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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

National Media Museum, Bradford

Further to my recent post about the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, I have now also visited the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Admission to the National Media Museum is free, although donations are welcomed. Being ever happy to help support museums, I gave the suggested amount of £3. The museum is divided into various "floors" or levels, each area devoted to a particular topic or category - photography, cinema, television, the internet, gaming and even animation.

The building is well-appointed and quite modern, but it has a pleasant ambience. One of my predominant impressions was how much content and information they have managed to pack into the space available. There is an impressive volume of exhibits and "artefacts", which are amply complemented by the multimedia elements. The written displays are concise, but informative and helpful.

I was most impressed with the section which deals with photography. There is real depth and detail in its depiction of this field, including the evolution and development of the science and technology associated with photography, as well as its social impact and economic aspects. There is an abundance of material to observe here, much of it possessing real period charm.

There is a compact but vibrant area dealing with the internet, its development, its effects and its future. Again, much emphasis is placed on how we arrived at where we are now, with some items which will stir much nostalgia for people of a certain age.

I also enjoyed the part of the museum which looks at the subject of animation. Comprehensive and exuding attention to detail. The television section includes much focus on production and planning, in addition to the history of the genre. Once again, lots of excellent and noteworthy items to be seen, tracing the progression of the technology. The sheer quantity is admirable, as is the inventive way in which it is presented.

All in all, the National Media Museum was a bit of a revelation to me, in its level of erudition and the breadth and scale of the material on view. I would recommend to potential visitors that they set aside a decent amount of time, to enable them to get the full benefit of what the venue has to offer, and to absorb the information. If this is done, then much enlightenment and enjoyment is to be had. Educational, stimulating and also great fun!

Friday, 20 March 2015

Enzo Ferrari, A Life - Richard Williams

With the dawn of the new Formula 1 season, I have been prompted to revisit some of the racing books gathering dust on my shelves. One of those was Richard Williams' biography of Enzo Ferrari, first published in 2001.

This is a biography of Ferrari the man, so those searching for exhaustive lists of chassis numbers, or intricate technical analysis, should perhaps look elsewhere. There is some good scene-setting stuff, exploring Ferrari's early life and his background.  Indeed, these stimulating passages left me yearning for more information concerning those formative years. The chapters dealing with Enzo's own racing exploits are equally evocative, for example the 1919 Targa Florio.

With limited space, it is understandable that this book does not go into great detail about how Ferrari reacted to, and fitted into, the febrile social and political climate which prevailed in Italy when he was launching his career in motor sport and business. The author does not ignore the issue, though, and one is left with an impression of the realities and choices faced by many prominent Italians at that time.

It is striking how convoluted, constantly shifting, and sometimes strained, Enzo Ferrari's relationship with Alfa Romeo was, much more so than is popularly imagined. I was gratified to find that this stage of his life is covered in some depth, as are the "heroic" and "golden" ages of motor racing, between the world wars. These sections are gripping, and one is left with a vivid impression of a perilous but momentous era. From the emergence of the likes of Nuvolari, Varzi and Moll, and Ferrari's relationship with these figures, to the sea-change brought about by the advent of the Auto Union and Mercedes teams. The legendary races such as the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio are also afforded due attention.

At various junctures in this biography we are informed how some of the mythology and legend which surrounds (or surrounded?) Ferrari accumulated. It is worth stressing, however, that Williams does not go overboard on this dimension of the tale. Indeed, some myths and/or tall stories are dispelled or debunked. It is tempting to view every episode surrounding Ferrari in "conspiratorial" terms. Thankfully, a more measured and dispassionate approach is adopted here.

The parts of the book which address the tumultuous 1950s are also quite absorbing. The tragedies, the controversies, the playing off of drivers against each other, the brief Ferrari tenure of Juan Manuel Fangio and the turbulent 1958 season all feature heavily. Throughout there are also fascinating and often revealing anecdotes about Ferrari's dealings with drivers, celebrities, notables and the families of drivers. I feel that the portrayal of the man is balanced, showing his flaws but also highlighting his human qualities, which are often overlooked or obscured by the aforementioned mythology.

The outbursts of political trouble in the racing team are naturally detailed, including the problems with Italian drivers, the strains which led to the departure of John Surtees, and the Niki Lauda epoch. A recurring theme in the later chapters is the incidence of infighting, and the extent to which this was compounded by Ferrari's remoteness and consequent tendency to delegate. The complex nature of his relations with several drivers, including Surtees and Lauda, is examined realistically and sensibly. Matters were not always black and white, despite what some would like us to believe.  The accounts of the negotiations with Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart leave me with a sensation of "what might have been".

Of course, Ferrari's personal and family life are documented here, as is the growth of the road car side of the company. We also learn about the abortive negotiations with Ford in the 1960s, and the subsequent agreement with Fiat.

