Sunday, 16 October 2011

A Wolf in Wolf's Clothing...

It's time to say goodbye to the Mazda MX-5 that I have been commuting in for the past couple of years. Although a great little car, I have been hankering after a bit more power; after all I did sell my 140bhp motorcycle to purchase it. On the twisties the car has been a joy and it is on B roads that it excels but the lure of horsepower is hard to resist and so I have now bought a car that I never imagined owning: a BMW. In fact, I have held many prejudices, associating all kinds of unpleasant road behaviour with drivers of the marque (this despite having many friends who own them). However, as with all prejudices, they are there to be challenged and once I had test driven this particular car it was difficult to resist... First there is the legendary build quality - this is a 16 year old car yet it has very little rust on it. Secondly, it was at one time a seriously expensive vehicle and as such it comes with a lot of the equipment that customers parting with over £40,000 might expect but thirdly, and this is vital, it has the most incredible engine - a 3.2 litre straight six - which is ultimately what this machine is all about...
With 320bhp available this old M3 is a seriously quick car but what really surprised me was its handling; despite its bulk it is really very impressive. There are a few things that need doing but for the most part these are cosmetic. Also because of its media history - it featured on Discovery's Wheeler Dealers a few years back - there are certain things that I know have been done. It has a full service history including the VANOS unit which also helps...
So I'm entering a new chapter in my motoring life, never having driven a car like it before. Sure I've owned, driven and ridden powerful vehicles but nothing quite like this imposing Beemer.
For me it is not the most attractive of cars - it looks a lot like most modern boxes (although it is much more attractive with the hood down) - but ultimately the car is defined by its engine which sits invisible beneath a more or less standard 3 series bonnet. Its performance is hidden to some extent too but it does have an aggressive stance and as such isn't quite that wolf in sheep's clothing that I had at first imagined it to be...

Silverstone Classic 2011

Classic and Sport Car's James Elliott wondered after this year's Silverstone Classic whether others had enjoyed the event as much as he had (see 'I loved the Silverstone Classic, but did you?'). As a first time visitor to this three day event I can respond in the affirmative to his question. Arriving after a more or less traffic free journey, driving my father down in his 1969 3 Litre V6 wooden chassis Marcos was a pleasure in itself. Now that I have my own children I enjoy sharing these kinds of events with my Dad even more now than I did when I was younger. Representing his website - - meant that we were parked up with the VIPs and were ferried to the heart of the event courtesy of a fleet of brand new Jaguars.
In a moment of real nostalgia I came across the half-scale type 35B Bugatti made by Tula Engineering that my father helped to set up in the early 1970s.
Based then in Kimpton in Hertfordshire, I remember trips to the little 'factory' unit where the larger scale Bugattis were restored and where these smaller 'toys' were made. I think that they were powered by a lawn mower engine and from the perspective of a child they felt very quick. They were certainly great fun to drive and I was very lucky to have the opportunity to pilot one from time to time. Here I am sitting proudly behind the wheel of one at Tula Engineering in my school uniform; a 'gentleman' racer if ever I saw one!
I also remember the mini grand prix that were staged at a friend's house, which invariably involved the adults racing these tiny replicas, usually with one leg hanging over the side of the car. Memorably on one occasion a full size Bugatti joined its smaller siblings around the circuit, most likely the result of a few too many beers with lunch; somehow unimaginable today!
In the photo on the left, my dad is squeezing into the middle car while Nick Mason (left) looks on... So for me, this year's Silverstone Classic managed to take me back to my childhood in a quite unexpected fashion but given that my passion for cars began at an early age it seems entirely appropriate that it should have done...

Friday, 15 July 2011

TT3D: Closer to the Edge

Last night I saw TT3D in 2D at my local rep cinema, Campus West in Welwyn Garden City. It is the only such cinema between home and London and always has an interesting programme of films on. Previous visits have been with my children to see films that they had chosen, so it was good to go with friends to see this film about the Isle of Man TT. Perhaps unsurprisingly the audience was not large and there was a definite gender bias although the age range was rather more inclusive. An enlightened and civilsed cinema, Campus West serve beer and wine and allow you to take these with you into the auditorium.

