Lancastria, Remembered

[June 21]

On 17th of June 1940, the British navy suffered perhaps its greatest tragedy, the sinking of the troop ship the Lancastria in the Loire estuary at Saint Nazaire. So great was the loss of life – between 2000 and 4000, depending on account – that Churchill felt that release of the news would be detrimental to morale. Newspapers were forbidden to print the story. Survivors were not allowed to tell their loved ones. Victims were reported simply as ‘missing in action’.

The story broke in the New York newspapers on 26th July 1940, and soon after back in the UK. However, full details of the events leading up to the bombing are protected under the Official Secrets Act and is not due to be released until 2040. It is thought by some that the decision to the seal the records for a century was to hide the mistakes made by the British Government that exacerbated the tragedy – the intentional ignoring of the passenger load limit, the delay in embarkation because of a lack of timely escort that gave the Germans time to locate and bomb the ship.

My Grandfather was on the HMS Highlander, one of the destroyers that was tasked with giving protection to the Lancastria as it journeyed back to Great Britain under Operation Arial. After it was bombed by the Luftwaffe, my Grandfather spent hours with everyone else pulling troops from the oily murky water. More often than not, what survivors wanted, when they were rescued, was the simple pleasure of a cigarette. Sometimes they had swallowed or breathed in too much fuel, and died soon after – they were sewn up into weighted hammocks, and slipped back into the water.

The annual memorial for the Lancastria tragedy at the St Katherine Cree Church in Leadenhall Street, London, was on 21st June 2009. I was honoured to accompany my Grandfather to it, with all his medals shined. My Grandfather is fast-approaching 97, clearly the eldest of the ‘survivors’ at the service. He was congratulated and charmed by many, including the wonderful Jackie Duggan who was the French interpreter for the making of Christophe Francois’s ‘Lancastria – The story of a secret sinking‘. Most of the people in the congregation were in their late 70s and 80s. I realized with a slight jolt that they were children of those that were there. A child who was five years old in 1940 would be 76 now. Soon there may not be anyone left that was there. I’ve got a number of pictures on my camera that I need to upload, which I will do some time in the next few days. Meanwhile, here is one of my Grandfather talking to Jackie Duggan, and two pictures of the Gherkin that was just round the corner from the church.

Day 4 – Art reducing Life to mechanical functions, croissants, uncomfortable train journey, and Freaky Flicks!

[June 19th]

I’m packed into my teeny firefox rucksack, we go to a ‘breakfast’ lecture at Fact with artist Bernie Lubell and writer/Marey biographer Marta Braun with coffee and croissants.

It was a delight to rediscover Étienne-Jules Marey, that crazy scientific genius who invented the precursors to the machine that goes “bing” in the hospital. Oh ok, a bit more than that. He invented all of these amazing ways to record and help understand processes of breathing, and circulation, translate movement into sound and marks on a roll of paper – the precursor for the heart monitor and the seismograph. He managed to record the mechanics of flight in birds, and supported intellectually and financially early research into human flight. He invented interesting and fabulous ways of capturing movement on a series of photographs, with inadvertently starting the animated curio and then movie industry. His services to art (the futurists, and Dada) and computer animation (motion capture for realistic movement) are numerous and astounding.

Bernie Lubell was recreating some of the apparatus of Marey – whose original work was precision hand-tooled in brass and copper and rubber – with rough sawn pieces of wood, elastic bands, string and wire. Lubell makes work to interact with, that requires strangers in the gallery to cooperate in various ways to get things to work.

Bernie Lubell is not interested in preciseness. He is not interested in humans as perfect machines. He believes that it is more truthful to think of them as IMperpfect machines. Things go wrong all the time. Its a wonder that we are walking around at all, that we got this far, seeing that there are so many design flaws! He says that he feels its important to have his contraptions in this state. Maintain them at the point just before breaking.

Lubell made it so that people need to cooperate, sometimes even unintentionally, to get things to work. The Theory of Entanglement requires the sofa in the cafe to be sat upon before the two people pedalling madly in the foyer can knit anything. There is something quite lovely about artwork that is not just to look at, or interact with, but something positive, outside, connected with other people.

My little mind is ticking now, how can I make that happen? What can I do? Not sure yet.

