Archive for August, 2016

Voskhod over Edinburgh

21 August 2016

voskhod_1

When I was seven, my father took my brother and I out onto the street outside our house to see a Soviet spacecraft whose orbit of earth took it directly over Edinburgh. I think I was seven, at least, but I could be wrong about that, and I think it was the autumn, and although I could check the details, that’s not the point, because this is about the memory. It still seems, at this distance, an other-worldly experience, a moment of wonder. It was still the age of Red Plenty, at a time when the Soviet Union was leading in the space race, before American arms expenditure bled the economy dry. But in truth, it wouldn’t have mattered much whose spacecraft it was; the wonder was because it was up there flashing across the sky and we were able to watch it from the street right outside of our house.

This memory is prompted by finding while tidying a poem I photocopied years ago which captures, more eloquently, the same sense of wonder. From memory, although the name is not on the photocopy, it’s by the Scottish poet Alan Bold, who died suddenly in 1998. Bold was interested in both radical politics and technology (and if I have this wrong, please let me know.) Judging from the internet, it also seems to be out of print, so I trust that the publishers will forgive me from reprinting it here.

On Seeing Voskhod Over Edinburgh

On a cold October night

Edinburgh’s sky was punctuated,

Not by a divine presence,

But by the stabbing cigarette-end-like apparition

Of three men in a spaceship.

I looked out from my house

In a hundred-year-old tenement

And felt that Komarov, Yegerov and Feoktistov

Were fellow travellers of mine.

For it’s a long way from Zazakhstan to Scotland

And it’s a long way my house is from Voskhod.

Yet I saw

The stabbing cigarette-end-like shape,

I watched as the red light flashed

Across the sky.

For four minutes we Scots saw

The scientific age in action.

And as we retreated back into our tenements

And thought once more of slums,

We also saw that an alternative existed.

(Alan Bold)

The image at the top of the post is from the website Spacefacts, and is used with thanks.

Reading Wodehouse

7 August 2016

  
I’ve stayed away from P.G.Wodehouse, perhaps because I lack sympathy with the aristocratic milieu that his characters inhabit, but my brother, who appreciates writing, insisted. And so I bought one; not one of the Wodehouse series, such as Jeeves or Blandings Castle, which come now with a heavy precognitive load, but the standalone novel Big Money, published in 1931.

Perhaps I was attracted by the title, or perhaps by the Ben Elton cover quote: “Light as a feather, but fabulous.

And Ben Elton and my brother were right. The thing was a pleasure from beginning to end. 

I’m not going to spoil it, but the plot revolves around a penniless heir, Lord Biskerton, and his schoolfriend Berry Conway, now fallen on hard times and reduced to working for a living, and the arrival in London of an American heiress, Ann Moon, the niece of Conway’s boss, despatched to London for the season to escape an unsuitable match. (As in, “The Season“.)

Here’s part of Chapter 2, describing Ann’s social whirl in London:

“She saw the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Madame Tussaud’s, Buck’s Club, the Cenotaph, Limehouse, Simpson’s in the Strand, a series of races between consumptive-looking greyhounds, another series of races between goggled men on motor-cycles, and the penguins in St James’s Park.

“She met soldiers who talked of horses, sailors who talked of cocktails, poets who talked of publishers, painters who talked of sur-realism, absolute form and the difficulty of deciding whether to be architectural or rhythmical.

“She met men who told her the only possible place in London to lunch, to dine, to dance, to buy an umbrella; women who told her the only possible place in London to go for a frock, a hat, a pair of shoes, a manicure and a permanent wave; young men with systems for winning money by backing second favourites; middle-aged men with systems that needed constant toning-up with gin and vermouth; old men who quavered compliments in her ear and wished their granddaughters were more like her.”     

Unexpected alleys

One of the tricks in narrative is how the author, story, and reader stand in relationship to each other. They can be ahead, or behind, or on terms, as fully informed as each other. In crime fiction, the reader always knows less, is always catching up, as Tony Hancock and Sid James discovered in their classice episode, “The Missing Page“. 

In Big Money the reader is often ahead (you can see where it is going) but just as you think you’re going to get there Wodehouse takes you down an unexpected alley on the way, sometimes poking fun at his characters in a knowing alliance with the reader. 

And when Elton says the book is as light as a feather, it’s probably from passages such as this:

“When the public reads in its morning paper that a merger has been formed between two financial enterprises, it is probably a little vague as to what exactly are the preliminaries that have to be gone through in order to bring this union about. A description of what took place on the present occasion, therefore, can scarcely fail to be of interest.

“J.B. Hoke began by asking Mr Frisby how his golf was coming along. Mr Frisby’s only reply being to bare his teeth like a trapped jackal. Mr Hoke went on to say that he himself, while noticeably improved off the tee, still found a difficulty in laying his short mashie approaches up to the pin. Whether it was too much right hand or too little left hand, Mr Hoke could not say, but he doubted if he put one shot in seven just wehere he meant to. …

“At this point Mr Frisby said something under his breath and broke his pencil in half.” 