TT3D opens with a sequence of onboard footage, which seeks to create a virtual ride around the opening section of the Isle of Man circuit (see here for an example). As the bike powers away from the starting grid the spectator participates vicariously in every gear change as the front wheel lifts off under acceleration and that sensation took me straight back to my own motorcycling days. I wouldn't have been matching the kinds of speeds involved in riding the TT clearly but motorcycling is ultimately all about speed and the 0 to 60 standing start (and beyond on the Isle of Man) is something that all bikers will recognise as part of the thrill... And this thrill is essentially what TT3D is all about. The film captures and demonstrates the passion for speed and the desire to win that motivates the riders in the TT. They all risk their lives every time they take to the circuit riding at speeds of up to 200mph, inches away from dry stone walls, trees and traffic furniture. As the film makes abundantly clear there is absolutely no margin for error and yet at the same time the riders are pushing right up to the limits of grip in the search for ever faster lap times.

Tying the film together is the story of Guy Martin, a charismatic, outspoken and ultra individual rider who works as a lorry mechanic during the week but who lives for the adrenaline rush of road racing. Other riders play a part in the documentary, including Michael Dunlop, the son of Robert Dunlop and the nephew of one of the greatest ever TT riders, Joey Dunlop, Ian Hutchinson, the first man to win 5 TT races in a single year, and the legendary John McGuinness, but Martin has a real presence in front of the camera and is sufficiently unconventional to make for compelling viewing - he is also a pretty handy motorcyclist! The film covers the 2010 TT and we see Martin achieving some great results but he never reaches the top step of the podium, a situation repeated at this year's event when Martin came second in the Senior TT, the prestige race of the meeting. So, the film contains a good deal of racing footage, most of it contemporary, although there is some archive footage and even a series of clips from Monty Banks' 1935 film No Limit, starring George Formby - a great film that I remember seeing as a boy. Martin's presence in the film gives the viewer an insight into the mindset of a TT racer; as we follow his exploits and his often wry commentary we begin to understand what drives someone to take the kinds of risks that define the TT and position it as probably the most famous of all of the surviving road races. All of the riders, and their partners and families too, live with the presence of death. They all know riders who have died at the TT and they all recognise that even the simplest of mistakes can have a tragic outcome. At one point the film reflects on the death of Paul Dobbs, a New Zealander killed at the 2010 TT, revealing the grief felt by his fellow competitors but also the intense sense of community shared by them. An interview with Bridget Dobbs reveals something of the spirit of the riders and their families as she explains how the TT was a part of both of their lives and how her husband died doing something that he loved. Despite the tragedy, which Bridget Dobbs refuses to see in these terms, there is an uplifting sense of the importance of lives being lived to the full - Paul Dobbs' life but also Bridget's life and the lives of her children. The message is a familiar one but it is expressed in simple and honest terms in this film.

TT3D was shot in the run up to the 2010 TT and charts Guy Martin's preparations for it with the final section of the film covering his performances (and those of his rivals) in the races themselves.

Much of the race footage no doubt comes from the television coverage of the TT and this is used well in relation to the Martin material. As the film moves towards its conclusion we come ever closer to the huge accident suffered by Martin in the Senior TT.
Travelling at approximately 160mph, Martin lost the front wheel going into the famously very fast Ballagarey corner and the bike slipped away from under him, hitting a wall and exploding on impact. Incredibly Martin survived the crash although he suffered broken ribs, vertebrae and other assorted injuries. Martin is interviewed in hospital and expresses similar views to those here. There is no doubt that riders such as Martin are incredibly courageous; they are also single minded and some would no doubt call them selfish for pursuing their passions in the way that they do. They are though a reminder in our ever more regulated lives that there is still room for activities that gain their excitement through their inherent danger...

The film itself is well made and makes good use of the material either shot or sourced. It tells a compelling human story while managing to place the viewer at the heart of much of the action. Early on the film can occasionally feel a little frenetic as the footage shifts rapidly while the documentary seeks to orientate its spectators and its subject matter. There was only one moment that grated for me and this was in the run up to the final series of races at the 2010 TT when the key protagonists - Hutchinson, Dunlop and Martin - are presented readying themselves, shot in close-up pulling on their leathers and looking more like the stars of a deodorant or razor blade advert!

