A new Zaha Hadid Architects railway station in Tallin

The perversely lower-case lettered throughout designboom reports that “zaha hadid architects” have won a competition to build a railway station in “tallin”, which will look like this:

At the top of all this is a bridge, so I’m well disposed towards this Thing straight away.

Transport seems especially to suit ZHA. Recall that they are also doing that amazing airport in China.

It’s something to do with the fact that transport positively demands the kind of flowing curves that ZHA always want to do anyway. A train or a plane simply cannot do too sharp a turn. These vehicles simply must shift direction with slow, ZHA type, curves. So, the ZHA style fits. Even a car has to slow down a lot to do a ninety degree turn. Even in the rectilinear architectural sixties, roads would curve, when changing direction. (Think of those amazing motorway intersections.)

Sad, then, that this particular clutch of railway lines in Tallin seems to be dead straight. I bet ZHA ground their collective teeth about that. The ZHA curvilinear style suits curvey railway lines, but a straight railway line (or for that matter a straight airport runway) can do what nothing else in the known universe can. It can enforce straight lines upon ZHA.

Poppies and tablets

Five years ago, to mark the centenary of the outbreak outbreak of World War 1, poppies surrounded the Tower of London

Like many others I photoed the poppies, and I photoed a few of those photoing the poppies.

Above are four poppy photos I photoed of photoers using tablets to do their photoing. The second is, I guess, the strangest one. But all it is is a man showing his wife (?) the photo that he has just photoed.

My impression is that tablets were used to photo at that time a lot more than they are now.

Or then again, it could just be that the number of photoers of these poppies was so huge that there were bound to be a few tablets on show. And by their nature (them being big) I noticed and photoed all the tablets that were being used in my vicinity. Maybe photoing with tablets was as rare then as it is now.

But, for whatever it may be worth or signify, I don’t think so.

There is nice history, of things like tablets and digital photoing. And there is not so nice history, of things like World War 1. We should pay respectful attention to both sorts of history, I think.

Big Ben is having its scaffolding removed

Here’s a photo I took from just upstream of the Blackfriars Station entrance. It is of one of the many weird alignments you get, from the fact that the River Thames is not straight, but full of twists and turns.

Here we are, on the north side of the Thames, looking through the Wheel, which is on the south side of the Thames, past one of the rectanguloid lumps attached to or near to the National Theatre, also on the south side, towards … Big Ben. Big Ben on the north side. Big Ben smothered in scaffolding:

The reason I mention this photo now (aside from the fact that I like it) is that today, I learned from Guido Fawkes that this scaffolding has now started to disappear:

As was announced by Parliamentary Authorities last week, Elizabeth Tower has begun the prolonged process of shedding some of its cladding. To the palpable relief of tourists who have experienced years of photographic disappointment …

When Guido says “Elizabeth Tower”, he of course means Big Ben. And, also of course, I loved all the scaffolding around Big Ben, and have numerous photos of it taken from all sorts of different places and angles.

For the last year or two I have found myself connecting this scaffolding with the battle to accomplish Brexit. Time standing still, or some such thing. I had a sort of bet with myself that when the scaffolding came down, Brexit would finally happen. (I favour Brexit, having voted for it in the referendum.)

But now, it seems the scaffolding will be long gone before Brexit occurs, if it ever does. Although, on my television, they’re still advertising Brexit as going to happen at the end of this month. Maybe it will happen then, but what do I know?

Concerning these latest delays to Brexit, my favourite internet posting by far has been another one at Guido Fawkes, more recent than the one linked to above, concerning a malfunctioning advert.

For my more serious Brexit opinions, listen, if you can stand the idea, to this conversation between Patrick Crozier and me, which I reckon still makes pretty good sense. Although, if you’re a Remainer, you should probably give it a miss.

Bad Bach

Here are two enticing paragraphs from a book which is coming out next month, entitled Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia:

I’ve talked to people who feel they know Bach very well, but they aren’t aware of the time he was imprisoned for a month. They never learned about Bach pulling a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight. They never heard about his drinking exploits — on one two-week trip he billed the church eighteen groschen for beer, enough to purchase eight gallons of it at retail prices — or that his contract with the Duke of Saxony included a provision for tax-free beer from the castle brewery; or that he was accused of consorting with an unknown, unmarried woman in the organ loft; or had a reputation for ignoring assigned duties without explanation or apology. They don’t know about Bach’s sex life: at best a matter of speculation, but what should we conclude from his twenty known children, more than any significant composer in history (a procreative career that has led some to joke with a knowing wink that “Bach’s organ had no stops”), or his second marriage to twenty-year-old singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke, when he was in his late thirties? They don’t know about the constant disciplinary problems Bach caused, or his insolence to students, or the many other ways he found to flout authority. This is the Bach branded as “incorrigible” by the councilors in Leipzig, who grimly documented offense after offense committed by their stubborn and irascible employee.