Finally, the plot is as elegant a thing as I have seen, with scores of moving parts ticking away unobtrusively in the background. I was reminded of Preston Sturges or the best of the screwball comedies. Unpacking it would, I suspect, be something of a master class.

Of course, it’s of its time. Lunch at the Berkeley costs 25 shillings for two (£1.25 in modern money), with a little change; characters can jump into the two-seater and drive down to Dulwich or Esher from Mayfair at the drop of a hat; Biskerton has run up debts of hundreds of pounds at gentlemen’s outfitters and suppliers across town; a man can’t be seen out without a hat; and everyone who’s anyone knows everyone

And being a comedy, of course all of the characters–and maybe this is a spoiler–get the ending they deserve. Well, most of them do.

Notes on RideLondon 100

4 August 2016


I rode the RideLondon 100 at the end of July–a 100 mile circuit on closed roads that starts at the Olympic Park in Stratford, drives south-west through London and onto the Surrey Hills, climbs Leith Hill and Box Hill, then returns to London to finish on the Mall. My interest in doing it: it’s become something of an iconic “century” ride since it was created as part of the 2012 Olympic legacy, and middling sportive riders such as me don’t often get the chance to ride on closed roads.

The ride is huge: 25,000 riders or so, leaving the Olympic Park in carefully managed batches every three minutes from around 6 a.m. (when the fast riders go) or so to the last depart at 9 a.m. My start time was 8.41, based on the 7’15 time I quoted on my application form for my last 100 mile ride. There is a series of cut-off times along the route, selected diversions to shorten the route for the slow, and a sweeper van if all else fails. The reason for this is that much of the course is used for the professional one-day race, the London-Surrey Classic, which starts in mid-afternoon.

I’d been apprehensive about the ride, to be honest. I’d done “century” rides before, and the cut-off times seemed OK, but only so long as I didn’t have any mechanical or physical problems. And I’d been on a club run with the London Dynamos a couple of weeks earlier over some of the same roads, and hills, and had a disaster, cramping horribly 25km from home and limping back slowly, helped by a couple of sympa Dynamos, and towards the end stopping often to pour liquid into me. (Hotter day than expected; not enough water or hydration/electrolytes; not enough food; all the elementary errors. And once you do cramp, it’s too late.)

Backlogs

As it happens, RideLondon this year was strewn with problems. In particular, the route was closed at about the 40 mile mark while an air ambulance lifted a crashed rider to hospital, which in turn caused a huge backlog, which meant that there was a second wave of congestion when the roads narrowed again going through Dorking High Street, which meant that many riders were sent along a short cut to get them back to London within the time limits. But not in turn, before the professional peloton had been halted in mid-race while marshals and police cleared the sportive out of its way. And there were other crashes as well; ambulances at Fen Ditton and on Leith HIll, which has a truly horrible descent (narrow, poor road surface, overshadowed by trees so visibility is poor).

Too many riders out on the course, was the verdict of the Dynamo riders on the club forum the following day, perhaps a sign that the organisers need to trim capacity. And too much variation in skill level. The start times are designed to keep riders with similar speeds together, but it doesn’t always work. I travelled through London at 30-35kph, but the serious riders (the people who race on other weekends) would have been travelling on the same roads at 40-45kph, and a slower rider drifting backwards can create havoc, especially if their bike handling is not so good.

Closed roads

You do travel faster on the closed roads, especially in the city, although you also have to be more alert to riders passing you on either side. And in particular, rolling out along the Cromwell Road and the A4 to Chiswick was an absolute blast, as was the final 6 or 7km from Putney back to the Mall.

I was lucky not to get caught up in the vast delay for the air ambulance, and the luck was in the timing. By the time I arrived at the back of the crowd on the blocked road, it was clear that nothing was moving, and there happened to be a junction to the right and cyclists saying there was a diversion down one of the suburban roads that ran off it. It was, I think, strictly unofficial, and we ended up on open roads for 15km or so before we regained the closed route just short of Newlands Corner. (Which is why the total on the Garmin is just short of the full hundred.) Even on the open roads it was like being on the biggest club run in the world.

 

Refuelling stop at Newlands Corner

 
Perhaps because of the closed roads, it ended up being the fastest sportive century I’ve done–my official time was 6’34.22 (the minute’s difference from the Garmin time shown at the top of the post is the time it took to roll across the start line).

Eating well

Some things I learned. Probably because of my disastrous day out on the club run, I was obsessed about both water and hydration tablets, and about eating (you can absorb about 60g an hour on the bike, and it’s best to eat before you think you need to.) I also got through more gels (effectively liquid sugar) than I would have done normally, using the rush of energy to help me up the bigger hills and through the longueurs of the 120-130 km section.

