FRANCESCO BARACCA, ACE OF ACES

Sori, 3 June 2019

My wife and I were recently walking to the library of the Italian Alpine Club, with the idea of looking at some guide books on a walk in the Dolomites which we will be doing in a few weeks (and on which I hope to write a post or two). The walk took us through a part of Milan with which I’m not familiar, and so it was that I found myself walking for the first time through a little square. In the middle of it was this very intriguing statue.

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As readers can see, it consists of a man emerging from a stone plinth, naked but for some sort of cap with ear flaps on his head, holding a lit torch in one hand, and wearing a heroic expression. The name carved into the base of the plinth was Francesco Baracca. I asked my wife who it was. She wasn’t sure – a First World War general, she hazarded? But I wasn’t convinced. The cap looked too much like those leather caps worn by the early aviators. I mean, who doesn’t remember Snoopy on his way to fight the Red Baron?

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In my memory, there were also pictures of Biggles from the boys’ books of my youth.

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No-one who is not British and not my age or older will know who this Biggles is. He was a fictional World War I fighter pilot about whom a series of exciting books were written. He was a very heroic figure and a Jolly Good Chap.

A bit more seriously, here is a photo of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to manage a solo crossing of the Atlantic non-stop, which he did in 1927.

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Well, it turned out I was right. Francesco Baracca had indeed been an aviator. And not just any old aviator! He was Italy’s Ace of Aces during the First World War, racking up 34 recognized victories, the highest score for any Italian fighter pilot. Here we have him sitting in his plane with his flying cap on (and, contrary to his statue, with his clothes on; very sensible, it’s cold up there), ready to go and let the enemy have it.

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While here we have him posing in front of one of the enemy planes he had downed.

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Of course the government squeezed all the propaganda benefits they could out of his exploits. Anything heroic that could take the public’s mind off the bloody and ineffectual meat grinder of trench warfare was to be welcomed. And anyway, there was something terribly dashing about these aerial duels; it was the modern equivalent of Medieval knights jousting. As a result, he was lionized by the Italian public, who followed his every victory with enthusiasm.

It wasn’t just Italians who were enthused by the new forms of warfare in the air. On all sides of the war, the exploits of these new heroes of the air were followed avidly. But perhaps the Italians had a particular penchant for the exploits of aerial warfare. After all, it was in Italy that the Futurismo art movement was born, which had a total commitment to modern technology. To make the point, here are some key excerpts from two of the Futurist Manifestos that were published in 1910.

This is from the Futurist Painters Manifesto:

We want to fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish worship of the past … We rebel against that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time … Comrades! We declare to you that the triumphant progress of science has brought about such profound changes in humanity as to excavate an abyss between those docile slaves of past tradition and us, free, and confident in the radiant splendour of the future. … In the eyes of other countries, Italy is still a land of the dead, a vast Pompeii, whitened with sepulchres. But Italy is being reborn … In this land of illiterates, schools are multiplying; in this land of “dolce far niente” innumerable workshops now roar; in this land of traditional aesthetics are today taking flight inspirations dazzling in their novelty. Only art which draws its elements from the world around it is alive. Just as our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls, so must we inspire ourselves from the tangible miracles of contemporary life: the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, those marvelous flights which furrow our skies, the profound courage of our submarine navigators and the spasmodic struggle to conquer the unknown. 

 

And this is from the Futurism Manifesto penned by the poet Marinetti, the “Father of Futurism”, who laid out a decalogue of futurist thought.

1. We want to sing of a love of danger, and the practice of energy and rashness.

3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt aggressive movement, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the punch.

4. We affirm that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car, which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

9. We want to glorify war – the only cleanser of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of liberals, beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.

10. We want to destroy the museums and libraries, the academies of every type, and combat moralism, feminism, and against every opportunistic and utilitarian vileness.

11. We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; we will sing of the multi-colored and polyphonic tide of revolutions in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nocturnal fervour of the arsenals and construction sites, enflamed by violent electric moons; the ravenous railway stations, devourers of smoking serpents; the workshops suspended from the clouds by the twisted threads of their smoke; the bridges which, like giant gymnasts, leap across rivers, flashing in the sun with the glitter of knives; the adventurous steamers sniffing at the horizon, and the great-breasted locomotives, pawing at the rails like enormous steel horses harnessed with pipes, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propellers flutter in the wind like a flag and seem to applaud like an enthusiastic crowd.

 

Pretty incendiary stuff …

Right from the start, Futurist paintings reflected this adoration of speed and power, although initially the focus was on terrestrial technology. For instance, from 1912-1913, we have Luigi Russolo’s Dynamism of an Automobile.

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From 1922, we have Ivo Pannaggi’s Moving Train.

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(which rather reminds me of the opening credits of the Poirot TV series)

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From 1923, we have Ugo Giannattasio’s Motorcyclists

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It was only in the 1930s that Futurist painter’s started painting airplanes. For instance, from 1930 we have Tato’s Flying Over the Colosseum in Spirals.

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Perhaps it took a while for the painters to get into a cockpit and experience the sensation of flying.

Coming back to Baracca, he was eventually shot down, in June 1918. For propaganda purposes, the Italian government put it out that he had been hit by ground fire (to perpetuate the myth that no other aviator could shoot him down), although the Austrians claimed with good evidence that he was taken out by one of their planes. However it happened, his body was recovered and he was given a hero’s funeral. He was finally laid to rest in his home town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna. Several decades later, the Fascists erected a large statue of him in the main square (this time with his clothes on)

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while his co-citizens opened a museum about him – might as well make some money off the town’s most famous son …

This story has a fascinating coda, which was really why I wrote this post. To explain it properly, I have to go back a bit and give readers a thumbnail biography of Baracca. He was, as I said, a citizen of Lugo, a small town located close to Ravenna. His parents were well-off and to some degree aristocratic – his mother was a countess. After his schooling, he chose to join the army. After studying at a military academy, in 1909 he was assigned a regiment. Given his social status, this was a cavalry regiment, the 2nd “Royal Piedmont”, a regiment created in 1692 by Duke Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy. Because of its importance to my story, I insert here the regiment’s traditional banner: a silver prancing horse on a red field.

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In 1912, after watching an aerial exhibition in Rome, Baracca became wildly enthusiastic about the future of military aviation. He asked to join the newly-created aviation arm of the army, a request that was granted. He went for training in France and by the time Italy joined the War in 1915, he was trained and ready to go.

As his number of victories climbed, the High Command fawned over him. In 1917, he was given his own squadron, the 91st, and allowed to choose his own pilots. He took all the other Italian aces, so the squadron became known as “the squadron of the aces”. On the right side of his plane’s fuselage, he placed the squadron’s insignia, a rampant griffin. On the left side, he placed his personal insignia. For this, in recognition of his earlier affiliation with the 2nd cavalry regiment, he chose its prancing horse. He changed the colour scheme, though, making the horse black on a silver background. Here we see him standing in front of his plane on which we see plainly his personal insignia.

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The insignia was an instant hit with the public, especially when the pilots of his squadron all adopted it in his honour after his death.