I make my train back to Cambridge, with a change at Ely. Its pleasant enough. I wish there was more room for feets, not all of us want to play footsie with strangers under the table. I muse a little, thinking that it could have been intentional, some engineer artist manufacturing interaction, chance meetings, entanglements. Perhaps romances have started this way, what starts of as innocent shifting of feet in a confined space turns to explorative playfulness, and then intimacy between strangers on a train.

Freaky Flicks at the Arts Picture House Bar, with the Man from Uranus presenting, was fun and silly. We watched actual factual public health films from 1950s USA warning high-school kids about the dangers of drugs.


Day 3 – Part B – hat factory, minisuperlambanana, existentialist comedy


[June 18th]

The hat factory is one of the few ones left in Great Britain. Try & Lilly make special order uniform caps and hats for police, military, marching bands, catering workers, and is run by a friend of my brother’s girlfriend. It was quite lovely to see the complexity and the construction close-up.

I was full of praise and delight for this very colourful patchwork tweed walking hat, a traditional Irish treatment, which I was informed (with a slight derogatory sneer) ‘only American tourists wear’.

I might be being a little oversensitive here, but I realize yet again that most people I meet here believe I am American and have a tendency to make some unfair cultural extrapolations. I feel I have to explain myself, when there really is no need. I have that same creeping unease that I had fresh off of a plane from the USA going to a new school in the UK. Awareness of a distrust that many English people have of anything American. Its just assumed that all Americans are tasteless, unsubtle, crass, loud. That slight sneer that I liked something that only tasteless American tourists like. The thing is, I love that Americans can express their love and excitement, openly. I really like how (amongst the people I know at least) difference is celebrated, foreignness is romantic and cool and desirable.

Let us pray (in a non-religious way).
Oh Universe, may I always and forever remain openly enthusiastic about things.
May I never feel that taste and propriety overrides communication of enjoyment.
May English people also discover the joy of public expression of appreciation.
Ahhhhhhhh thennnnnnnn

If ya didn’t know, Liverpool is full of public art. It’s had an art Biennial since 1999, and many of the public art pieces are left in place on permanent display, and become part of the city landscape. Some odd little injections of surreality, disrupting somnambulic life. One particularly striking one is ‘Turning the Place Over’ by Richard Wilson (not the actor, the sculptor…), all very Gordon Matta-Clarkish. Amazing.

Another is the superlambanana. Now I never saw the ‘original’ one, that was designed by Taro Chiezo and and made by a local artist, and installed for the transpennine exhibition. Apparently it’s a cross between a lamb and a banana, both common cargo for ships coming in to dock in Liverpool, and thus combined becomes a symbol of the dangers of genetic engineering. Or something. There’s even some live footage of it in captivity!

The superlambanana has become a super popular symbol of Liverpool, and there are replicas everywhere. It is a repeatable and riffable motif like the pigs in Seattle. I came across this mini one, outside of a bar, just after admiration of the suitcases on Hope Street, on the way to the theatre.

We went to see a likable existential comedy called ‘Clunk’ by The Suitcase Ensemble at the Unity Theatre. The characters are performing a series of nonsensical tasks because of tradition, remembrance, and fear of change and the Outside World. It was really funny and sweet, and quite profound. Watch out for it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a city near you in the coming year!


Day 3 – Part A – allotment and the joy of home grown

[June 18th]

Brightish and earlyish, we travel across Toxteth to the allotment. Biking is not such a pleasure today. I can hear my muscles creak inside my skin. My brother seems as zippy as ever, and is rather impatient with me. We go past “Dingle Mount’, ‘Dingle Close’. I cast hopefully around for ‘dingle dell’. levity temporarily replaces perception of pain.

The allotments are like a tiny township. The sheds are small squat houses with fences and gates and tiny paths off the mud track road. Julian and Becca’s patch is verdant and productive. Raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries are all doing well, but blackcurrants most of all.

broad beanI am tasked with judging the ripeness of the broad beans. I have no idea how to judge the ripeness of broad beans. Its probably been several decades since I’ve even had them – prepared, pod-less. The pods jut from the stem at odd angles. I pick a larger one off, and split it down the seam with my thumbnail. The tiny beans are nestled in their soft spongy bed, I feel like I am committing infanticide, its such a transgression to pull them so violently from their cocoon.

