A View from the Rock

When I was very young I remember the grown-ups around  me would often talk about the scale of vast things -seven-figure numbers, the solar system, the galaxy and so on- as “unimaginable”. Even the earth seemed vast. I’ve often reflected on this since, usually thinking to myself that as I’ve got older such things have become more and more “imaginable”.

This reoccuring line of thought popped up again recently. The International Space Station has been making regular passes over Britain during June. One evening, I’d been watching the ISS Live Stream online. The stream was showing the earth as seen live from the ISS: below the station, the world was in daylight. Ahead, the “sunset line” was looming up, beyond which the world faded into darkness. I left the computer and stepped outside. I was seeing the same view, only from below. The sun had recently set and sunlight glowed from behind the hills. The ISS appeared over the horizon travelling from the light into the darkness, just as it appeared on the laptop screen. Obvious, really – but to see both views at the same time, one from space and one from earth, was uncanny. Another night I tried to photograph it. It was a last minute job. The expected pass was quite late and, I must say, it had been a long day. I was tired. I felt like going to bed. Five minutes or so before it was due to appear over the horizon I finally stirred myself to dig out the tripod, camera and cable release and lug it all into the garden. Five minutes. Everything would have to work first time.

It did. Fumbling in the dark with the controls on the camera, I set it -quite randomly but luckily- to make a 30 second exposure.

iss10june14So, that’s how far the ISS is seen to travel across the sky in 30 seconds. Looking at the photo, that old train of thought kicked in. It takes about 90 minutes for the ISS to orbit the earth. It took 4 minutes in all to cross the sky visible from our house. By my calculations, that means that 23 people evenly distributed around the earth would have been able to observe its entire journey. OK, so half would be in daylight, but you know what I mean – it made the world seem very small. The line in the photo represents 30 seconds of that journey. It’s just a matter of another simple calculation to work out that 180 such lines joined end to end  would represent one entire orbit. That didn’t seem a lot to me.


Ancient Ear Worm

This music has been going round in my head all week! It’s hardly surprising. It’s memorable – so memorable it’s been around for about 350 years. Slightly different versions of La Folia existed way before that, too. It’s one of Western Europe’s earliest remembered musical ideas.

It probably got used in the 17th century much like the 12 bar blues is used today. It still retains its potency: if you strum the chords on a guitar as I’ve been doing it can become a bit of a compulsive, what-you-do-when-you-pick-up-a-guitar thing. For the benefit of any guitar-playing readers, the chords are as follows:

Three beats in a bar

Dm      A      Dm      C      F      C      Dm         A

Dm      A      Dm      C      F      C      Dm/A    Dm

That penultimate A chord happens on the second beat. You can also stick a capo on fret 5 and play Am, E, Am, G, C, etc., instead.

Anyone interested in palindromes will notice that the chords read the same forwards as they do backwards. Composers who play games like that are often accused of making their music too intellectual – something one would hardly claim of La Folia.

It’s really got me thinking about how the “classical tradition” up to and including Bach had a great deal in common with jazz. It’s what one would expect, really. For example, a lot of baroque keyboard music was improvised and both jazz and the baroque shared a fondness for similar rhythms and “walking” basslines. The term “classical music” only came into use sometime around the nineteenth century , so if you stuck a baroque composer such as Bach in a time machine and whisked him forward to the present day he’d probably take it for granted that jazz was a continuation of the musical tradition he was part of. He might even prefer it to some of the “classical tradition” that some classical musicians have tried to set apart from jazz. It’s an interesting line of thought – though not a particularly original one. I suspect jazz musicians have looked up to Bach for almost as long as jazz has been around.




Task Avoidance Behaviour

Why is it, when you’ve a lot to do, that a hundred and one other things suddenly feel like they just have to be done? I’ve heard psychologists describe this phenomenon as “task avoidance behaviour”. I’ve loads of gardening and a pile of paperwork to do but I really do want to read Ulysses again…

As football is not my thing, reading Ulysses at the moment has a lot to be said for it. I started it yesterday. I’m now half way through chapter three. Stephen Dedalus is on the beach. He’s just decided not to visit his uncle. He’s there, in my mind’s eye, like a DVD on pause, waiting for me to pick it up again. Which I will. Just after I’ve done some of that paperwork…

