Kuurne Brussels Kuurne 2015

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If Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is for the tough guys of the peleton, then Kuurne Brussels Kuurne is a sprinters’ race. The two come together over the last weekend of February or the first weekend of March, although they seem to have different promoters. That also possibly explains why no broadcaster took the more exciting Het Nieuwsblad while Eurosport covers KBK.

When I was looking at maps trying to determine where would be an interesting place to watch the race, my eyes first drifted to the various hills on the parcours. But they’re not massive, and the race is always expected to be a sprint. The peleton will let a breakaway form, gain a few minutes, and then get pulled back.

At first I was going to head down to Ronse. The only problem was that I’d need to get a train back to Brussels to make Eurostar within 15 minutes of the peleton passing through. And while the timings that the race promoters publish are usually pretty accurate, I really couldn’t be doing with missing the race altogether because I had a train to catch. So instead I headed to the eastern most part of the course – the “Brussels” bit if you will. The first thing to note is that like many classic races, the name is a little misleading. The point at which the race turned was a good 30km from Brussels.

I relied on the ever efficient Belgian railways to get me close by. I had a solid five minutes to make it from platform 1 to platform 9 at Denderleeuw. Perhaps the trains officially connect? I don’t know. I ignored the loud music the station seemed to be playing and headed quickly to waiting train. I was only going a couple of stops anyway, to a nondescript town called Ninove. All I could really tell you about the place is that most car manufacturers seem to have a dealership there.

I slowly pedalled my Brompton, this time with the full weight of four days’ worth of clothes and my assorted camera gear, the few kilometres to the edge of town where the course map suggested I’d be able to see the race.

When I said a bit earlier that the race turned at Ninove, it literally did. This was simply a road junction with an acute right-hand turn for the race.

I got there about thirty minutes before the race was due, and frankly, were it not for the tiny sign indicating the race came through, I’d have been convinced I’d made a mistake. But then a police van pulled up, and a few spectators and Sunday cyclists arrived.

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As predicted, there was a breakaway with eight riders being allowed to have some time in the limelight (That said, I Belgian TV was only just coming on air around now, and I didn’t see a helicopter camera or camera bike when the race passed).

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Around three minutes later the peleton came through. I’d taken the precaution of standing on the grass verge rather than the pavement, because so tight was the turn, various riders bunny-hopped onto the pavement to get around the corner.

But they weren’t pushing hard. They had a tailwind at this point, and were content with the break.

And then they were gone.

By the time I’d packed away my camera, the police had reopened the road, and all the spectators had disappeared.

My plan now was to cycle back to Denderleeuw and get the train to Brussels from there. I did consider riding all the way to Brussels, but crosswinds and a heavy load mititgated against it. Besides, the ride to Brussels was largely on the road, whereas the ride to Denderleeuw was along a river.

And so I spent a very pleasant 45 minutes or so cycling along a paved cycleway by the side of the river – pan flat and mostly protected from any wind.

In Denderleeuw I was hit with music once again. On heading into town I first found a fairground, before my route was blocked by what looked to me like a full blown carnival. The streets were alive with bizarre floats, marchers, dancers, and some of the loudest sound systems I’ve come across.

The kids had all come along with empty bags. That’s because every float was scattering sweets as it passed by and the kids ran to gather them up. In return, they were largely in fancy dress and there was a liberal amount of confetti being thrown by both the kids and those manning the floats.

I couldn’t help noticing there were a lot of blokes in drag on the floats – although a couple of guys smoking fags on a Disney princess themed float perhaps spoiled the illusion.

The parents standing with their kids at the roadside all seemed to having a good time – not least because they were swigging back the popular local lager, Juliper, from cans.

I navigated my way around the whole procedings, got into the station and caught an express back to Brussels. I figured that if I could find a bar, I should still be able to watch the closing stages of the race.

Unfortunately in Brussels Midi, the only place showing sport seemed to prefer speed skating. I hunted around outside and found a Turkish restaurant that was showing the last 30km (although playing an eighties radio station).

And so it was, I ate a kebab, and watched Mark Cavendish take advantage of a messy finish. Tom Boonen tried an attack but it was captured with just less than a kilometre to go. But the sprint trains which had been together for the last twenty kilometres or more, were now completely fractured, and Cav beat the in-form Alexander Kristoff to win the race with Sky’s Elia Viviani coming in third.