As I left the cinema and tried to work out whether I needed to pay for car parking I met an old boy who had also just seen the film. He told me that his father had raced in the 1923 TT and had gone on to race Cooper 500 Formula 3 cars in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For him watching the film had re-connected him with his memories of his late father. For me the reconnection was perhaps rather more mundane but it did rekindle my passion for motorcycling and remind me not only why it can be so enjoyable but also just how dangerous it can be too...

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Classics in the Walled Garden 2011

With all the rain that we have had recently we were very lucky to have had a brief respite last Wednesday evening - just long enough to allow for a more or less entirely dry Classics in the Walled Garden at Luton Hoo. The event is only a couple of miles down the road for me so there isn't a great deal of driving pleasure to be had in attending; however, what I do enjoy is the sheer range of vehicles that turn up, some of which have come from pretty far afield. What also marks these types of event is the friendliness of the visitors, whether participants or spectators. Not long after I arrived I found myself chatting with the owner of a very well used Jensen Interceptor, a car that I lusted after as a boy after picking up a beautiful promotional booklet at an Alexandra Palace motor show. Having made all sorts of modifications to the car he told me that he was using it more regularly than his modern.

I also came across the car that my parents were married in, a car that forms of part of the Vauxhall Heritage Collection. It was great to see it out, especially as it spends much of its time on static display. There were a number of Vauxhalls at the event as well as a surprisingly large number of MG As and E-Type Jags, although it is their 50th anniversary this year so they're obviously keen to celebrate... I also saw my first ever 'live' Aston Martin Lagonda, which up close is a really rather impressive car.

As usual there were lots of modern Ferraris, which I have to confess don't do a great deal for for me, but there was a very special looking Daytona Spyder bearing the registration plate '365 FER'.

In comparison the Marcos that I took along might have seemed rather brutal, especially once running (it is very loud) but it does evoke a similar era - late 1960 - the period when the 'swinging sixties' began to give way to the 'glam rock' seventies... By eight in the evening the early arrivals began to leave for the journey home and so I managed to navigate my way out past the many who remained, as the beer and food continued to be enjoyed. Once again a very pleasant event, helped hugely by a window in the wet weather...

Friday, 8 July 2011

Goodwood Festival of Speed 2011

I hadn't planned to visit the Festival of Speed this year but courtesy of Classic and Sports Car I was lucky enough to attend the 'Moving Motor Show', which ran for the second time this year, ahead of the main three days of the Festival. Having attended with friends in the past, I decided to take my father down to Goodwood, which meant an early pick up from Greenwich, rendered significantly later than planned by an accident on the M25. In all I spent ten hours driving, so I was thankful that the weather was good, bar the odd shower, and I was able to keep the hood down in my Mazda MX-5 - a real relief as my windows are currently stuck in the closed position. As ever the Festival showcases an amazing array of cars from over a hundred years of motoring. I hadn't expected the display of contemporary machinery to necessarily excite me as classic and vintage cars are more my thing but I was very taken by Morgan's modern revamp of its famous three wheeler.

The car is powered by a 1.9 litre S & S motorcycle engine that delivers something in the region of 115 bhp or around 220 per tonne given the light weight of the car. Transmission is via a 5 speed Mazda MX-5 gearbox also offering - rather usefully - a reverse gear! The car is beautifully finished, inside and out and the noise through the twin pipes, combining the best of bike and car, sounds wonderful. A team from Morgan were on hand at Goodwood to answer questions about the car, including Steve Morris, the production director, with whom my father and I had a fascinating conversation regarding matters such as steering geometry, engine design and tyre speed rating (the Avons might work well on my Dad's Austin 7 'Machlachlan' single seater). I would have loved an opportunity to take one for a test drive but had to make do with trying one on for size...

The £30,000 price tag is a bit of barrier to ownership, as is the already lengthy waiting list if you do happen to have that kind of money to spend on what is essentially a toy...

