Wednesday, July 30, 2008


So I’m upstairs in the bathroom trying to unblock a waste-pipe. I’ve cleaned out the S-Bend Trap (Yuk!), and I’ve poked the long metal snakey thing into the pipe to get as far down the system as I can. I put it back together and, lo and behold, the water now runs away gradually, rather than festering in a pool in the basin, like some primordial soup. Sort of OK, but nothing like it was when we built the house.

What I really want is some stuff I bought, and subsequently got rid of, a few years ago, which you had to pour VERY CAREFULLY into the opened pipe, leave it for half an hour, reconnect it all up, turn the tap on, and Yabbadabba-Doo – just like new again. Except, of course, those that look after my every interest in Government have decreed that I am not now to be trusted with these substances. Mind you, it was 96% Sulphuric Acid, so I can perhaps, on this occasion, understand their stance.

But, I’m not an idiot. I’m not going to drink it, wipe it up with my finger or splash water on it to clean up the mess. I have a degree in some sort of Scientific Cleverness, and would take appropriate measures to avoid any personal damage – like getting a guy in to do it for me.

All of which instantly brought me back to my schooldays, and the Chemistry lessons which I so enjoyed. This was in the early 60s when Man, or at least, American Man, was starting the fabulous voyage which would lead to Apollo 11. As someone fascinated by these things, these days you simply can’t imagine the toe curling joy you got from watching the goings on at Cape Canaveral. I read, or more accurately devoured everything I could find on the subject, and one day reading “Flight” Magazine, what did I come across but a description of the propellants used in the American’s new and biggest Rocket, the Titan.

To get away from the problems of having to ensure that the ignition systems in the engines needed to work perfectly every time, the wizzos designing the rockets simply did away with them. They used fuels which were “hypergolic”, which I found out meant “Ignites on impact”. You kept them in two separate tanks in the rocket, and poured them down two separate tubes into the rocket motor whereupon you got the Mother and Father of all controlled explosions, and a couple of seconds later you were in space.

At least, that was the theory.

The recipe for all this was disarmingly simple – 1 bottle of Red Fuming Nitric Acid, and 1 bottle of Unsymmetrical DiMethyl Hydrazine, hereinafter referred to as UDMH. We are now in the days when you did real experiments at school in the Chemistry Labs. You poked around with Phosphorous, you made Chlorine, and smelt it, you got the remarkably unstable element Aluminium glowing red by removing the protective oxide on it. You had Bunsen Burners permanently on, resulting in the great side pleasure of unobtrusively singeing the trousers of classmates you disliked. It was a real joy of discovery.

Then started the Organic Chemistry course. We began with Methane, and Ethane, Alkynes and the like. Incidentally, do you know that making Acetylene is the result of combining Calcium Carbide and Water. So if you feed Calcium Carbide to a pigeon, I have it on goodish authority that the resultant avian explosion is deemed quite impressive (as avian explosions go), if you are a questioning 16 year old with a practical Scientific bent.

Anyway, the course developed. Benzenes came and went, we made soap (Sodium Oleate, Sodium Palmitate and something else I can’t remember anymore) until one day the magic word Hydrazine appeared in the lesson.

Your mind’s probably ahead of me, but we did go through due scientific process here. We started with Bog Standard Vanilla Hydrazine, and thanks to a little prompting and leading from the class (there was a grand total of 6 of us in the form, reducing to 5 if you exclude the form-master) we seemed to get on to Di-Methyl Hydrazine. Well, this was close enough for me. I reckoned, as a rangefinder, I could live without UDMH’s molecular asymmetry to begin with, and the Devil’s Brew to make some was duly set in motion. The lab must have looked a bit like the inside of an Al-Qaeda Bomb cell, but I only made a small quantity (Honestly, Your Honour).

In the meantime, the Red Fuming Nitric Acid had been fuming away, waiting for its moment, in the Fume Cupboard. Except, that is, on one occasion, some other inquisitive bright spark had got it out to play and managed to splash some on his hand, the result of which was an aesthetically rather satisfying, perfectly circular and impressively large crater in his Index Finger.

So later that lesson, when we were being busy little scientists, I decided that I ought to test the substances we had just created. I had literally only a thimbleful of DMH. So a matched quantity of RFNA was poured out, and the two brought near to each other using those quaint twisty things you used in a Fume Cupboard to manipulate the potions from outside the cabinet. They were both in very small glass containers, sitting behind the large glass screens through which we all used to observe the goings on.

