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Painting modernity

19 February 2017
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Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’, 1919. Tate/Imperial War Museum.

The painter Paul Nash was lucky to survive World War 1, if anyone who fought in the trenches can be described as “lucky”. He broke a rib in a fall at the Front, and was sent home to recuperate. While in Britain, many of his comrades in his regiment, the Artists’ Rifles, were killed in an attack on Hill 60. Whatever else it did, the war transformed his painting, from the relatively delicate pre-war landscapes to hard angular representations of the war, notably in his “memorial” painting, ‘The Menin Road’, commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee after the war. It dominated the room it was hung in at the Tate, as I suspect it also dominated the exhibition in which which it was first shown.

The war seems to have made a modernist of him. The Unit One group—which he formed with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Edward Burra,  Edward Wadsworth and the architect Wells Coates—asked the question, as Jenny Uglow notes in her NYB review of the show, “Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’”. The Tate has a room hung with works representing the Unit One exhibition, and it’s easier to see what they are against than what they are for, but the pieces exude a modern sensibility in ’30s England, when such things were as contested as they are now.

Nash had moved to the Kent countryside after the war, as Uglow notes, “[e]xhausted, his lungs damaged by gas, his mind in meltdown,” and some of the landscapes from there are as good an answer to his own question as any. His angular paintings of Dymchurch and the Rye Marshes catch the shapes that lie beneath, conveying the sense that this landscape is made and remade by man.

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Paul Nash, ‘The Rye Marches’, 1932. Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

Nash was also a contributor to, and organiser of, the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, although you get the impression from the Tate exhibiton that he liked the idea of surrealism more than the thing itself. His own surrealist paintings feel more like a series of technical experiments rather than a commitment.

The sense of the modern continues into the Second World War, where he was again a war artist, as he had been at the end of World War 1. He became fascinated by planes and the aerial war. The Tate show doesn’t include his large canvas of The Battle of Britain, which captures magnificently the chaos and confusion of a large scale air battle, at least one fought at the speed of propellors rather than turbines. But it does have several of his other wartime works, including ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea),’ of the graveyard of shot-down German planes near Cowley, Oxford, which T.J Clark celebrates in a slightly overworked review in the LRB.

[T]he sea of machine parts shimmers in the moonlight… Gun-metal greys are played off against cartoon greens, blues, pinks, wintry dead browns; the dune yellow is savage, with a horror-movie shadow louring at its edge and great gashes of red traced across it.

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Paul Nash, ‘Totes Meer,’ 1940-41. Tate Gallery. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

His other World War II pictures on display here are on the edge of abstraction (for example his 1944 work, ‘The Battle for Germany‘. I liked them, although the War Ministry did not. T.J. Clark suggests that

it seems that the 20th century only came to Nash, as something paintable, in the form of total war… part of me regrets, I admit, that Nash never encountered another, more ordinary form of modernity – the edge of the city, the clank of the combine, the exhausts of suburbia – that he felt he could put in a picture.

But I think he’s wrong about this, at least on the evidence of the Tate exhibition. The same modernity that’s seen in the war pictures is also there in Nash’s landscapes, in the paintings of Dymchurch and Avebury, or even in ‘Landscape at Iden‘, with its pruned orchard trees and chopped and stacked logs. Modernity doesn’t require machinery.

‘Paul Nash’ is at Tate Britain, in London, until 5th March, at The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 8th April to 20th August, and then at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, from 9th September until the end of January 2018.

The images are used with thanks. They are all from publicly owned collections and have been acquired with public money or gifted.

‘Spoken not read’

14 December 2016
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Bob Dylan, by Kyle Legates


There’s no argument here that Dylan deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, not least because he changed our expectations of the weight that a song could carry. I admired the way in which, in his acceptance speech (read out in Stockholm by the US Ambassador) he both managed to compare himself to Shakespeare while at the same time using this as a shield to deflect the critics who had suggested that the Literature prize should not go to a songwriter.

Near the beginning of the speech, Dylan writes:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Of course, this is also a reminder that several playwrights have also won the Nobel Prize since it was created in 1901–Pinter, Dario Fo, Beckett, Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Shaw–and that they have also wrestled with the same problems of words-as-performance, without attracting the same opprobrium.

