Sunday, November 25, 2012

China Crisis @ 30

Much of today’s music passes through my ears without my brain noticing. Even tunes which prove hugely popular often fail to register. The best, on the other hand, are eternally evocative. Only a really good tune can transport me back in time, sometimes even to the other side of the world, with pin-point accuracy. I can close my eyes and see yesterday.

One such song, which reached the top ten in the UK singles charts in January 1984, invariably reminds me of longing to be elsewhere. I can recall, as a teenager, gazing from my bedroom window upon snow-covered fields which blended into the hazy midwinter sky less than a mile away. The window was probably wide open, letting the heat escape, along with the ethereal sound of China Crisis on BBC Radio 1 singing Wishful Thinking (Figure 52.1).

Figure 52.1: Original 7” sleeve for one of the ’80s’ enduring classics

Copyright © 1984 Virgin Records

Formed in Liverpool by Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon more than thirty years ago, the band enjoyed considerable success in the ’80s, not only in their homeland, but also across the Atlantic and throughout Europe. A colleague of mine from the Home Office – himself a musician, having played with the likes of Chuck Berry and B. B. King – knows Gary well, and vouches for the band’s musical talent, songwriting ability and social awareness. Combining post-punk New Wave influences of thirty years ago with blues and reggae, their style was never easy to pigeonhole.

Of their ten hits, the mellow Wishful Thinking is the standout classic. While the smooth keyboards, blended with bass, pizzicato-style strings and unobtrusive acoustic guitar, render it instantly recognizable, it is the lyrics which set it apart. These days, the line “I see the likeness in his smile and the way he stands” makes me think of my young sons – reason enough to have the song, which I first bought on vinyl, playlisted on my iPod.

Of all the artists whose shows I have been fortunate enough to see over the years – Bruce Springsteen, Paul Weller, Pulp, Moody Blues, Annie Lennox, Mike & The Mechanics, Elkie Brooks, Hot Chocolate, Asia, Simply Red, Queen (last ever performance), Freddie Mercury Tribute at Wembley, Eagles (twice), ELO (three times) and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds – China Crisis eluded me. Until yesterday, that is. The band announced its 30th anniversary tour a few months ago (Figure 52.2). It was a must, cost and distance no object, and a pleasant surprise trip for my partner (Figure 52.3).

Figure 52.2: Unmissable after waiting thirty years

Copyright © 2011 Eastwood City

Figure 52.3: Tickets for a show I never expected to see

Copyright © 2012 Floral Pavilion

The seven-piece band took to the stage at 8 p.m., with Gary jokingly complaining about the heat from ‘these *%@*ing spotlights’. The audience seemed to know what to expect, and his string of camp remarks broke the ice well. Then came a succession of beautifully crafted songs, all performed slickly and faithfully to their original recordings, but with an exciting spontaneity. Black Man Ray, Christian and Working With Fire And Steel preceded a bouncing rendition of King In A Catholic Style and many well-known album tracks (Figure 52.4). Wishful Thinking came midway through the performance, and it was well worth the thirty-year wait. I closed my eyes as Eddie began to sing – “It’s time we should talk about it ...” – and I could once again see those fields of snow. The only disappointment was that they omitted Arizona Sky, originally released in 1986, and which should, in my view, have become their biggest smash.

Figure 52.4: Photographic equipment prohibited, of course

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

At 10:30 p.m., we emerged from the theatre into the pouring rain with heads full of treasured memories. If China Crisis were to tour every year, we would definitely make last night a habit. I doubt they will, though. On our part, it’s just wishful thinking (Figure 52.5).

Figure 52.5: Two happy former teenagers

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Student Inactivism

Students used to be a militant bunch. Remember the Kent State massacre of 1970? Although only four years old at the time, I know what happened. US National Guardsmen shot dead four innocent students and wounded nine others during a mass protest against the American invasion of Cambodia (Figure 51.1). The military operation, conducted on the opposite side of the globe, did not disadvantage any of the protesters personally, but that was immaterial. The students could see the wider picture, and their activism stemmed not from expediency or self-interest, but from steadfast moral principle. Tragic though the outcome was, a clear message was sent to the White House: millions of young people disagreed with foreign policy, and they would not stand to have their intelligence insulted.

