January, 2016

January Books

Every year in January, I note something in this blog about including more books, and then I don’t really write about them. Well I’m making the same promise again, but more broadly I want to round up what I’ve been reading at the end of each month. We’ll see how I get on. Links to all the books at the bottom.

I should admit that the list is perhaps a little longer than usual this month because I’ve chucked in a couple of books read over Christmas, and I’ve picked up a couple that I’d not finished from last year. Oh, and I’ve mentioned a couple already, but I’ll mention them again for completeness here.

438 Days by Jonathan Franklin is the story of Salvador Alvarenga, an El Salvadorean fisherman who managed to survive for over a year, adrift at sea in a tiny fishing boat. I remember vaguely reading the story when it was published around the world when he’d been found, and filed it away as a little unlikely. Then I read a long extract in The Guardian last autumn and was given the book at Christmas. It’s an astonishing story, and undoubtedly true. Franklin does a wonderful job of telling that story.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, is a slight book, but a powerful one. It tells the story of Andreas, a simple man born in the Austrian mountains for whom life really happens around him. It’s set during the 20th century and encompasses World War II and later the growing tourism boom in the Alps. It’s a small delight.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, was something that I of course read because of the BBC adaptation. I read it just ahead of the TV version, and actually the adaptation is very close. Of course the book itself has been altered since its original publication to remove racial epithets, but the story remains the incredible story. And if for some reason you don’t know who did it, then it’s worth reading.

Cyclogeography by Jon Day, I have already written about. But it’s a fine meditation what it is to be a cycle courier, and where cycling fits into our world.

What Goes Around by Emily Chappell, is the more rounded book on being a cycle courier. She explains in more depth what the world of courier is like, and just how tough it is. About now is when many of us aren’t on our bikes so much, yet the courier is still out there delivering. It’s also more of a memoir, and details Chappell’s life and relationships.

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers, is another golden age crime novel. I caught some repeats of the Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter TV version recently, and thought that it’d be interesting to pick up a copy of the novel since I’ve never read Sayers. It’s smarter and sharper than I’d realised and I think she’s probably a better writer than Christie. I’ll read some.

Slade House by David Mitchell, was something I originally picked up towards the end of last year. Mitchell largely writes chunky volumes, but this is a ghost story of sorts and is meant to be read at a perhaps quicker pace. Slade House has a mystery, and every few years strange things happen. A well-told tale.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot came to my attention via a review by Will Self in The Guardian, and I wasn’t sure if I was interested in reading a book about additction. Liptrot had left her home in the Orkney Islands to live in London, but there she developed alcoholism and her life began to fall apart. She managed to climb out of her downward spiral, returning to the Orkneys and eventually an especially remote island. This is her memoir on that addiction and her life afterwards. It’s very well told, and I was glad that listening to Liptrot on The Guardian’s book podcast won me around to reading it.

Everest

This film is now out on DVD and download, but I actually saw it in the cinema and then failed to publish my review!

I’d been meaning to see Everest for a few weeks, but there’d been a rush of decent films. I had to see this film however, because it’s a dramatisation of true events from the tragic 1996 ascent, about which much has been written. And I’ve read quite a lot of that material.

Most famously there was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Krakauer was a participant in this story, attending to write a piece for Outside Edge magazine. There was also The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev, also on the mountain, and written I believe, partly in response to Krakauer’s book which he felt didn’t treat him fairly. Another participant, heavily featured in this film, was Beck Weathers, who also wrote about the events in Left For Dead, although I’ve not actually read this one. And then there’s The Death Zone by Matt Dickinson who was climbing the other route up the North Face that day.

There are no doubt other books beyond this. What is clear is that in the confusion of the key 48 hours, the books don’t all tally up with one another. Krakauer’s is undoubtedly the best book, but this film isn’t based on his work – there was a pretty average TV movie that used his book back in 1997. And we have now learnt that Krakauer doesn’t like his portrayal in this film. Instead this film is based on Weathers’ book and some other sources. It’s an amalgam.

But back to the story. Essentially it begins with Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) of Adventure Consultants. They were one of two commercial expeditions tackling Everest that year, Hall having popularised the commercial expedition model. He has his group including Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and writer Krakauer (Michael Kelly). In base camp is the key figure of Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) running things.

