“Let’s prod the beast, and see if it’ll move”

In last week’s Spectator there’s an article by Peter Lilley. It is subtitled thus:  “Today’s MPs are no longer scared of the whips. Instead, they are scared of their constituents. That’s a good thing.”

The piece heralds the role TheyWorkForYou has played in helping constituents hold their MP to account.


It’s ten years since we* started building TheyWorkForYou – a decade’s lag between cause and effect.

Back in 2003 our aim was to force MPs to remember who they worked for. As in, us. Not their party. Not the whips. Not the executive. But us, their constituents.

For Stef and I, the motivation came from having prodded the parliamentary beast while using the web to educate MPs on the importance of sane digital legislation.

As the TheyWorkForYou ‘About Us’ page  puts it:

For all its faults and foibles, our democracy is a profound gift from previous generations. Yet most people don’t know the name of their MP, nor their constituency, let alone what their MP does or says in their name.

We aim to help bridge this growing democratic disconnect, in the belief that there is little wrong with Parliament that a healthy mixture of transparency and public engagement won’t fix.

Hence this website.

It took a while, but job done, I reckon.  The beast moved.

Early sketch of TheyWorkForYou, then using working title of EasyParliament

Early sketch of TheyWorkForYou (working title was EasyParliament)

* “We” were a bunch of about a dozen volunteers. Most of the legwork was done by the likes of Francis, Phil & Matthew. The charity mySociety kindly took over the site in about 2005 and has since expanded the concept internationally.


Google Earth as a tool for planning dinghy cruises

I enjoy cruising my sailing dinghy around the rivers and coastline of Essex and Suffolk, and have recently discovered a feature in Google Earth which makes planning trips that little bit easier.

Google Earth now has a ‘historial images’ tool, which on my mac is in the form of a clockface-meets-arrow icon, and brings up a tool looking like this:

The 'historical imagery' tool on Google Earth

Moving the slider lets you change the date of satellite images.

Somewhat wonderfully for sailors on the River Blackwater, and seemingly also for most of Essex and Suffolk, a couple of the recent series of images seem to have been taken at spring tides, both high and low.

For shallow draught dinghy cruisers, happy to dice with a mudbank or two, this lets you now plan new routes thanks to the offer of accuracy with which a nautical chart can’t compete.

For example, to the south west of Bradwell Waterside, on the River Blackwater in Essex, there is a large mudflat, through which flows a narrow and winding channel known as St Lawrence Creek.

At anything other than high or low tide, this route is a bit iffy, since it’s hard to know when you’re in the channel when the whole mudflat covers with water, albeit not to a depth to let you sail safely.

This is a shame, as it’s a nice shortcut home to my base at Bradwell Waterside, where I keep my 14 foot Wanderer sailing dinghy.

Here’s the Navionics chart of the St Lawrence creek:

Navionics chart of St Lawrence Creek

(Check out the new, free Navionics chart web app – it’s great, as are the Navionics smartphone apps)

Now, here’s the same area at spring low tide from Google Earth, complete with a series of waypoints which I then use on my GPS to let me follow the channel whatever the state of the tide.

Following this route carefully means I don’t have to worry about my rudder hitting the bottom were I to stray onto barely-covered mudbanks at mid-tide.

St Lawrence Creek at low tide

To be fair, there’s no need to follow this route at or near high tide, shown below, as there’s enough water everywhere. But at mid tide, it’s a reassurance that you won’t hit the bottom.

St Lawrence Creek at high tide

I’ve tested the route a couple of times mid-tide, and am happy to share waypoints if anyone’s interested (YMMV, mud shifts etc).

Ansel Adams on digital photography, from 1983

Ansel Adams exhibition banner

An exhibition of Ansel Adams photographs is on at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until April 28.

We duly took our eldest, who likes to take the odd photo.

Sadly, the exhibition was heaving. There was neither space nor time to dwell.

So we escaped into the side room showing a 1983 BBC television interview with Adams.

I struggle to think of another artist able to explain their creative process with such easy grace. Grayson Perry, maybe?

Whatever, we were entranced, notably by this clip, in which Adams gets excited about the new creative opportunities about to be opened up by what he terms ‘electronic’ photography.

This was from 1983, remember. Adams was 81 years old.

