Friday, 26 February 2016


‘The letter was dispatched by that day's post. In the remote position

of Porthgenna, and in the unfinished state of the railroad at that

time, two days would elapse before an answer from London could be

reasonably hoped for.

That is from ‘The Dead Secret’, a novel by Wilkie Collins published 150 years ago. The fictional village of Porthgenna is supposed to be near Truro in Cornwall. I wonder how long the exchange might take now, with high speed trains and Royal Mail?

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Panem et Circenses

I have been unable to write anything for the blog recently as I have, yet again, broken some bones: three ribs. As anyone who has broken ribs will know, there’s not much one can do about mending them, and must just put up with rather a lot of pain until they mend themselves. So I felt justified in taking a holiday.

Today, however, I heard something on BBC World Service News that cries out for comment. Well, no; a simple relation of the facts will speak for itself:

In June, there will be a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the common market or not. And the BBC tells us, in all seriousness, that the deciding factor will be the result of a football match a few days before: if England wins, people will be feeling jolly and friendly towards other European nations, and will vote to stay in the common market. If England loses, they will vote to leave. Thus do the British decide what some might consider important matters of state.


Saturday, 13 February 2016


With growing impatience I have been translating into English an article by a well-known Greek literary critic whom I shall not name for fear of being drummed out of such Greek literary circles as I’ve managed to get into. (Oops! ‘Into which I have managed to get.’) It seems to me that most Greek lit. crit. is full of bullshit. I wrote to the person I think is the best English translator of Greek literature and was relieved to find he agrees.

So I tried to work out what it is I so much object to; ‘Full of bullshit’ will hardly do as a considered literary opinion. (Well, I don’t know though…) I think it’s that personally I try in everything I write to use the simple short everyday word rather than the complicated long learned one, whereas far too many Greek writers, at least of criticism, seem to operate on the opposite principle. This results in a teetering pile of dictionaries cluttering my desk, and the feeling — justified, I do believe — ‘This guy is just a smart-arse trying, and failing, to impress me with his cleverness.’

Anyway, here’s a picture of a Greek writer who is by no means a smart-arse:

Friday, 12 February 2016

Electromagnetic Waves

I haven’t posted anything lately because nothing much has been happening that wasn’t happening before. In America they continue to argue over which of several rabble-rousing nonentities should be the puppet of big business for the next four years, and in the rest of the world there are various wars, squabbles, and humanitarian disasters, nearly all caused, ultimately, by America’s gross materialist greed.

But this morning something was announced that is indeed new and important: what was pretty unequivocally a gravitational wave has actually been detected. And yes, the detection took place in America, though it has been corroborated at the gravitational wave detector in Scotland.

Gravitational waves belong to the electromagnetic wave family, among whose more familiar members are light, radio waves, and x-rays. They might be described — not very helpfully — as ‘Ripples in the space-time continuum’. Their existence is entailed by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity — the one, unlike the Special Theory, that no-one could understand — but this is the first time one has been detected. It’s as difficult to say what a gravitational wave actually is as it would be to explain vision to the congenitally blind, and of course I can’t feed your appetite for pictures with one of a gravitational wave, so here instead is one of Einstein:

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Great Western Railway

The GWR was of course one of Brunel’s largest and most ambitious works, though perhaps not as spectacular as the Clifton Bridge or the ‘Great Eastern’. (By ‘Brunel’ I mean of course Isambard Kingdom, and neither his father Sir Isambard nor his son Isambard. I’m not sure, but I think ‘our’ Brunel was the only one with the middle name ‘Kingdom’.) To survey the line’s route he would set out early in the morning — on horseback, of necessity — for long rides into the country, accompanied by a friend similarly mounted. This friend happened to live on the opposite side of the road to Brunel, who used to sit up all night making engineering calculations, and then, very early (like 3 a.m.) would pull a string he had rigged up so as to ring a bell in his friend’s bedroom. Like most people who get up early he had no sympathy for people who slept ‘late’, and Brunel thought it great fun (it’s hard to avoid the epithet ‘great’ for almost everything about Brunel, including his capacity to chain-smoke great fat cigars) to ring the bell far too early.

Anyway, as with so many of his projects, Brunel had great difficulty getting parliament to pass the various bills necessary. One of the objections raised by the House of Lords to the proposed GWR route was that it would pass close to Eton College, a fact that many lords thought threatened the very fabric of English society: they said that wicked riff-raff would take convenient trains down from London and corrupt the purity of the Eton boys, who, in turn, would pop up to the fleshpots of the city. They wanted the route to go instead via Basingstoke, whose inhabitants were presumably less corruptible, or perhaps already too corrupt to matter.

