Just my cup of tea
A public apology
We, noders of the British Isles, would like to apologise for our
correct spelling of such words as 'colour', 'centre' and 'metre'.
The britnoders usergroup is set up to coordinate UK-centric activity
on the site: noding of British culture, its icons, idioms,
idiosyncracies, and inveterate infamous idiots; nodermeets; umm... well,
that's actually about the sum total of our activities, to be honest. Beer and such.
We do allow the odd furriner in here, depending on requirements, mostly involving their visiting our sainted land!
For discussion-intensive things, we have an IRC channel on eu.slashnet.org:
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A World of Ideas
The Forum is a radio show (and podcast) that has been running on the BBC World Service since 2009. The regular host is Bridget Kendall, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent - that diplomatic role is significant here. Several other people have acted as guest presenters at different times, recently including newscaster Zeinab Badawi and astronomer Martin Rees.
Every week the programme brings together three prominent international thinkers, usually from very disparate fields, to talk on a theme that somehow touches on all of their specialities. For example, the Forum on the notions of the 'real and virtual' brought in a ceramicist, a mathematician and someone who uses complex simulations to produce 3D images of decisive moments during catastrophic events. Some themes allow each guest interpret them in a completely different sense, as when the black hole episode talked about singularities, financial crises and memory holes. The usual format is for each guest to talk about their specialism for a while, with prompting from the host and interjections from the other guests. Besides allowing the programme to cover fascinatingly broad swathes of intellectual ground, having specialists from quite different fields encourages questions and perspectives of interest to intelligent outsiders, and hopefully interdisciplinary cross-pollination.
The Forum might be seen as a more chaotic, younger sister to BBC Radio 4's equally excellent In Our Time. Whereas the latter is a history of ideas, Forum is all about the exploration of ideas - In Our Time tries to cover all the major points about its topic of the week, where Forum goes for intrigue over comprehensiveness. Both shows aim to spread knowledge and encourage active thought, with Forum more focused on the debating side of things. It is also considerably more international in its selection of experts.
A regular feature of the show is the 'Sixty Second Idea to Change the World', in which one of the panelists has one minute to present a grand, revolutionary idea. The ideas range from the perfectly serious to the manifestly silly, with a slight tendency towards the latter. Once the sixty seconds are up an alarm goes, and the rest of the panel has a chance to raise objections and explore ramifications; the ideas are usually chosen more for their ability to provoke thought and debate than for their practicality. After the debate, the host reads out the reactions of a few viewers to the idea from the previous week. This part of the programme has its own web page and podcast where you can listen to the latest ideas, but oddly they disappear after a month even though you can download every episode of the Forum in its entirety in the BBC's extensive archive.
For all my love of music, the written word and screen media, I have been getting a great deal out of the spoken word lately - especially since I started actively downloading podcasts, rather than just listening to whatever happened to be on Radio 4. For a while you could have been forgiven for thinking that radio was a dying medium, but that is looking less and less likely: it may be enjoyed more and more over the internet, rather than by broadcast, but there will always be a place for a medium that we can tap into while cooking or going for long walks. I love the opportunity to chew over new ideas when I have just enough attention to spare, and I have yet to find anything that works better for that than the Forum.
Arthur's Seat is one of the extinct volcanoes that make Edinburgh what it is. Rising way above the city, this vast basalt mound is visible for miles around. Its silhouette has been compared to a sleeping elephant, and when Edinburgh wears the haar like a shroud, it sometimes feels like you are living in that elephant's dream.
To get up there is a fairly difficult walk, or a relatively easy climb - there are paths most of the way up through the hills around it, with just a short scramble to reach the very top. Nothing that is out of the reach of any but the least confident climber, but plenty to challenge the heart and lungs of all but the fittest hillwalker. The view from the top is astounding - Edinburgh is an extraordinarily beautiful city whether viewed from street height or above, and you can see almost the whole thing from up there. Calton Hill, which seems so tall when you are up it, is seen way below, and beyond it spreads the whole of Leith and the Firth of Forth. The view of Castle Hill from there is perfect, with Edinburgh Castle and The Hub at the peak and much of the Royal Mile's gentle descent visible below. On the other side, past a few miles of Edinburgh streets, is Blackford Hill with its gorse-strewn slopes and observatory.
A little way below the peak to the east - the angle of easiest ascent - is Dunsapie Loch, an oddly elevated reservoir attracting many wildfowl. To the south-east is a secondary peak known as Crow Hill, or, for those who think of Arthur's Seat as a lion rather than an elephant, the Lion's Haunch. To the west the jagged lines of the Salisbury Crags tell a story of geological upheaval, ancient volcanic flow over even older sedimentary rock, knocked askew by ancient shifts of the land, stripped bare by the passing of glaciers. Indeed this spot is considered the birthplace of geology, where James Hutton hit on some of the science's foundational insights. Off to the north can be seen the ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel, and the swan-strewn St. Margaret's Loch.
The peak is probably named after the legendary King Arthur, like so many ancient sites in Britain, both natural and man-made - and like so many, it is considered a possible location for Camelot. There are traces of hill forts and signs of prehistoric cultivation here. The 650-acre park that Arthur's Seat dominates (and sometimes, misleadingly, lends its name to) is officially known as Holyrood Park, named after a vision of a holy rood, or cross, that King David I of Scotland saw at the foot of the hill, between the antlers of a stag that miraculously decided not to gore him. In those days much of the area was covered by forest, a rich private hunting ground for the royals, but few trees remain now, and the biggest wild animal you are likely to see is a raven.