Fast forward a few years after the war, 1923 to be exact. I now introduce another character to this story, that of Enzo Ferrari, the fabled creator of the Ferrari racing team and car manufacturer. In 1923, he was just a driver for Alfa Romeo, racing their cars on various circuits. Racing was very popular in Italy, and the successful drivers were stars, rather like Baracca had been – and they wore the same leather caps as aviators.

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In any event, in that year Ferrari won a race near Ravenna. On the race’s edges, he met Baracca’s father. This led to a second meeting, this time with Baracca’s mother. He must have told them how much he had admired their son. And maybe they saw the racing of cars as an honourable descendant of what their son had been doing with planes. Whatever the reason, Baracca’s mother uttered these fateful words: “Ferrari, put my son’s horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck.” And that is exactly what Ferrari did seven years later in 1930, when he created his own racing team. From then on, his cars sported Baracca’s prancing horse. The only changes he brought were to make the field behind the horse canary yellow, to honour his home town, Modena, whose coat of arms has the same yellow field, and to raise the horse’s tail.

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And that is why, dear readers, Ferrari cars to this day sport a shield with a black prancing horse on a yellow field.

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LEONARDO IN MILAN

Milan, 19 January 2019

I was accompanying my wife a few weeks ago to do the weekly shopping at the local supermarket, when I once again noticed this painting on the hoardings surrounding a building site.
It’s a painting of Leonardo – not this Leonardo, with his intrepid band members Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo
but the other Leonardo, the original Leonardo, Leonardo da Vinci.
I suspect that the artist was basing himself on this portrait of Leonardo or one similar; this particular portrait was found in the back of a cupboard in 2008 somewhere in the south of Italy.

The anonymous street artist is really quite good. I suspect that it is the same artist who used a blank wall at the nearby church of San Lorenzo as his/her canvas.
As I’ve said in an earlier post, it’s so nice to see these paintings on public walls rather than the usual meaningless scribbles with which so many are daubed.

But I digress.

I have walked past this particular painting of Leonardo many times, but this time I paused (and took a photo). The reason was simple: he was mentioned in a book I have recently finished about 50 Italians who made their mark on the world. The book included Leonardo, of course, and what the author wrote about him can best be summarized by saying that Leonardo had been beset by a tendency to never finish things. Or to put it more bluntly, he faffed around. Did this judgement hold for Leonardo’s stay in Milan, I wondered?

For those of my readers who are not necessarily up to speed on Leonardo’s cv, I should explain that although he was Tuscan by birth and started his artistic career in Florence, Leonardo went on to live and work in Milan for nearly 20 years. He arrived in 1481, when he was just shy of 30, “on loan” from Lorenzo de Medici, “The Magnificent”, to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The loan seems to have become permanent – for some reason, Leonardo doesn’t seem to have been interested in going back to Florence, and maybe the Florentines were quite glad to see the back of him. He only quit the city in 1499, when Ludovico was forced out by the French king Louis XII during the Second Italian War and Leonardo had to go find himself a new patron.

So what did Leonardo leave us from his time in Milan? Not much, really. The judgement that he had a tendency to faff around seems to hold quite well for his time here. If we look at his artistic output, for instance, we have two huge failures. The first is the equestrian statue in bronze with which Ludovico wanted to commemorate his father. Ludovico gave the commission to Leonardo some time in the late 1480s. As usual, Leonardo faffed around, making this drawing and that model and finally came up with the design for a colossal statue which would have stood more than 7 metres high and weighed nearly 70 tonnes. Ludovico was incensed by the sheer impracticality of the design and wrote to Lorenzo the Magnificent, asking if he didn’t have someone else under hand who could actually do the work. Luckily for Leonardo, the answer was no. But he got the hint and hastily redimensioned the design to a normal size. He still continued to faff around, though. It was only by the early 1490s that he managed to put together a terracotta version of the work, to use in casting the final bronze version. But then war broke out and Ludovico gave away all the bronze which had been accumulated for the statue to his father-in-law Ercole d’Este to make cannons with. And that was the end of that. The final indignity occurred when the French captured Milan in 1499. They used the terracotta version of the statue for target practice, shattering it to pieces. The pieces disappeared somewhere, never to be seen again.

There is an interesting coda to this story. In 1977, an American by the name of Charles Dent became obsessed with this failed project and decided to recreate at least the huge horse that Leonardo initially had had in mind, using some of Leonardo’s drawings. After two decades (and Dent’s death), the project finally came to fruition and a 7-metre high Leonardesque horse now stands in the San Siro Hippodrome here in Milan. Here’s a picture of it, with a real horse and rider in front of it, to give readers a sense of its enormity.
My wife and I haven’t seen it yet. It’s on my bucket list.

Leonardo’s other big artistic failure from his days in Milan is his fresco, The Last Supper, also commissioned of him by Ludovico Sforza. It took pride of place on a wall of the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the monks could contemplate it as they ate (and no doubt feel guilty that they were enjoying their food).
It’s got to be one the best known paintings on the planet. God knows why; what you see today is a mere ghost of a painting. In fact, it decayed so rapidly that it was already a ghost of a painting when Giorgio Vasari saw it less than 60 years after it was finished. He wrote that the fresco was so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. Over the centuries, it’s been restored several times, sometimes cackhandedly, the last time being over a 21-year period finishing in 1999. This last restoration was extremely professional and probably did as much as is humanly possible to preserve and enhance the painting. But the fact is, only some 20% of the original has remained intact. One-fifth … not much.

In this case, it wasn’t Leonardo’s congenital faffing around that was the problem, although it did take him three years to finish the work and he only did so after having been pestered by the monastery’s prior to get on with it. It was his ever-present desire to experiment. In fresco painting, you paint onto fresh, still-wet plaster, which dries quickly. This technique does not allow the artist to have ripensamenti, or second thoughts: change a colour here, a line there. It dries too quickly for that. You have one chance and that’s it. That approach to painting was totally inimical to Leonardo, who liked to rework and rework paintings – one of the reasons for his high levels of faffery. So he adopted another technique, where he first added to a layer of dried plaster a coating of white lead and then painted in oil and tempera on top of that. The result looked great initially, so great that it blew away the minds of the little world of artists and art cognoscenti. Here is an early copy of the painting that one of his assistants, Giampetrino, made some 25 years after the original.
But the fresco degraded very quickly. The paint failed to bind with the underlying plaster and started to flake off after just a few years on the wall. The traditional enemies of frescoes – humidity, creation of new doors and windows, and pillaging troops, in this case French Napoleonic troops – did the rest. It didn’t help that the refectory took a direct hit from a bomb during World War II.

I saw the Last Supper in 1975. I was totally unimpressed. I haven’t been back since. I suppose, though, that I should also add a second visit to my bucket list, to check out the restored version.

Leonardo did leave us another fresco in Milan, in the Sala delle Asse, one of the rooms of the Castello Sforzesco, which the Sforzas used as their ducal residence.

