Monday, 26 December 2011

a riddle

If Ricky Nelson was the man, and Creedence Clearwater Revival was the band, who was the light, and what were they all doing?
Please note that only comments with the wrong answer will be published. However, the name of each reader who posts the correct answer will be published. This is to allow everyone who wants to try this puzzle the opportunity to do so.

Sunday, 11 December 2011


Going, going....

I’ve seen quite a few eclipses of the Moon over the years, but last night the sky was completely clear, and for the first I was able to watch one from the comfort of my own home with a bottle of red wine for company. Mind you, ‘comfort’ may not be the most appropriate word to use, because as Paula and I sat on our balcony watching the Earth’s shadow creep slowly across the lunar disc, a strong and very cold wind was blowing from the north.

I couldn’t help but recall the two coldest nights I’ve had to endure during my lifetime. The first was in 1968: I’d just arrived in Libya, and I’d heard that it got very cold during the night in the desert, so I’d brought a thick sweater with me.

“You’ll need a jacket,” said my colleague.

So I bought a suitable jacket at the local oilfield supplies store. On my first night in the desert, I made sure to wear both the sweater and my newly acquired jacket as I worked through the hours of darkness. I’ve no idea of the actual temperature, but I couldn’t wait for that ‘busy old foole’ to rise the next morning and thaw me out.

My second cold night experience was in Glen Affric, in the Western Highlands of Scotland, in 1973. Because of the snow conditions, I’d been unable to reach my intended destination, so I decided to spend the night in a bothy, a makeshift shelter of a kind that is found all over the Scottish Highlands. I had with me a high-quality down sleeping bag and a polar-quality down jacket, which I decided to wear to be on the safe side. I shivered all night.

I also recalled a lunar eclipse that I’d witnessed, off and on, in 1978. Actually, it was more off than on, because I was driving a taxi at the time, so I did have to pay attention to where I was going. However, during the eclipse I amused myself by asking each passenger I picked up whether they’d noticed anything unusual.

“You do realize that we’re in the middle of an eclipse of the Moon,” I said, as each passenger answered in the negative.

I assume that the night sky does not hold the same mystery for modern humans as it did for our remote ancestors. Even my wife, who is usually quite inquisitive, tends not to look up.

“Notice anything unusual?” I asked her a couple of years ago on the first night of a trip down under to stay with an Australian friend.

No, she hadn’t. Of course, I had the advantage of spending almost the whole of 1970 in the Australian outback, so I already knew about the extreme blackness of the night sky. And there is more to see in the southern hemisphere too, notably the Magellanic clouds, seen by Ferdinand Magellan, as the name implies, during his circumnavigation of the world in 1519–21 but known to earlier astronomers in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula.

These are nearby galaxies, although ‘nearby’ is a relative term here. The smaller of the two is 160,000 light years away and the larger 200,000 light years. They are also much smaller than our own Milky Way, which is unmistakeable against such a vividly black background.

But back to last night: it took 81 minutes from the time the Moon entered the Earth’s shadow until it was completely obscured; the total eclipse lasted 52 minutes, and a further 82 minutes elapsed before the Moon emerged from the shadow. Oddly, when the eclipse started, the Moon seemed so bright that it was impossible to focus on it (see first image above), and with the naked eye the boundary between the still-lit and the darkened parts of the Moon was anything but clear-cut. During the total phase, the Moon didn’t disappear completely but appeared a dull, reddish brown disc, illuminated by the small amount of light that was being diffracted by the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Hong Kong Observatory’s website tells me that there will be an annular eclipse of the Sun on 21st May next year. Now that’s something I have never seen.

...gone (almost).

Friday, 25 November 2011

broadcast news

In the late 1970s, I attended an interview for a post with the BBC’s Far East and Latin American Service, during which I raised the question of bias in broadcast news reporting.

“Surely you don’t think that BBC News is biased?” I was asked.

This is a paraphrase of my reply: “The BBC World Service provides a nine-minute news bulletin every hour. If we exclude the time allocated to opening and closing headlines, that leaves less than eight minutes to tell listeners what is happening in the world. Someone is therefore deciding which news items to leave out. This may not be conscious bias, but that someone is making a value judgement about what is and isn’t important, a judgement that listeners may not agree with if they had access to all the information that the news editor has available.”

I didn’t get the job. However, I was reminded of this episode while watching the TV news yesterday morning, specifically how two different news organizations tackled the same story, the unrest in Cairo. At 7am, BBC News America led with the corporation’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen’s extended report. Then, at 7.30am, NBC’s Nightly News included an equally detailed dispatch by its chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel.

The two reports were broadly similar, but there was one critical difference: what the two reporters had to say about the empty tear gas canisters that they were shown by demonstrators. Bowen reported that the demonstrators were pointing out that the canisters bore the legend ‘made in USA’, while Engel merely said that he was shown the canisters as evidence of the brutality of the police repression. So why the difference?

There are plenty of people who will immediately cite Bowen’s report as evidence of the BBC’s anti-American bias, even though it is unlikely to be untrue. After all, America sells huge quantities of weaponry to Egypt’s military, and it is a stretch of the audience’s credulity to suggest that this doesn’t include tear gas. The more intriguing question is why Engel didn’t mention it.

Any answer would necessarily be speculative, although it is easy to imagine any number of possible reasons. However, speculation is best left to speculators, and the only firm conclusion that I can draw is that anyone who wants to know what is really going on in the world would be well advised to consult as many sources as possible, both those that reinforce their prejudices and those that challenge them, whether it is a simple determination of fact or whether what is presented as fact is actually a value judgement.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

sixties music: the top ten

Although I’ve enjoyed a lot of the music produced by bands and singers whose careers began after 1970, my tastes in popular music were moulded during the 1960s. Consequently, I thought that it might be a worthwhile exercise to write a brief history of that music framed around a list of what I regard as the ten most significant records of that era.

You will notice immediately that there are no tracks by the Rolling Stones in this list. The reason is straightforward: the Stones’ first record was a cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On, and before the Beatles arrived on the scene in October 1962, Chuck Berry had been one of my favourites. So how did the self-styled ‘bad boys’ of rock handle one of Berry’s lesser-known songs? Compare these two lines:
Some stupid jerk tryin’ to reach another number.

Some stupid guy tryin’ to reach another number.

The first is the Berry original, while I have always regarded the second as self-censorship by the Stones, which is puzzling given that ‘jerk’ is a fairly harmless term of abuse. And it is not the only example of bowdlerization by the Stones in their early work. The first record by the band to top the UK’s singles chart was a cover of the Valentinos’ It’s All Over Now, which contained the following line:
She held my nose open, that’s no lie.
For reasons that are not obvious, the Stones changed this to:
She held my eyes open, that’s no lie.
Bobby Womack’s original provides quite an arresting image, suggestive of some kind of esoteric water torture, while the Stones’ version is meaningless. My poor opinion of the Rolling Stones was reinforced by their next single, which was yet another cover, this time of Howlin’ Wolf’s Little Red Rooster. A month before this record was released, I’d had the good fortune to see Howlin’ Wolf in concert with his own band, which included Hubert Sumlin on lead guitar. I’ve never since witnessed a performance of such emotional intensity, full of menace; compared with this, the Stones’ rendition was about as exciting as watered-down beer.

1. Chubby Checker — The Twist (1960)
This song, a more commercial version of the original by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, is not in this list because of its intrinsic musical qualities, although it did foreshadow the subversiveness of much later rock music:
We’re gonna twist a twistin’ twister
Till we tear the house down.

However, The Twist had a profound social impact. Before the twist came along, teenagers jived, which was fine if you knew how and had the confidence to try, but for thousands of shy teenagers the twist was an easy dance to master, as were the many dances that followed in its wake, such as the pony, the fly, the shake, the mashed potato and the madison. There were countless others. Dancing in contact with a partner became old-fashioned and was rarely seen again until the disco boom of the later 1970s.

2. The Beatles — Please Please Me (1963)
This is one of the very few records for which I placed an advance order, having decided on the basis of Love Me Do that here was a band that was going places. Please Please Me is not my favourite Beatles track, but it is easily the best of their early work, its descending arpeggios marking it out as innovative at a time when the UK charts were clogged with abysmal rubbish such as Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday and Bachelor Boy, and the second-rate offcuts from Elvis Presley’s third-rate films.

