Sunday, September 30, 2007


As a sexagenarian (please, for my sake, look it up if you only think you know what the word means), my regular reader could be forgiven for suspecting that I believe everything ten years old is better than its equivalent today. And that everything twenty years old is even better than the ten year old version. And that the fifty year old version – well that’s perfection on a stick.

Not so.

I rabbit on, in these pages, about this and that, and quite often “this” is about Motor Racing, one of my lifelong passions. Usually, I look back through the selective lenses of hindsight, and pick out the good bits, leaving my convenient filter of Early Onset Whatever-its-called to forget the less than good bits. Like the fact that people died doing it with terrifying regularity. In 1968, one top class driver was killed on the 7th day of four successive months. Another blogster worked out that, in the 60s, if you raced for five years, you had a two out of three chance of dying at the wheel. Thank God modern technology has made dramatic improvements there.

I watched the Japanese Grand Prix today, and marvelled at it all. A race which we’ll look back on for a long time, I suspect. It absolutely poured down for the whole race, and if you ever want a scenario which sorts the men from the boys, that was today. The great effect rain brings to such an occasion is that it removes the boring Computer game environment in which most Grand Prix racing today takes place, and it puts the control very firmly back in the hands of those men who know how to drive. And that’s not always those who are paid the most or who have been in the game longest.

You could moan about Michael Schumacher for an awful lot, but when he got in a racing car on a wet track, he was simply in a different league from the rest. Look up Senna’s record in the wet if you ever start to doubt how good he was. Read how Jackie Stewart won the 1968 German Grand Prix by over 4 minutes (yes, Minutes!) in the wet. The cream very definitely comes to the top in Motor Racing when it rains.

Today Lewis Hamilton won almost faultlessly, and if you had any doubts about how good he is (and I admit I did), today sorted them out. But look at who else put in brilliant performances today – Raikkenen, Alonso, Button, Coulthard and Webber all showed their class, and newer boys Vettel (at least until he drove into his team-mate Webber when they were 2nd and 3rd, putting them both out of the race – not terribly advisable!) and Kovalainen, who showed his Renault team-mate Fisichella how to do it all.

And if you see a re-run of the last few corners with Massa and Kubica fighting like spitting cats for (I think) 6th place, you can start to believe that the spirit of Arnoux and Villeneuve at Dijon in 1979 is still alive.

If you don’t recall that race, take a look at this clip.


Anyway, my faith in top class Motor Racing took a leap upwards today. And it’s suddenly quite clear and logical as I write, following my evening meal with a couple of not ungenerous glasses of decent Riesling, how Formula 1 racing should be organised in the future.

Get away from races being won by superior Pit-Stop strategising, and putting one lap more fuel in your car than the other bloke. Stop the grip of aerodynamics overwhelming the whole issue of car design, and putting the mockers on the idea of an overtaking manouevre.

Get all the circuit owners to put a large hosepipe around the track, turn it on at the start of Practice on a Friday and run every race with the track streaming with water, as it was today. The spectators can be comfortable watching it all in the dry, and the drivers can show us all just how good they all really are.

Simple really.



Thursday, September 27, 2007


“Every morning I get up, I read the obituary page. If my name’s not there, I shave.”

George Burns

It must be my age, but I love reading obituaries – they often contain some of the most elegant writing to be had in a newspaper. Often full of wit, mirth, sardonic understatement and barely disguised innuendo, they also draw you attention to the lives of people who can intrigue you, mystify you and often amaze you.

By custom always anonymous, the ones I like the best are in the “Telegraph”. Yesterday was no exception. One was on John Gardiner, probably the best restorer of old racing cars in the world. A man who, literally, without whom, Vintage Car racing today would not be possible. Together with Dick Crosthwaite, he founded Crosthwaite & Gardiner (C&G), a vehicle restoration company which on its own demonstrates that this country can still produce true champions in the field of Engineering.

Just look at their website, and see what they’ve achieved.

John was in his mid 60s, and by all accounts a tad prickly, sounding as if fools were people he did not suffer gladly. He was clearly an utter engineering perfectionist, totally tuned into avoiding the fine line of prissy over-restoration, but getting it back as the original would have been, however that needed to be done.

A small sample of yesterday’s piece –

"After C&G had restored and prepared an original pre-war Auto Union Grand Prix car, Crosthwaite talked Audi into funding production of perfect running replicas of these complex machines. Gardiner master-minded the project, and visiting Audi engineers were astonished to find him working from a modest farm at Buxted, Sussex.

When Audi insisted on manufacturing the V16-cylinder engine crankshaft for these cars, it failed Gardiner's rigorous inspection; and when an Audi committee quibbled endlessly over technical details Gardiner told them: "Listen, all you've got to do is sign the cheques and tell us how big you want the swastikas painted."


It may not be quite the same car, but to get an idea what these guys created in their “modest farm”, look at this picture I took at Goodwood this year. This is one very serious motor car – way over 500 HP, and built originally in the mid 30s.


