måndag 24 augusti 2015

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

It has been a couple of months since I last wrote anything in this blog. I have been spending too much time on Facebook. A friend gave me a copy of "The Old Ways" by Robert Macfarlane for my birthday, which I have now read.

The book describes a series of journeys on foot or in sailing boats, each lasting several days, with nights spent in fishermen's or shepherds' shelters or under hedgerows. Mostly, the journeys are in Britain though there is a dangerous excursion around Ramallah..The book gradually shifts focus, to Edward Thomas (composer of the short poem Adelstrop in June 1914). Macfarlane has a fine sense of landscape and the book was an enjoyable read, though I could not connect with his outdoor sleeping habits.

I found some aspects of the book irritating. He has a propensity to use words of extreme rarity, to the point that, presumably at the insistence of the publisher, he had to provide a glossary of well over a hundred; most of them could either have been explained in the text or replaced by more familiar words. He also seems to be part of some kind of in-circle of individuals who indulge in this kind of thing.

Chesterton and Belloc also walked immense distances, but the world was different then; with so much of Britain suburbanised, some of the walks seem oddly detached from the contemporary world. That might be part of their interest, but personally I just find it emphasises the changes which have taken place even in the past thirty years. It left me feeling sad.

onsdag 17 juni 2015

It could have been so much better

Last Sunday, Sverigesradio broadcast the main 11 o'clock Mass from St Lars, Uppsala. This is a flourishing, lively and diverse parish which attracts many new converts to the faith. As the priest said in his sermon, there are seventy different languages spoken amongst the parishioners.

The sad thing is that the liturgy there could be so much better than it is. As a world-class university city, the parish should be a shop window offering the very best from the 2000-year-old tradition of Catholic music, a tradition which pre-dates Christianity by at least a millennium. The occasion of a broadcast should have been taken as an opportunity to put these treasures on display.

Unfortunately, the liturgy was barely even recognisable as Catholic. The service began with a well-known Anglican hymn "Holy, holy, holy" to the setting by the Victorian composer Dykes, and there was a popular Swedish hymn at the offertory. The Ordinary was one of the adaptations to the Swedish text to a Gregorian setting of the Latin; worse things have been written to be sung at Mass, especially in English, but they are clumsy when compared with the Latin settings such as Missa de Angelis or Orbis Factor. In the absence of a setting for the Swedish text of the Creed, it was recited.

It could have been so much better. The introit antiphon, which forms part of the readings, could have been sung, either in Latin, or the Swedish text could have been chanted. Why not use the Latin settings of the Ordinary?  Why not sing Credo 3? Everyone knows these. And why not sing simple polyphonic motets at the Offertory and Communion? There is no shortage of talent in the parish.

There seems to be an idea around that Protestant hymns should be used at Catholic Masses as an expression of some kind of ecumenical ideal, or to make former members of the Swedish Lutheran Church feel comfortable in their new Catholic environment - as though nothing has really changed.

The effect is to suffuse the liturgy with a Protestant spirit, since such hymns express the spirit of Protestantism at a subtle level. Their intrusion also has the effect of destroying the artistic integrity of the liturgy - it is rather like inserting a piece by Wagner into the middle of an opera by Handel. It also makes those who do not have a background in the Swedish Lutheran Church - and there are seventy different languages spoken amongst the parishioners - feel excluded. St Lars is precisely the sort of diverse parish where the church's official language should be used in the liturgy, to establish a common ground where no one group of people are privileged.

Given the importance of Uppsala as a flagship Catholic parish, those in charge of the liturgy need to re-think what they are doing.

fredag 1 maj 2015

A case of mass gormlessness?

Passengers in London were stuck in a train for four hours yesterday, with the air conditioning out of action. It became sweltering hot and turned into an ordeal.

I was in a similar incident in Sweden but after 15 minutes the adjacent tracks were closed to traffic and passengers were allowed off the train. The incident turned into a trackside party with people drinking cans of beer, walking their dogs in the woods, etc, for the four hour it took for a rescue. In this instance, which was in the middle of London, people could have just been escorted to the nearest station to continue their journey as best they could.

That said, there was no need for anyone to endure sweltering temperatures. In the first place, some of the windows can be opened by a member of the staff, with a key. Where were they? There are also hammers provided for emergency use. This was an emergency. The train companies would have had a hard time prosecuting for wilful damage. Faced with a big repair bill, they would then have made sure the trains were retro-fitted with windows that could be opened.

torsdag 30 april 2015

Successful parishes

It seems to me that four things are necessary to build up a parish.

1) Good quality traditional liturgy. It does not have to be Tridentine form with Palestrina every Sunday (though these things help), but it does need to be as good as possible within the resources of a parish, and significant Latin content is beneficial.

2) Hands-on good works in response to a local challenge.

3) An ongoing education programme for parishioners, including interested non-Catholics.

4) Some social activities - at least coffee and biscuits after Sunday Mass.

onsdag 29 april 2015

What camera?

I have been looking at cameras lately, since my Leica M9 spontaneously cracked its sensor and has had to go back to the factory. Hopefully they will not charge as it is a common problem and Leica are aware of it.

