Advent Song for December 14: Step Into Christmas

I said yesterday that I don’t listen to much music, which is true but it means that when I have a few days of listening to something obsessively, which I do do, it always ends up as that year’s top song on my Spotify history. The only song to have topped the list in multiple years is ABBA’s My Love, My Life, which I snobbishly lost interest in slightly after it featured in Mamma Mia 2 (which I haven’t seen) but it is an incredible song and you should listen to it today if you don’t know it.

This year that slot is occupied by Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road which I listened to over and over again after it was used to dazzling effect in the opening credits sequence for Rocketman, the part-biopic, part-musical-fantasy version of Elton’s life which came out earlier this year. I should admit that I was also a bit obsessed with the film; an obsession which petered out a little after I read his autobiography (also this year; the Elton John publicity machine has excelled itself promoting his goodbye tour which yes, I am also going to) and discovered his actual life was quite a lot funnier and more interesting than the movie (but you should still see the movie).

Anyway this isn’t one of my absolute favourite Christmas singles, although the interlude at 1:57 is glorious, but I do love the video, so today you must watch as well as listen, please. (Nothing in particular happens; it’s just Elton doing Elton.)

Today’s good news should serve as a reminder, among other things, that everything going to shit here doesn’t mean everything going to shit everywhere. In Mexico, some of the poorest families in the state of Tabasco are starting to move into flood-resistant 3D-printed houses which can be built for $4000 in 48 hours. Back when I thought I might be interested in academic research in the future of housing on a planet with reducing resources and an increasing population, I don’t think I’d have ever imagined this as a possibility. (In the event, I got a job in a bookshop instead.)

The Royal Ceil

Quick! There are only ten days left to see the ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich up close before they take the scaffolding down and you won’t be able to get near to it for another hundred years, by which time your knees will probably be too tired to make the climb.

The scaffolding is there to facilitate a restoration which has been going on since 2016, which is also how long I’ve been living up the road, so of course I left it until it was almost too late to go and have a look. But I’m so glad I did! Completed under the direction of James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726, the Painted Hall was once the dining room of the Royal Hospital For Seamen, which went up in 1694, was designed by Hawksmoor AND Wren, and was (the name notwithstanding) a retirement home for old and poorly sailors. Its vast interior mural covers all of the ceiling and most of the walls, and features a festival of scenes from mythology, history and allegory, all of which are intended to be seen from 100ft away, rather than up close, which is exactly what makes a visit so interesting, because you (well, I) expect eighteenth-century paintings to be perfect, the toil and sweat involved in their creation to be hidden behind a glassily flawless finish, but here, because they knew that nobody would be looking too closely (surprise!), the artists employ an impressionistic approach, hinting at details rather than perfecting them, and using broad brush strokes which you can see perfectly plainly. And the fact of having to crane one’s neck at odd angles to begin to even see some of the scenes depicted brings a painful awareness of the extraordinary amount of effort that must have gone into painting them.

I took A LOT of photos but the below is just a selection and doesn’t even begin to convey the experience of actually being there. If you are in or close to London you must go immediately before it closes on September 30th. And if you can’t make it, the hall will reopen next year once the rest of the renovations are complete, with the most exciting part of that work being the opening up of the undercroft, which was also designed by Hawksmoor AND Wren and which nobody has seen since it was closed up a hundred years ago. Isn’t that exciting? Although also a bit scary, because there is almost certainly a becurséd creature sleeping down there and they are about to wake it up.

How I learned to love Manchester

This time last year, my only experience of Manchester was a nailbiting three-hour trip to Old Trafford – where, regular readers will remember, Palace beat Man United after extra time in the quarter-finals of the 2011/12 League Cup. It was good, but it could have been in Slough and it would still have been good, and I wasn’t bowled over by Old Trafford itself, which looks a bit – well, it looks a bit like it might be part of Milton Keynes:

Apologies for the poor quality: I was quite a long way away when I took this
Apologies for the poor quality: I was quite a long way away when I took this.

It’s better inside, but in the thrill of the moment I seem to have forgotten to take any photos inside.