I sort of knew a lot of this, but didn’t quite put the slant on it that Gioia does. I had Bach as a Great Composer being tormented by dreary apparatchiks who didn’t get what a Great Composer he was. But Gioia has Bach as the kind of Great Composer who would have driven anybody crazy, and only people who did semi-grasp what an actual great composer he was would have put up with it for as long as those Leipzigers did.

Gioia continues:

But you hardly need to study these incidents in Bach’s life to gauge his subversive tendencies. Just listen to his music, which in its ostentatious display of technique and inventiveness must have disturbed many in the austere Lutheran community, and even fellow musicians. Not much music criticism of his performances has survived, but the few surviving reactions of his contemporaries leave no doubt about Bach’s disdain for the rules others played by. We hear a complaint about him improvising for too long during church services. We read an angry denunciation from fellow composer Johann Adolphe Scheibe about Bach’s “bombastic” and “confused” music-making. Bach even was forced to provide a memorandum to the city council in 1730 explaining why it was necessary to embrace “the present musical taste, master the new kinds of music.” Here he insists that “the former style of music no longer seems to please our ears,” and demands the freedom to follow the most progressive trends of his day. But perhaps the most revealing commentary comes from Scheibe’s diatribe, where he complains that Bach’s music was “darkened by an excess of art” and marred by an “unending mass of metaphors and figures.” In other words, the very signs of Bach’s greatness for later generations were the same elements that made him suspect during his own times.

This makes a lot of sense to me. There has always seemed to me something of the Gothic about Bach, a distinct whiff of Count Dracula, especially when he sits down at the organ. But I don’t now listen to much Bach organ music because the usual way it’s now played always sounds so bloody prim and proper.

The best way to tune into this side of Bach is to listen to him “arranged” for piano, by some self-important nineteenth century piano virtuoso, and played by a similarly egotistical and ostentatious (to use the word Gioia applies to Bach) pianist now, preferably a Russian, of the sort who comes third in piano competitions rather than first because, although he can clearly play the socks off everyone else, he makes the jury too uncomfortable with his crazy histrionics and his indifference to the usual way that classical piano pieces are supposed to be played. That sort of grandiose and attention-grabbing playing, it seems to me, often captures Bach in a way that better mannered performances miss. To put it another way, I have long suspected that “authentic” Bach is often the very opposite of what Bach was really like, and what Bach would have really liked.

Read more at where I copied-and-pasted the above two paragraphs from, here.

See also this Guardian piece, reporting Bach research by John Eliot Gardiner, that Gioia draws upon.

Short quote:

Archival sources, including school inspector reports, reveal that Bach’s education was troubled by gang warfare and bullying, sadism and sodomy – as well as his own extensive truancy.

This was published six years ago. Again, I sort of remember this, but I didn’t really take it in.

I love the internet.

Stephen Davies on the eflorescences that were stopped and on the eflorescence that was not stopped

I continue to struggle to find ways of communicating my enthusiasm for Stephen Davies’s new book, The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity. But I now think I know one of the reasons why I am struggling.

When you want to enthuse about a book on an historical subject, you probably want also to be summarising it, so that those who read of your enthusiasm but who won’t actually be reading the book itself (what with there being so much else to read (thanks to Modernity)), at least get an idea of what the book is about and why the guy who wrote it is so worthy of praise. I have come to realise that part of the reason for my difficulty in saying how much I liked and continue to like reading The Wealth Explosion is that this book is not only itself about Modernity, but is also a heroically succinct summary, of a big clutch of debates among historians generally about Modernity. What Modernity has been and is, what made it happen when it did and where it did, whether it’s a good thing (Davies thinks it very much is a good thing (as do I)), and whether Modernity will continue. That sort of thing. Almost every paragraph of this book is quotable, because it says so much, and alludes to so much, about so much, with so few words.

Here is a fascinatingly typical example of what I mean, which is to be found under the heading “Why the Later Eighteenth Century” (pp, 53-55):

… [T]here are two big questions that any explanatory account of modernity has to address and try to answer. The first is chronology. Why did the elements of modernity start to occur in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century and not before? One obvious argument is that the critical factor. whatever it might be. appeared just before the takeoff and so led to it directly – this might be the cultural and intellectual changes posited by Mokyr and McCloskey for example. There are however other candidates for that role. Many authors however reject this and argue that the breakthrough after 1750 had deeper roots. going back into previous history.