However, the M9 has not been without its problems, mostly due to dust and other muck on the sensor, which was impossible to get off. In the end I took it to the Leica service centre and it took the technician nearly half an hour to clean it, free of charge, I should add.

The only way to avoid dust and muck is to avoid changing lenses as much as possible. That defeats the aim of an interchangeable lens camera. The ideal would be to have a fresh sensor for every shot, which is what you get with film.

The best camera I have ever had was a Leica M2, a 1957 design. It was easy to use and has a hair-trigger sensitive release. The snag is that it has no built-in meter so you have to carry a meter, or guess. There is a clip-on meter, but that makes it clumsy to use. I have a Leica MP, which has built-in metering but the release is less smooth than the older Leica.

Other good cameras I have owned include the Olympus Trip and the Olympus XA series from the 1960s and 1970s respectively. Both are compact and light, and for what they do, they cannot be faulted.

I would much prefer to use film but the infrastructure is not what it was, running costs are high and everything ends up being digitised anyway. My first digital camera was a Canon Ixus. It stopped working after a month after the guarantee ran out as it did not survive a walk on Brighton sea front with salt-spray flying around. It was an annoying camera anyway, difficult to hold, slow to fire and with a viewfinder that was impossible to see in bright light. I was not sorry to throw it in the bin.

One camera that I have had and used for almost ten years is a Ricoh G600. It has a rubber covering and is supposed to be waterproof. I have not tried in the water but it survives rough treatment and rain and I tend to keep it with me. It is a horrible camera to use, though. The shutter release is squidgy and the LCD viewfinder at the back is hard - if not impossible - to see in bright light. It has an appalling dynamic range - if the darker areas are not black, then the light areas are saturated and you get the "white saturation" message. The thing was apparently developed for the Japanese emergency services, but it satisfies the requirement that the best camera is the one you have with you.

I have looked at some of the latest mirrorless SLR cameras. They all seem to have awkwardnesses of one sort or another. I was astonished to see that the sensor is fully exposed when the lens is removed. This is asking for trouble. I would have thought it was obvious that there should have been something to cover it when the lens was off. Given the trouble I have had with the Leica, where the sensor is covered with a mechanical shutter, this is enough to rule them out.

One option I am looking at is the Fuji X100. This seems to be controversial and gets criticised for being retro - comments such as the retro-styling is just a marketing gimmick are frequently made, along with the statement that there is better for less. It has a fixed lens, equivalent to 35 mm, and Fuji's odd sensor array which produces raw images which will defeat a lot of RAW converter software. On the other hand, it has a decent viewfinder and the fixed lens means that it does not have the problem of the exposed sensor. Being now in its third revision of the design, it is emerging as the front runner, and will be a useful camera if I am not taking the relatively heavy M9 around with me, when that eventually returns from the factory.

torsdag 23 april 2015

Smartphones - worst-designed consumer product ever?

My neighbour gave me a Samsung slidephone she had for several years, and I have got another five years use out of it. Must be from around 2003, I would guess which makes it 12 years old. The software flow is a bit annoying but I can live with it.

Last week it took a trip down the toilet and after I had dried it out, it was draining the battery, so I looked at alternatives, including smartphones. For £500 you can get a Samsung S5 which will survive a dunking but it will not go in a back pocket. They are all too big, too fragile, too expensive and mostly not watertight - they should be IP67 as basic. The idea of a qwerty touch screen is madness. If you have learned to type without looking, like I am doing now, you would not be able to use it.

The manufacturers have focussed on selling ever more high-tech and totally failed to get the basic things right. Are consumers THAT stupid? Smartphones must be amongst the worst-designed consumer products ever.

In the meantime my twelve year old phone has dried out and is working fine.

lördag 18 april 2015

News from Sodor

It is 2009 since I last reported on events on the North Western Railway, home of Thomas the Tank engine. A lot has happened since then. Most important was the retirement of Sir Topham Hatt, the Fat Controller, in 2011. His successor is a former manager from the Big Railway, Naomi Toot.

When she first arrived, the engines were sulky and resentful. They were not going to be ordered around by a woman. Ms Toot took a firm-but-fair approach and did her best to avoid conflict, but when they thought she could not hear, they referred to her as "The Handbag". However, she had a habit of turning up in the shed just when she was least expected and soon found out what they were saying. She was not really bothered by the rudeness. It was just what she expected and she took it in her stride. All the engines were at least sixty years old and they had spent most of their years at a time when women were expected to stay at home and do what they were told. Ms Toot solved the problem by appointing an engineer specially to look after them, also from the Big Railway. He got on well with all the engines, and they called him Uncle Reg.

Despite this, Gordon started to misbehave. It happened soon after his eighty-eighth birthday. He started to be off-sick constantly with boiler-ache. A diesel was brought in from the Big Railway to do his work. This was Basil Brush, but he also started to misbehave soon after he arrived, breaking down two or three times a week, giving off clouds of black smoke and spilling oil all over his engine compartment. The passengers were not happy about having to complete their journeys by bus. Basil also had a huge appetite and drank expensive diesel fuel as if it was water. So Basil was put in a siding and Ms Toot decided to send Gordon away for repairs.

