‘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.

 


English landscape

10 December 2016
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Image: Richard Long

 

I am in Cambridge from time to time, and stumbled across the small gallery that Downing College has opened just behind its porter’s lodge. The current exhibition–its third–has borrowed works from Kettles Yard (currently closed for rebuilding) and Richard Long to create an exhibition themed around the idea of landscape.

Kettles Yard being Kettles Yard, there’s a fine selection of British 20th century painters here, from Ben and Winifred Nicholson to John Piper to David Jones to their contemporary Christopher Wood, who died young. One of the most striking paintings in the exhibition is by L. S. Lowry. He’s obviously better known for his industrial images, but used to retreat to Cumbria and the Peak District to recharge. The lake appears in several of his paintings and is likely to be imagined rather than real, a sense of a landscape.

Lowry, Laurence Stephen, 1887-1976; Mountain Lake

LS Lowry. Mountain Lake, 1943. Kettles Yard Collection.

The exhibition is, perhaps literally, overlooked by the Richard Long painting at the top of the post, which has been constructed on the end wall of the rectangular gallery space. I love everything about this: the Dylanesque title, the shape, the choice of typography.

Richard Long’s work has evolved over the years from physical representations of his walks and rearrangment of the landscape. The textworks, of which No Direction Known is one, internalise the landscape, as we always do when we’re out in such places: we are in the landscape, but the landscape is also in us.


Toussaint’s American songbook

3 December 2016

  
A colleague was visiting New Orleans for the first time, and for the second time in a week I found myself extolling the virtues of Allen Toussaint, who was the beating heart of much New Orleans music until his death last year. I was lucky enough to see him play solo at Ronnie Scott’s shortly before he died. He had [turned to performing] relatively late in life, after losing much of what he owned in Hurricane Katrina, after years in the studio as a writer and a producer.

After Katrina, he co-wrote a record with Elvis Costello and toured with him.

Long before the collaboration with Elvis Costello, he had worked with everyone who was anyone in the New Orleans scene, from the Neville Brothers to Lee Dorsey to Betty Harris, and one of the reasons for this was that he had a wide range as a song writer, from an affectionate tongue-in-cheek song such as Fortune Teller, to danceable R and B such as Ride Your Pony or Working in the Coalmine, to a political song such as Freedom for the Stallion.

He learned from Professor Longhair, whose distinctive piano style had lit up the Crescent City in the 1960s, but the reason he got his first break, as a teenager, was that he was a fine technical player who was able to imitate the piano style of Fats Domino. At a time when Fats was on the road a lot, and most recording was done two-track, he’d play the piano part in the studio in New Orleans, and the tape would be sent to wherever Fats Domino was touring so he could add his inimitable vocal.

It happens that there was a final record in the works when he died, released earlier this year and which I stumbled across a few weeks ago. 

American Tunes (Nonesuch Records) is produced by Joe Henry, which is usually a mark of quality. The songs are played solo or with some fine collaborators, including Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks. The title is well-chosen: this an American songbook, but inflected with a New Orleans sensibility. As well as his own songs, he plays songs by Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Fats Waller, as well as the (almost) title track by Paul Simon.

As Joe Henry says in the sleevenotes, written after Toussaint died, 

Allen was a quiet radical, musically speaking, and a prince of sublime humility, national royalty, if this troubled country has ever known any such thing… American Tunes is visceral and earthy. The repertoire spans the structural foundation of all that we understand to be American music… Today, in the dim light of his untimely departure, it sounds like the promise made good on all the work he might still undertake.

Five to look up on youtube:

Southern Nights: the title track of best known full length record as a performer.

With Elvis Costello.

Get Out of My Life Woman, his 1968 single.

On Your Way Down, covered by Little Feat.

Toussaint plays Lipstick Traces, which gave its name to Greil Marcus’ book.

If you want to know more there’s a long interview on Quietus, done shortly before he died, which explores pretty much his whole carrer. Richard Williams’ post on The Blue Moment blog after Toussaint’s death is, as ever, succinct but rich.

 


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 lot 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.

 

 


Tail end Charlies

18 September 2016
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‘The Battle of Britain’, by Paul Nash (Imperial War Museum)

It was Battle of Britain Day last week, the anniversary of the last great air battle over Britain, in 1940, when pretty much every available plane on both sides was up in the sky. It’s well caught in Paul Nash’s huge canvas, which is now in the Imperial War Museum. My father-in-law Denis Robinson fought in the Battle of Britain as a Spitfire pilot, turning 22 during the Battle. Like many others, he didn’t fly combat missions again. After the Battle he was shifted first to pilot training and later to transport, for example running supplies into Normandy after D-Day, and ferrying the wounded out.

He reckoned that he survived through a mixture of having had a decent amount of flying experience pre-war, some luck (he was shot down but managed to crashland the plane), and, reading between the lines, a wilful disregard for some of the RAF’s stupidities.