And then, in the speech, he goes off on a little tour, talking about his personal history, the slow way in which confidence and ambition grows with success as a performer, nodding in a clever but flattering way in the direction of the Nobel Committee, before bringing it back to Shakespeare again:

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

I was lucky enough, years ago, to hear Christopher Ricks do one of his lectures where he dissected several songs; the masterly construction of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather‘, with its alternate male and female rhymes (“made of silver or of golden“), and of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll‘ (“now is the time for your tears”), contrasted with the thinner material that makes up ‘One Too Many Mornings‘. Ricks became a bit of lightning rod for other critics, partly because he insisted on saying that Dylan was better than Keats, which was a red rag to sections of the English literati. I don’t think that argument was worth spending time on, even then, but the scholarship in his lecture, and much more, eventually found its way into a long critical appraisal of Dylan’s language and lyrics, a quarter of a century later. As Thomas Jones notes in his review in LRB, Ricks’ says of ‘Hattie Carroll’ that ‘Here is a song that could not be written better.’

Ricks, who was an early champion of Dylan’s literary quality, has been vindicated by the Nobel Commitee’s answer to Dylan’s unasked question, and he was in the pages of the Irish Times (scroll down) after the announcement was made.

Some reminders, since one of Dylan’s powers is that of a great reminder.

First, that every artist, insofar as he or she is great as well as original, has had the task of creating the taste by which the art is to be enjoyed (Wordsworth’s conviction). Second, that the art of song is a triple art, a true compound. And it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more “important”: the voice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or the hydrogen?)

But in some ways Roddy Doyle catches the sentiment and the spirit better in the same Irish Times feature:

-I remember when me brother brought home Highway 61 Revisited, when it came ou’, like. Now, I love me music – always did. But, like, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’. I mean, there wasn’t much in the lyrics of anny o’ the songs back then. An’ then I heard, ‘They’re paintin’ postcards of the hangin’, they’re paintin’ the passports brown.’ It was amazin’. The start of my life, nearly. Even me da stopped complainin’ about the noise.

The image of Bob Dylan at the top of this post is by Kyle Legates. It is used here, with thanks, under a Creative Commons licence.

 

The Liberation Music Orchestra in London

26 November 2016

Obviously the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra isn’t quite the same without Charlie Haden, who died two years ago. But equally, as Alan Shipton of Radio 3 noted before the start of their concert at Cadogan Hall last weekend, right now we need it more than ever.

The Orchestra was created in 1969, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, as a vehicle for Haden’s politics and music, and has toured and recorded off and on ever since, notably in the 2000s as a protest against the invasion of Iraq. The current band, under the leadership of Haden’s long-term collaborator Carla Bley, has just released a record on ecological themes, Time | Life, which was a work in progress when Haden died. The concert included material from this and from their 2004 recording Not In Our Name.

I love big bands, and the Liberation Music Orchestra is a big band: bass, drums, guitar, tuba, French horn, trombone, two trumpets, alto sax and two tenor saxes. Most of the musicians have been playing with the Orchestra for years. And then there’s the elfin figure of Bley, now 80, perched at the piano, standing from time to time to bring a song to a tidy close, or transition into a new one.

They are Carla Bley’s arrangements—Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, who introduced the band, said that Charlie could never imagine anyone else arranging the Liberation Music Orchestra’s work—and she has an unmatched ear for the timbres and textures of the jazz orchestra, in the same league as Gil Evans.

Some of the material on Time | Life goes back to the ’60s—Haden’s Song for the Whales and the Bley composition, Silent Spring, a response to Rachel Carson’s path-breaking polemic, both of which were part of the set at Cadogan Hall. There’s also a fine version of Miles’ Blue in Green, which the band opened with.

It wasn’t just me who found the material from Not In Our Name the most compelling on the night, with the scars of the recent Presidential election still fresh (Richard Williams’ review is here). The title track shares with Mingus’ Fables of Faubus the notion that protest should have a spring in its step and a smile on its face. Bley’s arrangement of Amazing Grace restores the simple power of the original. And the high point of the evening, without doubt, was the long medley of America The Beautiful/Life Every Heart And Sing/Skies of America, with drummer Matt Wilson shifting into a military mode in a long solo before the band returned to cacophonous discord. If it was designed to convey the idea that America has lost its way, it worked.

