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A €38m lesson with my latte

Yesterday, I stopped for a coffee in the lobby of one of Amsterdam’s more upmarket hotels. I settled into a stylish yet surprisingly comfortable armchair next to a wrought iron room divider, and cracked open Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil. Before I knew it, though, I had stopped reading, and instead tuned in to the intriguing conversation on the other side of the divider.

At a coffee table was a man with a shaved head, who looked of a similar age to me, wearing a white shirt, and a somewhat over-tight unfastened blue suit jacket, pale blue denim jeans, and black suede shoes. Opposite him, with their backs to me, were a man and a woman, each in smartly conservative suits, with leather folios of notes and papers before them. All three were served cappuccinos.

My ears pricked up when the conversation revealed that the man in jeans was confirming and signing the paperwork for a €38m personal loan: that’s not a conversation one hears every day, and not one that I would have expected to hear in such a public place. It turned out that the loan was to fund the purchase of a luxury boat from the man’s father, at below market value as it was partly being offered as a gift. The man intended to use the boat for general recreation, but also had designs on renting it out commercially for cruises, as acquaintances with similar boats were reputedly wont to do.

I know very little about luxury boats. I’ve seen articles in newspapers and magazines about million-pound super-yachts, but I can’t even conceive of what sort of vessel €38m buys you – let alone the full amount including the ‘gift’. I’d believe you if you told me this was a conversation about a four-bedroom yacht that one might sail into a small harbour, and I’d also believe you if you told me this was a conversation about a mini cruise ship with tens of rooms that would require dedicated port facilities. I’ve really no idea. And I’ve also no idea on what sort of terms a €38m personal loan would typically be offered: it’s never a conversation that’s crossed my mind, let alone one that I’m ever likely to take part in (especially if I spend all my money on expensive coffees in posh hotels). And so I was intrigued. Fay Weldon was not going to receive much attention as I sipped this particular latte.

As the conversation progressed, the man in jeans explained that he was confident in the arrangement because he was near certain that his pay cheques would cover the loan repayments whether or not he got round to renting the boat out (goodness only knows what his job was), and if he should fall on hard times, he could sell the boat and easily pay off the loan given that it was for less than the market value. So to this nosey parker, listening through the divider, the deal seemed as sensible as a loan to spend €38m on a boat ever could.

Yet just as he was on the verge of signing the paperwork, the man asked a question which confounded me: “Given that there are no arrangement fees, why are you charging me such as low interest rate?”

The man went onto explain that he was concerned that he had misread the wisdom of the deal. The loan provider had sent two members of staff to meet him in Amsterdam from their offices elsewhere in Europe, at presumably high cost to their firm. The amount of money being borrowed was substantial. The low interest rate meant that the profit they would make on the deal would be small in comparison with the outlay. Why, the man wanted to know, weren’t they pushing for more? Were they expecting that he would default on the loan, and that they would recoup a greater financial prize from the fallout? Were his assumptions about the safety of the deal wrong? What did they know that he didn’t?

This question confounded me because it’s not common to hear someone clarify the reasons for suspected undercharging. I’m not sure I would have done so—not that I’m ever likely to borrow €38m—because I think I would have been concerned that the lenders would raise their price to meet my expectations.

Yet on my way to Amsterdam, I’d just finished reading Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. This book makes the case that receiving feedback is an interactive process, and we should always seek to understand the point of view of the person giving the feedback. The interest rate on this loan is clearly a type of feedback from the lender.

By discussing the rate with the lenders, the man in jeans could either avoid a huge and costly financial miscalculation on his part, or could set his mind at rest. If the lenders had jacked up the rate in response to his question, he could always have taken his business elsewhere—and, of course, the lenders were unlikely to do so for exactly that reason.

The decision by the man in jeans to have this conversation could have only positive effects: and yet, it is a conversation that I would naturally have shied away from. I suppose, given that he was taking out a €38m loan, the man was probably more used to large scale financial transactions than me. It wouldn’t be an absurd supposition that his day job may be in the financial sector. Perhaps that is why he had he confidence that I would have lacked to initiate this conversation.

But that’s a very easy get-out for myself. What other conversations do I shy away from for illegitimate reasons? Do I avoid asking things that could help prevent me from making unwise decisions because I lack the confidence to ask them? There’s some food for thought and reflection.

And the answer to the man’s question? Simple, really, according to the lenders. Pricing for loans is risk-based. The loan is secured on the boat which is worth more than the total value of the loan regardless. The terms of the loan state that appropriate insurance must be in place. Even if the man fails to make his repayments, the risk of the lenders not receiving their capital back is very low: such low risk investments for such large amount of money are rare. And besides, even at a low interest rate, the lenders stand to make hundreds of thousands of Euros in pure profit, because a small percentage of a very big number is still a big number.

Before long, the paperwork was duly signed and all three were on their way. The meeting lasted twenty, maybe thirty minutes. If I were one of the lenders, travelling internationally for such a short meting would feel like a waste of time, even though I’d just brought in a huge amount of profit for my firm. But as someone travelling solely for pleasure, I think this was possibly one of the most thought-provoking and educational coffees I’ve sipped in a very long time.


Most of the pictures in this post are not my own, though I did post a nice picture I took at the Rijksmuseum in ‘real time’. In this post, the first picture (Amsterdam) is by Boudewijn “Bo” Boer; the second (a ship’s wheel) is by Maximilian Weisbecker; the third (Amsterdam again) is by Javier M; and the fourth is my own picture of a boat’s wake, co-incidentally taken from the back of the DFDS ferry to Amsterdam (though not on this trip). All are used with grateful thanks, and under the terms of their Creative Commons licences.

This 2,468th post was filed under: Headliner, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve made it through another eleven books this month. I only aim to read about a book a week, but quite a few of these were rather short!


Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

In the couple of years since it was published, Laura Spinney’s history of the 1918 influenza pandemic has been recommended to me by more health protection colleagues than any other book.

Spinney did a great job of weaving together, virology, public health, history and sociology to create a genuinely thrilling volume on a subject that is often treated as a little dry. Spinney brought it to life while also comprehensively covering her brief, and used a light and engaging touch as well as lots anecdotes to illustrate larger points.

It took me a little longer to get through this than my enthusiasm for the book would imply, but only because my days have been filled with coronavirus work lately, and reading about something similar for pleasure seemed a bit masochistic!


A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

I picked this up because my Goodreads friend Richard Smith called it “marvellous” and it sounded right up my street. I agree with his assessment.

In this book, Bulgakov describes the experience of being newly qualified and the sole doctor attached to a rural hospital in Russia in 1917. I may have started as a junior doctor (in Newcastle upon Tyne) some 91 years later than Bulgakov (and, for that matter, 32 years after Richard—sorry!) but the stories resonated.

The terror and reading up before shifts; the heart-in-mouth adrenaline rush as the DECT phone rings (or the nurse knocks on the doctor’s bedroom door in Bulgakov’s case!); the conspiratorial performance of maintaining the fiction for patients that the doctor knows exactly what they’re doing, even while being gently steered by the nurses. Even the twin comfort and dread brought by heavy snow felt familiar—comfort as fewer patients will turn up and I might have chance to think, but dread as I have to cope with the weather too.

There was an engaging emotional range to the book, from the amusing and absurd to the tragic. I’m fortunate not to have seen any colleagues become addicted to controlled drugs, and count myself very lucky given the statistics not to have had close experience of doctor colleagues ending their own lives… or murdering healthy patients.

The first mention of Leopold Leopoldovitch in the book reminded me that I watched the TV adaptation of this starring Jon Hamm, Daniel Radcliffe and the scene-stealing Vicki Pepperdine in 2012. I remember enjoying it, but don’t remember enough of the content to have any idea of how closely it followed the book.

The version I read was the 1975 translation by Michael Glenny: other (newer) English translations are available, but it’s hard to imagine how they could be any better!


Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

My parents bought me this for Christmas… at my request. It wasn’t a unfestive forced selection, but rather a book I’d wanted to read because the reviews were so good.

Higginbotham gave a brilliantly written and researched account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. I found it gripping.

Higginbotham managed not only to explain nuclear physics in a way that I could understand, his characterisations of the key figures in the story were excellent. It’s rare to read someone who is this good at writing about complex science and the human aspect of a story.

Thoroughly recommended.


Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I feel sorry for the person who spent ages on the cover design for this book, but this dust-cover-less copy is what the library supplied, and so that’s the picture I’m sticking with. There’s no photoshopping to meet literary beauty standards here!

Because Internet was a study of informal, casual written English, with a particular focus on the internet since, McCulloch argued, the advent of the internet has allowed academics to study informal writing extensively. Prior to the internet, informal writing was generally private (diaries, letters, shopping lists) whereas it is now commonly public (forum posts, tweets, blog posts).

To me, that insight alone was worth the effort of reading this book. I have never pondered the extent to which analyses of written English have been informed only by formal written English, and I’ve never before really thought about how the present generation is the first to publicly express itself in informal English. There’s a lot of food for thought in that.

But McCulloch had much more besides in this volume, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Sometimes, books are so insightful as to explain to the reader why the reader does things which just seem automatic: this is one of those books.

McCulloch managed that very difficult feat of marrying rigorous academic analysis with clear and accessible explanations, a lightness of touch, levity and wit. I thought this book was great.


Mostly Hero by Anna Burns

While this was first published in 2014, the copy I picked up was newer: a part of the 2019 extension to the Faber Stories series I read last year. This volume somewhat stretched the bounds of definition of “short story”: at 127 pages, this was really a novella rather than a short story, and the cover price was consequently higher than the rest of the (much slimmer) volumes in the series.

All of that said, I thought this was a very clever book which I enjoyed reading. Burns presented a sort of literary take on comic book superhero stories, which I’m almost tempted to call “spoof”: it riffed to great effect on common comic book tropes, but Burns also gave the story real depth and meaning. Mostly Hero was inventive and played with language in creative and interesting ways.

At heart, it was a love story featuring a character named “hero” and one named “femme fatale”, but it ranged much wider than that single genre despite its short length. Burns had interesting things to say on societal expectations, gender and the nature of good and evil, all of which were explored under the cover of the absurd cartoonish world she created.


Moral Essays: Volume II by Seneca

When I read the first volume of Seneca’s moral essays translated by John W Basore in 2018, I was completely blown away and read the whole thing pretty quickly.

I’ve read this second volume a section at a time over a much longer period, and don’t think I got quite as much out of it as with the ‘total immersion’ approach of the first volume. The slightly dated language of Basore’s 1932 translation takes some getting used to. The print quality in some parts of my copy wasn’t great, which took me out of the moment a few times.

All of that said, this was still brilliant, and doesn’t feel like it was written millennia ago.


Grandeur and Greed by Giles Smith

Take a journalist best known for writing columns about sport and music, send him to review five of Europe’s great art galleries, and Grandeur and Greed is the result.

In this short volume published in 2019, Smith reviews The Louvre, The Prado, The Rijksmuseum, The Uffizi and The National Gallery. Each enjoys an off beat and lighthearted review from someone with a casual interest in art. Smith even reviews the cafes. I found this short, light, funny and insightful.

I think it’s the other that the physical format of the book was, however, poor: it is very flimsy, and the binding means that a large central portion of the impressive double-page photography is lost in the gutter. Smith’s reviews were originally published online, and I’m not sure that enough thought has been given to the transfer to the physical page.