This is a challenging argument to make at first sight, given that what we have to explain is not a change produced by a continuous process but rather one where there is a sudden change of gear or state that took place in a relatively short pace of time by historical standards. One way is to argue that what we have is a slow, cumulative process that at a particular point in time reached a tipping point where there was a sudden shift to a different level and kind of change. An analogy would be a pot of water on a stove. The temperature of the water will rise slowly but the change from water to water to steam will happen in a matter of minutes once boiling point arrives.

An even closer analogy is that of a primitive atomic pile: as more and more blocks of fuel are added to the pile nothing much happens at first apart from a gradual rise in heat until suddenly there is a critical mass of fuel, i.e. enough material in sufficiently close proximity to sustain a continuous chain reaction. This means that the breakthrough to modernity could not happen anywhere until the various preconditions were in place (either locally or globally) and that this came about as the result of a gradual build-up. Therefore, for example, Julian Simon argues that the key factor was simply the number of people and that the population levels needed for all of the other changes were not reached
until the later eighteenth century and could not have been sustained earlier because of the inability to mechanise agriculture in any significant way.

The other approach is to argue that the breakthrough to modernity could have happened earlier and may even have started to happen, but was stopped. Eric Jones for example argues strongly for this approach. He points out that the central phenomena of intensive growth and innovation are, or should be, the natural result of economic exchange. Moreover we do indeed see them arising at various points in history before the eighteenth century. The biggest example (for which see the next chapter) was China under the Song dynasty and indeed at some other points in its history but there are other instances, such as the central Middle East under the early Abbasids in the eighth and ninth centuries, or the classical Mediterranean civilisation during both the second century AD and the Hellenic era after the death of Alexander. In addition there are also episodes throughout history of what we may call ‘ages of reason’, which see the development and articulation of materialist and sceptical thought – these can be found in the history of China, the Islamic world, India, and classical civilisation. (Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).

The point here is that we have earlier episodes of many of the central features of the modern revolution, such as intensive growth, technological innovation, and the ideas of critical rationalism but that these ‘eflorescences’ (as Jack Goldstone calls them) were not sustained. Instead, something choked them off. This is of course compatible with the first approach – the fact that these episodes were not sustained would on that view show that there was, by analogy, not enough fuel in the reactor to keep the chain reaction going. The alternative is, to continue the analogy, that there was already enough ‘fuel’ in the ‘reactor’ long before the reaction finally sustained itself in the later eighteenth century but that before then there was a control mechanism (analogous to the absorbent control rods in an actual reactor) that suppressed the process and stopped it from continuing when it could have.

This explanation in turn can take two different forms. One is that the ‘controls’ that prevented such earlier episodes from sustaining themselves were features of the social, political, and economic order of traditional societies that could have been changed but were not, for various reasons. The strongest candidate is the set of institutions described in the previous chapter, which arose as a response to the Malthusian constraints facing traditional agricultural societies, along with the need to have between eighty and ninety per cent of the population engaged in agriculture. These social practices and institutions seem to have proved very resilient and they had the effect, above all, of preventing sustained innovation. The other way of explaining the termination of ‘eflorescences’ is to emphasise, in addition to wider social obstacles, deliberate policy by rulers or rather the way that the interests of certain social groups and above all ruling classes led them to follow a course that had the effect of terminating such episodes and making them less likely to start in the first place. This is the view of a number of scholars such as Goldstone himself, Eric Jones, and Mark Elvin. The key historical episode for those who take this view is that of China under the Song and it is the failure of that particular ‘efflorescence’ to sustain itself that has attracted the most attention.

The above is one of a number of passages in The Wealth Explosion where Davies is (to me) irritatingly coy about the ways these eflorescences ran out of puff. Let me give the game away. Europe, at the moment when it mattered, was politically divided, while all those other places, and China in particular, was not. China’s rulers could and did end their eflorescence. Europe’s rulers couldn’t, and because they continued competing with one they instead encouraged their eflorescence to continue. Hence the wealth explosion of the tile of this book.

I supplied another slightly longer summary, complete with the punch line that Davies keeps omitting, in this posting at Samizdata.

On the above matter, I wish that Davies had been less succinct. Consider the bit where he says – in brackets, like it’s just a throwaway thought – this:

(Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).

These eflorescences, in other words, were a bigger deal than most people think, even quite educated people, because the memory of them was deliberately expunged. I would have liked a whole chapter about the various eflorescences he’s talking about, together with much more in the way of argument to effect that they were indeed big deals, and that lots of evidence of their bigness was indeed expunged. As it is, we have to make do with the one fascinating chapter about just one of these eflorescences, the one that efloresced in Song China. But the scale and significance of each of these eflorescences is central to what this book is all about. Modernity did not get created only in Europe. Modernity was created all over the place. Europe is merely where Modernity was not suppressed.

Read more bits from this terrific book here, here, and here.