Anyway, my next trip was back to the same part of the city, more or less, for last October’s Radio Festival, held at the Lowry Centre at Salford Quays, where I was delighted to find art and music and the fantastically interesting and thoughtful Daniel Libeskind-designed Imperial War Museum North all crouching greyly by the waterside. But apart from the inside of Piccadilly Station I hadn’t seen the city proper until I went there a few weeks ago with work, and now I have seen it, I’m cross that I spent 36 years not visiting it, because Manchester is brilliant. Whenever I visit a new city* I end up deciding I would like to live there, but the feeling usually wears off within a few hours, and certainly by the time I’ve spent a day back in London, with everything London has. But Manchester has quite a lot of what London has, and more besides – a compact, walkable centre; space for buildings to breathe and be viewed from all angles; thriving, mixed-use canalside and dockside areas in the city centre; a strong and convincing sense of civic pride – and the tallest residential building in Europe, the faintly terrifying-looking 46-storey, 169-metre Beetham Tower:

Beetham Tower

I became a bit obsessed with the Beetham Tower, and eventually figured out how to get at least partway up it to take some photos of the view – which you can see, along with the rest of my photos of Manchester, here. I even went and had a look at a flat for sale there, not because I was going to buy it, but – well, just to make absolutely sure I wasn’t going to buy it. (I’m not going to buy it. It was 75% amazing, but the bedrooms were poky and the service charge is THREE THOUSAND POUNDS A YEAR, though as at least some of that goes towards window cleaning I had to grudgingly concede that I’d rather pay than do it myself.)

The city is a mishmash of buildings old and new, just like London, but – at least partly thanks to the nineteenth century red brick, which really is everywhere – the contrast looks intended and appealing. And it has lively and unique arts, technology and gay scenes and a genuinely diverse population; all prerequisites for a great city. Every Londoner I’ve spoken to about it since has said “I didn’t think I was going to like Manchester, but actually it was really nice!” – and perhaps its middling reputation with other parts of the country is why it’s so proudly and distinctively itself, in which case please forget everything I’ve said and go back to thinking of it as middling. In the meantime, I’ll be planning my next trip.

*Exceptions to this rule include Norwich and Edinburgh, leading me to believe that perhaps I just don’t like hills.

London Bridge (station) Is Falling Down

Caution: Wet Floor sign

There is a stretch of tunnel at London Bridge station, linking the Underground with the Southern Railway platforms, which is lined with half-a dozen shops of the sort that you make an emergency visit to when you are on your way to someone’s birthday party and you have forgotten to pick up a card. It is dingy and badly-lit, and the clock overhead is wrong for at least six months of the year. It is not a place you would choose to linger for longer than it takes to buy a birthday card.

In the last few months, though, it has become even more offputting. Now, as you walk through, you have to dodge large puddles of water, in the middle of which sit optimistically-placed buckets and the odd “Caution Wet Floor” sign. Sometimes, you have to dart at odd angles across the corridor to avoid being dripped on.

Now.  We’ve had a lot of rain this summer, I know that. But it rains a lot in winter and autumn, and it has never caused the roof of the station to develop this many leaks. Call me crazy, but I can’t help wondering whether the 310-metre-high building which has been built inches away from the tunnel could be at least partly responsible for this sudden instability.

If you are an engineer and can tell me why I’m completely wrong, please do, ideally before this evening when I will have to make the journey again. A crowded, sweaty, stinky commute is one thing. One carrying even a minimal danger of becoming crushed in a collapsed heap of brickwork and birthday cards is quite another.

Blue sky thinking

sky-coloured lighting

Sorry, that’s a truly terrible title for this post, but I’m at work so I have to write quickly. I am lucky because my new office has lots of windows, and I honestly think that daylight helps you (or, at least, me) to concentrate, which is why I would always have a desk facing outwards if I could. But in the absence of that, and since the beloved is yet to write the bestselling novel which means neither of us will ever need to work again, the next best thing is probably this sky-mimicking ceiling lighting from (naturally) Germany. It’s €1,000 per square metre at the moment. Donations welcome.