Figure 51.1: A student protester lies wounded at Kent State University, Ohio on 4th May, 1970.

Copyright © 2012 Bettman/CORBIS

British undergraduates, too, have a proud history of passionate student activism. When I (crash-) landed at university in the mid-eighties, the campus was bursting with (mainly left-wing) firebrands, all spitting bricks at injustices real or merely perceived. Those were the days of Live Aid, Thatcherism, CND, violent Irish republicanism and London street riots. There was plenty to shout about, whatever one’s views (Figure 51.2).

Figure 51.2: Every one of these lapel badges was familiar to 1980s’ students.

Copyright © 2012 London Metropolitan University

As things were then, so they are today. Individual issues come and go, but fundamental politics is as much a corruption of human ethics as ever. In Britain alone, the debt crisis threatens to impoverish future generations; and the corrupt, profligate, anti-democratic European Union is succeeding in destroying hard-won self-determination where Hitler failed – and without a single shot needing to be fired. The likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Apostolos Santas and Nelson Mandela were prepared to sacrifice their lives in the name of representative self-government; and yet, today, the British people relinquish basic liberties to a foreign power with their brains switched off and eyes tight shut.

Why, then, when standing so close to the precipice, are today’s students silent? With the exception of a half-baked objection to education funding cuts in 2010, there has been barely a squeak of dissent from British campuses. What has changed?

Forty years ago, only 5% of British school-leavers attended university. The present figure is close to 40%, despite students being demonstrably no more capable. Consequently, if the drop-out rate is not to rocket, academic standards must be lowered. Furthermore, extra funding, on a massive scale, becomes urgent. Given the unprecedented level of public debt, there is no chance of such costs being met by the taxpayer. 21st-century students are obliged to pay their own tuition fees, inevitably by means of (subsidized) loans. Anyone quitting prematurely leaves higher education with an unsettled loan agreement instead of a degree certificate. Reminiscent of the brainless commitment to mixed-ability teaching in British schools in the 1960s and 70s, the most able undergraduates spend half their time freewheeling, while the least able – a whopping 9% – play out a twelve-month stay of execution prior to being thrown out, debt-ridden and demoralized.

As a result of ‘dumbing down’, today’s students are not only, on average, less intellectually astute than those of previous generations but, also, far less politically aware. How do I know? Well, I completed two university stints – 1985-9 and 2006-9 – and feel well qualified to judge the difference. ‘Uni’ has become a comfortable rite of passage, more social than educational. During my second course, whenever I entered the campus library, the majority of its occupants seemed more concerned with social networking than with cerebral endeavour. Political activism did not even register, which struck me as ironic, as Facebook is a godsend to any parties aiming to orchestrate mass action.

So I ask: why are so many young people now being encouraged to attend university at all? Is it to prevent unemployment figures going stratospheric, thereby reflecting adversely on politicians? Perhaps it is. Back in the 1950s, millions of British school-leavers were paid to complete apprenticeships. Today, it is largely the reverse: in order to equip themselves, both intellectually and vocationally, teenagers are made to pay one institution with a vast sum of money borrowed from another. The debt mountain thus grows and grows, and, of course, the taxpayers of tomorrow are the students of today. Former U.S. president Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), paraphrasing Matthew 5:5, foretold the future thus:

‘Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.’

That was 1936. The difference between then and now is that today’s apathetic students dwell in ignorance and sink into debt as the terms of their future subjugation are set in stone  outside their own land (Figure 50.3).

Figure 51.3: More and more commentators now refer to the EU as the ‘Fourth Reich’.

Copyright © 2012 Nikone Le Fou

Come on, students, spit bricks – if you still know how.

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Through My Keyhole (Pt I)

I am writing this post from a hospital bed. Hooked up to a sodium lactate drip, I have plastic tubes pumping oxygen up my nose and a fetching pair of surgical socks gently squeezing excess venous blood from my feet and calves. As a general rule, I avoid doctors. Apart from gashes requiring stitches, annual flu jabs and a freak shoulder dislocation, good health has enabled me to give hospital medics a wide berth. Well, we caught up with each other a few days ago.

