Nice And Nasty Birthday Surprises

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have made two trips to London in the last week. The first was to celebrate LSW’s birthday.  That was very enjoyable.  We stayed in the Barbican flat and the surrounding gardens and the window-boxes of many of the flats look lovely at this time of year.

View Of The Barbican Complex In The Sun

View Of The Barbican Complex In The Sun

The second was much more traumatic surprise.

This was a rapid and urgent scoot up to Royal London Hospital to be with Middle Son (MS).  He had been knocked down by a car in a hit-and-run accident during a police car chase.

MS is recovering but has some seriously broken bones and a lot of bruises, so he will probably spend his own upcoming birthday in hospital and has a few frustrating months of rehabilitation ahead of him.  At least now I am retired I can lend full physical as well as moral support.  MS also has great support from his partner, brothers and friends.  He’s a tough cookie too, he’s in a good hospital and he will bounce back.

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London has great museums, art galleries and restaurants.  We experienced while celebrating LSW’s birthday by visiting the Natalia Goncharova exhibition at Tate Modern, the Lee Krasner exhibition at the Barbican and eating out with Youngest Son (YS) at the buzzy and lovely Morito restaurant.

We also visited Walthamstow to get a feel for one of the areas MS and his partner have been looking to buy a house in – a project I suspect will be on hold for a bit now.  Plus I visited the Foundling Museum.

Sitting here in a hospital waiting room I can’t compose much about those visits; my head is too distracted with recent events.  However here is a quick view of the high points with some pictures added since I got back home.

The Foundling Museum was interesting but while there are some fascinating items and facts on show, the topic based layout didn’t work for me.  I struggled to build up the chronology of the way the Foundling Hospital developed from 1741 through to the modern day from the exhibits although, half way round, I did find a clear timeline in the free paper guide pamphlet so my issue was mostly my fault.

A Selection Of Tokens On Show At The Foundling Museum

A Selection Of 18th Century Tokens Used To Identify Orphaned Babies Left With The Foundling Museum

The museum’s temporary exhibit of Hogarth and his depiction of noise in his pictures and cartoons is set out more engagingly.  Different elements of a single painting by him are picked out to illustrate six different aspects of 18th century street life from street music to drinking, disease and prostitution.  There is also an exhibition of some of George Handel’s work (both Hogarth and Handel were early sponsors of the Foundling Hospital) which provided welcome comfortable chairs in which to listen to some snatches of his lovely music amid information about him and his muses.

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Hogarth’s The March Of The Guards To Finchley

I had not heard of Lee Krasner before visiting the exhibition at the Barbican.  LSW was much more in the know than I and she was very keen to go.  She was spot on; it was a fascinating exhibition and full of very impressive art.  She was married to Jackson Pollock but embraced many more styles than I associate with him.  The narrative of her life, picked out by the different sections of the art on show, was compelling, the colours were terrific.  I think I will use my Barbican membership to visit again later this year.

Detail From Two Early Krasner Paintings

The Natalia Goncharova art exhibition at The Tate Modern was also worth seeing. Again there was a clear progression to her style through the early years of her life.  She was incredibly prolific during this period and it was noticeable that there was little on show from her later years except for examples of her work in designing theatre sets and costumes.  Interesting as that aspect is, I was more impressed by her earlier work.

Harvest By Natalia Goncharova

Harvest By Natalia Goncharova

So, back to thinking about MS and his recovery…. We will be back in London soon to see his progress first hand and to slip in a few more cultural treats.

 

From Writing to Artificial Intelligence

A relatively quiet week or so has been punctuated by another trip to London and the return from Australia of Youngest Son (YS).  YS and his Northern Irish girlfriend have been working (and playing) successfully in Australia for almost three years.  It’s great to have YS back in closer proximity after so long but I’m sorry we no longer have such a good excuse to visit Australia!

YS At Heathrow.  Big Hug Imminent!

YS At Heathrow. Big Hug Imminent!