Overall, this is a lively and well written book.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Jorvik Viking Centre, York

Following on from my heightened interest in the Viking Age, on a recent visit to York I finally got around to paying a visit to the city's Jorvik Viking Centre.

The one thing which struck me at first was how small the premises appear to be, but there is plenty going on inside! I found the staff to be both cheerful and helpful.

Some of the emphasis is naturally on the role of York in the Viking Age, and on the numerous archaeological discoveries made in the city, but these elements are also placed in the context of the wider Viking Age and the world as it stood in those times.

Perhaps the highlight of the visit was the "ride" around a reconstruction of parts of the Viking-age city, complete with an informative and entertaining commentary. This excellently complemented the other exhibits in the centre.

I was pleased to see that the displays went into some detail about economic, social and cultural life in York, and elsewhere, during the Viking Age. The artefacts are well presented and explained. Effective use is made of multimedia and interactive features, and these go into some detail about topics such as lifestyles, health, domestic life and so forth.

I think that the Jorvik Viking Centre achieves a happy balance between the accessible and the academic. There is I would suggest something here for beginners, the casual visitor and also the more devoted student.

A benefit of the compact space is that the centre feels cohesive, with the result that the visitor comes away with a feeling that they have acquired some concentrated knowledge, and not just a cursory grasp of a range of subjects. I can imagine that the way in which things are presented here will encourage many people to engage in additional reading and study of the Vikings.

One thing which came through as I made my way through the exhibits was a sense that the people who put it together must have, in addition to extensive knowledge, a great passion about their subject and about the city of York and its rich and fascinating history.

The Jorvik Viking Centre is well worth a visit for anyone interested in history, and also for anyone passing through York.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Civil War - The Wars Of The Three Kingdoms 1638-1660 - Trevor Royle

A while ago, I much enjoyed reading Trevor Royle's book about the Wars Of The Roses. His work about the political upheavals which engulfed England, Scotland and Ireland in the seventeenth century is equally absorbing and rewarding. One of the strengths of Civil War is the way in which it brings together events in England, Scotland and Ireland, giving it scale and authority.
The religious intricacies leave me somewhat bewildered, but a rudimentary grasp of them is necessary to a full understanding of what occurred during those times. It is easy to make facile remarks about religion and politics; in those days, religion was inextricably inter-linked with politics, even if sometimes it was employed as a "Trojan horse" for the furtherance of other demands.
There is an illuminating, but brief exploration of the background to the conflict, and the formative years of Charles I. Did the peculiar nature of Charles' upbringing, conditioned to some degree by events in England and Scotland, have a bearing on the development of his character and the manner in which he conducted affairs later?
One aspect of the Civil War period which intrigues me greatly is the emergence, or not as the case may be, of the self-made man, of a more meritocratic order. Some of the senior figures on the Parliamentary side still relied on rarefied social connections to get into positions where they could influence events, but once there many of them made appointments on the basis of ability rather than birth. This applied to the New Model Army in particular. This new breed of man carried, in varying concentrations, idealism, fervour and commercial nous, and this proved a formidable combination both then and in later years.

Did a genuine revolution really take place, or was this just like many other "revolutions", in the sense that the population was simply exchanging one set of masters or overlords for another?  Was there any great change in the distribution of economic power and concentration of land ownership, for example?
The more radical elements, inside and outside of Parliament, were marginalised , and their ideas and demands disregarded. Also, the conservatives capitalised on the widespread desire for peace, tranquillity and order, and the attendant mistrust of grandiose and idealistic designs. People fell back on safety and certainties, which also often conveniently matched their own self-interest. Plus ca change....
Reading this book, it is noticeable how relatively infrequently "ordinary people" are mentioned, with the exception of the situation in Ireland. Power politics were being contested by competing factions of the ruling elites, and it is worth asking how much the masses benefited much in a material way, from an economic standpoint, from the upheavals and chaos. How much more "democratic" and just did England become?

Oliver Cromwell's rise to prominence is detailed, naturally, and it is worth remembering that he was not at the centre of events right from the start of the struggle. He ascended due to his own qualities, connections and tactical astuteness, and he also took advantage of favourable circumstances and the misfortunes and misdeeds of others.

As the picture unfolded, it occurred to me that Charles and the Royalists missed their opportunity, sometimes through military ineptitude, but more often because of vacillation and hesitancy, playing safe. At some stage, the initiative passed to Parliament as its key personnel began to assert themselves, and they displayed a greater sense of purpose and conviction. Parliament's times of adversity forced them to reappraise their organisation and methods. The Royalists seemed complacent by comparison.
Charles I showed intransigence, and an inability to recognise and appreciate the way in which the winds were blowing. In the early stages of the conflict it may even have been possible for some kind of compromise settlement to be effected. By the time that he made any meaningful concessions, however, he was doing so from a position of weakness, and the mood among his opponents was too militant, confident and single-minded for common ground to be reached. It still rankles to hear how often the king invoked the "divine right" and his supposed privileges and prerogative. That era was being cast away.