The subject is trees, painted in such a way that people in the room are meant to feel they are in a grove of trees.
The fresco was painted on the walls and ceiling of a room where the Duke would greet dignitaries who came to pay their respects. No doubt the purpose of the fresco was to astonish them; this was one of the first uses of trompe l’oeil in decoration. Leonardo doesn’t seemed to have faffed around (much) on this commission, but unfortunately he painted the fresco at the very end of his time in Milan. He’d just finished it when the French threw Ludovico Sforza out and took over Milan. They, and then the other foreign occupiers who came after them – Spaniards and Austrians – used the castle as a barracks. This particular room was turned into a stable and the fresco whitewashed. Presumably, the soldiers decided that horses had no need for trompe l’oeil. I rather suspect the fresco was also falling to pieces since Leonardo seems to have used the same technique – oil and tempera on dried plaster – that he used with the Last Supper. There it stayed until it was rediscovered at the end of the 1800s. It thereupon suffered the indignity of a bad restoration, followed by a better one in the 1950s. It is now in the middle of another restoration, which started in 2006. I shall put it on my bucket list: “to visit once the restoration is finished” – if I don’t die before (keeping in mind that the Last Supper took 21 years to restore).

What of Leonardo’s paintings? Was he able to produce during his Milan days? He certainly painted a number while he was there, although just how many is not always clear: dating his paintings is a pretty approximate affair, first because the records are sketchy, but also because of Leonardo’s constant dilly-dallying; he found it hard to let go of his paintings, he felt they could always be improved. Nevertheless, he seems to have worked on at least the following six paintings during his stay in Milan:

The Virgin of the Rocks, of which he painted two versions, one alone
and one in collaboration with Ambrogio de Predis and possibly others
The Madonna Litta (although in truth there is considerable argument about whether this really is a Leonardo)
Portrait of a Musician (although it is generally thought that Leonardo only painted the face)
Lady with an Ermine
La Belle Ferronière
Since paintings are highly mobile chattel – indeed, Leonardo himself seems to have carried a good number of his paintings around with him as he moved from place to place – and since a Leonardo painting pretty quickly became a highly desirable chattel, all but one of his paintings from his Milan days are now scattered throughout various collections around the world. The one exception is the Portrait of a Musician, which has ended up in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (is it possible that I’ve lived so many years in Milan and I’ve still not visited this museum? On the bucket list!)

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana also holds the Codex Atlanticus, one of six bound sets of Leonardo’s writings and drawings (maybe doodles would be a better description) – there’s another, the Codex Trivulzianus, held in the Castello Sforzesco somewhere. These seem to be typical pages from these codices.
During my lifetime at least, the codices have become a popular topic of discussion whenever the subject of Leonardo is brought up. They have been used to show what a universal genius he was, a man who was interested not only in art, but also engineering, mathematics, botany, metaphysics … in a word, a truly Renaissance Man! My take on them is that these codices instead just show how the man was unable to focus on any one thing, fluttering from one subject to another.

The codices have also been used to show that Leonardo prefigured pretty much every invention we humans have come up with in the last 200 years. In Milan’s “Leonardo da Vinci” National Museum of Science and Technology, there is a section which contains models of many of the weird and wonderful “machines” Leonardo dreamed up and committed to paper.
My take on this is that Leonardo was really a predecessor to William Heath Robinson and his mad machines.
Tinkerers, though, take a delight in Leonardo’s creations. My father-in-law, for instance, who was a very keen tinkerer (the apartment used to be full of his tinkerings), would drag my poor wife to the Leonardo da Vinci museum when she was young and show her the machines – “you see, dear, this clever machine here will bla, bla, bla ….”. She still goes pale when I bring up the possibility of visiting this museum. I guess it will never be on my bucket list.

It’s all very well to say that Leonardo prefigured all out modern machines. To me, the real test is whether or not he actually turned any of his mechanical musings into real machines during his lifetime, in Milan or elsewhere. And the answer to that is, he only did it once: a rather low level of success in turning daydreams into practicality, I would say. Nevertheless, every Milanese, including my wife, will at some point proudly inform you of that one success story, namely that Leonardo invented canal locks during his stay in Milan. This is not quite true. The Chinese were the first to invent locks, for use on their Grand Canal. The Europeans independently re-invented them some 200 years later. All these locks were opened and closed by sluice gates, which had to be pulled up and pushed down – the pulling up especially was very hard work. Since Roman times, the rulers of Milan had been tinkering with the local hydrography, slowly but surely extending the network of canals relaying the city to ever more distant rivers. Ludovico Sforza was no exception. He wanted a bigger navigable canal, which meant bigger locks, bigger – and heavier – sluice gates … a limit to what was physically possible was being reached. Leonardo came up with an ingenious solution: the mitred lock gate. This is the lock gate familiar to us all, which closes at a 45° angle. Closing at an angle means that the pressure of the water pushes the gates together, minimizing leakage, and having them move horizontally rather than vertically makes them much easier to open and close. Here is a picture of the gate from Leonardo’s papers.
And here is such a lock gate on one of the few canals remaining in Milan.
There was one area where Leonardo excelled with his daydreaming and tinkering, and which I suspect was the main reason Ludovico Sforza kept him around: the organization of spectacular festivals for the Duke’s eminent visitors, festivals where Leonardo could use all his mechanical aptitudes to create shows that would amaze and delight the Duke’s visitors. Many of them left detailed accounts of these wonderful, quasi magical, shows. By the end of his time in Milan, the organization of these festivals were Leonardo’s main source of income: he had turned into a magician, albeit a very good one.

Looking back over what I’ve written, I sense that I might have projected a somewhat jaundiced view of the Great Leonardo. His tendency to restlessly flit from one thing to another like a butterfly, without finishing anything on time, or sometimes without finishing them at all, irritated his contemporaries, especially his clients to whom he had promised deliveries by certain dates and who had paid up-front. If I had met Leonardo, I suspect he would have ended up irritating me too. In my 40 years in the workplace, I came across a number of such characters, golden-tongued men (they were all men for some reason) who made many promises but failed to deliver on them, leaving the rest of us having to scramble around to fill the gap. Right royal pains in the ass they were, the lot of them! “But he was brilliant!”, I can hear readers exclaim. Perhaps so, but I don’t think that’s an excuse for unreliability. And with that little sermon, I leave readers with that famous drawing of Leonardo in his old age – I hope his melancholic look shows that he is bitterly regretting a lifetime of faffing around.
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Ninja turtle Leonardo: https://turtlepedia.fandom.com/wiki/Leonardo_(Paramount)
Leonardo self-portrait: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leonardo_da_Vinci_LUCAN_self-portrait_PORTRAIT.jpg
Leonardo Horse, Milan: http://pixdaus.com/size-comparison-leonardo-s-horse-the-symbol-of-milan-italy-a/items/view/524205/
The Last Supper: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Supper_(Leonardo)
The Last Supper copy by Giampetrino: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giampietrino-Last-Supper-ca-1520.jpg
Castello Sforzesco: https://www.ilcastelletto.com/castello-sforzesco/
Sala delle Asse: http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Comunicati/visualizza_asset.html_1655657329.html
Virgin of the Rocks-Louvre: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks-National Gallery: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Madonna Litta: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Portrait of a Musician: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Lady with an Ermine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
La Belle Ferronière: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Codex Atlanticus-1: http://baulitoadelrte.blogspot.com/2017/12/
Codex Atlanticus-2: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Leonardo-da-Vinci-Codex-Atlanticus-1478-1519_fig4_321113179
Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Milan: http://www.leonardo3.net/en/the-museum/
Heath Robinson cartoon: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/heath-robinson-deserves-a-museum
Leonardo drawing of a lock gate: http://www.italiannotebook.com/places/leonardo-canal-gate/
Lock gate on a Milan canal: http://www.italiannotebook.com/places/leonardo-canal-gate/
Self-portrait of Leonardo as an old man: https://www.fineartone.com/shop/old-masters/self-portrait-6/

BIKERS AND CENTAURS

Milan, 26 May 2018

A week or so ago, my wife and I were at our place at the seaside near Genova; my next to last post was about one of the walks we did in the hills while we were there. One morning, being sore of leg from our walks and uncertain as to what walk to do next, we decided to go down into the village centre instead to have ourselves our morning cappuccino. Being in no hurry, we dawdled along looking in shop windows and at anything else that caught our attention. One such thing was the door of the local police station, which was festooned with various notices about Important Local Things. As I idly scanned the notices, one caught my attention in particular. It stated, in Italian of course, something to the effect that the part of the main road lying between km X and km Y was particularly risky for centaurs, and that the public authorities were devoting their attention to how to minimize the risks.