It will be interesting to see how things work out for YS and his girlfriend in London during such a precarious time for the United Kingdom.  Fortunately, they very excited by the prospect and are far more optimistic about life in general than I.  They made a great life in Australia from a standing start and I’m sure they will employ their energy and contacts to do the same in London.

I continue to make the most of my opportunities to visit the excitement of London with overnight stays in my old flat.  I based my trip up to London this time around another reunion of old work colleagues – this time from a bank I worked at 15 years ago.  Once that get together was in the diary I could fit in other things around it.  I saw a film (High Life) with Eldest Son (ES) (which was more interesting than truly enjoyable) and, as has become my norm, went to The Lantern Society Folk Club and a couple of exhibitions.

The first of these exhibitions was a history of Writing at the British Library.  This shows how different types of writing emerged amongst early human communities roughly simultaneously in a several different places across the globe.  This accounts for the huge variation in language types and structures and also the variety of writing styles and media through modern history and today.

A Limestone Stela With Classical Heiroglyphs

A Limestone Stela With Classical Hieroglyphs (The Oldest Object Held By The British Library)

The exhibition then focuses on the development of our alphabet from images (e.g. an ox head shape for the letter ‘a’) used in Egypt.  These were refined progressively through simplification and transformation by the Phoenicians, the Greeks then the Italians and, especially, the Romans (who got us writing from left to right).  Further evolution of our western writing styles, fonts and media to develop readability, speed of writing and then mass production are explained clearly and interestingly with lots of tangible examples.  I became thoroughly absorbed in the exhibition.

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A Japanese ‘Four Treasures Of The Study’ – Ink (Made From Grinding An Ink Stone With Drops Of Water) And Brushes In A Beautiful Box

The British Library has such beautiful texts in its possession to illustrate every development in the art and science of writing.  In addition to the examples of writing, there were sections on writing materials spanning examples of use of clay, wax, metal, stone, skin, palm leaves and, of course, the early efforts to produce paper (by the Chinese).  Printing innovations, writing implements (including a comparison between mass produced BIC biros and Montblanc fountain pens) and much more is covered.  It is a multi-faceted and fascinating exhibition.

A 1977 Vintage Macintosh Apple II Computer

A 1977 Vintage Macintosh Apple II Computer (Part Of The Section Illustrating Progression of Typewriters to Computers And Word Processing)

Less successful is the exhibition of Artificial Intelligence (AI); More Than Human at the Barbican.  I am very interested in this topic and was looking forward to the exhibition.  It is large and I spent three hours viewing it.  However, I left vaguely unsatisfied; I’m not sure I have worked out all the reasons why yet.

I went on the first day of the exhibition and some of the interactive exhibits needed tweaking to be successful.  But a more fundamental weakness is the amount of space devoted to cultural roots relating to the human desire to animate the inanimate and to create non-human life (Frankenstein for example).  This meant that, for me, there was insufficient focus on current and future use of AI.

The history of AI is laid out in detail and was a little overwhelming.  I invested a lot of time in understanding the key developmental moments, the surges in optimism surrounding the AI technology (the ‘Golden Ages’) and the periodic ‘winters’ when that optimism seemed misplaced.  There is also good information that I recall from when I used to work in Information Technology on the differences between Expert Systems and Learning Systems, and between simulation, understanding and intelligence.

Exhibits In The AI: More Than Human Exhibition

Exhibits In The AI: More Than Human Exhibition (An Interactive Model For City Planning, Aibo The Robot Dog And A Robot Able To Mimic Human Movement)

That laid a good foundation for the latter sections of the exhibition which focus on current and, to a degree, future practical use of AI.  The examples on show, though, often seemed a little perfunctory and rather unconnected.  Some demonstrated what I would consider to be advanced computer power not, specifically, AI.

However, there were some good examples too.  These include those showing how AI is accelerating and improving areas as diverse as medical understanding and treatments, pedestrian and driver safety, city planning, customer problem solving, education and even dating.  There are also sections (too brief in my view) on the ethics of AI.  For instance, these include the dangers of AI in war, the risk of bias being built into the algorithms, and of AI being used to undermine our privacy, freedom and perception of the truth.  The exhibit showing AI helping lip-synching of Barack Obama was a rather chilling demonstration of the latter.

