Blog Archive

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Tea from Fortnum and Mason, The Romanian invasion, The British Library, Dinner in the House of Lords, Zurich and 12 Years a Slave.
Well it has been another interesting month that has come and gone in no time!  I have written some notes on a few very diverse subjects, some serious, some more trivial.  I plan to continue to do this on a monthly basis.
One of the first teas to be sold at Fortnum and Mason was Black Bohea, a China tea with a distinctive black leaf, that was somewhat stronger than Pekoe. In 1720, it retailed at an eye-watering twenty five shillings a pound which is £2,650 in today’s money.  After purchase, a sit down with a nice cup of tea was advised.  I recently purchased some tea from Fortnum’s new shop in St Pancras Station. Fifty grams cost £3.50 which means that a pound of this tea would cost about £30.  Nice to see that not everything in life costs more than it used to!  This new store opened in November and it is the first new store they have opened in three centuries.  It is not large but a peaceful place to have tea, breakfast or lunch away from the crowds.  St Pancras Station my favourite London station following its renovation and re-opening as the London Eurostar terminal.  In addition to the longest champagne bar in the world, some fine shops and restaurants, it is now also home to the Renaissance hotel which has been restored to its former Victorian splendour. It is well worth popping in for a tea, coffee or meal (at Fortnum's if you are feeling rich; otherwise I recommend Le Pain Quotidien) and having a look at what station hotels and indeed stations used to look like in the early days of rail travel; they were luxury destinations designed to celebrate this new form of transport.  As the railways spread and became the main method of transport, less and less attention was paid to the way they looked and most trains across the world just became a utility to transport as many people as quickly and cheaply as possible.  The airlines have followed the same pattern.  So it is great that everyone can share in a little bit of luxury at St Pancras!
The Renaissance St Pancras Hotel

The Meeting Place by Paul Day

Over the last few months, Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to the UK has been a hot topic as after 7 years of membership of the EU, the citizens of these two countries were finally allowed to work in the EU from the 1st of January this year. Right wing politicians encouraged by UKIP’s dangerous Nigel Farage, have been forecasting and implying that a substantial number of the 30 million+ inhabitants would be on the first bus to the UK.  Of course if you just think about it for a moment, those looking to scrounge and rob, won’t have been awaiting a work permit to come over.  So unsurprisingly, according to the Romania’s British ambassador, only 24 Romanians have moved to the UK since immigration rules were relaxed.  Only 2 were on the first flight over as it was greeted by journalists looking for a scoop!  Hardly the millions that Farage was stirring people up about!  Even more interestingly and reversing the tables, due to skills shortages in a number of sectors, many businesses are specifically recruiting Romanians to come and work for them.  Mr Jinga, the ambassador added: “British companies are currently advertising 5,000 posts for Romanians to plug gaps in the highly skilled jobs market.”  I think this is wonderful and exactly what the EU was designed to do!  This will be good for Britain and good for those Romanians and Bulgarians who come here; they will send money home to their families and most of them will probably return eventually as well.

On my walks between Euston station and St Pancras, I have regularly walked past the British Library and never stepped inside.  Well recently, I had some time to spare and instead of catching-up on emails and phone calls in a Starbucks, I decided to go and have a look around this extraordinary place.  First a few facts about it: it receives a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland; The collection includes well over 150 million items, in most known languages; 3 million new items are added every year; all this requires over 625 km of shelves, and grows by 12 km every year.  Not bad!  So in I popped and went to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery which hosts a permanent free display of many of our greatest treasures. It has over 200 beautiful and fascinating items: sacred texts from many faiths, maps and views, early printing, literary, historical, scientific and musical works from over the centuries and around the world.  Within seconds of going in I was looking at some of the world's most exciting and significant books; the Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible, Mozart’s hand-written scores and the Beatles hand written lyrics of some of their most famous songs. Of particular interest to me were Leonardo’s notebooks, and the earliest versions of some of the greatest works of English literature, including Alice's Adventures under Ground hand-written by Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare's First Folio.  I also had a look at their stamp collection which is quite extraordinary particularly if you are into your Penny Blacks.  Oh and all this is free to visit!

The British Library with St Pancras Station behind

The week before last I was fortunate to have been part of a group of people receiving a French delegation interested to understand how the British government, private business and cycling interest groups are promoting cycling in the UK.  The government is keen to increase the numbers of cyclists for three main reasons: to reduce congestion in our major cities, to reduce CO2 emissions in line with EU requirements, and to improve the health of the population through increased exercise.  The French have identical challenges and are looking at the best way to tackle them.  They have already looked at the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries but interesting the UK and France are very similar in that in both countries over 3 million bikes are purchased each year and about 600,000 are stolen!  After we received the French delegation in Portcullis House, we had dinner in the House of Lords, thanks to Lord Berkeley who is the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group. Lord Berkeley spoke in his best French and explained his work.  I know that everyone was most impressed and perhaps convinced now of the benefits of life peerages: no election to worry about means that Lords can campaign relentlessly for change over long periods.  Most elected politicians are more worried about doing what will win them the next election rather than doing what is best for their country.  We agreed at the beginning of the evening that we would avoid talking about Fran├žois Hollande’s and Chris Renard’s private lives as both were top news items at the time!  At one point we were talking about etiquette and I asked Lord Berkeley how I should address a Lord such as him in a letter.  “Dear Tony” he replied!

Lord Berkeley invited us onto the terrace after the meal

We went to see 12 Years a Slave when it was released.  This was a difficult film to watch and this is intentional.  The Director wants you to feel as if you are there and actually share a little of the pain that the slaves went through.  This is the true story of a free man who was kidnapped and sold back into slavery.  At the time slavery was still widespread in the southern states.  The owners treated them as you would treat a piece of property or a cow or bull.  They didn’t kill them (usually) because of their value but they beat them and were insanely cruel to them if they felt it would increase their productivity.  The acting in the film and the production was sensational.  For me the most shocking thing is that this took place in the middle of the 19th century.  We have come a long way but there is still an awful to be done in many parts of the world.

Finally, here is my quote for the month: 
"If since 1971 the price of groceries had risen as steeply as the cost of housing, a chicken would cost £51 today." The Economist January 11th 2014

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