Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Stargazing Live: Australia

Rare sunshine at Jodrell Bank

On the day that Theresa Mayhem unleashes the hell of triggering Article 50 on the UK, it's good to be served a reminder of how insignificant our country and planet is in the grand scheme of things. And there is nothing like a spot of staring at the heavens to do just that. We are but a microscopic dot amongst billions of stars.

Stargazing Live has temporarily moved to Australia, probably because it's always cloudy and raining at Jodrell Bank, which kind of defeats the object of the programme. Although today it looks like the stargazers have moved directly into the path of Cyclone Debbie instead, which makes your average Manchester rain seem rather tame in comparison.

Plus from Oz you get an angle on the Milky Way that you just can't see from Europe. A scale model of the galaxy shows us where our solar system lies, on a surprising diagonal (which apparently explains why Australia gets a different view to us). Our solar system is the tiniest line on the Milky Way, which is itself just a weeny fraction of the galaxy. And then there's a whole lot more universe after that. As I say, it makes Brexit seem irrelevant. Almost.

It's presented as usual by Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain, who are sitting beside an empty billy can swinging above a campfire. You can reach them on Twitter. The sun is rising over there just as it's setting here. Saturn's rings are on good form, and the last star left in the sky is actually Jupiter. All of which should encourage the audience in its search for the elusive Planet 9 in our solar system. Apparently we aren't done with Pluto - there's another one out there somewhere.

A slightly eccentric stargazer tells us how the Aborigines use the stars to plan their farming. Another shows us how his bald head has come to resemble an observatory, and explains how telescopes don't take photos any more, but instead use fibreoptics to gather data about something I couldn't even begin to understand. Personally, I'm still big on the photographs, because I want to see what's up there and - well, they are rather pretty. Then there's the man who used the radiotelescope to communicate with the doomed Apollo 13 expedition. And then there's a group of people trailing through the blazing desert to try and find a tiny meteorite that has fallen from a comet. They are risking sunburn and dehydration - not to mention spiders, snakes and all sorts of other scary creatures. They can't talk much for fear of swallowing a fly.

But for Dara, trying to release his inner Attenborough (and badly), it's all about the kangaroos. Here they go, the giant "bouncing mice" hopping round and round the observatory. But then he goes and calls Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott "Clint Liftoff". That's what you get for talking too fast. Brilliant.

I highly recommend a visit to Stargazing's usual home at Jodrell Bank, by the way. We went last summer during a trip to Wilmslow. The sheer scale of that telescope is mind-blowing. And it rotates on train tracks. A lot of the Discovery Centre probably went over our reception-age daughter's head (I'd say age 8 plus and you're on to a winner), but she enjoyed a tour of the "history of creation" garden, moving the planets around the sun in a ceiling mobile of the solar system, talking to me through the "whispering dishes", dressing up as an astronaut and making a flag to stick on the moon. I also like to think that some of the interactive science exhibits about black holes in the Space Pavilion may have sunk somewhere into the back of her mind for future reference.

Apparently Brian Cox was on Postman Pat this morning. I wish my daughter wasn't growing up so fast and therewith growing out of CBeebies. I might have to sneakily watch it on iPlayer. Because I sure as hell don't want to see Nigel Farage's gloating face on the news today.

Friday, 24 March 2017


Working south of the river in Lambeth for a few years in my twenties, I used to walk across Westminster Bridge regularly, mostly for a bit of lunchtime exercise. I saw the London Eye being raised out of the river, Portcullis House being built, and the London Marathon run past. It's normally such a beautiful place to be, with the majestic Thames flowing beneath one's feet and really quite glorious architecture all around. Westminster Bridge always felt like a breath of fresh air, a wide boulevard on London's normally choking and congested streets. So it was with total horror that I watched the helicopter camera footage of a grey Hyundai charging along its pavements yesterday, ploughing into pedestrians before crashing into the railings of Parliament. Those lovely wide pavements had been turned into a weapon and used against our capital's citizens and visitors.

Having lived in London in July 2005, I remember the aftermath of a terrorist attack on our city all too well. The shock and disbelief, the sadness, the fear. The relief of a lucky escape for those who knew it could so easily have been them, of which thankfully I was one. But there was also the resolute determination amongst Londoners to rise up, come together and carry on as normal. And I know that London will do this again now, nearly 12 years on. It's a city that will survive anything that is thrown at it.

But the MPs in Parliament angered me yesterday. Not one of them was hurt, but they have made the incident all about them. They were drinking tea and ambling around lobbies in their safe little bubble while over 20 people sustained catastrophic injuries on the street outside. A policeman died protecting the MPs and their self-serving interests. Lucky Theresa May, instantly whisked off in an armoured car, while a man lay bleeding to death at her gates.

"This was an attack on democracy", they cried. Actually, thanks to fast-acting security services, he didn't get that far. The IRA did far more damage to government property and staff. And democracy? Yes, Parliament, that well known democratic institution, where (thanks to the first-past-the-post system) most people's votes don't end up with an MP representing them in the Commons, where the upper chamber's amendments to a bill can just be laughed at, and where we currently have an unelected Prime Minster being puppeteered by Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, meaning she is ignoring half the voting population's wish not to leave the European Union at all. No, this ended up being a dreadful attack on innocent individuals caught up in a horrific situation by a mere twist of fate, and terrible bad luck. Parliament is destroying democracy all by itself.