After the complete pig’s ear that Etixx Quickstep had made of yesterday’s stage, when a three of their riders had the odds massively stacked in their favour against a single Sky rider in Ian Stannard, the pressure on Cav from his team and an expectant Belgian public must have been immense.

All told a great weekend to go and watch some Belgian classic cycling as a Brit!

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2015

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

With a couple of days holiday to use up before the end of February, and not being too certain where to go, a friend suggested that Ghent was nice. I’d never been, and then I realised that if I did go, it’d be in time for the “Opening Weekend” of the Spring Classics – the one-day cycling races that fill the cycling calendar in this part of the world.

I’ve not been to one of these one-day races before, so I scoured the internet – without much luck – to look for suggested places to go and watch. I’d be staying in Ghent, and would only have public transport and my Brompton for company.

In the event, for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, I chose the Molenberg, the final cobbled climb of the race before the riders headed back into Ghent.

In the morning I first headed into Sint-Pietersplain, the main square in Ghent, which had been transformed into a finishing straight and a coach park for the various teams. When I arrived, the team buses and cars were still arriving and being directed to parking spots. Omloop, as it perhaps sounds, means loop or circuit, so riders both start and finish in Ghent (at least they do these days).

The atmosphere was friendly, with kids running around gathering autographs, teams riding to and from the presentation stage, and the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, handing out free copies and souvenir cycling caps. There was little activity outside the Sky bus when I got there – the riders still inside. But of course in this part of the world, it was all about Etixx Quickstep and their superstar team – notably including Tom Boonen. Theirs was the last coach to arrive, and it felt like the crowd as one headed over towards it when it parked up. I didn’t even try to get close.

Instead, train timetables being what they were, I couldn’t wait for the start and had to head off. I headed down the hill to the station, and bought a ticket to Munkzwalm. I’d identified this as station that would put me within fairly easy reach of the Molenberg. There was the small matter of the Belgian rail website actively suggesting I try to achieve a 3 minute change of trains, but it seems that the state rail mostly runs to time, and I didn’t even have to run between platforms.

From Munkzwalm it was a 15 minute ride up a slight gradient to a small village where the route would loop through. As I rode, I had a pretty cold headwind to deal with, coming from the south, although the weather was otherwise pretty decent. I soon found the route and found myself chatting to a family who lived nearby. Before the men would arrive, the women’s race would come through and they were supporting Orica-AIS’s Emma Johansson. It seems that she stayed with the family locally quite a few times.

When I eventually found a decent spot near the top of the cobbled section of the Molenberg, I was just about the only person there, with the exception of another amateur photographer and a security volunteer. Someone had roped off the sides of the road to ensure fans stood back, but it then a question of finding somewhere with a good angle.

The women’s race doesn’t get televised live, so there were no helicopters to announce its arrival – just a handful of cars. I press photographer managed to jump from his motorbike and position himself right in front of me, but I got plenty of shots away.

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Although the men’s and women’s races are run on the same day, the routes aren’t identical. That said, the Molenberg leads the way back. And the small group of riders who were fighting it out to the top of the hill where I was were essentially the same riders who’d fight it out for podium positions back in Ghent. Anna Van Der Breggen of Rabo Liv won, beating Eleonara Van Djik. Lizzie Armistead won the sprint for third.

The women’s race was pretty spread out by this stage, and it must have taken a good twenty minutes for everyone to get through. Just when you thought the race had gone, another rider would come by. I felt enormously sorry for the final woman who was just about dying on what really shouldn’t have been a tough hill. While cobbled, it’s smoother than, say, the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. There aren’t the big gaps. A “broom wagon” minivan already had three or four riders within it.

The official results list 64 abandons in total!

(Later, although there wasn’t live coverage of the race I did spot myself in the TV highlights as a cameraman was shooting from just beyond me!)

Then the crowds basically vanished as there was a longish gap before the men would come through. I settled down for a homemade ham sandwich, and kept in touch with what was happening in the race via Twitter and occasionally the official Flanders’ Classics app.

There’s no getting away that the crowds were bigger for the men. There were groups of cyclists in full lycra who arrived and cheered any amateurs climbing the hill; there were more press photographers stationed on the hill; and there were lots of people in motorcycle leathers who’d evidently been chasing the race around Flanders. The race lends itself to being followed like that, as long as you have transport that can get you around faster than the cyclists.