The quality of their work, to use a much overused word, but one which is absolutely applicable here, is awesome.

As far as the obituary is concerned, you get a really clear picture of your man in a very few paragraphs, and you can't ask any more than that. I don't know why they are all anonymous, and I don't know who decides, in a newspaper, that J Bloggs is worthy of a few paragraphs, or not. There must also be a covert army of people writing these things, and slyly updating them when some worthwhile misdemeanor befalls their subject. A whole world about which, to extend the Fawlty Towers reference, "I know nooo-thing".

The "Telegraph", actually I think it's Pan, have published a series of collections of them, including a good one on Rogues, which will have you chuckling, and a quite sobering one on Military people which will have you wondering very seriously what this country is coming to. If you're the sort of person with a library in the loo, these books, for their content, and very apposite story length, rather than their absorbent properties, are a great buy.



Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I have been ruminating about changing my newspaper from “The Times” to something else for some time. But one or two things in the paper keep me paying out my 70p per day. One of them is Simon Barnes. He is Chief Sports Writer, and his articles on sport are, to me, an absolute must.

He doesn’t report on the match, or give you a stroke by stroke exposition of the previous day’s proceedings – lesser mortals do that. He hovers above these things, and writes a piece, usually from way out on Left Field, which leaves you thinking that you’d thought the same all along – except you hadn’t really put it into words or even thoughts. Barnes makes you think you had.

It was actually his piece on George Best, the day after Best died, which set me off scribbling this minimus opus, some 183 postings and 15 months ago.

I am/was an Accountant, and was some decades ago, a technically trained Aeronautical Engineer. The act of writing, even slightly creatively, was something which had given me an extremely wide berth for over half a century. But, Barnes struck a very resonant chord in me that day, so I sat down to write my thoughts about George Best. I finally put them in this Blog a year to the day after his death.

Now, I am the least likely person you’ll ever find to show any interest in Football. I have been to about three matches in my adult life, and even spent the afternoon of England’s 4-2 World Cup win in 1966 shopping for something inconsequential in downtown Guildford. But I had seen Best play on TV and, even to my utterly untutored mind, could see he was from a different planet from the rest.

But it was Barnes’s words about him which energised me. When I saw he had written a book called “The Meaning of Sport”, I raided Waterstones, curled up in an armchair and sat down with it. As sports books go, it’s simply the most thought provoking one I’ve ever read. It doesn’t go thought the “What” of Sport, it looks at the “Why”. It looks at the spirit of sport, its purpose, its power and its futility. It distils the essence of Redgrave, Federer, Rooney, Sampras, Beckham, even Flintoff, and ponders on why what they do, be it kicking a ball, or yanking on an oar, is so supremely important to us.

That is not to say I agree with everything he says. He has a very individual balance on the relative importance of sports, with Soccer probably at the top. Since Soccer is a complete blindspot for me, I find myself reading about an almost alien subject.

His list of the Top 50 Sporting Events ever has me screaming "No" at a couple of them. The 1994 Grand Prix at Imola when Senna died was not a great sporting occasion. Ben Johnson’s mind blowing 100 meters run in 1988, was only a great occasion for a couple of days until his drug taking was exposed. After that, it was simply a betrayal. But we all have our own individual take on this, and it’s fascinating to see someone like him laying his set out for all to see.

On the other hand, his complete disdain for Golf, one of the most mind bending and psychologically intriguing games Man has yet invented, leaves me ranting at him about his lack of understanding and the level of his idiocy.

But, in spite of all that, and maybe because of it, he is continually twanging at your thoughts. The book rambles around, returning quite frequently to the things he clearly feels most deeply. ignoring these thoughts about his own individual sporting balance, I read it through in one sitting, and then started to read it again. And that, with a pretty massive pile of unread books beside my bedside table, is probably the ultimate accolade.

I’ve read a few sporting books, but I’ve never read one like this. It seems to stands above Sport, and looks at the subject as an essence, as a myth, as a mental challenge.

A very original, and brilliant book.




And now for The Whinge.

I’m sure it’s not just me, but is Proof-reading becoming a lost art?

I don’t know if I’m becoming more attentive to the actual words I read in a book, or that the people who proof read, or are being paid to proof read, author’s books are getting less good at what they are supposed to do.

Anyway, and this is going to sound really mealy-mouthed and Meldrewish, I seem to find an increasing stream of spelling and typographical errors in the books I read. The more recent the book, the more chance there seems to be of sloppy spelling.

It doesn’t normally get in the way, apart from the occasional feeling akin to a fly landing on your arm when you’re reading something. Your attention is diverted for a second, you “tut”, even though you are alone in the room, you recover concentration, and move on. But it is still an unnecessary irritant.

Maybe, it’s a bit like buying a new Red Fiat – you suddenly see thousands of red Fiats on the road. Once you realise that books contain mistakes, when previously you thought differently, your mind is henceforth “switched to receive”. Perhaps they’ve actually been there all the time, but something now alerts you to noticing these mistakes, and they tap on your mind.