"No terrorist will divide us", they shouted. No, you are also too busy dividing the country yourselves, by doing nothing to stop the anti-immigrant sentiment and racial hatred in our towns and villages, doing nothing to allay the fears of EU nationals living here with perfect right to do so, doing nothing to appease the devolved nations, doing nothing to make the rich poorer or the poor richer and society more equal, and doing nothing to accept that a 50/50 vote is not a mandate to pursue a hard Brexit at all costs, leaving millions of us too upset for words.

"The emergency services are amazing," they cooed. Well, of course they bloody are. And all the more amazing for managing to keep going while you cripple them of funds and rob them of their morale. Thank goodness that St Thomas's Hospital lies opposite the Houses of Parliament so that medics could be on the scene on foot in seconds. But how many of those injured who had to be transferred further afield were kept lying in ambulances and corridors for hours because there are no spare hospital beds in London?

Think, MPs, of what you were spared. Think of the men and women outside on the street who were killed because he couldn't get to you. And may it make you more humble. You are the privileged ones, and you must never abuse your power.

And London, as ever, I love you. My thoughts and heart are with you today.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Replacement

The Hill House
Glasgow - city whose edges I have merely skirted, en route to the Highlands or Loch Lomond, or the Hill House at Helensburgh. A city I really only know only through the lenses of Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay and Taggart. But now there's this - far from the gritty tenements (but equally far from the school of Rennie Mackintosh) we find a bunch of trendy architects. .

The trendy architects splurge on champagne, have turntables on their drives for their fancy German cars, and live in houses and offices made almost entirely of glass. And you know what they say about people who live in glass houses.

Turntable for a fancy German car

Then one of them (Ellen) gets pregnant, not quite planned, but not properly prevented either. A rash moment, a bit of carelessness: well, we've all been there... (haven't we?)

Ellen is in the middle of a major project designing a library, a concrete cuboid structure that seems to based on a scheme of several Center Parcs chalets stacked skew-whiff on top of each other, with a lot more of that glass and not much thought about where to put the books.

But it's OK, because the architect - pre-Brexit - gets a decent maternity leave allowance (though she is determined not to have much time off post-baby) and is allowed to interview for her replacement.

The job goes to Paula, who is big on mascara and lip gloss, who has got a kid herself but feels finally ready to throw herself back into full-time work.

Paula is very good at her job. Then Ellen goes a bit paranoid on pregnancy hormones and becomes convinced that Paula is only good at her job because she wants to take Ellen's job off her, which is technically illegal. It seems Ellen has a bit of a background of instability and depression. Her husband was her psychiatrist (which surely is technically illegal too)?

But we can all relate to Ellen's fears - is it really possible to have a family and a career? Will she be as capable in her job once she has the baby and has to live without sleep? How much time will she need to take off work when her daughter picks up all the nursery germs so can't go into child care? Can you still look smart enough for an office job when you haven't had time to wash your hair, your clothes are smeared with yogurt and your fingers whiff of poo? And will she be able to give the baby all the love and attention he or she needs when she is expected to stay late at the office for a crisis meeting every other night?

'Young Iggy Peck is an architect
and has been since he was two,
when he built a great tower - in only an hour -
with nothing but nappies and glue.
"Good Gracious, Ignacious!" his mother exclaimed.
"That's the coolest thing I've ever seen!"
But her smile faded fast as a light wind blew past
and she realized those nappies weren't clean!'
(Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts)

The Replacement
reminded me of a former colleague of mine who was, in short, a trouble-making shit. She made everyone's lives a misery with her driven ambition. She was determined to oust the rest of us by sucking up to the boss and highlighting our failings behind our backs. She had no social skills other than bitchy retorts and a nervous laugh, or just sulky silences if she was in a bad mood. Our line managers entirely failed to grasp the situation, so when I had to have a period off sick after an injury, this colleague was chosen to stand in for me. Recovering and still vulnerable, I got back to work to find my office moved into, all the papers on my desk and the icons on my screen lined up with obsessive compulsion, a load of procedures changed without any consultation, and my job virtually taken away from me. It put tremendous pressure on me to have to prove my worth all over again when I was all too aware that I was performing below par.

Paula is also pushy and critical, charms the boss and the library client, tells tall tales, and makes changes to Ellen's designs without running them by her first. But there the similarities end. Because my annoying colleague probably meant well (in that she was just trying to get the work done perfectly) and didn't go round stealing babies or murdering people. For when Ellen's boss falls through a (controversially added) skylight in suspicious circumstances, it suddenly seems that Ellen's fears about Paula may have more than a little grounding.

Paula in fact turns out to be completely bonkers. Though it's not without reason. Her daughter had actually been killed in a hit and run accident a couple of years before. That would send the best of us mad with grief. And convince us of the unfairness of the world. All these people having children who don't treat them well, who don't love them enough, who don't deserve them. So it's no surprise Paula's got a bit of a vendetta against the woman whose maternity leave she is covering, who doesn't understand how lucky she is and who seems determined to put her job first.

It all comes good in the end, more or less. Ellen knows a mean trick with a torch battery and an airbag that allows her to escape from a locked car in a locked garage, Paula is led off in handcuffs, and Ellen finds her stolen baby underneath the skylight in the library and realises just what she could have lost.

Her marriage, however, doesn't recover. And she doesn't go back to work. Not that she seems to be missing much - all they ever did in the office was pout at the glass walls and fart around on Snapchat. So ultimately Ellen ends up with lots of quality time to spend with her daughter, which she seems to spend hanging out at the cemetery.