Centaurs??

Puzzled, I turned to my wife to ask for elucidations, and she informed me that this was a term used in Italian to describe motorcyclists. What a wonderful idea! What, I wondered, had led an Italian at some point in recent history to make this connection? I mean, early motorcyclists didn’t really much look like centaurs, although with a bit of poetic fancy once could sort of see a human torso on top of a beast on wheels.

For once, the internet was not of great help. One thread suggested that it had to do with the huge amounts of horsepower in the engines, allowing the rider to roar off much as a horseman could gallop off. Another thread claimed it had to do with fanatical motorcyclists hardly ever getting off their bikes and thus being seemingly welded to them much as centaurs were human torsos welded to a horse’s body.

Of course, either or both of these explanations could be correct. I can think of another, which has to do with the Bad Boy reputation of both motorcyclists and centaurs. For most Ancient Greeks, who invented centaurs, these creatures were the epitome of barbarism. They were wild, lusty, overly indulgent drinkers and carousers, violent when intoxicated, and generally uncultured delinquents, living on the edges of the civilized world and needing to be kept under control. Greek myths were replete with stories of heroic warriors taking on centaurs and beating the shit out of them. Greek sculpture and painting naturally followed suit. Here, from a pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, we have a representation of the story of the centaurs fighting with the Lapiths (a popular story in which centaurs are invited to a wedding, get drunk, and one of them tries to rape the bride, with – as may be expected – mayhem ensuing). The calm fellow in the middle is the god Apollo.

Here, we see the right hand part of the pediment showing more clearly the naughty centaur carrying off a woman and a noble Greek warrior about to make him pay for it.

Here, to equal things up a bit, we have the same story from a frieze at the temple of Apollo in Bassae, with the centaur seemingly the one winning.

Here, we have a more humble piece of Ancient Greek art, a painting on a vase, showing the same story.

Here again, to equal things up, is a painting on another vase where the centaur seems to be besting his opponent.

Just in case readers are thinking that the fight between centaurs and the Lapiths is the only Greek story about the centaurs, I throw in here a picture of a vase painting showing Hercules fighting with a centaur (the centaur was a certain Nessus, who carried away Hercules’s wife Deianeira, and Hercules killed him).

In any event, whatever the medium, I think we can all agree that the centaurs are made to look fairly rough types. The centaurs’ bad reputation and the need to beat the shit out of them pursued the poor beasts into the Roman period and on into Europe’s medieval period and beyond. This sculpture from the early 1800s by Antonio Canova greets us every time my wife and I climb up the grand staircase at Vienna’s Kunst Historisches Museum. It shows Theseus about to brain a centaur – for some reason, Theseus was at the Lapith wedding feast.

This sculpture, on the other hand, depicts Hercules about to brain Nessus.

It was sculpted in 1599 by the Flemish Jean Boulogne, known to the world as Giambologna. It graces the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.

Painting also got into the act. Here, we have a painting by Sebastiano Ricci from 1705 showing the brawl at the Lapith wedding.

Perhaps some classics-loving Italian saw similarities between these badly behaved centaurs and the badly behaving modern bikers – at least as they were often represented in popular culture. Think of the 1953 film “The Wild One”, in which Marlon Brando is the leader of a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town.

Or consider the 1966 film “The Wild Angels”, in which Peter Fonda is the nihilistic leader of a chapter of the Hell’s Angels causing mayhem in some small town.

Or more extremely, we have the 1973 film “Psychomania”, where a gang of bikers kill themselves, only to become alive again as zombies and go around wreaking havoc on the living.

Personally, and without a shred of evidence to back me up, I prefer to think that the Italian who gave bikers the new title of centaurs made quite another connection between the two: the fact that both are gentle, peaceful souls. On the centaur side, there was a view, an admittedly minority view, in Classical times that centaurs – at least some of them – were wise and noble creatures. The centaur Chiron was particularly famous in this regard. It was said that he was so wise that had taught great heroes like Achilles, Ajax, and Jason. This fresco from Hercolaneum, destroyed like Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, shows him teaching Achilles how to play the lyre.

This strand of thinking which saw centaurs as wise and gentle beasts was taken up with enthusiasm by C.S. Lewis in his children’s books about Narnia, and it was in my reading of these books as a child that I first got to know of centaurs. I still remember with fondness the wise and noble centaurs which peppered the Narnia books. Here, for instance, is Roonwit, who graces the pages of “The Last Battle”, talking strategy with Prince Tirian and the unicorn Jewel.

Given my age, I think it no shame to admit that I have never read any of the Harry Potter books (although I did accompany my daughter to a few of the films when she was young). I understand, though, that J.K. Rowling also included wise and gentle centaurs in her books (confirmed through WhatsApp by my daughter). This is the centaur Firenze with Harry in (I think) the Forbidden Forest.


As for bikers, there are those who argue forcefully for a gentle, peaceful, soulful side to motorcycling. Many is the motorcycling writer who has written lyrically about the joy of being out on the open road, with the wind in your hair and your thoughts your only company. My most recent read in this vein was Oliver Sack’s autobiography, “On The Move: A Life”, where he writes about the long motorcycle rides he took in the American West in his early days in California. Appropriately enough, the cover photo is the author on his beloved bike.

There is even a semi-serious book of philosophy, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which, according to Wikipedia, “is a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day journey the narrator made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California along with his son. … The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivism and the philosophy of science”.

(I must confess that although I have started the book a couple of times I have never finished it).

Films, too, have played their part in depicting the lyrical side of motorbiking. We have the 1969 film “Easy Rider”, in which Peter Fonda stars once again, but this time accompanied by Dennis Hopper. The two set out from Los Angeles to New Orleans on Harley Davidsons to discover America (and get killed by rednecks in the process).


Or there is the 2004 film “The Motorcycle Diaries”, about the bike journey which Che Guevara and a friend made in the 1950s across Latin America, and which opened his eyes to the poverty, hardship, and political oppression experienced by many on that continent.

As I said, I have not a shred of evidence that gentleness, nobility, peacefulness, wisdom, etc. etc. were the common threads that some Italian of yesteryear saw between bikers and mythical centaurs. But it pleases my contrarian spirit for it to be so, and so it shall be.