I seem to recall an article by Doris Lessing a few years ago, bemoaning this, where she puts it down to the wholesale change in the type of people undertaking this sort of task. A couple of decades ago, it was an elderly, probably wizened, person, whose knowledge was almost encyclopaedic and past whom nothing got. They could spell for Britain, they knew all the arcane references, and had a breadth of knowledge upon which an author could rely totally.

Nowadays, she argued, the job is given to a bright young thing, 22 or 23 years old, straight from University, whose level of general knowledge is still, shall we say, maturing, and whose spelling has flowered under the somewhat more relaxed regimes of recent Government’s Educational policies.

And, it shows, and not just in the more trivial, “less important” books. It actually hit me first when reading Roy Jenkins’s Biography of Churchill. Even in such a “Division One” Book as that, I noticed a few spelling howlers – only around three, but you felt as if you’d spotted a mistake in the King James Bible. Since then, mind alerted, it seems to have become a Twenty First Century fact of Life.

The last book I’ve completed was Simon Barnes’s excellent “The Meaning of Sport” – a truly wonderful piece of work. The scribble previous to this extols the book’s virtues, and I have deliberately kept this small point away from it, by writing about the sloppy proof-reading separately. The book is too good to be contaminated by an anorak’s spelling niggles. But they are still there, and in profusion.

About a third of the way through, I felt this “itch” about the pattern of mistakes, so I decided to keep a bit of a score. The book was far too absorbing to do this accurately, but whenever I came across something that I felt was not right, I put a marker in the page.

Just look at the picture below – there are twelve items which I, very much in a non proof-reading mode, came across. I suspect there are several more.


Does it matter? No, and Yes.

The book is a marvellous read. Full stop. New paragraph.

But if these issues move a reader to be even slightly diverted from the writer’s intended course, then that’s contrary to the author’s aim. Did it stop me thinking that the book was out of the top drawer – No.

But it did irritate me enough for me to get a pile of little blue stickers out of a drawer and put them in each imperfect page, and I’m absolutely sure that was not what Mr Barnes wanted, or set out to achieve.



Monday, September 24, 2007


With all that’s going on in the world at the moment, worrying about the place of Twenty-Twenty Cricket in the overall structure of the game, is probably not that sensible. Which probably explains, simply and logically, that I’m probably not that sensible then. Oh well, there you go.

I’ve sat and watched a fair few of the games in the World Twenty-Twenty Championships in South Africa over the last couple of weeks In spite of some seriously silly uniforms worn by the teams – Australia’s rather pervy skin tight pale grey suits topped by Motorway Cone Collector inspired yellow Bin Liners, which win my personal award here, I’ve seen some outrageously brilliant and exciting cricket.

But watching Pietersen blast 70 odd off Zimbabwe, watching India and Pakistan fight out a nail biting Tie (probably by far the best result to maintain any form of peace in that part of the world), watching my favourite team of the Tournament, Sri Lanka, attack the game with great skill and enjoyment, and then the other night watching poor old Stuart Broad being blasted for 6 Sixes by Yuvraj Singh, who ended up scoring 50 in an utterly ridiculous 12 balls – how can anyone say that lot isn’t either entertainment or sport. I thought it was all bloody fantastic.

And then, on Friday, I turned the TV on to see the other end of the spectrum playing out in front of me – Lancashire playing Surrey at the Oval on the third day of a Four day County match, where the outcome was to determine the winner of the 2007 County Championship. A perfect sporting definition of Chalk and Cheese.

But, what a great match that was. All the dynamics were different, the speed, the tempo, the strategy, no pyjamas for the teams, the crowd (or more precisely the lack of it) – everything was almost another world. And yet the drama unfolding was in some ways just as gripping, particularly because of the gradually twisting screw which was being applied to the tension on the players of both teams – the look on Dominic Cork’s face when he was out 24 runs short of victory, after one of the greatest run chases ever, told it all.

The star of the match however, was ex Ballroom Dancer turned Right hand batsman Mark Ramprakash. And what he had delivered over the first three days was simply a Batting Masterclass. Cricket works, at one level, on Statistics, so here goes. He scored 196 in Surrey’s First innings, and finished unbeaten in his second innings on 130. That lot meant he had averaged (yes, averaged) over 100 for the second season in succession. Only two people have ever matched that, and only one other (and it would have to have been Geoff Boycott, wouldn’t it?) has done it twice.


Ramprakash has had his go at playing for England, but his last appearance was 5 years ago. Since then, my newspaper faithfully reports, he has scored 11,000 runs and 44 centuries. I don’t know how many players manage to get to that sort of total in their entire careers let alone in the last 5 years since being dropped by England, but I imagine you don’t need to take both your shoes off to reach the answer.

If there’s a more effective batsman in this country playing today, please advise me who he is, and, to avoid a wasted few key depressions on your part, don’t say Kevin Pietersen.

