Oven-dried tomatoes

Because the tomatoes at this time of the year are so watery and tasteless, I thought I’d try this trick to perk them up a bit.

oven-dried tomatoes, originally uploaded by Harry R.

The recipe is based on one from Madhur Jaffrey. The tomatoes are halved, de-seeded, sprinkled with salt, pepper, olive oil, garlic, chilli and fresh thyme, then cooked in the oven at 70C for about 7 hours. They have an intense, tomato-y flavour but still have a bit of squish to them: they’re not as chewy as sun-dried tomatoes usually are.

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book meme

Ooh, I’ve been meme-tagged by Sherry Chandler.

Look up page 123 in the nearest book, look for the fifth sentence, then post the three sentences that follow that fifth sentence on page 123.

Well, the actual closest book is Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Yay. So I’m going to ignore mere physical proximity and pick the first book which caught my eye after reading the meme, because it’s on a bookshelf directly behind the computer: Judith Thurman’s A Life of Colette.

Poverty plays a central role in the fall of Luce, as it did in the lives of so many provincial girls who sold themselves to the rich old lechers of Paris. Poverty also played a central role in Colette’s version of her marriage to Willy, and it’s very wishfully that she provides her heroine with a dowry from her dead mother—a hundred thousand francs prudently invested with the notary in Montigny. It is telling, too, that Claudine is shocked when Luce declares with smug vindictiveness that she would rather see her mother starve than send her any money.

Which is mildly more interesting than Brewer’s definition of ‘blank cartridge’, but not particularly gripping out of context. So let’s cheat even further, and pick another book from the shelf: the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini.

After the necromancer had completed his ceremonies he took off his robes and gathered up a great pile of books that he had brought with him; then we all left the circle, pressing tightly together – especially the boy, who had got in the middle and was clutching the necromancer by his robe and me by the cloak. While we were walking towards our homes in the Banchi, he kept crying out that two of the demons he had seen in the Colosseum were leaping along in front of us, on the roof-tops and along the ground.

The necromancer said that he had often entered magic circles but that he had never before witnessed anything on such a scale, and he tried to persuade me to join him in consecrating a book to the devil.

Good old Benvenuto. I knew he wouldn’t let me down.


The Thames path, London Bridge to Westminster

A fairly short chunk of the path; I was intending to go a bit further, but the sun went in and I wasn’t really enjoying it much so I hopped on the tube at Westminster. Still, if you use one of the traditional definitions of a city—a town with a cathedral—this section includes the three medieval cities at the centre of London; it starts by Southwark Cathedral, goes past St Paul’s and ends at Westminster Abbey.

Just to explain that, because I guess not everyone knows the history of London: the royal court and the government was based at Westminster, separated by about a kilometere of fields from London, the mercantile and legal centre where all the law courts and guilds were based. The dynamic between the two is quite interesting, I think: London had a lot of legal autonomy (and indeed money) so even in the days of apparently absolute monarchs the balance of power was less clear cut than you might think. To this day when the Queen goes to St Paul’s for some kind of ceremonial function, her coach stops at the boundaries of the City of London and she asks permission to enter. As a South Londoner it pains me to say it, but Southwark wasn’t really much more than the overflow from London over London Bridge, although because of some kind of legal quirk that meant it wasn’t under the jurisdiction of London it became the centre for bear pits, whorehouses, theatres and similarly disreputable trades. Which is why The Globe was there.


That distinction between the mercantile City of London and Westminster as the seat of government has persisted, of course: we even still refer to ‘The City’ as shorthand for the banking and financial services sector and ‘Westminster’ as shorthand for parliament and government. I find these echoes of the longer history of London interesting because so little physically remains. The Great Fire of 1666 really did burn down nearly the entirety of medieval London. Much of it would no doubt have been knocked down anyway, whether by the Luftwaffe, town planners or commercial developers; but even things like the churches, which might normally offer that kind of continuity, were lost. And most of the Palace of Westminster burnt down in the C19th as well, so that was another major medieval building lost. There are still a few left: Westminster Abbey, Southwark Cathedral, the Tower of London, the Guildhall. But there’s no part of London you can visit and feel you’re in contact with what the city was like. The oldest part of the city is a business district, so it’s all office buildings. All that’s left is the street names: Old Jewry, Cripplegate, Milk Street, London Wall, Blackfriars, Hosier Lane, Carmelite Street.

What’s amazing is that London and Westminster remained separate up until about the mid C18th. So it took about 700 years for London to spread the one kilometre westwards to reach Westminster; but in the next 150 years it spread something like 10 km in all directions.

