike ride from a university city and Cambridgeshire seems to be at least 1G ahead of its northern neighbour).  This can, perhaps, be demonstrated by my activities since my return.  With the Cambridge Film Festival in full swing (like the pendulum of a recently wound clock or a busy playground), over the least couple of days I’ve managed to take in films from Québec, Catalonia and Greece – a geographical span of art house cinema which I suspect only a city can furnish.  All the films had their appeal, though my favourite was Starbuck from French-speaking Canada – well, I say French-speaking, but the film did remind me of what terrible French they speak in Québec (which proved quite useful when I visited a few years back, as I also speak terrible French and so managed to communicate rather successfully).  However, before this degenerates into pseuds corner and I mention my plans to take in some Estonian cinema tomorrow, I should allow this post to fade to black.

A Paean to Plants

It is all too easy for those of us belonging to the Animal Kingdom to look down on plants.  They seem a pretty static form of life and don’t seem to have mastered even basic tool use, let alone any of the trappings of civilisation.  However, this ‘summer’ has suggested to me that we shouldn’t underestimate them.

The weather in recent months has been erratic at best: it has apparently been the wettest summer in a century and the dullest in thirty years (I think this latter statistic relates to lack of sunshine rather than an oppressive degree of ennui engulfing the country).  Not ideal growing conditions for plants one might imagine but an extremely productive time for their enemies: slugs and snails (though not, to the best of my knowledge, puppy dog tails).  Despite these apparently unfavourable conditions, most of the plants in my garden have gone beserk with new growth over the summer.  The vine and the beech hedge in particular have produced truly prodigious volumes of foliage, so much so, that when returning from my sojourn in Edinburgh I feared that Fish Towers would resemble the castle of Sleeping Beauty and I would need a machete to break through the undergrowth (well, I’m no prince).  It’s not just my garden, the hedgerows and verges of South Cambs have also been growing at an amazing pace, though this has raised one question in what remains of my mind: why do the fastest growing plants all possess either vicious thorns or stings?  They all reach out from the verges to snag the unwary cyclist, especially those of us foolish enough to wear shorts.

The marvel of this vegetative growth is that it has been achieved with little more than rainfall (all too plentiful), carbon dioxide (a tad more plentiful than of late through man’s tireless burning of ancient plants), nitrogen and (rather limited) sunshine.  I’m beginning to wonder if my (mostly) vegetarian lifestyle is a rather riskier option than previously imagined.  If the plants manage to metabolise one more major molecule, I think we animals  could be in serious trouble and my habits may make me somewhat of a target for our new vegetable overlords.

By the way, shouldn’t the classification of life have moved on from patriarchal monarchy?  How about the democratic republic of the animals?  Or does that sound too like a brutal dictatorship?  The federal republic of fungi, anyone?