I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux

This was a moving account of a daughter’s relationship with her mother, as the latter develops and ultimately dies from Alzheimer’s disease. I read the translation by Tanja Leslie.

Reading this book made me reflect that it probably shocks less today than it did when it was published some 23 years ago. Over the last couple of decades, I think societal awareness and understanding of dementia illnesses has increased markedly over what is really quite a short period of time. I think some of the exposition about the illness would be handled differently today.

Nevertheless, this remains a powerful emotional account.


Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

This newly-released novel was set in a three-hour period during which a school in Somerset was attacked by shooters who also had explosive devices. The book was set in the present day and had a contemporary feel, with Lupton weaving in many of the touchstone issues in the social and political debates of our time (Brexit, Katie Hopkins, Donald Trump, etc). There were also a few decent plot twists along the way.

I enjoyed this, but I felt slightly removed from the action: I felt more of an observer. I think this was partly because some of the plot stretched credibility (would a British rolling news channel really interview someone caught up in this while they were in hiding in the school?) and partly because of the heavy-handed and slightly tiresome way Lupton drew comparisons between her plot and Shakespeare.


Defeated by Brexit by Chris Cook

In this short 2019 book, Chris cook gave a good insight into the Government’s chaotic approach to Brexit. Unfortunately, his analysis ended at a point in time which seems odd in retrospect (a few weeks before Theresa May’s resignation). The text was also a bit too long for an overview, and a little too short to really get stuck into the detail. I think there are probably better books on this topic.

This was published by the same house as the Giles Smith book, and was similarly flimsy.


Dreamerika! by Alan Burns

This 1972 surrealist fantasy was my least favourite book of the month my some considerable distance. I’ve no doubt that Dreamerika! has artistic merit, and it was certainly very clever, but the collage style of cut-out headlines interspersed with paragraphs of discontinuous text was just not my kind of thing.

This was recommended by the London Review Book Shop, and I’m glad I tried it, but it made me realise that I need a good bit of prose to get stuck into a book.

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Interesting… isch.

The Bay of Naples

I’m currently reading My Brilliant Friend, which is the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I’m not particularly enjoying it… but it does remind me of the lovely couple of weeks Wendy and I spent in Naples back in 2014. While Naples is not a universally loved tourist destination, Wendy and I had a wonderful time, and it ranks among our favourite holidays together.

There is frequent mention in My Brilliant Friend of Ischia, the distinctive volcanic island on the edge of the Bay of Naples, famous for its thermal spas. Wendy and I didn’t go there.

The source of the name ‘Ischia’ is much disputed. But seeing it written down so many times (and with so little distraction from meaningful plot) I started to wonder about two medical words which bear a striking resemblance: ischaemia, where a part of the body receives an inadequate blood supply, and ischium, which is part of the pelvic bone and the hip joint.

Two different views of the ischium

I didn’t imagine that either of these were connected to Ischia, which is just as well, as they are not. But I did think that there much surely be an etymological connection between ischaemia and ischium – but couldn’t for the life of me work out what might connect the two. I even asked Wendy, and she also couldn’t think of a plausible connection, and she’s far cleverer about this sort of thing than me.

Neither the Collins, Penguin nor the Oxford Compact dictionaries on my shelf offered any etymological notes, but nevertheless increased my sense of intrigue by listing no other words which start with an isch- prefix. So surely they must be related!

And so to the OED online – this confirms that both words are derived from Greek, and that the isch- prefix comes from the Greek ‘to hold’. In the case of ischaemia, to ‘hold blood’, and in the case of ischium, to ‘hold’ the hip.

The OED also lists a few other lovely medical isch- words that have long since fallen out of use: ischuria, for urinary retention, is my favourite of these. Health protection rarely calls for reference to urinary retention, but “I’m sure it’s ischuria” could become a favourite refrain should I ever return to hospital medicine!


The photo at the top of this post is my own. It doens’t show Ischia, but it does bring back happy memories. The anatomical image is a composite of two images deposited in WikiMedia Commons from Bodyparts3D, both of which are used here under their Creative Commons licences: an anterior and lateral view of the ischium

This 2,466th post was filed under: Health, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve eleven books to tell you about this month.


Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino

I loved this book. First published in 1963, this was a collection of twenty short stories about Marcovaldo, a poor Italian man who was fond of nature and rural life but lived with his family in a big city. The stories followed a seasonal cycle, so that there were five set in each of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

In each story, Marcovaldo engaged with nature or the physical world in some way, and the outcomes were always unexpected. There was a lot of humour (I could imagine Marcovaldo being reduced to a comedy character on TV), but there was an equal amount of philosophy and some melancholy.

The writing was wonderful, simple and yet poetic. But then I really like Calvino’s style, and know that it isn’t universally loved. The translation I read was by William Weaver.

I enjoyed this so much that I didn’t want it to end, and tried to give myself time to reflect on each story before reading the next.


Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski

This satire was first published in 1948, but if I didn’t know that, I’d have guessed that it was published last year. (In fact, it was republished by Persephone in 2018.)

The plot followed five people who, having been marooned on a desert island for some years, returned to England in 1945 to find it transformed into “the England of all decent Conservatives’ dreams.”

The country was divided along strict class lines, with every citizen receiving one of five Government-assigned grades, and required to live in accordance with what would be expected of their class. The novel primarily focused on the experiences of the privileged James Leigh-Smith (indistinguishable from Jacob Rees-Mogg), and largely left the reader to fill in the blanks and draw the moral lessons.

This was a really easy and fun read with a clearly enduring underlying message.


Mary Poppins by PL Travers

Wendy loves Mary Poppins, so after 16 years of not entirely voluntary viewings of the Julie Andrews film, the more recent Saving Mr Banks and Mary Poppins Returns, and countless features and documentaries, I decided it was time to engage with the original source material.

