One year ago today: “You cannot do that!”

I love to photo the front pages of newspapers, while in shops from which I also buy things I still want:

And that was the front page of The Times of a year ago tomorrow, June 1st 2019.

The headlines make interesting reading now. Trump trying to stop us getting into bed with Huawei. Bet our politicians now wish she’d listened then.

And, the Lib Dems riding high in the polls. But this was because they had temporarily managed to get most of the Remain vote supporting them. Labour eventually got most of the Remainers supporting them. Meanwhile, the Leave vote was split, but would later unite in voting Conservative.

But most important of all, to me, are the pictures in between those two headlines. That’s Ben Stokes, taking an amazing catch, in England’s opening World Cup 2019 match against South Africa at the Oval, one year ago exactly. Stokes only had to take the catch this way because he at first misjudged it and got himself too far towards it. But who cares?!? He caught it. Video, with Nasser Hussain’s great commentary, here. England went on to win the tournament.

Now, YouTube is showing me the amazing Ashes test-match-winning last wicket partnership, at Headingley, between Jack Leach and … Stokes.

The weather now is perfect for cricket and has been for several weeks. But as of now, they still cannot do that, and we fans are having to be content with memories.

Train chat – ugly and old versus pretty and new – double-decker trains in Britain

I get nostalgic about cars, even though cars have clearly improved quite a lot since my childhood. But the trains of my childhood, them I do not miss. The average train in Britain has, I think, got a lot prettier and nicer to use than the immediately-post-Beeching clunkers I used to travel in from Egham to Waterloo.

Recently, in connection with some forgettable muddle concerning some bad weather which had disrupted train services, I came upon a photo that illustrated this. Or I came upon another photo, and googled “azuma” (sounds like an on-line gambling den), and got to this photo, whichever:

My point being that that is a really sweet looking train, compared to the lumpish Southern Region trains I remember. Automatic doors have replaced doors which were like the doors of bank safes. Light materials have replaced heavy materials. There is elegant streamlining sculpture at the front. The carriage is one long single compartment, instead of divided into separate compartments, in which you could get stuck with a weirdo. (I realise now that I was often that weirdo.) That kind of thing. Just getting on and off these horrible old trains took about three minutes, compared to the about-one-minute process that happens now.

Well, more recently, on another random walk through The Internet, I came upon this amazingly angry blog posting, about double decker trains, which featured this amazing photo, of a British double-decker train:

Double decker trains are common on the Continent, but not here in Britain, and this angry blogger is not happy about this! But the reasons for their absence here seem to be more complicated than I had supposed. It’s not that there is simply no room for them under our bridges. It seems that they were tried (see above), but were not persisted with.

This intriguing graphic shows that actually, Britain could accommodate such trains, if it wanted to:

I did not know this.

Unlike this angry writer, of the angry blog post where I found these images, I am quite used to not understanding why something has happened that makes no sense to me, or in this case has not happened when it might make sense to me. No doubt those far closer to the action than me or than Angry Blogger have their reasons. Also, Angry Blogger doesn’t think like an economist or a man of business, but more like a Continental dirigiste. He wants double-decker trains! If those who should have arranged this, but who didn’t, chose not to because of various quite subtle trade-offs involving how many more people you can actually fit in a double-decker train (what with having to include the stairs), how much longer it might take for people to get on-and-off them, what sort of extra air conditioning might be needed, how much heavier and more structurally robust everything might have to be, blah blah blah, then as far as Angry Blogger is concerned, it is because they lack Vision! Not because they might have looked into it, and decided to spend their limited budgets in other more humdrum and more sensible ways. (I don’t know what Angry Blogger thinks about HS2. I suspect him of broadly favouring it, but of thinking that it’s being Done All Wrong!!!)

The other thing I like about the photo of the double-decker British train is that it illustrates all that old school clunkiness that used to afflict British trains of all kinds, way back then. Yes, I remember now. I think I got into all this double-decker train stuff simply because I was looking for a picture of a clunky old train, and came upon this clunky old double-decker train.

Dig deeper into the British double decker train issue, by becoming a follower of this Twitter group, to whom Angry Blogger (to whom deep thanks despite everything) links. Where it says:

Not followed by anyone you’re following.

It figures.

Meanwhile, it is clear to me that we in Britain have double-decker buses, unlike on the Continent, because, unlike them, we have Vision!