I say football’s not my thing but it’s not entirely true. I went to the odd match with friends when younger (usually Celtic) and I once broke my arm playing five-a-side. And I did take time the other day to watch my all-time favourite football match on Youtube. I say “all-time-favourite” but perhaps that’s a misnomer – it’s the only football match I’m ever likely to watch voluntarily – Germany vs. Greece:


Dinosaur Dawn

Fellow-blogger Jenny Woolf, commented on my speculation that, as birds were descended from dinosaurs, perhaps dinosaurs sang like birds. She said perhaps their songs would have been at a very different pitch (what with dinosaurs being generally bigger than their feathered descendants) and that she’d never heard birdsong slowed down.

This seemed like an opportunity to, well, slow down some birdsong. I’ve entitled the resulting piece of sound art Dinosaur Dawn. I don’t know if this is what forests sounded like first thing in the morning 70 million years ago but you never know…



The Joy of Three Chords

Last night we watched Songwriters on the BBC, a musical rummage through BBC archives from the early 1970s. I rather enjoyed it. Very little of it was the kind of music I buy on CD to listen to, so this came as a pleasant surprise. The highlight, for me, was footage of Joni Mitchell playing the dulcimer and singing A Case of You. It first appeared in 1971. This is music with the hint of an edge to it:

Oh, I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints.
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid.

Then there were, too, I have to say, lots of men who looked like the hairy man from The Joy of Sex singing songs I’ve never heard of and never likely to hear again.  There was a band I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of – Stealer’s Wheel (“That’s Gerry Rafferty? The Gerry Rafferty? Like, er, Baker St?”). Leonard Cohen put in an appearance. There were sad stories, too, of musicians who’d never quite made it or who’d died too young.

I found myself getting drawn in. The lyrics often sounded as if they had to be written. The music was democratic: the chords could be picked up in minutes by anyone who could play three or four chords on a guitar (something these songs perhaps have in common with the otherwise very different world of Punk). Then there was the late Clifford T Ward‘s Home Thoughts from Abroad. I take my hat off to  a songwriter who has the nerve to write:

I’ve been reading Browning, Keats and William Wordsworth
And they all seem to be saying the same thing for me
Well I like the words they use, and I like the way they use them
You know, Home Thoughts From Abroad is such a beautiful poem
And I know how Robert Browning must have felt
‘Cause I’m feeling the same way about you…

Somehow it kind of made sense that he gave it all up to become an English teacher. I just wish he’d taught me.


The Mystery of the Octagon

The other day I posted photographs of a run I’d been on. One of the shots included the ruin of a wartime observation post. From what locals had told me, I assumed it had been used in WWII to spot approaching bombers.

Blogger The Benevolent Vegan was intrigued, and asked if I could take more photographs of the structure. I’m pleased she did, because when I went to take a closer look the other day I discovered a lot more about it.

It’s a pretty decrepit, two-storey structure, built of brick and concrete. Presumably there was once a ladder on the outside leading to the upper floor.


Oddly, there’s an octagonal hole in the concrete roof:


After a little online research, I discovered references to “type 14” radar installations being fitted into such octagonal holes. “Type 14” radar was invented in 1944, so if this was some sort of observation post built in WWII it would have been built quite near the end of the war.

A few yards from the ruin, a raised mound attracted my attention. I think I’d noticed this before, but assumed it was something to do with water or sewage. This time I paid it closer attention and discovered a concrete hatch…


OK, so the words “curiosity”, “cat” and “killed” occur to me now, in no particular order, but I couldn’t resist…


A doorway at the foot of the ladder opened into an oblong room. There’s about a foot of water in it these days. Fortunately, I was wearing my wellingtons. It was pitch dark and I had no torch with me but the camera has a flash…


By this time, I was beginning to question the WWII theory. I’m no expert but the fact that this structure was built in this way in this location made me think it was probably intended to withstand a nuclear rather than a conventional explosion. It seems far more likely that, in its present form,  it’s all that’s left of a Cold War radar station, probably designed to provide early warning of any nuclear attack on an air base that lies about 12 miles away. Improvements in radar in the 50s meant it probably fell into disuse soon after it was built. What’s left stands as a reminder that, whatever Bert the Turtle might say, in a nuclear war it pays to be fifteen feet underground in a concrete box – even if you live in the depths of the countryside.