The success of Please Please Me led to the so-called Merseybeat boom, in which a slew of mediocre bands from Liverpool enjoyed brief moments in the spotlight before fading back into obscurity. The best of these were probably Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Searchers, who were technically proficient but were lacking in originality. The worst was Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas; the Beatles are on record as saying that Kramer would be “bigger than Elvis”, leading me to surmise that some arm-twisting had been taking place behind the scenes—the two bands were managed by the same company.

3. The Animals — House of the Rising Sun (1964)
Once the Merseybeat boom started to fade, bands with more substance began to appear. The Animals had the advantage of the most powerful vocalist of the time in Eric Burdon, but their disadvantage was that they lacked a composer, meaning that none of their material was original. House of the Rising Sun, for example, is a traditional folk song, but a repetitive but memorable riff by lead guitarist Hilton Valentine, in combination with a background of swirling Hammond organ chords by Alan Price that built slowly but inexorably towards a rousing climax, marked out this arrangement as highly original, demanding the listener’s attention.

The influence of this song is well documented. By 1964, Bob Dylan had become established as the quintessential protest singer, but he had recorded this song as a conventional folk song on his debut album in 1961. Upon hearing the Animals’ version, he changed to a more rock-oriented style almost overnight, the most salient example of this change being #5 below.

It is even possible to argue that without the success of the Animals, the world might never have heard of Jimi Hendrix. After a string of successful records, none of which quite reached the standard of House of the Rising Sun, the band broke up. Shortly thereafter, Hendrix came to the attention of bass player Chas Chandler, who sold all his guitars in order to bring him to London, where he established his reputation. Chandler would not have had so many guitars to sell had it not been for the Animals’ success.

4. The Kinks — You Really Got Me (1964)
For anyone whose only acquaintance with the Kinks was via quasi-novelty songs such as Autumn Almanac and Dedicated Follower of Fashion, this crude rocker would come as something of a shock. However, it must have struck a chord with a lot of people, because BBC Radio 2 listeners, in a poll carried out to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Ivor Novello Awards, voted it the best record of the 1955–64 period.

In fact, You Really Got Me is not as crude as it might appear. Certainly, the lyric is simple to the point of banality, the harmonies are rough, and the key changes are obvious, but there is one crucial quality that this song lacks: pretentiousness. This is what rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be like, a fact that was clearly recognized by those who voted for You Really Got Me in that BBC poll.

This record, the Kinks’ first hit, with its distinctive power chords, is often cited as the forerunner of heavy metal, and Pete Townshend of the Who has said that his anthemic My Generation was an attempt to copy You Really Got Me. He ended up with a song that was equally influential in its own right.

5. Bob Dylan — Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965)
This song is a rarity for the 1960s: a single lifted from an album, Bringing It All Back Home, although it was released before the album. The album was Dylan’s response to the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, although ‘response’ is too weak a word to describe the kaleidoscope of socio-political imagery that characterizes the lyric of Subterranean Homesick Blues.

However, it is the accompaniment rather than the words that mark this song as a change of direction for Dylan. At the time, folk music was seen as an alternative to the hysteria of the new rock music by people who thought themselves superior because the words they were listening to were ‘meaningful’, so to have their hero switch genres so blatantly was seen as a betrayal. Dylan had clearly grown tired of the unthinking adulation of folk music fans, something that he addressed in this song with the admonition “Don’t follow leaders…” and the advice, given in each verse, to “Look out kids…”. In other words, trust your own instincts.

It would be a mistake to read too much into this lyric, although the following line could well become a proverb in the future:
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
On the other hand, the significance of Dylan going electric cannot be overstated. A cover of one of the leading songs on Bringing It All Back Home, an abbreviated version of Mr. Tambourine Man, heralded the start of folk rock, while the Beatles took Dylan’s core message on board with their next album, Rubber Soul, which was their first to show a move away from their earlier I Wanna Hold Your Hand style of songwriting.

6. The Who — My Generation (1965)
The Who were the last of the great singles bands to emerge in the 1960s, and the first to appeal predominantly to a mod audience, as shown by their first single, I’m the Face (as the High Numbers; a ‘face’, in contemporary mod slang, was a particularly stylish person, a trendsetter). However, it is as the Who that they made an impact on a wider audience, particularly with the three songs that they recorded for Brunswick before establishing their own record label.

My Generation was the third of these songs, and it articulates just how wide the so-called generation gap was at this time:
People try to put us d-down
Just because we g-g-get around.
Things they do look awful c-c-cold
Hope I die before I get old.

Lead singer Roger Daltrey’s distinctive stutter resulted in the BBC banning the record on the grounds that it poked fun at people with a speech impediment, although the corporation relented when the record became popular. However, it turns out to have been accidental—Daltrey couldn’t hear himself singing during the recording and was guessing when to start and stop. Another innovation used by the Who in their early songs was the use of feedback: this one dissolves at the end in a welter of electronic noise.

7. The Beach Boys — Good Vibrations (1966)
Although it is not the direction that the Beach Boys themselves followed, I take Good Vibrations to be the first progressive rock record, or at least to be a major influence on that much-maligned sub-genre. I thought at the time that it would only be a matter of time before songs were being written that lasted the entire side of an album, although no band without a solid record of singing complex harmonies could have pulled this particular song off.

The Beach Boys themselves went downhill from this point, their follow-up single to this masterpiece being a cover of the Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me in which they achieved the remarkable feat of producing a record that was even worse than a Phil Spector original. Not only did they never come close to matching this song, they even failed to come up with anything as good as earlier classics such as I Get Around and God Only Knows.

8. Jimi Hendrix Experience — Hey Joe (1967)
Although Eric Clapton was the first guitar hero of the 1960s, his work with Cream appears to have appealed mainly to university students and was less popular with the general record-buying public. Hendrix was different. Listen to the opening riff of Hey Joe. It is played on a Fender Stratocaster, the same instrument that was used by Hank Marvin of the Shadows on Apache and Wonderful Land. In the early years of the decade, every aspiring guitarist wanted to emulate Marvin, but Hendrix changed the rules. Instead of a catchy, echo-laden tune that might have been written to appeal to my grandmother, I heard the aggressive twanging of barbed wire. This was naked menace; this was what a real virtuoso could do with the instrument, even with a routine blues like Hey Joe.

Unfortunately, Hendrix became trapped by the expectations of his audience: he had performed the feat on the other side of the Atlantic, as a publicity stunt, without attracting too much attention, but his deliberate burning and subsequent destruction of his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 created an image he was unable to escape. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, Hendrix’s brief crash-and-burn career was almost inevitable.

9. Jefferson Airplane — White Rabbit (1967)
By 1967, most creative bands were experimenting with psychoactive drugs, and it was beginning to show in the music, giving rise to a genre that came to be known as psychedelia. On the American west coast, there were two centres, Los Angeles and San Francisco, each with its own take on the genre. In Los Angeles, the lead band was the Grateful Dead, who played at Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, while Jefferson Airplane in San Francisco took a more commercial line. Their White Rabbit is the quintessential psychedelic song.

And if you are singing about hallucinatory experiences, what better comparison could there be than that classic Victorian account of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? All the references are there: the rabbit, ‘one pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small’, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Red Queen, the dormouse, although there is a deliberate concatenation of the original (‘The Red Queen’s off her head’).

However, the unusual feature of this track is that it isn’t really a rock song. It’s more of a march, which means that there is no downbeat and no syncopation. Yet it is perfectly structured, building inexorably to a crescendo as we are exhorted to ‘remember what the dormouse said’:
Feed your head! Feed your head!
10. Fleetwood Mac — Man of the World (1969)
There are very few genuinely sad songs in rock (and certainly not in pop music, where the emotion is manufactured), but this is one. It is about a man who can have everything, except the one thing he really wants. What we didn’t realize at the time was that it was autobiographical.