Also of interest this year was the Costin-Harris 'Protos' Formula 2 racing car, featuring, as one might expect given Costin's involvement, a stressed-skin plywood monocoque. Fitted with a 1600cc fuel injected Cosworth engine producing 225 bhp the car was capable of a top speed of approximately 175 mph. Racing in the Formula 2 Championships in 1967 and 1968 the car was moderately successful, achieving a best place of 2nd at Hockenheim, where it took the lap record.

Also interesting was the display of forty or so Indianapolis 500 cars in 'Gasoline Alley' which included the huge Cummins Diesel, the first of its type to race the Indy 500.

As ever there was too much to see in a single day but that's part of what makes the Festival of Speed so enjoyable. I am already planning for the Revival in September at which, thankfully, there won't be a Range Rover display to distract my Dad - every time we passed it he had to be stopped from sharing his views about how bad they are with the staff - and he should know, he has owned two!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Patience (After Sebald)

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to be invited to a private screening of Grant Gee's latest film, Patience (After Sebald). The film is a reflective essay on the influence of the writings of the novelist and scholar W. G. Sebald but more specifically it is an attempt to follow in Sebald's footsteps, both literally and metaphorically. The film takes as its direct inspiration Sebald's The Rings of Saturn and recreates the journey taken by Sebald within it as he traverses his adopted home county of Suffolk. The film also structures itself along what might be called 'Sebaldian' lines, mimicking the author's famously digressive style of narration. I have to confess to not having read, as yet, any Sebald, although having now seen this wonderful film I intend to rectify this as soon as possible; however, the film 'spoke' to me very powerfully. The places - Southwold, Dunwich, Orford - explored by both Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and Gee in Patience are very familiar to me and I found that the aesthetic beauty of the film, partly shot on 16mm, captured something of the schizophrenia of the Suffolk coast that can function as both summer holiday destination and an impossibly bleak and desolate location. The Rings of Saturn opens by expressing precisely this dual state with Sebald combining the 'carefree' with a growing sense of melancholy: 'In August 1992 when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realised, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast' (2002).

The passage captures, for me, something of Freud's celebrated essay 'On Transience' (1916), in which the psychoanalyst explores mourning and memory. In this short piece, Freud describes an episode in which a poet and a somewhat reserved friend, thought to be Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé respectively, are unable to enjoy a scene of beauty because ‘it was fated to extinction’. Freud, in his analysis of his friends’ reactions, surmises that ‘[t]he idea that all this beauty was transient was giving these two sensitive minds a foretaste of mourning over its decease’. In a similar fashion Sebald is overcome by a melancholy that bleeds into his initial pleasure: 'in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place'. There is a moment in the film that recounts a scene from The Rings of Saturn in which Sebald loses himself in the scrubland heath that characterises much of the Suffolk countryside. Sebald becomes disoriented and finds himself walking in circles, an irrational sense of terror taking hold as he struggles to find his way of out the suddenly unfamiliar landscape. I recall just such a moment myself, experienced when walking similar terrain - 'Sailor's Path' between Aldeburgh and Snape - as a child. It is one of those cinematic encounters that prompts a certain kind of time travel, transporting one back with breathtaking immediacy to a moment from one's past...

Gee's film weaves together interviews with individuals who knew Sebald whether as colleagues, fellow writers or publishers and constructs a compelling portrait of a fascinating writer. We learn very little about Sebald the man but a great deal about Sebald the author. It is through the Sebaldian text, whether read - beautifully by Jonathan Pryce - or glimpsed on screen that this author is made present to the spectator.
The visibility of the text in the film is reminiscent of Greenaway's experiments in Prospero's Books (1991) and The Pillow Book (1996) but here the written word is far less visually heavy than in Greenaway's almost overly rich and lushly coloured works. The starkness of the black and white film stock and the texture of the grain is compelling and beautiful. Gee spoke at the screening of the importance of place for him in his work and this is evident in the care with which he has sought to capture the desolate beauty of the Suffolk landscape. There is a detachment and an alienation at the heart of these beautiful images that reflects the strange confluence of land, sea and sky that for me at any rate typify this particular coastline.

