The BBC Radio 4 programme The Museum of Curiousity was on again this evening, hosted by John Lloyd, the “Professor of Ignorance at the University of Buckingham“. A real [private] University, not sure if he really holds the post [well, obviously not in one sense, but this is the fifth series, one would have thought if the Uni of Buckingham – not to be confused with Bucks New Uni, whose real (that is, accurate) name of ‘University of High Wycombe’ was rejected by the Privy Council, those snobbish drunks (I would have used another, more derogatory, term but dictionaries disagree to the precise definition, some pushing it over the limit of acceptable these days)] would have objected by now if they didn’t like it. So why did a drunken orgy at the Privy council allow a name so close to that of an existing University, within the same county (look at the name of the county, guys…)

You see why my editors sometimes are found sobbing, heads in their hands, after the penultimate sentence above would have crossed their view. It works. Just. If you think carefully. Note the nested brackets. And yes, my work emails sometimes have two or maybe in one case three brackets in a row to close all the nestings.

Anyway, there are three panelists who are guest donator, who ‘donate’ an item to the museum, and explain why. This evening’s edition included a bubble and ancient writing. There was a moment of interaction between the two proposers here (both are serious academics – about the earliest reference to bubbles in said writing), where the “curator” (the resident comedian) suggested how he hated the way the programme was “dumbing down”. (Obviously it wasn’t) They say next week one of the panelists is Buzz Aldrin – the second man on the Moon.

But a side comment caught my attention, not that I did not believe it, but that it appeared to be perfectly possible. That in the history of photography, more photos have been taken in the last year than in the rest of the history of photography combined.

And what are all these photos of? A large percentage will be of drunk young people at parties of one sort or another. Another percentage will be taken by people like me, now able to photograph at zero cost what used to be expensive, so do so – be it cars, records for work, or whatever. Anther large percentage will be “porn”, either professional or amateur, as can be seen all over the internet these days (I’ve no need to include such a photo of that here).

Oh well, I’m so off topic, I may as well go on about this programme. Clive James donated the North American Aviation’s “Mustang”, built at the behest of the British during World War II, but only came into its own when fitted with the Packard built licensed Rolls Royce Merlin Engine. James argued the Mustang was a war-winner, as it could fly from Britain to Berlin and back, and when Göring saw it in the skies above, he knew the war was over. I’d argue the Merlin engine, that powering the Hurricane, Spitfire, Lancaster bomber [*] and Mustang was the real war winner. That episode of the programme was more remarkable because the researchers made a mistake, and got all the details of a different North American aircraft; but James (off the cuff) had all those details to hand as well, and went on, at length, about that aircraft. It was a bravura performance, one I managed to record.

* Note added later. How could I forget the de Havilland Mosquito, the wooden bomber that could out-fly the fighters, that of Göring’s famous complaint, built in parts in my home town, whose test-pilot was born not 2 miles from where I write this now, and powered by two Merlin engines. As a kid I was once shown a tip of a propeller blade, by some old man, forget why, but he said it was for a Spitfire. I reckon it was really a Mosquito propellor tip, the Spitfire being mentioned as I’d probably heard of it at my then age. But they were making the parts for Mosquitos. The vast majority of Mosquitos had parts from my home town.

In the film ‘The Blues Brothers (1980)’, one of the many chase scenes involves the by now crippled ex-police car of the brothers being chased by Illinois Nazis. They run through road-works, and end up at at the end of a partially constructed roadway – they literally run out of road, and the car hangs over the edge.

(Screensave from DVD of ‘The Blues Brothers (1980)’. I know how they felt at this moment…

I know how they felt. I’ve been in that position of hovering over the edge. They had an easy way back (‘Movie magic’). The other really famous situation of this kind was the (almost literally) cliff-hanger ending to the original ‘The Italian Job (1969)’, with Michael Caine’s famous last words
“Hang on lads, I’ve got a great idea,”

Many years ago, in Germany on business, in a ‘company car’ (in fact one of the directors, loaned to me). I was not in my car, on the grounds that my then 20-year-old Volvo wasn’t up to the job (sic). Never had power steering, the servo for the brakes had failed (but still passed the MOT, the brakes worked). Anyhow, due to the Bayreuth festival, hotels in that town were sold out months in advance, so we found ourselves out, literally, in the middle of nowhere. My companion was a younger man of dubious sexuality – such that I slept on the floor on the first night out, in Heidelberg, he had the bed in the only room we could find that day.