Peter Green was one of the most lyrical guitarists in the history of rock music. The guitar solo on this record lasts a mere 19 seconds, yet it expresses perfectly, without sentimentality, the anguish of the song’s protagonist. It is one of the great guitar solos of all time. And that is the tragedy. It was all a plea for help, a plea for help that went unheeded.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

a wet day in buttermere

Most [tourists] come to view the picturesque scenery, but a complaint I’ve heard often concerns the rain. But what do people expect? The Lake District is the wettest part of England, and the weather is a direct result of the mountainous terrain. In fact, for locals like myself, the Lake District is at its most beautiful in the rain….
Although it is only a short drive over Honister Pass (steepest gradient 25%) from the tourist-thronged valley of Borrowdale, the Buttermere valley is always fairly quiet, especially during inclement weather. Buttermere itself is a small lake that takes its name from a quasi-mythical Viking chieftain of the eleventh century, Jarl (Earl) Boethar, suffixed with the Old English word for a lake.

Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and William the Conqueror’s subsequent ‘harrying of the north’ from 1069, Boethar is said to have conducted an extensive guerrilla campaign against the invaders from his stronghold in what is sometimes called ‘the secret valley’, inflicting heavy losses in men, money and equipment. There appears to be no contemporary documentary evidence, but local legends speak of a pitched battle between the Normans, led by Ranulph les Meschines, Earl of Carlisle (a small city to the north), and a combined force of Vikings, who had settled in the area in the preceding two centuries, and native Cumbrians, led by Boethar. The Norman forces advanced south along the River Cocker into the Buttermere valley, where they were lured into an ambush in the tributary valley of Rannerdale. Despite their military prowess throughout the rest of Europe, the Normans were unused to fighting in such terrain and were routed. Legend it may be, but what is indisputably the case is that the Normans never succeeded in subduing the heart of Lakeland.

This summer, as part of my efforts to show my friend Barry parts of his native county that he’d never seen, we came to the Buttermere valley with the aim of walking around the lake. There is a well-worn path, about 4½ miles in length, that follows the shoreline, with only a short section where walkers are forced on to the road through the valley. It rained heavily all day.

We started in the village of Buttermere, which takes its name from the lake and which boasts two public houses. It is located between Buttermere (the lake) and the larger lake of Crummock Water, on an area of land formed by debris washed down over the centuries from the surrounding hillsides. Crummock Water and Buttermere would thus once have been one lake.

The best way to proceed is anticlockwise, and the following photographs were taken at various points on the walk.

Looking east towards Fleetwith Pike (Old Norse pic, peak) from the southern shore of Buttermere. The notch in the skyline to the left of the peak is Honister Pass.

A typical beck (from Old Norse bekkr, stream) in spate.

A view of Buttermere from the north side of the lake, looking west.

Another view of Buttermere from the north side of the lake, looking west.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

per ardua ad noodles

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
Rise and Fall chronicles the melancholy recent history of Sham Chung, which was the most populous village in the Sai Kung peninsula in 1970 but now has a population that can be reckoned on the fingers of one person’s hands. Nature has almost totally reclaimed what was once the village’s ‘main street’, and because the main hiking path keeps to the cleared area that functions as an ersatz golf course, that main street is now almost completely overgrown and difficult to penetrate.

The first of the following photographs was taken in November 2007, when it was still possible to walk along the main street without impediment, and the rest were taken after fighting through the undergrowth in February this year.

Paula contemplates the fate of a traditional Chinese house.

There is an almost Marie Celeste feeling about some of the houses, as if the occupants had left in a hurry. This is a typical rural kitchen.

Traditionally, Chinese houses had double doors. These would originally have been locked but are likely to have been forced open by passing hikers looking for souvenirs.

These houses will not last much longer, now that trees have got themselves established.

As can be seen in this photo, many of the village’s less substantial houses were merely stuccoed mudbrick, making them easy prey for the encroaching vegetation.

No, this wasn’t a prison, but it must have felt like one for the occupants. Barred windows were a standard security measure.

There is little difference between indoors and out in a house that no longer has a roof.
Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.
Orson Welles.
If anyone is wondering why Paula and I cycle the 45 miles from Fanling to Sham Chung and back every Saturday, weather permitting, the final picture should be explanation enough. A cautionary word if you plan to check the place out though: Tom Li is a friend of ours, so the plate he prepares for us is about half as large again as his ‘standard’ chow mein. This photograph shows last Saturday's lunch, our first at Tom’s place since I came back from the UK a month ago.

‘Special chow mein’ in England is never like this: pan-fried noodles topped with prawns, pork strips, choi sum (a Chinese brassica), sliced Chinese mushrooms and bean sprouts.

Monday, 24 October 2011

questions, questions

Michael is a 16-year-old Form 5 student in Hong Kong. His parents, neither of whom is a graduate, have high expectations, but he is already disadvantaged by not studying in a school where English is used as the medium for instruction. The number of such schools was drastically reduced after the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997, mainly as a result of pressure from academics who maintained that instruction in students’ mother tongue (Cantonese) is more beneficial. It is hard to disagree with such a sentiment, but for one crucial fact: entry to any of the local universities requires equal proficiency in both languages.

Michael has another problem: his teachers don’t like him. Why? Because he asks questions. He is often slapped down in class for daring, as his teachers see it, to challenge their authority. Hong Kong is a society in which respect for teachers has become entrenched, ossified into a sterile convention that stifles creativity and individuality. The influence of Confucianism, combined with a feeling among most students that by asking questions they may appear to their classmates to be stupid and thus will lose face, means that students like Michael, whose style of learning does not conform to local classroom norms, struggle to make headway.

Yet Michael is of above average intelligence. He recently passed the Grade 8 exam of the UK’s Royal College of Music in violin. However, his interest in and talent for music have also landed him in trouble: his mother frequently scolds him for listening to music while studying, even though he finds it useful because it helps him to remember key pieces of information by association with the music he is listening to.

What Michael needs is a sympathetic teacher or, since this is most unlikely in his present circumstances, an experienced mentor. This is where Paula entered the picture. His parents were worried about his academic progress, and a friend of Paula referred them to her. Her initial meeting with Michael was scheduled to last an hour but lasted three. Michael described, in quaintly unidiomatic English, the weekly ‘brain-draining’ that he received at the hands of his parents. They wanted to know what he’d learned in school that week, thus unwittingly piling even more pressure on him. However, most of the discussion was in Cantonese, and it is clear that Michael needs more practice if his command of English is to be raised to the required standard for entry to university.

When Michael recounted how his mother disapproved of his listening to music while studying, he was surprised (and delighted) to learn that Paula had always listened to rock music while studying at university, and that I frequently do the same when writing, although in my case I do have to be selective. I will have no problems if Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll or Deep Purple’s Highway Star is thumping away in the background, but something like Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues would be disastrous. Too many words.

Anyway, Michael went away happy, and his parents were also delighted when Paula told them that he already thinks like a university student. This remains a work in progress at the moment, however, and Paula will be successful only if she can educate Michael’s parents in the best way to encourage their son. As for all those questions, no one has said it better than Jacob Bronowski, in his landmark BBC television series on the history of science, The Ascent of Man:
It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

lock, stock and barrel

For the past two years, Paula has run a series of workshops for newly qualified teachers on behalf of the extramural department of one of Hong Kong’s leading universities (see above). In the first of these, she starts by showing three short video clips of teachers in action and asks her students which of the three deserves an award for good teaching.

Professor Lock is an eminent German physicist at MIT, and the first video shows him explaining some fundamental concepts in electricity while drawing diagrams and writing formulae on a blackboard. Although he does turn to face his audience from time to time, usually to ask a question that he immediately answers himself, for much of the time he is scribbling on the board and talking simultaneously. He jokingly suggests that everything he is explaining is so simple that his audience will wonder why any explanation is necessary.

Dr Stock is an economist at the Harvard Business School. He is seen using all the latest multimedia gadgetry to augment his performance. Assessing the three teachers, Dr Stock’s style is most akin to that of a business presentation, and, like a typical businessman, he reads his PowerPoint slides aloud rather than using them as an aide memoire, something to be developed in greater detail.

Dr Barrel is a Chinese lecturer at a Hong Kong university who is seen addressing his students in heavily accented English. He is reading from a prepared script, and unlike in the first two videos there are shots of the students, all Chinese, who are writing furiously in an attempt to get everything down.

Alert readers will have spotted that Paula had set a deliberate snare here. None of the three represents a paradigm of good teaching, because what is missing in all three clips is any form of interaction between teacher and students. In the video of Professor Lock, at one point a small window opens in the corner of the screen, and the professor, apparently watching himself in action, suddenly realizes that he has made a basic error.

“Oh my God!” he exclaims, “I’ve got Ohm’s law wrong.”

