Wednesday 24 May 2017

Northern grit

London, Paris, New York. So far, we could be talking fashion (not that I would, of course). But add Boston, Brussels, Sydney, Nice, Istanbul, Stockholm and now Manchester, and you know I'm not just listing places I've been. A lot of my travels have put me in touch with war - Two, One, Vietnam, Boer, Civil, Maori, the list goes on - the best bit of which was that they were all part of history. But, oh so sadly, war isn't something uncivilised we've put behind us, like child slavery and the black plague [*cough* Actually...] - it keeps on keeping on, both in its traditional incarnation, and in this new, insidious and apparently uncontrollable variety.

More and more, I wonder how different the history of the world might be if women, not men, had been in charge, I really do. We're making tiny steps in that direction, but will the world still be salvaegable by the time women get their turn? 

Anyway. In his poem, stirringly read by Tony Walsh at the vigil for the victims of the Arena bomb, he mentions, amongst all the other good things that Manchester has given the world - computers, cotton, Coronation Street amongst them - the splitting of the atom. Not always put to the best of uses, of course, but it was great science, and the man behind it was Lord Ernest Rutherford, of New Zealand, who did a lot of his early research, before his time in Manchester, in his basement lab underneath the Great Hall in what was the University of Canterbury and is now the Christchurch Arts Centre. I spent many hours in that hall on a hard chair, scribbling away, trying anxiously to keep up with the Eng I lecturers in my first year at varsity. (Having just looked Rutherford up, I find that he went to Nelson College for Boys, one of the schools where I did a teaching practice section. How did I not notice that when I was there?)
There was a sign beside the door of the Great Hall pointing down to Rutherford's den, so I unwittingly absorbed the information about his work with atomic physics - for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, no less. Imagine my surprise, then, to see a storyboard in the Willis Tower in Chicago claiming work done there as "the initial step in building the atomic bomb". Pft.

I don't know Manchester very well. I toured the Coronation Street set way back when it was still possible to do that, to go into the Rovers, and walk along the famous cobbles. And a few years ago I spent an afternoon poking through the city's Museum of Science and Industry, which was dauntingly detailed. I never expected to understand the (temporary) Hadron Collider exhibit, but even the looms were impossibly complicated. How you'd even start inventing something like that, I have no idea. So, I learned little, but was deeply impressed by the nerdy passion on display.

Manchester is a gritty city, and a strong one. It's weathered worse, and will undoubtedly come through this. The pity is, that it has to.

Monday 22 May 2017

P.M. and M.P.

It was hard to avoid the faux-Royal Wedding this weekend. Weddings generally, and the English upper-class variety especially, are a quaint ritual, notable for the bizarre costumes and archaic language and customs; but harmlessly diverting and easy enough on the eye, I suppose. Pippa Middleton's dress was certainly lovely; though its price of $70,000 was just obscene. What really caught my eye, however, was the photo in Saturday morning's paper of what the caption declared to be the (fiancé) Matthews family country estate near Loch Ness: a picturesque towering castle on a small island in a lake.
That looks familiar, I thought, sure that I'd seen it on my first visit to Scotland in 2007. Trawling through the photos took a while: Scotland is not short of a castle or two, and I visited my share on that trip (though not, it has to be said, as many as on a much shorter drive through Wales, which really has gone to town, castle-wise. I defy anyone to keep them straight in their head afterwards, without a cheat sheet). In the end, I found it and, though there are similarities, it clearly wasn't the same one. No bridge, for a start. 
So I shrugged my shoulders and went on with my day. Night-time came and, sprawled passively on the sofa, I found myself watching - again - Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Still pretty funny, I was thinking - and then noticed the location for Camelot. Another castle, a different one this time, but again I thought I'd been there. And I had: it's Doune Castle, near Stirling. Which is a beautiful town, by the way, and well worth visiting (even though, according to my notebook, what struck me most was seeing gorse used there as a garden shrub).
Well, I thought, I got one castle right at least. The movie continued until, just before its jokey ending, there was another castle, which Arthur and his men began to storm to claim the Holy Grail (which, by the way, throughout my youth I thought was a bird, a puzzlingly venerated cousin of the quail. Luckily no-one ever found me out - but nor, to my shame, did I ever look it up. It was only when Indiana Jones came along that I learned my mistake. Good thing cinemas are dark). 
And there it was, the eminently picturesque Castle Stalker that I thought I'd recognised this morning. My own photo (at the top) doesn't do it justice, I freely admit; but I don't want to blame the camera since, two days after I took this photo, I managed to drop it over a cliff on the Isle of Skye and kill it stone dead. Sorry, camera.