Riding on your own, as I was, it helps to find others moving at about your speed, and the Ride London colour coding helped  with this. My 8.41 start time was “Blue Q”, and 8.38, the previous start time, was “Black H”. So whenever I found riders in Blue Q, P or N, or Black H or G, especially later in the ride, it meant that I’d likely be able to tuck in with them, which also allows you to relax slightly in terms of concentration.

Being alert

But you have to be alert. A couple of women, riding together (matching tops), touched wheels just ahead of me about 20 miles in, where the road both narrowed and started up a small incline, and went straight down. The speed wasn’t high and they were probably only grazed. But as the road had narrowed, I could see they were chatting  and not paying attention to the slowing and the bunching, perhaps from inexperience, so I’d already created space for myself behind them.

There is a lot of hanging around at the start. Blue Q was at its collection point between 7.15 and 7.40, and we then moved slowly round the Olympic Park, wheeling our bikes for at least 800 metres before lining up for our start. The excellent Sportive Cyclist blog recommended keeping a rain jacket on to stay warm during this process, which was good advice. (Monty’s site is full of good advice for we middling sportive riders.)

  

Heart attack

A couple more notes. I rode to raise money for Unicef, and if you haven’t sponsored me, and would like to, my page is open until the end of August.

Secondly, my thoughts go to the family of the man who died of a heart attack during the ride; he was only 48. Like the great British racer Beryl Burton, who also had a heart attack while out riding, at least he probably died in a good mood; there are worse deaths in the age of dementia and Alzheimer’s. He was riding to raise money for Cancer Research UK, and the donation totals on his Just Giving page have gone through the roof.

Thirdly, it is only a bike ride. The driver who took me to my drop-off point at 6 a.m. in the morning, who worked for a west London hire firm, had been socially cleansed to Clapton by Kensington and Chelsea Council after living in the borough for 27 years. It’s possible to be over-attentive to the visible injuries from a cycling crash and not attentive enough the more damaging forms of slow violence that are going on all around us.

 

Bleeding them white

2 August 2016

  

Of course I knew that Verdun was a bloodbath, fought out largely between the French and German armies. But until I heard David Hargreaves talk about the battle at a recent Browser lecture, I hadn’t realised how much of a bloodbath it was, or, by extension, how it shaped the disastrous post-war settlement.

Between February 1916, when the Germans first attacked, and December, when the French regained most of the land lost, 300,000 troops died, split fairly evenly between the two sides. The heavy death toll was the plan when Falkenhayn first formulated the campaign, but he anticipated that the French would suffer casualties in far greater numbers than the Germans. Verdun was chosen because it has a strategically important network of forts, and was also an important transport hub. Falkenhayn believed that the French couldn’t afford to defend it, and also that they couldn’t afford not to defend it. A zugswang, in other words.

As happened elsewhere during World War I, the attacking side made gains before being stalled. As also happened elsewhere, the pre-battle artillery bombardment turned the ground into mud that impeded the infantry attack. 

Fracturing the nerves

The French commander, Joffre, disregarded the initial attack because he thought it was a diversion from another impeding attack (as did Hitler the D-Day landings in Normandy). The constant artillery bombardment fractured the nerves of the defending French troops. The German assault stretched the French forces thin until the British were able to relieve the French 10th Army elsewhere and free them to go to Verdun.

Understanding Verdun also gives a different perspective to the Battle of the Somme, in the summer of 1916. Yes, it was planned before the start of the battle of Verdun, but by the time it came, even despite the terrible level of casualties, it was needed, desperately, to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun and prevent the French army breaking under the strain.

Petain, whose reputation suffered somewhat in the Second World War, comes out of the Verdun story well. Unlike most generals of the time, he would go to visit the troops returning from the front. He realised, looking at them, that even battle hardened troops couldn’t take much of the constant bombardment, and devised the noria system of rapid rotation, so that troops were in the front line for only 8-10 days before being relieved. 

Some of the accounts by soldiers shared by Hargreaves were desperate: a Jesuit hoping that he would die by a bullet rather than a shell, so that his body would not be blown to bits and scattered.  

Shocking the system

Britain’s casualties in World War I were high–The Wasteland, for example, like Elgar’s Cello Concerto, is one long howl of grief– but they were not on the same scale as the French. The French army had indeed been “bled white” at Verdun, but only at the cost of bleeding the Germans white as well. Falkenhayn, the German architect of Verdun, was dismissed sometime before the battle ended.

And although the noria system was effective in maintaining French front-line morale, it also meant that far greater numbers of troops experienced the shock of the battle. David Hargreaves suggested to me afterwards that it transmitted the shock right through French society, which in turn helps to understand France’s intransigent position at the peace talks in 1919.

History’s fingers reach down the years. You can see the shadow of Verdun cast long across the 1930s and the 1940s, and even to the creation of the post-war Common Market.

David Hargreaves’ Century project, following the progress of World War I in weekly instalments, can be found here. The Browser is here.