And so he had. Instead of writing that the voltage in a circuit is equal to current multiplied by resistance, he had written that voltage is equal to current divided by resistance. The interesting point to make here is that no one in the audience ventured to point out the error, although whether this was because no one was aware of the mistake, or because, out of deference to the professor’s status, no one dared to challenge what everyone knew was incorrect, can only be guessed.

Two years ago, Paula ran this same series of workshops in China on behalf of an international NGO. Students there unanimously selected the professor as being worthy of the hypothetical award, because, they said, he was knowledgeable. As an aside, the NGO decided to dispense with Paula’s services and instead place all the materials online, thus missing the point of the exercise, which is to provoke discussion.

The students in China were clearly unused to being asked for their opinions, but one student did point out that the professor had started with a simple example and worked towards greater complexity. Hong Kong students are much more analytical, although they are invariably taken in by the deliberately misleading inclusion of examples from prestigious American institutions like Harvard and MIT.

The problem, as Paula encourages her students to work out for themselves, is that the majority of teachers in higher education do not understand the other side of the coin, the learning process, so they follow the worn-out paradigm of the ‘sage on the stage’, and the majority of students fail to notice that they are being short-changed, lock, stock and barrel.

Monday, 17 October 2011

I should have stayed in bed

The rain had been relentless all week, but by Friday afternoon the sky had begun to clear, and by evening it looked like conditions would be okay for us to visit our friend Tom in Sham Chung the following day. Unfortunately, it rained again overnight, and the wet conditions meant that cycling there wasn’t a viable option. The alternative was to drive to Yung Shue Au and walk the last two miles along the coastal path (Rise and Fall).

Traffic was very heavy on the main north–south expressway, and the road was wet, so extra caution was required. About two miles south of Fanling, three lanes condense into two, and with it the speed limit drops from 100 to 80km/hr. This isn’t really relevant, because the traffic was moving at only 45–50km/hr, and I continued to maintain a gap ahead of me that was roughly twice that of the red (city) taxi behind me.

In these circumstances, I tend to look beyond the vehicle immediately in front in order to anticipate any sudden changes, so I failed to notice at first that the car in front was braking so sharply that it quickly came to a standstill. Thankfully, the gap I was maintaining still gave me time to react, although when I did eventually come to a halt I was less than three feet from the stationary car.

I barely had time to think “Phew! That was close” before we were slammed from behind by the taxi. I felt as if someone had just whacked me across the back of my head with a blackjack (thank goodness for headrests). When I got out of the car, my first impression was that at least six cars had hit the one in front, but in fact only the car immediately behind the taxi had failed to stop. The others had been able to brake in time.

The police were quickly on the scene, and we were instructed to follow a police motorcyclist, who led the three cars involved in the collision off the expressway at the next exit point to a small car park in the large town of Taipo. At this point, I was asked whether I wanted to go to hospital for a check-up—two ambulances were already on hand in the car park—an offer that I took up because although I couldn’t accurately describe how I felt, I didn’t feel ‘quite right’. I wasn’t dizzy, and I didn’t have a headache, but I simply couldn’t find the right words.

So it was that Paula and I were ferried to the nearest A&E department, where my condition could be assessed. Being in the back of the ambulance, I was unable to see precisely where we were going, but I did note, with dismay, that we seemed to be making a lot of turns at various junctions. How, I wondered, would we find our car again.

The medical staff at Nethersole Hospital decided that it would be prudent to keep me under observation for a few hours, which in practice meant that a nurse came to check my blood pressure and shine a light in my eyes every hour. This gave rise to an interesting observation. You might think that my surname is not difficult to pronounce, but I remember from my time at the local Outward Bound school that many local Chinese do have a problem.

In my home town in northern England, the local pronunciation of the third most common surname in the town omits the ‘g’ altogether, but many Chinese omit the ‘d’ while pronouncing the ‘g’ as a cross between a howk and a glottal stop. I have always been slightly puzzled by this, because I’ve never noticed that local Chinese have any difficulty with words like ‘badge’, ‘wedge’, ‘ridge’, ‘lodge’ and ‘fudge’.

Anyway, the nurses here avoided having to attempt a pronunciation of my name by adopting one of two strategies: either they would notice that I was the only gweilo in what I would describe as a holding area and beckon me to them using hand gestures, or they would ask me for my ID card number, which would have been registered when I arrived in A&E. Paula has told me that she experiences similar difficulties at work. Some ask how her name should be pronounced, while others address her as ‘Dr Yung’ (her maiden name). She tries to pre-empt all of this by saying “call me Paula” when meeting someone new.

Things started to look up immediately I was discharged, several hours later.

“I’ll buy you dinner if you can find our way back to the car without asking anyone for directions,” said Paula.

Dinner or no dinner, this is the kind of challenge I relish, as Paula well knows. It was easy to get started, because we were in an extensive hospital complex with only one way in and out. The first decision came when we reached a T-junction. By this time, the sun was out, so it was easy to determine north and south, and I could see that we were close to the northern edge of Taipo. We therefore turned south. We were in luck. At the next junction, a crossroads, there was a blue sign with an arrow indicating that anyone wishing to go to Fanling should turn right. It was then simply a matter of following this road for a mile or so until we came to a right turn that I recognized as the point where we’d turned left when we came off the expressway. The easiest dinner I’ve ever earned.

So we headed back home, at which point our first priority was an afternoon nap. I mention this only because I had an incredibly weird dream. Paula and I were cycling around the New Territories, but this wasn’t the real New Territories. At one point, we encountered a group of Tudor houses, and at another we passed a section that reminded me of my home town. One road into town approaches the railway at right angles, passing a terrace that was built in the 1850s. However, the terrace in my dream was unmistakeably Georgian in both style and grandeur. When it reaches the railway, the road turns left, continues for about 50 yards then turns right over a bridge across the railway, which gives this part of town its local name: ‘over the bridge’. However, in my dream, there was an imposing church next to the bridge, which doesn’t exist in reality. There were many other strange events in my dream, but this brief account gives some idea of just how bizarre it was.

We spent the evening sitting on our balcony talking about education over a few bottles of Tsingtao (a Chinese beer), and I decided that over the next few weeks I would discuss here some of Paula’s ideas on the subject. None of her theories are particularly radical, but she does know what she is talking about, being one of the few people working in higher education to have a formal teaching qualification. She has taught in primary and secondary schools, vocational training centres, and universities, and she understands the teaching/learning process far better than the kind of arrogant politician whose opinions on education are driven more by ideology than by what works.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

heart of darkness

The horror! The horror!
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
It isn’t often that I comment on a contemporary news item, but I’ve just read this report on the BBC News website. I was so horrified that my immediate reaction was to post the link on a blog discussion forum in order to elicit comments from fellow bloggers. Among the comments posted was a link to an article describing a similar and equally appalling situation in the same part of the world.

I should warn you that you will need an exceptionally strong stomach to read either of these reports, which describe child sacrifice and the trade in albino body parts, respectively, in East Africa. Both practices are linked to a widely held belief in the efficacy of magic spells in bringing good luck, good health and, especially, increased wealth, even when they involve the cold-blooded and brutal murder of children and albinos.

I’ve always advocated respect for indigenous cultures and beliefs, even when to a Westerner these cultures and beliefs are no more than ignorant superstition, but there is a clear and sharply defined dividing line between harmless superstition and the kind of practices illustrated by these stories. Unfortunately, the revulsion that all people with a claim to being civilized are likely to feel when reading these reports is likely to be overlain by a feeling of helplessness.

According to the BBC report, a witch doctor in Uganda who has been identified by both a child survivor and a BBC sting operation as a leading player in the ritual murder of children remains free to commit further atrocities, on the pathetically weak grounds that the child’s testimony is ‘unreliable’. Given that the majority of the customers for the services of this disgusting specimen of humanity are alleged to be members of the country’s elite, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that police corruption and/or collusion is a significant factor in the rise in demand for such services in recent years.

Although post-colonial development in sub-Saharan Africa has been patchy—one has only to think of such home-grown grotesques as Idi Amin in Uganda, Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the Central African Republic, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—and the legacy of colonialism still casts a shadow over the continent, this is one area where progress towards a more enlightened and humane world view ought to have been a priority.