Friday 19 May 2017

Beavers and wolves and bears, alas

It's the dentist pose, isn't it? Lying on your back with your hands clasped over your stomach. When else do you adopt that position? Other than in your coffin, I suppose. Hmm, that's a cheery connection that I didn't make today when having a couple of fillings replaced. Instead, I was listening to my nice dentist and her assistant chatting away randomly as they worked - about turning appliances off at the wall every night, about the new steriliser sounding like a harp, about television, shopping, books... "You're lucky," said Sonika. "Sometimes we talk about laundry."
But then they got on to bucket-list item Alaska (by way of a book of that name, though Georgia was unable to remember the writer, which made me frown. So unfair. A propos of that, have you ever noticed what small and fleeting billing the writer gets when their book is made into a movie? Without whom there would be no movie? Tch.) Anyway, as a distraction technique, I wondered what - if my mouth hadn't been full of clamps, wedges, cotton wool, sucker, drill, mirror and fingers - I might have contributed to that conversation.
There's the frontier feel of the place, the scenery, naturally (in both senses) - the mountains, the glaciers, the woods - and of course the wildlife. Bears, whales, sea otters... it was a thrill to see them all, going about their daily business. The one nugget I think I would have shared though, was what happens to them when man gets his hands on them - literally. 
I have never, before or since, seen so much fur. In Anchorage, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, the shops selling pelts were absolutely standard. Beaver, fox, reindeer, rabbit, wolf, lynx, ermine, mink, musk ox... all on hangers and in piles, begging to be stroked. PETA wouldn't stand a chance in Alaska. I did wonder what the demand was for skins until I overheard a woman dithering between two beaver pelts that she wanted to make into moccasins. Boy, that fur is so thick and rich, I can only imagine how it feels to have it cosseting your feet. Not that I wouldn't so much rather see it on the original owner, mind.
Plus there were coats and boots and slippers and gloves and mittens and hats - including Dan'l Boone classics - and all displayed under what it was hard not to interpret as the condemnatory gaze of mounted heads: wolf, fox,, deer, reindeer, even a complete polar bear. 
Having once attended a Hunt Ball at Cheltenham Town Hall in the '70s where everyone had to run the gauntlet of vociferous antis outside the entrance, who actually spat at the woman near me wearing a fur coat, it was all kind of confronting. But there you go. We travel to see things, and customs, that are different.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Tch, NZ Herald

The Firstborn - excitingly for her alone - is this evening setting off on the second part of her Great OE, the EU and GB bit of it this time, and in the card we gave her I found myself impelled to write, amongst all the other obligatory mother stuff (Stay safe! KEEP IN TOUCH!!!) the instruction to 'Learn lots'. To me, that's a really big part of travelling - not sunning yourself on the Costa Brava, not partying into the small hours in Berlin, not scouring the Oxford Street shops. It's not as snobbish a distinction as that makes it sound: it's just my thing. I like to find out stuff.

And then, once having found it out, it becomes part of me and when someone else gets it wrong, well. There's only one response. You have to correct them, don't you? Well, you do if you're a natural-born pedant whose nit-picking impulse has been further honed by being a teacher, and then an official describer of places and what you'll find there.

So when I read this news story this morning about some Kiwi guy doing a Forrest Gump, running across the US from Santa Monica pier to New York, beginning with Route 66, I had to send the paper a Must Do Better tweet when I saw the map. Look at it! That red line is nowhere near Route 66! Having been to both ends of what those of us in the know call the Mother Road, I can confidently state that yes, it finishes at Santa Monica - but it begins in Chicago.
I've seen the signs - I was there when the one for the Chicago end was unveiled, somewhat belatedly - and now, so have you. So we can both tut and shake our heads, and feel superior. And not think for a moment that there's any sort of contradiction at all between this and the theory that travel broadens the mind, and increases tolerance and compassion.

Saturday 13 May 2017

Losing the way in San Jose

"They're making a movie with Helen Mirren about Mrs Winchester!" the OH called up the stairs. And then he waited for my reaction, clearly thinking no further explanation was required. He, of course, had the rest of the newspaper report right in front of him, giving all the background - but me? No idea. So it was a bit peeving to have it explained to me in tones of condescension for my inadequate memory when, it turned out, the reference was to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, where we went TEN YEARS AGO.

