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Ruins.

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It’s nice to think that there is a story attached to this.

Hub.

On the south bank of the Thames, just east of Blackfriars bridge. Heavily worn, but still easily recognisable: a twelve-spoke cart wheel, half covered by silt and stones.

Wheel.

Maybe it was bought at Homebase.

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Written by alexconnor

May 12, 2014 at 20:09

Posted in Not really Flanders., Sunburn

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Dead things.

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Valencia fell to the Nationalists in the last days of the war. Advancing from the north and west, the various armies of the fascists pushed through a beaten Republican force. Passing through the ancient city of Saguntum on the 29th of March, on the 30th troops entered Valencia. The British navy stood back as the Nationalists rounded up somewhere between 10 000 and 30 000 soldiers and civilians from the Alicante ports. By the end of the next day the war was over, and the decades of dictatorship had begun.

In 2006 Antony Beevor updated his estimates of the calamity of the time : 38 000 killed by the Red terror, 200 000 in Franco’s response. Estimates for the province of Valencia were around 3000 on each side.

You would learn none of this by visiting Valencia today – there are no memorials to the fallen, no understated monuments to a divisive conflict. But that’s not to say that Valencia isn’t a city at easy with death, that the Valencians don’t understand the inevitable. (Beyond the traditional Municipal Bulldeathring.)

Ghosting its way through the centre of the city is what used to be the river Turia. After a particularly unpleasant flood in the 50s it was exterminated. Banished from the city. It lives now only in the memories of the populace (also in some fields about 10 km south of town). It takes a special kind of “popular will” to remove the river from the middle of a city. A different kind of decision making process to replace it with giant corpses.

But this is what the good Burgueses of Valencia chose to do.

For example, this.

The Valencians claim it is a representation of a Lilli-prisoned Gulliver. A genuinely fascinating assertion given the (in) action of the British navy half a century earlier. It is, alas, unmistakeably, a dead swordsman. Possibly executed. Resolutely ex.

An oversize corpse for children to play inside.

Not a dead body.

Further down the ex-river is a more contemporary satire. A home-grown version. The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias was to be Valencia’s beating cultural heart. Oddly, a heart is one of the few things the Cuidad doesn’t manage to contain an architectural representation of. They did manage an extracted eye. Two, in fact : one open, one closed. There are also some ribs and an assortment of what might be blood cells.

It is up to the reader to decide which body part this best describes.

Agora.

The science museum is designed to look like a rotting whale carcass.

Busy.

One thing they all are – apart from a grotesque representation of a society consuming itself – is empty. A ghost town, hidden inside a skeleton at the bottom of a dead river. The Turia has been dry since the 60s, but the city of arts and sciences is a product of the last decade. The more optimistic half of the last decade.

The Victorians (and also Albert Speer) were inclined to judge past civilisations on the quality of the ruins that they left. Think pyramids, think Haverhill. As such, both the Victorians and the Nazis wanted their buildings to not only look good for the living, but also for the not-yet-living. Famously John Soane went as far as to commission an image of his new Bank of England a millennium hence.

What to make of a city that built its ruins only ten years ago ?

Written by alexconnor

July 19, 2013 at 20:23

The mouth of the river Effra.

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Engineering and science.

Alfred Drury’s bronzes on the downstream side of Vauxhall Bridge recognise the great pillars of the national culture : science (seen here), fine art, education and, er, local government.

Written by alexconnor

August 11, 2012 at 20:11

Posted in Science, Sculpture, Sunburn

The things you can see with a digital camera.

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Written by alexconnor

July 1, 2012 at 13:36

Posted in Sunburn, Uncategorized

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High roaring pines.

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Snow.

Liberec, 28 December.

Growing up in the east of England, home of arable fields and pigsties, I have always seen mountains and forests as mysterious and enticing things. Filled with woodland realms and mountain kings. So it was with no little anticipation that I took my girlfriend off to the mountains in the north of the Czech Republic for the New Year. We were to be based in a hotel on the top of the Ještěd-Kozákov ridge, just outside Liberec and surrounded by woodland. And not just any woodland. A lush, ancient, Peter-and-the-Wolf style forest. Ripe for walking in.