An “electoral pact” is going to happen whether Boris agrees to it in public or not (which is why he isn’t agreeing to it (in public))

Steve Baker MP says that he struggles to see how Brexit can win the next general election, if Boris doesn’t do a deal with the Brexit Party:

I, on the other hand, think that I can see exactly how Brexit can win the next general election, if Boris doesn’t do a deal with the Brexit Party. And I reckon Boris does too. (Whether anyone can then “reunite the Conservative coalition” is another matter. Say I: one thing at a time. The task now is to get a Brexit Parliament, followed by Brexit.)

Farage definitely does get how to get that Brexit Parliament, election deal or no election deal.

This, which I spotted in these comments at Guido Fawkes, explains:

The important thing is that all Brexit voters need to know who to vote for in their particular constituency, come the day, to ensure Brexit. So, the Brexit Party just needs to tell them. If the Brexit Party campaigns for Conservative Brexiters who’ll win, but for its own candidates when they are more likely to win, the Brexit Party will get its deal. And Brexit will then happen.

All the Brexit Party has to do is impose its deal by keeping the Brexit voters fully informed, and the Brexit voters will do the rest.

Boris has no power to stop this.

But here’s the twist.

Assume that Boris truly wants Brexit. I think he does, if only because if he doesn’t get Brexit, both he and the Conservatives will be toast. Even if he’s a pure egomaniac, his pure egomania is now, surely, fully aligned with Brexit happening, on his watch. That’s the only way Boris gets to be Churchill 2, which is his not-at-all-secret fantasy.

And, if the above is correct, all that is needed is a general election, and Brexit will follow. Deal or no deal.

The reason Boris doesn’t want to do a deal with the Brexit Party is the same as why the London/Cummings wing of the Brexit campaign in the general election didn’t want to cooperate with Farage. Because, in the event of such public collaboration, there was and is a crucial slice of Conservative but only Leave-ish voters in the affluent south who would have been put off voting Leave, and would who would now be put off voting Conservative and would switch to the LibDems.

Ergo, it is actually Boris doing a deal with the Brexit Party that might jeopardise Brexit, rather than no deal. Just as the original Brexit vote would have been lost, if the Brexit voters had all feared that voting Brexit meant voting for Farage.

Remember, Boris is cleverer than me, and probably also cleverer than you. Boris must have realised all this, if only because Dominic Cummings must have explained it all to him, several weeks or months ago. To get a Brexit win in the next general election, Boris doesn’t need a deal, and actually would be better off not doing a deal. He just has to let nature take its course, with just enough behind-the-scenes nudging to make sure, e.g., that Conservatives who are going to lose don’t campaign too eloquently, and the odd phone call to/from Team Boris from/to Team Farage to make that little bit more sure that all this happens smoothly.

I know, what the hell do I know? This could all be oh-so-clever-clever bollocks. Good point. But, Steve Baker says he’s waiting for someone to explain how Brexit can win without Boris doing an election deal with the Brexit Party. I believe I just did.

Please note also that although my pro-Brexit opinions are probably very clear in the above, the analysis still works no matter which side you are on.

Tom Holland on the state of democracy in Britain now

This from Tom Holland:

Those who speak of the death of British democracy seem to me to have it exactly wrong. Everything that is happening is happening because we, as a country, are testing existential issues that many other countries have opted to suppress in a way so democratic as to be titanic.

I reckon he needs a comma after “suppress”, and maybe another after “issues”. The point being that it is the testing which is titanic, rather than the suppressing.

I remember, or think I remember, saying something along these lines in this. If not that one, then in one of those conversations with Patrick. Which, in my mind, are, I now realise, merging into one great big conversation, lasting about twenty five solid hours and counting.

A bridge in Serbia with an office and a hotel on it

Dezeen reports on this new bridge, to be built in Serbia:

Every time a bridge like this gets proposed (or even built), with architecture on it, however bland and boring it is, I rejoice that the day comes a bit nearer when such a bridge will get built somewhere in London downstream and east, in the vicinity of the Thames Barrier, or maybe further east than that. I don’t care where exactly.

The thing is, there don’t seem to be that many big bridges, for things like motorways and high speed trains, being built these days. The big news is in small bridges, like this one for instance. So, any bridge that any city does now manage to build is sure of a lot of attention. And if something like the old London Bridge got built again, downstream, bigger, that would definitely get lots of attention, to a part of London which is, as of now, dangerously bland and anonymous. All brand new machines for living in. Not much in the way of eye-catching picture postcard fodder. A bridge with architecture on it would really liven things up.

It should be big enough to have a viewing platform on it, nice and high up, to look upstream at central London from.

By the way, I just found out you can actually visit this model of old London Bridge, in a church, in The City. I saw it on television a few weeks ago and just googled it now. Blog and learn.

Expect photos.