I have never experienced pain like it. After being whistled out of the house on a stretcher, the first few hundred metres of the ambulance journey reinforced my existing view on the state of the local roads. It felt as if we were on hexagonal wheels, tramming along the world’s longest rumble strip (Figure 50.1).

Figure 50.1: Aboard the emergency boneshaker

Copyright © 2002 Tony Scott

Opening my eyes in the emergency room, I saw a twenty-years-younger version of myself looking inquisitively down at his latest casualty. It was not a clear-cut diagnosis, he said, after giving me a good poking, and so would require immediate confinement and a wide range of both clinical and laboratory investigations. That was fine by me. Google ‘upper central abdominal pain’ and all sorts of ghastly conditions will be suggested, which is why online self-diagnosis is rarely a smart move. Pancreatic cancer has perhaps the worst prognosis. Thankfully, it was not that. The senior admissions doctor could not decide between a hiatus hernia, gall stones or depressed liver function. It turned out to be a combination of all three, each a consequence of the others.

After being deposited in the surgical assessment ward (Figure 50.2), it became instantly clear to me why so much written comedy and general black humour are predicated on emergency medical scenarios. The first patient I saw, an old man sitting upright in bed, was sporting a huge gauze packing just beneath his black-and-purple nose. When I asked what had happened, he explained that the matron had ordered him to get back into bed and he had replied with the equivalent of, ‘Make me.’ His humour was in better shape than his hooter. The alcoholic next to him was sporting two unbelievable, Beano-style black eyes, which gave him the appearance of a malnourished panda in photographic negative. The real tragedy of his ‘dancing-with-the-pavement’ escapade was having been stone-cold sober at the time. My first encounter with him was after he had walked assuredly along the corridor from the bathroom, oblivious to the fact that his dick was hanging out.

Figure 50.2: Still smiling

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery 

The prospect of having an endoscopic camera, complete with ultrasound probe, fed down my throat sounded far worse than it actually was (Figure 50.3). Lying on my side, throat semi-anaesthetized, I waited for the IV sedative to kick in. I was still waiting when the procedure was over. No matter, it was a comfortable few minutes, and I enjoyed viewing out of the corners of my eyes the live images on the monitor – The Sky At Night meets Space Invaders, for the benefit of anyone who can remember either.

Figure 50.3: Endoscopic ultrasound scan (EUS) – upper, not lower!

Copyright © 2012

Earlier today, Ol’ Black Eyes disappeared for his own endoscopic experience. Unlike me, however, he was wheeled into the room feet first. No oral insertion for him. He re-emerged an hour later, flat on his back on the trolley, either still spaced out or just mentally traumatized by The Invasion of the One-eyed Python, and disappeared into his bay with the curtain drawn hastily around him. A few moments later, the nurse pulled the plug. I hope she was standing well back. The resulting musical ‘note’ sounded like an air-raid siren on the short-wave radio, its intonation going wildly up and down for an impressive ten seconds, and seemingly amplified through a PA for the whole ward to hear. Now, as any physical scientist would testify, sound waves travel faster than diffusing gas molecules. Unfortunately, that particular truth did not occur to me until there was insufficient time to leave the room. After the air-attack warning came the inevitable smell which was even more stupendous in its intensity. Then, as if right on cue, my lunch arrived.

As I close for the night, another alcoholic has just been wheeled in, singing ’O sole mio.

I am scheduled to be ‘released on bail’ tomorrow. Stand by for keyhole surgery in Pt II. Until then, life will go on as before (Figure 50.4)  it is to be hoped, minus the pain. In the words of the inimitable Joe Walsh: if I had known I would live this long, I might have taken better care of myself. Just as well I am not a boozer.

Figure 50.4: The benefits of having a personal nurse

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery 

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Apologies To HRH

The Worshipful Company of Haberdashers (Figure 49.1) is one of the City of London’s most prominent Livery Companies. Once a City Guild responsible for regulating cloth merchants, it is today concerned principally with charity and education. Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, in Hertfordshire, is one of its many successes, being this year’s top independent boys’ school in the entire UK. It is an organization to which I feel privileged to belong. Should I – heaven forbid – kick the proverbial bucket before my children’s education is complete, the Company would grant assistance; not that my family would do anything other than decline its offer with gratitude and humility.