Since I’m a Barbican Member, I can go again for free and will plan to take ES who is also interested in the potential (and dangers) of AI.  Maybe with his insights alongside me, I will enjoy the exhibition more.

Back home, the focus is on catching up with YS (while he stays with us to gird himself for his move to London) and on gardening.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has got large parts of the garden looking very full and attractive.

Foxgloves, Erigeron, Geraniums And Flowering Weeds At The Back Of Our House

Foxgloves, Erysimum, Geraniums And Other Flowers At The Back Of Our House

My vegetable seedlings are planted and just await proper rain and, no doubt, a slug onslaught.  The meadow is looking lush and healthy. Just a few more degrees of heat and summer will be here…..

Our Favourite Irises In Our Garden

Our Favourite Irises In Our Garden

 

Two Exhibitions And More

For those who followed my last post, no, I didn’t write this on the train home from London.  No, I didn’t stay awake either but I didn’t snore (surely not!).

I was tired after my trip to London.  I didn’t get back until late on Monday from seeing Malcolm Middleton (an indie-rock Scottish depressive who somehow always manages to cheer me up with what he calls his ‘downbeat shite’) in a converted old men’s club in Hackney.  Then, on Tuesday, I went to see the Japanese film and Palme D’Or winner called Shoplifters with Eldest and Middle Sons and that didn’t finish until quite late.  Those relatively late nights were each followed by a couple of nights on a sofa bed which is never as restful as my own bed, a lot of walking through Christmassy streets and a nice lunch with an old ex-work colleague.

Malcolm Middleton And Band At The Moth Club

Malcolm Middleton And Band At The Moth Club

Quite a lot of the walking was around a couple of exhibitions.

The first was Fashioned From Nature at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) which is on for another month or so and which I would recommend.  The V&A has an amazing permanent collection of fashion but this exhibition was more interesting for me (I am hardly a fashionista!) because it dealt more with the social and environmental impact of fashion than the development of fashion through the ages.

There were certainly some remarkable individual pieces of clothing but the focus was on how humans initially used nature to cloth ourselves – using flax for linen, fur, cotton, silk, bone, feathers and even beetle shells – and then how fashion and clothing manufacture has damaged nature through mass production/consumption.

Fashioned From Nature Exhibition At The V&A

Fashioned From Nature Exhibition At The V&A

That environmental damage began even before the industrial revolution.  I learnt, for example, that the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ came from the mercury poisoning common among those who made felt hats.  They breathed in the mercury nitrate they used and that disoriented them before they flushed it into the water supply.  As synthetic materials were developed and mass produced, so the risk of chemical damage increased, the demand for agricultural monocultures grew, slavery became rife, and the problems of pollution and waste (such as management of micro-plastics resulting from clothing) became more complex.

There were a wide range of interesting exhibits showing sustainable fashion.  Others illustrated how fashion has been used to highlight the importance of clothing reuse and repair, and the impact of fashion on nature.  Overall it was an impressive, relevant exhibition and an absorbing hour or two.

I also visited the Modern Couples exhibition at the Barbican which was subtitled Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde.  This exhibition pulls together work of 40 couples active in art in the last century.  It attempts to show how these couples, through their passion, ideas, contacts and often experimental and strange relationships, influenced the work they produced.

As with the Fashioned from Nature exhibition, there were some very strong individual pieces on show.  Many of the relationships that were described were very interesting with several of the featured artists (Max Ernst and Man Ray, for example) cropping up two or three times in apparently intense but short-lived liaisons.  Some of couples’ relationships ended in suicide or murders of passion.  As I navigated the exhibition, I became increasingly thankful for my rather more straightforward and stable married relationship.

I Am Beautiful by Rodin

I Am Beautiful by Rodin (An Amalgam Of Two Previously Separate Works In Celebration Of His Love)

Over 40 interwoven themes were explored across the 40 couples presented – including how the men in the relationship tended to become the more famous even where the participants were libertarian and feminist.  These themes and the sheer number of couples covered made the exhibition large and rather complex.  It was impressive but I confess that I had to absorb it over two sessions; fortunately I now have the time to do that sort of pacing.