Plans were made in short order and once installed in the hotel we set out down the mountain, wearing clothes that would not look out of place in London on a brisk afternoon. We laughed at the German tourists and their gortex and hiking poles, and their seriousness. We had seen their group at breakfast, as boorish as visitors from the local large country can be when they drop in on a smaller neighbour. We in contrast, cowed by our lack of language skills, were Über-polite. Courteous to the point of diffidence. The very soul of the relaxed traveller. And so it seemed even more appropriate that they should see us striding off in to the woods in such casual attire – we know what we are doing, and we can do it with making such a fuss about things.

We wound our way down a path that seemed to have been built by the trees themselves. This was the forest I had imagined. The walk was easy, fun. Making snowballs and marvelling at the virgin snow stretching out on the path before us. Sampling the silence and the infinity of the ancient forest, the long range order of the trees.

We reached the base of the mountain all too soon, and, after a brief moment to congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments, we turned and started back up. It was slightly harder going than we had anticipated but no less of adventure. We still had the trees, the mythology.

About an hour later we were still going. The path, curiously, as unfamiliar and untouched as it was on the way down. But such concerns were muted by the footprints of some other hearty walker and his dog in front of us. They went this way, surely we can too – after all, there was only one path, and we knew where it came from. We collected a couple of walking sticks from the forest floor. Only for appearance, of course. And took in the view across a vast snowy valley that somehow we had missed on the way down

Half an hour more and the romance was beginning to fade. The snow was up past our knees. The forest had opened out and we found ourselves on what appeared to be a mountain ridge, with night about to fall. Thoughts began to wander to half-remembered snippets on mountain survival. Should it be a snow hole, or shelter made of pine fronds? Pine cones are edible, aren’t they? Thoughts also drifted to the indignities of being rescued : hapless tourists rescued in good health, probably about 200 yards from the hotel reception. Maybe they would send a helicopter. The footprints we had been following stretched resolutely out ahead of us up the mountainside. Two clear sets, a man and his dog. A dog!

As the light began to dip further, common sense began to overcome pride. Footprints be damned. We were going back. A dog had beaten us.

It seemed only moments later that we arrived, exhausted, wet and delirious at the car park half way up the mountainside. We strode in as Shackleton to be met by the barely expressed indifference of the young families loading up their cars with sledges and pushchairs.

A glance back up the hill explained it all. There were two paths! To the right, a familiar welcoming trail into the magical forest, and on the left, a rugged goats’ path, marked only with a faded wooden signpost pointing to the next village some 16 km away.

It wasn’t long before we were back in the hotel. Huddled round bowls of soup, not looking at the Germans.

Written by alexconnor

June 25, 2012 at 23:36

Posted in Not really Flanders., Sunburn

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Last, best hope for peace.

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Phoenix.

It is not as much of a secret garden as it likes to think it is, if only because those navigating central London by tall buildings will likely stumble across it. But it always feels empty. A sense of quiet, even on its busiest lunchtime.

Between Seven Dials and Denmark Street.

Out the back of Seven Dials, and a few steps away from the modernisation wrought on Tottenham Court Road (whither Dionysus ) the Phoenix garden is a bit of London that never really got over the last great war. For forty years it served as a car park (itself a hidden gem, I imagine, for those who knew where to find it). And now it is the last of the unnecessarily repetitive Covent Garden Community Gardens.

The four scourges of inner city gardens.

A haven from the four scourges of modern life. The garden even has an eighteenth-century, Palladian-type church to complete the illusion.

That you can rent it out for the day somehow seems to miss the point.

Written by alexconnor

November 13, 2011 at 13:17

Posted in Sunburn

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The Wheatstone Bridge.

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Q corridor

One thing I missed when noting the passing of my dear old research group was the disappearance of something with a bit more history : with the retirement of the doyen of diamond science Alan Collins, went the last vestiges of the venerable Wheatstone Physics Laboratory.

Named for, as you might suspect, Charles Wheatstone, it was the home of Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling, also of Maurice Wilkins’s co-authors on his coincidental paper. It was the home address of an awful lot of academics for at least 60 years.

To be honest, I don’t know very much about it, other than that it was also my academic address. I assume that it used to be a physical place, rather than just a slightly fancy name. Most of my colleagues used the more prosaic ‘Department of Physics’.

It may well have come into being when they rebuilt after the war. It might have been what ended up as the old teaching lab. Or they might have just re-used the door signs.

That’s gone now too, a lovely old wooden lab replaced by a gleaming white plastic one.

Written by alexconnor

September 2, 2011 at 20:52

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