Among the oldest surviving Beltane traditions is the washing of one's face in the May Day dew, on the slopes of Arthur's Seat, at dawn. They say it will make you magically more beautiful. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but I can tell you for sure that it is amazingly refreshing.
The National Monument is a structure on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, inspired by the Parthenon in Athens. It was never completed, apparently due to lack of funds, and for this reason it was once popularly known as 'the pride and poverty of Scotland' or 'Edinburgh's Folly', but the folly of the National Monument seems pretty trivial next to the Scottish Parliament building down the road, which cost £430 million - more than ten times its original budget, and ten thousand times that for the National Monument* - for something far less attractive. In my experience most people call it 'the Acropolis' these days, which annoys pedants because the real Acropolis is the hill the Parthenon sits on, not the building itself, and anyway that's not its name. Wikipedia calls it 'The National Monument of Scotland', presumably to avoid confusion with various other National Monuments, but as far as I can tell that's not officially its name either.
Calton Hill rises dramatically just to the East of Princes Street, Edinburgh's main drag, and while it can't quite match Edinburgh Castle on the other side, the drama is greatly enhanced by what they did get round to building of the National Monument - a series of enormous stone steps leading up to a platform with a series of twelve towering Doric columns, capped by an architrave. The view from the platform is breathtaking, among Edinburgh's best; you can see all of the northern part of the city spread out beneath you, everything that's not hidden by one of Edinburgh's spectacular extinct volcanoes, Castle Hill and Arthur's Seat. Beyond Leith you can see right out across the Firth of Forth, and on a clear day you can see the Fife shore, all the way over on the other side. I know of nowhere better to witness a Scottish sunset.
The view of the platform is also pretty good, and the monument acts as one of the main performance areas for Edinburgh's Beltane celebrations. It is here that the needfire is lit, with sparks and dry brush, and once the new fire is burning, the May Queen makes her entrance over the platform's top, between rows of processional drummers whose rhythms represent the heartbeat of the ceremony. More ritual performances take place up there later in the night.
The monument was conceived as a memorial to the Scots who died in the Napoleonic Wars. The decision to have a specifically Scottish monument was significant, and contentious. To quote Historic Scotland's Listed Building Report:
The situation was likened to that of Athens under Roman rule, subsumed into a wider empire, but seen as stronger in terms of intellect and culture. Edinburgh was therefore beginning to be seen as Athens to London's Rome, a claim which was strengthened by Scots achievements during the Enlightenment, and the extensive adoption of the Greek Revival style of the architecture of Edinburgh in the early nineteenth century.
There was a foundation ceremony for the monument in 1822, during a visit from George IV (who did not deign to attend) and an appeal was launched for £42,000 for the building of it. By 1826 £15,000 had been raised, designs had been drawn up by leading architects C.R. Cockerell and W.H. Playfair, and building started in earnest. The original plans included catacombs and pylons in addition to the colonnade we see today, but after three years that £15,000 was exhausted, no more money was forthcoming, and construction ceased.
*Adjusted for inflation, the Parliament building still cost a hundred times as much as the budget the National Monument failed to raise.
The haar is the thick sea fog that rolls in from the North Sea, especially in eastern Scotland. Its sudden appearance and striking opacity mark it out as a distinctive feature of the local weather, forming a part of the national character and worthy of a specific name, in much the same way that Scots would be at a loss without the word dreich to describe those chilly, overcast days when the drizzle never stops unless it's to rain a bit harder.
The haar is formed when previously warm air blows in over the cold North Sea, bearing moisture that it is now too cold to hold onto. Droplets condense out of the vapour to form a thick fog, while the wind spreads the cold upwards, building the fog ever higher, and all the while blowing it over the land. The haar is usually quick to come in, and slow to leave. You might be in Edinburgh or Aberdeen enjoying a sunny afternoon - a bite in the breeze perhaps, but pleasant enough - when in the space of half an hour the city just disappears, as fingers or whole fists of fog make stealthy but rapid progress through the streets, around the hills and over the buildings. Before you know it you can't see the far side of the road, the fog is shading into drizzle and it's hard to believe it ever felt like summer.
It usually is summer when the haar hits, though, at least officially; it's most common between April and September, though it can come at almost any time. It might not be the most joyous of weather, but there is something quite magical about it. In nine years of living in the Scottish capital, I never got over the awe the haar inspires me, or the sense of unreality.
Credit to this BBC article for some of the meteorological details. It also points out that much the same phenomenon affects north-east England, where it is known as sea fret.
What might London look like a thousand years from now?
Michael Pinsky explored that question with a simple public art installation, Plunge, which appeared in London in the early months of 2012.
Pinsky wrapped three iconic London monuments, the Duke of York column by St James's Park, the Paternoster Square column near St Paul's Cathedral, and the Seven Dials Sundial Pillar near Covent Garden, with a simple band of blue LED lights at a height of 28 meters.
The Guardian suggested that these blue rings "could be mistaken for those ultraviolet fly zappers popular in kebab shops."
The lights, which had no accompanying signage or expalanation, marked a waterline one thousand years in the future, when sea level rises will have put much of the city underwater. (There is no scientific data to determine the height of the Thames in the year 3012, so the 28 meter mark was chosen by artistic license).
The glowing halos were meant to have Londoners and visitors to the city see the monuments in a new light (literally), and elicit a vision of a possible future, one where anthropogenic global warming leaves London a ghost town of towers and monuments emerging from the water.
Photos of Plunge can be seen here and here.
Plunge was commissioned by Artsadmin and LIFT.