The band: Carla Bley, piano, conductor; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Chris Cheek, tenor saxophone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Seneca Black, trumpet; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Earl McIntyre, tuba; Steve Cardenas, guitar; Darek Oles, bass; Matt Wilson, drums.

The concert was recorded for transmission on Radio 3 during December. 

Reflecting on Alan Stivell

20 November 2016

 

I stumbled across Alan Stivell’s first record while throwing out a bunch of tape cassettes recently. It was called Reflections in England (Reflets in France) when it was released there in 1970, and I’ve been playing it, along with his other early records a lost in the last few weeks as a reult. It reminds me that in bringing Breton music into the mainstream, or at least to the edge of the mainstream, he was maybe the first “world musician” in the days before the category of “world music” had been created. He broke through into the sensibilities of rock and blues fans like me, at least in the UK, long before the African insurgency in the late-70s, and even before Island records launched Bob Marley into the British market and drove reggae from Jamaica to the mainstream.

When you listen to both Reflets and its successor, Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, widely regarded as a masterpiece, you can see why. It has big sweeping melodies and rich arrangements. Perhaps more importantly, it also manages to sound both modern and ancient at the same time, both of the world and of the place, as if the spirit of Marshall McLuhan is running through the standing stones.

In fact, I think Stivell can be placed in a wider context, with those musicians in almost every Western culture who in the ’60s and ’70s honoured their traditional musics while introducing new arrangements and (usually) electric instruments into the mix. I’m thinking, for example, of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span in the UK, for example, or The Band in north America, or Planxty, and later Moving Hearts, in Ireland.

Reflets seems to be out of print now, along with his first live recording, Live at l’Olympia. The full recording of l’Olympia is on Youtube at the moment, as are all of the individual tracks of Reflets, which I have reconstructed as a Youtube playlist.

One of the things I liked about Reflets, but which surprised me at the time, was that it included among the Breton folk repertoire an English song, Sally Free and Easy, collected by Cyril Tawney. Liked, because I knew it already in a version by Pentangle; surprised because I expected a man who was immersed in Breton culture not to mix up his performance with English folk songs.

But it seems that Stivell was a fan of English folk; there are more English songs on Live at l’Olympia, including The Foggy Foggy Dew. It’s a reminder that people like Stivell, who were musical pioneers, are always listening.

 

 

Voskhod over Edinburgh

21 August 2016

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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.

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.

One of Our Aircraft is Missing

13 July 2016

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One of Aircraft Is Missing is not one of Powell and Pressburger’s great films—it’s better thought of as a sighting shot. It is the first film made under the Archers’ banner. But watching it again when it popped up on television, there are already resonances with later work. If there is a theme in The Archers’ films, it is of cultures trying to understand each other—one thinks immediately of Colonel Blimp, but also of the laird teaching “highland economics” in I Know Where I’m Going or the great Anglo-American set piece in A Matter of Life and Death. Or even the failure of the Himalayan convent and the nuns’ departure from India in Black Narcissus.

This might also be a metaphor for the partnership between Powell and Pressburger itself: the patrician Englishman and the polyglot emigré.

So, specifically, my interest in One of Our Aircraft is in the scene about 45 minutes in where the airmen from the bomber crew are waiting in the front room while the Dutch villagers debate what is to be done with them in the dining room next door. The airmen are a social melange, largely for dramatic purposes, though perhaps for propaganda purposes too. They are indignant that the Dutch do not take them at their word, and they start to worry that they might be turned over to the Germans (although, as one of them observes, no-one has left the house.)

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Els Meertens (Pamela Brown) explains they’re going to church.

Of course, the villagers are right to be careful, for they are taking all the risks. If the airmen are caught, they will be dispatched to a prisoner of war camp; if the villagers are caught helping them, they are likely to be deported to a forced labour camp, or shot. Actually, we’re reminded of the risks they’re taking even in a pre-credit sequence.

Eventually, the airmen offer a cutting torn from yesterday’s Times (what else) as proof of identity. As the Dutch schoolteacher (played by Pamela Brown, who appeared in several Archers’ films) takes it back into the room where the villagers are debating, she says:

ELS: I thought airmen had better eyesight than that.