I don’t know what would have happened if I had not been standing behind the wooden frame of the Cupboard. I suspect something inside me had done an intuitive and rather rudimentary Risk Assessment on the potential consequences of pouring one of the liquids into the other. From a scientific viewpoint, my immediate conclusion was that it didn’t matter which liquid you poured into which.

Even if I say it myself, the result was really rather impressive. The glass shrapnel reached the other side of the lab, and, as I recall, it was not a particularly small room. Fortunately, no-one was injured, one of the lesser sung educational benefits of small class sizes. The form master, who strangely had been outside the lab when the experiment started (Well, he would be, wouldn’t he?) seemed to reappear with remarkable rapidity.

Oh dear, here we go, I thought. Looking back, the odd thing is it didn’t end up as a major problem. A balanced response from those in charge is the best way of describing it. I got a reasonable and fair bollocking for the explosion, and, as I recall, a grudging but slightly congratulatory pat on the back for the use of a bit of scientific initiative.

As a way of learning, on the job, so to speak, I have to say, it worked brilliantly. I can still remember the details nearly 50 years later, and, in my rather tenuous defence, isn’t that what teaching is all about?


Tuesday, July 29, 2008


There’s something inherently really rather nice about the Seaside Pier.

Invented, almost inevitably by the Victorians, they reek of a truly English, rather old-fashioned summer holiday. Strolls, or even train-rides, out to sea on a long, wooden slatted platform, deckchairs, theatres (sometimes quite high class ones at that), penny slot machines, Fortune Tellers and Candy Floss. Not a carbon based holiday air mile in sight.

The sight yesterday of the pier at Weston-super-Mare blazing into nothingness is really rather depressing. So many of them seem to have suffered rather violent ends, either from fire, the weather or even the occasional ship ploughing into them. Perhaps it’s Man being told that the land is his province, and the sea is a step too far. Who knows?

If it wasn't so sad, the black humour in you (or at least me) would at least note the comments yesterday from one of the well meaning firemen that they had suffered a shortage of water for the pumps. I'm sure he's right, but I'd have found a different way to say it.

As structures, they are very photogenic, partly because they are such simple, repetitive shapes and partly because they stand visually very strongly against a clean, uncluttered background. I've dug out a couple of pictures I've taken of them in the past.

Firstly Cromer in Norfolk. The pier here is nearly 500 feet long, and forms a beautiful backdrop to our walks on Runton Beach with the dogs in that part of the world. The first picture shows the theatre on the end of the pier, taken as the sun went down.


The other was taken on a Saturday night in mid season, with the holidaymakers digging into their fish and chips in one of the shelters on the pier. I have deliberately grained the picture and taken a lot of the detail out of it, to make it look a bit like something from the past – which in a way it is.


The last picture, below, was taken at Morecambe in Lancashire about 15 years ago. I think the pier had been destroyed (here we go again) by fire, and the structure stood bent, twisted and destroyed against the horizon. As a metaphor for the town, which in the early Nineties definitely seemed to be on its way out as a seaside resort, it takes some beating. The town faces west, so the sun sets very invitingly against the stark structure of the pier’s remains. All you need is a gentle, misty sunset with the brightness of the sun dampened down into a lovely redness against the grey sea and sky, and the contrast of a black metal silhouette, and the result is a picture I’m quite pleased with.

Simplicity is all.



Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I copied the following article out of the “Daily Telegraph” today. Well, you had to with a Headline like the one in Bold Blue below. So many thoughts go through your head that I don’t know where to start.

So I won’t.

Except to wonder whether the Westminster equivalent of the UK’s illegal Immigrant problem has already reached epidemic proportions, and this is the Government’s way of shutting the stable door long after the horse in question has bolted.

And anyway, if 27% of the Cabinet has also suffered in this way, that means there'a around 6 of them. Any ideas who they might be? I can think of a couple of racing certs.


'Idiots and lunatics' may be given right to stand for Parliament
By Joanna Corrigan

Last Updated: 12:57AM BST 21/07/2008

People labelled "idiots" and "lunatics" under archaic mental health laws could soon be allowed to stand for Parliament.

Ministers are considering scrapping ancient rules after complaints from mental health campaigners that they are discriminatory.

Laws created in Elizabethan times define idiots as "incapable of gaining reason" and lunatics as capable of only periods of lucidity.

They are banned from becoming MPs "in their non lucid intervals".

The ancient laws also ban anyone sectioned under the Mental Health Act from putting themselves forward for election, even if they have fully recovered, and require MPs to give up their seat for life if they are sectioned for six months.