St Paul's from the path

Anyway, you may be wondering why I’m wittering on about the history of London instead of talking about the actual walk. It’s because I didn’t find it very interesting. I decided to walk the north bank because I more often go along the southern side, because of Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre and so on. There quite a few theoretically interesting things to look at: war memorials, the Millennium Bridge, Cleopatra’s Needle, a glimpse of St Paul’s and a couple of the Christopher Wren city churches, as well as views of Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the South Bank Centre, the London Eye, the Oxo tower. And just at the end, Big Ben and Portcullis House. But it’s all very familiar; and the path goes past the City and the West End without actually having much contact with them.

It doesn’t help that if you’re walking the north bank in winter, the light is coming from over the river all the time. So everything on the other side of the river was backlit and dificult to photograph; and I really need a wider-angle lens to take pictures of buildings near me.

» Once again I’ve added the pictures to my Thames Path set on Flickr; these ones are tagged with thamespath3.




Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I bought Housekeeping because of an article at the end of last year where Bryan Appleyard made some suggestions of great artists working today. One of his two greatest living novelists was Marilynne Robinson; I don’t always find myself in sympathy with Appleyard, but with a recommendation like that it seemed worth a punt.

detail of Hiroshige’s ‘Two men by a gate in the mountains’

It is a remarkable novel. It’s a first-person story of a girl growing up in a bleak town somewhere in the north-western US in a household that gradually dissolves around her. It’s humane and atmospheric and deeply sad.

Most of all, it’s beautifully written: full of striking images and unexpected, often bleakly humorous details. And elusive and gradual and minor-key.

Is she one of the two greatest living novelists IN THE WORLD? Umm, I don’t know. But I’m willing to consider the possibility that she might be.

» the picture is a detail from Hiroshige’s Two men by a gate in the mountains, found on Wikimedia.



‘Alexander Rodchenko’ & ‘Laughing in a Foreign Language’ at the Hayward

I went to the Hayward today to see an exhibition of the photography of Alexander Rodchenko; the price of the ticket included entry to a show called ‘Laughing in a Foreign Language’, a exhibition which “investigates the whole spectrum of humour, from jokes, gags and slapstick to irony, wit and satire.”

It was a pleasure to go to an exhibition of contemporary art and find that the gallery was filled with the sound of joyful laughter.

No, not really. The humour on display was not generally of the kind that would win the artist a long engagement at the Glasgow Empire. Which is fine; work can be gently humorous or ironic or whatever without being laugh-out-loud funny. But for an exhibition themed around humour, it was a curiously deadening event.

Perhaps something like the Glasgow Empire would be a salutary experience for a lot of contemporary artists: having to cope with failing miserably and visibly in front of a sceptical audience. Perhaps then they would tighten up some of their work so it was a bit more punchy. Can there really be many 30 minute video works that couldn’t be cut down to 20 minutes?

Lili Brik

I preferred the Rodchenko exhibition. Rodchenko was a photographer/graphic designer in the USSR in the 20s and 30s; I didn’t know a great deal about him beyond what was featured in the recent BBC history of photography. As far as I can see his most remarkable work was in publications like [I may have the title slightly wrong] The USSR in Construction which combine his photography with typography, photomontage and graphic design to produce something really incredible.

But that aesthetic rapidly fell out of favour with the government, who liked to micromanage all aspects of culture; Rodchenko was accused of ‘Formalism’ and had to find less radical outlets for his creativity. So he switched to a more straightforward kind of reportage. Perhaps most intriguing now are the most Soviet subjects, like the May Day parades and athletic demonstrations.

One aspect of the Rodchenko exhibition which I found interesting was the prints, which had quite a limited tonal range; I know I’ve seen more vibrant versions of the same pictures before. I guess the difference is down to the technological limitations of the older printing process—generally silver gelatine prints—rather than anything else, but it’s an intriguing curatorial question: do you present someone’s work as they produced it, or how you think they would have produced it given the chance? I suppose in a gallery authenticity trumps other considerations so you just post the originals.


Irony of the week

The Chinese government expressing their sadness and shock at the idea that anyone would be crass enough to sully the Olympic spirit with the grimy taint of a political agenda.