The author does appear to imply his unease about some of the methods employed by the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, and he also seeks to put into perspective some of the stereotypes which have built up over the centuries, notably the notion of the war as a class struggle and the portrayal of the Puritans as joyless and excessively austere. Another key point which emerges is that some key liberalizing and democratizing reforms were put on the back-burner for a century or more. The country had been more or less placed on the "right road".  The road would be a long and slow one, but at least it would be a comparatively peaceful and stable one.
The atrocities committed during the war(s) are mentioned here, of course, although the author cautions the reader to take account of the exaggerations and propagandist efforts which embellished many of the stories of excesses and abuses. He also highlights the occasions when chivalry was exhibited by the combatants.

Some of the most enlightening and revealing sections of this book deal with the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Scotland and Ireland, the unrest within the Parliamentary army, the struggles between moderate and radical opinion, and the various revolts and mutinies which erupted across the territories.

I first read this book three or four years ago, and this time around I was much more interested in the political and social dimensions than in the niceties of military tactics. I see this as a good sign. The emergence of the Levellers and the Diggers I found especially intriguing, with their calls for more egalitarian laws on land ownership, and an emphasis on "natural rights". Were they the original left-libertarians?  My own views have been moving in a similar direction in recent times, and their idealism and courage inspire. They were way ahead of their time, and I am keen to learn more about them.
I found this book extremely enjoyable, informative and well-balanced. Stylishly written, with plenty of quotations from memoirs and literature of the time. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Please Please Me - The Beatles

Perhaps "Please Please Me", released by The Beatles in 1963, is not the greatest debut album in rock history, but it is an endearing work which merits close inspection, even if it is difficult to be totally dispassionate when assessing it, because of the "Beatles" factor.
One of the most well-known things about the record is that most of the tracks were recorded in one day. A mixture of Lennon-McCartney originals and cover versions, it has a touching and infectious naivete. Even so, it is daunting to think that less than five years later these same musicians were writing and recording "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Penny Lane" and "A Day In The Life".
The running order is adroitly arranged to spread out the stronger performances, and it expertly conceals the weaker material. "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist And Shout" serve as formidable bookends, and help to make the record seem better than it actually is. I sometimes think to myself that the Beatles must have been playing better songs in the clubs than a few of those which ended up appearing on the album. Was the inclusion of some "safer" fare a sign of the band's eagerness, and that of their manager, to reach as wide and mainstream an audience as possible? 

The material may be less interesting than that found, for instance, on the group's sophomore effort, but there is a real unity and cohesion here, doubtless stemming from the compressed nature of the recording session(s), and therefore having more to do with overall energy and atmosphere than musical styles as such.  In some ways the strength of the individual numbers is less important than the overall effect. It is even arguable that when this LP was put together, Lennon and McCartney had not yet got fully into their stride as songwriters, separately or in terms of collaborative efforts. They only became truly prolific, in terms of quantity as well as quality, a little while later.

The opening track, "I Saw Her Standing There", still retains all of its freshness, joyousness and exuberance over fifty years after its appearance. It encapsulates that almost intangible magic which lifted The Beatles well above the nondescript, and fulfils this role much more potently than most of their later, supposedly more "mature" output. The main ingredients are the raw but likeable vocals of McCartney and Lennon, the semi-suggestive lyrics, and Ringo Starr's idiosyncratic drum fills. As a whole the song feels like a statement of intent, although probably not intended as such at the time.

In amongst the relative filler, there are some gems. The title track possesses many of the qualities of "I Saw Her Standing There", with the once again the contrasting voices of Lennon and McCartney blending to considerable effect.

Of course, "Twist and Shout" forms a rousing climax to the set, with John Lennon's searing vocal a consequence of the rigours of the legendary one-day recording session. The other members of the band perform admirably, in the knowledge that Lennon's voice might not have been able to withstand the strain of another take had any mistakes been committed.

"There's A Place" is often cited as a prototype of the more "grown up", confessional song writing which would become much in vogue in later years, but I think that its importance in this regard has been inflated, probably because this is The Beatles we are dealing with, and not some other group which disappeared into obscurity. Other artists were also beginning to dabble with the introspective around that time, anyway.

This record feels like a group effort, although George Harrison's contribution is perhaps more subdued, and less prominent, than the others. The competitive spirit, which might always have been there, did not emerge until the band had really broken big. Did the need to make that initial breakthrough breed solidarity and humility in the ranks, or at least ensure that those things were suppressed?