In other news: the Volkswagen is back.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has been grudgingly reliant on my ailing and rust-ridden Saab to get to work.  But now the local garage has replaced the Volkswagen’s engine (and more) following the cam-belt assembly failure a couple of weekends ago.  They did this all at their cost since it was the cam-belt replacement they had done that prompted the problem.  The garage even gave us a bottle of wine for our trouble so we will continue to use them and recommend them – provided the car gets us to the airport tomorrow on our way to the Christmas markets of Cologne.  We’re looking forward to them.

London's Regent Street Christmas Lights

London’s Regent Street Christmas Lights

Excuses To Visit London

Before retirement, I sometimes planned to work when travelling by train.  Now, I often get on the train with great resolve to read my current book or the newspaper.  Almost invariably, though, then and now, reading sends me falling into that unsatisfactory doze state never refreshes.  Indeed, such dozing is not really relaxing since I worry subconsciously during, and then afterwards, that I have been snoring loudly and irritating (or, worse, amusing) fellow passengers.  The one thing that always keeps me awake on the train is using my computer keyboard.  So, there is something energising about writing these blog posts on the train.

This is my second trip to London in a few days – I need very little excuse to fulfil my London fix and escape from the country (lovely as The Cotswolds are).

The first was in my ailing, misfiring and rusting Saab which was brought into action while Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) Volkswagen is read what may be the Last Rites in the garage.  LSW and I came up London to attend a 60th birthday dinner party of a long standing friend in Kew – a very amusing reconstruction of a party we had attended 20 years before.

Impressive Birthday Cake!

Impressive Birthday Cake!

We took the opportunity to visit the Annie Albers exhibition at Tate Modern and to see the new, up-market shopping centre just north of Kings Cross (Coal Drops Yard).

The Annie Albers exhibition was diverse.  Alongside the expected textiles were paintings, drawings and ingenious necklaces (my favourite exhibits since they were so simple and inspiringly made from everyday objects).  It was an interesting history of a very impressive artist and some of the items were lovely, but, perhaps because of the diversity, the exhibition never really took off for me.

Selection of Annie Albers’ Work

Our visit to Coal Drops Yard was, in some ways, just a normal window-shopping trip.  But it’s clearly a cut above most shopping centres with some of the shops like art galleries with beautiful artefacts and prices I hardly dare look at.  Also, the architecture, mostly by Thomas Heatherwick, is remarkable – especially the gasometers converted into luxury flats overlooking the new coal yard restoration and transformation.  The best aspect of the visit was trying to recall what this area looked like when it used to be one of our youthful haunts in the late 70s and 80s; the canal isn’t much changed but, truly, Kings Cross has been transformed almost entirely since then.

Coal Drops Yard

Unfortunately, after the birthday party and a very late night, we had to leave London relatively early on Sunday – albeit after a wonderfully various and hearty breakfast provided by the family of our birthday-girl.  This was to enable a return in my rust bucket car in time for a memorial service for an artist friend of ours who died a couple of months ago.  LSW and many others spoke very movingly and humorously about their memories of an artist whose work is well represented in our house.

Now, rested and ready to go again, I’m on my way back to London for a gig and a dental appointment (which is my excuse for this trip).

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I didn’t have time to finish the blog on the train (but I didn’t fall asleep, I promise).

I have since had another eventful day in London – visiting the Fashioned From Nature exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and then seeing Malcolm Middleton for the sixth time in a club in Hackney.  Both were very worthwhile.

Today I’m going to try the Barbican exhibition on Modern Couples and then meet Eldest and Middle Sons for a drink, some food and a film – oh, and I’ll fit the dentist in.  Such freedom and fun in this retired life!  I’ll say more in my next post – maybe to be authored on my return train trip…..