So today I had my inaugural lunchtime swim, and I am pleased to report that while the open-air pool in Covent Garden doesn’t quite live up to Lake Huron, it’s a lot nicer than Brockwell Lido. Architecturally it’s pretty horrible, unlike the Lido, which is gorgeous, but the warm water changes everything and transforms it from a hostile environment into a welcoming one. I only managed four lengths – and, well, I had to have a rest in the middle – but it didn’t leave me cold and miserable like my Lido swim did, but rather happily invigorated, albeit with trembly knees that may not be working at all by the morning. There’s something about swimming in warm water on a cold day that is just perfect and not like anything else. I will be back.


Here is a fuzzy view looking east from the top of the Gherkin:

You will start to appreciate the lengths I go to in order to keep you entertained when I tell you that in order to obtain this photo, I had to sit through a half-hour presentation on the benefits of buying land in Brazil.

The beloved, you see, had been offered a glass of champagne at the top of the Gherkin on condition that he undertake a mysterious assignment, the details of which would be revealed on the day. He was allowed to bring a friend, so on Friday evening we duly turned up at 30 St Mary Axe, instantly distinguishable from the floods of people who work there by our absent suits and ties, and awaited further instructions.

After a few minutes, we were guided through an airport security gate and through to the lifts, where we were sternly told not to take any photos. Then up to the twenty-somethingth floor, where we were offered tea or coffee and placed in a sanitary-looking waiting room with some other victims. “Do you know what we’re here for?”, they asked us, anxiously. “No”, we admitted, “but we think it’s safe.”

Eventually we were escorted next door to a room dotted with round tables, at each of which sat a lonely-looking salesperson. We were pointed towards Danny*, whose shiny suit almost disguised the fact that he was barely out of his teens. Danny told us that we’d be watching a short presentation about buying property in Brazil. We asked Danny some questions. Danny didn’t know the answers, but what he didn’t know he made up for by repeating sections from his practised sales spiel.

Then we watched a video, in which an American woman berated us for foolishly keeping all money in the bank (she clearly hadn’t seen our statements) and suggested that the only sensible option was to invest in property. She then explained that it was best to do this in “developing” countries, where land was cheaper and ripe for development.

They stopped the video and asked for questions. The beloved tried to ask about sustainable development and artificial inflation of land prices. I tried to ask about the protection of wildlife. Danny still didn’t know the answers, but gamely filled in the space with more rehearsed lines. He put me in mind of an estate agent, which I suppose is what he was. We watched some more of the video. We decided not to ask any more questions.

If Danny’s sales method was uncompromising, it was as nothing compared to the full-force blast of hot air we got from his boss, who looked like a genuine 1980s car salesman with a checked suit and dyed blond hair and treated us to a full minute of his undivided attention. Any more and we’d probably have given in and remortgaged the egg to buy the land, but fortunately he somehow divined our lack of engagement with the process and left us alone with Danny, who, sensing that his chance had gone, suggested we retire upstairs for the glass of champagne.

Several complicated lift journeys later, we reached the 38th floor, on which lurks a private members’ bar, where we sat and admired the view while Danny ordered the champagne. And suddenly, as we sat and chatted, a small miracle started to happen. It began with a conversation about where we lived, which gradually expanded to cover Danny’s friend’s band, his thoughts on the beloved’s jacket and, eventually, his preference for films about revolutionaries (“I’m not really bothered about the politics, I just really love a rebel”). This corporate robot had quietly turned into a real person, who smiled for the first time as his infectious enthusiasm gradually brought a sparkle to the evening, as well as the wine.

We shan’t be buying any land in Brazil, but when I think about Friday night, I am most pleased not by the terrific view or the adequate champagne, but by the sight of someone slipping out of corporate mode and into human mode in front of my eyes. I imagine his company would sell more property if they allowed their employees to be humans the whole time, rather than only when they fail to make a sale. And just think what a nicer place the world would be if all companies adopted that strategy, rather than having their robots lie to us all the time. Ah well. It was nice to see it once.

*Names have been changed to protect the guilty

The view

This morning, we have been moved around the office into new locations. This was my old view:

Not stunning, admittedly, but it has sky and trees, and enough human interest to keep me occupied when I’m gazing out of the window thinking about the answer to a problem.

This is my new view:

Can’t you almost feel the life being sucked out of you as you look at it?