_________________

Early biker: https://rocket-garage.blogspot.com/2011/08/pionieri-del-xx-secolo.html
Centaur fighting Lapith – Bassae: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Bassai_sculptures,_marble_block_from_the_frieze_of_the_Temple_of_Apollo_Epikourios_at_Bassae_(Greece),_Lapiths_fight_Centaurs,_about_420-400_BC,_British_Museum_(14073581678).jpg
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia: http://dtcox.com/report-on-ancient-corinth-ancient-olympia-ancient-sparta-byzantine-mystra-monemvasia-greece-oct-30-2015/centaur-lapith-woman-west-pediment-temple-of-zeus-battle-be/
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia-2: https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth200/politics/images_authority_2_greek.html
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-1: https://www.myartprints.co.uk/a/red-figurevasedepictingth.html
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-2: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/O12.10.html
Hercules fighting Centaur: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/423268064950273744/
Canova-Theseus fighting the centaur: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Canova_-_Theseus_defeats_the_centaur_-_close.jpg
Giambologna-Hercules fighting Nessus: https://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com/2015/09/Giambologna-Sculpture.html
Sebastiano Ricci-Lapiths and Centaurs: By The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=158347
“The Wild One”: https://www.jpcycles.com/product/712-685/the-wild-one-fight-poster
“The Wild Angels”: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/112308584430632278/
“Psychomania”: http://theggtmc.blogspot.it/2011/09/psychomania-1972.html
Chiron and Achilles: By upload by muesse – http://www.focus.de, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8328492
Roonwit: http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/File:Tirian,_Jewel_and_Roonwit.jpg
Firenze: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/File:Firenze_harry_ps.jpg
Oliver Sacks, “On the Move; A Life”: https://medium.com/@PunkChameleon/book-review-on-the-move-a-life-by-oliver-sacks-93bb828fb85b
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780061907999/zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance
“Easy Rider”: http://flavorwire.com/472622/boomer-audit-despite-the-self-indulgence-and-the-cliches-easy-rider-retains-its-pulse
“The Motorcycle Diaries”: http://www.moviepostershop.com/the-motorcycle-diaries-movie-poster-2004

SCOOTING

Vienna, 4 June 2017

Many – many – years ago, when I was but a lad of six or seven, I was the proud owner of a scooter, one of those good old-fashioned scooters which you kick along with your foot. It looked very much like this, although my memory tells me it was blue rather than red.

Honesty impels me to clarify that it was not bought for me. Like many things in our large family where I was towards the tail end, it was a hand-me-down from one of my elder siblings. But I cared not! On this machine I was king of the pavements, sailing along at what seemed to be vertiginous speeds after a series of brisk kicks.

In my memory, the scooter’s use is entangled with a “girl next door”, a girl a few years older than me with whom I would whirl around the local pavements. Her name is gone, her face is a blur, but I think it’s true to say that I had a crush on her. I also had a crash with her, on my scooter. The details are now fuzzy, but I think we were playing a game of follow-me, wherein I was following her every twist and turn. All was going swimmingly well until she suddenly put on the brakes. I ran into her, somehow flipped over the handlebars and landed on my nose. Argh, the pain! the blood! The upshot, as I learned a few days later, when my mother finally took me to see a doctor, was that I had broken my nose.

As readers can imagine, this incident left me with somewhat conflicted feelings about scooters. I suppose I must have continued to use mine for a while, although it disappears from my memory at this point, along with the girl-next-door. Bicycles take over.

In fact, over the years that followed it seems to me that scooters generally lost their popularity with children. I don’t remember seeing many around when I was in my teen and early adult years, my children never emitted the desire to have a scooter, and none of their friends had one. And it certainly was never an adult thing.

So it was with some surprise that I registered, when we came back last September from our seven years in the East, an efflorescence of scooters on the pavements of Vienna. And being kicked along not only by children but also by adults: young adults like this one, who one could argue may not yet have completely grown up

but also by older adults like myself, who in an earlier period I would have said should stop making a fool of themselves in this way.

Now that we have come back up to Vienna for the summer and the weather is getting good, I am struck by the same phenomenon: scooters whizzing by carrying adults.

Clearly, something is up! Surfing the web, I get the impression that the trend towards adults getting on scooters has to do with beating traffic jams to get to work and doing some healthy exercise while you’re at it (although the growing use of electric scooters rather undermines this last part).

Before I’m accused of sexism, I quickly throw in a picture of a businesswoman with a scooter, although this picture is obviously posed.

It helps a lot that scooters are easily foldable

so that there are no parking problems and one can walk into one’s office (or cubicle, if that’s the company’s culture) casually carrying the scooter under one’s arm.

As usual, once something catches on the designers move in and start offering cool designs. From this, which seems to be the fairly standard design although in quite cool colours

we have this, an electric version

or this big-wheel design

(which rather reminds me of penny-farthing bicycles of yore).

Big wheels makes me think of fat wheels

while here we have a Y-shaped design, which is moved by a scissor-motion of the legs.

This is an interesting one, a luggage scooter.

In airports, you can drop down the platform and back wheel attached to the suitcase and whizz along to your gate. This last one is unutterably cool although I’m not quite sure how you are meant to ride it.

There are many more designs out there but I’ll leave it at that.

I think my wife and I need to get into this new trend, so that we too can zip by normal pedestrians, our hair fluttering in the wind. I casually asked her a few days ago if she had had a scooter as a child, to which she said no. This is going to make it tricky to persuade her to try since I feel that a residual nostalgia (and acquired expertise) from childhood would make it easier to accept looking a trifle silly on scooters at our venerable age. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.

________________

Old scooter: http://www.20th.ch/les_jouets_de_notre_enfance.htm
Young man on electric scooter: http://www.funshop.at/produkte/inmotion-3/inmotion-l6/
Older man on electric scooter: http://www.stadt-wien.at/lifestyle/elektro-scooter-test.html
Businessmen on scooters: https://www.linkedin.com/in/keggleton/zh-cn
Businesswoman with scooter: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/439312138625936673/
Folded scooter: https://www.nycewheels.com/micro-scooter-review.html
Normal scooter with cool colours: https://mobile.willhaben.at/object/186524698/
Cool electric scooter: https://www.pinterest.com/baylissw/kick-scooter/
Cool scooter with big wheels: http://www.tretrollershop.at/fs_sport_classic.html
Penny-farthing: http://www.bikemonkey.ca/blog
Cool electric scooter with fat wheels: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/439312138625936673/
Y-shaped scooter: https://www.nycewheels.com/micro-scooter-review.html
Luggage scooter: http://www.toxel.com/tech/2012/02/25/scooter-luggage/
Unutterably cool scooter: http://design720.com/category/g5/page/2

PERAMBULATING PARQUETS

Bangkok, 26 October 2014

My wife has been busy getting to know Bangkok in her usual favorite way, taking the bus (with me joining her on the weekends). When she told the very nice Thai couple whom we have befriended in the building that she takes the bus to get around, they stared at her and finally managed to ask, “the aircon buses?” When she said no, no, the normal buses, they tittered nervously. When pressed, they confessed to have not taken a bus in twenty years. (This reminds me of a scene early in our marriage. It was downtown Baltimore, 1978 or 9. We wanted to get somewhere, I forget where, so we approached a nice young man sitting on a bench eating his lunch and asked him what bus we might take. He confessed that he had no idea, that he had never taken a city bus in his life. We stared at him: how could it be that someone had NEVER taken a bus? The difference between a European and an American, I suppose. But I digress.)

