Monday, October 31, 2011

A frightful anniversary

Today I share something with Alex and Taru.

No, I do not have a glamorous life sailing around the world, enjoying stunningly beautiful blue water, but like them today is an anniversary.

For me it is blogging, for 6 years ago today the first post went live. If I were 6 now I would be out there banging on doors demanding free chocolate, for today is Halloween!!

Being a little bit older I'll be connecting some appropriately spooky dots, and going back to the painter John Martin. As well as a career in art and a side line in designing London's sewage system he had time to raise not just 6 of his own children but also take under his wing a young woman called Jane Webb.

Jane Webb went on to write The Mummy (above) and the ever connected John Martin could also claim to know William Goldwin whose daughter wrote Frankenstein. It might not have been a coincidence then that one of Martin's own daughters married an Egyptologist.

Indeed there sometimes seems no limit to the connections John Martin made. He shared lodgings with the future King of Belgium (who became godfather to one of Martin's children) and at his dinner parties you could meet Dickens, Michael Faraday, Turner and John Tenniel, the illustrator of Lewis Carroll's books.

One amazing story has him on the footplate of a steam train with none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel thundering along at 90 mph as they proved conclusively that a train could go faster than a horse.

What a great life!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Frozen Planet, Epic Viewing

This weekend many of us in the northern hemisphere got an extra hour and I spent it watching the BBC's new series, Frozen Planet, about life at the highest of high latitudes, the poles.

It was an hour of saying "wow" and the occasional "effing wow".

Landscapes that make the Lord of the Rings look wimpy, waterfalls dropping a mile through the ice sheet, explosive birth of icebergs out of glaciers, a polar bear hunting for a mate, wolves taking down a bison, whales blasting through bait balls, sea lions surfing under a wave trying (and failing) to catch a penguin, humpbacks leaping from the water, killer whales deliberately making waves to crack ice or knock seal prey into the water then using bubbles as a smoke screen, underwater wood lice the size of dinner plates, ice caves around the volcano Erebus, rock formations carved from 200 mph winds, the Mars like dry valleys ..... the spectacles continued non-stop.

It was narrated by the national living treasure that is David Attenborough (who is a dot somewhere in the picture above).

For those in the UK I hope you are watching. For those outside prepare to be amazed.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Film: Tacita Dean at the Tate Modern

One of the joys of London is being able to pop into the Tate Modern's cavernous Turbine Hall to discover the latest installation. And that's exactly what I did last weekend.

What I found was Tacita Dean's tribute to 35mm film called, er, FILM. Unlike in the cinema where the screen is much wider than it is tall here it is on end, reaching almost to the hall's roof.

In the 11 minute loop she demonstrates the range of techniques and textures than can be created by old fashioned analogue methods, using filters and cut-outs. And the loop itself is physical - a single loop of celluloid.

One of the main images is of the far end to the Turbine Hall itself, while others include fountains, streams, waves approaching a beach and mushrooms. Children love it, rushing up to the screen, trying to catch falling images, like the bubble above.

I enjoyed it, though I wouldn't rave as some reviewers have. I'm rather prosaically in favour of new tech, despite the odd hiccup.

Its really nice, lying there on that endless expense of poured concrete, watching silhouetted children and waiting for those mushrooms to come round yet again. I can totally recommend you go and see it.

However I couldn't help but think, again and again, why make life so difficult? It must have taken ages to do all of that the old fashioned way, cutting ribbons of film and gluing frames together again.

Just, like, load it up to MovieMaker dude. (or Final Cut Pro if you've got a Mac).

Maybe that work is the point. It was a bit like those Sunflowers Seeds of Ai Weiwei, in which each of the uncountable millions was created by hand (though it was a shame you couldn't walk on them as was intended).

But at the end of the day 35mm film is - or rather was - for me a tool that could be used to tell a story, and its that mix of character and plot that interests me.

Something, indeed, like Casablanca.

Play it, Sam, play "As time goes by"

Sigh. Now that was true magic.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

John Martin, Charles Dickens, Sir Francis Walsingham and Tracy Edwards

John Martin had a Dickensian quality about him. Indeed he was a friend of Charles Dickens and it is not impossible that one of the latter's characters was based upon Martin.

But I'm not thinking one of the artists in Dickens - though there's no reason why not - but rather the inventor Daniel Doyce from Little Dorrit.

For there was another side to Martin than those epic biblical canvases, namely the entrepreneur and inventor who was literally decades ahead of his time. Twenty years before Bazalgette he was proposing a sewage system for London, with architectural plans uncannily like the eventual designs. 