Whether a Sebaldian or not this is a film that deserves recognition for not only is it a powerful aesthetic statement in its own right, it is also an enchanting portrait of a text, its author and a place, an ultimately uncanny place, that Sebald called home...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Browne Report

As someone likely to be affected by the recommendations of this report, both personally and in terms of the university department that I manage, I have been reading it in some detail since its publication earlier this week. While there are aspects of the report that are undeniably accurate - most obviously the fact that higher education in the UK has been historically woefully underfunded - the solutions on offer are, for the most part, deeply worrying. I can see how certain institutions teaching certain subject areas will welcome the report's proposals and I have no doubt that some will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of the funds that will accrue to them specifically as a result of it. However, many institutions will be dismayed at the ideological underpinning to the report that places value (both economic and cultural) on certain types of academic activity while devaluing others. At one level this dichotomy has always existed, characterised by the assertion that the sciences are important and lead to jobs while the arts are simply for 'art's sake' and therefore in productive terms are a complete waste of time and money. It is embedded in Browne's report in the recommendation that government subsidy is removed from all subjects except those designated 'priority' (see pages 42, 45, 47). And yet, even in Lord Browne's own terms this position is not tenable. Thus chapter one of the report opens with the following statement:

'Higher education matters. It helps to create the knowledge, skills and values that underpin a civilised society. Higher education institutions (HEIs) generate and diffuse ideas, safeguard knowledge, catalyse innovation, inspire creativity, enliven culture , stimulate regional economies and strengthen civil society. They bridge the past and future; the local and the global' (Browne Report 2010: 14)

All true. To suggest that only students themselves benefit from the degrees that they study for (see Browne 2010: 25) is to fail to recognise the various ways in which the UK economy, our society and our culture benefits. The Creative Industries in the UK are highly valued for the jobs they create and the income they generate but Browne's model won't fund the graduates that produce the creative ideas that generate this significant amount of income (and cultural and reputational prestige). The burden of investment in this area will have to be borne by individuals, despite the clear rewards that accrue to our society at large.

So, higher education underpins and creates immense rewards for civilised society - this we know; however, the report proposes to create a marketplace in HE, the effect of which will be to fund only certain of the subject areas that generate these vital benefits (it is anticipated that these areas will lose up to 80% of their current HEFCE funding when the CSR is announced on Wednesday 20th October, see here and here). So the plan is to introduce a market to HE but then tie the hands of certain subjects behind their collective backs while reinforcing the market position of others with government subsidy. Further, because the connections between a degree in Film Studies or English Literature, for example, are less immediately obvious than those in Medicine, it is highly likely that fewer students, now required to bear costly fees (£7,000 will be necessary just to stand still for band C and D subjects - arts, humanities and social science, as Browne notes on page 31) will opt to study the former. And yet it is precisely these kinds of subjects that 'underpin a civilised society', as Browne has already asserted in the opening to his report...

Browne asserts that institutions will be able to recruit as many students as they wish in the future (although the small print runs counter to this) and that as a result some will grow while others will 'need to raise their game to respond' (2010: 28). Quite apart from the fact that this is no game, competition will favour the priority areas rather than those currently being undermined for their apparent lack of value. In addition it will favour those students from wealthy backgrounds prepared to take on the debt that others will be less willing to contemplate. To suggest that students, as consumers, will dictate where quality lies via their investment demonstrates a failure to understand the nature of what it is that universities do. Yes, the student experience is paramount, as is employability but it wouldn't exactly be a surprise if the institutions chosen by students are those that already have a large share of the market. They have brand advantage and possess significant budgets that can be deployed to further enhance their market position. This has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with big business. Marketisation is not the answer to everything - there are contexts in which the brutal illogicality of the marketplace is simply not appropriate. We are tampering here with the future of generations of individuals and with the very economy of the UK...

Links to a series of interesting articles on the implications of the marketisation of HE in the Browne Report can be found below:

Martin McQuillan, 'If you tolerate this... Lord Browne and the Privatisation of the Humanities'
Stefan Collini, 'Browne's Gamble'
Jonathan Freedland, 'In Cameron's pay-as-you-go state, a degree is about earning, not learning'
Jessica Shepperd, 'High tuition fees will deter poor students, ministers warned'
Hannah Richardson, 'University fears over grant cuts'
Channel 4 News, 'University tuition fees set for huge rise'