It is difficult to imagine that the men now in charge in Uganda and other former colonies might be prepared to acknowledge that they have anything to learn from their former colonial masters, but the example set by the British in other parts of the old empire is instructive. In tackling superstition, the suppression of thuggee in India in the 1830s provides some useful pointers, while the paradigm for the eradication of corruption is the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in Hong Kong in the 1970s. Unfortunately, whether adopting these or other possible measures stands any chance of success must be remote, given that ignorance and greed form such a potent cocktail.

Monday, 10 October 2011

it’s ruddy ’ard

Just as a scientist who discovers a new species of plant or animal has the right to name that species, so it is the prerogative of the first rock climber to lead a new climb to name that climb. Kipling Groove, on Gimmer Crag in Great Langdale, was climbed for the first time in 1948 by Yorkshireman Arthur Dolphin and is one of only three climbs in the Lake District to be widely known by its initials, the other two being Overhanging Bastion on Castle Rock of Triermain and Central Buttress on Scafell. The 1967 Langdale guidebook described it as
A superb way up a very impressive piece of rock.
It is also my all-time favourite climb.

So why did Dolphin name his climb Kipling Groove? His choice had nothing to do with its being an exceedingly nice cake, which British readers will recognize as a reference to the other Mr Kipling; as anyone who attempts the climb will quickly discover, it isn’t a piece of cake in any sense of the phrase. In fact, it’s ‘ruddy ’ard’! For anyone unfamiliar with regional dialects in England, ‘ruddy’ is a widely used mild expletive ‘oop north’ that, like the Cockney ‘bleeding’ and the Australian ‘flaming’, avoids the blasphemous connotations of ‘bloody’, while the second word reflects a widespread habit among working-class speakers, that of dropping any aitch that has the misfortune to start a word:
In ’ertford, ’ereford and ’ampshire, ’urricanes ’ardly ever ’appen.
Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
I climbed Kipling Groove for the first time 42 years ago today. I was the same age as Dolphin had been when he pioneered the route. The date is fixed in my memory because it is also the day my grandmother died, and my mother was extremely upset with me because I chose to go climbing rather than stay at home to await the inevitable news. I was accompanied by two friends, with whom I’d been climbing for four years, and this was the hardest climb we’d ever attempted together. In climbing parlance, we’d be ‘pushing the boat out’.

Although it is situated 2,000 feet above sea level, Gimmer is one of the few ‘high crags’ that can be climbed on in October without your fingers dropping off because of the cold, mainly because it faces south and attracts whatever sunshine there is. The crag itself is cut at half-height by a huge ledge (Ash Tree Ledge, although the trees are long gone), and climbs above the ledge, such as KG, have the added fear factor of 150 feet of air beneath your feet before you even start.

The first pitch of KG is just a scramble, so most parties don’t bother with ropes until the second pitch. This is the much-photographed ‘undercling pitch’, which is much easier than it looks, although you wouldn’t think so given the meal that many climbers make of it. It entails a 20-foot traverse left underneath a large overhang on big footholds, followed by a straightforward ascent of a wide crack to a small stance in a deep recess—the so-called ‘cave stance’.

For reasons that are now forgotten, I was given the responsibility of leading the final pitch, a 100-foot runout on extremely steep rock. The start involves climbing out on to the face on the right to gain a thin crack. I’d been reading the guidebook the night before, and the details were fixed in my memory:
…ascend a thin crack, past a peg runner, until the face begins to impend, necessitating a step right to a small foothold below a bulge. The next move is the crux. A strenuous arm pull brings a diagonal crack above the bulge within reach, and, a little higher, a sharp-edged horizontal crack….
Guidebooks were quite verbose in those days, although there is no mention of the fact that it is both ‘bold’ (meaning that protection is poor, so a long fall is likely if you come off) and ‘exposed’ (meaning that it is impossible to ignore just how far down it is before you hit the ground). A word about the peg (or piton): this is a piece of steel that had been hammered into a thin crack in the rock, making it semi-permanent. In a footnote in the list of first ascents, the guidebook writer had added the following:
The peg appeared on the third ascent. Time and fear have hallowed its use.
Before the Second World War, rock climbing had been an exclusively middle-class pastime, and Arthur Dolphin was probably the last, and most talented, climber in that tradition. However, the climber who placed the peg, Joe Brown, was the spearhead of mass working-class participation after the war and already a legend in climbing circles when he ‘desecrated’ Dolphin’s masterpiece. Much has been made of the class angle here, but in fact Dolphin’s regular climbing companions were all working-class lads from West Yorkshire who held him in such high esteem because of his boldness and innate ability that two of them did the fourth ascent of KG in a bid to remove the peg. They failed, but they didn’t use it.

And neither did I, feeling that if I had clipped it, I would have been dishonouring Dolphin’s memory, because he hadn’t had the psychological reassurance of this extra protection when he pioneered the climb. Tragically, Arthur Dolphin was killed in a freak accident on the Aiguille de Géant in 1953 as he tried to prove his fitness for the successful Everest expedition of that year.

As the guidebook makes clear, the section above the peg is the hardest on the climb, and the foothold mentioned in the description is the only one for about 15 feet. I reached the diagonal crack with my right hand and secured a solid finger jam—and immediately beat a hasty retreat, not because it was hard but because it seemed so easy that I thought I must be missing something. However, once I’d convinced myself that I could do it, I repeated the sequence I’d already done and, following a very difficult pull on the finger jam, I was able to reach the horizontal crack, slightly to the right, with my left hand.

Beginners are taught that crossing hands in the way I’ve described is something they shouldn’t do, but it’s a ‘rule’ that few people follow nowadays. You do what works. However, I’ve noted over the years that many climbers faff about trying to arrange extra protection in the diagonal crack, which I regard as a dumb thing to do given that you’re hanging on with one hand with no proper footholds. After all, once you’ve reached the horizontal crack, a quick hand traverse will bring you to a small ledge and an end to the major difficulties. The rest is straightforward.

I never expected to climb KG again, because I came out to Hong Kong in 1974, but I reckoned without Paula, who was dissatisfied with the easy climbs I’d been taking her up when we moved back, temporarily, to the UK in 1989. Once again, I didn’t clip the peg, which was still there. Then, in 1995, I climbed it again, this time with Siegfried, who was only 16 years old at the time. I must have found it easy, because we then climbed a route called Gimmer String, which breaks out left from the cave stance and is a grade harder than KG. I climbed it for the last time (to date) in 1999, again with Siegfried, who led the hard pitch. He didn’t clip the peg either.

I’ve never seen a good picture of anyone on Kipling Groove, so I’ve included a couple of pictures of a route called Gillette Direct, which I climbed in 1996, shortly after my fiftieth birthday, and which is two grades harder than KG. It is the best single-pitch climb I’ve ever done and is located on Neckband Crag, on the other side of the valley facing Gimmer Crag. It therefore faces north, hence the sweater.

Although this is the steepest part of Gillette Direct, it is also the easiest. It gets much harder from here. Note the temporary protection device in the crack below my feet.

This photo was reproduced in the 1999 Langdale guidebook, where it is confusingly captioned “Dennis Hodgson on the crux of Gillette Direct”. The crux is actually reaching the handhold being used in this picture. This involves trusting a rounded dimple in the rock for the left foot as you reach for the hold. I fully expected my foot to slip as more and more weight came on it, and in fact Siegfried did come off at this point. He swung out into space, and I had to lower him to the ground so that he could start again. He was successful at the second attempt. The climb continues up the narrow corner, and difficulties are relentless all the way to the top.

Monday, 3 October 2011

maid in hong kong

There are some interesting aspects to the recent ruling by the High Court in Hong Kong that a Filipina domestic helper who has lived in the territory since 1986 has the right to apply for permanent residency status. However, the most significant point to note is the hostility of many local politicians to the idea, which probably reflects the inherent racism of many local voters.

When large numbers of Filipinas first came to Hong Kong to work as domestic servants, in the 1980s, the correspondence columns of the South China Morning Post often contained letters from local residents complaining about the behaviour of such women. There were frequent accusations of both sexual promiscuity and general dishonesty, usually with not a scintilla of supporting evidence, and it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that the accusers were virulently xenophobic racist bigots.

It is to this constituency of opinion that unscrupulous populist politicians such as Regina Ip seek to appeal. Ip, chairwoman of the New People’s Party and a former high-ranking government functionary, has suggested that if the Court of Appeal upholds this decision, the Hong Kong government should refer the matter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for an interpretation of the Basic Law on this issue.

