President Obama and Marilynne Robinson on #history

The President: [L]ook, America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths – we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today…. But this point you made about us caring enough about the blood, sweat and tears involved in maintaining a democracy is vital and important. But it is also the reason why I think those who have much more of an “us” versus “them,” fearful, conspiratorial brand of politics can thrive sometimes is because they can ignore that history…

Robinson: … I think a lot of the history that is taught is a sort of short-hand that’s not representative of much of anything.

(President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: a conversation in Iowa, NYRB 19.11.15)

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(History Bar, Herculaneum, 2011)

I studied history. I still haven’t worked out in my mind if it is really any use or if I just want to believe that it is.

What happens, though, is if I go to a place and don’t know anything about its history, I feel I am experiencing it in one dimension less. Think of the walkers’ refuges in the Vosges that were founded by francophone walkers from Strasbourg in the last nineteenth century.

Gustav Mahler on the #nighttrain

In 1895, he prepared the premiere of his Second Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic while maintaining his day job at the Hamburg opera. Each evening, after the curtain fell in Hamburg, he would board a night train to Berlin. There he would direct a morning rehearsal of the symphony, lay down his baton, and get the train back to Hamburg for that evening’s performance. (Leo Carey, The meaning of Mahler, NYRB 17.12.15)

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(Waiting for the night train, Frankfurt, 2013)

At least until recently, Germany has done more than other countries to keep a network of night trains.

John le Carré on #London

[W]hy was London the only capital in the world that lost its personality at night? Smiley, as he pulled his coat more closely about him, could think of nowhere, from Los Angeles to Berne, which so readily gave up its daily struggle for identity. – John le Carré, Call for the dead (1961)

Does Le Carré mean that London was blander at night than in the day?

I want to reject this claim.

It’s true, I must admit, that people live in the centre of Brussels, of Amsterdam, nowadays of Manchester even, in a way that they didn’t in the centre of London, at least in the 80s, when I lived there. In the 50s, early 60s, perhaps it was even more so.

But today. I think of London as the city that has more personality than any other.

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“Carol” and Saul Leiter

Last night I went to the film Carol. I liked the mood and early 50s details. I wonder if the whole thing is Therese’s memory of the events, years later.

I am feeling ridiculously pleased with myself because the photography made me think of Saul Leiter’s New York street photographs – and Todd Haynes, who made the film, confirms on line that this is so. (

I wondered if this look was anachronistic, but apparently Leiter started taking colour pictures in the 50s. All the travel in the film is by car; but Leiter also likes buses.


(I bought a book of his pictures today.)



#Televisions then and now

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When I started working in energy efficiency my new colleagues laughed at our TV.

Last week we got rid of it. It had to be manhandled down the stairs:

SD old TV 216

Yesterday I watched the rugby on the new TV. It has an A+ energy rating, the same size screen and a better picture. It is more beautiful and was reasonably priced. It hardly needs its predecessor’s vast table:

new TV sitting room 216.JPG

This is one of those things where you ask yourselves why didn’t we do this ages ago? Or – if you are one of my energy efficiency colleagues – why is my behavioural discount rate so very high?

As a coda here’s a TV rock and roll story: 

“As ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ rose in the charts, he [Ray Davies of the Kinks] was tormented by people coming up to him in the street and repeating his words ‘Oh yes he is, oh yes he is.’ When he saw himself performing the song on Top of the Pops, he put the TV set in the oven and then went to bed for a week.” – Jon Savage, 1966: The year the decade exploded (2015)