He even proposed using the embankment of the Thames not just for tunnels but also for a railway network, proposing a loop around London not dissimilar to the Circle line.

As part of the exhibition on John Martin at the Tate was his plan for London showing new stations - such as one at Battersea, something that is still being talked about, a hundred and eighty years later.

Indeed the sewage system of London is still a topic of much debate. As has been posted here before, there is ongong controversy about plans for a "super sewer" that will follow the course of the Thames from Hammersmith to Docklands. It is waiting, however, on decisions about where the access tunnels should be located.

One of the hottest debates is about whether one should be at Barn Elms. This is where, many, many years ago, Queen Elizabeth's spy master Sir Francis Walsingham used to live in the days of the Armada.

Now it is a pleasant green space where there are rowing, sailing and canoe clubs, and having their activities disturbed for seven years by diggers is proving to be rather unpopular.

Indeed non other than round the world sailor Tracy Edwards has added her voice to the campaign to stop the shaft, saying "This is the busiest stretch of the river for water sports, and is used by everyone from complete novices to Olympic athletes to train and enjoy one of the most beautiful spots in London"

Quite right too.

But please, do hurry up. I do really feel that after all this waiting it is time to finally finish what John Martin first worked on back in 1828.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tate Britain: Apocalypse (last weekend)

Last weekend the world almost ended - or at least according to Harold Camping. It's hard to keep up, the world seemed to have been about to end soooo many times this year.

It seemed right, therefore, to go to the Tate Britain to see the exhibition Apocalypse of work by artist John Martin (as in the example above)

You certainly got value for money for his canvases were super sized and if you like the colour red, well you'll really like them. Epic scale, some with hundreds of people dwarfed by landscapes that seem to go on forever. Almost always there were snow capped mountains looming high above pastoral scenes, that, like Narnia, looked suspiciously like an English country estate.

The subject was usually biblical or classical era - think fall of Babylon or Pompeii - and the results were popular, drawing in the crowds like the summer blockbuster. The pictures went on tour, some going as far as Australia.

The art establishment was sniffy. "But is it art?" they would ask, as so many have before and after. Indeed when the Tate Britain was flooded and a John Martin got damaged the curators basically shrugged their shoulders. It was just a John Martin, after all.

It must be admitted they are not break-through material. It's not like Turner where you go wow, that's something new and different. It gets repetitive and the execution feels more like manufacturing than creation.

But it is good entertainment - pictures you like you haven't seen before, and you won't forget John Martin's name afterwards.

If, of course, there is an afterwards........

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Frankenstein and Putney

In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.

What's this? you are probably thinking. Has JP finally lost it? This quote is from Dickens not Shelley and those two bridges are down river in central London, not leafy Putney - where is this post going?

Hold on, we'll get to that. But lets focus on that image from Our Mutual Friend of the waterman on the Thames one autumnal evening, about to recover a body from the cold waters of the Thames, for that is what this tale is all about.

If you had been standing on old Putney Bridge in November 1795 you would have witnessed a very sad scene. A lady, her heart broken as she realised her beloved would never be hers, decided to kill herself. She went out in the pouring rain until her clothes were heavy with water then threw herself off that bridge, determined to end her sorry lot.

Fortunately two watermen spotted this attempt and were able to rescue her, and in time she recovered and was able to love again. Indeed she married and had two children, both daughters.

The eldest was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin who later married the poet Shelley, It while she was on holiday by Lake Geneva with her husband and Lord Byron that she wrote that great novel, Frankenstein.

If it wasn't for those two unknown watermen who picked her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, also a writer, from the muddy, dark, cold waters of the Thames Frankenstein would never had been written and we would not have the monster in the photo above.

So you could say that in a way the monster came from that river: a disturbing thought as I peer out at the dark, listening to the wind howling in the trees.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Armada and Putney

So how could Putney be linked to the Spanish Armada?

There must, of course, be so many ways. It's a bit like saying what's the connection between Putney and WW2: you wouldn't know where to start.

However there was one in particular worth mentioning, Queen Elizabeth's spy chief lived there. Sir Francis Walsingham controlled a network of spies across the continent, feeding the English with vital information as to the status of preparations.

He would retire to peace to his manor house at Barn Elm's just upriver from Putney, where now you will find two canoe clubs, one sailing club and a rowing club. There he'd plot, plan and scheme how England would defend itself.