I eat one of the beans. It is sweet, and has an odd flavour that I cannot quite identify. I eat the rest of the beans in the pod, pick another few pods, and put them in my container. I don’t feel confident in my ripeness judging abilities at all. I open another pod, just to make sure, and pop another bean in my mouth. I know what the flavour is! Soap! Its like when you wash up a cup without rinsing and then you make tea in it…It’s still tea, you want tea, it’s nice tea, but there is soap in it. After the taste of tea, the sweet creaminess of the milk, there is a tang, a bitterness at the back of the throat. I decide not to eat any more raw broad beans.

We collect an odd and tiny bounty. But its exciting – I am a Random Farmer. Lettuce, gooseberries, blackcurrant, to put with the three beans in my container. We zoom back home, past the many Dingles, thankfully more downhill than the other way.

Miscellaneous Personal

Day 2 – Part D – The Unexpected 23 Mile Cycle Ride

[June 17th]

graffitiSit in the Fact Cafe being damp for an hour. Speak to work. when I leave my seat I am embarassed to see the plastic darkened in a triangle, looking like I have wet myself. I am sopping wet. It’s been raining HARD, like buckets of water have literally been chucked at me from the sky while cycling. I do not want to go on this ride.

fact-graffitiMy brother Julian always makes me do these crazy things that involve indurance, wetness, mud or pain. I do not like it. I wish he was a normal brother, with normal hobbies. Like fixing vintage cars, films, video games. something that would involve being dry and clean and calm. Not like caving, kayak-freaking-scuba-diving, cycling or politics.

What can I say? 23 miles.


Long way. Bloody good fun.

AND I got to eat fish and chips in the pub.

Art Personal

Day 2 – Part C – Tate Gallery in 20 Minutes

[June 17th]

We find the cycle racks, and lock our bikes, and sloach off dripping into the gallery, and stash our sopping bags and jackets in the lockers. And so begins possibly the quickest visit to a sizable gallery ever, twenty minutes tops.  I’ve got to be on the internet for a call to a client in less than an hour.


The first room is an wall installation of Sol Lewitt, a crazy snakey rainbow of thick swirly lines on the wall.

Upstairs, it was nice seeing some famous and familiar works without the usual stark white walls of the conventional gallery. Each room was a painted a different shade – red, yellow, blue, green – and work from the collection were set where they suited. I think it was curated by Michael Craig Martin.

The floor above was a surprise. Choose from two different channels of thumping disco tracks on a pair of radio headphones. Going through the black curtain flashbacked me to being underage at Cinderella Rockerfeller’s nightclub in Cambridge too early on a Friday night. Lots of space, and some very strange looking people. Mostly middle Eastern taxi drivers between shifts.

The sculptures stand around either awkward, self absorbed, or stare wolfishly at the others.

Degas’ Little Dancer stands on its own, priggishly positioning. Ron Mueck’s Ghost anxiously attempts to shrink her seven foot frame against the wall. Edmier’s Beverly Edmier checks her bulge, with her unborn child inside, considering if she should risk another vodka and orange or just get a taxi back home.

Butler’s Girl on a round base offers herself on a table, craving the attention, feeling everyone’s hungry gaze like fingers on her deliciously prickling skin. Foley’s Joshua Reynolds feels out of place and over-dressed and hot under his thick heavy robes. He’ll never score like that. Maillol’s Three Nymphs flirt and giggle with each other, sneaking glances around the room to see if any of the guys in the room are watching.

The dance floor stands empty, its not the time for dancing yet, too many inhibitions, not enough booze and pills. Only one sculpture is actually dancing, but off to the side, and she doesn’t seem overly concerned with where she is. One lady contorts herself into a chair, while Lucas’ Pauline Bunny seems to melt into one.

Anyway, I thought “awkward small town nightclub early on a Friday night” when I saw the exhibition. Most of the sculptures seemed to be about the frailty and imperfection of the body, the awkwardness of occupying space, next to examples of the longed-for perfection and the god-like ideal.

My brother’s friend Diana, who I met a few hours later, said that she had a completely different experience of the exhibition. She thought it was all marvelous and even had a dance when she went in.

I really enjoyed it, whatever the actual intention of the curation and disco accompanyment. It was interesting to see sculpture like this.