A spokesman for Mind, the mental health charity, said it was wrong to rule out people that have suffered in the past but are still extremely capable.

"People who have suffered mental health problems can function at a very high level. Look at Stephen Fry. He has been open about his manic depression and people would be shocked if someone like him were not eligible to stand," he said.

A recent survey of MPs found 27 per cent had suffered some kind of mental health problem.

One in three said the stigma attached to that type of illness had prevented them being open about it.


With the march of new technology, the difficulty of the job of umpiring a Test Match has taken a quantum leap upwards. Time and time again, we see the umpire’s decision dissected by the commentators, using hindsight, “Hawk-Eye”, a committee review, “Snicko”, continuously repeated backwards and forwards Slow Motion camera work using up to 26 camera around a ground, to decide on the rights and wrongs of a decision. They use all this paraphanalia and some few minutes later, a puff of technological “White Smoke” appears and the pundits deliver their verdict. If it confirms the umpire’s decision, well he was only doing his job properly wasn’t he, and if he’s wrong, then there’s another small nail in the integrity of the umpire’s position. Occasionally, they then replay the offending moment in real time, and you hardly have time to see anything – you then realise just what a difficult job making a decision actually is.

Now, the Rules of Cricket are quite clear, and it is one of the more charming parts of the game – on the field, the Umpires have the final responsibility for the interpretation of the Rules and all the decisions which flow from that. It doesn’t say they have to be right, just “in their opinion …….”. They get it right most times, but, being human, they sometimes get it wrong. But whether it is intended or otherwise, this “God-like” power and position of the Umpire is under increasing threat from these reviews. And surely, it doesn’t need to be like that.

Umpires make mistakes – they always have, and they always will. The game is played on this basis. As a batsman, at least if you’re my age, you “walk” if the Umpire’s finger goes up – even if you know you are not out (think Gilchrist here, bless him). Others (think Atherton here) take the view that, if the umpire has the final say, then they’d better stay there at the crease, even though they know they’re out, just to balance the times when the umpire gets it wrong – law of averages, and all that.

Now it is fair to say that the technology is here to stay, and it will only become more sophisticated as time passes. Which means that burying one’s head in the technological sand is not going to work. And this is the issue. For time immemorial, there was no real way to determine the accuracy of the umpire’s decisions, so everything goes down in history as undisputed fact. When Len Hutton scored 364 Not Out in 1938 (Did you know, by the way he was only 22 when he played that innings?), there was no Hawkeye then to show whether Fred Smith actually got a snick off him when he was on 24.

Today, it’s utterly different. The almost obscene avalanche of money rushing towards the sport will magnify the potential impact of this issue to be even more important than it is today. Just imagine the issues of the two catches (Did they, or did they not, touch the ground?) which enlivened the South Africa Test a couple of days ago, if something similar happened in the Stanford Match later this year. Ambassadors would be withdrawn, and UN ressolutions would be called for. You just know that something’s got to give, and give soon.

The argument today seems to hinge on the balance of Ultimate Umpire Power vs Technological confirmation and accuracy of a decision. To me the situation is basically simple. The Umpire should retain his ultimate authority in spite of the existence and use of all these technical aids. It is one of the real charms of the game, that the final decision rests on the shoulders of one man. But surely, we should use the aids we have today to improve the accuracy of the decisions, subject always to the Umpire’s final say-so.

I’m still not sure about the referral process. It allows the players to be able to put increased pressure on the umpire. Yes, it gets a disputed decision revisited, but it is the thin end of a very large wedge in the destruction of the Umpire’s power on the field. So, why not use the technology? If the umpire doesn’t, the Sky TV Director will.

If the umpire is quite sure in his mind about a decision, then let him call it without the gizmos. He can then take the flak if he’s proven to be wrong.If he isn’t sure, then let him call up the same technology that the commentating pundits spray around after every difficult decision. He can then make his decision after seeing what he wants, and he then retains his authority on the field.

You will still get decisions where not everyone agrees – but so what? Two days ago, Michael Vaughan “caught” a ball very low down off Hashim Amla. In real time, it looked for all the world, as if it was out. Vaughan clearly thought he’d caught it, Amla walked immediately, the umpire didn’t stop him, and everyone was convinced the catch was good. When the replay came up on the screen, the South African dressing room (and yours truly as well, watching on the box) said “Hang on a minute, did it touch the ground?”, and chaos ensued.

The next morning, with all their own experience, all the time in the world and all the technology available behind them, the commentators still could not agree whether the catch was good or not. It was a 2-1 split, and this was David Gower, Michael Holding and David Lloyd we’re talking about here, not Ant and Dec.