And there he entertained his Queen and their court in May 1589, the year after the Armada. And no doubt they toasted their victory in fine wines, though maybe not Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review: The Defeat of the Spanish Armada

The defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of those classic stories of English history, one that mixes a bucket of truth with more than a tumbler of myth. But it wasn't one I knew much about so I found this book in a second hand stall it felt like an easy £1 to spend.

And good value that turned out to be. This is the classic written by American historian Garrett Mattingly which won the Pulitzer prize back in 1960 and a cracking read it turned out to be, one that I was looking forward to picking up again, to find out "what happened next".

It follows the story from the execution of Mary Stuart to the aftermath and consequences of the defeat of the greatest power of the day by those upstart English (not Brits or Limeys yet). The excitement builds as the Armada prepares and then sets sails, and you can image the thrill of getting to a chapter with the great title and subtitle of "First Blood: The Eddystone to Start Point, July 31st, 1588".

Mattingly is clearly a professional historian, taking a balanced view from both sides, in particular treating the Spanish admiral Medina Sidonia with great respect, noting how it was his decisions saved many ships in his fleet from destruction.

But there is also strong respect for the English leaders, for Drake, Hawkins, Howard, Frobisher and of course Gloriana herself, Queen Elizabeth.

A few minor quibles: the style is showing its age (purple and formalistic), there was (for me) too much detail on the situation in France and finally he freely interchanges alternative names for the key players, so you have to concentrate to keep up.

But that shouldn't stop you buying and then reading what is certainly a classic, if not the classic, telling of the Spanish Armada.

My copy had further signs that I was on to a good thing: stuck within were a Heffers bookmark (Tillerman will understand) and the label from a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

A glass of highly quaffable wine in one hand and this book in the other: I suspect the previous owner must have had an entertaining evening's read.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Review: Ultimate Sailing Adventures

I got this book over the weekend, tempted, as the nights are getting longer, by the pictures and stories of sailing adventures. It has something for everyone, ranging from the canals of France to exploring the Northwest passage.

The ones I've done are:
- Round the Island Race
- Sydney Harbour
- Land's End
- Sail up the Thames
- Fastnet
- Sushi at sea
- Charter in Greece
- Cowes Week
- Race around Portland Bill
- Oysters in Cornwall
- East Coast sailing (ok, in a dinghy)
- Wander in a Wayfarer (ok, have sailed a Wayfarer)
- Cross the English Channel

Some of the others to be honest I can't see myself ever doing - the likes of competing in the Volvo or Vendee Globe, but there are plenty of ideas for future sails.

One thing I wasn't sure about was it has this concept of difficulty.

Now I can see that sailing a Wayfarer could be anything from "simple" to "extreme" depending upon where you sail it. But how is it that both rounding Land's End and Portland Bill are described as "tricky" but the Fastnet, which involves both, is only described as "moderate" - the same as Charter in Greece? I mean - seriously?

Sailing in the ARC or in a classics regatta weren't on the list so maybe there needs to be a list of 200 sailing adventures?

What sailing adventures would be on your list?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Printed vs. iPad Yachting World

Every now and then I buy Yachting World and this week feeling like reading about Alex and Taru's (though really I think its Taru and Alex's) guide the Caribbean decided to get the latest copy.

But what format to choose? The paper version you might expect to be the more expensive. After all it requires glossy paper, a printer, distribution, shops space, sales assistant plus of course some will be damaged, other unsold etc etc - all very analogue and old tech.

It's also not locked into a single e-magazine format (Vinio) being totally portable, shareable - you can even give your copy to someone else to read.

The web 2.0 iPad version on the other hand has zero additional cost, zero distribution cost, zero storage cost, zero sales cost and its rights are locked to a device, so surely - surely - would cost less.

As you might have guessed by now that wasn't the case with the glossy paper version costing £ 4.50 while the Vinio version cost £ 5.49 - which is 22% more.

Now this would be a surprise if I didn't know about Apple's policy to take 30% of everything sold on their devices.

Given that iCloud isn't working for me this is all turning out to be not a good week for me and my less than magically iThings.

Updated: maybe I'm just showing my age at using an old technology that doesn't work as a baby expects:

Friday, October 14, 2011

Apple's iCloud doesn't "just work"

A technology tale for Friday.

A few years ago I tried Apple's magical MobileMe to synchronise my calendar between iPhone, iPad and PC, but whatever I did it duplicated entries. Thinking I must be doing something wrong I contacted Apple support, but after three hours of messaging with their "expert" the only difference was now the entries were triplicated.

It appears that I was not alone as even Steve Jobs said MobileMe wasn't that great - but he also said that things would be different with iCloud.

