By continuing your visit to this site, you accept the use of cookies. These ensure the smooth running of our services. Learn more.

  • Going for a song


    At this time of year the birdsong is a terrific pleasure, but not if you live in the city. The New Scientist reports the end of the dawn chorus, killed off by city noise. It was thought that light pollution was the cause, but now it seems to be simply that the birds can't make themselves heard over the din of the traffic. Late at night, on my way back from the station, I've often been stopped in my tracks by the sad sound of a solitary wren, singing its heart out under the sodium glare. Now researchers say birds are getting stressed out by this forced adaptation.

    So it's a good thing that digital audio channel Oneword is no longer broadcasting. Thanks to the alternative reality provided by the internet, you too can listen to a sample of the channel's replacement, 16 hours a day of birdsong, apparently proving very popular with city-dwellers starved of the sound of the natural world.

  • Send in the droogs

    In Anthony Burgess's A clockwork orange the droogs are Alex's violent pals. Now we all get our kicks on the internet and look like meeting fewer and fewer people for real are we becoming a generation of un-socialised droogs, just as Gordon Brown is desperately trying to manufacture national allegiance?

    A new report claims that British children are being 'raised online' spending at least 20 hours a week connected to the internet. In August 2007 Microsoft proudly put the figure at more like 34 hours. The IPPR report states that 57% of young people have come into contact with online porn. 117 videos featuring the term 'happy slap' were posted on YouTube last week, and 312 were posted as 'street fights'. Microsoft claim that internet use increases social interaction – but is this the kind they mean?

    Just what does the availability on the internet of instant gratification of every kind do for tolerance? In the real world, gratification isn't instant. Things don't go to plan and people don't always behave predictably. How are today's kids learning to react?

    Also this week, one third of teachers are reported as having been subjected to classroom violence, with 75% threatened by their pupils. Another report shows four times as many teachers finding knives on their pupils than in 2001, in spite of the increasing use of metal detectors in schools. Across the country, the quality of teaching is suffering as teachers struggle to cope with multilingual classes. In more than one in 20 schools, English is a minority language:

    In the borough of Newham, nine out of 10 schools have a non-English first language majority. The same is true of a third of schools in Leicester and in Blackburn, and a quarter of schools in Birmingham.

    Outside school, people are not mixing like they used to. Every community used to have a pub, church and post office at its centre. They were the hub of local life - places where we met new people and learned to get along. Now 2,500 more post offices are to close and in Langton Green in Kent: 

    Gone are three of the village's four pubs; gone are the two police houses; gone is the horticultural society; gone is one of the two grocery stores, one of the two butchers, the last dairy farm, the YMCA playing field, the doctor's surgery – all in recent memory – and now, gone is the post office. Gone too is the wildlife from the village pond, seen off by a new drainage system which draws in the oil and detritus from the road.

    Publicans say that tradition and the fabric of society is being destroyed by the loss of four pubs per day across the country. Around one church per week is closed.

    Another 2008 survey reports that 15% of people don't speak to any of their neighbours from one week to the next. And 65% said that in the future people will have more contact through the internet than in person:

    "There's a real issue with people being dislocated from the communities where they live," said Ginny Lunn, the director of policy and development at the Prince's Trust. "Everybody needs to take responsibility for communities and make sure people aren't isolated, otherwise we could face a generation of people who will become unconnected from society."

    Pundits say cash will solve the problem. The Government says things are improving. And L'Oreal says you're 'worth it'. At the grassroots, plenty of us are still trying, giving our time, building places like community orchards so that people can connect again. Margaret Thatcher's most memorable line was 'there's no such thing as society'. Don't let it come true.

  • Ancient symbolism at the CND


    2d16343a854e57bc3e52a2b8ef12dddd.gifThe CND is 50, and the organisation is commemorating its anniversary by encircling AWE at Aldermaston on Easter Monday, just as they did 50 years ago. A new book commemorates a half century of the campaign's enduring symbol, which according to its pacifist designer Gerald Holtom was based on the semaphore signals for N (nuclear) and D (disarmament).