The occult-like goings on of the England Test Selectors have been a lifelong mystery to me, and I suspect that’s not going to change. But Goodness knows what Ramprakash must think he’s got to do to be considered to play again for England. I suspect he must have given up all hope.

But watching him and Yuvraj Singh the previous night made you feel you’d seen the absolute pinnacles of both extremes of the game within 24 hours.

And you think Cricket is boring?



Thursday, September 20, 2007


One of the ways we English like to exert our supreme place in history, is to look over our glasses, and ask someone a simple question which confirms our Top of the table position – like “Name three famous Belgians”.


And when you’ve got your (very short, I suspect) list, you then have to remember that Poirot was actually a fictitious creation of Agatha Christie, so pass the rubber please, and try to think of a third (or even a second) name.

In a similar vein, write down the names of a dozen famous French Engineers. In the vehicular arena, Citroen, Renault, Bugatti (except, of course, he was Italian), the guy who designed the TGV (except that you don’t actually know his name), Bleriot and Dassault in the aviation field, Eiffel, the fellow who designed that glorious bridge they’ve just put up in the Dordogne which is so high it seems to live in the clouds (actually that was Sir Richard Rogers, who sounds to me to be a tad unFrench). Now I’m struggling. Except for one man.

Anyone heard of Andre Chapelon?

If you look at the way Industrial and even Social development has spread across the globe, you don’t have to think for long before the overwhelming impact of the railways on it all looms large. Just look at the UK, with the unbelievable speed at which the railway track engulfed the country in the first part of the Nineteenth Century. Compare it (and cry) with the way we do it with roads in the 20th and 21st Centuries. The Victorians certainly had something we don’t have today.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that without the railways, we would be a century behind where we are now. They gave us the ability to move huge quantities of goods quickly, reliably and cheaply around the country, and I suspect some University graduate has already got his First with a dissertation showing that Britain’s headlong rush into track-laying was one of the major issues which gave it a decisive edge over all other nations in its Industrial development.

But when you look at the railway engine, as a piece of Engineering design, you sometimes wonder how it got developed over the last seven or eight decades of the Nineteenth Century. Most of the designers simply seemed to copy what had been done before, but making it a bit bigger and longer – trial and error was the watchword. Brunel sticks his head above the parapet with the brilliant idea of building a Broad gauge (7 feet) track, rather than the “Conventional Wisdom” version of 4’ 8½”, which was standard everywhere else in this country. Can you imagine today how the railways would have looked if his logic had held sway?

But for the most part, the railway engine development was a classic example of “suck it and see”. Try this bit a bit bigger – if it works, keep it, if it doesn’t, try something different. There was a conspicuous lack of scientific intellect, or of going back to first principles, used by most of this country’s Chief Railway Mechanical Engineers.

So we got engines which worked, but no-one really knew exactly why. They lacked the power they should have developed, and they were far more inefficient than they could and should have been.

Back to the beginning, and enter Andre Chapelon. He was a Frenchman born in 1892 in the Loire valley. He developed a fascination bordering on a passion for the steam railway locomotive as a very small boy, and this obsession led him to a life as the greatest railway engineer since it was invented. Although he passed his first Bachelier exam with the rather nice comment of “Assez-Bien” (literally “Good Enough”), he went on to take higher exams in one of France’s Grand Ecoles.

In the early part of the Twentieth Century in France, you had to serve two years in the Military, and a further three years studying. His military service coincided with the First World War, and he ended up being a technical trainee, up in balloons working out ways of dramatically improving gun-fire accuracy. Some ten years after all this started, he returned to the Ecole Centrale and graduated with the rather nice title of Ingenieur des Arts et Manufactures.

Just after the end of the First World War, the French Railways were organised in a similar way to the British ones. In the UK we had the LNER (London and North Eastern Railway), the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish) the Southern, and the GWR (Great Western Railway, or God’s Wonderful Railway if you lived anywhere near Bristol or the West). The French railways were organised in a similar fashion, and Chapelon joined the Paris-Lyon-Mediterranee Railway as a probationer.

The thing which struck Chapelon from Day 1 was the lack of scientific method being used both in the running of the railway and the design of the engines. He had read, and it seemed understood the teachings of people like the thermodynamicist Nicolas Carnot, who had died almost 100 years before, so it’s difficult to argue that the information had only just become available.

He seemed to be alone in realizing just how fundamental Carnot’s ideas were as a key to the understanding of the workings of a steam locomotive. He found it quite amazing that a major institution like the PLM should be so ignorant of the simple (!) rules of Thermodynamics. The simple fact was that every other railway company in the world was in just about the same position. They did it the way they did it, because that was the way they had always done it.

Thanks to a judicious word from his University professor, he soon found himself attached to the PLM’s R&D section, and was soon given a small section of the department to run, looking after engine trials and exhaust systems.