Obviously, it was a children’s book, but I was surprised how dark it was—and it was more interesting for it.

Mary Poppins, a truly memorable character, was acid-tongued, cold and vain. Mr and Mrs Banks had little interest in or interaction with their children.

I think many younger children would be scared by the situations into which Poppins lures the children, such as the full moon birthday party in which shes surrounded by snakes.

Neither the book nor the character have the redeeming and nurturing warmth I expected, which left me more intrigued than if this had been the more saccharine tale I imagined.


Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq

I had never read anything by Houellebecq before, but knew of his reputation for gloom. This book lived up to that reputation, mostly in a good way. I read the translation by Shaun Whiteside.

The protagonist was a depressed agricultural advisor to the French government on farming and agricultural matters. He was prescribed a novel antidepressant which increased his serotonin level (hence the title). The novel followed this not entirely likable character as he made increasingly strange life choices.

The high suicide rate among agricultural workers is well known, but this novel made me think a bit more about the myriad causes of this, especially in modern society. It was also good at giving a slightly different perspective on the experience of depression and medication. There was a good dose of dark humour mixed in with the tragedy.

There was a fair amount of gratuitous sex, including bestiality and paedophilia, which seemed like it was there more to shock than to perform any intrinsic function. Also, in one of those bizarre turns of fate, there’s a section in this reflecting on Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, which I was reading at the same time!


Night Train by Martin Amis

This was a book that started off as a crime procedural narrated by a policewoman called Mike, but turned out not to be a crime procedural at all. It was rather a sort of dark fictional philosophical exploration of suicide.

By pure coincidence, I had Miles Davis playing as I read much of this, and I was struck by how the writing seemed ‘jazzy’: police procedural cliche played with, improvised, turned on its head, and using the same forms to different ends. I enjoyed it.


The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Contrary to most of the reviews I’ve flicked through, I enjoyed this less than A Study in Scarlet. It felt like there was more padding, and the long narrated resolution at the end felt more tedious than than the second part of the first book.

While I of course accept that the casual racism and pejorative language used by Conan Doyle reflect the social mores of the time it was written, the quantity of it in this volume became a bit wearing.


Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

I picked this up because it was featured in an article about how brilliant ‘young adult’ fiction had become and how we should all be reading more of it. It was a ‘love through secret correspondence’ story with a gay 16-year-old high school student as the protagonist and narrator.

The straightforward plot dealt with issues of contemporary high school life, including traditional tropes like bullying and blackmail, and some more modern concerns, such as emails and blogging.

It felt tightly targeted at its audience: many of the cultural references passed me by somewhat (though I can’t be certain whether that was an age thing or a not-being-American thing). It is narrowly focused on high school life, and it limited itself to the sort of language teenagers use. There is a very teenage dichotomy in which almost everything in the book is either “freaking awesome” or terrible, which felt true to life, but a little wearing. Overall, the writing felt a bit teenage, which is what the author was going for, but doesn’t really have a great deal of interest for me.

All things considered, this seemed like a well-constructed book, but it didn’t really convince me that we should all be reading more young adult fiction.


Murmur by Will Eaves

This was a novel based on the imagined thoughts of Alan Turing as he experienced chemical castration and the associated psychological therapy.

In fact, the main character was a sort of ‘version’ of Turing called Alec Pryor, but having read a biography of Turing relatively recently, I recognised that many of the peripheral characters share the forenames of similar characters in Turing’s life. As if that wasn’t a complicated enough premise, several of the sections were dream sequences imagined by Pryor.

This layer upon layer of narrative complexity allowed Eaves to explore all sorts of interesting territory relevant to Turing’s life, from the morality of his treatment to the nature of consciousness to the development of artificial intelligence.

This was a very clever book which I think would reward multiple close readings. I often found myself a bit disorientated in terms of the plot, and while that sometimes made it a bit of a chore, I mostly found myself carried along by the writing, the fantastically poetic imagery, and the exploration of complex ideas.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

A collection of twelve short stories about Sherlock Holmes cases narrated by Dr Watson. Obviously a classic and one where everyone knows what they’re getting!

I personally preferred getting engrossed in the full-length novels earlier in the series than these short stories, but I still enjoyed seeing how the characters developed over the course of the collection.


Journeys: Tortoise Quarterly, 1ed

Tortoise Quarterly is more magazine than book—it features thematic collections of longer articles from the Tortoise website.

In this edition, I particularly enjoyed Matthew D’Ancona’s account of experiencing delirium while he was a patient on a high dependency unit, Ian Ridley’s moving story of his wife’s death from cancer, and Tanyaradzwa Nyenwa’s reflections on working as a cold caller.


Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I fully recognise that this has a reputation as one of the greatest collections of short science fiction stories ever written, but it was just not for me.

I don’t usually enjoy science fiction but decided to challenge myself with this: it has a reputation for being so accomplished that it appeals to people who don’t usually enjoy science fiction. But I found it a real slog to get through.

I’m not sure what it is that generates such a negative reaction in me. I think it might be something to do with the fantastical nature of much science fiction—I don’t like fantasy stories either, so perhaps my imagination is limited to stuff grounded in reality.

I think it might also be something to do with the writing, which often struck me as inelegant, despite clearly being loved and respected by better informed people than me—to me it often felt more scientific than poetic, and I think I prefer poetic descriptions of emotions (not ‘Neil was consumed with grief after she died, a grief that was excruciating not only because of its intrinsic magnitude, but also because it renewed and emphasised the previous pains of his life.’)

So I’m still not a fan of science fiction.