More stuff, anecdotal or germane, about the Great Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in due course. Meanwhile here’s a picture; it’s one end (there are two (duh)) of the GWR’s Box Tunnel, which many said would collapse, (some early passengers would get out for this section of the journey and take the stagecoach over the hill), but is still in use over a century later:

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Double Standards

Just a question today: why is is all right, indeed a matter for congratulation, when America, the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons, launches a rocket into space, but an international scandal and provocation when North Korea, on a much smaller scale, does the same?

Friday, 5 February 2016

Brunel — A Heroic Failure?

When one looks more closely at the career of Isambard Kingdom Brunel — the really famous one of the three Brunels — it is disturbing to find that some of his greatest achievements weren’t after all achieved. I’ve already written about the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which he had to abandon and which was only completed by others after his death.

Then there’s the Great Eastern; the vast (for its time) steam ship equipped with both side paddles and stern screws; there were also masts of the more than vestigial size common on later ships; these were masts that could, I think, have sails hoisted up them. Andreas Embeirikos wrote a pornographic novel almost as vast as the ship itself — certainly longer than Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ — about the ship’s maiden voyage. Trouble was, it was a maiden voyage that never really happened; I may write about that another time.

Well what about the Clifton Suspension Bridge then? Surely that was a great achievement? Yes indeed. Still in daily use, slung high above the Avon gorge, it is a magnificent sight. Once as I sat gazing at it from a high point on the Clifton side I noticed what looked like a garden shed built near the top of one of the suspension chains. At lunchtime a chap — I suppose he’d been painting the chain, or checking its link pins — emerged from this and strolled nonchalantly — I seem to remember he had his hands in his pockets; a surely unnecessary piece of bravado — down the chain to where, at the middle of the span, it is almost at road level, and where he stepped off (on the road side of course; don’t be silly) and went to get his lunch.

But even this wasn’t finished until after Brunel’s death. Not his fault: he’d submitted his design for the competition, but the judge was Telford, and one suspects professional jealousy: Brunel’s design had a wider suspended span than Telford’s own Menai Bridge, and Telford claimed to believe that his bridge had the largest physically possible suspended span. He said that any design for the Avon gorge would need a dauntingly high central supporting pier, the cost of which would on its own exceed the sum earmarked for the whole bridge. So he rejected Brunel’s design, and for the same or other reasons rejected all the others too. The committee then decided that the only thing they could do was ask Telford to submit his own design, which he readily did. But the committee didn’t like it, so the whole project was shelved.

When it was revived some time later, Brunel re-submitted — Telford this time neither submitted nor judged — and his design was accepted. But he didn’t live to complete it himself. Still, there it is, and to Brunel’s design. Of course Brunel was heroic, and of course he wasn’t a failure — I only said that to get your attention. Here’s the Clifton Suspension Bridge in all its glory:


Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Brunels 1,2,&3.

I have been reading among other things a biography of the Great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It is written by his son, also called Isambard. The author’s grandfather was also called Isambard, and was also a very fine engineer. Is that quite clear? No, not really, and it doesn’t help that the author seems blithely unaware that readers might be confused and almost never makes clear which one he is talking about.

Fairly early in the book there is a fascinating description of the building of the Rotherhithe to Wapping Tunnel, which was a work of Brunel 1’s, although our hero, Brunel 2, was just coming of age at the time and played a large part in the work. Unfortunately, following a serious breakthrough of the Thames, work was abandoned, and it wasn’t completed until much later.

There is of course much more in the book, but for today I’ll confine myself to this tunnel. Now if you take the District line of the London Underground out east to Whitechapel, and then change to the little north-south branch down to New Cross — I often did this as a preliminary move in hitchhiking from London to Dover — it of course passes under the Thames. Looking out of the window every time I made the journey, I came to the conclusion that it uses Brunel 1’s tunnel, which was originally intended as a road tunnel, with pavements at either side for foot passengers, who descended or ascended to and from the tunnel by the vertical shafts at each end. These shafts were made by the ingenious method of building them, bit by bit, above ground, then undermining them and allowing them to sink.

Some years ago London Transport in its wisdom decided that the walls of the tunnel needed strengthening: they proposed to spray Brunel’s magnificent blind-arched walls with a thick coating of cement rendering. I’m glad to say a fuss was made and they were stopped. It is in any case unlikely that any of Brunel 1 or 2’s works would need messing about with.

That’s all; perhaps more on Brunel (2 mostly) another time.

Here is a picture of a bit of the shaft at the Rotherhithe end:

Monday, 1 February 2016

Just a Few Words

Trunnion. Fungible. Adit. Spondaic. Desmodromic. Sidereal. Gudgeon-pin. Locative. Submediant. Caisson. Garboard Strake.