The climbers begin their acclimatisation programme, making sorties up the mountain and to neighbouring mountains, with the May 10 date as being the likely ascent date. But it’s also clear that there are an awful lot of people on the mountain that year, and they don’t all see eye to eye as to how they should space themselves out on the mountain. If they all go at the same time, there’ll be pinch points and time will get wasted – the body doesn’t do well at over 8,000m (the “death zone”), and oxygen is cumbersome and limited.

Long reaches an agreement to merge teams with Scott Fischer’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Mountain Madness team, but it’s clear that not everyone in either party is quite up to the task in hand. There’s a telling scene where another group is having to explain to its climbers how you attach crampons to your boots.

It’s not worth getting into what happens next, but there is an initial weather window, and many of the team get up. But there are issues along the way. Then there are delays and the weather closes in. Climbers are trapped and they’re short of oxygen.

There probably never will be conclusiveness about absolutely everything that happened over those two days, but the film shows confusion very well. This is a film that you need to concentrate on. Sometimes it can take a moment to work out who a particular character is. I think that Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur does a decent job of jumping between characters and trying to explain their relativity to one another. The screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy also keeps things moving.

The film looks gorgeous. It was filmed partly in Nepal, but also in the Italian Alps and Iceland. But you don’t see the joins and it always feels very real. I would have been happy to sit and watch the impressive aerial mountain photography even more, although that’s what proper IMAX cinemas are for.

Clarke and Watson are particularly good, and even the cameo from Keira Knightley at the end of an international phone line is very moving. Overall, I must say that I was impressed by this film.

What the film doesn’t really do is get into the rights and wrongs of commercial expeditions. Are there too many people on the mountain? I’m not sure that it properly showed the mess that Everest Base Camp is, with old oxygen bottles and kit strewn around. At one point we do see the climbers pass a long dead body, left frozen at the side of the route. That’s something that I find particularly horrifying. Indeed most of the bodies of those who die on Everest remain there, never decaying because of the frozen conditions. Hence the discovery of George Mallory’s body in 1999, 75 years after his death in a 1924 attempt to summit.

And in some ways I was surprised that the captions at the end of the film didn’t mentioning the continuing danger on Everest. For the past two years, the mountain has essentially been closed after tragedy struck. In 2014 16 Nepalese guides were killed on Everest while fixing lines up the mountain. Essentially without those lines being in place, expeditions would take much longer to get up the mountain. Then this year a massive earthquake hit Nepal killing at least 9,000 people and leaving many homeless. At Everest Base Camp this triggered avalanches that killed at least 19 more people. The film-makers are raising money for Nepal however.

Nepal is so impoverished that it relies on the licence fees that climbers have to pay to go onto the mountain. Those expeditions also employ Nepalese and bring much needed money into the country (The recent TV series, Walking The Himalayas noted the reduced number of tourists since the earthquake and the effect that was having on the local economy). On the other hand, those same people are working a very dangerous job. There is a real moral conundrum.

I’m not a real climber. I love the mountains, but will never climb Everest. And if I ever catch myself thinking: “Well if I had the money, I could practically be pulled up the mountain by one of these companies,” I can follow this marvellous advice from Andy Kirkpatrick on Alistair Humphrey’s site.

But I do think the film is better than some have given it credit for. It doesn’t have a perfectly structured narrative, but then real-life doesn’t fit into neat three-act structures.

London Six Day Racing

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Note: I began writing this last year, and then like so many posts, I left it languishing in drafts until I’d got around to processing the photos to go with it. Then I was lax about getting up to date with processing my photos. And so finally, three months later, here’s the whole piece.

I must admit that I was quite excited when I heard that six day racing was returning to London. Mark Cavendish was the promotional front man behind it, and I suspect he may well have been racing the series were he not still recovering from injury.

Essentially a two-man team competition, it’s racing in a velodrome over six nights, with an overall winner determined from the cumulative results. In between events for the six-day competitors, there are other races so that entrants to the main competition aren’t actually on-track non-stop all night.

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That all said, the racing is fast and furious, designed to keep an audience attentive. As soon as one event finishes, the next is on track – although most track racing is like this. Allied to the cycling are the lights and music. In London we had a Ministry of Sound DJ in a purpose made booth right in the centre of the velodrome. He was providing us with a non-stop soundtrack of music for all the events, ramping up the volume accordingly.

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At one end of the velodrome’s centre were the racers’ cabins. Usually in London, where the 250m circuit leaves quite a big space, a good half of the area is handed over to riders in sectioned off areas. But they can also easily escape downstairs to toilets and changing facilities. Traditionally riders rarely left this central area during a meet however, so the only privacy they were afforded were these wooden cabins with curtains they could pull across. More importantly seigneurs could give them regular massages to keep them loose between races. In London this wasn’t strictly necessary, but they kept the cabins on for form’s sake.