Miscellaneous Personal

Day 2 – Part B – Rain Rain Rain

[June 17th]

Agent Smith standing in the rainIt’s drizzling a little when we leave Cairn Street for the Egg Cafe for filling veggie lunch. When we cycle off to the Albert Dock and the Tate Gallery, it’s raining quite convincingly. We dismount to lock our bikes to the boundary chain of the car park. An Agent of the Matrix appears from nowhere (a glitch?). Wow, is he really wearing shades? Its raining!

“Please don’t lock your bikes to that chain” the agent says. In a Scouse accent. We look up, questioningly. “People are always locking their bikes to the chain. It damages the paintwork”. I am taken aback. this is not Matrixy at all. I did not know there were Scouse Agents.

My brother, forever helpful, suggests that if people are always locking their bike here it might indicate the need for a bike rack here. To which Agent says “This is not really a cycle park….there are places to part your bike over the bridge”.

I can hear the Agent’s own faint embarassment in his voice. “This is not really a cycle park”. Fuck. I am programmed better than this.

The Agent resents that he is tasked with preventing wet hippies from parking their bikes where they are not supposed to. He would rather be doing cool slow motion Kung Fu fighting with Neo and Trinity even though he would inevitably get his ass kicked. He would always be regenerated. He could never really die. The binary was backed up. His existence would have meaning. Respect.

Not like this. This. This is like a waking death. Pacing around Albert Dock. instructing teenagers to get off their skateboards. Chastising people for dropping litter. Pointing out where the loos are to red faced wincing women. Making sure bikes are parked in the designated zone. Worse than death. It just goes on and on.

He wonders if the male human would fight if he was challenged, if he would bend and curve around the code like Neo does. He tilts his head to see, but the two humans have already cycled off, eager to get out of the rain.

Economics Miscellaneous Personal

Day 2 – Part A – Ghost Town

[June 17th]

The other side of Jermyn Street?This morning, after a huge heaping of branny breakfast, my brother and I visit Martin in Granby, an area of Toxteth in Liverpool where there are four whole streets that have been marked out for ‘renewal’.

  • In local council speak, this roughly translates as ‘this area is broken, let’s bulldoze it and put some luxury flats here and hopefully make some money’.
  • In developer speak, ‘we get some grants to redevelop brown-belt sites. Here’s some land we can get cheap’
  • In landlord speak, this translates as ‘quick, easy money? OK’.
  • In tenant speak, this translates as ‘We can’t afford the rents anywhere else. Oh we have to move? Right then, we’ll pack’
  • In home-owner speak, this translates as ‘I worked hard for my house. My family has lived here for generations. I am not moving’.

So for the last few years, the council and developers and the remaining home-owners in the four street area of Ducie, Jermyn, Cairns and Beaconsfield have been involved in an uneasy stand-off. The council and developers offer paltry sums and terrible terms for the property.

If you are retired and have no mortgage, would you accept a lump sum that couldn’t buy property anywhere else in the city? Or would you exchange it for free rent on a flat, when you have kids you want to pass your house to? The last 22 households aren’t tempted.

row of pigeonsSo while the vacant houses around them collapse in on themselves, while contractors employed by the council come round and rip the lead off the roofs (‘to stop other people doing it’), the residents continue to live there. Windows get bricked up. Big security doors and screens get installed. They watch as their once bustling neighbourhood gets used as a dumping ground for old furniture, trailers, rubbish. Pigeons move in. Everything gets eerily quiet.

The thing is, the houses are quite big, and nice. They are of a brick Victorian terrace style that anyone down in the South of England would be eager to preserve and pay sh*t-loads of money for. The developers insist that they aren’t worth keeping. Its cheaper to scrap them and do new-builds, not even keep the facades, though they initially paid lip-service to this idea.

Several years ago, the residents of Cairns street decided to do something about their neighbourhood, not content to watch everything slide into dereliction. So they spent lots of time tidying up the rubbish, carting away the abandoned furniture.

Seedlings on an abandoned trailerEleanor, a green-fingered and community minded resident, spear-headed an effort to green the area. In pots, bowls, baskets and stacks of old tires, flowers and vines and saplings are planted. plants hang from lamp-posts, stack along the top of walls, train up fences. Someone builds boxes for flower beds on the pavement. A trailer gets turned into a nursery stand for seedlings. They enter in the ‘Britain in Bloom’ competition, and win neighbourhood prizes. People start coming specifically to admire the plants.