We seem to be aiming for 100% perfection for any change, when that is never going to happen. And because we can’t get it, we won’t take the simple steps forward which seem all too obvious – the ones which will get us from 70% to 90%. Maybe you say it’s sport to have these controversies, but I’m not so sure. Think World Cup 1966, think “The Hand of God”, think the World Cup England Rugby game recently.

Surely what we need is a simple mechanism which allows the unfortunate “obvious” errors which we see all the time in the game to be prevented. In the Test series so far, to my knowledge, Cook was given out wrongly to a ball which touched his trousers, not his glove, Strauss was sent packing quite incorrectly and Collingwood suffered the same fate. Two seconds watching a replay by any of the umpires would, I submit, have reversed those decisions, and avoided the umpires’ red faces, and who then knows how the match would have changed.

Collingwood, fighting for his place in the team needed a good innings, and through no fault of his own, didn’t get a chance to play one. He was dropped for the next match, when a decent score may just possibly have resulted in a different decision. It can’t be right if a wrong umpiring decision could lose a player his place in the team. Just think if Strauss had got a wrong’un in his survival innings recently in New Zealand. No-one could have guaranteed on that day that he would go on to play a matchwinning innings, and we’d almost certainly have a new opening bat for England now. It’s that important.

But the Umpire’s job is hugely difficult, and increasingly so. Think of what he has to do. You’ve got Brett Lee blasting down towards you behind your left shoulder to bowl – at something like 90 miles/hour. Each and every ball, the Umpire must check that the bowler’s front foot does not overstep the crease creating a No Ball. He then has to look up, focus on the ball, measure where it lands, compute its line and height and the amount of swing and bounce in case it hits the batsman’s pads, decide whether the ball hits the bat at all, or just before or just after the pad, and decide whether the ball would have hit the stumps, in three dimensions.

Now, a simple bit of maths. Assuming the ball lands “on a length”, at 90 mph, the umpire has around 0.12 seconds to adjust and pick all this up from the time he’s also looking at the bowler’s front foot and trying to decide where it hits the ground. The minimum reaction time for a Human Being estimated by the clever souls who study Athletics sprinting, is around 0.11 seconds. Indeed, if an athlete is found to have started off the blocks in less time than this, he is deemed to have jumped the start, because a faster reaction is physiologically impossible. So why do we expect a 50 year old Cricket umpire to hit that sweet spot 270 times a day in a cricket match, when the time allowed is on the limit of the physically possible?

Answer – because we do. But we don’t have to. Why don’t we aim one of these machines at the crease and leave it to the machine to bleep if the bowler oversteps the mark. That strikes me as simple. You get an accurate answer every time, you get it immediately and the umpire is released to concentrate on the other end of the pitch, where the action is going to take place.

And why can an on-the-pitch umpire refer some decisions to the Third Umpire and not others? And some to the Square Leg umpire, and not others?

This gets hugely complicated quite quickly. So why not start with the basics?

1 - Technology is here to stay.

2 - Clearly visible errors quickly erode the Umpire’s credibility.

3 - The amount of money in the game is making and is going to continue to make umpiring decisions increasingly more important.

4 - The position of authority of the Umpire must be bolstered and supported where it can.

5 - We live in a world where it is naïve (See 3 above – money doesn’t talk, it shouts) to think we can rely unreservedly on the word of the players – morals and integrity are not absolute things and money can easily be seen as the lubricant of the devil here. Anyone been to a Soccer match recently?

So, start there and let the umpire, not the teams, have access to the gizmos Sky and its commentators use. Let the umpires choose when they are unsure, as they can, and do today with run-outs, to have access to the technology being used currently to judge them.

Insist that decisions on No Balls are given to a line judge machine. I’m sure they must exist - if not, go to Wimbledon and ask them.

Umpires are not idiots, and none of them want to look a fool. You have to believe that every one of them is trying to do the best job he can. Yes, it will make a few pauses in the game to go through these replays, but measure the time lost when the current disputes take place on the field, as well as the unnecessary controversy which then fizzes around for days/weeks and sometimes for ever, and off-set that against it. The umpires will use it when they are in doubt – but leave the final decision on Out/Not Out to them.

If they have the choice, and they don’t use it when they should, and consistently get it wrong, then sack them. They’ve had their chance, and in the same way that poor play gets you dropped, they should lose their place if they then don’t make reasonable decisions. What isn’t fair is to berate and demean them when they are being judged by processes far more revealing than they themselves can use.