It is true to say that the (non-aircon) buses of Bangkok are not the most handsome of buses. In fact, they obviously have had a hard-scrabble life.
image
And their technology looks – and sounds – very old-fashioned. For instance, whenever the drivers change gears (using a huge gear shift as big as the seated drivers themselves), it sounds distinctly like they are double-declutching (a term which I would imagine is meaningless to anyone below the age of 60). The drivers are always in a tearing hurry, no doubt due to being perennially bottled up in Bangkok’s terrible traffic, so getting on and off buses is an athletic accomplishment. To get on, wave down the bus, rush for the door, swing in as the bus already starts to move off. To get off, ring for the stop, balance yourself on the balls of your feet, hustle down the steps the moment the doors start clattering noisily open, and drop down into the street as the bus already moves off. And while inside, hang on for dear life as the bus barrels its way down the city’s streets, riding roughshod over every pothole and other imperfection in the road’s mantle.

But as I grimly hang on in the bus, bouncing up and down on the (really quite comfortable) seats, I cannot help but wonder at the beautiful parquet floor which the buses have. Look at that! Who has ever seen parquet floors in buses?
image
Well, “parquet” may be pushing it a little, but this is really nice wood they’ve used. No trash soft wood here, being rubbed to pieces by passenger’s dirty shoes. This is close-grained hardwood. I would be proud to have a floor of that in our living room, sanded down and waxed into a rich red-brown color, instead of the fake plasticized “parquet” which our miserly landlord has laid down and which rings hollow every time we walk across it. I wince when I see how this beautiful wood has been mercilessly screwed down onto to the bus chassis, with big, gleaming, screws. Aie-aie-aie!

The only thing that worries me here is the wood’s provenance. This is not plantation wood, nor I’m sure is it certified wood from responsibly managed forests. I fear that this is just brutally logged wood from Myanmar or Laos or perhaps Indonesia (Thailand has already cut down much of its forests).
image
Perhaps it would be better for Bangkok to shift to modern, gleaming, air-conditioned, buses with plasticized floors
imageand leave this beautiful wood standing in its wilderness, soaring up towards the sky.
image

_______________
Bangkok bus: http://www.langeasy.com/images2/bkk/bus2.jpg (in http://www.langeasy.com/cities/bangkok/bangkokpage1.html)
Bangkok bus floor: my photo
Illegal logging: http://www.globalpost.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/gp3_slideshow_large/illegal_logging_in_anlong_veng_ii.jpg ( in http://pixgood.com/illegal-loggers.html)
Modern city bus: http://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v2/280618923_1/SLK6111_Aluminum_Body_City_Bus.jpg (in http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1468014)
Mahogany tree soaring: http://treepicturesonline.com/tree-mahogany.jpg (in http://treepicturesonline.com/mahogany_tree_pictures.html)

TUGGING AT MY HEARTSTRINGS

Bangkok, 9 October 2014

Our living room is small, but it has a magic view on the Chao Phraya River. Two of the living room’s walls are all glass and allow us a wonderful view up and down the river.

image

image

My wife and I maximize this view every morning by dragging our table out onto the narrow balcony which wraps around our living room and taking our breakfast – tea, cereal, and tropical fruit – all the while watching the parade of boats moving up and down the river.

Let’s be clear, the boats we see are not as handsome as these 1920s yachts.

image

I suppose the most striking boat we see are the long-tailed boats which skim across the river’s surface, their huge roaring motors in the stern peremptorily signaling their presence to one and all.

image

The water buses that ply the river aren’t so showy, but their raked bow gives them a certain allure.

image

My heart, though, goes out to the lowly ugly tugs which rumble slowly up and down the river dragging trains of barges behind them – slowly, so very slowly when the barges are full, slightly more jauntily when they are empty.

image

image

I sit there, watching them tug and strain, and will them on: “Go, little tug, go! You can do it! Attaboy!”

They may work hard, but these tugs are no shrinking violets. No drab work clothes for them. No siree, their owners paint them strong, happy colors, to signal how proud they are of their work partners. I mean, look at them!

image

image

As these tugboats pass, flaunting their color schemes, I can’t help but think dreamily of the tugboats of my youth, like Theodore the Tugboat

image

or Little Toot the Tugboat

image

or even Scuffy the Tugboat

image

Toot, toot!! Tug away, fellas! Job well done! I hope you get a rest and a good lube job in the evening. Toot, toot!!

__________________

Views of Chao Phraya river: my photos
1920s yachts: http://abrushwithsail.blogspot.com/2012/06/grand-yachts-of-1920s.html
long-tailed boat: http://swissnomads.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/long-tail-boat.jpg
water bus: my wife’s photo
tub boat and barges: my photo and http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/47654772
colourful tugboats: my wife’s photos
Theodore the Tugboat: http://www.mtcw.ca/theodoretugboat/Tours.php
Little Toot the Tugboat: http://blog.keloland.com/lund/blog/2010/12/20/aunt-leilas-records/
Scuffy the Tugboat: http://www.betterworldbooks.com/scuffy-the-tugboat-sail-away-id-0375826963.aspx

BACK OF BEYOND

Beijing, 15 October 2013

I’m just back from a business trip to Haixi prefecture, which is the remotest prefecture of that remote Chinese province, Qinghai. Squeezed between its better-known neighbours Xinjian, Gansu, Sichuan, and Tibet, Qinghai doesn’t get much press, which is a pity. To my mind, it’s one of China’s most beautiful provinces. Here’s a picture we took out on the grasslands when my wife and I, together with our son, went there a couple of years ago.

IMG00095-20110712-1113

As for Haixi prefecture, it hardly gets a mention at all in the world’s press. This is a great pity, because it’s a seriously beautiful part of the world; on the desertic side, but I like that kind of landscape.

landscapes 002

landscapes 007

My colleague and I were there to study what we could do to help the prefectural authorities build up a local brand in the organic production of wolfberries (we seem to be getting a reputation for agro-processing). I can perfectly understand it if my readers have never heard of wolfberries. Neither had I until I came to China and found them floating in various soups during banquets. But our ignorance is our loss. Wolfberries have had an honourable place in Chinese cuisine – and traditional medicine – for the last 2,000 years.

If one has seen them at all, it’s probably as dry berries

wolfberry-dry

although this is how we saw them during our trip, fresh

Wolfberry-fresh

on bushes in plantations

wolfberry-bush and fresh berry

OK, I probably shouldn’t say this, since one of the things the Haixi authorities would like us to help them with is to get fresh wolfberries into supermarkets, but I can’t say that I’m particularly impressed by the wolfberry. If I were standing in the fruit aisle of my local supermarket and had to choose between wolfberries and, say, blueberries, I would choose the latter every time. But hey, I’m not Chinese; they would probably make the opposite decision.