It would be nice to get more publicity for the area and the resident’s plight. It’s also a wonderful example of a collective ‘f*** you’ to the council and developers that don’t appreciate the personal significance or architecture of a place. A neighbourhood is not a collection of buildings. It is a community. Establishing a destination – in the words of James H Kustler,  ‘a place worth caring about‘ – takes the efforts of the people that live there. The council and developers can help but they often get it wrong. And its nice to have a few plants around.

Cooking Personal

Day 1 – arrival in Liverpool, rhubarb was made for this recipe

[June 16th]
I am going to visit my brother in Liverpool. He is of the impression that I need Cheering Up.

There was some faffing this morning. Did not mean to. bed was comfy, radio was interesting, bag needed re-packing, boxes needed sorting. I discovered the fine CB1 coffee shop and their marvelous coffee and wifi though, given that it was inevitable I was going to miss my train.

Wisdom attained today

  1. Time of task will always expand into time available. Rediscovered this. When will I learn?
  2. When unprepared or broke, biscuits are an acceptable and appreciated present to give hosts, especially if hosts are one’s brother and girlfriend. And instantly gratifying as biscuits are inevitably opened upon your arrival and served with tea. I did not remember biscuits, thinking that somehow in between my home and Liverpool the perfect gift would magic its way into my rucksack.
  3. Rhubarb was waiting for ginger, and now it all makes sense

OK about this rhubarb crumble. The other week, I tried this ginger-with-rhubarb thing. A few weeks ago I happened upon a delicious recipe that involved caramelization and flambe of the rhubarb and ginger and rum. It was amazing, but I felt like I was cooking for several days.

With access to much of the same ingredients, I wondered if there was a better way – nay, a lazier way – to similarly yummy results. I found it!

In the (new) tradition of blogging, I’ll paraphrase a variation of the original.

rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb....GINGER!!!

Rhubarb and ginger crumble

  • 800g trimmed rhubarb
  • 200g self-raising flour, plus 2 tablespoons
  • 200g demerara sugar – or any sugar found in your brother’s kitchen
  • 2 knobs stem ginger – no idea what this is. I put loads in. We like ginger.
  • 100g ground almonds – I used roughly smashed up sliced almonds – added nice texture
  • 175g unsalted butter, chilled and diced – I used salty butter, seemed still yummy
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Wash the rhubarb to clean and then chop into 3cm pieces. Roughly chop the ginger – I grated – as grating is easier. Oven was at whatever temperature set hastily 5 mins before.
  2. Toss rhubarb in a bowl with the 2 tablespoons flour, half the sugar and the ginger. Arrange over the base of a 2 litre ovenproof dish. Sprinkle over 2 tablespoons of water. – you see??? no pre-caramelized flambé! just chuck it all into a dish and be done!!! I used really strong rum – stroh – instead of water. Seemed popular. And effective.
  3. Combine flour, remaining sugar, ground almonds and butter using your hands* until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
  4. Scatter mixture over the rhubarb and bake for 30-35 minutes until golden and crisp and the juices are bubbling up at the sides.
  5. Serve with custard. I served with really delicious ice cream. yogurt works well too. So you can pretend that you are being good and self-denying by having yogurt, but you’re really having a big bowl of sugary yummy goodness. with yogurt.

I discovered that my brother’s friend Martin is now married to someone charming and lovely, Stella, and is also appreciative of ginger rhubarb crumble. yay!

I get a little tipsy on red wine. Not much of a drinker these days.


Where da Clara tee?

Interactive Wood Machines of Bernie LubellI’ve just come back from a few days with my brother, and regretting not blogging while I was there – every day was a blog-worthy day. Unfortunately, no regular, reliable internet connection. and no time. I was busy Doing Stuff. So let me backtrack and tell you alll about it

Day 1 – arrival in Liverpool, rhubarb was made for this recipe

Day 2 – ghost town, rain rain rain, Tate Gallery in 20 mins, the unexpected 23 mile cycle ride

Day 3 – allotment and the joy of home grown, hat factory, mini superlambanana, existentialist comedy

Day 4 – Art reducing Life to mechanical functions, croissants, uncomfortable train journey, and Freaky Flicks!

yep, a waste to cram in one blog post so let me s-t-r-e-t-c-h it out a bit…