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So what did I make of the night – the fourth of the six days in London? Well I enjoyed myself a lot. The music wasn’t pounding house music, but stuff you might actually know. It’s probably a cliché, but who wouldn’t want to hear the Ride of Valkyries when the Derny bike pilots lined up for their specific race? On top of that, the lighting made for a great atmosphere. Normally inside the London Velodrome, the lighting is bright and harsh, but for this they’d made things quite special.

There was lots of food and beer available for sale, and the crowd was having a good time. I suspect it’s not quite as riotous and chaotic as some Continental six day races, but it was good fun.

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The crowd could have been larger though. I suspect it’s quite an uphill struggle to fill a velodrome on six consecutive nights. And I’m not sure that starting on a Sunday and finishing on a Friday is the best way to do things. I notice that in Ghent they start on Tuesday and finish on Sunday. At least that way you get big Friday and Saturday nights. On the night I went, they reallocated tickets to lower area for anyone who’d bought an upper level seat.

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I think cheaper tickets would have been smarter too. My front row ticket actually cost £60 which is damned expensive however you look at it. The night before Bayern Munich fans were protesting the £64 price of their tickets at Arsenal to see two of the top football sides in the world play! Upper tier tickets were cheaper, but lower prices would probably have seen more tickets sold. Yes, cycling can be very middle class (much more so in the south-east in my view), but that’s a lot of money for any sporting occasion. And when you factor in £5 a pint Heineken, you’re looking at expensive evening out.

And I do note that whereas in Ghent, the centre of track costs €19 for standing, in London the part not given over to riders is for hospitality. There was a very expensive BMW parked in the middle, and a smaller number of people enjoying very pleasant corporate hospitality.

But they did put on a proper show. We had both in vision presentation from OJ Borg, short films to explain race formats, and of course commentary over the races which was separate from the TV commentary heard on Eurosport. You have to do that if you want to properly mix the sound for TV. The Revolution series tried using Hugh Porter for both track and TV commentaries a year or so ago, and it really didn’t work. My only complaint there was that some of OJ’s interviews were drowned out by the music underneath. Crank up the volume of those interviews, or drop the music down even lower.

The organisers made full use of the screens with lots of bespoke graphics, and it was good to have a few cameras attached to bikes for live pictures.

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The riders are also aware that it’s a show as much as competitive. Indeed exactly how competitive they really are is a good question.

Most of the riders we saw are regulars on the six-day circuit, and have been riding around Europe for a few months or so doing this. But they play to the crowd enormously, bigging up the audience ahead of a time-trial, and taking their wins fulsomely. We got trackstands and “argy-bargy” that wouldn’t be allowed in a UCI event. It all adds to the interest – although race times remain good, and this is more than exhibition stuff.

I listened to The Cycling Podcast’s coverage of the Six Day meeting, and came away feeling a little the same. The other big velodrome racing in the UK is the Revolution series which has slowly expanded out of its Manchester home as we’ve seen new velodromes open. It’s now up to six rounds, usually with an afternoon and evening session for each round.

Because these events are limited to a single day, they’ve done well in attracting big name British riders to help fill the stands. They’ve had Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas ride rounds for example. I note that the ticket for the same seat at the London round of Revolution only cost £38.50. Except, I couldn’t have bought it if I wanted to, because they’d already sold most of the better tickets.

I’m not saying the Six Day racing shouldn’t continue as well, but I think it needs to be made more affordable. This may sound odd, but the event they probably want to aspire to is the Darts World Championships at Ally Pally. Big groups of people going along with express intention of having a good time.

I’d love to go to Ghent and see some racing there. Maybe later in 2016…

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Photography Page

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I’ve been redesigning my Photography page to be a bit more contemporary, but still based around Flickr, because that’s the most convenient place to store my photographs.

I’ve used a WordPress plugin called Justified Image Grid which seems to do the trick quite well and has lots of flexibility for pulling in photos from other sources.

The problem now is that the Photography page puts much of the rest of the site to shame. I’ve got a bit more work to do then.

What Goes Around and Cyclogeography

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I’ve spent the better part of my working life in the West End of London. That means lots of tourists, black cabs (you can’t really identify an Uber), buses and a general melange of people going about their very different businesses.