Figure 49.1: The Haberdashers’ Company plaque

Copyright © 2012 WCH

I became a Haberdasher at the age of 24, following in the footsteps of my father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather. The honour I feel, with regard to both the Company and my Spradbery forebears, is immense. I was made a Freeman of the Company at the City’s (old) Haberdashers’ Hall by its then Master, Colonel David Sime, OBE (Figure 49.2), a delightful former soldier who had recently celebrated his 70th birthday. Sitting alongside him at lunch that day, he described the two of us as ‘a young bull and an old one,’ aptly referring to his cattle-breeding background. Prior to farming, he had read Economics at Cambridge and won the Military Cross during World War Two – not that he thought to mention either.

Figure 49.2: The inside cover of a book presented to me by Colonel Sime, on behalf of the Haberdashers’ Company, 22 years ago today. The ‘old bull’ passed away on 29th December, 2010, aged 90. I shall never forget the hours I spent with him.

Copyright © 1990 WCH

Last month, I received an invitation from the Company (Figure 49.3) to attend its Diamond Jubilee Ball at the new Hall (Figure 49.4), which had been opened by the Queen in 2002. HM did not attend; she was instead represented by The Earl and Countess of Wessex (Figure 49.5). Unfortunately, being hundreds of miles away, I could only apologize for my inevitable absence, which was a great pity.

Figure 49.3: Invitation to the Ball

Copyright © 2012 WCH

Figure 49.4: The new Haberdashers’ Hall, 18, West Smithfield, City of London. (Raining, naturally!)

Copyright © 2012 WCH

Figure 49.5: HRH The Earl of Wessex meets young musicians at the Hall. The Countess is obscured by the gentleman in the foreground.

Copyright © 2012 WCH

I was, however, sent a selection of photographs of the event. This is what I missed (Figures 49.6 to 49.9).

Figure 49.6: I have loved the happy sound of steelpans ever since attending the Notting Hill Carnival in 1988. I am sure the students in the picture were wonderfully entertaining.

Copyright © 2012 WCH

Figure 49.7: Dinner ...

 Copyright © 2012 WCH

Figure 49.8: ... dancing ...

Copyright © 2012 WCH

Figure 49.9: ... and more music ...

Copyright © 2012 WCH

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Ubiquitous Oh-Jive

The English language certainly contains some strange words, often with obscure etymological origins. Even everyday objects can be difficult to name. I came across the word ‘ogive’ last year. Not knowing its meaning, I looked it up, and now see ogives almost everywhere. (The more you know, the more you look and the more you see.)

An ogive is defined as the roundly tapered end of an object, be it two- or three-dimensional. Geometrically, it is formed from two parallel straight lines and two intersecting arcs whose radii are greater than the distance between the lines (Figure 48.1).

Figure 48.1: Diagrammatic representation of an ogive. The so-called ‘sharpness’, normally denoted as ‘E’, of this particular ogive is given by the ratio 120/100, i.e. 1.2. The greater the ratio, the sharper the tapered end.

Copyright © 2004 Securiger

Arguably the most common example is the Gothic (or ogival) Arch. Although widely considered to be a medieval structure, it is, in fact, Islamic. Europe is full of Gothic architecture, which often defines its most celebrated buildings, particularly cathedrals and churches.

Andalucía provides one of the most striking portrayals of this feature. Despite the Christian Reconquista of the 13th to 15th century, much of the original Islamic mudéjar style remained popular, and for good reason. Christians built their churches with ogives large and small, thus tacitly acknowledging the artistry of their Muslim predecessors. The finest testimony has to be Seville Cathedral – or, to give it its full title, El Catedral de Santa María de la Sede. This is the largest Gothic building – and third largest cathedral – in the world. It took the entire 15th century to construct, and an entire day for me to explore.