Ian Leslie seems to be learning from his mistakes

You get the feeling that a certain New Statesman piece, written in June 2016, must have had a rather big impact on the life and career of its author. Here is what the headline above it said:

Calm down. Trump won’t be President – and Britain won’t leave the EU

The piece under that was written by Ian Leslie.

Here are a couple more headlines, that can be read above two more recent pieces by Ian Leslie, also in the New Statesman.

December 2019:

Political scientists talk about low-information voters, but too much information causes problems too

March 2020:

Society rewards bluffers, but now is the time to admit we don’t know what we’re talking about

The reason this posting is here rather than at Samizdata, which is the group political blog that I have contributed to a lot in the past and continue to contribute to rather less frequently, is that although I have noted the existence of these articles, I have not read all of them. I did read the first one, quite a while ago, but I’ve not read the other two. Before sounding off about all this on Samizdata I need to actually read what Leslie said, and in the case of the top one, read it again.

Two thoughts about this, in the meantime.

First, if my blog postings were gone through, heading by heading, I’m pretty sure that you could have plenty of this sort of fun with them. A difference between prominent and more mainstream opinionators like Ian Lesie, and me, is not that he’s often badly wrong, but I never am. It’s that his wrongness is more public than mine. Also, he’s paid to make a judgement. If I want to hem and haw and hedge my bets and sprinkle my blog postings with question marks, no editor tells me I’m paid to get off the fence rather than remain seated upon it.

I was also very surprised when Brexit won (I talk about this ten minutes into this conversation with Patrick Crozier), and when Trump won (see this blog posting).

Second, it is by being wrong that we often learn. This is a tedious American cliche, with “learning experience” often just being the American for a balls-up. But it’s a cliche because it is said so often, and it is said so often because it is often true.

You certainly get the feeling that Ian Leslie has at least tried to learn from his very public double error of June 2016. I don’t recall the details very clearly, but I do distinctly recall that Leslie’s first piece actually said quite a lot about why Trump won and Brexit won. He identified, that is to say, some relevant variables – degree of economic discomfort and indifference to grander political principles are two that I recall noting. He just got wrong how people felt about how these things mattered, in connection with Trump and with Brexit. He wasn’t wrong because he asked the wrong questions. He merely answered some right questions wrongly. He was half way there, in other words.

So, next step: read the pieces themselves. Remember: The biggest lies in the media are told by those who concoct the headlines. These are often not just wrong, but often immediately proved wrong by what is right underneath them.

That WW2 bombing offensive podcast – It’s up!

I’ve said it before, at the end of the last posting here, and I’ll say it again, at the beginning of this posting: It’s up. It being Patrick and me talking about the World War 2 bombing offensive. Patrick got it posted and listenable to less than a day after we recorded it. My salutations to him.

As you can see if you follow Patrick’s link, just by the notes Patrick offers, we meander a bit, as we do, but I hope not too intolerably.

I’ll add here a few things that Patrick doesn’t mention. Here are three blog postings by me, two here and one at Samizdata: The amazing Merlin; Dowding’s amazing lack of tact: The strange birth of the Avro Lancaster. Also, here’s a book that Patrick doesn’t mention in his notes but which I do mention in the podcast: A biography of Bomber Harris.

Our next phone conversation, we now think, will be about the Vietnam War. I made most of the running in this last one, but on the subject of Vietnam Patrick will be laying out the story, and I’ll be clarifying, or at least I hope I will. His basic thesis: The Americans won it, and then threw it away. My question, as of now, is: Did the rapprochement with China, and subsequent (consequent?) US victory in the Cold War, have something to do with the “throwing it away” bit?

You can listen to any, some or all of our recent podcasts by going here.

A Twitter dump

For several months now, as alluded to tangentially already today, I have a ever heightening heap of, in particular, tweets piling up in my computer, which I have in mind to say clever things about, and which I do not in the meantime want to completely forget about. Pocket is great for articles with big headings at the top, but less good for tweets. So, here is a twitter dump, several of which are now way out of date, but still fun to remember.

This has made some impression on the pile. Not much, but some. So, in no particular order …:

Horrific find in local cafe. Destruction of great literature to create a bookish aesthetic. Shameful. Wasteful.

When God tries to punish your city for homosexuality but gays use their magic shield to protect it.

Two Concordes landing simultaneously.

I was glad to help you get home safely.

… you can be anything you want to be. You absolutely can not.