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The men came haring through – there was a break with three Etixx Quickstep riders, and a sole Sky rider in Ian Stannard. They’d already got a decent lead on the rest of the field, and the peleton came through a decent amount of time further back. A second part of the peleton was further still back – I think Bradley Wiggins was bringing up the rear here, having done a lot of work capturing an earlier break.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

And then the race was through, and the hillside quickly emptied. I had cameras to pack away and a bike to unfold. I was on my own! No rubbish. You wouldn’t have known anyone was there.

It was downhill all the way to Munkzwalm. I got a friendly toot from my earlier family even though Johansson hadn’t repeated her win, and then it was back to the station. I could wait 8 minutes for a train or go to the nearby bar and watch the race’s conclusion.

I made the right decision, bought myself a beer and settled in to see how the three Etixx Quickstep riders would finish off poor old Ian Stannard. There were 15km to go.

Tom Boonen made the first real effort, and Stannard didn’t immediately chase. In a 3 v 1 circumstance like this, he knew that he was seriously likely to be beaten. If the others played their cards properly, they could one-two him and exhaust him. But he’d been riding at the back of the group for many of those kilometres – as he was entitled. So he was perhaps a bit fresher. But weight of numbers should have outed.

Having caught Boonen, Stannard attacked himself, and it was only Nikki Terpstra who was able to go with him. Boonen was always just too far away.

Suddenly it was a two horse race. Stannard positioned himself well, and easily won the sprint. Remember – it is uphill at the end. A terrific ride.

I was thrilled. A couple of other Brits in the bar slipped out. Everyone else in the bar, except me, was not happy. Boonen has won just about every one day classic. But not this. A couple more beers and I carried my Brompton out of the bar to the great amusement of a couple of elderly ladies who wondered if I was cycling all the way home now.

A fun day out, and not at all muddy.

I must come back here with a fullsize bike in tow. It’d be fun.

[NB. A couple of pictures here, but there’ll be more to follow in due course.]

On “Internal Browsers” – And Twitter’s Recent Addition

A while back Facebook integrated a so-called internal or in-app browser into its mobile apps. The ideas is that when you click to see a website that somebody has shared on Facebook, instead of being taken out of the Facebook environment, the app would display the relevant page within its own browser.

The main reason they gave for doing this is that it’s faster. It’s true – they can even cache a page ahead of you clicking on it.

But I hated it.

First of all, the real reason for embedding your own browser into your app, is to increase dwell time. The app maker is worried that if someone shares, say, a Buzzfeed link, you’ll just end up reading more Buzzfeed stories, and not return to the social media app you’d started in.

This is true. But I’m an intelligent human being. Let me choose whether to return to the app I started in, or continue using the link ecology that makes the web so fascinating – and so open.

Other reasons for wanting not to use internal browsers include cookies (I have to log in again on sites like Amazon or the New York Times), and the inability to use bookmarks or other browser functionality. I regularly like to use Recent Tabs in Chrome to, say, read on a laptop, a long story that I opened in Chrome on my mobile.

It also denies other app users the ability to launch a page in their app – when I click on a Guardian story, I might prefer to see it in the Guardian app. Aside from anything else, the top banner on the story will end up being a promotional ad for said app.

Internal browsers also tend to eat screen real estate, something that’s important in mobile where every pixel counts.

This added “functionality” also tends to increase the overall size of apps. Not something you might worry about if you’re using a 32GB+ top of the range smartphone. But bear a thought for the vast majority of the world on inferior devices.

When Facebook introduced their internal browser, they did at least include a way to turn it off. It was just about the first thing I did when they installed it.

(Later I stopped using the Facebook app altogether when they started pulling it apart and insisting that I install their Messenger app. I don’t want another messaging app thanks. Your old app was fine for my purposes.)

This is all a roundabout way of noting that Twitter has recently added its own internal browser. Now I should note that I’m on an Android beta stream (Ver 5.48.0-beta.267), so it’s possible that you’ve not seen this. But the app version I’m using does not have the ability to switch off the internal browser (or if it does, it’s seriously well hidden, because believe me, I’ve looked).

Sure – I can launch the resulting internal browser page in my preferred Chrome browser. But that’s an extra couple of button presses – Menu > Open in Browser.

Look – I understand that social media companies like Twitter want to get me to spend more time in their ecosystem. But this is actively driving me away from their browser. If they don’t add a way to switch this “functionality” off, I’ll have to move to a third-party app altogether.

Please do the right thing Twitter, and let me switch off your internal browser.