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La Sagrada Família

La Sagrada Família

Earlier this week, I was in Barcelona for one of my occasional solo weekends in Europe. Normally, I like to spend these brief breaks doing absolutely nothing: I like simply to wander around with no particular destination in mind, taking in the sights and sounds of somewhere new and occasionally stopping on a bench or in a coffee shop to read for a little while. I enjoy spending time with my own thoughts.

This time, however, I made an exception to my rule. When I told people I was going to Barcelona, several people exhorted me not to miss the Sagrada Família.

Construction began on the Catholic ‘Church of the Holy Family’ in 1882, and from 1883 Antonio Gaudí became its chief architect. Much of his life was dedicated to design and construction of the church, and indeed he lived on site for quite a number of years. Following his death in 1926, construction has continued—often slowly, and often with considerable controversy—and it is currently estimated that the building will be finished in 2026, give or take a few years for the final bits of decoration to be finished.

Prior to visiting, I wasn’t particularly familiar with Gaudí’s work. I’ve never previously visited Barcelona, where his influence is pretty much unavoidable, and I can’t claim to be well-read in architecture, so it’s probably no surprise that I don’t think I’d ever really come across Gaudí before. Nevertheless, I couldn’t ignore the exhortations of friends, and so bought myself a ticket to visit.

In fact, due to the illogical position that “entry only” tickets had sold out, I ended up buying an extra-expensive ticket which included an “audio guide”, as if to add an extra layer of interruption to my planned day of wandering and contemplation.

The reason I’ve felt compelled to write about this visit is that I’ve never before felt so profoundly conflicted about a building. Several friends who encouraged me to visit have since asked what I thought of it, and I’ve struggled to string together a semi-coherent response, because I have such strongly logically inconsistent opinions. And so I thought I would try and set down here the answer to the question of what I thought of the Sagrada Familía. But, as with some of my other recent posts, I’m only publishing it twelve months later, so you may have been waiting quite a while for an answer.

La Sagrada Família dominates the landscape

La Sagrada Família is a building of awesome scale: it dominates the landscape in a way which seems almost out of place in a city. The basilica covers an entire city block and, even in its incomplete form, has an imposing height to figure alongside its great mass. I was staying in a hotel three miles away, and could still clearly see the building from my hotel’s window, across the city’s rooftops. From this distance, there is something oddly other-worldy and inhuman about it. Seeing its mass within Barcelona’s grid system, conforming to a city block’s size yet still being utterly disproportionate in scale, reminded me of nothing quite so much as one of those occasionally odd buildings that would spring up in Sim City 2000.

Four of the basilica’s distinctive spires

I approached from the east, walking along Avinguda Diagonal, meaning that the basilica came in and out of view according to the gaps between the buildings. The closer I got, the more spectacularly ugly the spires appeared, covered in horizontal openings. These opening serve to let the wind blow the tubular bells yet to be installed within, and also to lend a ‘natural’ appearance to the architecture: something repeated throughout Gaudí’s work.

I have no doubt that to create huge spires which are open structures from stone requires true architectural genius. How could it not? They are clearly both intricately constructed with an eye toward delicacy, and yet strong enough to withstand enormous forces acting upon them. Delicacy and strength rarely go together.

And yet, to my eye, they look like nothing quite so much as insect nests that I’d call Rentokill about. They strike me as thoroughly aesthetically unpleasant. This impression was only reinforced when I got close enough to see that they have occasional fragments of text carved into them at huge sizes visible from the ground. They really are arrestingly ugly.

The Nativity Facade

The Basilica will eventually have three facades, capturing different points in the Holy Family’s life as described in the Bible. The first I came to, and indeed the only one constructed in Gaudí’s lifetime, was the Nativity facade. This astounding structure makes stone look as malleable as clay. The entire facade is covered in leaves, plants and statues which are so detailed and intricate as to be quite astonishing. Gaudi’s original plans for this facade was for the stonework to be painted to make it even more lifelike, which hasn’t happened and (for reasons I didn’t quite pick up) no longer seems to be part of the plan. Many of the features are no longer original, having been damaged in protests over the years, but none stands out as inauthentic.

Yet, for all the obvious skill and talent which has gone into the construction of the facade, it looks like the dictionary definition of religious kitsch. The interpretation of the Nativity is, even to an unbeliever like me, almost offensively literal. The facade looks as though the intention was to jam-pack it with decoration, and anything and everything that could be literally represented in stone has been stuck on, with no particular thought to any religious or spiritual significance. Hence, “Joseph was a carpenter” becomes a sculpture of a carpenter with a young boy looking on.

The skill and detail is astounding – but the overall effect is that of a desperately tacky and overwrought Christmas decoration that might be erected each December outside one of the US Bible Belt’s megachurches. Or perhaps, if a little more gold were added, like something Donald Trump would construct at one of his homes. It struck me as being in the most awful taste.

The Passion Facade

On the opposite side of the Sagrada Família, directly across the transept from the Nativity Facade, one finds the Passion Facade. This provides an extreme contrast to the exuberance of the Nativity Facade: it is relatively sparsely decorated, angular and severe. There is a clear intention to provoke a contrasting emotion among viewers of this facade as compared to the Nativity Facade: indeed, Gaudí’s intention was to provoke fear among viewers.

On the Passion Facade, the architecture is more exposed as as result of the reduced decoration, and it struck me as all the more impressive for this. The visual trick of making thin ‘ribs’ of concrete appear to support the (still ugly) massive spires above is neat, inspired, and clearly related to the ecclesiastical meaning of the events the facade represents, which gave me a much greater sense of overall coherence than the literal presentation of the Nativity Facade.

And yet, the literal interpretation is still very much in evidence, particularly in the angular sculptures by Josep Maria Subirachs. These sculptures are so angular that the figures portrayed all appear to have cubic heads. This provides an echo of the surrounding angular architecture, but has the unfortunate side-effect of rendering the figures pretty emotionless. This was particularly striking for me in the figures of Jesus—who looks mildly fed up—and the figure of St Peter—who looks a bit sad.

