Saturday, 26 May 2012

Science Shapes Tomorrow

Some time in the late sixties or early seventies I received a book by Gerald Leach as a school prize. A venerable gent presented it to me on the stage in a marquee on the school lawn to a round of parental applause. It was called  Science Shapes Tomorrow. The said gent glanced at the title as he shook my hand and proffered the book. "Don't let it," he whispered. (As it happens Leach, the author, probably shared some of the implied misgivings as he went on to be an early champion of environmentalism).

Anyway: fast forward. I've not lost my taste for "pop" science. I'd like to understand the real "classical" stuff but the Bachs and Shostakoviches of science usually go right over my head or, at best, in one ear and out of the other. I have often enthused about things scientific to my children with the result that they sometimes buy me pretty daunting looking tomes for Christmases and birthdays. I'm making my way through a couple right now.

These arrived simultaneously: Cox and Forshaw's The Quantum Universe: Everything that can happen does happen and Michio Kaku's Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel. The first is a lucid explanation of quantum theory for the layperson who is prepared at least to try and think about it. I've got half way through and I think I know a little bit more than I did about how things may or may not be in two places at once. I made the mistake of putting it down for a couple of days which means I'll have to start it again - which I will, as the authors' explanation is compelling and I think people should have a rough grasp of what they're going on about. I hope it's where I left it.

Kaku's book, on the other hand is eminently readable. It borders on being the kind of romp which, if they're not careful, tends to get respectable scientists into trouble. However, it never quite crosses the line, as far as I can see. It does use the carrot of sensationalism to lure the reader into some pretty serious sounding scientific speculation. It ranges from asking if telepathy is possible to wondering if will we ever be able to travel to distant galaxies. The first, no: but we can increasingly interface with the brain electronically and crudely control the brain from the outside with electrical devices. The second, yes if we can build unmanned starships the size of coke-cans or even "nano-starships" the size  grains of sand, or learn to build bigger ships actually in space. The Andromeda Galaxy in 2.6 million light years away - but if we travelled at 99% the speed of light, it would only seem like 23 years to the astronauts on board (I think I've remembered that right). Performing such feats is a long, long way off - but even just thinking about it makes me think we should place more emphasis on developing manned space travel. We Earthlings scaled down our ambitions after the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, during which three of us got to spend a long weekend on the moon (moon dust smells like burnt caps from a cap gun apparently - a rather pleasant smell I've always thought). Had we carried on we'd have established a moon base and visited Mars by now. We would be contemplating voyages to places farther afield. As it is, we've developed robot missions to the planets and beyond while restricting ourselves to working in near-earth orbit. The robot missions have been fantastic -who, for example, could forget the footage of the Titan landscape sent back by the Huygens probe?

However, as I was recently watching archive footage of the Apollo 17 astronauts on the moon, it struck me how machines just can't rival the inquiring mind of a human. If the technology breaks, a human will try to fix it. If a human sees something unusual, it'll investigate it (see the "orange soil" video, below). Unmanned missions might be cheaper: but how many unmanned missions (and expensive launches) does it take to gather the information that might be gathered in one manned mission? I ask this question because I've no idea what the answer to it is.

There are those who argue that in a world where there is poverty it's impossible to justify the cost of space travel. I don't hold with this - we need to combat poverty and go into space. For all our sakes we need innovation and space travel now -as much as flint tools in the distant past- is innovation. Then there's the rather more wooly notion that to understand our place in the universe we need to explore it. In a distant future we might find we need to be up to speed on what lies out there - even if we've evolved into something else by then.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Blackstone Edge

Daniel and I went for a walk to the top of Blackstone Edge the other day, as we do from time to time. As usual, we parked by the White House Inn on the A58 and followed the Pennine Way footpath South. An icecream van has parked in a layby close to this spot for as many years as I can remember. We'd bought ourselves icecreams and were sitting in the car eating them, when we saw a crowd of 20 or more white-robed people descending the Pennine Way path from the Edge. They all piled into the cars parked around us and drove off. Daniel said he'd seen the same group on his previous visit. Intrigued, I searched the internet for any reference to white robed people on Blackstone Edge, only to discover that the group had been seen  frequently there and that other people who'd seen them were intrigued too.