This was despite his attempts earlier in the day – although he had had plenty of offers of a bed from [or more probably with] various women (sometimes plural) he approached in the attempt to find somewhere (only I was in tow…) He certainly was a ‘Buon Uomo’ (if I’ve got that right), and would top up his sun-tan at every possible moment. But these offers were further complcated by the fact that we needed secure parking for the car at that time, because of the goods we were carrying.

His navigational skills were notible by their absence. At one point, earlier in the day in question, we found ourselves in the then still existing East Germany. Since the car was travelling TIR, and we were now in a country not listed on the forms, we’d be in trouble if anything when wrong.

So late this night, with his at best iffy navigational skills, I found that I had to do a 3 point turn. Only I didn’t succeed – there was a ditch rather close to the road, and the car ended up askew nose down in the ditch, at 2 O’Clock in the morning.

It is not hard to imagine my feelings at this point. After a lot of swearing, I don’t recall that I used Michael Caine’s exact words, but certainly a precis of them…

As I looked at the situation, I thought I found a way out. By jacking the car up on one side, enough to put the spare wheel under the chassis, would equalise the problem (so long as it didn’t slide down further). That worked. So getting my colleague to stand on the rear bumper, and jump up and down, while I, in the driver’s seat, tried to reverse – it worked – the car pulled itself out, scraping along the spare wheel.

The alternative would have been walking to a farm, getting the farmer up, to get his tractor out and pull the car out of the ditch. Fortunately my colleague spoke good German, so there was not that hurdle to overcome, but I didn’t look forward to the prospect.

This ‘getting a car out of a ditch at two am with a spare wheel and physics’ is one of my my better stories, it is also one I cannot tell to friends and family – for getting the car in the ditch in the first place, to the owner of the car, or to my family who’d worry what I’d do next.

Two more demolished pubs.

October 18, 2012

I was caught in bad traffic in London this evening, so went a long way out of my way to Greenford, a western suburb of the conurbation, but somewhere I occasionally passed through. There I found an old pub in the last stages of demolition. This photo was very hurriedly taken – the traffic lights had just turned Green – and is not distinct, but it may prove to be one of the very last photos of this pub. It shows a few bare walls (no roof, some walls missing). My first reaction was that there had been a fire there, causing it to close down, but a subseqent search of the internet did not reveal any reference to a fire, but who knows?

This poor photo (sorry) may be the last of the Red Lion, Greenford Broadway. Only some bare brick walls still standing, no roof.

There were two ‘Red Lion’ pubs in Greenford, both on the same road, as it happens, this was the more easterly one. Newspaper reports say it closed in August, but the internet still shows current websites saying that this ‘John Barras’ pub (trading name of the ‘Spirit Pub Company’, no doubt a pubco) is still a good place to go of an evening for “restaurant” food and drink.

The sign (not readable here) suggests it is being converted to some kind of residential property (primarily, I’d think).

Another pub that I watched close, be boarded up and demolished was the ‘Crooked Billet’ near Staines, SW of London, on the A30 Great South West Road. I drove past this pub (and now drive past the site) on a very regular basis. In this case, the pub has been such a local landmark that the roundabout next to the site is known as the Crooked Billet Roundabout.

Well, the pub had eccentric architecture, of recent provinance, no doubt to emphasise on the name, but was demolished recently. In this case, once the place was boarded up, there were fires – arson attacks? – which no doubt sealed the fate of the building as a pub, and probably the building itself.
Sometimes I wonder about arson attacks on buildings – Brighton West Pier is a prime example, what was there left to burn on the pier that had already been alight so many times before?

This naming of road junctions after local landmarks is common, but increasingly anacronistic, as the landmarks (pubs, other buildings) disappear. Gillette corner is named after the iconic building of the area, but Gillette have moved out, making the name rather anacronistic, although the building (with the name above the entrance) still survives. Now that the Crooked Billet pub has entirely gone, how long will the name survive just because of the road junction named after it?

I was talking to a South African today, and she commented that a friend of hers, visiting and staying at hers, had wondered that so many pubs were now supermarkets, compared to the last visit.

This is potentially a thread of blog enteries, with a new category to link them.

The starting point of this was an idea I thought to send to the New Scientist ‘Last Word’ column, which was that the development of humankind, and ‘civilisation’ does seem to rely upon rather a lot of accidents of evolution. But the idea grew and grew.

Personally, I expect that some form of life will be discovered somewhere else in the solar system. It won’t necessarily be anything complex at all, but as life exists in so many extreme environments here on Earth, why should it not evolve in similar environments elsewhere? However, on the face of it, one problem is the lack of any evidence so far of ‘intelligent’ life elsewhere in the universe.

