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.

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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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Kenneth Grange at The Design Museum

Kenneth Grange show at The Design Museum

Last month Jo and I left the kids asleep in bed and dashed off to be first in line for the last day of the Kenneth Grange exhibition at The Design Museum in London.

It was rather like seeing your youth laid our before you. The hairdryer with which my mother dried our hair. The food mixer with which I’d blast imaginary enemies. The camera I drooled over in the Argos catalogue. The parking meter outside the Science Museum in Birmingham. The electric toothbrushes we were never permitted.

And the train. That train.

Kenneth Grange pretty much defined 1970s Britain by designing *a train*.

This decade’s equivalent? I’ll wager  it’s something digital.

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Sailing a Corsair F24 from Essex to Suffolk and back

Have been busy with interesting new work stuff, but the past few days have been mainly spent enjoying sailing my trimaran, Trilogy, a Corsair F24 Mark 1 (1994).

Last Friday I sailed her with my friends Kass & Rupert from Althorne on the River Crouch (Essex) to Melton near the head of the River Deben in deepest Suffolk, a distance across the water of about 50Nm. Was a fine sail, with a very helpful NW wind ranging from F2 to F4. We left 11am and moored up off Melton at 6.30pm, 90 mins before High Water. The last couple of miles past Woodbridge under outboard as the river is very shallow and bendy. We moored up in about 2 foot of water having arrived about as early as the tide would allow.  The video below was taken off Clacton Pier, roughly halfway through the trip.

On Monday evening I returned to Suffolk alone by train, and motored downriver through a rainy dusk to Waldringfield where I moored for the night.  I made an early start the next morning, to catch the best of the tide and wind. Setting off just after 5am, I had a sail to remember, averaging just under 10knots for 4 hours between Felixstowe Ferry and the entrance to the River Crouch. The dawn was idyllic, the sun shone, and the wind was a steady F4, again helpfully offshore from the NW. It was a perfect fetch for a trimaran, and Trilogy hit 14knots at times, am which point she verily hummed with joy. As did I. I was back moored up at Althorne by 11am. She’s one amazing boat, is Trilogy.  Track logs below.

Althorne to Melton, 27th May 2011

Waldringfield to Althorne, 31st May 2011