A New Radio Academy

Yesterday, the now outgoing chair of the Radio Academy, Ben Cooper, presented a new vision of what the Academy should be.

You will perhaps recall that it has been through some fairly tumultuous times recently. The packed AGM last December saw the airing of some serious differences of opinion at a time when both the Radio Academy Awards and the Radio Festival were cancelled.

You can watch Ben’s presentation on the Radio Academy’s website, where you’ll also see a summary of the changes that are being made.

I must say that it was a much more positive evening than last December. There does seem to be a sensible road to follow.

We have Chris Burns as the new Chair – and she will without doubt be fantastic. She’s Head of Group Operations in BBC Radio, and was made a Fellow of the Radio Academy just over a year ago, having put enormous amounts of work into the Academy and the Radio Festival in particular.

The entire line-up of Trustees is being replaced, with three to be appointed by the Chair for some of the big roles, and six more to be elected by members. They’ll all have very specific positions in the future. There’ll also be a Deputy Chair and a part-time Director to be appointed in due course. At that point they’ll decide on their staffing needs.

Then there is the membership. I think that this caused the most confusion in the room. If you work for a big group, then those will continue to be patron members (entitling all their staff to attend Radio Academy events). Many smaller and voluntary groups including Sound Women, Community Radio, Hospital Radio, Prison Radio and Student Radio will get free membership, hopefully broadening the base. But there will also be an individual “gold” membership. This would seem to include consultants, but also others not formally part of the industry. And other members can “upgrade” to Gold since there will be member benefits. These might include voting in the Radio Production Awards and even membership to a London club!

It’s perhaps that latter idea that concerned people. You’re not going to get club membership for £25 are you? Yet we were told that it would be less than £50 which perhaps isn’t too bad. We’ll have to wait and see.

The Festival will return within 12 months. It will be affordable and aimed at a wider range of people than before. There was an acknowledgement that as the industry has consolidated, it naturally meant fewer people “needed” to attend. So aiming it at a broader range of attendees would seem sensible.

I didn’t hear anything about moving beyond what we consider radio. Ben made a comment about one of his biggest professional assets – Zane Lowe – leaving to work for Apple, which showed what we’re up against. But I wonder if we don’t at least need to engage with “the enemy”? The lines are only going to get more blurred between what the current radio industry thinks of as “radio” and what the technology/music industry calls “radio.” Baby steps perhaps.

The one thing we didn’t hear much about was the return of the Radio Academy Awards (née Sonys). A new set of awards is, we’re told, going to be created outside of the Academy. The major players in the industry (BBC, RadioCentre including Bauer and Global, UTV and RIG) will sit down soon to create some new awards, “Revamped and rejuvenated for the modern world of radio.”

I wouldn’t underestimate how hard this is going to be. From what I understand, there are some diametrically opposed views on some of this within different groups. Still, those named organisations will take on the financial risk (and I assume reward) of the awards.

Let’s hope they can thrash it out though, since although it’s easy to be sniffy about awards, they’re an important recognition of excellence within the industry.

Overall, a positive start. Let’s see how it goes from here.

Qatar 2022: Winners and Losers

I’m just trying to see who the winners and losers of Qatar 2022 will be following FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup in November and December rather than the traditional summer slot:

WinnersLosers
Qatar: They're desperate to hold any sport they can, and they're willing to throw as much money as possible to get those sports. Next up - seriously - The Olympics.Immigrant workers: Bonded slavery and/or death.
Sepp Blatter: The fool in charge of FIFA thinks playing football in a desert is a great idea.Fans: While I'm sure local Qataris will be very welcoming, the severe laws will almost certainly mean a diminished number of fans actually wanting to travel. If Bangladesh or Nepal make it through, then expect loads of fans!
Air conditioning companies: We sure are going to need a lot of them.European Football: You know, the people who provide 75% of the players at the World Cup. The leagues will have to accommodate the World Cup somehow, and that probably means starting pretty soon after the 2021/22 season has finished and ending well into the summer of 2023. The other option is to play through as everyone does for the African Cup of Nations. But how would that go down with a Man City, Chelsea or Arsenal, packed with internationals?
Sponsors: I just can't see audiences engaging, and that's bad for sponsors. Matches played in half empty stadiums don't look good either.
Cricket, Rugby Union, Rugby League, Tennis, Basketball, NFL. Sports don't exist in isolation. Audiences can only watch one thing at a time. Many sports rely on windows of opportunity. So that means competition from domestic football in the summer, and the World Cup in the winter.
Broadcasters: While we all enjoy the fun of trying to work out whether ITV or BBC is showing a particular Quater Final, it's less of a problem in the summer. Broadcasters don't have big expensive drama series or reality shows culminating in series finales in the summer. But these are critical shows in the winter. Especially for...
Commercial Broadcasters: The World Cup and European Football Championships are very important for a broadcaster like ITV. Traditionally summer is a poor advertising time. So getting a massive boost from beer brands and the like every couple of years is an important part of earnings. And it doesn't follow that this money "moves" to the winter. Because November and December are also really important times for broadcasters. The run-up to Christmas is annually vital to make hay while the big X-Factors and Downtons are running. Effectively, the commercial broadcasters are losing one of these periods, despite having paid for the rights. (And while you might not shed a tear for ITV, it's worth remembering that it's that advertising that partially keeps big tournament football free on our screens).
Viewers: Not everyone likes football. Hard to believe, I know. But as explained above this is going to mess up schedules for TV viewers. Could we actually see matches shunted to BBC2 or ITV4?
FIFA: It's become a laughing stock. A corrupt laughing stock. (Remind me when that Sepp Blatter biopic is coming out again?)

I suspect that there are many more losers, and not very many more winners.

I do think there’s a strong chance that FIFA will fold or become irrelevant. I hate to say this, but we need a breakaway group of nations to form a new competition with a new organisation at the helm.

Podcasts: The Android Problem

Podcasting

A piece on Digiday examines the undeniable fact that listening to podcasts is heavily skewed towards Apple’s products, despite there being significantly more Android devices in the market.

Now we know that not all things are equal: iPhone owners spend more on average – probably not surprising because they tend to be more expensive devices, meaning that their owners are generally richer.

But by and large, podcasts are free, so what is there to explain the difference?

Well many podcasts are aimed at a more middle-class listener – someone, again, who’s likely to own an iPhone. But I’m not going to tar every podcast on the planet with the “middle class” brush. In any case “middle class” means different things to different people. So that’s not the answer.

No, it’s clearly the case that a 360 degree ecosystem like Apple’s, means that it’s easier for their users to enjoy podcasts. The iTunes Store kickstarted podcasts, and their very name implies that you need an iPod (or iPhone) to listen.

Consider this: listen to the average US podcast, and in the bit at the end where they urge you to subscribe, or review the podcast (sensible – you might be listening to a stream that someone has shared), they only ever talk about iTunes:

“Find on us in the iTunes Store”; “Rate us in iTunes”; “Give us a review.”

The best you might get is something like, “or listen to us via your favourite podcasting app.” Stitcher might be the only non-Apple brand that gets regularly mentioned.

While there are non-Apple podcasting apps available in iOS, their usage probably pales into insignificance compared to the default app. A bit like default email apps or browsers, users mightn’t even be aware that there are choices. Perhaps only hardcore podcast listeners seeking some significant extra functionality are seeking out the third party wares.

So with Apple it’s a one stop shop. They have the store and the app installed by default. Any self-respecting podcast must appear in iTunes.

But where does that leave Android?

There’s a suggestion in the Digiday piece that Google could launch its own podcast app, making it a default part of Android. There are some benefits:

– There’d be significant discovery in the Play store. The growth in audiences of podcasts could be significant.
– Google could sell audio advertising around podcasts. They do know how to do advertising.

But there’d be disadvantages too:

– As the Digiday piece says, some podcasts that are earning as much as $50 CPMs – personalised live-read ads go a long way. Google would probably bring those prices down. Is that helpful for a burgeoning industry that has to work to arrive at its own monetisation models?
– Would inserting skippable/unskippable ads a la YouTube, mean that you had to use the Google Podcast app to listen?
– How would that work for podcasts which already have a bigger iPhone audience? Monetising only one part of the audience doesn’t work. YouTube works the same on every platform, but podcasts in their current form are simple files.
– What about the third-party app industry? Would Google’s entry dismantle it (as it largely killed the third-party RSS feed readers when Google Reader came along, only to nearly leave everyone high and dry when they later killed it)?
– Most manufacturers install their own apps/skins, so there’s not guarantee that Google’s app would be visible.