Now, French railways operate differently from those in the UK. In the UK we were used to light trains running frequently between the major cities. In France, they ran trains often more than twice the weight of their UK equivalents, but running far less frequently. This demanded higher powers to operate, and as train weights inexorably increased, so the need for more and more powerful engines appeared. In France, they almost always used a Compounding system where the locomotive has two sets of cylinders, a High Pressure and a low pressure set where the steam from the High Pressure cylinders, rather than being exhausted to air, is fed into another set of Low Pressure Cylinders to extract more work from the energy in the steam. More complicated than the UK style where only one set of cylinders is used – but more efficient.

Chapelon started to look at the PLM’s engines and soon found areas where, by applying what to him were simple changes, he could literally transform the performance of their existing locomotives. He developed, with a Finnish engineer, a new form of chimney, which made massive differences to the engine’s output for very little cost. This no doubt endeared him to the Company’s Management, because they could “get something for (almost) nothing” and avoid the wholesale construction of an expensive fleet of new engines. It goes unsaid what the Chief Engineer who designed the original engines he transformed, thought about it!

His fame spread as he applied his principles to locomotives throughout France, where, by rebuilding according to Chapelon’s ideas, power improvements of 50% were often achieved. He also improved the Operating costs and efficiencies of these engines by 20-30% - quite remarkable figures.

He led the creation of a Testing Plant at Vitry near Paris where engine testing could be undertaken under controlled conditions, whereas before they had to be tested using undulating track, with varying weather conditions – simple and obvious, but, once again, no-one had done it before.

The Chief Engineers of the four UK Railway Companies soon got wind of this. Led by GJ Churchward of the Great Western, and closely followed by all the others, they all set off to France to understand what effect Chapelon’s ideas could have on their own creations. Some of them took their engines over there to be tested and the answers came back as to what improvements could be made – A Lot.

Many of the existing UK engines were then rebuilt using Chapelon’s ideas, and many of the new designs which followed took up his principles to huge effect. There is probably no engine designs in Western Europe after the first World war which were built without taking on board Chapelon’s ideas.

Meanwhile, he kept building more and more powerful engines to operate the continually increasing size of passenger and freight trains that were needed, and towards the Second World War, his greatest designs were produced.

There are few people who would not cite one of his designs as the Ultimate Steam Engine - Ever. To us in the UK, with all their pipework on the outside, rather than hidden away as the British tradition demands, European locomotives look a bit of a mess, and a bit second rate. Every engine in the UK worth its salt boasted a name. We had the Coronation Scot, the Kings and Castles, the Battle of Britain, and the A2/3/4 classes including Mallard, Silver Link and Flying Scotsman among their strength. As far as I can discover, not a single French engine ever had anything other than a difficult to decipher number.

So when Mallard flew down a long gradient near Grantham pulling a couple of carriages at a speed no other steam engine had ever reached (and still hasn’t), we thought we were the bees knees. But blasting down a long hill pulling next to nothing is not the way you measure the quality of a steam engine. What you do is put a mercilessly long train behind it, point it at a long hill and see what it does then. That’s the real world test, and guess whose engines come out top, pound for pound here?

Monsieur Chapelon wins by a country mile, perhaps kilometre.

Even in terms of aesthetics, to this author’s eyes at least, Chapelon’s Pacifics and, above all, his romantically named One-Off pièce de resistance 241.A.1 are the most beautiful engines ever made. They are also, in most engineer’s minds, simply the best engines ever. Pound for Pound, they are the most powerful and the most efficient ever made. This engine was the raiwayman’s Concorde.



To give this statement some scale, the French Loading Gauge is only slightly bigger that the British one, so you can draw a reasonably valid comparison between something like the British Coronation Scot and Chapelon’s 241.A.1. In terms of power output the Coronation Scot could produce around 2,500 Horsepower, and that on a bit of a transitory basis – Chapelon’s 241.A.1 could produce in excess of 4,000 Horsepower continuously. The French engine used around 20% less coal and around 40% less water than the British engine, which was usually accepted as the most powerful passenger engine in the country. Those are not small differences.

Chapelon’s problem was that he was building these engines just at a time when the world wanted to turn to electric and diesel traction for its railways. An objective comparison between steam and diesel/electric traction would put them much closer in operating costs that the politicians wanted, so the Steam vs Electric/Diesel reviews were loaded to give the answer they wanted, and Chapelon’s ideas for further revolutionary improvements came to nothing, at least in Europe.

Almost every engine he had worked on in his life was a conversion from something else. Even the glorious 241.A.1 was modified from someone else’s less than successful design. When he was given his head to design something from a clean slate, something wondrous appeared. He demonstrated that he could build steam engines which would be capable of producing 6,000HP, and to understand what this means, the UK West Coast main line, some 50 years later, has only just, in the last three or four years, moved on from Electric engines producing 3,300HP.

In the typical French way, where some things they do better than anyone else in the world, and in others you simply wonder about their sanity and stupidity, the only example of this remarkable piece of engineering in existence was broken up in 1960. Only pictures of it remain.

Bring back the guillotine!