Another look around the room identifies the codes of those Dutch opposed to the Germans: orange blossom above the lintel, and a concealed portrait of the exiled Queen.

Pressburger’s cultural fencing continues as the Dutch formulate the escape plan, which involves cycling in disguise to the local church, which is 6 miles closer to the coast, and for which they already have the necessary papers. Of course, it is a Catholic church and two of the crew are “chapel.”

ELS: But it’s our only plan.

EARNSHAW: If this gets back to Halifax, I’ll never hear the last of it.

ELS: We will dress you in Dutch clothes. Nobody will know.

EARNSHAW: You don’t know chapel folk.

The sequence where they disguise the airmen for the journey is also a wonderful piece of film-making: the actor in the aircrew is put into drag, in a shot that tilts rapidly down the RAF uniform, dissolves from his boots through to the clogs now on his feet, and then tilts back up just as quickly to take in the new outfit, along with some crisp luvvie banter.

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Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams) gets into his disguise.

In his biography of Pressburger, Kevin Macdonald observes that the screenwriter was “immune to cliché.” A quotidian phrase from the news bulletins (“one of our aircraft is missing”) that probably floated past native English speakers, stuck with the Hungarian Pressburger, now working in his fourth language. The choice of Stuttgart as the target of the bombing raid was deliberate:

The references to the girls in Stuttgart and the song ‘I Kiss Your Little Hand, Madam’ (“The composer was a Jew, I believe”) certainly have a personal resonance… [H]e had so disliked the town as a student—it was the place where he had first experienced anti-Semitism.

It is also one of the few Archers’ war stories in which we don’t see a “sympathetic German.” In fact, we barely see the enemy: “We only see their shadows,” writes Macdonald, “or hear their clipped voices shouting orders, the demonic screeching of their vehicles shattering the peace of the countryside, and the clicking of marching boots.” Macdonald exaggerates, but only slightly.

The film is also formally interesting because it has no score. The soundtrack, from the drone of the plane’s engine in the first sequences, to the noise of the Dutch villagers and their British escapees cycling to church, to the canal water lapping the boat and the crowd at the football match, is all “natural” sound. Shades of the 1930s documentary movement. And perhaps because of this influence, the Germans speak German, the Dutch characters speak Dutch (except to the aircrew), and the English mostly speak English. Our confusion as to what is happening matches that of the aircrew; their confusion is often part of the story.

Within this “natural” soundscape there are a couple of moments when the Dutch national anthem plays an important part in the plot. The first time, more low key, in the church, when the organist uses it to distract a German soldier; the second (no spoliers, but more critical to the narrative, and a clever plot device) when some German soldiers are tricked into playing it on their mess gramophone. One of Aircraft is almost an exact contemporary of Casablanca with its famous rendition of “La Marseillaise”; both films were likely borrowing from, or paying homage to, the singing of the French anthem in La Grande Illusion.

Pressburger’s time working for UFA in Berlin weaves its way into the script in his play on cultural stereotypes. Jo de Vries, the woman who engineers the crew’s final escape is thought by the Germans to hate the British because her husband was, apparently, killed in a British air-raid on Haarlem.

I never heard that we bombed Haarlem.

ELS: The Germans want us to believe it, so Jo de Vries obliges them. They like her, because they believe she hates the British. That is what she wants, so everyone is happy.

In fact, her husband is broadcasting anti-Nazi propaganda from London.

As both Macdonald and the film critic Ian Christie observe, the film is the inverse of The 49th Parallel, in which a German U-boat crew has to abandon their craft a long way from home. The German crew, in a hostile environment and a hostile society, falls apart, with one member shot for desertion when he tries to join a German-speaking religious community they encounter in northern Canada.

The British crew in One of Our Aircraft, helped by a sympathetic population who have learned to play on German sensibilities, hangs together and escapes. But the two films have this in common: the heroes, in both films, are the people of the country; Canadians in one, Dutch in the other.

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Jo de Vries (Googie Withers) helps the aircrew reach a boat to escape

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.

A little bit of butter for my bread

24 November 2013

A few weeks ago, a chore landed on my desk. It had started somewhere near the top of the company, and been rapidly bounced down through the layers before it skittered to a halt on mine. Someone asked me about it, and I said, well, the king told the queen, and the queen told the dairymaid, and then the dairymaid went to ask the Alderney – and then I realised, from the blank looks, that no-one had a clue what I was talking about.