So I will also describe what I mean by ‘Monumental’ life here. There are examples where the Great apes, and even parrots have learnt to communicate with humans, arguably beyond mimicry or conditioned responses to subtle cues – Alex the African Grey parrot famously so in English, but Koko the Gorilla, without the specialisations in the airways to make the relivent sounds, does so in American Sign Language.

But whatever their achievements, the Great apes, or Parrots, or Dolphins are unlikely to leave behind anything that would show they existed – other than a dead body that might be one of that minute percentage that becomes a fossil [1]. Unless the Dolphins, pace Douglas Adams, consider humankind’s construction of objects to be a sign of lesser intelligence…

For my purposes, ‘Monumental’ here means the sort of works that makes humankind stand out – the monuments. Anything like Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, or, to a more limited extent, buildings, motorways, and even land-fill sites.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England. Still around after at least 4,500 years.

Essentially, I refer as a ‘Monument’ anything that, were humankind wiped off the face of the Earth tomorrow, a traveller from elsewhere, arriving a short time later would realise that these were not naturally occurring objects, but the product of some organisation, some intelligence. I have therefore decided to call the organisation that made such things – that is, in this case humankind, ‘Monumental Life’, life that make objects or monuments that outlast the lives of the creators, often by orders of magnitude.

I aim to develop this train of thought in later blog entries.

[1] It occurred to me that the ‘meme’ of Alex, Koko and Dolphins have potentially managed to achieve Monumental status by becoming so frequently referenced by Humans in their media – and potentially in longer lasting formats. I don’t mean that a statue to Alex will be raised soon.

Comments about Blogs

October 14, 2012

Firstly, there has been some interest in my comments about Public Houses, so I have added a new category and edited all the previous entries so that they can all be located.

I know that I have not blogged much this year, it has been busy, but I have noticed that quite a number of blogs – on wordpress and others – have also had a long hiatus in entries. Even some of the most frequent bloggers have almost stopped – there was one with one entry in three months (recognising that they were taking a break), another with no entries in the past six months.

I know it is coincidence, but it is odd that so many blogs have not been updated for so long. My blog has often had a hiatus due to work or personal circumstances, I certainly cannot claim to be a regular blogger.

It has been some time since I made any report on anything at all – it has been a busy time. But it has not escaped my notice that there have been more changes regarding pubs.

The ‘Geroge V’ seems to be staggering on, the ‘Let this pub’ sign appearing and disappearing. The ‘Golden Fleece’ seems to have closed down again, and a ‘To Let’ sign has reappeared, and all the theme night posters disappeared. But these pubs are still pubs, at least for now.

Now to the buildings that have changed. Two of those mentioned before are now ‘Sainsbury’s Local’ – The ‘Green Man’, and the ‘Duke of Wellington’. The former is an all new building, demolishing an historic building in the process, the latter refitted into the existing (1930s (?)) building. Another building being refitted is ‘The Warren’ (another 1930s building?), becoming a local Tesco’s, but that refit is still going on – as of today, it looks almost ready to receive stock.

The transformation of the ‘Duke of Wellington’ completed as ‘Sainsbury’s Local’ supermarket

As I drive around on business or simply on my necessary journeys, there are just so many pubs that are not open now when formerly they would have been; are they closed – open on weekends only? Closed – for business? Closed – to be sold for other purposes?

In my opinion, the traditional pub is within a few years of extinction. There was a radio programme this week that reported that in some areas of the UK it was uneconomic to open an ‘Off Licence’ (a shop selling alcohol for consumption ‘off the premises’) due to illegal imports of cheap lager and spirits – or just simply illegal manufacture in the UK. If Off Licenceses are uneconomic because of this illegal trade, no wonder public houses with their much higher overheads are closing down.

If such news makes it to radio programmes, it clearly is well advanced.

The illegal trade is only going to increase as the UK duty rate on alcohol is far higher than that across the channel, meaning that it is economic to go to France, fill a van with lager, and drive back (if you can do so evading customs) and sell it cheaper than the UK price. So doing it on an industrial scale clearly is highly profitable for the illegal trade. And the government needs revenue so much it’s hardly likely to cut the rate of duty, even if it were not afraid of the consequences of freely available cheap booze on the English.

It was that fear, during the 1914-18 war, that caused the introduction of so many of the restrictions of opening hours etc for the pub trade. The recent loosening of these restrictions – in a vain attempt to create a ‘cafe society’ – is also too late, and ineffective with the high rates of duty to contend with.