He had spent his working life slaving in darkrooms and under the hood of quarter plate cameras, perfecting his craft. Yet his mastery of an analogue craft counts for little compared with his excitement about the new frontiers of his artform soon to be opened up by digital technology.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

In praise of Malcolm Barnsley

A decade ago I read an article about two men setting out to break the outright world speed sailing record – then just over 45 knots.

They were proposing to build a radical new kind of sailing boat.

There were pictures; a remote controlled scale model, clearly sailing at high speed.


Wow. My inner engineer stirred. The forces on such craft were, at least in theory, as balanced and as aligned as possible. Balanced. Aligned. Zen sailing. Fast.

The piece also included a photo of the two men behind the bid, taken at the 2003 Southampton Boat Show


Last weekend, the man on the right, Aussie Paul Larsen, finally helmed Vestas Sailrocket2 to a new world record of over 65 knots.


For decades the 500m record had been inching up in tiny increments, fraction of knot by fraction of knot. Assorted kiteboarders were the most recent holders. Sailrocket2 obliterated the record by over 10 knots. Paul, an Australian, put it thus: “We’ve smashed the arse off it!

Indeed, Sailrocket2’s peak speed was 68 knots. That’s 78mph. Over 125 km/h. Wow.

You should read Paul’s blog, watch the video and thank Vestas Wind Systems and the team’s other sponsors. The whole project fills me with joy.

But I want to return to the other man in that 2003 photo. He’s on the left in the photo below, wearing a wooly hat. He and Paul are walking back up a Namibian beach. They’re carrying the all-important GPS data logger so the new record can be verified by the World Sailing Speed Record Council.


His name is Malcolm Barnsley. He’s a British engineer. He designed Sailrocket2, and she’s very much his baby. Malcolm has spent most of his adult life trying to break the speed sailing record, and for over a decade has doggedly been tweaking and fettling this particular design.

It’s not always been plain sailing. The first version of Sailrocket proved somewhat unstable.

Paul found himself underwater, unconscious, after that one. Many designers would have given up. (Many helms, too!)

You can tell from the photos and videos that Malcolm doesn’t much fancy the limelight. He’d rather be designing foils, or modelling cavitation, the sworn enemy of all speed sailors. He’s very keen on proper attribution, notably for Bernard Smith, whose musings Malcolm has made real.


But the brutal fact of the matter is that ideas are cheap. Malcolm spent a decade making a potentially great idea work.

This wonderful bit of video, shot straight after the record breaking run, is purest engineering valediction:

“All those bloody sums… and all that stuff… it does actually mean something in the end. But you’ve got to do a lot of work to make it mean something. And we’ve done all the work.”

Malcolm Barnsley, I salute you.

Three reasons why Anno NTK is a bad thing.

In an elegant ruse to excuse themselves from writing any further instalments,  Danny, Dave and Lee have just launched Anno NTK.

Each Friday afternoon, this will deliver a 15 year timeshifted copy of the ‘Nasty. British. Short’  geek newsletter, NTK, which originally ran from 1997 through to 2007ish.

Anno NTK is a Bad Thing, for three reasons.

Firstly, it’s all much too fey and fashionable.  NTK would have ruthlessly taken the piss.

Secondly, their ruse is sufficiently elegant for people to refrain from giving the NTKers a hard time for giving up in the first place.  I remain pitiless in my scorn. Quitters.

Thirdly, its arrival has required me to delve into the dark corners of my emailarchive to fix various urls on assorted esoteric webservers. Tracks once carefully covered then should remain thus, while joy shared then should once again be celebrated.

(Respect to Demon for keeping that last webserver running for 17+ years. Please don’t send me the invoice.)

Recent Reading: Tour de Farce

Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar

 I’m a huge fan of the Tour de France. But after reading this book, my enjoyment has been mugged by the drug-invested reality of professional road cycling.

David Millar is currently trying to overturn a lifetime Olympic ban. A time trialling phenomenon when he burst onto the scene at the turn of the millenium (he wore the yellow jersey), this is a vivid, pitiless look at how he came to take EPO. Aka, he cheated. Cue shame, a 2 year ban, a French courtroom, am eviction, bankruptcy, redemption, valediction.