The most interesting consideration in the Passion story, at least for me (but I would also have thought it pretty fundamental in Catholicism) is the emotional toll on the primary characters. The scale and complexity of their emotional states is mind-boggling, and this complexity well-represented in enigmatic portraits through the centuries. Rendering them as figures out of Minecraft provides a neat continuity with the architectural style, but man it sucks all of that emotion out of the scenes, and leaves them once again being little more than a story-telling diorama.

There’s also the confounding inclusion of a magic square stuck on this facade. I can’t fathom why this grid, not obviously associated with Catholicism or Christianity, is incongruously included in a prominent position on this facade. The solution to the magic square is the age at which Jesus died, but why represent this using a technique associated with both paganism and mathematics, rather than something more obviously religious? It is particularly out of place given the generally sparse decoration.

Part of the interior of the basilica

Entering the basilica, I found the interior to be utterly breathtaking. The scale of the space is hard to comprehend, and it seems almost implausible that the narrow branching columns within can support the load of the ornate roof which seems to be hovering at something like sky-height. And then one remembers the massive spires towering even above that, supported by those self-same columns. It is genius.

The basilica is flooded with light from the stained glass windows, brightened by the more delicate leadwork than is commonly seen in older church buildings. The dominant colours of the windows on each side of the Basilica are carefully chosen to bathe the inside in particular hues of light, giving it a strangely ethereal feeling. It is an awesome space, arresting and moving all at once.

Interior detail of the basilica

Unfortunately, the decor of the interior continues the profoundly kitsch theme, mostly notably with four huge back-lit medallions representing four saints situated high up on the four largest columns. These wouldn’t look out of place on a fruit machine.

Madrid Barajas Terminal 4

The comparison may be unflattering, but the construction of the interior reminded me of Richard Rogers’s Terminal 4 at Madrid Barajas airport. Of course, it is all the more impressive to see this sort of structure built from stone, and on a much greater vertical scale, than it is to see the steel equivalent. But it is interesting to contemplate the way in which Terminal 4 was lauded for it’s shockingly open and modern design, and yet note how similar it is to something designed almost two centuries ago.

Underneath the basilica, there is a museum which explains much of the architectural significance of the building, which is well worth a visit (particularly if, like me, you know nothing about architecture). I was particularly taken by a series of scale models which demonstrate how the structure was derived from the classical Gothic architecture originally proposed for the Sagrada Família, before Gaudí got involved.

Detail of the ceiling

As I wandered round the basilica, I kept trying to reconcile my mixed feelings. How could I be awed and appalled at the same time? Exactly what was it about the decor of the building that made me feel so uneasy? Why couldn’t I just appreciate the undeniable beauty that was before me? I kept thinking back to something I read in Alain de Botton’s uncharacteristically disappointing book, Religion for Atheists:

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.

The kitsch literal descriptions of Biblical events that flow throughout the Sagrada Família seem to invite no more contemplation than wondering whether or not the tales were true. They did not inspire, in me at least, any deeper reflection on their meaning, and nor was the imagery arresting and memorable. I found myself thinking that if Disney made cathedrals, they’d be much like this basilica.

Safe to say, then, that the exterior decoration was not at all to my taste. Not at all.

And yet, for all that, there was a style and theme that carried throughout the building. There was a vision of how it should look, and despite over a century’s worth of opportunity to dilute that vision, it is clearly being maintained. There is something deeply admirable and impressive about this scale of implementation of a vision, even if that vision seems as tacky as hell. It may not be inspirational to me, but it must clearly be inspirational to many people to have persisted for so long. It is hard not to be awed.

Interior of the Glory Facade – the main entrance to the basilica, still under construction

As for the architecture and the space it creates: it is incredible. The scale and ingenuity of the project is inspiring, and the interior is breathtaking. It is almost unbelievable that something so firmly modern could have been designed so long ago. There is no doubt in my mind that Gaudí was a genius.

There is a lot of debate about whether the basilica should ever have been finished. It is said that Gaudí always refined his ideas as he built, and that the plans would have changed considerably after his death as he continued to refine them during building. So, the argument goes, this is not truly Guadí’s work any more, even though the plans and design were his. I mention this because it strikes me as an interestingly prospective Ship of Thesus question. But whether or not it is Gaudí’s work, it is clearly the fulfillment of a cohesive vision, underpinned by architectural foresight, understanding and masterwork that may well have been unrivaled. The basilica cannot fail to impress.

So, what did I think of Barcelona’s Sagrada Família? My utterly contradictory conclusion is that the basilica is a masterpiece, an incredible and breathtaking work of profoundly kitsch bad taste that is both truly beautiful and as ugly as sin.


None of the photos in this post are my own: mine were crap. They are all pictures taken by people with much better photography skills than me, and used here under Creative Commons licences. The first (the wide shot of the Sagrada Família) is an edited version of a photo by Angela Compagnone. The second (the city skyline) is a cropped version of a photo by Joe Lin. The third (the spires) is by Danil Sorokin. The fourth (the Nativity facade) is a photo by Greg Nunes. The fifth (a brilliantly framed detail of the Passion Facade) is by Jessica To’oto’o. The sixth (showing part of the interior) is by Eleonora Albasi. The seventh (another interior shot) is by Paulo Nicolello. The eighth (the shot of Madrid Barajas) is by Ángel Riesgo Martínez. The ninth (the ceiling detail) is by Claudio Testa. The final photo (the interior of the Glory Facade) is by Won Young Park.

