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Saturday, November 1, 2014

High Speed Trains, Kaspar's, Sir Nicholas Winton, Covent Garden Art, Commute to Work, Quote of the Month

The High Speed train that is to be built between London and Birmingham (and then on to Manchester and Leeds and ultimately Scotland) has been highly controversial due to its price tag of $60bn (that’s about 4.5% of our national debt) and the fact that is will plough through beautiful countryside and blight many homes along the way. The government has pretty much decided to go ahead with it as they claim that by the time it has been completed in 2026 (London to Birmingham) we will very much need the extra capacity. I am sitting on the fence on this one as I believe we need to be bold, but will we still use trains in 15 years time in the same way as today? HS2 is back in the news again as plans have been announced for HS3 (Leeds to Manchester across the Pennines) and the government has announced it wishes to sell its 40% stake in HS1 (the channel tunnel rail link through Kent) for £300m. It is interesting that HS2 stage 1 and HS1 are about the same length. The market value of HS1 however, appears to be about 1% of the cost of building HS2. So no sane person would ever invest in this scheme on that basis! Perhaps we should use the £60bn to reduce our national debt instead. As a matter of interest (pun intended) the interest payments alone on our debt cost us £43bn (and rising) per annum. To give that figure some perspective, the total budget of the Department of Health (including the NHS) in England in 2013/14 was £110bn. So if we eliminated our debt, we could increase expenditure on health by about a third. Instead, our debt is forecast to continue to rise, meaning we will need more and more cost cutting across the nation. Or higher taxation. Or most likely both. A nice positive note to start my November Blog. I hear you say.

It all looks very futuristic
But there is widespread opposition

We had a meal recently at Kaspar’s Seafood Bar and Grill at The Savoy hotel just off the Strand in London. The Savoy which was built over a hundred years ago by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte with the money he made from is Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas, is approach via its own road (where you drive on the right) making for an impressive arrival. It has recently been re-opened following a £200m refurbishment by its new owners, the Fairmont hotel group and they have done a great job. It was the first luxury hotel in Britain, introducing such novelties as electric lights, hot and cold running water, electric lifts and a level of luxury that had not been seen before. Kaspar’s is totally art deco in style, a form that I really like and reminds me of New York City. The food we had was wonderful with excellent service to accompany it. For almost 90 years The Savoy has offered dining parties of thirteen the company of Kaspar the Cat. Kaspar’s story begins in 1898, when South African diamond magnate Woolf Joel suddenly died. Just before his death, Joel hosted a dinner at The Savoy for fourteen guests. At the last minute one of them cancelled. Joel decided the dinner should go ahead, but a more superstitious guest declared death would befall the first person to leave the table. Woolf Joel defiantly decided to take the gamble himself. Weeks later he was shot dead in Johannesburg. Anxious to avoid a repeat of such ill fate, The Savoy decided to provide an extra guest for every table of thirteen. Initially the hotel had a member of staff sit amongst the diners, but this proved unpopular. Guests felt unable to discuss their private matters freely. So, in a stroke of genius, Kaspar, a 2ft-high feline sculpture, was created – sculpted into life by architect Basil Lonides in 1926. Kaspar is delighted, to this day, to join tables of thirteen – napkin round his neck, a full place-setting before him, ready to enjoy every course he is served. And for those with a more modern taste, the South African artist Jonty Hurwitz has created an anamorphic sculpture to pay tribute to Kaspar, the fictional black cat that has become ingrained into the building's history. We were seated just next to the modern sculpture and I have to say I didn't have a clue what it was!
Kaspar at The Savoy 
The Savoy London, The Strand