It’s excellent on the culture of pro cycling. Which stinks. And it leaves you in little doubt that the chances winning a major Tour ‘clean’ are… well, they’re not as high as one would wish.

In other news, Lance Armstrong was “cleared” by US officials this week, while Alberto Contador saw his 2010 Tour de France victory struck off. The rider who came second in the 2010 Tour says he’s sure Contador didn’t mean to take the performance enhancing drug clenbuterol. Enough said.

This book blows apart the peleton’s ruthless omerta. For that, David Millar deserves our respect.

Bad Blood: The Secret Life of the Tour de France, by Jeremy Whittle

Safe to say this was a classic ‘follow on’ purchase. David Millar’s autobiography opened my eyes to just how prevalent and normalised doping had become in pro cycling. I had to read more; learn about its history, and the science.

Whittle is an experienced journalist, and has covered the scene for years. He is very close to Millar and ‘helped’ him write his autobiography. Millar betrayed his trust, and Whittle’s “Good guys don’t dope” rose-tinted spectacles are forcibly removed.

It’s not a pretty book, this. The litany of cheating. The complacency of the governing bodies. The cynicism of the teams. And the inevitable corrosion of innocence for anyone new to the ‘sport’, be they cyclists or journalists.

I’d like to think Jeremy Whittle’s love of cycling shines through despite all, but he’s too honest a writer for such a cute conclusion. The love has gone. He admits to fearing he’s been complicit; this book a valedictory despatch.

How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France, by Ned Boulting

Ned Boulting is a TV sports reporter, best known for his coverage of the Tour de France for ITV4. And this book tells you exactly what it’s like to cover the Tour de France for ITV4. More’s the pity.

While sometimes painful reading, the previous two books are both liable to be finished in the early hours. The story they tell is too gripping, too appalling to allow sleep to intrude.

This book isn’t like that. It’s dire. Ned and the crew traipse around France, eating well, sharing in-jokes and snatching meaningless interviews in hotel lobbies. It fails to make the making of TV interesting. Mainly, one suspects, because it just isn’t.

Meanwhile, all around him, athletes were corrupting their bodies and souls. Of this, Ned makes little mention.

Reading, and re-reading

War Diaries of Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke.  

Cover of Lord Alanbrooke's War DiariesAn astonishing, ruthlessly honest diary of the most senior British soldier of WW2, and the man who repeatedly – daily, even – dissuaded Churchill from his madder ideas & impulses. It’s a proper diary, this; an unfair, uncompromising, unvarnished receptacle for late night venting. It’s also particularly fine on the loneliness of command.

Brooke was a brave man, not least in standing up to Churchill, with whom he clearly had an intense, fraught, symbiotic relationship. At the very least it’ll change your perspective on Churchill, in my case both for better and for worse.

Fate Is The Hunter, by Ernest K. Gann

I strongly suspect it was Max Gadney who, many years ago, put me onto this memoir of flying commercial and transport aircraft in 1930s and 40s. Whoever did, I thank, for this is an extraordinary, atmospheric love affair with flight, told in a unique style combining American bravado with French spiritualism. Think Antoine Saint-Exupery meets Chuck Yeager. The author knows he is lucky to be alive,  and his relish for living lingers on as a healthy tang long after you close the book.

The day after I started re-reading it, I noticed a 2011 reprint in a bookshop in Ledbury, of all places.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Girl, by Wendy Jones

A Christmas present from my gorgeous designer wife following our visit to Perry’s ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman‘ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s a frank, tender, often hilarious account of Perry’s chaotic upbringing, featuring deeply dysfunctional parents, his emerging transvestism and, as so often, the inspired intervention of a teacher. All set in deepest, darkest 1970s Essex.

Even if you don’t like his pots, or art, read this to understand why some straight men wear dresses.

The Forgotten Soldier, by Guy Sajer

Max Gadney would definitely recommend this one, not least as the definitive ‘there but for the grace of / isn’t this duvet warm and cosy’ war memoir.

The offspring of a French father and German mother, the 17 year old Sajer joins the Wehrmacht barely speaking a word of German, and  duly spends three horrific years as a private fighting on the Eastern front.

A chilly, chilling reminder that ordinary soldiers fight, kill and die not for the honour of their regiment, their army, or even their country, but for the love of their mates.