The cathedral’s ogives are too numerous to count, although its stained-glass windows and 15 exterior doors would be the best places to begin (Figure 48.2). Aesthetically, the ogive is a masterstroke; but that is, I admit, purely subjective. What would be impossible to deny, however, is one of its most important functional attributes: the ability to resist the enormous gravitational force of the wall above it. (Perhaps this indicates to us the origin of the word: obviare being the Latin verb ‘to resist’.) A frame with a horizontal header would be susceptible to stress fracture in the centre. The curves of an ogival arch, by contrast, help to dissipate an enormous load to its lateral supports. Those 9th century Muslims really were clever mathematicians.

Figure 48.2: Nested ogival arches above Seville Cathedral’s Door of the Prince

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

The ogival shape is not confined to architecture. Three-dimensional examples are commonly found in aerodynamics and ballistics. If an object is to move efficiently, through any medium, the shape of its ‘nose’ is crucial. Here, the streamlined ogive comes into its own. Bullets are ogival, as are submarine casings, Japanese rail locomotives and even suppositories. A wide range, for sure.

So, keep an eye out for ogives. As I say, they are everywhere – in churches especially (Figure 48.3), but even as garden features (Figure 48.4).

Figure 48.3: A delightful depiction of a 14th-15th century English church, complete with ogival-arched windows

Copyright © 2012 British Library Board

Figure 48.4: Not quite Seville Cathedral, but small-scale ogives can look good, too.

Copyright © 2011 Paul Spradbery

In case you were wondering, ‘ogive’ is pronounced ‘oh-jive’. I didn’t know, either!

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Monday, September 03, 2012

Venetian Nostalgia

The greatest blessing of old friends is that you can get away with being stupid with them. Thus spoke Emerson, I think. Thank heavens someone thought so, as I have, in one way or another, been stupid with most of mine – occasionally in multiple ways at the same time. Being once described as having ‘a great brain but with bits missing’ left me wondering whether I ever had the right to excuse myself or not.

Last Wednesday, I received an unexpected email, via this website, from an old friend with whom I have had no contact for several years, and not seen since July 1991. That is an appallingly long time for me to neglect someone who was innately kind and honest. Way too long. The two-year-old son with curly red hair and striking eyes, playing cricket on the front-room carpet, will now be in his mid-twenties, as I myself was when I saw him. I can but ask forgiveness.

In the two years that El Escritor Inglés has been afloat, I must have received thousands of emails, from all parts of the world, the vast majority of which have been friendly and thoughtfully written. I have been fortunate enough, too, to receive offers of sponsorship and for the site to display advertisement links with free software products thrown in with the commission. None of it warrants serious consideration. I would rather readers know that, first, I am not writing in order to broadcast views which might not reflect my own; and that, further, I have no wish to make money. It will remain a serial labour of love.

I wish I could find time to correspond with everyone – to say thank you, if nothing more. Today, however, I should like to indulge myself just once by sending an open letter in return.

For the past few days, countless different words, images and sounds have flitted through my head: ’60s Motown; Woodstock; coloured pasta shells; a brown Vauxhall Nova; hand-written correspondence; scorers I could never be troubled to trouble; note-perfect barbershop harmonies; Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30; a long-leg fieldsman; a single-leg epidural; overshooting Newcastle and ending up in Scotland; the peal of church bells during a last-wicket run chase; a rucked-up tarmac path between two rows of bungalows; undergraduate nights spent reading anything that wasn’t on the syllabus; pints of Ward’s best sludge which I was, mercifully, never old enough to be served; not knowing one end of Edinburgh from the other; not knowing one end of a cricket bat from the other; a green-and-white rugby shirt complementing jeans with the customary hole in the crotch (check your photo); the coincidence of a Sixth Form Maths teacher who looked (to me) like Jesus after a fortnight in Marbella; former team-mates (Savage, Littlewood, Hammerton et al.) who are gone but never forgotten; the fact that Durham Cathedral is, and forever will be, York Minster sort of back to front (you’re smiling); listening to Phoebe Snow singing Every Night and howling along to it in the bath (you’re laughing); and, I hope, a sun that shines most brightly in the hour before it sets.

Yes, the rain man with the elephant’s memory remembers, you know; and he does so with unwavering fondness.

My friend, and all your tribe, this one is just for you (Figures 47.1 to 47.4).