As a cyclist, you can’t help also noting the cycle couriers. When I was based in Golden Square, if you didn’t spot them whizzing around Soho, you’d see them gathered together by the pump in Broadwick Street – the same pump that John Snow identified as being the cause of a cholera epidemic in 1854.

While I loved the idea of cycle couriers – on their bikes all day every day – I never quite thought of it as a glamorous profession. They certainly seemed to keep themselves to themselves, and they largely rode quite cool bikes, at least until recently when I’ve seen more functional machines with large boxes attached, or long cargo bikes. But the muck and the grime of London’s streets never made me want to drop it all and be one of them.

Yet others do seem to find some kind of glamour in what cycle couriers do. They seem to feature in newspaper and magazine articles far more than other relatively mundane jobs. We’ve seen fictional depictions on screen such as Michael Smiley’s “Tyres” in the amazing sitcom Spaced, or more recently Jospeh Gordon-Levitt’s faintly ludicrous messenger in the film Premium Rush.

And then there are the fakengers – cyclists who dress up to look a lot like cycle couriers, riding the same sort of single speed bikes, dressing the same way, and having a courier’s bag slung over their shoulder even though for the commute, a rucksack might make more sense.

And all of sudden (well over a few months really), there’s suddenly been a glut of books on cycle couriers.

I learnt about Cyclegeography courtesy of The Guardian’s end of year Reader Recommendations.

A slight digression. I absolutely love The Guardian’s Review supplement on Saturday. It’s essentially the most serious supplement published by any of our broadsheet newspapers, primarily printing a substantial number of book reviews, but also with essays about other elements of the arts. It’s unmissable and gets put aside immediately I pick up the Saturday paper – saving the best until last. There are two terrific features that they publish annually that are far more interesting than the usual ” what famous people are getting and giving these books for Christmas.” These recommendations are mercilessly mocked in Private Eye’s “Log-rolling” column where we learn about how the lists are actually chums recommending theirother chums’ books.

The two far better “Best ofs…” are:

Publishers’ Winners and Losers – in particular those books identified by their publishers that deserved to do better, since they are often books that are really good but somehow slipped through the net, not gaining reviews or traction amongst buyers. There are always a few gems in there.

and;

Readers’ Books of the Year – Now in some sense, this shouldn’t work. I’ve no idea why I should trust the judgement of a random member of the public. But because they can only say a few words about the book, I can often be sold in the few lines they have available. The list can be more diverse than the usual suspects you see elsewhere.

So when I saw two people recommend Cyclogeography, I knew I had to give it a go. It’s a very slim volume by Jon Day, a former cycle courier and now writer and academic. This is very much a meditation on cycle couriers and cycling in general.

It’s less about the nitty gritty of what’s involved, as to what cycling means to Day and what it has meant to others. He goes off on long digressions, examining cycling as a way of exploring our landscape, and even as an artform.

We also get sections on road racing and other cycling endeavours. He goes out and talks to writers like Iain Sinclair, and tries to place cycling in that world.

It’s a fine book, although in truth, “essay” is probably a better description and well worth a read.

From there I went to What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story by Emily Chappell. Chappell has been a courier for more than five years off and on – in an industry where the people come and go quite quickly, that places her as a long standing member of the courier community – although there are figures who’ve done the job for ten, twenty or even thirty years, that she mentions.

She tells a very personal story of her life as a courier. The majority of couriers are male, and they can be an insular lot. Chappell at first mistakes that for them shutting her out – perhaps because many prospective couriers quit fairly early on when they discover what’s entailed and the lack of glamour. But in reality it seems that it’s something of a loner’s occupation – if you’re busy, you’re on your own, with most of your daily interactions being over the radio with your control, and a variety of receptionists and security guards as you go about collecting and dropping off packages.

The industry is ever-changing, and it always seems to have been “better” in years gone by. Certainly with more documentation sent online, there would seem to be less need for physical items to be rush delivered around the city. Yet some legal documents have to be paper, and it can still be quicker sending a hard drive with terabytes of data, rather than trying to send it directly, even with highspeed dedicated lines.

Chappell’s books is subtitled A London Cycle Courier’s Story because it is. She talks a lot about her personal life and her relationships. There is some crossover between them when a girlfriend becomes a courier herself.

But there is also the sexism, the camaraderie, the danger, the poor pay, the culture and the people. It’s a fascinating world, and I enjoyed this book immensely.