As a massive advocate of podcasts, I think Google would do well to step carefully into this arena. I’d certainly love to see podcasts incorporated into the Google Play Store. At one stroke there’d be massive discoverability, and when directing potential listeners/subscribers, podcast-makers could just say: “Go to the iTunes or Play store to subscribe/review/download.” It’s a much neater message. (Yes, I realise that this ignores Windows Phone, Blackberry, etc.)

From the store, it would simply have to prompt you to download a podcast app if you don’t already have one, or use your favourite app. The hooks are built into Android so this should be relatively painless. I’ll leave it for others to determine the most equitable way to do this with regard to the multiplicity of podcasting apps.

As for advertising? Well that’s interesting.

On the one hand, it’d certainly help grow the online ad audio advertising market if Google was to enter the fray. I’d envisage something similar to the YouTube model of Google selling ads, and sharing revenues with the podcast producers. And having a way to monetise podcasts has long been issue that many have had with Apple.

Then there’s the age old issue of “proof” that someone has actually heard a podcast advertisement. Advertising methodologies these days have to go out of the way to prove that a consumer really experienced the ad; they didn’t fast-forward at 30x speed or whatever. Plus there could be visual elements to those ads on device screens as Absolute Radio does with its InStream proposition. Google could provide a solution to this, demonstrating that the ads were listened to, and weren’t just backed up on a phone’s micro SD card, unlistened to.

But by no means would all want to take part. If you’ve developed a valuable way to monetise your podcasts – Slate springs to mind – then it’d up to you to choose to adopt it. Furthermore, it’d be odd if I didn’t get ads listening on iOS because Apple doesn’t support them, but I do on Android (I realise that these kinds of inequalities do happen in the two ecosystems). And we’re seeing elsewhere, some apps offering “exclusive” podcasts. The financial models are manyfold. So it’s not clear to me how it could work technically across multiple platforms without creating some new kind of “Podcast v2″ technology.

Furthermore, let’s not forget that many podcasts are actually streamed directly from websites. Does everyone switch to Google’s player to incorporate their advertising? Podcasts are versatile and that’s one of their strengths.

Then you have podcasts that either work on a paid subscription basis, or offer extra backer-only recordings for those who contribute. How do you work with these? (To be fair, no two set of people seem to do this the same anyway, and it’s always a bit of a technical hurdle).

In general, I think making podcasts “easier” is essential for their future. But I’ve never seen a clear way to do it. I’m not certain that fragmenting the market is the way to go.

Adding a podcast section to the Google Play Store would seem to be the first thing to do.

However I can’t see Google “just” doing that. Shipping a generic app and creating a new ad market? Well that’s a bit more complicated.

View from the Shard

View from the Shard-7

To the 34th floor of The Shard and the Shangri La Hotel where a friend is having a party. A great night but a challenge to get good photos from. I knew that the internal lights of the glass would cause horrible reflections inside, so to try to combat it, I arrived with a piece of black felt into which I’d cut a hole that wrapped around the lens of my RX100. The idea was to block out light and reflections. But triple glazed windows basically defeated many of my plans. The photo below is a good example:

View from the Shard-1

I like the photo a lot, but there’s a great big bit of table reflecting in the lower part of it. Short of turning all the lights off, there’s not much I can do. In the end, go with it, and try to work around the problem.

View from the Shard-2

View from the Shard-4

View from the View from the Shard-5

The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland is one of my favourite directors at the moment, and basically I will watch anything he makes. He used an inheritance to make Katalin Varga, a fascinating little 2009 film in which a woman confronts the abusers of her past. It’s set in Romanian speaking Hungary and filmed in that language. But it was with Berberian Sound Studio that he really broke through. This magnificent film starred Toby Jones as a sound recordist who travels to Italy to work on the sound effects for a giallo horror film. He’s used to working on more refined fare. He finds the whole ordeal profoundly affecting.

In Berberian Sound Studio, we never get to see beyond the opening credits of the giallo film that’s being dubbed. But it’s clear from what we do see that Strickland has the tone of those films – especially those from the mid-seventies – off pat. With The Duke of Burgundy he’s essentially made a full film mimicking another type of seventies film – the European sexploitation film.

This is obvious even from the font used in posters for The Duke of Burgundy. And you know you’re going to get a full film of this from the opening credits. From the freeze frames, crossfades and graphical treatment, to the copyright notice on the title slide. As others have mentioned, there’s even a credit for “Perfume by ‘Je suis Gizella.'”

I’m not a butterfly specialist, but I suspect that lepidopterists will recognise that The Duke of Burgundy is actually a species of butterfly. Because in the central European dream-world we find ourselves, nobody seems to be interested in anything apart from butterflies and moths.