Of course, once I had that reference, everything became crystal clear, and I remembered it perfectly. It's an extraordinary place: originally a pleasant but unremarkable Victorian villa built in 1884 that, once Mrs Winchester moved into it, she kept adding to in a totally random manner. When she died, in 1922, it had 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows (more than the Empire State Building - some of them in the floor), 47 staircases, 13 bathrooms and six kitchens.

We drove there straight after arriving at San Francisco, and our tour over the house was made even more challenging by the jetlag. We trailed along corridors, round corners, past a staircase that led up to the ceiling, through rooms with hidden doors and secret spy holes, into grand reception rooms with intricate wooden parquet and panelling and beautiful tiled fireplaces, past priceless Tiffany stained glass windows (the best one facing onto a wall) and, most confusing of all, up and down scores of stairs. The switchback staircase with its 44 steps, each only 5cm high, zigzagged seven times as it rose only three metres, and gave the weirdest sensation of descending while climbing up.
One explanation goes that Mrs W felt haunted by the souls of all those people killed by Winchester rifles her husband's company invented and manufactured, and this was her way of keeping them at bay: that's the theory the movie is going with, apparently. Another idea is that she just wanted to keep everyone employed, so carried on thinking up new projects for them, which she designed herself, unconstrained by any sort of architectural principles.

It's a fascinating place, and well worth a visit - as is San Jose itself, capital of Silicon Valley. It was impressively wired-up back in 2007 - I can't imagine how connected it must be now. It's weird to think that our visit was pre-satnav, and I was navigating old-style from a paper map on my lap. Said map ended up scrunched into a ball after my saying "Next left" and the OH turning onto what it transpired was the city's (fortunately empty) light railway, which we had to drive along for an entire block before the concrete barriers either side allowed us to escape. Serves him right that his question has revived my still-burning resentment for those few minutes of sheer terror.

Wednesday 10 May 2017

Of doves and Dickin medals

QI tonight was D for, when I turned it on, doves and, naturally, pigeons, and they were talking about carrier pigeons earning medals for wartime bravery. Having seen the episode before - having seen every episode before, it seems - I allowed my mind to wander to where I had seen pigeon medals somewhere. It was with what is becoming a standard sense of unexpected triumph that I quite quickly remembered that it was at Bletchley Park, a couple of years ago.

It was after we went to North Marston (the story about which I've only just written) to see the site of my uncle's wartime plane crash, and before we joined our English friends in Warwick for a week on the Grand Union Canal in the Florence Edith. Located conveniently in between, near Milton Keynes, it really is park-like - big, neat grounds with grass, trees and a pond where swans swim round a fountain, there's a mansion with an elaborate roofline, a clocktower archway into the stables courtyard - and also ranks of plain (ugly) utilitarian buildings where all that mind-blowing work got done.

It takes ages to tour through it all. It's well-presented, there's heaps to read and try to digest, but for the non-mathematical, non-logical brain, it's often pretty daunting. Obviously their visitors have multiplied hugely since the release of The Imitation Game movie and they're doing their best to be accessible but there's no getting past that code-breaking is dense, complicated stuff. I read this storyboard twice and was no wiser - mind, the explanation was written by a code-breaker. At Bletchley, they don't try to hide the fact that some of these people were quite odd.
But it is something, certainly, to see an Enigma machine (again - they have one in Chicago displayed alongside U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry). And it was pleasing to learn that 75% of the staff were women, most of them from the forces. Unsurprisingly, conditions and equipment in the huts were pretty basic - simple desks, typewriters, blackboards, pencils - in total contrast to the machines, which are dazzlingly complicated, with rows of dials and spindles. How people like Alan Turing can dream up and then understand such things is truly a marvel to me.
So it was quite a relief to get to the pigeons - in a room filled with glass cases and simple stories about how these "heroic" birds carried vital messages from the front lines back to the men in charge. Thirty-two of them were awarded Dickin medals by the PDSA (plus 18 to dogs, 3 to horses and one to a ship's cat, Simon, wounded in action on the Yangtze) for their efforts - like Kenley Lass flying 300 miles in seven hours to deliver intelligence from an agent in occupied France. They were sometimes dropped by parachute in boxes down to the troops, to be fitted with a message and released to fly home from the battlefield. And they were carried on planes, too, so if they survived crashing into the sea, they could get word back to base and rescue parties could be sent out for the aircrew.

And you thought pigeons were just aerial rats.


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