This might be a generational thing, and the taste for A.A.Milne’s children’s poems, written in the 1920s, died out sometime in the ’60s or ’70s. Or it might just be me, or rather my family, because my father used to love that particular poem, even reciting it all from memory from time to time. (And no-one could call him a fussy man).

So here it is, for younger readers, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.

The King’s Breakfast

By A.A. Milne

     The King asked
     The Queen, and
     The Queen asked
     The Dairymaid:
     “Could we have some butter for
     The Royal slice of bread?”
     The Queen asked
     The Dairymaid,
     The Dairymaid
     Said, “Certainly,
     I’ll go and tell
     The cow
     Now
     Before she goes to bed.”
 
     The Dairymaid
     She curtsied,
     And went and told
     The Alderney:
     “Don’t forget the butter for
     The Royal slice of bread.”
 
     The Alderney
     Said sleepily:
     “You’d better tell
     His Majesty
     That many people nowadays
     Like marmalade
     Instead.”
 
     The Dairymaid
     Said, “Fancy!”
     And went to
     Her Majesty.
     She curtsied to the Queen, and
     She turned a little red:
     “Excuse me,
     Your Majesty,
     For taking of
     The liberty,
     But marmalade is tasty, if
     It’s very
     Thickly
     Spread.”
 
     The Queen said
     “Oh!”
     And went to
     His Majesty:
     “Talking of the butter for
     The Royal slice of bread,
     Many people
     Think that
     Marmalade
     Is nicer.
     Would you like to try a little
     Marmalade
     Instead?”

     The King said,
     “Bother!”
     And then he said,
     “Oh, dear me!”
     The King sobbed, “Oh, deary me!”
     And went back to bed.
     “Nobody,”
     He whimpered,
     “Could call me
     A fussy man;
     I only want
     A little bit
     Of butter for
     My bread!”

     The Queen said,
     “There, there!”
     And went to
     The Dairymaid.
     The Dairymaid
     Said, “There, there!”
     And went to the shed.
     The cow said,
     “There, there!
     I didn’t really
     Mean it;
     Here’s milk for his porringer
     And butter for his bread.”
 
     The Queen took
     The butter
     And brought it to
     His Majesty;
     The King said,
     “Butter, eh?”
     And bounced out of bed.
     “Nobody,” he said,
     As he kissed her
     Tenderly,
     “Nobody,” he said,
     As he slid down
     The banisters,
     “Nobody,
     My darling,
     Could call me
     A fussy man—
     BUT
I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

Between two worlds

27 August 2013

I got round to watching Source Code, Duncan Jones’ second film, on a TV re-run recently. It tells the story of a man sent back in time to work out who planted a bomb on a commuter train – the same eight minutes, almost, over and over, until he gets to the bottom of the mystery.

Shades immediately of Groundhog Day, although Bill Murray’s weatherman had all the time in the world to get himself straightened out – enough time to learn how to play the piano, master ice skating, and to stop being a curmudgeon.

But the film that Source Code reminded me of at least as strongly is the Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death [AMOLAD]. And I know, by the way, that I’m not the first person to notice this.

Some of the references are clearly there, even without spoiling the plot of Source Code.

The epigraph at the start of AMOLAD is,

“This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and the other which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life & imagination have been violently shaped by war”.

Source Code tells the story of an airman (a helicopter pilot, Colter Stevens) who is similarly caught between two worlds, one real, one a simulation that might, indeed, exist only in his mind.

There’s also a visual and narrative match, between Goodwin, the operator in Source Code who is the link between Stevens and his two worlds, and June, the wireless operator in AMOLAD, who links the two worlds straddled by its bomber pilot, Peter Carter, after bailing from his burning plane. There are some script echoes as well.

The films share a pervasive sense of rules being broken, of the boundaries between the two worlds being negotiated, although in A Matter of Life and Death this is a far more formal negotiation, through the great set-piece of the courtroom.

It would be a spoiler for both films to extend the comparison to their endings. Does Stevens cheat death? Does Squadron Leader Carter? In both films, in their different ways, the women are the key. But go watch the films. I don’t think you’ll regret it.