Archive for March, 2014

The Lady Vanishes

29 March 2014

LadyVanishesStillAThe Lady Vanishes, made in 1938, is my favourite of Hitchcock’s pre-war English films. As few spoilers as possible, but it’s about a train journey from a fictional central European country back to England – a journey on which, as the title promises, a lady vanishes.

At its heart the film has the form of a thriller (Will they find the lady? Why has she vanished? Why are these people lying?), and the story is driven along by one of Hitchcock’s favourite devices, the couple who take an instant dislike to each other. (It made stars of Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, seen in the publicity still above with the sinister Paul Lukaz). Along the way we get some fine Hitchcock set-pieces, notably the fight in the guard’s van, stuffed full of magician’s props, and of course (it is set on a train) the climb between the carriages along the outside of the train.

But this is wrapped around with a set of stories that capture the good and bad of inter-war England (yes, I do mean England). The good? The cricket obsessed Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, desperate to make their connection at Basel that will get them to England in time for the last day of the Test match who come good when the chips are down. The bad? The ambitious lawyer who’s taken his mistress on holiday, but (it becomes clear) has no intention of leaving his wife. And also the plucky: the English governess who is not quite what she seems to be. A lot of this is down to the writers, Frank Launder and Sydney Gilliat, who had completed the script for another director before Hitchcock joined the project. Their work often had a sharp eye for Britain and its culture.

There’s some fine writing here, and some fine construction; the sequence on the train where several people swear that they haven’t seen the vanished Miss Froy for reasons that are to do with their own small worlds, rather than malice or conspiracy, is a wonderful thing.

But there’s a lot more: we get a film that both prefigures the imminent outbreak of war and, in its way, is an elegy for the England that will be swept away by it. (The peerless Philip French called it “a faultlessly cast mirror held up to the nation in the year of Munich.”) The hotel where the action starts is both a metaphor for pre-war Europe, with guests from dozens of countries crammed in by an avalanche, and an anticipation of the privations of war (Radford and Wayne have to share a maid’s room, and take so long dressing for dinner that the restaurant has run out of food).

And the shootout on the train (spoilers here) is almost like Dunkirk: outgunned by the military surrounding them, they are down to their last bullet, and on the verge of having to give up, when they manage to make an unlikely escape.

But, before the escape, one of them decides the position is hopeless and chooses to surrender:

Just because I’ve the sense to try to avoid being murdered, I’m accused of being a pacifist. Alright. I’d rather be callef a rat than die like one. … If we give ourselves up, they daren’t murder us in cold blood. They’re bound to give us a trial.

Despite his white flag, he ends up getting shot – in cold blood – for his pains. Before Munich, before the annexation of Czechosolvakia, Hitchcock – and Launder and Gilliat – knew what was coming.


You can watch the film at the Internet Archive, and come to that, all over youtube. The image at the top of the post is from Joe Landry’s excellent Vintage Hitchcock site, and is used with thanks.




Fitting a bike

9 March 2014

_MG_0470The rationale for a bike fit is pretty simple. You spend £500–600 on even an entry-level road bike, and if you’re training for a sportive, even half-heartedly, you’ll be spending three hours a week or more on the machine. So whether you measure the close to £200 cost against the cost of the bike or average it across training time, you can justify it fairly easily. And if that wasn’t enough, I had some money I’d won as a prize so felt, of course, that I deserved some kind of a reward.

In other words, rationalisation is easy. And just to make it easier, since it’s not about the bike, the performance gains per pound of a bike fitting are going to be greater than spending the same money upgrading your bike.

Which is a long way round of explaining how I came to find myself recently at Pearson Cycles in south-west London with my road bike talking to Ronan about my cycling style.

Over the course of a few hours, I explained my cycling habits and ambitions, was filmed on my road bike (on a turbo), was tested on a machine that measured power output, had my cleats repositioned, and finally watched Ronan realign my saddle and handlebars to increase my comfort and my power. (I could feel the improvement even just cycling home.) One of the interesting things about how Ronan did this was that he read the technical data from the bike fit rig, but he also used a theodolite to line up the saddle. He told me later that one of the reasons he enjoyed bike fitting was that it was always a balance between science and art,

Along the way I learned that my power output between left and right legs was pretty even, and that my legs were pretty straight when cycling, which are both good things. And I also learnt that my hamstrings are very short – which explains why I’ve had such problems all my life touching my toes. (Note to primary school PE teacher: I was trying.)

And I learned one other thing as well. Part of the pleasure was in the sense that I was being taken care of, by someone who wanted me to be better on my bike. I’ve had the same sense in the past from time to time when I’ve been coached. And maybe that men aren’t very good at letting themselves be cared for because, compared with women, they do much less caring themselves.

The outcome: well, I don’t have power data, but it feels from my cycle computer as if I’m going 5–10% faster, acceleration is quicker and smoother, and it’s a bit less of a battle on the hills. And all for the cost of a long weekend away. There I go again.

The picture of a Serotta bike fit machine is from the Cycling WMD blog, and is used with thanks.

Churchill, the last Victorian

1 March 2014


I recently went to see the German historian Peter Alter, something of a specialist on the history of the modern British Isles, talk at the German Historical Institute in London on Churchill and Europe.

A couple of highlights. The first is a conversation between Churchill and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1953, when Adenauer raised the subject of Britain in Europe. Churchill drew a Venn diagram on a placemat, which Adenauer kept and included in his memoirs.

He labelled the three circles ‘Britain’, ‘Europe’, and ‘USA’, and then filled in the middle segment and said that Britain was the only one that could connect all three but that it would always be on the side of Europe. (And yes, maths wasn’t Churchill’s strong point.)

Churchill had used the same concept in a speech at the Conservative part conference five years earlier, while in opposition.

Listening to this story made me realise that as Prime Minister Churchill was the last Victorian. By the time he met Adenauer in London he was in his late 70s: he had been 26 when Victoria died. (Later, he became the only person to be elected MP in the reigns of both Victoria and Elizabeth II.) He said in 1942, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” and never really came to terms with the loss of India after the war. Peter Alter suggested that Churchill had realised at Yalta that Britain’s role in the post-war world would be marginal, but he didn’t adjust to it.

The other story Alther told was of the occasion in Munich in 1932, shortly before Hitler became Chancellor, when Churchill and Hitler almost met. Churchill was travelling privately and staying at one of Munich’s more distinguished hotels. He was approached by one of Hitler’s supporters, and eventually asked if he would like to meet Hitler. Churchill said yes, and was told that Hitler often came to the hotel in the afternoon. But then Churchill went and spoiled it by saying indirectly that he wanted to ask him about anti-semitism (which marks him out from many members of the English upper classes of the time). Hitler never showed.

Had he done so, would it have made any difference to how things turned out? I doubt it.

The image of Churchill and Adenauer is from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and is used with thanks.