    Creativity is a mysterious process, unamenable to logical analysis. Much that appears to be original turns out to be an imaginative fusion of things half-remembered. So it may well have been with the peace symbol, which takes the form of a circle around an inverted version of a Norse symbol - yggdrasil, the 'world tree', or great ash at the centre of the universe.

    An Ottawa Citizen review describes how Gerald Holtom asked a shop assistant what she thought of the symbol which was carried by the marchers on what he called 'lollipops'. She liked it, but wondered whether its drooping arms weren't "a bit depressing. Shouldn't peace be something to celebrate?" "He sort of altered his view in that moment," his nephew recalls. "He said, 'Yes, it should be a figure with the hands upwards outstretched'". From then on Holtom always drew the symbol upright.

    fef1de8e77ecd81bc887e2878527a9bc.pngIn his hugely influential 'Book of signs' (first published in German in 1923 as 'Das zeichenbuch' and available on Google Books) Rudolf Koch uses the symbol to stand for a man who undergoes the 'vicissitudes of life'. On his death, the symbol is inverted (and known as the 'todesrune'). With this meaning the symbol was officially specified for the gravestones of SS officers. Gerald Holtom asked to have the symbol - in its upright form - on his gravestone in Kent. That wish was ignored by the letter-cutter.

    In the runic alphabet a similar symbol to the yggdrasil is called algiz, (the elk) and is known as the rune of protection.

    Opponents of CND referred to the logo as 'the chicken's foot' and Hopi Indians use a similar design, based on the footprint of a crane, as a symbol of tribal unification. It can also be thought of as an inverted or broken cross, like that used to crucify St Peter.

    But the roots of the sign may well lie deep within all of us. As a Jungian archetype, it can be read as female genitalia. A sign for the ancient mother goddess, whose message of peace men so often ignore.

    First they came for the Jews
    and I did not speak out
    because I was not a Jew.
    Then they came for the Communists
    and I did not speak out
    because I was not a Communist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists
    and I did not speak out
    because I was not a trade unionist.
    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left
    to speak out for me.

    Pastor Martin Niemöller

    Rudolf Koch's symbols are available as a set of fonts issued by P22.

  • Bach tells 'the greatest story ever told'

    JS Bach is often cited as the greatest ever composer and the St Matthew Passion as his greatest work. Setting the text of Chapters 24-27 of St Matthew's Gospel, it tells the story of Christ's last days up to the crucifixion. First performed on Good Friday in 1727 in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach was Kapellmeister, it was not revived until around a century later, when the poet Goethe identified something of 'elemental significance' in the music. Both Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams championed the Passion, the latter so fiercely that he would leave the platform glaring if anyone dared break his rule of absolutely no applause during or after the performance. This was three hours of music beyond all other music.

    Tonight Reading Bach Choir and the City of London Chamber Players performed the work with such intensity that, between their arias, even the soloists seemed lost in its sublimity. Reading Town Hall, with its crisp acoustic and split choir seating, was perfect for the work's two orchestras and choirs. Taplow Boys' Choir sang beautifully from the balcony.

    Three hours passed so easily. The St Matthew Passion is powerful musical drama, built around a framework of spare recitative narration by the tenor Evangelist (Christopher Watson). Choir soloists and six professionals took the principal roles and the choruses sing everyman. Picander's libretto bears fervent witness to the Passion story. With such poignant music, recent attempts at staging the work seem entirely superfluous.

    The London Chamber Players played period instruments, achieving a highly articulate and refined performance that never overwhelmed the singers. Soprano Esther Levin and Counter-tenor Christopher Warwick sang with beautiful, relaxed simplicity the famously difficult duet with choral interventions 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' - 'moon and light are extinguished by sorrow because my Jesus is captured'. This is followed by the challenging and dramatic chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner', so popular in the 19th century that performances were frequently stopped by audiences demanding a reprise.

    Against a single, shockingly dissonant diminished chord, the choir made an electrifying call for Barabbas and not Christ to be saved.  Counter-tenor Warwick again showed his quality in the difficult 'Ach Golgotha'. In a number of arias bass Robert MacDonald was gorgeously partnered by the agile musicianship of Viola da Gambist Charles Medlam.