Inequality is the idea you can never be happy with a million dollars if the guy next door has a billion.

When I said Boris should get the unpopular stuff out of the way straight after the election, I meant unpopular with other people, not me.

“The United Kingdom is the last major European country where it is illegal to use e-scooters on public roads, bike paths, and pavements. This is despite surveys and usage indicating they are overwhelmingly popular where they are legal.” Time to fix that.

I see the potential for a whole new and compelling theory of modern political trends: ‘where does the bonkersness go?’ It could be called The Bonkers Dynamic, or Bonkerology.

Why did the Pilgrim Fathers leave for the New World? … They sailed because they felt themselves in a story.

Brexit Day +4: The grounded planes, the chaos in the streets, the unpaid workers, the crippling strikes, the faltering economy, the upper class buffoon in charge, the petrol bombs, the riot police, the snipers on rooftops, the tanks on the streets. But enough about France

I will not stand for baseless attacks and slander, unless they are directed at people I personally dislike.

A little excess fear is exactly what evolutionary principles would predict. The cost of us getting killed even once is higher than the cost of responding to a hundred false alarms.

However the #CoronavirusOutbreak plays out, pundits and commentators will craft a clean story for why whatever ends up happening was obvious all along.

From Dawah to damage control – All the workshops that used to be around trying to convert non-Muslims to Islam, are now trying to keep Muslims from leaving Islam and doubting religion.

When a team loses it looks unpopular, out of touch, and hence more likely to lose in future. It is the very act of winning that changes other people’s minds because they don’t want to be on the unpopular team, and winning shows that what you’re offering is what’s popular.

No shininess at Eltz

Nudged, I’m guessing, by this posting of mine, Michael Jennings earlier this month Facebooked this closer-up photo he had photoed of Eltz Castle:

A classic of ancient adhocistical anarchy, I think you’ll agree. The very definition of picturesque.

But I also show this photo of Michael’s because I think it illustrates the opinion I expressed in this earlier shininess or architectural modernity posting. There is no shininess in the above photo, not even in the windows on show. (The things I like best are always the things that tell me how right I was, I find.)

An obvious reason for that is that the windows seem all to be recessed from the surfaces of buildings. But there seems to be another reason. Take a look at this Eltz Castle photo, this time an interior shot (one of those here):

Very lavish, but that’s not my point. Which is: Look again at those windows, the ones with all the circles. They look like Ancientist fakes to me, but Ancientist or genuinely ancient, what those windows illustrate is that glass existed for a long time before they worked out how to make its surface smooth and flat. Above all, they took a long time to work out how to make big sheets of glass, such as we moderns now take for granted. And it’s that total absence of large and smooth and shiny surfaces that does so much to explain the different atmosphere radiated by ancient architecture.

At Eltz, you might get occasional flashes of light, little splinters. And you can see great stuff in old windows, from the inside, as the above photo also illustrates lavishly. But you’re never going to see anything reflected in glass like that, outside. Not any Thing, that you can recognise.

Five years ago today on the South Bank

Yes, another retro-photo-meander, on May 11th 2015

Photo 1: This doesn’t exactly nail down the date, does it? This could be a headline from any day during the last two decades. False, every time. The only time we got tough on the EU was when the mere voters voted to leave.

But Photo 2 is suitably fixed in time, the time when they were just finishing those rather lavish looking student apartments, on the far side of Westminster Bridge. In my day, we lived in digs. These were holes in the road. Just kidding.

Photo 3: Just as photos of people wearing face masks take on a new meaning now, so now do crowd scenes. Who are those people wearing blue caps? No idea. Memo to self: gather up more crowd scenes. I haven’t done many of these. In future, I’m guessing now I’ll do more.

Photo 4: The Big Purple Cow is – was? – a comedy venue.

Photos 5 to 9 explain themselves. Above the streaks on concrete is a sign saying where we are.

Photo 10: On the right, that’s the ME Hotel Radio Rooftop Bar.

I can never remember what the roof clutter i Photo 12 is on the roof of, but I always like to photo it.

The vapour trail in Photo 15 was also this vapour trail. If vapour trails always looked this black and horrible, there would now be no planes flying.

Another recorded conversation with Patrick (about the WW2 bombing offensive)

Tomorrow afternoon Patrick Crozier and I will be recording another of our recorded conversations. Assuming all the technology behaves as it should, it will in due course go here. We’re going to be talking about the World War 2 bombing offensive. Patrick and I like talking about war.

