Oxford Illuminated – old buildings in a new light

On 29 September, the Society of Light and Lighting brought the Night of Heritage Light 2017 to Oxford. If that was a slightly pretentious name for some lighting effects on old buildings, it was nevertheless a good excuse to go out and take some photographs.

The ones I liked most, as it turned out, were ones I could take most nights if I bothered to go down into the city centre, but the installations were imaginative and worth the short trip. One advantage was that the streets were thronged with people with cameras on tripods, making me feel less conspicuous than I usually do, and less of an obvious target for muggers.

For the technically-minded, the camera was a Nikon D750 triggered by a CamRanger wifi controller via an iPhone. There are more pictures on Flickr.


First stop was the Museum of the History of Science, the Old Ashmolean building, here viewed across some of the so-called Emperors Heads, the third generation of thirteen curious herms which line the front of the Sheldonian.

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Las Vegas: plenty of room at the Hotel Nevada – any time of year you can find it here

It sounds exotic, doesn’t it? People politely ask where you are going. “Las Vegas” you say, and they give knowing looks. The name calls up images of cigar smoke curling over green tables attended by lightly-clad beauties, of days of gluttony and nights of debauchery, and of some serious shopping in the moments not spent lounging by the pool with uninhibited wantons.

The image persists because that is exactly what you could do in Las Vegas if you chose to, and if you had the money to burn. I’ve been there once or twice a year for the past decade but my vices are on the modest side. The amount I eat there would be counted gluttonous by some (there are some very good restaurants); I did once buy a jacket there but that had nothing much to do with being in Las Vegas – it was made in Slovenia by those Germans who used to make Hitler’s uniforms, and I only went shopping because it was one of those rare occasions when I, my wife, and some decent shops were all in the same place. The gambling, the lovelies, the debauchery and the pools are not for me.

That is partly because these things don’t much appeal anyway, and partly because I am always there to attend a conference which means hard work. It is partly also because the glitz rubs off pretty quickly when you look closely.

That difficult second album – Hotel Nevada

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Chris Grayling knows where the bodies are buried

No no, this is not what you think. You think this is about that tweet last week which surmised that Chris Grayling had only kept his position in Cabinet because he knew too much to be sacked. Well it’s not.

It is partly about a new report that 60,000 bodies will have to be dug up to make way for the government’s vanity railway project HS2. It refers also to the “bodies” of Grayling’s policies while at the Ministry of Justice. Two more of those skeletons rose gibbering and squeaking from the MoJ crypt in the last few days.

Chris Grayling is now Secretary of State for Transport, having been sacked from Justice by David Cameron for being comprehensively useless at it. Whether that should be a qualification for taking charge of the nation’s transport infrastructure I am not sure, but that was perhaps behind the tweeted suggestion referred to above to the effect that Grayling knows too much to be sacked – why else would a PM keep someone so patently unfit for office?

Here is a short video showing how Grayling’s policies at Justice planned out:

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The perfect form of Brexit disaster video

There is a supply of disaster videos which get wheeled out as illustrations for any disaster. The forklift truck knocking down the shelving in a warehouse is a perennial favourite; many involve accidents with trains or other vehicles; some show people trying to perform some feat which goes wrong.

The perfect form of Brexit disaster video should show:

  • a deliberate act by one party or thing against another which…
  • involves intent to damage which…
  • seems almost certain to result in the near-destruction of both parties and which…
  • actually has that result

I think I have found it Continue reading

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Lemonade, wind-breaks and a Passion Play – the triumph of officiousness over common sense

Tired of Brexit, I come back to that staple subject, the dim and officious council employee and other “small-minded officials with powers disproportionate to their intelligence” as I put it in an article of 2010. The lemonade girl of Tower Hamlets calls to mind the stories of the Bristol wind-break and the Oxford Passion Play.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post which was almost entirely about Brexit. It was called Malice, stupidity or something else? What is behind political posturing? Hundreds of people read it and the reactions were kind. A few days later I wrote another one called David Davis and the suicidal robot – a Brexit parable. I rather enjoyed writing it, but almost no one read it. Either nobody really liked the first one or they thought they’d seen it already; perhaps they were just bored with Brexit.

The problem with these compendium articles is that they take a long time to write, especially when that is fitted around working. The first parts are out of date before the last paragraph is written and other things get missed. Where do you stop – rolling subjects like Brexit offer us something new to wonder at every day and, frankly, there is more to life than Brexit (I wonder if that is true: Captain Scott would not say “There is more to life than flogging through the snow” as if he had any option by that stage; ever-increasing desperation and the growing certainty that he was done for probably felt a bit like Brexit).

Anyway, I am going back to writing shorter articles about bite-sized topics – whatever catches my eye as the days pass. Continue reading

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David Davis and the suicidal robot – a Brexit parable

Brexit continues to hang over everything, soaking up money, promise and resources which could be spent on advancing the country. The Brexit case unravelled further by the day, but David Davis seemed unperturbed as he resiled step-by-step from the promises, express or implied, made before the referendum.

There is the stench of national death in the air, its symptoms ranging from lost jobs and lost opportunities down to pollution of public discourse such as we have never seen.

The picture of Death comes from Terry Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Death makes several attempts to kill Munchausen as the film progresses, apparently succeeding at the end. It was but a play, it appears, “only one of the many occasions on which I met my death” the Baron says.

Gilliam’s Munchausen has a fantastical plot in which apparently certain doom is constantly averted by good fortune and the powers of the Baron’s skilful sidekicks.  Brexit has the apparently certain doom, but Baroness Mayhausen has only the illusions and none of the skilful sidekicks – only David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. Continue reading

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Malice, stupidity or something else? The mixed motives behind political posturing

An irregular series of articles whose main purpose is to capture some of the follies of our times before they are obliterated by next week’s wave of leaderless drifting.

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.”

Hanlon’s Razor is useful up to a point in these difficult times. Malice is clearly uppermost in the minds of the far left activists who have been attacking “Blairite” MPs. There is nothing stupid about those thoroughly nasty far-right people who have their knees against Theresa May’s spine to make sure she doesn’t succumb to common sense over Brexit. Of those MPs who are making most of the unhelpful noise over the Grenfell fire, Emma Dent Coad is clearly stupid, but David Lammy is not. We need a more complex and multi-sided version of Hanlon’s Razor to take account of negative drivers beyond malice and stupidity. If I had Dent Coad’s back history, the last thing I would want is Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s well-practised investigative skills prowling through the Kensington archives, so self-preservation is perhaps her motivator.

I don’t know what is worse really – our apparent acceptance that political dishonesty (“Oh, you know what Boris is like”) is the default, the sheer nastiness of much political discourse, or the fast-growing suggestion that political disaffection will spill over into civil disturbance. The modern version of the Battle of Cable Street would see Daniel Hannan, some EDL thugs, disaffected agriculturalists, and some retired people moaning about wanting their country back, all lined up against the semi-professional louts of the Socialist Worker Party, Corbyn’s squeaky toy Owen Jones, and gangs of students wanting the free stuff which Corbyn promised them but bewildered by the belated realisation that their hero can’t deliver and wants to deprive them of freedom of movement.

Over it all hangs Brexit, offering divisions which cut across all the other issues, sucking the life out of the economy, and stifling the expectations of  us all except the far right extremists, whose hatred of the EU is visceral rather than logical,  and the far left who think that their socialist utopia can only come if founded on the wreck of capitalism. What strange bedfellows they make. Continue reading

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