We open with Chiara d’Anna’s Evelyn, cycling through the forest to a rather grand and beautiful old house in a village deep in the mountains. She seems to be the maid for Sidse Babbett Knudsen’s Cynthia – a particularly strict mistress who inspects Evelyn’s work and is critical of it. The setting could be any time from the late sixties to the present day – there’s little technology beyond a typewriter and gramophone in evidence.

Slowly we realise that everything isn’t quite as it seems. Evelyn is playing a role, and is actually Cynthia’s lover. They live together in this big house, but enjoy roleplay and BDSM, with perhaps Cynthia being into a little more than Evelyn. She leaves her lover little cards which detail instructions. What orders she should give; how long she should be kept waiting.

At other times, they’re just a loving couple. There’s no obvious work that any of them do. Mostly they seem to just travel into town where the institute allows them to study in detail butterflies and moths. They take it in turns with other women – and only women – to give illustrated talks.

Their love for one another is real, and although we come to realise that the roleplay can get in the way – a bad back can get in the way, and a nice pair of pyjamas and a back rub is probably more comfortable than lingerie.

Their proclivities are also treated as very normal. There’s a wonderful scene where “The Carpenter” arrives to help specify a particular type of bed. Evelyn is distraught when she realises she’s not going to get said bed for her birthday because “The Carpenter’s” skills are so much in demand, there’s an eight week wait – everyone wants a bed you can lock your lover into. A possible alternative offered is of less appeal to Cynthia…

So sensuous, but also funny. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments.

And there are plenty of oddities. Why are there mannequins sitting in the audience of the butterflies lectures? Who is the woman who Cynthia and Evelyn cheerily shout hello to, but who never responds?

The cinematography from Nic Knowland is exquisite; the film has that deep, slightly over-saturated feel of films from the period. And the sets are beautifully detailed. I remember when I saw Berberian Sound Studio at the Curzon Soho, they had an exhibition of props and designs from that film. The detail as extraordinary. That’s no less true for this film – and you have to anticipate that Strickland is working on a limited budget. I noticed that the credits also listed an entomologist – I assume to help dress Cynthia’s study where dozens of butterflies lie behind glass cases.

The soundtrack from Cat’s Eyes is terrific. I instantly when and downloaded it after seeing the film. It has a soft-folk sensibility and catches the mood and feel of the film perfectly (I believe they’re on Jonny Trunk’s OST show for Resonance FM, so I’ll be checking out Mixcloud for that when it’s up).

And Strickland loves sound. Sound is really important throughout this film. The effects – and I suspect that there was a good deal of foley work to give a true representation of that heightened sound that redubbing all the sound gives you. But more than that, we get extended sequences where we hear the birds and trees that surround our characters. And the characters listen to recordings of butterflies and moths. We know that these are accurate recordings because the credits reveal – in unprecedented detail – what animals we heard, where the recording was made, the recording machine and microphones used.

In 1999 Channel 4 ran a fascinating series in the middle of the night called Eurotica that covered many of the films that are referenced here. Anyone who’s familiar with any of those films, will recognise what Strickland has done here. But he’s made something more intelligent. This isn’t just for titillation. Indeed, if that’s what you’re looking for, then you’ll be disappointed. The only people who are close to doing similar things to Strickland are Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani who have made Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, but they’re knowingly obtuse and stylised to such an extent that their films become barely watchable (they’re more something a trendy bar would have running on a screen somewhere).

I suspect – hope really – that you’ll know if you’d like this film. And if so, go and see it. I loved it.

[While the film is only likely to get a limited release, it’s getting one of those interesting On Demand releases too. So you can watch it via iTunes, Sky Store (I had to search to find it there), Google Play and Curzon On Demand amongst others. And it’ll be on DVD/BluRay within a month or so.]

Buying a Copy of The Times

It really shouldn’t be this hard.

If I want to buy a newspaper, and there are some of us who still do, then it’s pretty easy. I go into a local newsagent, garage or supermarket, pick up a copy and hand over some money.

Yes, the newsagent might want me to place an order with him. I still see the paperboy out delivering copies to people who buy a paper that way. But I can just buy a one-off copy with no effort. There’s no hard sell from the newsagent trying to upsell me or anything. I just leave with my paper.

So why is it digitally so much more complicated?