So, what will we be saying? You’ll maybe get a clue of the sorts of things I may be saying if you read this posting, which I did for the old blog in July 2012, and which I have just copied onto this new blog, so you can now read it without having to get past a scary red screen, full of urgings that you go away at once.

I also have in mind to mention the North American Mustang, the birth and evolution of which was a fascinating story, and one perfectly calculated to cheer up any Brit who fears that America ended up making all the running in WW2. It was us Brits that got the Mustang off the drawing board, by paying North American to have a go at developing and building it in numbers. This was in 1940, way before Uncle Sam was interested in such things. And, it was a Brit engine (the Merlin) that ended up powering the Mustang, albeit a version of it made in America. The Mustang made all the difference because it was a great little fighter and it could go all the way to Germany and back.

Unlike our earlier recorded conversations, this one will be done over the phone, which I expect will be tricky. Face-to-face is so much easier. I daresay there’ll be moments when we both talk at once, and other moments where we are both waiting for the other to talk. Awkward.

The ease of face-to-face being a lot of the reason why cities exist. There’s lots of talk now about how work will now go on being done down wires instead of face-to-face, even after the Coronavirus fuss has all died down. More work will then be done down wires, I’m sure. But cities are too good an idea to abandon. Yes, in cities, you can more easily catch a disease. You can also be more easily mass-murdered by bombers, airborne or of a more primitive sort. But cities, I predict, are here to stay, because face-to-face, for all its drawbacks and dangers, will always be the best way to do so many things.

More telecommuting won’t finish off cities. Rather is telecommuting just another thing for people in cities to organise.

Prague should build this shipwreck!

What do you reckon on this?:

It’s a big Shipwreck Thing that some people are trying to build in Prague. My first reaction, when I first set eyes on the above fake photo last night, was horror. But now that I have had time to live with this notion, I find myself quite liking it, in fact liking it a lot. It’s supposedly something to do with the havoc that climate change will unleash upon the world, in the form of vertical ships getting wrecked up against big city Things. But despite all that hysterical nonsense, I now very much like the idea of this particular, as yet only fantasised, Thing.

I’ve actually been to Prague a couple of times, and Prague, architecturally, has a problem, which is that its centre is not so much a city centre, more like an outdoor museum. It’s wall-to-wall Architectural History. Try to add so much as a tiny office extension and you are violating History itself.

World War 2 bombing and Communism have in common that, in addition to killing lots of innocent people, they often either totally flattened great swathes of historic architecture, or they left great swathes of historic architecture totally unscathed. Maybe a bit the worse for wear, drab, falling apart, seriously in need of a torrent of paint. But basically, some ancient European architectural wonderlands have managed to survive these twin scourges of mid-twentieth century Europe utterly unscathed. World War 2 bombing flattened the cities of Germany, and scattered destruction upon London, especially in the vicinity of the London docks. But it never laid a finger on Paris. Or, Prague. And although Communism did terrible things to all the poor bastards trying to live in Prague, Communism left the mere buildings of Prague untouched, as if in a time warp. Just because Communism wrecks the economy, it can sometimes then unleash zero in the way of economic development, which translated into architecture means: Nothing. Nothing built. Nothing destroyed to make way for anything built, because nothing is built. Weird but true. Hence: The centre of the City of Prague.

Or some cretin like Ceausescu would send in the bulldozers and destroy the place completely. But, with Communism, those are the chances you take.

But, as I say, the buildings in the middle of Prague survived the twentieth century totally. but meanwhile, the architectural outskirts of Prague got done over by Communism at its crassest. Concrete block after concrete block. You could be anywhere, and wherever you were, although it may have been your home and therefore nice for other reasons, but looked at in an unbiased way it was bloody horrible. I’m guessing it is still pretty dreary.

So, what’s to be done, in a place like Prague, short of someone hiring a gang of terrorists to scatter quite a few bombs around the place but not too many? Well, a logical answer is to leave the centre of Prague untouched, obviously, but also to do some very extreme architectural Things in the boring Communist hinterland, outside the centre. (Like La Défense in Paris, only more so.) And that would appear to be the idea of this scheme. Will many people consider it extremely ugly? Undoubtedly. But all must now agree that what would have happened instead would merely have been extremely boring.

“The project under preparation will be outside the protected zone of the urban conservation area and outside the area prohibiting high-rise buildings,” explained Trigema.