A British man who saved 669 children, most of them Jews, from the Nazis has been awarded the Czech Republic's highest state honour. Sir Nicholas Winton was 29 when he arranged trains to take children out of occupied Czechoslovakia and for foster families to meet them in London. The 105-year-old was given the Order of the White Lion by the Czech president during a ceremony in Prague last week. In a speech, he thanked the British people who gave the children homes. He said: "I want to thank you all for this enormous expression of thanks for something which happened to me nearly 100 years ago - and a 100 years is a heck of a long time. "I am delighted that so many of the children are still about and are here to thank me." It began in 1938 after the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland, the name for areas of pre-war Czechoslovakia. Mr Winton visited refugee camps outside Prague and decided to help children secure British permits in the same way children from other countries had been rescued by "Kindertransport". (The Kindertransport commenced three weeks after Kristallnacht. In the following nine months, 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish, children travelled to England.) At the time Winton was a stockbroker in London, and being from a German Jewish family he said he was well aware of the urgency of the situation. "I knew better than most, and certainly better than the politicians, what was going on in Germany." He organised a total of eight trains from Prague to London and helped to find foster families for the refugees. He said he was aware that many children would have died if it had not been for his actions, but added: "That's what was happening all over Europe." A ninth train - the largest, carrying 250 children - was prevented from leaving by the outbreak of World War Two. None of those children is believed to have survived. Sir Nicholas lived a life of "relative obscurity" in England but in the Czech Republic he was "treated with enormous gratitude and respect". The Czech defence ministry sent a special plane to take him to Prague where he also met some of the people he rescued 75 years ago - themselves now in their 80s. Sir Nicholas, who lives in Maidenhead, was born in May 1909 in Hampstead, a son of German Jewish parents who had moved to London two years earlier. The family name had been Wertheim, but they changed it to Winton in an effort at integration. They also converted to Christianity. He did not tell anyone about his actions for 50 years, until his wife found a scrapbook. He was knighted by the Queen in March 2003 and a year earlier was finally reunited with hundreds of the children he saved - including Labour peer Lord Dubs and film director Karel Reisz - at a gathering for 5,000 descendants of the "Winton children". His efforts have been likened to the work of German businessman Oskar Schindler, whose saving of Jews was dramatised in the film Schindler's List. When asked by the BBC what he made of today's world, Sir Nicholas responded: "I don't think we've ever learnt from the mistakes of the past...The world today is now in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been and so long as you've got weapons of mass destruction which can finish off any conflict, nothing is safe any more." A great man, and all the more remarkable for his modesty and great age today. I am always very moved when I hear of ordinary people who perform such generous tasks for no personal gain.
Sir Nicholas is given the award by the Czech President
A statue in his honour at Prague Station
A stunning but controversial art installation has taken tourists in London’s Covent Garden by surprise for a fortnight in October. Artist Alex Chinneck has created what looks like a gravity defying hole in the centre of part of the market’s eastern portico. I have to admit that when I first saw it, it is literally breath-taking – you would certainly stop in your tracks if you looked up and weren’t expecting it! What at first appears to be part of the beautiful market piazza actually has a huge horizontal chunk over a metre wide missing in the middle. You have to see it to believe it. But once you have recovered from the surprise you may start to wonder how, why, how much! “My work is usually very simple in its concept,” says Chinneck, “but it’s a nightmare in execution.” It took eight months to make, and the installation is the product of a 100-strong team of architects and engineers, carpenters and set-builders, and more than 500 hours of digital carving. I don’t know who is paying for it nor what they are going to do with it when it is taken down after a few weeks. It is called “Take My Lightning But Don't Steal My Thunder”. What do you think? I love art, particularly anything a bit surreal, but at what price?
The art installation from the front
Seen from the side
The commute to work recently has been the worst I can remember in the 20 years I have lived in Oxford. There are a number of factors and they are not unique to this city, but to many across the country I suspect: high property prices are forcing people further out which means more people travelling further, lack of investment in our roads and public transport means that they are overcrowded and break down, current investment digging up roads and creating capacity is slowing everyone down. I read about a couple who live just outside Oxford. The lady works in the City Centre and her partner works in Farringdon central London. Her commute (car and bus) takes over two hours at the moment (5 miles) which means her partner can get to London quicker that she can get to George St in central Oxford. And I have heard many similar stories. Unfortunately the commute to London is frequently terrible. Great Western has the franchise to run trains to London Paddington and they have always run a poor service. Lately it has been particularly bad with no trains at all some days. Try googling ‘Great Western Appalling Service’ and you will get some shocking stories. I now walk to the train station (35 mins fast walk) and I get there before the bus (and the cars of course). But I then inevitably wait on the platform for a delayed train. We live 6 minutes drive from the City Centre but by car in the rush hour you are looking at an hour – which is why I walk! We need some radical yet practical thinking for our cities: cycleways that actually protect cyclists (in Oxford one cyclist has been killed on the roads every week over the last month – usually a collision with a lorry at a junction or similar); big car parks that are easy to get to on the oustkirts with fast trams that don’t get held up by traffic to get drivers to the centre in a few minutes; affordable new developments in city centres to reduce the number of people who commute; opening up of old train lines (which Chiltern railways are doing) to take the pressure off other routes, and plenty of other low cost simple options. City Traders are furious as they will lose out on the lucrative Christmas run-up as people go elsewhere to shop. I don’t really understand why not enough is being done as we will all suffer as a result: today from the frustration of the delays; tomorrow from the lost trade that will result from our inability to grow due to the piss poor infrastructure. If we can spend £60bn on HS2, perhaps we should be spending a small fraction of that to address current problems. But let’s have some innovative thinking – for the future – not just more of today’s mess...
The Oxford Ring Road at Kennington - 2 hour commute are now common
Quote of the Month
“Less is More” Robert Browing, adopted by Mies van der Rohe

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