    The St Matthew Passion ends in sublime acceptance of the redemption offered by Christ's sacrifice. Caroline Trevor was mesmerising in No. 60 'Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand' (see Jesus, has his hand stretched out to grasp us). David Stuart sang Jesus with elegance and authority. He was almost transfigured as the dying Christ, in the moments when he lost his musical 'halo' - the glowing strings that accompany him in all other arias.

    The choir sing 'When my heart is most full of fear, then snatch me from my fears by the power of your anguish and pain' and soon a final triumphant chorus celebrates Christ's victory 'Your grave... shall be...for the soul a resting place. In utmost bliss my eyes close in slumber there'.

    Led by JanJoost van Elburg, Reading Bach Choir is achieving the highest musical standards. The fine English tradition of choral music-making is alive and well in the county town.

  • Apple's suspiciously tempting ways


    An article in Business Week attempts to get at the secret of Apple's design success. They say it boils down to developing ten genuinely different prototypes to a highly finished level, then letting two separate weekly meetings work away at them. One is briefed to only think 'blue sky', the other must address the practicalities. Ten ideas are then refined to three and finally to one.

    I've been using a Toshiba laptop instead of my usual Apple one. It's like comparing a Lada with a Porsche. The Toshiba is all tacky, plastic ugliness compared to the Mac's seductive, clean lines, where everything is understated, integrated and in just the right place.

    The Apple design process certainly works: Apple's laptop market share is up by 38% on last year, placing them 9th amongst the competition. The iPhone's iconic status as the must-have accessory for elite geeks so worries Google that they've launched a broadside against it. They claim their open source 'Android' programming environment will achieve more sales because it will be on many different manufacturers' phones.

    OK, Apple's design process is thorough, and mildly innovative, but that's not it. They succeed because they have an uncompromising design-led vision - and they stick with it because they know the quality of their design has become an overriding factor in their customers' buying decisions.

    Windows enthusiasts love to mock Apple and their lead designer Englishman Jonathan Ive CBE, whose early career famously included designing sanitaryware in London. Even in this apparently metrosexual age, there's bizarrely still something suspect about owning a computer that not only looks good but actually works as well. It seems real men not only don't eat quiche, they also don't do foofy computers that might (whisper it) call into question their owners' masculinity.

  • The better part of valour?


    What chance of the Archbishop of Canterbury's support as pressure mounts on the Home Office to save 19-year-old gay Iranian Mehdi Kazemi from execution? At first the Home Office refused to re-consider his deportation, scheduled once the teenager is returned from hiding in Holland later this week.

    Like around 4,000 gay Iranians executed by the Ayotollahs since they came to power in 1979, Kazemi faces death by hanging if he is returned to his country. There is no logic to the Home Office line that gay Iranians are safe as long as they are 'discreet' and that having once refused to grant him asylum, his case cannot be re-heard unless new facts emerge.

    Kazemi claimed asylum in 2005 after his lover was executed in Tehran. After his asylum application was refused he fled to Holland where a court has decided he must be returned to Britain. He is currently on 'suicide watch'.

    An appeal has been launched through the European Court of Human rights and more than 60 leading peers, including the Bishop of Liverpool, have signed a letter to the Home Office in his support.

    In a moving statement to the Home Office he writes:

    "The Iranian authorities have found out that I am a homosexual and they are looking for me. I can not stop my attraction towards men. This is something that I will have to live with the rest of my life. I was born like with feeling and can not change this fact... If I return to Iran I will be arrested and executed like Parham."

    Will the Archbishop of Canterbury join them? Still bruised by his worthwhile contribution to the debate about Sharia, an urgent intervention by him would seem to be more than timely.

    After this post was written the Home Office announced that after campaigning by his MP, Mehdi Kazemi had been granted five year's 'leave to remain' in the UK.

  • Top of the art pops?

    61fc748a4aa1f394e3f8e9f7bc900eb7.jpgWhich are the world's 50 greatest works of art? The Telegraph has published Martin Gayford's list. It's necessarily a fabulously subjective exercise, running all the way from an Egyptian sculpture of 2800 BC via van Eyck, Michelangelo and Velázquez to a sculpture by Donald Judd from 1982.