This procedure can be used to overturn Hong Kong court rulings, but to invoke it would finally kill off the illusion that the territory’s judicial system is independent of the mainland’s less than transparent arrangements. And this would be despite Hong Kong’s autonomy being guaranteed, in theory, by the Basic Law.

In other words, this is a local matter that should be decided by local courts. If the Hong Kong government were to ask the Chinese government to step in, anyone who wanted to sue on any matter to do with individual rights in the future would not need to trouble Hong Kong’s court system.

Overriding this compelling legal argument is the moral argument. I wonder how many of the hundreds of thousands of families who have employed domestic helpers over the years are aware of the level of economic exploitation that this arrangement entails, and how much more prosperous they are because having a servant allows a second adult to go out to work, invariably for a salary that is a significant multiple of the servant's. It should not be forgotten that domestic helpers are the lowest paid segment of Hong Kong society, and when their statutory minimum salary was cut a few years ago, it was not because the measure would ameliorate the severe financial conditions of the time. It was imposed because these women were an easy target, and the measure would be widely applauded by their employers, who had a vote in local elections, while their servants did not.

And this is not the only financial burden that domestic helpers have imposed on them. The vast majority find employment in Hong Kong through agents, and the going rate for setting up an initial two-year contract is seven months’ salary! Fees for subsequent contracts are much lower, but only if the employee remains with the same employer. It would be wrong to label these agents ‘vultures’, because vultures perform a useful role in removing carrion from the landscape. ‘Blood-sucking parasites who prey on the vulnerable’ is a more accurate description. Part of the problem is that the negotiation of contracts is extremely complicated, and government documentation is provided only in English and Chinese, but natural justice demands that any justifiable fees be paid by the employer.

A lot can be deduced about a person’s attitude to this matter by the term they use to describe the many women from the Philippines and Indonesia employed on domestic duties (they are legally barred from working in any other capacity). The original term used in the 1980s was ‘maid’, but as someone whose mother worked in domestic service in England before the Second World War, I regard this term as both demeaning and offensive. The morally neutral term is ‘domestic helper’, which emphasizes that the relationship is one of employer and employee, but I frequently refer to them as ‘servants’, because this is how they are often treated by their employers.

Overturning the High Court’s verdict, especially if this involves the connivance of the Chinese government, would torpedo Hong Kong’s claim to be ‘Asia’s world city’. The single most important criterion for any city to be considered world-class and cosmopolitan is that it operates under the rule of law, and venal politicians like Regina Ip should remember this when they propose that the Hong Kong government sell out.

Friday, 30 September 2011

owt fresh?

Home, home again.
I like to be here when I can.

Pink Floyd, Breathe.
I arrived back in Hong Kong yesterday after one of the most tedious journeys from the UK that I’ve ever experienced. Because of typhoon activity in Hong Kong, I had to endure an enforced six-hour delay in Doha, resulting in my MP3 player running out of power several hours before the end of the journey. Of course, I could have charged it up again in Doha, except that all my power cables were in my checked-in luggage.

Anyway, I’m back, and as usual Paula tested my powers of observation by asking me what had changed while I’d been away. Things are always changing in Hong Kong, and something is certain to have been either added to or removed from the landscape during an absence of four months. The title of this post, Cumbrian dialect for ‘Anything new?’, is a query that was asked by my father, more in hope than expectation, every time I saw him. It seems appropriate here.

With reference to Hong Kong Country, the cultivated area in the third picture has been fenced off and abandoned, as have most of the plots where vegetables were being grown six months ago. Uncle Four (Turf Wars) and his lackeys have clearly been busy. Even more strangely, the house that was once the home of Lee Ming Sang (the fifth picture in Hong Kong Country) has completely vanished.

However, easily the most depressing change that has occurred during my absence has been the appearance of street lighting along the riverside. At first glance, this seems to tick all the appropriate environmental boxes—each light is powered by its own photovoltaic cell, and illumination is provided by LEDs—but what is not obvious from the photograph is that this lighting is unnecessary.

The curious aspect of this affair is that the track in the picture is, in theory, not open to members of the public. As the sign in the foreground points out:
Drainage Maintenance Access
No Entry
Despite this prohibition, the track is very popular with cyclists, joggers and even strollers, and is an excellent example of different government departments not knowing what other departments are doing. The track was built originally by the Drainage Services Department, but a couple of years ago the Home Affairs Department decided to build covered seating areas every mile or so, presumably without being aware that the hundreds of locals who used the track every day were trespassing.

And there is so much ambient light along this track at night that a hand torch is not required, although this doesn’t deter some people from using one. And these new lights are only ten metres apart, so ‘unsightly’ is an understatement. I would like to know which idiot came up with this idea, which must have been extremely expensive to implement and which provides no obvious benefits.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

the writing on the wall

And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
Daniel 5:25 (Authorized Version).
Writing on walls and other public surfaces has a long history, and a part of that history is commemorated in the well-known phrase that I’ve used as the title of this post. Belshazzar’s feast is probably the only recorded example of graffiti by supernatural agent, so it is disappointing to note that the account credited to Daniel was probably written several hundred years after the event and is thus an unreliable source.

However, Belshazzar’s feast may have been intended as an allegory of the conflict between the sacred and the profane, the intended message being that God will punish profanity:
3 Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them.
4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.

Daniel 5 (Authorized Version).
This mirrors a similar polarization of opinions about modern graffiti, which are seen as either art or vandalism, with few people taking a more nuanced view. It is true that most graffiti have no aesthetic worth and are unsightly, but occasionally something is written that resonates with its readers.

In the 1950s, few mainline railway carriages had an open-plan design. Most had a corridor along one side, with a series of compartments separated from the corridor by sliding doors. In each compartment, above the window, there was a recessed chain that ran the length of the carriage. This was the ‘communication cord’ and was there for use in an emergency. Pulling the chain would result in the automatic application of the train’s air brakes, so below the chain was printed the following warning: ‘Penalty for improper use £5’.

One day, I entered an empty compartment and sat down. I quickly noticed that an anonymous wag had written an amusing piece of doggerel directly above the communication cord. I didn’t write it down, but even now, more than fifty years later, I can still remember it:
If five pounds you can afford
Try your strength and pull this cord.
If five pounds you do not own
Leave the fucking thing alone.

I’ve often wondered whether the author wrote this verse in any other carriages, and whether anyone else who saw it still remembers it. Perhaps not.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

don't talk back

When I was a student in Manchester in the mid-1960s, I spent quite a lot of time combing second-hand shops on the lookout for old 45s. This period coincided with the so-called ‘beat boom’ in the UK, when many bands were issuing cover versions of old rhythm and blues songs. I was looking for the original versions, but I also came across many songs and many artists of whom I’d never heard. In these circumstances, I would usually buy the record in question if it met one of two criteria.

The first criterion was the record label. Anything on Decca’s London-American or EMI’s Stateside labels was snapped up immediately, largely because so much of the output of small and obscure American labels was released in the UK on one of these two. Not everything was obscure though: the output of Atlantic Records appeared in the UK on London-American before being given its own label, while both Tamla and Motown records were released on Stateside before EMI decided to follow Decca’s lead and create a label specifically for records from this studio.

The second criterion was the composer(s). In 1963/64, Poison Ivy was covered by several British bands, and when I finally got my hands on the original version, by the Coasters, I discovered that it had been written by two people whose names I’d not previously encountered, although I’d already heard many of their songs without being aware of the composers’ names. I soon learned that any song with the composing credit ‘Leiber/Stoller’ was well worth buying.

I found myself reminiscing about my student days last month when I heard about the death of lyricist Jerry Leiber, who, with composer Mike Stoller, had provided the soundtrack to much of the 1950s.

Leiber’s death was widely reported, but the obituaries tended to focus on three of the duo’s many songs: Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, and Ben E. King’s Stand by Me. All three are excellent songs, but the pair's most important work was with black vocal group the Coasters. However, the original version of Hound Dog, by Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton, was their first major hit, and the song provides an interesting insight into the racial tensions that existed in the music scene in fifties America.

