Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Its been a busy couple of weeks as I have been working in Birmingham, which I haven't at all minded. In fact I rather enjoyed the travelling each day, as rather perversely I like going anywhere on the train. The office I was working at overlooks Snow Hill station and just opposite there is a reminder of the former grandeur of the station, with a blocked up former entrance, endorsed with 'GWR' - Great Western Railway, or 'God's Wonderful Railway' as it is affectionately known. From the pictures I recall seeing of Snow Hill it was a much grander station than the dingy box it is now with a multi-storey car park sitting atop it. Indeed, Birmingham's city centre stations are not the prettiest affairs. The main one, New Street, is an abomination of 1967 hopes and dreams. Although it doesn't have the indignity of a car park being built over it, New Street has that great cathedral of consumerism - a shopping centre atop its platforms. At platform level, it always feels gloomy, barely any natural light penetrates and the booming tannoy announcements, which threaten variously that the train you're waiting for has been cancelled, replaced by a bus or just delayed somewhere up the line, creates the impression of some underground hell. Even the exits are not obvious, taking you onto a crowded and often fast-moving concourse of people. Its all so bland and uninspiring, it provides no sense of having arrived at the heart of the UK's second city.

About the only good thing about the redevelopment of New Street in 1967 is the signal box, now a Grade II listed structure. Admittedly it is not attractive, a monument of concrete that towers far above the tracks and soars upwards into the light and above Navigation Street, providing a striking if slightly odd looking landmark - a good pic here. Pretty it may not be but I like it as a piece of railway architecture and its slightly futuristic look doesn't hint at its function at all.

The good news is that New Street is about to undergo a £500 million face lift, which is in all but name a complete rebuild of the current complex. Gone is the congested and dull concourse, replaced by a brand new plaza flooded with natural light, departure lounges and an altogether much brighter and brilliant place to catch a train. Whether it will deliver remains to be seen or will it in 40 years become as much an eyesore as the current station?

Every now and again I will read a book that speaks to me in profound ways and enthrall and engage in ways that are often difficult to describe or convey with words. Perhaps, its more an emotion, a feeling of having completed a journey and learned something either about myself or human nature at the end of it. Examples of this that immediately spring to mind are Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor and Dresden by Frederick Taylor. Last week, I added another book to that list - The Final Days by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Trumpeted as the sequel to All the Presidents Men, it is really more a companion commentary on the last days of the Nixon Presidency told from the perspective of those closest to Nixon and serving in the White House. It is an awesome achievement, a thoroughly researched and detailed account of one man's hell and the terrible pain it wrought on a country.

I find the story of Nixon and particularly his fall from grace, endlessly fascinating. Although Nixon has become a figure of hate and one often derided, I personally have begun to admire the man, particularly his dogged determination and immense courage. And I am quite specific in that I admire the man that Nixon was, not the demons that destroyed him and his Presidency. That is the most fascinating enigma about Nixon - the dichotomy between a great statesman and shrewd politician on the one hand and on the other a menacing, dark, cold and self-destructive side to his character that in the latter years of his office destroyed him completely. There are no two ways about it, Nixon's exit from the White House was a tragedy, whether you loathe him or learn to understand who he was.

The Final Days portrays Nixon in a compassionate light. It doesn't avoid the darkness that often consumed him or glorify the painful steps that ended Nixon's term of office. In being an even, balanced account, it allows the reader to form their own judgement although I would challenge anyone to get to the end of this book and not feel some compassion maybe even sympathy for Nixon, a man who I believe in the final analysis was at his heart good although sadly undermined by self-loathing, paranoia and hate. One of the most poignant quotes from Nixon in this book is this: 'although your enemies may hate you they won't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.' Of course, this is exactly what Nixon did. It was most of all his need for revenge, to destroy his enemies, that ultimately led to his own downfall. Another quote from Nixon, which I find powerful and poignant, is a drunken comment to Kissinger after an emotional meeting between the two men, with Nixon broken and distraught, 'Henry, please don't ever tell anyone that I cried and that I was not strong.' Both these excerpts show the fault-lines of the Nixon character quite clearly. The need to appear strong, to be right and never seen as weak, which often manifested itself as vengeance against those who had committed perceived wrongs contrasted with that dark side of his character, the one dominated by self-loathing and self-destruction.

I got my guide to the BBC Proms this week. I am planning to do 7 concerts this year, which is a hefty number, especially at about £20 a time but I feel it is worth it. There is nothing more exciting for me than seeing music, of any sort, being performed live. Particularly for me if it is on a grand orchestral scale and no place I've been to yet is better to enjoy live music than the Royal Albert Hall.

Tomorrow we set off on our holiday on the Grand Union Canal, which I am much looking forward too. Whether I will still be speaking to my friends at the end of it, after spending a week together on a small boat, remains to be seen! The weather does not look at all promising but to hell with it! I am going to have fun and enjoy it whether it lashes down with rain, hail or even snow!

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