    7d85525cd7af4fb0f0828d4abedf9894.jpgI was pleased to see the haunting Pompeii 'Villa of Mysteries' frescoes included, together with Giotto's breathtaking Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and Constable's 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows'

    But no Sistine chapel, or Turner 'Rain, Wind and Speed'! The Mona Lisa is knocked off her perch in favour of the same painter's 'Lady with an ermine' in Krakow. What about David's 'Death of Marat' with its superb handling of paint and poignant mythologising of the French Revolution? None of Ingres' portraits, with their relentless scrutiny of subject and no Delacroix or immaculate Vermeer interior? And what about the searing intensity of El Greco - and the homespun passion of Stanley Spencer?

    And are the terracotta army and the Easter Island statues art works in the same way as the Jackson Pollock is thought to be? (I would have replaced it with something by Mark Rothko). Both the Easter Island statues and the terracotta army seem to me to be functional objects, created to fulfill a specific purpose, quite different to the making of an art work for its own sake.

    I counted a respectable eight or so I've seen, but (with the help of some carbon offsetting), there's clearly plenty more prime art waiting to be discovered.




  • Truth in art at Christ Church

    4432c473930c15aadc655db53e3c3ca9.pngWhat is the 'real meaning' of art and what value should be placed on what is 'authentic' over the work of copyists?

    At Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, Curator Jacqueline Thalmann provided a fascinating introduction to the collection which is housed in a striking subterranean gallery from 1968 by Powell and Moya.

    eaef4e2f6e96716514e857a644e4ac8c.jpgAlthough best-known for its collection of old master prints and drawings, over 200 paintings were bequeathed in 1765 by alumnus General John Guise, whose somewhat robust taste includes a Martrydom of St Lawrence by Tintoretto and a large and gruesome 'Butcher's shop' by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) which since it was judged unsuitable for the contemplation of women hung in the College's kitchens for some 200 years.

    Before the Renaissance, the best religious icons were those that faithfully copied from precedent. The essence of the divine could only be transmitted by the careful replication of visual convention. Any notion of artistic originality was irrelevant.

    89e70d654d47ef6a23fb07dd2eeabd31.gifBy Dürer's time the artist, not the subject, was the focus. His work – including a prominent monogram – was faithfully copied by a highly talented printmaker called Marcantonio Raimondi. In 1511 Dürer issued a devastating warning to anyone tempted to infringe what he was effectively asserting as his copyright: "Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian, that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger."

    In what must be one of the first cases of its kind, Dürer succeeded in getting an injunction against Raimondi banning him from ever again misusing Dürer's trademark.

    a44e4a72c9c45a7b97e9d12d62567a98.jpgIn common with the Carracci 'Butcher's shop', Anthony Van Dyck's 'Continence of Scipio' was revealed to be rich in multiple meanings. Van Dyck gave the famous Africa-conquering general filmstar looks, painting him into an epic scene reminiscent of Cecil B De Mille. Scipio's bright red cape billows as he nobly rejects the woman offered him in tribute. Her face is downcast and classically impassive whilst her betrothed, hand on heart, gazes beseechingly deep into the General's eyes.

    The work was commissioned from the young Van Dyck by his court champion the Duke of Buckingham, whose stone capital, carved with two male faces, frames the scene. But the connections with Buckingham run deeper – Scipio can be read as James I, and the beseeching figure as Buckingham himself – James' 'favourite' and lover.

    0c25bf764eaa3a13ea8abad0ede0877f.pngAccording to some 'queer historians' at least, gayness is also to be discovered in Dürer's life and work, not least in the woodcut 'Men's Bath' which features a prominent monogram (and a rather suggestive tap). Dürer's lifelong friend was a bisexual humanist called Willibald Pirckheimer. The humanist sent the artist drawings of the two of them in flagrante together. Consumed with jealousy, Mrs Dürer accused her husband of having a sexual relationship with the anagrammatic Pirckheimer.