Pleasantly Full Days

Life seems to have been particularly busy in the last ten days or so since my last trip to London.  There I got a dental check-up (my teeth are fine), visited the Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece Exhibition (fascinating and beautifully laid out) and took Middle and Eldest Son to dinner and The Lantern Society, my favourite Folk Club (what a treat to catch up with them both!)

At The Lantern Society

At The Lantern Society

Rodin's The Thinker And The Kiss

Rodin’s The Thinker And The Kiss – Two Items In An Intriguing British Museum Exhibition

The weather has been highly conducive to gardening.  We have had long periods of sun, but reasonable temperatures, and just enough rain.  As a result, many days have been dominated by clearing weeds, planting out seedlings, localised manual watering and working out how to keep the destructive birds, mammals, molluscs and insects at bay.  Almost everything that needs protection now has some form fencing, netting or other damage prevention measure in place.  I will now sit back, wait and watch the ways the animals will thwart me anyway.

In my last post, I compared the post-modernist house of Erno Goldfinger to a previous house of ours.  My last visit to London and overnight stay in the Barbican reminded me, too, that the post-modernist gardens there are now being echoed by Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) planting of our new walled garden.  Our final load of gravel and the water feature have now arrived and so our new garden just lacks maturity, but there are already some similarities with the Barbican gardens (although the scale there is massive compared to that of our ex-car parking area).  It has certainly been pleasant sitting in the new garden in the sun with a glass of wine after sweating over weeds, seedlings, bean poles and netting.

Our New Garden and The Barbican Gardens

Our New Garden And The Barbican Gardens; Ours Has Some Maturing To Do!

LSW and I have also been enjoying the annual Nailsworth Festival and, especially, two walks arranged under the auspices of the festival.  The first was a history walk in the vicinity of our house.  It added to our knowledge of the footpaths, industry and religious history of the area – particularly the historic presence of the Quakers and Baptists in what was once one of the largest non-conformist settlements in the country.

History Walk

An Attentive Audience On The Nailsworth History Walk

The second was a 12 mile walk billed as being a walk from Nailsworth to ‘the sea’. In fact, ‘the sea’ was the tidal estuary of the River Severn at a point where a number of sea going ships were beached to bolster the coastline alongside the canal along which we had walked. The so-called Purton Hulks, were an interesting climax to a full day of walking up and down the Cotswold escarpment and across the Severn valley in perfect walking weather. LSW and I certainly pushed up our daily step count averages that day!

Views During Our Walk Nailsworth To The Sea

Views During Our Walk Nailsworth To The Sea

Purton Hulks

Purton Hulks

We also had a good day out walking in New Quay and Aberaeron in West Wales. We were staying with friends who have a second home there in what seems to be a lively and familiar community of second-homers based in London, Birmingham and South Wales. The health benefits of all the recent walking were offset by rather too much tasty food and drink in New Quay. On the route back from Wales, these indulgences continued as we stopped off at a family party celebrating a brief visit of one of LSW’s first cousins (once removed) from Singapore; lovely!

Views Of New Quay, Wales And Nearby Cliffs

Views Of New Quay, Wales And Nearby Cliffs

The food, drink and merriment isn’t going to stop this week with more of the World Cup to watch and celebrate (I hope), and the marking of LSW’s birthday with dinner in London on the way to a weekend in Paris.

So: busy and full days, full weeks and, as I near 12 months of retirement, I will shortly look back on a full year.

I’m Outta Here!

It’s been a happy couple of weeks, and momentous ones. I have been weaning myself off London living. Last week was spent clearing the Barbican flat ready for ES and his partners’ occupation. This week I returned to just be a comfortable tourist. Now I am back in Gloucestershire with a bunch of tourist photos and ticket stubs. ES moves into the flat today and it is the end of an era for me.

Recently LSW and I have established a pattern of doing things around the flat that should have been done years ago and which are now too late for me to benefit from; for example, putting up decent curtains, fixing the thermostat on the kitchen sink water supply, and affixing a metal panel that has been loosely dangling from the wall. All should have been done 10 years ago!