Hound Dog was a classic blues in its original form, and it followed a longstanding blues tradition of incorporating some sexual imagery and innuendo into the lyric. However, in Presley’s version the words were altered (not by Leiber) to avoid offending a predominantly white audience. A comparison is striking:
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,
Been snoopin’ round my door.
You can wag your tail,
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more.

Big Mama Thornton version.
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,
Cryin’ all the time.
You ain’t never caught a rabbit,
And you ain’t no friend of mine.

Elvis Presley version.
Although Leiber and Stoller later wrote other songs specifically for Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole being the best-known examples, it is their work with black artists on which their reputation stands. In addition to working with Big Mama Thornton, in the early 1950s they also wrote songs for Charles Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon and Little Willie Littlefield. However, the collaboration that set the trajectory for their career throughout the remainder of the decade was with Los Angeles doo-wop group the Robins, whose Riot in Cell Block #9, with its repeating chorus of ‘There’s a riot goin’ on’, was a major R&B hit in 1954.

Following the success of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the Robins’ fifth record, Leiber and Stoller were offered a production contract with Atlantic Records in New York, but two of the Robins’ four vocalists refused a move to Atlantic. However, in 1957, the rest of the group did move to New York, where they recruited two new singers and renamed themselves the Coasters. Beginning with Searchin’/Young Blood, Leiber and Stoller wrote and produced a string of powerful songs for the Coasters that only came to an end in 1961. Changing audience tastes probably brought this end about.

It is these Coasters songs that give Leiber a fair claim to be known as the poet of rock ’n’ roll, the only other serious contender for this title being Chuck Berry; an analysis of their styles throws up some intriguing contrasts. For example, while Leiber and Stoller were Jewish and championed black music, Chuck Berry, who was black himself, articulated the anxieties and aspirations of white teenagers:
Sweet Little Sixteen,
She’s just got to have
About half a million
Framed autographs.
Her wallet’s filled with pictures,
She gets ’em one by one.
She gets so excited
Watch her, look at her run.
School has always been a major source of anxiety for many teenagers, and Leiber and Berry addressed this in different ways. The eponymous hero of Leiber’s Charlie Brown is clearly a rebel, smoking in the auditorium, playing craps in the boys’ gym and writing graffiti on the walls of the school. He is ‘cool’:
Who walks in the classroom cool and slow?
Who calls the English teacher Daddy-o?
Berry, on the other hand, saw school as something to be endured:
Back in the classroom, open your books,
Gee but the teacher, don’t know how mean she looks.
Berry often wrote about the music; examples include Johnny B. Goode, Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven. In School Day, from which the last extract is taken, he suggests that the ‘antidote’ to school is the local juke joint, where his listeners can ‘hear something that’s really hot’. The last verse neatly sums up his attitude:
Hail, hail, rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old.
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold.
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin’ is there, body and soul.
There is nothing like this in any lyric by Jerry Leiber. Perhaps the Leiber/Stoller song by the Coasters that best exemplifies his style and choice of subject matter is Yakety Yak, a series of admonitions and warnings by an exasperated mother to her delinquent son. The first verse does contain a passing reference to the music, but it is the final verse that encapsulates the ‘message’:
Take out the papers and the trash,
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash.
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor,
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more.
Yakety yak (don’t talk back).

Don’t you give me no dirty looks,
Your father’s hip, he knows what cooks.
Just tell your hoodlum friend outside,
You ain’t got time to take a ride.
Yakety yak (don’t talk back).
Although it is not explicitly indicated in the lyric, there can be little doubt that Leiber’s sympathies lie with the target of this tirade, because the phrase ‘Yakety yak’ is clearly uttered by the son. And teenagers listening to Yakety Yak would have known all about what it was like to constantly be told what to do and what not to do by annoying parents when all they really wanted to do was rock and roll (in the original as well as the contemporary meaning of the phrase).

The phrase in parentheses is sung by the group’s bass singer, giving this track the superficial appearance of a novelty song, but bass interjections like this were a Coasters trademark and were used in most of their songs, which are probably best described as a sophisticated hybrid of rhythm and blues and pop music, with a driving rhythm and a distinctive stuttering tenor saxophone solo by King Curtis.

Leiber and Stoller wrote songs for other black vocal groups, notably the Drifters, for whom they penned There Goes My Baby, Save the Last Dance for Me and On Broadway. However, no one could accuse the Drifters of singing rock ’n’ roll. These three tracks are pop songs, complete with soaring string accompaniment, although the string arrangement on There Goes My Baby does incorporate a riff from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, possibly to counter accusations of blandness.

However, my favourite Leiber/Stoller song is one that was apparently offered to the Coasters, who turned it down. This seems very odd, given that Love Potion #9 sounds like a classic Coasters song. When, in my wanderings around Manchester, I came across the original version, by the Clovers, it met the second of the criteria outlined above and was instantly snapped up.

Love Potion #9 is a ‘story’ song, in which the singer admits that he is ‘a flop with chicks’:
I took my troubles down to Madame Ruth.
You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth.
She’s got a pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine,
Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine.
This is one of the few Leiber/Stoller songs to include a middle eight, and this is worth quoting because it is an excellent example of Leiber’s verbal dexterity:
She bent down and turned around and gave me a wink.
She said “I’m gonna mix it up right here in the sink”.
It smelled like turpentine, it looked like Indian ink.
I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I took a drink.
In classic Coasters style, ‘I took a drink’ is sung by a solo bass voice. However, the backing is far more gentle than it would have been had the Coasters performed the song, and the saxophone solo is insipid: it is unlikely to have been performed by King Curtis.

Although Leiber and Stoller remained active throughout the 1960s, the zeitgeist had changed. It became standard practice for bands to write and perform their own material, although the Hollies’ first two singles, (Ain’t That) Just Like Me and Searchin’, were old Coasters songs, and the Paramounts, later to morph into Procul Harum, released Poison Ivy. The new blueprint for black vocal groups was that offered by Tamla-Motown, which developed a more commercial, factory-like approach to producing hit records, which were written by in-house composers and backed by in-house musicians.

Ironically, a record that I would categorize as ‘not typical Motown’—Do You Love Me? by the Contours—is probably the only one from this stable that would not have appeared out of place in the Coasters’ repertoire. It was covered by both Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and the Dave Clark Five in 1963 as British bands scoured the American R&B market for potential material. Apart from Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes, You Really Got a Hold on Me by the Miracles and Money by Barrett Strong (another untypical Motown release), covered by the Beatles on their second album, the songs issuing from this studio were not considered suitable material by a generation of bands who in 1963/64 were taking their inspiration from the music of the 1950s, of which the songs of Leiber and Stoller were an integral part.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

random thoughts

Here’s an interesting experiment that you might like to try: ask someone to choose a random number between one and six. Ask them again. And again, six times in all. This is not a scientifically verified statement, but it is very likely that your subject will select six different numbers. Now, it is possible for a random selection to give precisely this result, but it isn’t likely. There are 46,656 possible ways of choosing six numbers from a pool of six, only 720 of which make up a set of six different numbers.

Many years ago, I conducted a similar experiment to that outlined above with a friend. I would roll a single die, behind a screen, and note the result. He would guess the result and write it down. We did this 36 times. When we compared notes, it turned out that my friend had been correct 19 times. Nothing remarkable in that, you might think, but this result is considerably above chance expectations, which would be six correct answers out of 36. But the most interesting part of the result was a sequence in which my friend had written ‘one’ five times in a row. He was correct each time.

This highlights one of the characteristics of randomness: that there are likely to be clusters rather than a roughly even distribution. The next time you see a flock of sheep in a field, if there are no external distractions and the sheep have been grazing for some time, there will be a noticeable concentration of animals in some parts of the field, while other parts will be almost empty. If we assume that the quality of grazing is uniform across the field, the distribution will be random.

The random distribution of sheep in a field.

Now consider what is not random. Chaos theory is, philosophically, one of the most intriguing theories in modern science, and about ten years ago, when my full-time occupation was editing academic textbooks, it was ‘flavour of the month’ and everyone had something to say on the subject. Most of it was utter drivel, usually because the author simply didn’t understand the theory, but one example stands out as something worse: it was wrong. I was unable to persuade the author of An Introduction to Global Environmental Issues that his definition of chaos theory in the glossary was fundamentally incorrect, precisely because it included the word ‘randomness’:
chaos theory — theory explaining phenomena as being a consequence of inherent randomness in a system. There are mathematical models to simulate chaotic systems.
In the same glossary, chaos was defined as ‘unpredictable or random processes and their consequences’, which is also incorrect.

