Archive for October, 2010

Goodbye Lenin

30 October 2010

I watched Goodbye Lenin on DVD recently – the German comedy, or perhaps satire, on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East German regime. In Germany it outgrossed Harry Potter when it was released in 2003.

The plot in outline, and without spoiling: Christiane Kerner has been a devoted supporter of the East German state since her husband defected to the West 15 years earlier. She collapses into a coma shortly before the Wall comes down. When she comes around, a few months later, her son Alex decides that the shock of learning about reunification would kill her. So he enrols his sister, girlfriend, workmate and neighbours in an elaborate pretence so that his mother doesn’t find out.

Of course, she has her suspicions, for example when a giant Coca-Cola banner is unfurled on the building opposite her apartment. But these are kept in check through an endless supply of fake news bulletins, inventively generated by Alex’s ‘Westie’ video technician workmate Denis.

One of the striking things about the film is the way in which it allows the complaints about the unification process – the dismissals, the loss of savings, the loss of favourite foods – to surface through the story.

The criticism that’s been made of it is that it has nothing to say about the East German Securitate, the Stasi, and its huge apparatus of surveillance and coercion. It’s true that Goodbye Lenin isn’t The Lives of Others. But it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes film can work more subtly, and the theme of deception, of things which are known but concealed, is embedded all the way through the story.

“When does it stop?”, asks Alex’s girlfriend, Lara, the film’s ‘centre of good’. It doesn’t, and as the deception continues, we discover the other deceptions which followed the father’s defection to the West, the stories which families keep from one another. The political, it turns out, is personal.


Melbury Road

29 October 2010

I had to walk down Melbury Road in Kensington today, which always puts a spring in my step, since the great film director Michael Powell lived there for some years, at number 8. The garden of the house, and some interiors, were used for the “home video” sequences in Powell’s late (1960) low-budget horror film Peeping Tom; number 5, now redeveloped, stood in for the house of the film’s killer, Mark Lewis. Peeping Tom, of course, was written by Leo Marks, the former SoE cryptographer, and was reviled on release; it got some of the most hostile reviews seen in British cinema history. It’s now regarded as a revolutionary exploration of the relationship between director, camera, and audience, of the voyeuristic nature of the cinematic gaze. It is both significant and shocking. It was so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t shown on television until 1997, and Powell never worked in the UK again.

The photo is from She Blogged By Night: lots of intriguing photographs of film locations, and is used with thanks.


Losing the edge

28 October 2010

It’s a few years old now, but I couldn’t help smiling when the LCD Soundsystem’s track ‘Losing My Edge’ popped up on my Shuffle this morning. If you don’t know it, it’s a tongue-in-cheek account of the history of what’s cool in music – by someone who thinks he’s lost it:

I hear you’re buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real. You want to make a Yaz record.

I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.

I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.

I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know.

But have you seen my records?

It must be LCD’s best moment. Click on the image at the top to remind yourself.

The thrill of the track

26 October 2010

I had the good fortune last weekend to go track riding at Calshot in Hampshire – a 142m banked track in the former Sunderland Flying Boat hangar on Calshot Spit. For those who haven’t done it, track riding provides a unique thrill: you ride on a fixed wheel bike (without a freewheel) so if the wheels are going round, so are your legs; and the ends of the oval track are banked (45º at Calshot), which is intimidating until you get the hang of it. “Speed is your friend”, as the coach reminded us at the start. The results, once you get the hang of it, are an exhilarating aerobic ‘buzz’ from the continuous pedalling, and a real feeling of achievement as you get used to holding your line high up the side of the track.

One of the best descriptions of track riding is by Matt Seaton in The Escape Artist, on riding the outdoor track at Herne Hill in south London, although it ends with a dramatic crash. I’ve ridden at Herne Hill – it’s where I first tried track riding – and it is, sadly, in a poor state. The track is still in use but most of the buildings onsite are now shuttered up for safety reasons. It was used for the ‘Austerity Olympics’ in 1948 – the ‘make do’ Games which probably saved the Olympic movement from collapse after the Second World War – and has a long tradition of track riding. (The sports writer Richard Williams caught this well in a recent column).

The velodrome remains, until the 2012 Olympics, the only cycling track in London. The story of its decay is complex, but let me try to untangle it. The site is owned by the Dulwich Estate, a charity which owns 1,500 acres of Dulwich, and which bequeaths money to various schools and others in the area. Week-to-week events at the track have been managed by the cycle club VC Londres for some years, and it is still well-used, while Southwark Council has held the lease. Dulwich Estate has declined to renew the lease, although they say they are keen to see the track refurbished; it’s listed and the site is protected urban greenspace. (But the fact that their charitable objectives are all about disbursing income to their largely well-heeled beneficiaries can make people suspicious of their motives, as does the fact that they padlocked the site in a similar lease dispute in 2005.). Locals have launched a campaign to save the velodrome; it attracted 700 people to a meeting in Dulwich College earlier this month..

Breaking the logjam

The problem – in a local microcosm – goes to the heart of the inherent flaw in the idea of the ‘big society’. Cycling clubs, generally, are model ‘big society’ organisations. They’re usually well-run and durable. VC Londres, for example, was founded in 1964. But the stated reason why Dulwich Estates won’t offer a long lease to Southwark Council on the Herne Hill site, which includes other cycling and leisure activities as well, is because they want the site run professionally. Without a long lease, it’s impossible to justify the investment needed to resurface the track (badly needed) and repairing the buildings. There’s some commitment from Lambeth and Southwark Councils, and Southwark has put up some cash.

But to make the Herne Hill track sustainable, it needs to be usable in all weathers (the banking is dangerous to ride on when wet), which means finding enough capital funding for one of the imaginative schemes to protect the track from the elements. And that is likely to be beyond the scope of the best-run civil society organisations, without help from public or philanthropic funding. Perhaps it’s time for the Dulwich Estate to break the logjam it’s created by adding the site to its list of beneficiaries? It currently spends around £8m a year, and a small fraction of this could create a secure basis for a charitable Trust to take over the site, After all, the schools which currently take most of its money aren’t in the need they were (all are now fee-paying public schools) when Edward Alleyn’s money set it up. At least the Herne Hill velodrome site is open to all.

The pictures in this post were taken by Peter Curry at the 2009 Herne Hill Good Friday Meeting. They are posted here under a Creative Commons licence. The Save The Velodrome campaign is building support; there is also a Facebook page.

Replacing lost energy

18 October 2010

I’ve been meaning to blog for months about the Lucozade sign which graces the raised section of the M4 as it comes into London, restored after a gap of six years. It was a fine example of ’50s neon advertising, but was taken down when Lucozade’s owner, Glaxo SmithKline, sold its former site by the M4, once the Lucozade factory.

The original is now in the Gunnersbury Museum, and the building it used to be attached to has been demolished, but a replica has found a home near to the former location, following a campaign by local residents.

Of course, for people of my age, Lucozade is either an iconic childhood brand or a triumph of reinvention. When the sign first went up, you drank Lucozade only when sick, which explains why it originally read ‘Lucozade aids recovery’. By the time the drink started appearing in clubbers’ backpacks in the late ’80s (the perfect accompaniment to ‘Es’, if not Wizz), the spread of HIV meant that it needed to be updated. At least that was how I remembered it. But it seems there’s something blurry about Lucozade and memory. It turns out that Ogilvy & Mather had rebranded Lucozade in 1983, before the clubbing boom, shifting it away from ‘recovery’ to ’empowerment’, or some such brandspeak. And rewritten the sign as a result.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Peter Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.