In any case, I will not dwell on the wolfberry, because my attention was captured by something else altogether. Haixi has a lot of sun – 300 days of sun a year, we were told. So quite sensibly, the government has bet on a solar power future for Qinghai. As we drove from wolfberry plantation to wolfberry plantation, and after passing several large photovoltaic arrays, we drew up here:

CSP 006

This, my friends, is a concentrated solar power plant (or at least one version of such). The hundreds of mirrors on the ground focus the sun’s rays on the luminous white spot at the top of the column. That spot is a boiler where the heat of the sun turns water into steam, which is then used to generate electricity. I tried to capture the beauty of that ethereally, whitely glowing spot of concentrated solar rays, but my iPhone camera simply wasn’t up to it. So I’ve added the  only other photo I’ve found on the web of this plant.

CHINA-QINGHAI-SOLAR THERMAL POWER PLANT (CN)

And I add photos of similar plants in other parts of the world. This one is near Seville in Spain

CSP spain

While this is one was in California’s Mojave desert (it was demolished a few years ago).

CSP US

Not clear if this approach will ever generate electricity cheaply enough. But who cares, like Concord, another technological has-been

concorde

it’s beautiful.

Soon after this brush with the ultra-modern, we came across a picture as ancient as China itself, a line of camels padding slowly into the setting sun. I didn’t get a photo, not with my iPhone, but I show a picture of camels taken elsewhere in Qinghai.

camels

I could have been in Tang China. I am moved to throw in a photo I took back in May in the Museum of the University of Philadelphia of Tang era sculptures of camels.

philly museum 004

Minutes after this close encounter with the age-old, we drew up at a freshwater lake for a dinner of locally caught crabs. To whet our appetite, we were taken on a short cruise across a magically still mirror of water

lake-fresh 002

as the sun dipped below the hills behind us.

lake-fresh 010

___________________________

Qinghai grasslands: my son’s picture
Wolfberry-dry: http://soni.monovee.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/wolfberry.jpg
Wolfberry-fresh: http://mingmingtea.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Wolfberry_extract.jpg
Wolfberry-bush and fresh berry: http://images04.olx.com/ui/2/98/54/13309454_2.jpg
CSP-1: my photo
CSP-2 : http://res.heraldm.com/content/image/2013/08/01/20130801000653_0.jpg
CSP Spain: http://www.finetubes.co.uk/uploads/images/gemasolar-2011-2_low_res.jpg
CSP California: http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/images/solar_two_barstow.jpg
Concord: http://s1.cdn.autoevolution.com/images/news/concorde-will-take-to-the-skies-again-21839_1.jpg
Camels: http://m1.i.pbase.com/g1/62/942562/2/146679881.nWrkycH7.jpg
Tang camels: my photo
Lake views: my photo

THE TRACTOR

Beijing, 14 September 2013

In the trip to Xinjiang which I mentioned in my previous post, we were also taken to see a tractor manufacturer. Row upon row of bright new tractors greeted us as we walked into the factory’s yard
tractors outside
but we ignored these, headed as we were for the shed where they assembled the tractors.

It was with some relief that we exchanged the heat and light of the yard for the cool darkness of the shed interior. There, we were introduced to the plant manager, and after a hearty shaking of hands all round he launched into his exposé of all the wonderful things his factory was doing. I let his voice wash over me as I took in a yellow tractor, newly assembled, standing proud and tall before me.

tractors inside

And suddenly I was 14 or 15 again, standing, on a beautiful summer’s day, by the side of a tractor. I was out on the plains of Manitoba, an hour or so’s drive from Winnipeg, on a farm owned by the parents of a friend of my sister’s.  The farmer was asking me if I wanted to try ploughing a field and I was saying yes. Why not? Everything is possible when you are 14 or 15.

So he gave me a quick lesson in tractor driving and ploughing, and sent me off to a distant field. And off I went, my hat cocked at a jaunty angle as I surveyed the surroundings, Lord of everything I beheld.  After 10 minutes, I arrived at the field – the North American plains are very big and tractors are very slow – and there I found myself faced with an unexpected choice: there were actually two fields, one to the left and one to the right, and no fences. Which one? I hesitated, trying to remember my instructions – no mobile phones in those days, no way to check back – and eventually plumped for the field to the right.

So I started ploughing, starting as instructed at the field’s edge and going round in ever-decreasing circles until the middle was reached. By the end of the first circle, I noticed a man standing on the edge of the field. By the end of the second circle, he had walked over and signaled me to stop. He asked me politely what I was doing. Well, I was ploughing the field, I replied lamely. Yes, he responded patiently, but on whose instructions. Well, I said, and here I named my farmer host. Ah, he said, but the fact was that I was ploughing HIS field. Not that he minded, he added quickly, the field was fallow (thank God! I screamed inside of me) and no doubt it would benefit from an extra plough, but still … He pleasantly instructed me to stay still while he phoned his neighbour.

I sat there, on the tractor, with my hat at not quite such a cocky angle now, with a sense of impending doom. And indeed my farmer host came scorching over like a bat out of hell. He covered in 10 seconds in his battered old car what had taken me 10 minutes with the tractor. He bounced out, glared at me, and excused himself profusely with his neighbour, but the offended party was very gracious about it all and the situation resolved itself pleasantly.

My farmer host next turned to me and in that very deliberate and slow tone one reserves for the village idiot told me that I was meant to be ploughing the LEFT field. And to make sure that the village idiot had understood he pointed very insistently at the field in question. Suitably chastened, with my hat drooping about my ears, I headed for said field, and started again.

So there I was, circling the field, spiraling slowly – EVER so slowly; the field was very big – towards its middle.  I have to tell you,  ploughing is pretty boring. After about the fourth circle the novelty of it all had worn off and I was wondering how to pass the time. I tried singing, but the noise of the engine drowned out even the lustiest of my songs. I tried driving with one hand, but that palled after 2 minutes. I tried driving with one leg up on the dashboard, but that was uncomfortable. In a moment of desperation, I even thought of trying to drive sitting backwards but luckily good sense prevailed. So I was reduced to just driving, driving, driving in ever decreasing circles as the sun slowly dropped to the horizon of the endless Manitoban plains.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Ploughing the plains may be boring but the plains themselves have a strange beauty. As a boy brought up in undulating landscapes, used to cresting land-waves and finding hills rising up before me, I initially found the plains disorienting. Whenever my parents took us out for drives I never knew which way to look. But after a while I began to appreciate the way the sky was so close to the land, seeming to press down on it and you, and how you could really enjoy cloud formations in the vast, uncluttered sky of the plains. I could never get over those fields of wheat stretching off as far as the eye could see, registering on their waving surface every meander of the passing breeze …
the plains-7
I was nudged, the plant manager had finished his peroration. I came out of my reverie with a smile playing on my lips, which no doubt delighted the man, reinforcing his conviction that what he did was incredibly interesting. With another round of hearty handshakes, we emerged blinking into the strong sunlight and headed for the car and the next factory.

______________________________

tractors inside and outside: GUO Li
tractor and the sunset: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4045/4482416778_f1fc6db355_z.jpg
wheat fields: https://farm5[dot]staticflickr.com/4127/4975335245_a2e33916c3_z.jpg

SILENT AND DEADLY

Beijing, 30 August 2013

I’ve mourned in a past posting the passing of the bicycle culture which so dominated China until a few decades ago. In that same posting I wrote about a sub-family of bicycles which seems to be surviving the onslaught of the automobile. In this posting, I want to write about another sub-family of bicycles which is surviving; indeed, seems to be thriving: the electric bicycle.