I had the melancholy satisfaction, later that same year, of watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on TV. These lectures, aimed at children, are given each year by a scientist who is a leader in their particular field. That year, they were delivered by a mathematician, who tackled the subject of chaos theory head on. He was emphatic that there is nothing random about chaos. It is merely predictably unpredictable. I wondered whether the errant author had been watching, and if so, whether he took on board what he was hearing.

In fact, chaos theory is best explained with reference to the following hypothetical scenario, which in its initial state is a typical example of a linear system. Imagine two bodies that interact through mutual gravitational attraction—a single planet orbiting a star, for example. In this system, any slight change in the velocity of the planet will lead to only a slight change in its orbit at any time in the future, even millions of years later. Such stability means that the position of the planet can be predicted millions of years into the future, the only constraints on the accuracy of prediction being the accuracy of the initial measurements.

However, such simple, linear systems are rare. They are merely approximations of nature or abstractions from it, but the hypothetical model can be made rather more realistic by the addition of a third body—a comet that is also orbiting the star. The comet will be influenced by the planet’s gravity, in the same way that comets in our own solar system are influenced by the planets, especially Jupiter.

We now have a nonlinear system: the planet will orbit the star for ever, but after a finite number of orbits the comet will inevitably approach the planet so closely that it will be thrown out of the system. This system is nonlinear because any tiny change in the comet’s calculated velocity results in changes in its predicted position that grow exponentially with time. Thus, if there is a minuscule mistake in measuring the velocity today, within a relatively short time, a few orbits, it will be impossible to predict even roughly the comet’s position or whether it will have been expelled from the system entirely.

To illustrate this situation, a computer simulation was devised some years ago to predict the number of orbits that such a comet would make before being expelled from the system. This model included only the Sun and Jupiter, and the accuracy with which the orbit of the comet was calculated was varied. If all velocities were calculated to a precision of one part in a million, the model predicted that the comet would stick around for 757 orbits. When the accuracy was improved to one part in ten million, the prediction was 38 orbits; one part in one hundred million, 235 orbits; and so on down to one part in ten thousand trillion, when the comet was predicted to disappear after 17 orbits. There was absolutely no tendency for the predictions to approach a single solution with increasing accuracy—increases in the accuracy of the initial measurements had no predictable effect.

Without absolute, infinite knowledge of the comet’s velocity and infinite precision in calculation, its orbit is simply unpredictable. Unexpectedly, this is not an effect of chance. At all points, the orbit is under the direct control of gravitation, and the noted unpredictability arises as a direct result of the instability of the three-body interaction. Instability and nonlinearity are thus defining characteristics of chaos.

In the real world, the most obvious manifestation of chaos is in forecasting future weather. Modern-day weather forecasts are derived from computer simulations, and it is now standard practice to run not one but hundreds of such simulations. In most of these, the results are broadly similar up to five days in advance, but beyond five days this similarity rapidly disappears, and a wide range of different results appear, hence the pointlessness of offering a weather forecast more than five days in advance.

If you’ve been unable to follow this explanation of chaos theory, then the ‘classic’ explanation—that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazonian jungle could cause a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean—is unlikely to be any more helpful. It’s true, of course, but unless it’s explained to you, the point of this analogy—that tiny changes in initial conditions can have massive long-term effects—will be lost, especially when you bear in mind that the opposite scenario, that of a butterfly failing to flap its wings because it has just been eaten by a passing iguana, can have equally devastating consequences.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

roman holiday

You get but one chance to do something for the first time. This may sound like a statement of the blindingly obvious, but the point I’m trying to make is that if something is exciting to do, that excitement is not as intense the second time around, because you now know what to expect. My friend Barry is a professional driver, yet until Saturday he’d never driven over any of the Lake District’s most notorious passes. He has now.

Our journey began in Penrith, on the eastern fringe of the Lake District, but the excitement started only when we reached the village of Grasmere, one-time home of William Wordsworth and a tourist magnet for that reason. The road from here to Great Langdale ascends the notorious Red Bank, and we were given some advance warning of the difficulties ahead by a road sign at the turn-off from Grasmere’s main street: ‘DO NOT USE SATNAV’, alongside an icon of a crossed-out wagon. Apparently, a few years ago, a large wagon became stuck on the steepest part of the hill for five days, unable to move either forwards or backwards. Some people have far too much faith in modern technology.

This photo is a general view of Langdale (the modifier ‘Great’ is only ever used to distinguish it from the adjacent valley of Little Langdale). The so-called Langdale Pikes (Pike O’ Stickle on the left, Harrison Stickle on the right) are probably the most recognizable mountain profiles in the entire district.

When we reached the head of the valley, there was only one way to go: over the hill into Little Langdale. This single-track road has a few twists and turns, and one or two steep bits, but I knew that the real test of driving ability still lay ahead. Barry didn’t.

Unfortunately, we reached Little Langdale just in time to see a line of cars heading for Wrynose Pass. It’s time to introduce the first rule for tackling this kind of road: if there’s traffic ahead, pull over for a few minutes to allow it to get further ahead. Most people driving on these roads are visitors who have never been on such roads before, and it’s my guess that many are terrified when they discover how difficult the driving conditions are. If there is a car immediately in front of you, it is important to anticipate that its driver may stop suddenly, particularly on one of the many steep hairpin bends, because they lack the ability to steer around the bend and maintain forward momentum at the same time. By hanging back, you gain the ability to attack the hills without fear of being impeded.

On the Little Langdale side of Wrynose Pass, a road sign warns of gradients up to 30% ahead, but this refers to the conditions on Hardknott Pass. The maximum gradient on Wrynose is probably about 22%.

This photo shows the descent from Wrynose Pass into Wrynose Bottom, which displays the classic U-shaped cross-section typical of glacial erosion. The road up and over Hardknott Pass can be seen straight ahead in the distance. Between the two passes lies Cockley Beck Farm, the most remote dwelling in the Lake District (the only other means of access is a single-track road that comes up the valley from the south and is itself not easy to find unless you know what you’re looking for).

The Eskdale side of Hardknott Pass. The white car is negotiating one of the nastiest hairpins.

On the descent from the summit of Hardknott, the road passes close to the remains of Mediobogdum, a Roman fort built between AD 120 and 138. There are no signposts on the road itself, so most people drive past without realizing that there is anything of historical interest in the area. However, there is room for about eight cars to park, and a detour to view the fort’s remains is well worth the effort:

There is a gate in the centre of each side of the fort. This is the remains of the eastern gate.

The remains of the fort's granary, looking west. The walls in the middle distance are the fort's perimeter walls.

Looking down Eskdale from the fort. This tranquil valley would not have been so picturesque in Roman times.

I cannot visit this site without contemplating what the Roman legionaries might have thought about being stationed in such a wild location, especially as, in line with standard Roman military practice, the garrison came from another part of the empire, Dalmatia in this case. The fort was abandoned towards the end of the fourth century, although the Roman road over Hardknott continued in use as a packhorse trail until the nineteenth century. The present road over the pass was constructed after the Second World War following use by the Ministry of Defence for tank training during the war.

You have been warned! This is where it all starts on the Eskdale side. Note the walls, which have been built without mortar. Such dry-stone walls are a longstanding Lake District tradition.

In the early 1970s, I was hitch-hiking north along the M6 towards Penrith when I was offered a lift with someone going to Whitehaven, on the Cumbrian coast west of Penrith. I asked him how he planned to get there, and he showed me his copy of the AA (Automobile Association) members’ handbook, which in those days was a limited atlas of Britain’s road network, with no details other than the thickness of lines as a guide to the importance of the road. There, he said, pointing to the line indicating Wrynose and Hardknott.

As any hitch-hiker knows, getting a lift is always uncertain, so when you have a chance to get all the way home with the current lift, well, I couldn’t resist. You do realize that some of that road is steeper than 1 in 3, and the bends are extremely tight, and the steepest parts are the bends, I asked. I can recommend a faster way: simply turn left at Penrith and keep going. I like to think that I did him a favour. When I worked in Eskdale around that time, I always took the long way round. Despite being more than 20 miles longer, it was considerably faster than the direct route over the passes. It’s the way we came home too.