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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: Miscellaneous, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , .

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, , , , .

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, , , , , , , , .

A flying visit to Copenhagen

As snobbish as it may sound, I’m not typically a RyanAir kind of person: I prefer the sort of travelling where I’m treated with civility and allowed to relax with my own thoughts or a good book.

Yet I also love a bargain. When I saw a couple of weeks ago that RyanAir had sub-£20 fares available from Edinburgh to Copenhagen for a weekend when Wendy was on nights, I found it impossible to resist. Living in Newcastle, I had actually never flown from Edinburgh before. However, Wendy and I had been re-routed there once when an inbound flight from a weekend trip was cancelled, and it had seemed remarkably straightforward to transfer from airport to East Coast Mainline and home, and I assumed that would work almost as smoothly in reverse. The assumption proved accurate, and so last weekend, I found myself aurally assaulted by fanfares, exhortations to buy scratchcards and special offers on cheap perfumes as I jetted across the North Sea.

It was a flying trip in another sense, too: I arrived at Kastrup airport in the late afternoon. By the time I had caught the train to the central station, Københavns Hovedbanegård, and walked the 20 minutes to my Sydhavnen hotel, the sun was setting—and my flight home was little more than 24 hours away. But no matter: I had really only come from a cheap-ish day out.

Early the following morning, after a quick breakfast at Joe & the Juice at the Fisketorvet mall (there go the hipster credentials I never had to begin with), I strolled along the east bank of the harbour. I have visited Copenhagen only once before, and while that longer trip allowed get around more of the city, even crossing the impressive Øresund bridge to Malmö, it was during the winter. As I wandered by the water, I was a little struck by how much livelier Copenhagen was during the summer, with seemingly much of the city out for a Sunday constitutional, and much of the rest taking out boats on the sparkling harbour waters.

I eventually found myself at Operaen, Copenhagen’s famous opera house. On my previous visit, I had seen this only from across the water: it is more impressive close up. While architecturally rather different in style and scale, the waterside situation and protruding roof reminded me of the Senedd in Cardiff. If I’d taken anything other than a horrendous selfie, I’d insert a picture here to prove my point; but you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Doubling back on myself, I crossed the river to the tourist hotspot of multicoloured buildings that is Nyhaven. This was much less pleasant in the summer: it was so crowded with tourists that it was difficult to walk along! Although, my winter visit here had been rewarded by a bird depositing it’s “lime” on my jumper: the lack of that experience this time around was a welcome variation.

I made my way down to Tivoli, the theme park and pleasure gardens celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Although a little more compact than I expected, this was a real pleasure: Tivoli has done a wonderful job of maintaining its heritage while also modernising enough to attract a modern audience. This is something that I think we struggle with in the UK, as “heritage” often seems to be misconstrued as “old fashioned”. There was nothing old-fashioned about Tivoli: the beautiful old surroundings were integrated into the modern experience in a way that didn’t fetishise them as being part of an old world.

I was also struck and pleased by the integration of classical music and dance into the entertainment at Tivoli. The stunning pantomime theatre, with its incredible mechanical peacock tail curtain, is used for several-times-daily performances of ballet with a live pit orchestra, attracting very large crowds (far larger than the small seating area in the picture!)

As I sat in these beautiful surroundings sipping a gin and tonic, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different the experience was to that one finds a Blackpool Pleasure Beach: a similarly aged theme park, with a similarly bold heritage, with a similar number of visitors annually. For all the charm of Blackpool, it’s hard to imagine finding quiet garden to enjoy a relaxing gin and tonic. And while Tivoli’s famous wooden Bjergbanen rollercoaster and its looping steel Daemonen would fit perfectly alongside Blackpool’s Grand National and Icon, a notable orchestra’s performance being heavily promoted as a prime attraction seems unlikely at the Pleasure Beach.

This strikes me as a little bit sad, because I think it reflects how the performing arts (and perhaps arts more generally) have moved away from being part of the centre of British culture in a way that clearly hasn’t happened in Denmark. Given the UK’s stellar history in the field, it seems a shame that dance and orchestral music have become a little removed from our daily lives.

After a while of sitting and relaxing, I was a little startled to look up and find myself confronted by children in solider’s uniforms, complete with bearskins. I began to wonder if I had drunk more than I’d clocked, but it turned out that this was the Tivoli Youth Guard, a formation of 8 to 16 year-olds that parade around and ‘guard’ some of the prominent monuments and buildings. While these are much sought-after and prestigious positions for the children involved, I have to confess to feeling a little uncomfortable about the whole thing. I suppose the whole thing felt a little reminiscent of tens of child abuse scandals reported in recent years. Perhaps the fact that I couldn’t watch a parade of children without a slight uneasiness might also reflect an innocence lost in British culture, or perhaps just within me.

After a quick visit to Tivoli’s Wagamama (there go those hipster credentials again), it was time to leave the comfortable surrounds of Tivoli, hop across the road to Københavns Hovedbanegård and begin the journey back to Newcastle. My bargain summer day-trip was sunny and relaxing, but also perhaps a little more reflective than I had expected it to be.


The pictures in this post are all my own.

This 2,453rd post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .


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