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The Thames path, Isle of Dogs to London Bridge

I picked up the Thames path where I left off, in Greenwich, and crossed straight under the river to the Isle of Dogs. The Greenwich foot tunnel itself is kind of freaky; I’m not normally susceptible to claustrophobia, but I got a definite twinge here. I took the stairs down, which made me conscious of how deep underground it was; and then the tunnel is quite narrow, and feels surprisingly long. And if you start thinking too much about the mass of the Thames sitting above you…

Anyway, the Idle of Dogs [sorry, that’s a typo, but it would make a good title for something, don’t you think?]. I mentioned that during the last section there were occasional outcrops of upmarket apartment blocks among the industrial landscape. As far as you can tell from the Thames path, on the Isle of Dogs that process is now complete. The riverfront is almost completely residential for this section of the walk. And the exceptions are offices rather than industry. It’s a dramatic change, since this was once one of the greatest trading centres in the world. The docks are still there, huge stretches of water now serving as watersport centres, or marinas, or just gigantic decorative water features; and many of the wharves and factories have been adapted into apartments and offices. But it’s remarkable how little these physical traces of the past give any sense of what it must have been like. In the absence of noise and smell and dirt, with no real traffic on the river, the old hoists that have been left on the sides of converted warehouses just seem like some peculiar local architectural vernacular: steampunk genteel.

river front

The buildings I found most attractive were those which seemed to have an intimacy with the river. That usually meant converted wharves. Not just because they’d had the chance to weather and age into the landscape, but because they’d been built right up on the river, overhanging the water. The new-built apartment blocks are quite different. In some ways, the river is the reason for their existence; they were built where they were because the developers know people will pay good money for a river view. But it’s a view. The river is something they look over and look across. It could be anything; as it happens, it’s a river. The apartment blocks don’t even have a relationship with each other; the Thames Path regularly has to leave the river to skirt around buildings not because they are physically blocking the way, but because they have big walls and fences covered in private property signs. I understand the desire for security, but there’s something faintly depressing about a whole row of apartment blocks all treating each other as the enemy.

Just occasionally you find a corner that gives you an idea of what this part of London could have been like: a city on the water, a kind of Venice with docks replacing the canals. Perhaps Venice is a bit optimistic, but the redevelopment of a whole area of London has to be an opportunity to do something remarkable; on the whole that opportunity has been wasted. Not that the area is a disaster; hell, I wouldn’t mind one of those apartments with a view of the river for myself. But it’s not a triumph, either.

apartments reflected in water

The most striking collision of architecture and the water is Canary Wharf, where from the right angles, the skyscrapers seem to rise out of sheets of water. Which is spectacular, in a 60s-vision-of-the-future sort of way. I remember when it was just the Canary Wharf Tower standing alone, then the tallest building in Europe, towering over the area. It had only just been completed when the property market collapsed, and it stood half-empty for a long time. You used to be able to see it from all over south London. In the post-binge guilt of the early 90s, it seemed like a visible symbol of the greed and hubris of the 80s. Now, with Canary Wharf a major centre for London’s financial industry, and a whole rash of big new tower blocks planned for London, that original building seems ahead of its time; visionary, almost. Timing is everything. Since it looks like we’re about to have a serious economic downturn, the builders of all those new super tall skyscrapers may that find out the hard way.

After lunch, I went down to rejoin the river and was startled to find myself looking at Tower Bridge. You wouldn’t think something like that could creep up on you, but the geography of the river is such that I hadn’t seen even a partial view of it until going round the bend in the river at Wapping. And next to Tower Bridge, the Tower of London. Just as it’s hard to get a sense of the industrial past of the Isle of Dogs, it’s hard to think of the Tower as a military installation and prison. I believe the tour guides do their best to play up the gorier elements of the Tower’s history, but on a day with the sun shining on the honey-coloured stone walls and tourists wandering aimlessly around, it’s hard to think of the building as the Lubianka of medieval and Tudor London. Tower Bridge doesn’t help. I think I’ve mentioned before how odd I find the juxtaposition; the genuinely medieval Tower right up against the Victorian medieval pastiche.

girl in sun

It says something about the self-confidence of the Victorians that they built the bridge there at all; the Tower is one of the most historically important buildings in the country, and the bridge is right up against it, looming over it. The Gothic styling on a cutting-edge piece of engineering just adds to the intrigue. I’d love to know what the planners thought they were doing. Did they think that it would make the bridge complement the Tower? Or were they just following the fashion of the moment? If they did intend it to be a sympathetic piece of design, I think they failed. The two are too close, too much in competition. It almost feels like the bridge is poking fun at the Tower. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Tower Bridge is a fabulous construction. It’s the complete opposite of a purist’s bridge. I think bridge aficionados typically enjoy a kind of engineering aesthetic, where the beauty arises from the structure; the builders of Tower Bridge clearly had no time for such asceticism. And the result is slightly bonkers. In fact I think it’s only familiarity that stops us from seeing how bonkers it is; but it didn’t become one of the most easily recognisable bridges in the world by being normal.

» Once again, these photos and others are posted to my Thames Path set on Flickr. I’ve tagged all the ones taken on this section with thamespath2.