“At the same time, it is located far enough away from the Prague, so that it will not be visible from the vast majority of places in the centre of the metropolis and will not disturb the historical city skyline.”

There you go. I am totally for it. The fact that it is so totally bonkers is all part of why I am so totally for it. If anything, it sounds like it may be disappointingly far from the centre of the City, but it’s a good start.

At first, I thought they were going to erect a real shipwreck. But actually, if they do build it, the actual shipwreck bit will be a cunningly post-modernistical sculpture that merely looks like a shipwreck and which will actually be tremendous fun for tourists to wander about in and photo. Call it the Bilbao effect. Remember, when Frank Gehry first proposed that amazing Bilbao Thing, nobody had ever done anything like this before. The horror of typical first reactions was all part of why it became such a huge success.

So I say to Prague: Build this shipwreck!

I especially like how they want greenery to grow up from the top of the boring bit below, in and among the shipwreck. Nice touch.

Howard Goodall on the world’s first recording star

I’ve been dipping into Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs, which is a book (based on a BBC TV show), whose subtitle is “The Story of Five Discoveries That Changed Musical History”. I have started at the end, with Bang Number Five, which was when Edison recorded sound. Here’s what Goodall says about the impact of the nascent sound recording industry on the life and career of Enrico Caruso (pp. 218-220):

Enrico Caruso was one of seven children born to a working-class Neapolitan family living in the Via San Giovanello. He received his first singing instruction as a choirboy in a local church, and as a teenager he made a few lire every night singing favourite Neapolitan songs for the cafe customers on the harbour waterfront. He began work in a factory, but eventually he was able to turn professional with his outstanding voice. After a shaky debut in Naples – he vowed never to perform there again – he was invited to sing at the holiest of all opera’s shrines, La Scala, Milan. It was here in March 1902 that Fred Gaisberg, the Gramophone Company’s European representative, heard Caruso performing in Franchetti’s popular opera Germania. Gaisberg offered the young unknown a deal to record ten arias for £100; Caruso duly accepted the offer, to the horror of Gaisberg’s London office, which tried to forbid the spending of ‘this exorbitant sum’. Gaisberg, however, backed his hunch, using his own money. That April, in Suite 301 in the Grand Hotel, Milan, the ten records were cut, beginning with ‘Studenti, Udite’ from Germania. Gaisberg went on to recoup his investment thousands of times over – and the records earned his company a fortune.

Most of the ten masters made on that occasion remain in perfect condition to this day. After their release, Caruso’s fame spread dramatically throughout Europe and America. He made two recordings, in 1902 and 1907, of the aria ‘Vesti la giubba’, from Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci, which between them sold over a million copies. I Pagliacci was at this time a relatively new opera (it was given its first stage performance in 1892), based on a recent real-life criminal case. It’s hard to find a modern equivalent for this – a modern opera being as commercially successful as I Pagliacci. Even the hit records released from the shows of Andrew Lloyd Webber are based on stories from the past (Evita is probably his most contemporary non-fiction subject). As for the work of contemporary ‘classical’ composers, the thought of Harrison Birtwistle writing an opera which included a million-selling song is, let’s face it, laughable.

Caruso was to the early gramophone what Frank Sinatra or Maria Callas were to the LP, what Elvis Presley and the Beatles were to the 45-rpm ‘single’, and what Dire Straits and George Michael were to the compact disc: the ‘software’ of the music that drew listeners to the ‘hardware’ of the machines and materials. He was the first recording megastar, as much a household name in his day as Charlie Chaplin, prodigal son of another medium also in its infancy. Caruso’s voice had a timbre and range that perfectly suited the limitations of the medium, it could soar and tremble with such strength and depth that the background hiss and the indistinct accompaniment were all but forgotten. To many people, hearing him scale the summits of high opera was both miraculous and moving and this was not just their first experience of the true potential of the gramophone but also a gateway to the whole classical repertoire.

Edison’s humble contraption was to become a universal gift with the popularity of Caruso, catapulting classical music out of the small, exclusive world it had hitherto known.

The Gramophone and Victor Companies were buoyed by Caruso’s success. What’s more, all the other top singers now wanted a piece of the action, hurriedly dropping their objections to the quality of the medium once they realised that it could make them rich. The female equivalent of Caruso was Nellie Melba, an Australian soprano with a peach of a voice, and a good head for business, who held out until she got £1,000 – and her own label in passionate mauve.