But it doesn’t stop the thought that here was a man who, in his field, and it was a major one at that, was the best Engineer ever. He advanced the railway engine by leaps and bounds, like no-one else. He fundamentally influenced every railway engineer in the World, both of his time and those who came after him. And he built beautiful engines which were a world apart from anything anyone else ever made.

And because he was French, few people in this country have even heard of him.

It does make you wonder that Monsieur Chauvin, of “Chauvinism” fame was actually French – he should have been an Englishman.



Thursday, September 06, 2007


In my last piece about “Live from the Moon”, the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed a precise time given for when the TV photograph I took of the Lunar Module blasted off the Moon on the Apollo 11 mission – 21st July 1969 at 17.54 UTC. Being British, I failed to understand why it wasn't Greenwich Mean Time, so I looked up the provenance of this rather renegade Division 2 Time Zone the Yanks had used.

As always in these things, there’s more to it than you’d think of at first sight. UTC actually stands for Coordinated Universal Time, and is a highly accuracy Atomic based time Standard. It starts out as a base using International Atomic Time and (pay attention at the back) includes the provision for and use of leap seconds which take account of the way the earth is gradually slowing down, as well as, rather worryingly, “other discrepancies”.

All the Time zones around the world are given a negative or positive off-set to this base, so the really important ones, like GMT, can still hold their head up high.

As a demonstration, however, of the utter childishness of some people in these things, you ask yourself – “Why is it called UTC, when its expanded title is Coordinated Universal Time – CUT?”.

The answer apparently, involves, inevitably you will understand, The French.

The name was being decided by the International Telecommunications Union, who wanted this new concept of Coordinated Universal Time to have the same Acronymic abbreviation in all languages. Fair enough, you’d have thought.

However, les Grenouilles and the other 95% of the people making the decision ie the English speaking lot, both wanted the acronym which resulted from their own language to be the one which was to be used internationally. This would have resulted in either CUT for our mob - “Coordinated Universal Time”, or TUC for the French, where time seemed to run backwards – “Temps Universel Coordonne”.

It seems to be lost in the sands of time (GMT, that is) why the Brits and the Yanks didn’t play one down the blind side and slide a double headed Half Crown or Dollar into the proceedings and offer to toss the French for it. Perhaps the English delegation included too many cricket players.

Anyway, to keep everyone (actually no-one really) happy, the bright sparks who were there decided to call it UTC. I bet when the French launch their rockets, it's called TUC.




I’ve been sorting through some old pictures, and came across a few that caught my eye. Most are family images, but some may be of interest to a wider audience.

I’ve had a camera since the Year Dot, and started by playing around in the 1960s when I was Secretary of the School Photographic Society. One of our Wizzard Wheezes, which today would probably come under the business category of “Cost Saving Strategies” except I don’t suppose today’s National Curriculum includes a section on this, came out of our “A” level Chemistry Course. We somehow got hold of the list of chemical constituents that would allow us to process Colour slide film at home or in the Chemistry Lab. So we dutifully went through the “Eye of Newt, and Toe of Frog” bit, and lo and behold, we became proficient at processing slide films for about Ninepence each.

It’s easy to forget today just how far we’ve come with Technological matters since that time, and how Sci-Fi advanced it all seemed when we saw America’s “Put it all on Red” approach to landing a man on the Moon. Watching some of the heartbreaking failures, the fairytale journey of Apollo 8 around the moon one Christmas, and finally in 1969, Apollo 11 setting off in July with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins aboard to create a bit of history that was probably the most important achievement that Man has made in my lifetime. I suspect most people won’t agree with that, but I don’t really mind.

Sitting there watching it all happen, in real time, was just so thrilling. We all learnt to love the fabulous intro to Strauss’s Zarathustra Tone Poem, and was there ever a piece of music more suited to such an epic voyage. You simply didn’t know what was going to happen, and it felt just like a Boy’s Own Story playing out in front of you.

Watching on our State of the Art Black and White TV, we almost prayed as Armstrong and Aldrin landed, walked and bounced around a bit, got back in the ludicrously shaped Lunar Module – inevitably called the LEM, and on the absurdly simple TV camera they left on the Moon’s surface to record their (hopeful) departure, we watched it blast off.


You only got one swing at that ball, so I took a picture of the TV screen at 17.54 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on 21st July 1969. There were no Video recorders then. TV was a transitory phenomenon, and I wanted this one to keep. The picture is awful, but the words “Live from the Moon” had never been seen by Man before.

And that’s why it’s here today.



Wednesday, September 05, 2007


A few weeks ago, I wrote a short piece on Political Diaries. I had just bought Alistair Campbell’s mega-tome “The Blair Years” – some 760 odd pages of Blair’s ex Communications Director’s diaries covering the period 1994-2003.

Having read most of the many recent sets of diaries from politicians of all hues, I couldn’t help wondering what these would be like, seeing the media presented Campbell as some form of cross between Machiavelli and the Devil Incarnate. Rory Bremner’s view that Blair spent the whole of his premiership being Campbell’s poodle also left you with a very clear impression of the media’s view of the man – and the impression you were left with was not one you liked much.



