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The tree in front of my house right now (you’ll have to imagine the roaring)

Hurricane Sandy is nearly in Brooklyn: the sky looks like a sepulcher and dark winds are roaring down the street.  The gale is howling in the huge London plane trees outside which are swaying and bending as though they were bamboo.  This is nothing to sneer at since trees are nearly a meter (three feet) in diameter and twice as tall as the two and three story houses.  The trees are probably as old as the neighborhood—which was built about a century ago. Hopefully the trees and I will all be standing tomorrow and not floating out in the Atlantic on our way towards Newfoundland.

A London plane tree (Platanus × acerifolia) at Vassar College

For purely academic reasons I looked up London plane trees and I was gratified to discover that they are “fairly wind resistant.”  I was also cheered to learn that the trees are a strange hybrid of Eurasian plane trees and American sycamores.   Only in 17th century Europe were the new world trees planted in proximity to their old world relatives.  The tree loving English realized what a beautiful and hardy tree this is and they began planting the hybrid plane trees along streets.

The trees really are beautiful.  Like the magnificent rainbow eucalyptus, London Plane trees have mottled bark albeit in muted splotches of cream, gray, brow, and verdigris rather than in insanely colorful stripes.  The trees can grow to 35 meters in height and can be up to 3 meters in circumference–in fact there is (hopefully still) one that big by a nearby church.

London plane trees at Union Square Park (NYC)

Resistant to pollution and able to survive with highly compacted roots, the London plane tree is a perfect ornamental city tree—so much so that the NYC Parks Department tries to limit its planting since the hybrid sycamore/plane makes up more than 10% of the trees in the city.  Ironically the logo of the NYC Parks Department is a London plane tree leaf crossed with a Maple leaf.

Support NYC Parks!

The London plane tree is said to have beautiful wood which looks like freckled pink lace.  The tree also grows ample crops of spiky seed balls which are eaten by squirrels and birds.  The true worth of the tree is as a magnificent living specimen tree.  I am devoutly wishing for the best for the plane trees on my street (and not only because they tower over the stone house I am inside).

The London Olympics Stadium

The 2012 Olympics are starting tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to watching (and blogging about) some of the esoteric sports which only get their moment of glory every four years—especially the sailing, boating, and shooting sports which are my favorite.  Before we get to the actual Olympics though, we have to get through the opening ceremonies, which are always a huge sloppy mess.  Like costumed mascots, which fascinate and appall the viewer with a unique combination of human and inhuman elements (in fact the 2012 Summer Olympics already feature completely ludicrous mascots) there is something simultaneously evocative and revolting about such international mass spectacles. If you can tolerate the agonizing kitsch and the eye-wateringly lurid spectacle, there are always insights into the host nation and the larger zeitgeist of each era.

The Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens

Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony

The principle elements of opening ceremonies generally include pyrotechnics, has-been pop stars, dreadful dance routines, strange performance art, posturing politicians, and crazy costumes.  There is also a moral lesson or story (which is meant to be an undercurrent but which is usually fairly overt) presented in a peculiar opera-like mash of dance, cameo celebrity appearances, and moveable sets.

Like all Americans, I boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics opening

Each host nation always manages to bring its own special horrible thing to the opening ceremony–for example the Beijing opening ceremony featured mass dance routines that would put North Korea to shame.  Tens of thousands of majorettes all marched in place for hours in high heeled boots with big fake smiles that said “they have my family!”

2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony (featuring clapping marching performers)

The overarching message of the Beijing opening ceremony seems to have been that China had a very ancient and superior culture but then fell on hard times (through no fault of its own) before building a brighter & better homogenous society which is poised to take leadership of the world.  During the bombastic (but compelling) performance, the cameras kept cutting to the grandstand filled with world leaders.  Putin stared at the spectacle with icy hatred in his eyes and a hard frown.  George Bush Junior kept slumping over in his seat with disinterest as Laura plucked at his elbow.

Crazy Costumes from the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony

At least China still envisions a future in outer space (2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony).

England, of course, is not lacking in dried-up rock stars and supernumerary VIPS, but preliminary reports indicate tomorrow’s opening ceremony will also be a chronological morality tale put together by England’s foremost director. The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was designed by Danny Boyle, the director of Bollywoodwesque Slumdog Millionaire, zombie horror film 28 Days Later, and heroin-soaked black comedy Trainspotting.  According to The Daily Mirror:

The whole ceremony is based on William Shakespeare’s brilliant play, The Tempest. The title in particular is borrowed from a stirring speech made by the native Caliban to his master Prospero. “Be not afraid,” says Caliban, “for the isle is full of noises. Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

In addition to the bard, Boyle apparently intends to pay homage to England’s agrarian past with a comprehensive cavalcade of live farm animals.  The second act will feature the hardships of the industrial revolution and the amorality of England’s colonial ascendancy—which is meant to provide a dark and upsetting counterpoint to the initial bucolic splendor.  Finally modern England will appear as a land of toleration and rock-and-roll!  [Of course all of this could be wrong. Boyle has been trying to keep his program secret, and this information is based on leaks and speculation.]

2010 Spirit Bear? Does anyone else remember this?

This year is already looking exciting in terms of political drama. Putin will not attend since he is angry with Great Britain (as apparently is President Obama, though nobody has yet fathomed why).  An awkward Mitt Romney will be there, trying [and failing] to fit in with actual world leaders.  But the real excitement will focus on the central performance, a train wreck of public art featuring farm animals, Elton John, industrial grime, James Bond, the Spice girls, and medieval kings.  What does that say about the zeitgeist?  Find out tomorrow!

In our continuing exploration of the uneasy world of mascots, it’s time to meet Wenlock and Mandeville, mascots for the 2012 London Olympics.  Hmm, oh dear…  They each have a camera for an eye, which seems eerily appropriate given England’s dystopian fascination with Orwellian surveillance equipment.  They do not have mouths, probably so that they are unable to scream.  Understanding their back story makes them no less disquieting:  according to their creators, they are steel nuggets handicrafted by an eccentric grandfather and then given life by children’s love for sports.

“The mascot will help us engage with children which is what I believe passionately in,” London organising committee chairman Sebastian Coe told Reuters.

“The message we were getting was that children didn’t want fluffy toys, they didn’t want them to be human but they did want them rooted in an interesting story. “By linking young people to the values of sport, Wenlock and Mandeville will help inspire kids to strive to be the best they can be.”

Um, what?  Toy designers know how easily children can be (mis)lead during marketing research. You have to watch their hands and eyes in order to find out their real answers. Or maybe I’m wrong and English children really do like mouthless, handless, soulless one-eyed robot-monsters.

Come on English designers! Just slap a bearskin on a bulldog and head for the pub.  Everyone would be happy and you would have an enduring winner instead of the travesties which Wenlock and Mandeville so clearly are.  As an added bonus, here are some alternate ideas for 2012 London Olympics mascots:

Trafalgar the pigeon (by Danny Ihns)

The lion and the unicorn from the UK coat of arms (as re-envisioned by Woodrow Phoenix)

‘Dodgee – the Olympic Hoodie’ (created by Aaron Robinson)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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