Simple really.


Sunday, July 20, 2008


Wells-next-the-Sea is a delightful, and delightfully named small town in Norfolk. Of course, being Norfolk, it isn't next to the sea. When it was named a few hundred years ago, it was, but a couple of centuries of silting up the coast put paid to that, and you now have to drive a mile or so out of the town to paddle in the water.

All of which is nothing to do with this.

As you drive round the town's ring road, you see the local Fire Station - pictured below.


When you reach the end of the road to drive out of the town, 50 yards further on, you come across the name of the street in which the Fire Station is situated - pictured below.


A bit of history perhaps? Or a bit of Norfolk Black Humour?




A few weeks ago, I showed some pictures of a Scarecrow festival in a small village called Wighton in North Norfolk. The village seemed to have been taken over by them, and I thought a few more should receive a little belated publicity.

Could this happen anywhere else in the world?











Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I remember this from about 30 years ago. Some wag had painted it on a bridge on the M3 or M4, coming into London. On a Monday morning as I recall, just to give it added flavour.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


One of life’s great pleasures tonight.

I’m a great fan of jazz/classical pianist Jacques Loussier. He has been playing his own interpretation of Bach for something over 40 years now, and in the last couple of decades he has added additional music from such composers as Ravel, Satie, Vivaldi and a raft of other Baroque composers.

In a world of look-alikes and wannabees, he is simply unique – a technically extremely competent classical pianist and composer, with a jazz overlay to his playing that puts Bach, especially, into a different perspective for me. I first saw him with his trio in London at the Royal Albert Hall in around 1965, some 40 odd years ago, listening for about 3 shillings and sixpence (Sixteen pence, or 25 cents if you think in US Dollars) up in The Gods, right on the top tier of the hall. That was before they fitted the sound absorbing "Flying Saucers" in the roof to sort the acoustics out, and I had the privilege of hearing the concert twice for my money - the second performance following about a third of a second after the first!

He blew me away then, and I’ve listened to his playing ever since. Whenever he plays at a venue anywhere near me, I pile in for my 5 yearly fix. I must have seen him almost 10 times since that time, and tonight he turned up in Shrewsbury with his trio, and off I went to hear him.


He’s 73 now, and the lithe energetic man with a sharply trimmed beard I saw 40 odd years ago is now a greying, more circumspect character. He talks very quietly to the audience and when he plays at the keyboard, his body hardly moves, although his eyes twinkle and his hands are still a blur on the keys. A number of the music snobs think he dumbs down the music, but in reality he brings a unique freshness and a buzz to everything he plays.

He is supported by a couple of absolutely top class musicians. His drummer, Andre Arpino, has a delicate and stunning touch which is unerring, rock solid, very inventive and a joy to watch and listen to. Anyone who thinks drumming is a Four in the Bar accompaniment, should listen to Arpino. He has an amazing sense of light and shade, offering a perfect support to Loussier’s piano lines, as well as showing a prodigious skill when he takes off on his own.


The bass player rejoices under the glorious name of Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac which sounds like a very expensive Premier Cru Claret. A long, lanky guy with closed cropped hair and enormously long fingers, he hangs on and around his instrument, as if it’s part of him. If the idea of listening to a lengthy, meandering Double Bass solo does not turn you on, you should listen to this guy. He struck off into a solo which lasted for ever and the several hundred people crammed into the Shrewsbury Music Hall, to a man, were totally riveted and struck quite dumb by it all – not a single cough or noise – for its 6-7 minute duration.

He stroked it, caressed it, hit it, played huge booming, ringing bass notes, followed by almost guitar like soprano sounds with him hunched over the body of the instrument with his head bent over almost touching the sound board. He slid sinuously up and down the strings making it sound on occasions like a dark slide guitar, and then rebuilt the melody in a sequence of deep triple chords which made you wonder how his fingers ever reached all the notes simultaneously. It was an absolute tour-de-force. I thought it was breathtaking.


He last visited the Music Hall in Shrewsbury 3½years ago, on his 70th Birthday, when the town presented him with a large Birthday cake. By then, he'd played something over 3,000 concerts, and he still made it all sound as fresh as a daisy. You hope he goes on for ever so I’m mentally slotting myself in to see him again in early 2012 when he’s 77.

À bientôt.



Wednesday, July 02, 2008


I've driven past this road sign umpteen times on the way to work, but the cricketingness in it only clicked with me today.

I suppose you woudn't believe me if I said the next street along was named "Jonty Road".

Or "Brian Close"?

Thought so.