Flying doctrine in the 1940s had it that the squadron’s four sections should fly in a straight line, one plane ahead, two behind. It took only a little experience to work out that this meant the whole formation was a sitting duck if attacked from behind, especially the “tail end Charlies,” as he called them, at the back. (There’s a good explanation of all of this tactical detail here).

As tail end Charlie, Denis took to weaving around behind the front pair, which made both him and the rest of the section harder to hit. He was, he recalled before his death, reprimanded for this breach of instructions. He promptly ignored the reprimand, as did other pilots in the same position. By the end of the Battle of Britain, it was accepted that the tail end Charlie would weave; by 1942, it was doctrine.

The RAF’s blinkers extended to its prejudice about the Polish airmen who had arrived in the UK after the fall of Poland. They were experienced and committed pilots who had performed creditably against the Luftwaffe in old aircraft, but that wasn’t how the RAF saw it.

The film Battle of Britain has a sequence in which a Polish squadron on a training flight under the supervision of an RAF officer, not yet permitted to fly combat missions,  break formation to attack a group of German planes, and story is broadly true. The squadron was commissioned, and performed heroically.

By that stage in the Battle of Britain, even the RAF’s stuffed shirts knew they needed pilots desperately, and were lucky that the Poles were here and ready and willing to fly. They represented the largest contingent of overseas airmen, as the Statista chart below shows.

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There’s a memorial to the Polish airmen—those who flew in the Battle of Britain and also later in the war—just off the A40 on the way out of London, close to Northolt airfield, and an adjacent garden of memory. We visited it on the Augist Bank Holiday. The memorial was refurbished about a decade ago, and is in good condition, but the garden, which is looked after by the Borough of Hounslow and the Polish Government, looks as if it has suffered from local authority cutbacks, and needs a little loving care, if only out of respect for the contribution they made to the Allied cause.

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Image: Wikimedia

 

 

 


The Deep Blue Sea

6 September 2016
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National Theatre set designed by Tom Scott. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Terrence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, which is on at London’s National Theatre, is literally a period piece. It premiered in 1952, and the devices and secrets that drive plot and characters are no longer issues. No spoilers, but attempted suicide is no longer a crime, gas no longer poisons you, a woman who leaves her husband to live with someone else no longer has to lie about it.

Rattigan, who was gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal, would have known all about the world of secrets, allusion and indirect meanings, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the writing and characterisation are strong. He wrote the play after a lover, Kenny Morgan, had killed himself by gas. There’s no evidence for the claim Rattigan once made in a letter that he wrote an initial version in which Hester, the lead character, was male and gay–such a play would have been unperformable in Britain in the 1950s–there is a later “distaff” version by Mike Poulton that re-works The Deep Blue Sea as if it were Morgan who were the central character and had failed in his suicide attempt.

(On gas suicides, I also recall a play by Alan Ayckbourn, although I forget which one, where he plays this idea for laughs. A woman is lying in the kitchen during a party with her head in the gas oven while party guests traipse through not realising what she’s doing, and engage her in conversation.)

The Deep Blue Sea is a technical tour de force, set in one location and in keeping with Aristotle’s idea of “the unities”, taking place in just 24 hours, or so. The National’s set, seen in the image at the top of the post, makes much of this over-crowded block of bedsits, with its thin walls and well-meaning landlady, although it doesn’t manage to convey one of Rattigan’s stage directions, that it stands in a badly bombed area of Ladbroke Grove.

This is another period piece: for this would have been the Ladbroke Grove of cheap lodgings and Peter Rachman, not of David Cameron’s “Notting Hill set“. Not, in the ’50s, the sort of place that the runaway wife of a wealthy High Court judge would expect to be found.

One other period element of the play that I missed completely in the National’s version: that the struck-off doctor Mr Miller, very much the play’s “centre of good”, was gay and had been disqualified after being jailed for a homosexual act. It’s implicit, but the various reviews of this and other productions seem clear on the point.

But if the play were just a social history, it would not be worth re-staging. It still works in 2016 because at its heart it is a play about desire. Hester leaves her husband, portrayed in the National’s version as generous but not passionate, for a relationship with a younger man, a pilot who is still reliving the war through a haze of alcohol. It’s evident that sex matters to her. Freddy Page, for whom she left her husband, is “the devil” that the play’s title alludes to.

The deep blue sea, in contrast, is the challenge of living with herself, about to be a divorced woman, having transgressed the social and sexual mores of the time.For this is a choice. (And this is a spoiler).

As Terence Davies, who directed a film version of the play, observes of the scene near the end of the play between Hester and her husband Sir William Collyer,

When he asks her to come back, he says, “Can’t you see what I’m offering you?” She says, “Yes, and do you have any idea how difficult it is to refuse it?”

The trangressive women is always a rich theme, and especially so in the ’40s and ’50s, as a decade of film noir reminds us.

And in our cultural stories, perhaps the transgressive woman, or transgressives of any gender, find themselves dead or alone, as the play suggests. Which is one way of making sense of the paean to the virtues of doggedness in Mr Miller’s fine speech to Hester in the final act of the play. Keeping on keeping on is a virtue, no matter how hard it seems at the time.


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.


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.