I continued that pattern this week by finally going on one of the popular Barbican Architectural Tours on my last day of living there. It underlined how interesting the estate and its history is and pointed out a lot of things I didn’t know. The great weather allowed some decent shots of the site, its mix of Roman, Medieval, and brutalist architecture, the latter softened by uniquely populated window boxes. I’m glad I did the tour, even so late in my time there; my experience of living in Ben Jonson House (pictures below) felt rounded out.

I will miss London loads though. In the last two weeks I have seen friends and family there, been to informal but excellent restaurants, and sampled the sights and culture of what might currently be the greatest city in the world. The British Museum was impressive, wandering around Greenwich was fun and the Fahrelnissa Zeid exhibition at the Tate Modern was uplifting.

But the highlight was probably a (final?) visit to the Lantern Society – a folk club in Farringdon (http://www.thelanternsociety.co.uk/). I love the intimate atmosphere and that about 50% of the audience are the performers. I recommend it to everyone.

The availability of all these sources of culture and pleasure in and so close to the Barbican has been wonderful for me in recent years. I’ll just have to search and plan harder in Gloucestershire to find things to fill the gap that leaving London has created. I’ll keep you informed of the discoveries I make.

Clearing Away The Past

 

LSW and I spent most of the week clearing and cleaning the Barbican flat ready for ES to move in next weekend.  Fortunately the Barbican Estate has great facilities for re-cycling and waste collection.  With LSW’s eye for de-cluttering and minimalism, we got rid of a huge amount of stuff – from threadbare clothes, to cups that don’t match our Gloucestershire décor, to soil.  The flat has been a rather grubby bolt hole for me to sleep in and to go to work from. Now it is fresh, almost sparkling, and ready to live in properly.

Some things we did will definitely round out the experience of living there. The window boxes – an original and intrinsic part of the overall Barbican design – are now ready for planting. They are on the way to being transformed from the barren dirt bowls that have stared back at me for 18 years. Goodness knows why I didn’t put the effort in to fix them up years ago and then use them for herbs.

It’s the same with storage. It was only this week that we got around to adding decent bedside tables and a chest of drawers instead of living out of a suitcase during the week as I have effectively done for almost two decades.

There are some important, common experiences that have come to me late in life. Constructing furniture from IKEA flat packs is one of them. This is something that, prior to retirement I would have avoided or rushed (and botched as a result). Now I had plenty of time and relaxation to apply to the task, and my first attempt was successful. Admittedly, the bedside table was the simplest item I could have done but it was a start! No worries about me taking up DIY though – the memories of the collapsible shelves I made in our first house in 1986 are still too laughable.

I remembered to update LinkedIn with my new retired status this week; I’m cleaning and clearing away the past and moving on…… with flat pack construction my first new skill!

 

The First Day

Thank you to all the very early followers who have signed up to this rather unpredictable blog. I hope your expectations are low but I can exceed them.

Today was the first day, proper, of my retirement. Ok, it was a bit like just another a Bank Holiday Monday for me, but it was the first weekday since I left work; the first weekday for many years that wasn’t holiday or off moaning about an illness.

I did shave this morning. When I got up, I wasn’t sure I would but some habits die hard. Anyway, my Long Suffering Wife (LSW) doesn’t particularly like scruffy, scraping stubble. She is going to have to put up with a lot more of me, so it’s probably better to oblige her on this and start the way I mean to carry on.

LSW and I have spent the bulk of the day preparing for our Eldest Son (ES) to rent our London flat. The main task has been to bring up a bed from Gloucestershire to London that doesn’t collapse in the middle when it is moved – as the current one does. The novelty of the collapse wears thin after a couple of times and I don’t want to impose it on others. We also had a trip to Ikea so tomorrow is flat pack assembly day!

I shall miss London – probably more than I shall miss work – and I shall miss the flat in the Barbican. It’s central, near the ever-changing delights of the North-East quarter of London, and is comfortable while having the having the vibrancy of urban London just outside the window. I regret not using the balcony more than I did but here are the views from it. I suspect the next couple of weeks while we get the flat sorted for ES and I wean myself off London may see me sitting out and enjoying them.

More soon….