This 2,464th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This was a novel charting the course of a marriage between a middle class African American man and woman in the contemporary United States. In particular, it covers the strain placed on that marriage after the man is wrongfully imprisoned. It is told in sections from the points of view of multiple characters.

The main themes were the gap between hopes and reality, the effect of incarceration on people’s lives and families, and the clash between traditional gender roles and those in modern society. The characters were well developed, believable, and entirely as irrational and frustrating as real people can often seem.

This was a slow and closely observed novel on a domestic scale. I found it absorbing and moving.


Stop Reading the News by Rolf Dobelli

This was book about the negative effects of engaging with the news, arguing that we should essentially disengage from daily consumption. I enjoyed this book and found the argument convincing, partly because I’ve been on a similar journey of late.

I would have preferred Dobelli to make the distinction between ‘news’ and ‘journalism’ a little earlier in the book, because I occasionally found myself arguing with his positions until I understood better that he was treating these as distinct entities. But, nonetheless, I found his perspectives throughout worthy of consideration.

Definitely a book I’d recommend, particularly in current times.


My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes

Originally published in 1958, this short novel was narrated by a troubled Hollywood screenwriter. In the novel’s opening, the screenwriter intervened to rescue an actress from the sea at a party, following what might have been an accident or might have been a suicide attempt.

The two almost accidentally fell into a relationship (an extramarital affair for the screenwriter) which took on a progressively darker air as their damaged selves came to the fore.

I found this intense and gripping. It had the concise and precise language of the classic American novels which worked well to heighten the tension.


Car Park Life by Gareth E Rees

This was a personal study of some of the hidden parts the UK’s retail car parks—not a topic that obviously required its own book, but a topic that turned out to be well worth reading about nevertheless.

Car Park Life was great, with exactly the right mix of wit, satire and underlying earnest. Rees mixed a beguiling and flowing combination of humour, psychology, sociology, autobiography and history around this unassuming topic.

This book has definitely changed my perspective on car parks!


A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

I thought I’d read all of Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, and decided to re-read it in 2020. Having read this, though, I’m now pretty sure this is my first reading: I don’t remember any of the mormon-themed second part of this book.

Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this first in the Sherlock Holmes series. There seems little point saying much more: you know what you’re getting into.


My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs by Kazuo Ishiguro

You can watch or read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture for free online, but I didn’t. I bought a small paperback copy which I read over a bowl of soup one lunchtime in Caffé Nero. That is possibly the most planetary resource intensive approach, and I should probably be ashamed… but I enjoyed it.

Ishiguro’s lecture described his lifelong development as a writer, underlined the importance of literature and made a plea for greater intellectual diversity in writing and the arts. I really like Ishiguro’s writing, so was predisposed to like this lecture. I suppose I probably wouldn’t have found it interesting if I didn’t find him interesting, so your mileage may vary!


Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

I picked this up out of interest having enjoyed the TV series: this is the text of the original one-woman play.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the play and also reflecting on the creative differences between the original text and the TV series. I also enjoyed the text on its own terms: Waller-Bridge has created a memorable and distinctive character.

On the other hand, much of the rest of the stuff in this volume felt like filler to me.


Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This was a moving, eloquent and personal description of Matt Haig’s experiences with depression which I think helped me to better understand the subjective experience of mental illness.

There were some parts that felt less successful to me, though perhaps others appreciated them—I wasn’t particularly interested in others’ Twitter posts quoted in the book, for example—but I’m glad I picked this up nevertheless.


A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes

Barthes built up a picture of the subjective experience of love through a series of “fragments”, descriptions of individual aspects of the experience drawn from literature or philosophy.

This was an astounding analytical work, in as much as it put into words emotions I’ve felt but never even considered classifying or really dwelt upon, but which certainly form part of being in love. Some of the ‘fragments’ felt like truly revelatory insights into my own life experiences.

On the other hand, if I’m being honest, most of this book was a bit of a slog to get through: it was a bit like reading a reference work of discrete entries. I read it piece by piece over several months because I couldn’t take it all in one go.

It was astounding and hard work to read at the same time.


Christmas with Dull People by Saki

It would probably have made more sense to read this in December, but it didn’t make its way to the top of the pile until this month.

Christmas with Dull People was a 48-page collection of four short, sharp stories satirising Edwardian social norms around Christmas. I don’t think I’ve read any Saki before and enjoyed his cutting wit. I enjoyed the last story, which concerned the writing of thank you letters, the most.


Motherland: Tortoise Quarterly, 2ed

Tortoise Quarterly is more magazine than book—it features thematic collections of longer articles from the Tortoise website.

In this edition, I particularly enjoyed Martin Samuel’s profile of Gary Linekar (who I previously knew almost nothing about), Zelda Perkins’s account of producing a musical with and for David Bowie, Susie Walker’s story of life as a female stand up comedian, and Simon Barnes’s deep dive into the causes of flooding in the UK.


Indistractable by Nir Eyal

It’s important context to know that Eyal is the author of another book on how to make technology addictive. He believes, and frequently argues, that such technologies should not be regulated because we can control our own usage of them.

In Indistractable, Eyal argued that one can maintaining focus despite potential distractions such as—but not limited to—addictive technology. He set out a few commonly described methods by which it is possible to maintain focus (such as planning to complete given tasks at given times). He also set out a few techniques commonly described techniques for reducing technology distractions (such as switching off notifications). He then set out a few commonly described tips on parenting in the age of modern technology (such as making sure children can use devices competently before allowing them unsupervised access). None of the ideas seemed original to me, and none added up to the thesis that these technologies should not be regulated.

Irritatingly, Eyal had a habit of presenting banal information as stunning insights. The most glaring of these was his repeated insistence that “total time spent on email = number of emails × average time spent on each email”. That is not an insight into anything, it is simply basic mathematics.