Having now finished the book, I have changed my mind. Forget what the critics say, “The Blair Years” is a devastating and thrilling read, and, I think, a very, very important piece of work.

Campbell's views of those he came into contact with are fascinating, particularly such people as Mandleson, whom he clearly likes but who equally clearly frustrates him immensely, Clare Short, whom he simply despises, Clinton, whom he admires enormously, Dubya, whom he thinks is brighter than most people give credit for, Cherie Blair, Carole Caplin, who you feel Campbell almost suspects as having some unspoken hold over Tony Blair, and even Campbell’s wife Fiona, who also works with the Blairs.

The most interesting one of course is Blair himself. The great flaw in the book is that, right at the beginning, Campbell formally notes that certain passages have been modified/left out to avoid putting New Labour/Blair/Brown in a bad light. So all the time you’re reading it, you find yourself thinking – There’s something missing here, or the flow of that bit changes as if some post event changes have been made to the words. And, by definition, the bits where you feel this most are the bits which you really want to read about - like Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown - because there is little doubt that they’re in the original.

The reality of any published diary is that a varying amount of editing has always taken place, quite often with way more than half the original written words not seeing the published light of day. Here it is different. Firstly, this has been done for a specific reason, ie to avoid political embarrassment until much later on when the Full Cream Version is released, and secondly, the excision has been done by the author, and not someone like a Literary Editor, who makes the decisions on what to leave in on much wider and more independent grounds. So, we see Blair (certainly), and Brown (probably certainly) in a somewhat artificially sandpapered light. Occasionally, we are shown a flash of Blair temper, selfishness and petulance, but only in a situation where it occurs over an unimportant issue.

Sad but probably inevitable.

The other person you see portrayed throughout the book is Campbell himself, and here I am quite a convert. Clearly a hugely important man in the way the Government operated, with the occasional “we” rather than TB appearing when perhaps it shouldn’t, as in “we” deciding to sack someone during one of the several reshuffles. It may have been sloppy writing, but I don’t think so.


But in spite of the fact that anyone writing such a book cannot but help wittingly or unwittingly showing themselves to the reader, Campbell comes across as a terrific operator, very wise, very clear thinking, very strategic, and always seeing the big picture, when more people in the Government than you would like to think seem to be fixated on the flea rather than the dog.

In contrast, you feel he’d be great fun on an evening out at the pub, and that’s not something you can say about many of the New Labour Top Team.

You may not like what he was doing politically, but you have to admire immensely the way he did it. Bill Clinton, who as a communicator, Campbell thought was in a different league from all the rest, jokingly according to the book (but one suspects a grain of reality actually) wanted Campbell to takeover as the American Press/Communications Secretary. That says something.

His non Labour bits, when he runs the Marathon, bumming a decent sponsorship out of Dubya, when he does a walkabout with Clinton into the wide-eyed inhabitants of a Lancashire sea-side Fish shop, and particularly all around the mind numbingly frustrating Northern Ireland issues are rivetting reads.

They are not quite up with Alan Clark in the literal sense, who, to my mind, from a “writing” perspective in the political arena, reigns supreme here. But Clark has more time to “smell the daisies” and he does so brilliantly. Read him when he has to shoot the heron which has just devastated his fish ponds, and if you finish that bit without a tear in your eye there’s something a bit wrong with you. Campbell’s book isn’t like that because it’s much more focused on the politics, but he does write with great feeling.

The comparison with Clark is intriguing, because bizarrely, it turns out in the book that they were great friends, with Clark talking to Campbell far more in the latter stage of his life that I bet the Tory leaders would have liked, had they known. Campbell comes across as a really good, honest bloke, with tons of gravitas but also with, believe it or not, a ton of integrity – someone who, if you were picking up teams at school, you’d make bloody sure you got him on your side.

The book itself, I am sure, will become an absolutely invaluable historical tool. One suspects that not too many of the Big Players over the last 10 years have been sufficiently driven to keep a meaningful, detailed diary like Campbell (it’s very, very comprehensive), so it may well be the only inside version in the end that historians can rely on. You also feel slowly, as the book winds on, his gradually increasing lack of motivation and occasional despair at a life which consumes him totally and you really feel for him over even the survival of his marriage. Yet, he still kept on, with the job and the writing, until the Weapons of Mass Destruction, the “Dodgy Dossier” and David Kelly seemed to tip him over the edge and make him decide to leave. It’s all there, and you live it precipitately, day by day.


Writing a book, be it biography or autobiography, after the event, is totally different. They’ll all do that when the time comes – even John Prescott is in the throes, so my mind at least is in hyperboggle mode there. But in the Diary, the whole thing fizzes along in a very unique way.

It’s intriguing to read the critics and the book reviewers on it all as well. There are very few of them that don’t come in for some degree of savaging – it’s really about how many limbs Campbell is trying to remove from each of them. So it’s not surprising that when the critics have their one page chance to get their retaliation in, they all seem to have a go. Some damn it with faint praise, and some seem to verge on suppressed rubbishing.