My experience of riding my bike in London is largely based on me flying around on my Brompton, using it as part of my commute for the last five years or so, interspersed with some less speedy Boris-bike rides. But then I’ve ridden bikes my whole life. Because I was based in Golden Square for so much of that time, and I didn’t solely spend just going from A to B, I too have learnt some of the vagaries of Soho’s one-way system. So it’s entertaining to read Chappell’s routes around the area: Wardour; Broadwick; Lexington; Beak; Upper James; Brewer; and Wardour again.

Throughout the book street names and flung around and I know many of the streets. It’s nice to recognise them, or think about dropping into that nice sounding Indian restaurant on Warren Street. But I’ve never been to Fullcity Cyles where couriers tended to hang out, although I did go to The Foundry once or twice when it was open, unaware that it was then a couriers’ haunt.

Do I recall seeing Chappell riding around town? Yes – I think I do. As I say, female couriers are a rare enough breed that you would notice. On the other hand, I didn’t spend much of my time lusting after their often deliberately beaten up looking single speeds. Towards the end of the book Chappell notes that if you’re actively looking for someone in the centre of town, then actually they’re hard to miss. She relates a couple of stories of incidents with other drivers who she never really expected to see again, yet she bumped into again within hours or a day or two.

This is a really well written book, and a fascinating read. I came away knowing a great deal more about couriers lives and experiences. But I didn’t feel that I missed a calling being a courier. Loving to ride my bike is something different though! Thoroughly recommended.

(Incidentally, I see from Robert Penn’s review of this book that there’s a third book on being a courier out now – Messengers by Julian Sayarer. I must admit, tempted though I am, I need to read something a bit different before I return to couriers right now.)

Addendum: The Guardian has featured Emily Chappell in their Books Podcast this week, so that’s worth a listen. But can we please have a moratorium on using Queen’s Bicycle Race in all audio and video productions to do with cycling please? It’s the equivalent of using Abba’s Money Money Money for any financial feature. You just don’t do it because it’s so hackneyed.

Ada Lovelace and the Cosmonauts

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Come on. Admit it! This sounds like some kind of awesome steampunk mashup – perhaps a graphic novel.

Actually it refers to two different exhibitions currently on display at the Science Museum, and that I’m finally posting about.

Ada Lovelace – the “Enchantress of Number” – was a friend of Charles Babbage and can be regarded as the first computer programmer, having essentially designed the first ever algorithm.

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The Science Museum in London has a small exhibition on at the moment. Unfortunately it’s not at all clearly signposted since it’s not quite on the blockbuster scale of other exhibits so you may need to hunt a little until you find it on the second floor.

There’s a single room dominated by a portrait of the “Enchantress of Numbers” herself, alongside a model of the analytical engine that Babbage built in the hope of building a full sized machine.

The room also includes some of Lovelace’s letters and even a lock of her hair.

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I’m not going to be able to do justice to her here, but she was unquestionably a remarkable women, who’s life was sadly cut short.

A few more photos on Flickr here.

The Science Museum’s blockbuster exhibition right now is their celebration of the Soviet space programme. This is massive display with hundreds of items both small and very very large. Anyone with any interest in space should definitely try to get along if they’ve not already.

What I found incredible was just how small those early spacecraft were, and packed in like sardines the cosmonauts were, having to spend many hours or days in incredibly cramped conditions.

It’s also remarkable that, as we watched Tim Peake head to the International Space Station before Christmas, to think that he was getting there onboard a launch vehicle that’s not massively different from what those earlier space pioneers were travelling in. The Soyuz launch vehicles we see today are recognisably based on the earlier craft. Perhaps that’s not surprising since the physics really hasn’t changed a great deal!

The Cosmonauts continue at the Science Museum until 13 March 2016, while you have a couple more weeks to see Ada Lovelace as that exhibit finishes on 31 March 2016.

Paris-Roubaix 2015 – In Slow Motion

Paris Roubaix 2015 – Slowmo from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

I came across this footage which I shot at last year’s Paris-Roubaix race. The race is just over 250km and includes 27 cobbled sectors, one of which I was standing by to shoot this. I uploaded my stills of the race last year.

I used my Sony Xperia Z3 to shoot at 120 fps, and then slowed the footage down to 25 fps. The slow motion really captures the hammering the riders on the cobbles.

Note that although it looks like my phone was a little close to the riders in a couple of places, it was actually safely tucked out of harm’s way.

Lots of top riders in the race (although the video doesn’t show some of those further back), the most recognisable to Brits perhaps being Sir Bradley Wiggins at around 3:09.