There was also a depressing assumption of affluence in Eyal’s writing. He suggested that we might encourage ourselves to go to the gym by bargaining with ourselves that if we failed to do so we’d burn a $100 bill. And he assumed an awful lot about availability of cash and time for parenting. All of which serves to undermine the thesis about regulation, which—after all—serves to protect the most vulnerable in society.

All in all, I found this pretty infuriating.

You might have noticed that this looks a little different to usual.

This is the 45th of these posts: they’ve appeared monthly since May 2016 and the formatting has been essentially unchanged since June 2016. This month, I’m playing with a new photography-heavy layout for 2020. I’m also experimenting with going back to publishing these towards the end of each month rather than at the start of a new month.

Both of these changes might be one-offs or might be permanent, largely depending on my whims this time next month.

This 2,463rd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

The Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels: eight years on

In May 2012, I blogged about visiting ‘the Ped’, more formally know as the Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle tunnels, which first opened in 1951. A year later, the tunnels closed to undergo a two-year, £7m refurbishment.

The refurbishment didn’t go according to plan: it ended up taking over six years and costing £16m. After adjustment for inflation, that’s about 60% of the cost of building the tunnels in the first place.

Today, I thought I’d revisit and see what had changed.

Both the north and south entrances to the tunnel retain their rotunda-like buildings, that have something of the feel of stations. Entrance remains free of charge. In 2012, the south end was looking perhaps a little tired.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels south entrance

Today, the paving on the approach has been considerably improved, with much clearer cycle paths. The overall appearance has been smartened up, though the heritage plaque seems to have been lost and a TV screen of questionable function has been installed. The shutters are also of note, not only for being new, but also because the tunnels are no longer open 24 hours as was previously the case. They now only open 6am to 8pm, at least “until further notice”.

Note that the entrance is labelled ‘Jarrow’: this on the Jarrow side of the river. One might have thought it more logical to make it plain that the tunnel is for Howdon, but that would I suppose conflict with the station heuristic for which the designers seem to be reaching.

On entering the rotunda, one was formerly presented with two historic wooden escalators, each labelled with its intended direction of motion, and each labelled with one of the historic county crests of the two historic counties the tunnel connects. At the time of installation, they were the world’s longest escalators, and were only overtaken in the UK by those installed at London’s Angel tube station some forty years later. In 2012, they were the longest remaining wooden escalators in the world.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels south escalators

Today, only one of these remarkable escalators remains in place at each end of the tunnel, the other torn out to make way for an (as yet uninstalled) inclined glass elevator. At the southern end, the ‘County Durham’ escalator is the lucky one… I forgot to check the northern end.

The remaining escalators, which didn’t work in 2012, have now been fixed in position: note the open ‘gate’ with its post driven in a step at the top the escalator below. They are now, I suppose, unique heritage staircases rather than escalators.

Note too that the safety information posted next to the unopened glass lift is unusual: the imperative is not to avoid lift use in the event of a fire, but to listen for instructions as the lifts may be used for evacuation. The ‘mood lighting’ is eye-catching, but not especially to my taste.

As I walked down the escalator in 2012, the strong scent of damp rose to greet me. Not so in 2020. The atmosphere barely seemed to shift. The considerably brighter (and working) lighting made the experience feel considerably less unnerving.

At the bottom, one reaches a sort of ‘lobby’ at the entrance to the slightly wider cyclist tunnel and the slightly narrower pedestrian tunnel. In 2012, this was a grimy space.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels

Today, these spaces are considerably cleaner, brighter and more welcoming, but still retain the essential character of the space. Today’s photo is of the ‘lobby’ at the opposite end of the tunnels: they haven’t switched positions!

In 2012, the tunnels didn’t just smell damp: the ground was physically wet. The lighting was in a poor state of repair, too. The atmosphere was dingy and unwelcoming.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels

Today, the experience could not have been more different. The tunnels were clean, dry and well lit… and perhaps mildly ‘other worldly’.

In 2012, there were a number of upsetting and unnerving damaged bits of wall along the way, which felt to me as though they were raising uncomfortable questions about the structural integrity of the passage.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels

By contrast, today there are a number of new emergency help points with flip-down seating, sensitively designed to blend in with the curvature of the tunnel wall.

The midpoint of the tunnel is clearly marked, as one passes from the historic County of Durham to the County of Northumberland. In 2012, this was marked by some weird rusty metal plates.

Today, what I assume may always have been ventilation shafts are capped with a more aesthetically pleasing metal grid.

In 2012, for those with bikes (or those who couldn’t face the hike up the broken escalators) a vertical lift was provided on a branch off the main tunnels at each end.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels

These remain in situ, though I think they may have been replaced with newer models.

The works have also retained the ugly, but probably historically relevant, fish sculpture outside the northern rotunda.

All things considered, I think this is a good job. It’s disappointing that two historic escalators have been ripped out and two turned into staircases, but it is probably unreasonable to expect 70-year-old machinery of this type to keep on working forever.

The difference in the feeling of the tunnels is night and day. They now feel bright and welcoming, and the modernisation hasn’t sacrificed the essence of the tunnels. From the care taken over the retention and repair of the tilework to the way that the historic painted signage has been kept and restored, this has clearly been a project on which respect and love for the craftsmanship of the original workers has not been in short supply.

Of course, it’s a shame that circumstances dictated that the restoration took so much longer than planned at such an increased cost. I hope that they get back to being continuously open soon enough, and that the restricted hours “until further notice” doesn’t turn into permanently restricted hours. I hope, too, that the inclined lifts enter service in the not too distant future.

But, overall, I’m left with the impression that this was an elegant and sensitive restoration of a mighty piece of civil engineering beneath a historic and beautiful river.

This 2,462nd post was filed under: Headliner, Travel, , , .

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