Case in point. I wanted to buy a copy of The Times. I did actually visit the newsagent earlier in the day to buy a Guardian (I buy a paper copy daily). But I forgot that there was something in The Times that I also wanted to read. The Times, you will recall, puts all its online news behind a paywall. That’s their strategy, and that’s fine. I’m willing to pay for it in this instance.

OK. I want today’s Times. So I’ll just use my tablet.

I pop into Google News-stand as that’s the default way to buy such things in the Android ecosystem.

But a search within that section for “The Times” gives me the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Hindustan Times as the top three results. “The Times” – the London one – isn’t in there.

No sign o’ “The Times” – as Prince mightn’t have said.

OK. Maybe they don’t sell through the generic News-stand product. An odd choice, but I’m sure they have their reasons. They’ll have an app.

They do. I download and install it. Great.

Could I buy today’s issue?

No.

I could choose to subscribe to the Classic Pack, Web Rolling or Digital Pack.

Look, I understand that a whole week of web access is only marginally more than the £1.40 cover price in newsagents. So why wouldn’t I buy a week’s worth of papers for £2? But I just wanted today’s paper – not an ongoing subscription that I have to remember to cancel at a later date.

So I gave up there and headed over to Amazon.

I first opened the Kindle App on my tablet and went to the store. In the newspapers section The Times and Sunday Times (Kindle Edition) are the top listed papers. Excellent!

But there was some green writing just underneath: “Digital download not supported on this mobile site.”

What could that mean? I clicked through anyway, and was again offered a monthly subscription. I could also take a 14 day trial which would surely be the cheapest way to get access to today’s copy. But again, that requires me to cancel in a few days to avoid an ongoing subscription fee.

However, below that was a button allowing me to buy the current issue for 99p!

Finally! And a bit cheaper than the paper copy.

I clicked “Buy Now” but nothing really happened.

The paper certainly wasn’t showing up in my Kindle App.

I went to the website, via a laptop and checked my Amazon account.

Nope, I hadn’t been charged for it. That must have been what that cryptic writing was about. Even though I was able to click a 1-Click button within the app’s browser, I hadn’t actually bought a copy.

So, this time – on the laptop – I again purchased that day’s copy of The Times for 99p. It went through this time. It was mine! A couple of eco-systems later, I was just moments away from reading it.

Back in the app I re-synced a few times, but nothing was downloading.

Hmm.

Over on the website, there was a note on the Amazon page that said, “Available on these devices.”

Hovering my mouse over the link revealed that the download I’d just paid for could only be read on a variety of Kindle hardware devices. Specifically there was no access via the Kindle app!

Now I do own a Kindle. But I was at work, and it’s at home with a flat battery because I mostly read anything Kindle related in their app on my tablet.

Fantastic. If I’d known that, then I’d have picked up a copy on the way home, from the newsagent. It’s just easier.

Newspaper circulations continue to fall, and yet newspapers seem to go out of their way to make it hard to buy copies in a digital age. It really shouldn’t be more convenient for me to head out to a newsagent and buy a physical copy than download one on the device of my choosing.

I understand that subscriptions are what every publisher wants. But I’m the kind of person who will still buy occasional copies of papers (I already subscribe to The Guardian, Economist and NYT – the latter two digitally – so tying myself into more subscriptions isn’t really in my interests). Indeed newspapers are still very interested in the occasional reader. That’s why they use the bit above the masthead to sell to readers how exciting that day’s product is for them.

If you make it hard for me to buy a single copy, then you’re actively working against your own interests.

I’ve no idea what kind of deals The Times has struck that might prevent them from offering The Times in the Kindle App, but I noticed afterwards that had I bought a copy of, say The Guardian, via the Kindle store, I could quite easily have read it in said App. Limiting The Times to “old school” Kindle devices is an utterly absurd restriction that they seem to have imposed.

The Times in particular seems dead set against selling access to individual copies.

Interestingly, I didn’t really even consider The Times’ website via a laptop as a first course of action, since reading the paper on a 7 inch tablet seemed the most natural way to go. Yet even visiting the website reveals that they still want you to subscribe. Even if you only want to read a single article, you need to subscribe for a week – a subscription that will roll unless you cancel it.

I know that The Times is doing pretty decently in terms of numbers with their paywall model. In a recent Media Show on Radio 4, 390,000 was the number of cumulative print & digital, and digital only subscribers that they had. So part of their strategy is working.

But why won’t they let me buy a single copy?