I always find it fascinating the way these round basins form on the top of gritstone boulders:

The view North(ish), from the summit:

Wandering round the hilltop I was reminded of Alan Burnett's post on his News From Nowhere blog about the commemoration of a Chartist gathering there.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Young Musician Prize 2012

I don't very often get the chance to watch the BBC Young Musician competition when it's on but I did catch the end of it this year. The finalists were pianist Yuanfan Yang, cellist Laura van der Heijden and recorder player Charlotte Barbour-Condini.

Charlotte Barbour-Condini performed the Vivaldi Recorder Concerto. This was a fantastic -if unusual- performance. Barbour-Condini had incorporated cadenzas of her own which at times made the recorder sound not unlike a Japanese shakuhachi. The concerto movements themselves were played with a passion. I'm not up-to-date with current thinking on how music of that period should be played but I suspect it was not a performance for the purist. Not that I wanted it to be. She managed to make the piece into something people not otherwise into classical music might flock to listen to.

Yuanfan Yang gave an excellent account of the Grieg Piano Concerto. I think it is often the case that overplayed,"hackneyed" pieces start their lives as masterpieces and it is good sometimes to reclaim them, to try and listen to them as if they hadn't been played a million times before. However, I think he would have done himself a favour had he chosen a different work. If you want to let the world know that yours is a voice to be listened to then make the listener curious.

Which brings me on to Laura van der Heijden's winning performance of the Walton Cello Concerto. This was a very judicious choice of work, I thought. To use an overused word for the second time, it's a masterpiece of 20th century music and (unlike the Grieg) it doesn't get played enough. This wasn't just a winning performance - it was a masterly, illuminating one. Van der Heijden brought an insight to it I'd expect from an exceptional cellist twice her age (she's 15).

It's hard to imagine a better advert for classical music. The prize? £2,000. And in the week when Britain's got Talent is won by a dog. The prize? £500,000. OK, I'm not comparing like with like - the Walton is about enlightenment, while Pudsey's act is about entertainment. Both, in different ways, involve hard work.The point is I'd have given both prizewinners about £20,000 each and done a bit more to encourage viewers to turn on to Young Musician. BBC4 is a great thing. However, the space a preponderance of digital channels creates for coverage of the arts can also have the effect of sidelining the arts, as only those who know they want to watch a programme change channel and watch it.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Of Pluto and Submarines

Busy weeks can seem rather blurred when one looks back on them. Last week, for me, was a case in point. However, somewhere in among all the music teaching, kettle-boiling, shirt buttonning, teeth cleaning and car driving I managed to watch a couple of films: most recently, there was Breakfast on Pluto, an adaption of Patrick McCabe's novel of the same name. In it, for those who don't know, transgender hero Patrick "Kitten" Braden manages to stumble through the cultural and political minefield of "the troubles" in Ireland without -mainly thanks to his disarming persona- getting killed. I'd not seen it before. Having seen it and enjoyed it, I might read the novel.

Then there was Das Boot. I'd seen it before, a long time ago. I'd forgotten how spellbinding it is: a film that manages to draw one into the drama of war while at the same time leaving you in no doubt as to the tragic futility of it all. There are great performances all round: not least from the people behind the cameras, the composer of the filmscore and the orchestra who play it.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Eskdale Adventure

I sometimes wish I knew the Lake District better than I do. My rather patchy knowledge arises partly from a fixation with the number 3,000: a bit of a Munro thing, a preference -certainly the past- for walks that end at a summit over 3,000 feet high.
So it is that my knowledge of the Western side (which unless you live over there is less accessible) is a lot less well-developed than I would like it to be. I have been to Wasdale a few times and climbed the 3,000-foot Scafells from there but I had never been to Upper Eskdale, until yesterday that is, when F, N and I set off on an exploratory walk.

Upper Eskdale is enclosed by a horseshoe of impressive peaks, the highest of which are Scafell Pike and Scafell, which it shares in common with Wasdale. In the centre of the skyline a pleasingly pointed Eskdale Pike rises above the Esk River much to the satisfaction, I imagine, of people with cameras who don't want to venture too far from the thin ribbon of country lane that winds past the end of the valley.

The only way in is on foot: there are no roads, hotels or campsites within the horseshoe, only footpaths, hills, crags and the Esk River. If you want to get here by car you have to brave the Wrynose and Hardknott Passes, or take 12 miles of winding country lane from the South, or take a circuitous route around the Lake District itself to approach it from the West.