When we first arrived in Beijing, my wife and I were intrigued to see these machines cruising up and down the roads in large numbers. Here are a couple of examples of what greeted us:

electric bicycle-1

(this one being ridden by a lady avoiding the sun, about which I’ve also written in another posting)

electric bicycle-2

I have to say, they immediately reminded me of another motorized bicycle which had played an important role in my teens: the French VéloSolex. For those of my readers who are less than 40, I probably have to quickly explain what this is. Originally (i.e., just after World War II), it was a bike (vélo in French) on whose front wheel had been placed a motor (made by the company Solex).

solex-old-1

This motor powered a small ceramic roller which in turn turned the front wheel through simple friction. And when you wanted to use it as a bike, there was a lever which allowed you to pull the motor and roller off the front wheel. Very simple. Pretty cool. And cheap.

By the time I came along, the VéloSolex had become a bulky bicycle. Or maybe a thin motorbike.

solex-new-1

My parents had bought two of them, for my elder brother and sister. They stayed at my grandmother’s house, ready for use during the summer holidays. As my siblings grew up and moved on, the VéloSolexes passed on to the next sibling. I reckon that by the time I inherited my VéloSolex it was third-or fourth-hand, as it were. No matter, I loved that bike. It was my set of wheels which gave me my freedom, which allowed me to escape from the house when things were really too boring, which they often were in my teenage years.

For me, the VéloSolex was France,

Velosolex_postcard

along with De Gaulle

De Gaullle

the Deux Chevaux

deux chevaux

The baguette

baguette

And Gauloises unfiltered cigarettes, which – I will confess – I smoked for a certain period of my life.

Gauloises Caporal

Who knows where my VéloSolex is now? In some knacker’s yard no doubt.

To come back to our electric bicycles in Beijing, they have one big difference with the VéloSolex: they are silent. Silent and deadly. One of the things which newcomers to Beijing learn quickly – or die – is to look VERY carefully, in ALL directions, when they are crossing a road, even if the little man is green. Right-turn at red lights is allowed, so cars turning right do so, regardless of whether you, the pedestrian, are crossing. Cars which have the green light and are turning left are anxious to do so before the cars coming in the other direction reach the middle of the intersection, so they whizz across it scattering to the winds any pedestrians that might be in the way. All two-wheelers, motorized or not, ignore lights and keep going, weaving around any pedestrians who may be in the way; to make their case worse, they drive on both sides of the road. In this last category of menace, electric bikes are the worst. They move fast, and they are completely silent. At night, they are even deadlier. None of their riders ever bother to put on their lights – so as not to run down the battery, no doubt – and the street lights are not particularly bright. So fast, silent, and invisible. They make me think of torpedoes.

But electric is the future! Even the VeloSolex, whose production ceased in 1988, has now been resurrected in an electric form

Velosolex-electric

And product designers have got into the act, designing excessively cool electric bicycles. And once they are there, you know the product is IN!

cool electric bicycle-5

cool electric bicycle-4

cool electric bicycle-1

So I guess my wife and I had better buy electric bicycles. Not only will we be riding the wave of coolness, but we’ll be running people down rather than being run down. When you can’t beat them, join them.

_________________________________________

Electric bicycle-1: http://thecityfix.com/files/2009/06/cycling.jpg
Electric bicycle-2: http://www.chinasignpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/electricbike_China-Digital-Times.jpg
VeloSolex-old: http://homepage.hispeed.ch/Spridget/solex/prototyp1.gif
VeloSolex-new: http://img175.imageshack.us/img175/8817/solex1.jpg
VeloSolex poster: http://cybermotorcycle.com/gallery/velosolex/images/Velosolex_postcard.jpg
De Gaulle: http://05.wir.skyrock.net/wir/v1/profilcrop/?c=isi&im=%2F5508%2F87355508%2Fpics%2F3147952278_1_2_Nvepv9eQ.jpg&w=758&h=1024
Deux chevaux: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6f/Deux_chevaux_mg_1748.jpg/640px-Deux_chevaux_mg_1748.jpg
Citroen DS: http://www.blogcdn.com/www.autoblog.com/media/2009/02/citroen-ds.jpg
Baguettes: http://www.tranquilla.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/baguette-640×442.jpg
Gauloises : http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_siskXeTIdkY/S-6ACEDO1MI/AAAAAAAAADs/-Ny-fMbye2A/s1600/Gauloises+Caporal+-+ann%C3%A9es+40.jpg
Velosolex-electric: http://www.veloecologique.com/produits/128.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-1: http://evworld.com/press/smart_e-bike_profilecityscape.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-2: http://www.evrdr.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/leopard-electric-bike.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-3: http://www.designbuzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/vw-folding-electric-bike_xfBve_58.jpg

HOLLYHOCKS BY THE WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANT

30 May 2013

I’m in Zhenjiang at the moment. Readers will be forgiven if they have no idea where that is. Neither did I till I had to come here and decided to look it up on a map. It’s on the Yangtze River, between Nanjing and Shanghai. As far as I can make out, its main claim to historical fame is that it lies at the point of juncture of the Yangtze and the Grand Canal as the latter wends its way northwards to Beijing from Hangzhou.

But I am not here to visit the city’s historic sites, of which – as in most places in China – there are very few left and what there is left is being turned into a made-over tourist spot. I am here to discuss with the management of the largest industrial zones how we could assist them to make their factories greener. As part of the discussions, we were taken to visit a couple of factories which had already taken some steps to reduce their environmental impacts. One of them was a huge – ginormous – paper factory. We were first taken to see the paper-making line, which was absolutely gigantic – the biggest in the world, we were proudly informed. Just to give the reader an idea, the rolls of paper which come off the end of the line for further processing each weigh 130 tonnes.

After trying to take in this mind-boggling piece of equipment, we were whisked off to the wastewater treatment plant, part of which has a reverse osmosis line – as part of their greening efforts, the factory recycles much of its wastewater after thoroughly cleaning it and then polishing it with reverse osmosis. We were invited to taste the water coming out of the line, which I did, gingerly, half expecting to keel over. But I survived, and no doubt exhilarated by this close brush with death, I found these hollyhocks, which greeted us at the exit of the building, quite magnificent (you will notice part of the wastewater treatment plant behind them).

Zhjenjiang

As I exclaimed over them and took photos, a French consultant who was with us asked me what they were called in English. I told him and then asked for their name in French. Rose trémière, he replied. Rose trémière … We stood there admiring the flowers and wondering idly where the name came from. Later that evening, I looked it up. It’s a corruption of the name Rose d’Outremer, the rose from overseas. It seems that it was imported into Europe from the Middle East some time in the 1500s, perhaps after the last Crusades. But at least part of its DNA comes from China, where there are paintings of the flower from the 9th Century. As for the English name, it’s from Middle English holihoc:  holi holy + hoc mallow.

You learn something new every day.

PS:

The day after I posted this, and back in Beijing, I came across this lone hollyhock on my way to work. It was sheltering under a tree next to my piece of canal. Fate.

hollyhocks-beijing