Pip and Emma, with their seven matching coaches in-between were brought in to take his place. They had come before as visitors from the Big Railway and got on well with the other engines. They were an HST and could go really fast on the Big Railway, but, like Basil Brush, they were also greedy for expensive oil, and screamed their heads off when starting. The Sodor railway was not suitable for such fast running so they were sent back when Gordon returned. He had been fixed up with a lot of new parts and was happier and felt better than he had for years.

Thomas was coming up for his hundredth birthday and often had to take a rest from work, as did Oliver, who was well into his seventies. Ms Toot brought in Rattler and Noddy to stand in on the branch lines to keep the services running, but nobody liked them. They looked and sounded exactly like buses and were not comfortable like Dulcie and Isabel, Oliver's auto-coaches.

The truth was that all the engines were feeling their age. They could be out of service for weeks at a time while waiting for new parts to be specially made. This was usually arranged so that it happened during the winter when the railway was quiet, but sometimes things broke unexpectedly. The local council was also making things difficult because it became illegal to give off dirty smoke, though Basil Brush, and Pip and Emma, were just as guilty.

The cost of coal was another worry, with the price going up every year. Gordon was still a big eater even after his repairs, and so were the smaller goods engines, considering the amount of work they did. Something had to be done.

Henry's facelift
Ms Toot and Uncle Reg decided to send Henry away to a factory on the continent for a complete rebuilding. It was at the beginning of the autumn. He was away for most of the winter; he had travelled by road all the way, and his journey had included boat trips across the Channel Tunnel and back on a low-loader, an undignified way for a steam engine to travel.

He was put back on the rails at Vicarstown and Duck was sent to fetch him. He looked much the same as when he had left until you looked closely. He came back, he had a new chimney, new valve gear and the coal space on his tender had been replaced by a pair of oil tanks. He had kept his green livery and number.

Duck shunted him into the shed and he went completely silent for a whole week. Then a group of people came and filled his boiler with water and started his fire, and he was sent out on tests. He came back with a smug look on his face. He was very quiet, but boasted that he was now as strong as Gordon, drank less fuel than Basil Brush and would never, ever give off black smoke from his chimney.

The other engines became resentful at his stand-offish attitude, as well as the attention he was getting. They jeered when the lights under his running board were switched on for the fitters to work on his valve gear, thinking they were there just to look flashy.

After the tests, Henry was given most of Gordon's work, which left him feeling upset and jealous. But it was not long before he was put back in the shed and stood silent with a sulky look on his face as the other engines jeered and made cat-calls. The drivers would not take him out because the steam got in the way of their view of the signals.

A couple of weeks later, Henry was fitted with smoke deflectors. How the other engines laughed. "Big-Ears", they hooted. After that there was no more trouble. He needed much less attention than any other steam engine. Ms Toot and Uncle Reg were so pleased with him that they ordered three more matching engines, brand new. Henry was re-named Prince Harry, and the two new engines were given the names Sir Topham Hatt and Duke of Cambridge, though of course this Duke was not a real Duke like the Duke of Gloucester, a familiar old visitor. Ms Toot had thought of getting a real Duke but there was no need for such a big engine, because after being rebuilt, Sir Henry could do all the work that Gordon did.

New engines
Four new engines were also obtained to replace Edward, James, Dougal and Douglas. These were of the 2-6-0 type and had the names Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Donald.

Duck, Thomas and Oliver were replaced by Stanley, Stuart, Stephen and Stella, which were exactly the same as the Mickey Mouse quartet apart from the fact that they were 2-6-2 tanks and could work with Isobel and Dulcie, Oliver's auto coaches, as well as Biggie and Ciggie. That pleased the passengers, who liked the old coaches. The eight new engines had the same modern features as Sir Henry, which made them clean, quiet and efficient. The firemen no longer had to shovel dusty coal.

The engines, which were each painted in a different colour, were a simplified version of the similar engines built for British Railways in 1954, and turned out to be quite inexpensive (as engines go), thanks to modern computerised manufacturing methods. All of them burn ordinary diesel oil and their drivers do not have to get up in the middle of the night to raise steam as the water is kept hot automatically by an electric heating system. All the engines shared the same spare parts and would never have to be out of service for weeks, waiting for new parts to be being specially made.

A fond farewell
Gordon worked on for the rest of the summer, though only at weekends and during school holidays. His mood improved when they fitted him with a bronze plaque for his ninetieth birthday. The old heroes were given a grand send-off before being sent to their new home, a museum specially built for them, where they could be kept dry and warm. The museum has a track connecting it to the main line, so they will still be seen in service from time to time but they are now enjoying a well-earned retirement. But for everyday use, a fleet of clean and efficient new steam engines is now in charge of passenger and goods services on the North Western Railway. Since the new engines came into service, people have come from far and wide to see how they perform, and the North Western Railway is now busier than it has ever been in its history.