The Esk river is more of a stream than a river here and, for quite a lot of its length, takes the form of pleasantly rocky bathing pools linked by waterfalls. Next time I visit I'll take a towel. As it was, we were restricted to the banks. Much to our amazement -and amusement- as we walked up the valley, we kept running into a group of four young men dressed in helmets, T shirts and wetsuits who were swimming, gill-scrambling and tombstoning their way up the river. They were good-natured lot. They had something of a "Three Men in a Boat" aura about them (well, four in this case, and no boat) that made one feel as good to be alive as they evidently did. It's easy to be a Jeremiah where tombstoning is concerned. The Jeremiahs in this case may be right: speaking for myself, I definitely lack the nerve for it, and don't relish the idea of swapping in a split second a life spent swimming in rivers for one spent in a wheelchair. If nothing else though, these guys certainly made a good case for the importance of having fun.

We stopped for lunch by the side of a rocky pool before tackling the steepest part of the walk. This turned out to be not particularly arduous: it soon emerged in a high basin overlooked by the highest local peaks, Scafell and Scafell Pike, which is an imposing presence seen from this side. One of the joys of walking for me is the discovery of high, secluded valleys in which signs of habitation are invisible and which are accessible only through a certain amount of effort. My imagination being prone to hyperbole, I was reminded in this case of Shipman and Tilman's discovery of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary.

The summits of these mountains were not our objective on this occasion. We crossed the the Esk by teetering over the dry tops of its rapids, thankfully without falling in, and made our way back via a different, high-level path. The mountain tops were free of cloud. The air was sharp and clear and the peaks of the hills that surrounded us stood out in a continuous line, inviting one to walk along it: Scafell, Scafell Pike, Ill Crag, Eskdale Pike, Bowfell, Crinkle Crags. Not today. Walking the "Eskdale Horseshoe" will have to wait -but not for too long, I hope.

Thursday, 3 May 2012


As part of my work, I'm currently trying to make a list for my own use of  pieces of classical music that might kindle the interest of young people in the genre. This is one I'm certainly putting on it.

Claude Debussy wrote Syrinx for solo flute in 1913. The original Syrinx, for anyone who doesn't know, was a nymph in classical mythology.Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she found herself on a riverbank. She asked for the assistance of the river nymphs, who obliged by turning her into hollow reeds that made a haunting sound when the breath of the frustrated god blew across them...

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Lost Fire Brigade

I thought I'd start an occasional series of reviews of poetry books from the rather random collection I've built up over the years. I had the idea when I fished out this book, looking for a poem I remembered from it. It was -is- a rather brutal, surreal poem and it's from The Lost Fire Brigade by Spike Hawkins:

lights seen

The rainbow hid in the car
Until the car stopped and
the man got out
and threw away his entire

Spike Hawkins was born in 1943 and The Lost Fire Brigade was published in that year when so much else happened, 1968. The poem I've just quoted is fairly typical: short, surreal and with a twist of dry wit. Several of the poems were anthologised by Michael Horowitz in Children of Albion. Edward Lucie-Smith included the poems Hawkins is most well-known for -his "Three Pig Poems"-  in British Poetry Since 1945.

The book has a real whiff of the world so brilliantly portrayed in the film Withnail and I. Indeed, had there been a role for a poet in that film, it would have had to have been Spike Hawkins:

put britain back

    for the arts council

Welcome poverty
I love you

The clue to the title of the book, too, is in this poem. In 1967, a group of protesting poets had lit a fire outside the headquarters of the Arts Council. put britain back was certainly topical but my favourite poem in the book is brown light, with its musical ending, in which "a flurry" of sandwiches:

...finally dropped at my feet
Their springs broken
Like small fishes panting clank

If I didn't already have a copy, would I buy it? Undoubtedly yes, and not only for its value as a historical artefact, which is not inconsiderable in my opinion. As Adrian Mitchell said, "Hawkins is an unclassifiable, moon-tanned animal who was banned from Noah's Ark and so decided to start his own Deluge." However, if I found it in a second hand bookshop next to Horovitz' Children of Albion: Poetry of the 'Underground' in Britain and was forced (by dint of a lack of cash) to buy one or the other, I'd go for the Horovitz. Horovitz made an excellent job of picking the wittiest and pithiest of Hawkins' fragmentary poems.