So it was with hope in my heart that on Wednesday I started the update to iOS 5. Well that took 6 hours - from 6pm to midnight - just for the iPad. Eventually I got both the iThings up to date, downloaded the iCloud control panel for Windows and was able to tick all the boxes and upgrade my MobileMe to the iCloud.


Then following the instructions carefully I uploaded my calendar from my iPhone to the iCloud servers sitting somewhere in South Carolina. Logging into the web site, yes there they all were.

Right, thinks I lets give this a whirl and create a new event on the iPhone and watch it appear on the iCloud web site as if by magic.

Nothing happened. Oh yes, I forgot to switch on push/fetch, so turned that on and had a look on the web and what did I see but - duplicate entries appear. One by one the events over the last few weeks were being replicated like an out of control virus.


So I switch off push/fetch, delete the iCloud calendar and spend a very boring time deleting duplicate entries on the iPhone.


What to do next? Should I contact Apple tech support - given they failed this task last time? Should I switch to a Samsung while I can before Apple's legal department bans them here too?

Apple's iCloud - for me it just doesn't work.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

MTB 102

Over on the Bursledon Blog there's some interesting pictures of the high speed launch HSL 102.

Last month I saw another historic looking craft also with the number 102, as can be seen above. Having done a quick Google I can see it is a historic craft too, one that served in WW2.

The 100 + a bit number indicates a prototype, in this case built by Vosper Ltd, and MTB stands for motor torpedo boat (check out the tubes on the foredeck).

She was the fastest wartime British naval vessel in service at 48 knots, though here keeping to the 6 knot speed limit as part of the ADLS Vets Cruise on Thames.

More information from Wikipedia here or the trust web site here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

JP slacker shock

G'day all! Buff Staysail here! Buff by name and Buff by nature!

Well I've always said that JP was a bit of slacker and now I've got the evidence to prove it. This photo was found on the interweb thing and it clearly shows Aeolus, the boat that JP claimed to be crewing as foredecker.

But what is this we see? Two boots, clearly raised and at rest, the owner lying back relaxing - in a race!!!

If I'm shaking my head it is more in sorrow than disbelief.

This is Buff Staysail, disappointed but not surprised, signing off.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Mousehole

One of the walks on the All roads... TV show ended up at the little port of Mousehole (above). This is an incredibly picturesque little village around a nearly semi-circular harbour and I stayed there just recently for the wedding of one of the crew members of Aeolus, the classic yacht I sailed in Fowey earlier this year.

I won't try to explain how to pronounce its name as every time I tried I was told I got it wrong - but will go as far as to say it is not a combination of the words "mouse" and "hole".

One of its claims to fame was it was destroyed by the Spanish in the years after the Armada, which coincidentally I am reading about at the moment. But if it is a more recent construction (by which I mean post 1595!) it is still very pretty:
For those rowers out there, yes it has a rowing club too:
Well worth a visit if you find yourself at the far end of Cornwall.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

All roads

Last night there was a program on the BBC called All Roads Lead Home in which three presenters used techniques of natural navigation to make their way around Cornwall.

The natural navigation bits were good.

There was a description of how to use trees as direction finders given their shape is often influenced by prevailing winds (SW in the UK), as in the pic above which was described as the Trump hairstyle.

Another influence on trees was the N/S variation in growth, the so-called tick effect as in the following graphic:

A high spot was the dung compass, in which the sun will dry the N/S sides at different rates as in the following helpful graphic:

There was more about lichens (complicated) and using the orientation of churches (simpler) but rather a lot of the three presenters just chatting. It felt a bit like 3 men doing something boaty without the boats, and while there was Sue Perkins, she didn't once mention soggy bottoms or tarts, let alone say "on your marks, get set, bake".

To be honest I'd recommend anyone interested in learning about natural navigation that the best way would be to buy and read the book.

If you want an update on unnatural natural navigation there's a list of top tips at the BBC. Number 1 tip, about satellite dishes, is a favourite of mine, though I say they are SSE rather than SE, but there you go.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Watch this

The last couple of weeks have been manic and so instead of blogging have been mostly working. This evening things slacked off enough to give me time to watch the final of the TV institution that is the Great British Bake Off (GBBO).

But it has just finished, with Jo crowned queen baker (and well done her) so I was just wondering what I should watch next when up came this trailer for a program that included one of the presenters of the GBBO, namely Sue Perkins, and a certain face that seemed rather familiar (above).

Yup, the Natural Navigator is back with a TV show on prime-time BBC called "All roads lead home" and I for one shall be watching.