So in all honesty not one of the truly great debut albums, but immensely enjoyable on its own terms and as a period piece.



Friday, 30 January 2015

Seeing The World Through Different Eyes

In recent times, I have had occasion to reflect on how people's world-view shifts over time, and how this is affected by altered circumstances and environment.
Throughout my later teenaged years, and much of the first two decades of my adult life, I very seldom questioned the economic and social systems in which I had been raised, or many of the assumptions on which they were founded. I guess that a bit of ignorance (and youthful gullibility and impressionability) was excusable in the earlier days.  Later, my outlook was I guess a form of defence mechanism.  I had a nice mundane, shallow life, and I didn't want it disturbed or spoiled by any of these new ideas, thank you very much.

So what changed?  Well, the world itself changed a bit, but the real change was in me, my circumstances and consequently my perspective. About five years ago my life underwent a major upheaval, and I stepped off the treadmill which I had boarded after leaving school at eighteen. This permitted me more time to think, to read and to analyse. I was no longer having to react impulsively or defensively to the opinions of others, but had the space to survey the landscape at my own leisure.  Also, as a result of my changed situation, I felt I had less and less of a vested interest in the status quo being maintained, and I became more attuned to the concerns of those less fortunate. The rat race encourages us to be blinkered and self-centred, despite the façade which we may habitually erect for the consumption of friends and social media.

I wonder whether my experience has been the reverse of what usually occurs with people in their adult lives?. Do people normally become more conservative as they get older, cynical and embittered by experience of the real world, and having had the idealism slowly but surely ground out of them?   I have also known plenty of people who evince "concern" for their fellow man, but ultimately the only thing which really mattered to them was whether the value of their own house and share portfolio would continue to rise. Of course, any sacrifices needed to improve the lot of humanity would have to be made by a mythical "somebody else"....

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Italian Job (1969 movie)

I have always had a mild aversion to the misty-eyed nostalgia which surrounds this movie, the original 1969 version starring Michael Caine. English people are "expected" to embrace it as a luminous symbol of everything that was "great" about the Swinging Sixties. I have never quite bought into the hype, in a similar way that I harbour a blind spot about the music of certain pop/rock groups who are meant to embody the same spirit. I have tended to regard such artefacts as nebulous and lacking in genuine incisiveness. Anyway, I recently dug out the DVD and watched the picture again, to determine whether my reservations had been misplaced.

To summarize, the story revolves around a gold robbery in Turin planned by a gang from England. The first thing which one notices in viewing "The Italian Job" is the opulence of the visuals, the scenery and the clothing, hairstyles, cars, settings and so forth. At the same time, there is an abundance of Sixties clichés, musically, visually and otherwise.
Another thing which is worth remembering is that this movie was released in 1969, and it is tempting to ask whether the stylings and approach were out of date by then, especially when set against the deeper and less frivolous work which other people were producing at that time.
Michael Caine is likeable and confidence-inspiring as always, and the supporting cast is also admirable, including fine British comedy actors such as John Le Mesurier and Irene Handl in "cameos".
In its earlier stages, the film is very fast-moving, with numerous short and snappy scenes documenting the preparatory stages. The plot has more substance and depth to it than I had remembered, even if the dialogue is occasionally implausible. Did the Noel Coward character inspire the creation of "Genial Harry Grout", from the later BBC sitcom Porridge, or is this a long-established plot device in any crime-orientated film or book?
I made reference before to the Sixties clichés, and to the notion that the film might have been somehow "dated" by the time of its release. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that darker, more insidious imagery also plays a role here, that more typical of films from the late Sixties and early Seventies. The funeral/graveyard scene is one example. This all helps to make the film more "1969" than some popular myth might suggest. It is not all Swinging London euphoria -  there are unmistakable hints of the more cynical and uncertain times ahead.
Of course, "The Italian Job" is best remembered for the sequences in the city of Turin, and for the later scenes involving the Mini Coopers and the coach. These scenes, and the stunts therein, are brilliantly executed, although they occasionally look very "choreographed". These, and the scenes surrounding the heist itself, must have been a very intricate logistical undertaking, and it must be emphasized that, in "technical" areas such as these, the movie is excellent.
This film is often described as a "caper", which I take to mean that it is not intended as pure comedy, but not intended as deep drama either. There are definitely humorous and even semi-satirical elements to it, but also more cerebral and serious touches, and these all conspire to give it an endearingly enigmatic and ambiguous character.
This correspondent has eaten some humble pie since this most recent viewing of "The Italian Job", but I still find myself unable to become truly immersed in the picture. For reasons which are difficult to explain, it just doesn't engage me emotionally or intellectually, even allowing for the fact that it is not meant to be taken too seriously. It is still great entertainment, though, and the "cliffhanger" ending was a real masterstroke....