The reality is that Campbell was One of Them, before he became Blair’s Communications Director. They must all, to some extent, feel betrayed and perhaps jealous, partly because he did the job so well. They have stayed on the sidelines, whereas he has taken centre stage, and there seems a thread of synchronised envy running through all the reviews I read. In the end, I got fed up with them, and decided to come to my own conclusions.

I think it’s the best set of diaries by a country mile since Alan Clark’s – in some ways it’s better, others not. But it runs them very close. They’re exciting, vivid, important, passionate, relevant, funny, individual and in places very moving. I simply didn’t expect that.

It’s a long while since a book has given me as much pleasure as this one did.



Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Musing over the Sunday Papers over breakfast this week-end, I was intrigued by a note in the Business Section of the Sunday Times, that Lord Forte, the 98 year old hotel tycoon who died recently, had left the princely sum of £80,000 in his will.

Now you always imagine that people who have been as financially successful as Lord Forte will have ensured that their tax affairs are arranged so as not to provide too sizeable a windfall for Her Majesty’s Government when they pass on to the Great Hotel in the Sky. However, I couldn’t help thinking that, in spite of passing the control of his company to his son many years ago and therefore avoiding a good deal of Inheritance Tax, for such a man to get away with 80 grand was a bit of a result, but Hey-Ho, pass the marmalade, please.

This morning, we read that a slight error has been identified in the workings of the Winchester Probate Office, and that the £80,000 figure has been slightly amended to read £80,150,000. Cripes!

It is one of those situations where you really wanted to be in the office of the Probate Manager, at the exact moment when he or she twigged what had happened – a video recorder would have been nice here.

And why does the word, which encapsulates such a guiltily pleasurable feeling, have to be German. “Schadenfreude” is, as we speak, absolutely le mot juste here, but those Englishmen of a Eurosceptic persuasion should surely start to insist here and now on the invention and future obligatory use of a single Anglo-Saxon word, to replace this European intrusion.

There is a bit of a serious point here though. The managerial process with which we all handle activities and decisions in our businesses should include a simple question asked of oneself when starting some task, or reviewing an outcome. “What do I think the answer should be, and when we get a numerical result at the end of a piece of work, does that answer feel reasonable?”

Without trying to be big headed here, my eyebrows twitched just a bit when I read the piece on Sunday, but, being on holiday, the marmalade won. But, why didn’t the guy in charge of the probate figures, as well as, particularly, the investigative journalist who wrote the piece, just think to themselves – “Hang on a minute, that doesn’t feel right. I’ll just have another look at that.” I’ll bet that journalist is feeling just a tiny bit sheepish at the moment.

It’s an important filter to wave over a whole range of Business reviews, and just occasionally, using it avoids the gloriously deep embarrassment of having to explain “We’re sorry we were wrong by just over 100,000%, but we put the decimal place in the wrong position.” I know the feeling because I’ve done it, and I did feel a total and complete idiot.

And no one, anywhere in your organisation will EVER allow you to forget it. They will all ensure that it will be with you for all time.

We should give it a name - I would suggest we call it Common Sense, except it’s actually quite rare.




I am indebted, as they say on “The News Quiz”, to my friend Bob “Easy Rider” Upcraft, for pointing out a programme last Saturday morning on Radio 4. I wrote in these pages, in late April 2007, about a concert my wife and I went to at the Albert Hall in August 1968, where Rostropovich, the great Russian Cellist, was playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto.

As luck (and that’s absolutely
not the right word here) would have it, the concert took place on the same day the Russians had rolled their tanks onto the streets of Prague to quell the liberal regime of Alexander Dubcek. The concert was an absolutely electric experience, and simply the most emotional one I have ever attended.

The radio programme, presented by Paul Gambacinni, reconstructed that day, and talked to some of those involved with it. We heard from Tariq Ali who led the demonstrations inside and outside the hall, and we heard from the Prom producer who did not know until late on whether the concert was even going to go ahead – I loved his question “Haven’t the Russians read the Radio Times?” We listened to members of the Soviet State Orchestra who recounted how their KGB “guardians” were “tooled up” and stationed at the sides of the orchestra, to prevent contact with the audience, and presumably to thwart the slightest thought of defection.

And, to top it all, we heard parts of the actual recording of Rostropovich playing the Concerto with absolute passion, saying unequivocally, via his music, what he felt about his country’s actions. Sadly, the Concerto is the only part of the concert for which a recording still exists, but the power of the music blazes through. The opening Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, played at breakneck speed, as if the conductor wanted to get on the next bus home, and the Shostakovich 10th Symphony, which ended this unforgettable night, are lost forever.

A very atmospheric programme, which rewinds my personal “Lifetape” back 39 years in a flash.

If you want to hear it, it’s available until Saturday 8th September, on the Beeb’s Radio 4 “Listen Again” site.

Cello fans, grab it while you can.