Figure 47.1: Postcard from the past

Copyright © 2011 Google Maps

Figure 47.2: Spot the difference

Copyright unknown

Figure 47.3: The North East branch committee of Dark Glasses R Us, all clearly oblivious to the raincloudy sky, pictured the moment afore gannin doon te the booza. The blerk – sorry, bloke – far left is standing on a box, the one far right down a hole.

Copyright unknown

Figure 47.4: I remember a crescent in Venice ...

Copyright © 1993 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lovell’s Legacy

August 1976. The 21st Olympics closed in Montreal, Canada; race riots in Cape Town, South Africa left 17 dead; and Elizabeth Taylor divorced Richard Burton ... for the second time. Those items I admit to having referenced, being unable to recall them. I do, however, remember hearing Candi Staton’s soul classic Young Hearts Run Free on the radio, and watching West Indian greats Michael Holding and Viv Richards destroy England at London’s Oval Cricket Ground during that hot, and impossibly dry, summer month. Such was the mind of a ten-year-old boy who was passionate about cricket and music but little else.

During that same month, I visited one of Britain’s most spectacular examples of post-war scientific development. The Jodrell Bank Observatory, in my home county of Cheshire, houses (what was then) the largest steerable radio telescope in the world (Figure 46.1). Constructed in the 1950s, and weighing 3,2oo tons, it was the brainchild of an innovative English physicist called Bernard Lovell.
Figure 46.1: The jewel of the Cheshire countryside
Copyright © 2012 Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory

Lovell, born in 1913, obtained his science degrees at the University of Bristol in the 1930s. Prior to World War Two, he worked as part of a research team at the University of Manchester. When hostilities began, he developed aircraft radar systems, and was awarded an OBE as soon as the war had been won. From 1945 until 1980, he was the first Observatory Director (Figure 46.2), during which time the ‘Lovell telescope’ acted as an early warning system during the Cold War. His knighthood, in 1961, was thoroughly deserved.
Figure 46.2: Sir Bernard Lovell, working at his desk at Jodrell Bank
Copyright © 2012 NASA

Today, I returned to Jodrell Bank, after 36 years, with one of my sons. This year, the summer weather is a far cry from the sun and haze of ’76. Britain is, apparently, enduring its wettest summer on record; but the heavy, grey sky could do nothing to diminish our sense of anticipation as we cruised along the winding country lanes between the green villages of Goostrey and Chelford.

For sound reasons, the observatory is situated deep in the countryside, where signal interference is minimal. The original visitor centre and planetarium are no longer there, but the vast parabola (Figure 46.3) looked as awesome as ever, especially through the eyes of a child (Figure 46.4). Recent redevelopments include a Space Pavilion, complete with interactive activities, and a beautifully-crafted orrery (clockwork Solar System model) (Figure 46.5) which captivated everyone who stopped to look at it. It was possible, also, to obtain real-time data from space (Figure 46.6).
Figure 46.3: The parabola, one of the most useful (and elegant) geometric shapes, is a common feature of scientific and engineering practice (see ‘Galileo In The Kop’). The 76-metre-diameter dish reflects all incoming radio waves to the same focal point, where the receiver is situated. These are then relayed to an amplifier, which magnifies the faint signals, before being processed by computer.
Copyright © 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Figure 46.4: One of my sons, gazing up in admiration at Lovell’s creation. It could easily have been a picture of myself from 36 years ago.
Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery
Figure 46.5: An orrery is an intricate mechanical device showing the relative positions and motions of the planets.
Copyright © 2012 Smabs Sputzer
Figure 46.6: Live radio telescopic data from 2012. I remember that back in 1976 this information was produced in the form of ticker tape!
Copyright © 2012 Jodrell Bank Observatory

Half a century after its construction, the Lovell remains a fully functional radio telescope, operating as part of the MERLIN and European VLBI Networks. Current research includes investigations into cosmology, galaxies, astrophysics and, in particular, pulsars (highly-magnetized, rotating, radioactive stars), the discovery of two-thirds of which have been made at Jodrell Bank.

Most famously, perhaps, the Lovell telescope tracked the Apollo 11 spacecraft to and from the moon in 1969 – a poignant fact in the week when its commander, Neil Armstrong, died.

