Thursday, 26 February 2009

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Confessions involving chocolate and peanut butter

Nestlé: after their years doing a King Herod tribute act, it would have been nice to see them mending their ways. Sadly it seems that those years of ethical ear-bashing have fallen on deaf ones and they are being total bastards to their employees. I'm right behind those wanting to give them a good kicking. It's just a shame that Rowntree's of York, the manufacturers of the classic Kit Kat bar, were assimilated by a corporation with no sense of shame.

The Kit Kat was pretty good as such confections go - what Oscar Wilde said about cigarettes could almost (but not quite) be applied to a Kit Kat:

A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?

Even the post-Nestlé-Anschluss chunky Kit Kat wasn't bad. In fact, the chunky peanut butter Kit Kat is better than not bad - it is extremely good. The chocolate/peanut butter flavour combo, when done right is superb (Rees's Peanut butter cups from the USA attempted the same marriage of flavours, but I found their chocolate a bit cardboardy and unimpressive). Yes, I must admit that I did flout my ethical priciples and try (more than one) peanut butter Kit Kat. I can't offer any defence, but in mitigation I'd like to mention that I bought them from the Co-Op, whose own ethical principles were also compromised by selling them...

It would be nice to occasionally read a good news story about a bad corporation mending its ways and becoming more ethical (a pathetic token percentage of your coffee being "free trade" doesn't count, Nestlé), but in Nestlé's case the corporate culture obviously isn't changing, so I'm giving up my furtive flirtation with the chunky peanut butter Kit Kat, suitably chastened.

Remember, ethical boycotts are for life, not just for Lent* (unless the bastards listen and actually stop being bastards)

*not that I take any notice of Lent anyway, being a benighted heathen

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Ugly old buildings

It's astonishing how the mind filters out the stuff it considers irrelevant and narrows what we actually notice down to what interests us. My son, at two and a quarter, likes cars. When he looks out of his window at the street below, his commentary generally goes something like this:

Car! Car! Mummy car! Daddy car! Car! Car! Car! Car! Car! Car! Wow, car! Car! Car! Red car! Car! Car! Car! Car! Car! Car! White car! Car! Car! Car! Car! Car! Bus! Car! Wow, car! Car! Car! Car! 'Bye car!

Of course, he'll grow out of it (or grow up to be one of those people who watch the seemingly endless repeats of Top Gear on Dave). Our attention can still stay pretty narrow, though. Here's George Orwell, writing at the end of 1943, noticing something which had escaped my attention:

If you climb to the top of the hill in Greenwich Park, you can have the mild thrill of standing exactly on longitude 0°, and you can also examine the ugliest building in the world, Greenwich Observatory. Then look down the hill towards the Thames. Spread out below you are Wren's masterpiece, Greenwich Hospital (now the Naval College) and another exquisite classical building known as the Queen's House. The architects responsible for that shapeless muddle had those other two buildings under their eyes while every brick was laid.

I've visited the Greenwich Observatory at least twice and I don't remember thinking that it was a particularly ugly building. Of course, I might just disagree with Orwell on a matter of taste, but that's not the point. I was quite interested in astronomy and I guess that most of my attention was on the instruments inside and the history. The fact is that I'd just not been looking very hard at the architecture - looking but not really seeing it clearly enough to have an opinion about whether it was beautiful or ugly. Sometimes people deceive themselves into thinking they have strong views about architecture, often when someone builds something new next to some old buildings. Generally these strong views are that the new building is spoiling the view, out of scale or proportion with the old buildings and is generally an eyesore. Sometimes, maybe often, they are right.

Comparing the old with the brand new and concluding that a new building is always worse than an old one, doesn't really prove that we're really looking closely at buildings and getting a feel for what does and doesn't look right, though. For one thing, it can be like comparing apples and pears - new and old buildings can look good (or terrible) in their own completely different ways. The view that all old buildings are beautiful and that all modern ones built near them will make things look worse just makes it even more difficult to look at the architecture on its own merits.

We all know which architectural masterpieces are supposed to be beautiful. The modern heritage industry has extended that category to include almost every old building from every age. But I think that I look at these things and don't really see enough to make a real judgement about a building. I think the antidote to this is to consider not only the finest old buildings, but to think about which ones are really quite ugly. Then, maybe, I'll know that I'm really looking, not just absorbing a received opinion from a guidebook.I still don't have a strong opinion about whether Greenwich Observatory (which they started building in 1675) is an ugly building, but I'm going to start looking at old buildings with much closer attention now. Deciding which ones are ugly may be as useful as noticing the gems I've overlooked. At the moment, for example, many people mourn the passing of the old art deco cinemas (still relatively new buildings when Orwell was writing the passage above). I used to live round the corner from one of these, the Muswell Hill Odeon. I think it's quite cool, but is it really a beautiful building, or am I just caught up in faddish nostalgia for art deco? Maybe when I start looking at buildings more closely, my views will change.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Pink man sings the blues

I've not had much time to blog recently, so a short post is overdue. I'm in a rather sad and melancholy mood at the moment, but I suppose a bit of harmless blather won't do any harm.

My son has recently learned most of the words for common colours, It took a little time for him to distinguish between pink and red and it occurred to me that pink's quite an odd colour. Add bit of white to blue or green paint and you get light blue or green. What's so special about red that we need a separate word for light red? The English language is quirky and unpredictable but on this point at least, it's not alone. I'm no linguist, but Spanish, French and German also have words equivalent to pink, rather than naming the colour a lighter shade of red. So, in my small and unscientific sample of reasonably major languages, the same distinction is made.

I wonder, vaguely, if this means anything more significant than that, if you go back far enough, the languages have common roots, and/or may have borrowed words and concepts?

Interestingly, The Book of General Ignorance (a spin-off from the TV series QI), informs me that in Russian there are two entirely separate words for blue; "goluboi" and "sinii", approximately meaning "light blue" and "dark blue". Goluboi and sinii are seen as as distinct colours in Russian just as pink and red are are in English. I did check and, yes, Russian also classifies red and pink as separate colours rather than just different shades, just like English, French, Spanish and German.

I would be quite interested to know if there are languages which do just regard red and pink as shades of the same colour, but at the moment I'm feeling too tired and gloomy to use any energy finding out. Likewise it would be interesting to know why the colour blue is associated with a sad state of mind when we use the American expression "feeling blue", but again, I haven't got the energy at the moment. Not to mention the fact that, although interesting, it's probably not that important. Things that are important include being kind and giving your friends and loved ones the time, care and attention they deserve. If we forget to do that, we end up feeling blue and probably deserve to do so. Anyway, whilst the blues are around, it's sort of consoling to know that, put to music, melancholy can sometimes make a majestic sound.