By some sad coincidence, August 2012 will be noted for the death of an equally illustrious man. Three weeks ago, Sir Bernard Lovell died peacefully at his Cheshire home. He was 98 years old. His legacy is obvious. No Lovell ›› no Jodrell Bank ›› no Professor Brian Cox enthralling us on TV ›› far less inspiration to today’s school children – including my own.

Lastly, I feel obliged to mention that Sir Bernard’s childhood hobbies, from both of which he continued to derive great pleasure throughout his long and distinguished adult life as a scientist (Figure 46.7), were cricket and music. What more is there to say?
Figure 46.7:  A short biography of Sir Bernard stands between the Lovell telescope and new Space Pavilion
Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

All Hail The Mighty Hunter

It was magnificent. Friday’s spectacular opening ceremony of the London Olympics, complete with its historical chronology and self-deprecating humour, surely made most Brits proud of their nation. The show starred, among thousands, Sir Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel; fellow Wirralian Daniel Craig as ‘007’ James Bond; Her Majesty the Queen as herself; and Rowan Atkinson as dopey Mr Bean ‘playing’ a keyboard with an umbrella. There has never been a curtain-raiser like it. Moreover, being devoid of pomposity and jingoism, it was palatable to the rest of the world. Director Danny Boyle deserves all the accolades which are currently dropping into his lap.

I admit, I was ‘on-side’ from the start. The first piece of music, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (Figure 45.1), is one of the most beautiful ever composed by an Englishman – or, indeed, anyone else. Variation IX (Adagio), taken from Op. 36, the so-called ‘Enigma Variations’, by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is known simply as ‘Nimrod’. To most, it probably seemed an inspired choice; to me, an absolute no-brainer.

Figure 45.1: On the evening of Friday, 27th July, 2012, a worldwide audience of more than a billion watched the opening ceremony of the 30th Olympiad in London.

Copyright © 2012 BBC

Each variation of Elgar’s celebrated composition was dedicated to one of his friends. ‘Nimrod’ affectionately portrays his valued critic, Augustus Jaeger (1860-1909), who helped to restore the composer’s self-confidence. The eponymous ‘Enigma’ refers to an ingeniously hidden theme which Elgar never disclosed and has been the subject of intricate debate ever since his death almost eighty years ago (Figure 45.2).

Figure 45.2: Elgar is quoted as having said: ‘The Enigma I will not explain – its “dark saying” must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes”, but is not played.... So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on the stage.’

Copyright expired

As an Elgar enthusiast (Figure 45.3), I have always been keen to witness any level of appreciation of his musical genius. In 1999, his portrait was incorporated on the back of the £20 Bank of England note (Figure 45.4). Long overdue, I thought. Being honoured in this way, he joined the likes of Shakespeare, Newton, Faraday and Dickens.

Figure 45.3: Shaking hands with Sir Edward. This statue of Elgar, along with the ‘Enigma Fountain’, stands on Bellevue Terrace in Malvern, England, having been unveiled by the Duke of York in May 2000.

Copyright © 2010 Paul Spradbery

Figure 45.4:  I was appalled when, in 2010, Elgar’s image was removed from the £20 note in favour of that of Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-90). Without intending to diminish Smith’s status – and I accept that the appearance of bank notes must change periodically for security reasons – it must be pointed out that Scotland has its own bank notes, none of which has ever borne the picture of an Englishman.

Copyright © 2010 Telegraph Media Group Limited

‘Nimrod’ is played frequently at solemn occasions. At the present age of 46, I have – to my shame – yet to attend a funeral, but I am certain Elgar’s masterpiece will have moved to tears many who were saying farewell to a loved one. Although originally an orchestral composition, it is equally emotive when played on a pipe organ. American organist and composer Diane Bish recorded a superb rendition at the Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. It can be heard online at

It remains an ambition of mine, perhaps self-indulgent, and also morbid, to play ‘Nimrod’ at a funeral service. The music itself is not especially difficult to master (Figure 45.5), although a pipe organ might well be. I would be nowhere near as impressive as Diane Bish, but certainly more proficient than Mr Bean.

Figure 45.5: A piano arrangement for the opening nine bars of ‘Nimrod’

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Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery