Saturday, 26 December 2015

Radiohead's Bond theme


I've been waiting years for Radiohead to get asked to write a theme to a Bond film. This was rejected? For Sam Smith?

A really sad reflection of how safe cosy and predictable this film series has become since the knockout Casino Royal. I wonder which Mum's Favourite will be providing the next Bond theme?
Is it time for Bruce Forsyth?

Friday, 25 December 2015

Give me Spielberg's demented "1 9 4 1" over "It's a Wonderful Life" any Christmas Eve

Directors cut of Spielberg's 1 9 4 1 is a an unlikely but brilliant movie for Christmas - if you don't have family around.


My Christmas eve set piece movie was 3.5 hour directors cut of Spielberg's underappreciated epic comedy "1 9 4 1", flavoured with a great German cheese and a nice Riesling.

I'd actually forgotten the great directors grand folly is actually set at Christmas in LA and Hollywood (in the panicky aftermath of Pearl Harbour) making it a strangely Californian yuletide movie. I enjoyed myself so much I can't wait to repeat it  as a seasonal event next year.

I guess it depends on your sense of humour and state of mind but I find the standard, truncated version of the movie funny anyway, and the extended directors cut is definitely the way to see it. With lots more Dan Ackroyd and John Candy this makes it much more of a continuation of 1970s Saturday Night Live and Animal House and much less of the straight Spielberg film we were all expecting in the aftermath of Close Encounters and the run up to Raiders Of The Lost Ark.


Also in the extra hour of footage are more mad cameos such as John Landis and Sam Fuller (as USAF's equivalent of Battle of Britain's Hugh Dowding, here trying to coordinate an air defense against a non existent Japanese air attack). Outside in Hollywood December 1941 war fever has created civil breakdown while those who should be in charge, like Robert Stack's General Stillwell, in indoors watching the premier of "Dumbo".

"Ladies and gentlemen, every where I look... soldiers are fighting sailors, sailors are fighting Marines! Directly in front of me, I see a flying ...blond... floozy.. Everywhere I look... everywhere, pure pandemonium... pandemonium  "

There is also more music,  particulary John William's magnificent parody of a jingoistic war movie march, and more of the musical flow which sends it some way towards the ribald bad taste musical it probably should have been written as.

It still has rough edges - there is still too much coked up John Belushi and it is now even less politically correct for modern standards (what old film is?) while probably being far too correct to reflect the actual prejudices of the time.

"I'd like to thank all the GI's for helping make tonight's evening such a... a memorable occasion. Maybe in the future we can have some Negroes come in and we'll stage a race riot... right here. "

If the standard sugary tripe at this time of year is getting to you and you think you can handle something like Dad's Army on 50 mojitos try and find the version of this movie as it should have been released originally. It's a blast.



The rest of my My Hellish Solo Christmas for the benefit of John Lewis's advertising team

Chosen theme : Madagascar, all the movies, specials and tv series including new netflix "All Hail King Julien!"

Chosen music : new Eagles of Death Metal Album, specifically masterful cover of Save A Prayer For Me Now

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

SPECTRE REVIEW

Now I know what the fans of DR NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE felt like when they saw DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER.

Monday, 31 August 2015

'Paris Vinci'

If you've seen True Detective S2 you'll know the best thing about it is the setting, Vinci, an industrial estate no-zone in the centre of LA.

​I finally got around to staying in the Paris hotel in Wes Anderson's HOTEL CHEVALIER
but I didn't, it was expensive and I got guilted into staying somewhere less ostentatious
(I'll do it next time)

Instead I find myself in a hotel so far out of town the local metro station gives only only location - 'Paris'
And I walked here from Paris Nord​. This seemed like a good idea last weekend when I walked ten miles from N1 to the Millenium Dome. Less so today.

Just read the wiki page on Syd Barret in the only open earterie in the district...
 (August means everywhere including hotel bar and restaurant in the district is closed)

...and apparently when Syd Barret moved back from his London flat to live in Cambridge with his mum he walked the whole distance. 50 miles.
I just starting to think "oh I bet that was fun" when I realised the poor guy man was totally cuckoo for coco-pops at the time.

Anyhoo
Some of these these out of town, out of time, out of this world hotels on the outskirts are more interesting than staying in a tourist trap in town. My week long stay at the Jerry Anderson-esque Hesperia Hotel "in" Barcelona at the start of my 2010 roadtrip was so good I'm planning to drive back next year.

This 'business hotel' in a half abandoned industrial estate would probably be really depressing in say.. Slough.. but the French never allow anything to get that boring.





Just wish the bar was open.

Friday, 7 August 2015

A lesson in film production and man management : ANT-MAN vs FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)

There is actually a great conversation to be had about Ant-Man and Fantastic Four which is actually about competent/incompetent movie production and basic man management skills.

Film director starts work on a singular, perhaps risky, vision of an existing property. Studio backs him initially.

  • Marvel Studious with Edgar Wright
  • Josh Trank with Fantastic Four (2015)

Movie/movies are released during production which makes the studio hesitate;

  • Iron Man and Avengers create a connected world which doesn't fit with Edgar Wrights vision
  • Guardian of the Galaxy proves bright and cheery space opera and superheroes is a valid mix after all

Studio has to make a decision;

  • Marvel amicably splits with Edgar Wright but salvages most of his vision for another director to complete. Result - Ant-Man is somewhat faithful to Edgar Wright and pretty much everyone is happy.
  • Fox lets Josh Trank complete the majority of his movie, then spreads rumours about his onset behaviour, then sacks him and reshoots it. Result - a complete car crash.

And lets not forget this is Fox's second disaster of this kind with this iconic comic property. In their previous failed attempt to adapt the most famous plotline from this set of characters Fox executives similarly got cold feet during production and slashed the budget, resulting in one of the most famous and recognisable characters in comics being portrayed onscreen as a cloud.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

UPDATED Hank and Janet Pym make Marvel's 1980s look very interesting (ANT-MAN review)

Marvel's Edgar Wright  'disaster' is actually the most Pixar of Marvel movies, great for a pre-teen audience, and rich in fascinating alt-history for Marvel's already rich alt-Universe. I'm going to list how much has now changed.
This has now been updated to show the original Ant-Man opening scene.



****LOTS OF SPOILERS******

In the very first scene we have a flashback to Marvel's 1989. It has a Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas - amazingly de-aged to look as it he's just walked off  Oliver Stone's Wall Street, quitting SHIELD before Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell aged to look in her 70s) and Howard Stark (John Slattery).

After this we can make a few assumptions

WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR

1972
Arnim Zola, HYDRA survivor and corruptor of SHIELD dies and is digitised
Tech note : presumably digitised on IBMs ...which would be appropriate for IBMs links to he Nazis pre WW2.

1974
Stark Expo flasback in Iron Man 2 has Howard Stark neglecting Tony.

Late 1970s
SHIELD ANT-MAN propaganda movie made (shown in another Ant-Man flashback)
Hank Pym refuses to hand suit over or the technology and becomes Ant Man himself.

1984
Natasha Romanov (Black Widow) is born in USSR,

Mid-80s
Pym and Van Dyne active as Ant Man and the Wasp.

1987
Janet Van Dyne becomes lost in Quantum Realm after disarming a Soviet ICBM by shrinking to sub atomic size.

1988 ?
Pym active as Ant-Man solo? The original Ant-Man opening scene apparently has Pym stealing microfilm from a Panamanian general. (In the first Edgar Wright draft this is set in the 1960s which would have put it outside the continuity listed here).

1989 
Pym quits because SHIELD (HYDRA?) is trying to replicate his work
Alexander Pierce secretly joins HYDRA

1991
Howard Stark and wife assassinated by HYDRA

Early 1990s (?)
Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford in Winter Solidier) has his life saved by up and coming SHIELD agent Nick Fury in Bogota.
Alexander Pierce gives up Directorship of SHIELD to Fury.


Notes
* In Ant -Man HYDRA sure is interested in the Pym's technology - and weirdly during the Project Insight revelations in Winter Soldier neither Hank, either of the Van Dynes (or Darren 'Yellowjacket' Cross) is listed as a threat to HYDRA. Hank quits only shortly before Howard Stark is killed and from what we know HYDRA must be aware of him. Does Pym know a lot more about the workings on SHIELD at that time than the others? Did he quit at HYDRA's insistence or was he tipped off?

* Hank Pym - an actual agent for SHIELD is not listed as a threat by HYDRA but Dr Steven Strange is on that list. So Steven Strange is known to HYDRA but not apparently to SHIELD. How long? Ant Man treated us to 1980s flashbacks - how far back could Dr Strange go? Anything is possible.... 1960s Greenwich village is my vote.

* Pym worked with Stark - did he work with Anton Vanko? Anton was father of Ivan from Iron Man 2, now revealed to have with a very similar grudge to Pym, in that convinced Howard was stealing his work.The reputation of the Stark's in starting to look less glorious with every movie.

* Unlike Howard Stark, Pym's treatment of daughter Hope looks like that an obsessive parent - what did he think of Howard Stark's neglect of young Tony? With similarly obsessive busy parents did Tony and Hope Van Dyne grow up together?

* When Pym revolts he refuses to hand suit over and becomes Ant Man. This is very reminiscent of Tony Stark's later behaviour with Iron Man suit. Was a young Tony a witness to some of that debate? How much of Tony's behaviour is actually inspired by Pym? <cough> Ultron

* The suited up Janet Van Dyne really looked the part as the original Wasp in another brief flashback. Her daughter, Hope, with her marital arts skills  and gun collection, hardly looks science material - can we assume she takes from her mother in this regard? Put it this way - would SHIELD allow a scientific asset as valuable as Pym go on tactical missions without backup? Suddenly Janet Van Dyne looks more likely to be a tactical field agent than Hank's lab partner and if a field agent she is most likely a protege of Peggy Carter,  This would make Janet Van Dyne Peggy Olsen to Peggy Carter's Joan, with Roger Sterling as Howard Stark of course. (Sorry - just watched the end of Mad Men).

* If so Janet's disappearance would be doubly traumatic for Carter who similarly lost Steve Rogers without trace. When did Carter retire? After Howard Stark's death in 1991? If so these few years, roughly contemporary to the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, look almost like a sudden coup by HYDRA, perhaps prompted by their failure of their Soviet project, LEVIATHAN (seen in Agent Carter).

* Van Dyne would also probably the same generation as Jenny Agutta's Councilwoman Hawley of the World Security Council (from Avengers, Winter Soldier), who is British and likely another Carter protege.

* Possibly Van Dyne (as Wasp?) recruited Romanov from the clutches of the KGB to make another generation of Carter protege's along with Maria Hill and Agent 13, Susan Carter (Winter Soldier again).

* Perhaps more likely - did Pym and Van Dyne ever cross swords with the Winter Soldier?.. I guess we might find out next year.

Finally - we all know who is going to be cast as Janet Van Dyne, so stop haggling over money and give her a call!

CZJ in Entrapment

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

TrailerParkLife : Blur's THE MAGIC WHIP as a soundtrack to THE PERIPHERAL

I've been enjoying the new William Gibson novel, The Peripheral.


Blur's THE MAGIC WHIP, starts like a Blur Album, but isn't.
The first four track, Street", "New World Towers", "Go Out" and "Ice Cream Man" are playfull and fun - like a good lost Gorillaz album with Graham Coxon adding some  previously missing gravitas.
It has the tragic playfulness of trailerParklife in Clanton 2030.

From the Bowie-esque "Thought I Was a Spaceman"  however the mood changes into
something more resembling the latter Blur of Albarn James and Rowntree, but with quite a bit more pomp, power and effect.

"I Broadcast"  "My Terracotta Heart", "There Are Too Many of Us", "Ghost Ship", "Pyongyang" are all 3D tunes of late 21st C melancholy.
Magic Whip ends like a Blur album but isn't - it is a sequel to Albarn's The Good The Bad and the Queen but with added Blur.
It neatly fits the mournful doom of London 2100.


Monday, 25 May 2015

William Gibson's new time travel novel is his best since NEUROMANCER

THE PERIPHERAL;

2030 America is one large trailer park in which the poor are paid  to be mercenaries in online games.  The money economy is based on 'builders' who create designer narcotics, tolerated by 'Homes' a corrupt security apparatus which has evolved from Homeland Security. A girl, Flynn, takes over one odd merc game job from her brother (one of many actual war vets recruited by gamers after their service). This merc game is a new one, a security/surveillance game in a strange environment - in which she inconveniently witnesses a murder.
We, and Flynn, then find that it is not a game, and the interface she is using is actually rich elites from 70 years in the future, hiring cheap disposable labour from the past to control their drones, and their living, breathing 2100s equivalent, called 'Peripherals'.

2100 London is mostly a Victorian theme park, re-greened after a world wide catastrophic event called 'The Jackpot'. Dotted with "Shards" which have an environmental as well as accommodation function, and cosplay zones, in which tourists can interact with Victorian recreations from the past. It is inhabited by the surviving super rich and their families, most of the activity is artful reconstruction of the past for tourism and education purposes. London's lost rivers have recovered as 90% of the human population has died off. Politically the city is run in a feudal fashion by Guilds from the City of London.

After a decade or so writing contemporary (if wierd) spy ficition  William Gibson returns to science fiction with a time travel novel, and it is probably as good as anything  he's written since his hugely influential first novel Neuromancer,  which actually coined the modern use of the word 'cyber' in 1984.

Gibson's version time travel seems to work like this - the super rich in the 2100s can create a 'stub' back to a version of the 2030s which allows them to communicate but not travel. Once established the stub runs concurrent time at both ends of the link (you can't jump forward or backward within it) and creates a separate time stream which does not create paradoxes. They do seriously affect the later development of history within that reality but the 'Klepts' - the descendants of Russian mafia that seem to run London 2100 just don't care. Some in fact run the stubs like live strategy games, purely sadistically, for fun.


This is a great and topical idea and quite a believable extension of current economics - perhaps a logical extension of outsourcing. Why should 'job creators' even have to pay subsistence wages in their own timeline when they can pay resource from another era to do it? Plenty of businesses right now would run call centers using switchboard operators from the  1930s if they had the means to to so.

In the reading this book just flashes by and I found myself slowing down and pacing myself just to enjoy it. Previously "unputdownable" isn't a phrase you would normally apply to William Gibson. His novels are not written as thrillers, Gibson's attention to detail is more Bret Easton Ellis than Tom Clancy.
Often they are (Spook Country) much better on second reading.

I've started and given up on reading about four or five novels in a row  (starting with a Thomas Pynchon last year) but I burned through this,  to the extent that it wormed it's way into lunch and things to do in the evening.Very short chapters helps, and he's a great writer.

Gibson's grasp of characters gets better and better - the slightly cardboard cartoons of his first beloved novels are now fully fleshed rounded and quite tragic characters. The defunct rock band of Pattern Recognition and Zero History is replaced by a trailerpark full of young crippled veterans and their families in mid 21st century, balanced against the quirks of an even more distant future London society post Jackpot.

Like the recent Bigend trilogy, he spends time building entertaining characters and once he gets to play with them the results are often very funny. When American girl from trailer park 2030 operates a living Peripheral in 2100 to identify the murder suspect she has to be fitted with a module that spouts the pretentious society bullshit of the 2100s to fit in.

Aside from the scifi, and the general pleasure of reading Gibson in top form this is the most sympathetic portrayal of an unclass environment world I've come across for some time. There is no sneering at Flynn's trailer park world, and the pity reserved for the war vets is mixed with respect. The forced bonds which develop into friendship between the underclass of 2030 and the high class semi magical world of 2100 are perhaps the highlight of a great read.


When the explanation for the Jackpot arrives this it is a horribly believable idea;  that the mass die-off at the end of the century is not from one cause but an accumulation of environmental, social and economic horrors that have been building for some time until eventually human civilisation 'hits the jackpot' of mass unmanageable disaster. Flynn asks when it started and is told it has been in progress long before her own time of the 2030s.

As usual with Gibson the fantastic is convincing particularly with regard to the future tech and its relationships with society. Gibson admits in an afterword that creating a world of 2100 we can relate to in any way , and even a language to describe it,  was the most difficult part of the writing. The 2100 world of 'assemblers' is very hard to grasp early on, and yet  I have just spent weeks visiting London's Hampstead of the 2015 and the London of 2100, with its greenery full of Russians and underground car parks full of giant German luxury trucks really seems only fantastic in the detail.

This is further examples of how Gibson, - a native of Vancouver - gets the wider world in general and London in particular. The Big Smoke features heavily in the Bigend books, obviously in The Difference Engine, and even the last of the initial scifi Sprawl trilogy, Mona Lisna Overdrive. This Pacific Northwester's thing for London is something I regret I never got to ask him at his recent BFI visit.


A warning, The Perpheral has a steep learning curve and is tough to start. Readers are dumped right in at the deep end of both future environments and there is minimum background and explanatory detail, the Jackpot for example is not explained until the final 100 pages. Very short micro-chapters chapters help. Just let the detail flow over and allow comprehension to slowly sink in.

In an Afterword, Wilf Netherton and the Facebook of Dreams, Gibson talks about the tension between writing a narrative and making an environment comprehensible, alluding to Arthur C. Clarke's quote that
"any sufficiently advanced organisation with be indistinguishable from magic"
In his 2100 people tweet in their dreams (and have their dreams tapped by the security forces). The stubs which allow contact with previous eras are enabled by a mysterious Chinese server which is presumed beyond the understanding of anyone outside China.

"There is a working tension, in this sort of fiction between naturalistic narrative and technical exploitation. My own tendency is towards narrative, both as reader and writer. I'm content with Clarke's magic, and The Peripheral, with it's unknown, Chinese 'server' enabling the entire narrative is no doubt an extreme example of this"

Pyongyang is my favourite track on Blur's new album MAGIC WHIP, which has made a good soundtrack to the reading of this novel.

Pics are from my Sunday morning walk to Canary Wharf along the Regents Canal. About two hours listening to a typically fantastic Tom Ravenscroft 6 music show (Lapulax)


Saturday, 23 May 2015

FX's THE AMERICANS : One Black Widow after another

A glimpse at the red on Natalia Romanova's ledger in all it's harrowing detail.

FX's THE AMERICANS is destined to be a classic in retrospect. With all due respect to MAD MEN, in terms of domestic thriller it is really the closest current equivalent to THE SOPRANOS. I really envy those who will be able to watch this one day end to end without interruption.

I  watched the pilot last summer, couldn't believe how little attention it had got, showed it to someone else, and we then burned through two series in the next seven days.  As good as any classic cold war spy tv I've ever seen, including THE SANDBAGGERS and the BBC Le Carre adaptations, and at the same time a brilliant period drama (Reagan America) that rivals MAD MEN for capturing the real mood of the time the period. I bought 3 boxed sets of this show for friends last Christmas.

The pilot sets up the premise with KGB efficiency.  Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), are two KGB sleeper agents in early 1980s Washington, forced to live in an arranged marriage for twenty years who suddenly find that after having a family together - and quite a lot of other stuff they have in common - they've grown to actually love each other for real. The tragedy is they must make this and their family work in a world in which they both constantly lie, seduce and murder in the service of a ruthless foreign power. By the time the first series ends creepily to the tune of Peter Gabriel's 'Games Without Frontiers' (scariest music ever written about a BBC light entertainment show?), this show is totally addictive and really gets in the way of doing anything else

It has the best depiction of the period, early 1980s America, I've ever seen on the small screen. Most 1980s set dramas rely on the same John Hughes box of cliches - bright colours and teen angst. This show really recaptures the decade that was one faulty command decision away from the extinction of the human race. It is shot like gritty like grey sandpaper, so toned down colour pallet is virtually black and white. Alec Guinness's George smiley could walk in from the BBC version at at moment withut a shocking change in lighting or clarity. This is why they don't use stills as promo shots - this is the era we associate with DALLAS, but shot like CALLAN. It is Spielberg in negative.

So it is just a spy show in the 80s? No. Like TRUE LIES - but taken seriously  - this brings the  Cold War paranoia right into the domestic environment. Sometimes in THE AMERICANS the Iron Curtain cuts right across the dinner table. The 3rd Season particularly invades the home of the characters, as the domestic front starts to crumble when KGB Central asks the couple to recruit their own daughter to the cause.

The obvious advantage would be that a second generation KGB agent would be liable for high security defense jobs in the Pentagon. The obvious disadvantage is of course that the girl, played with incredible confidence and grace for a teenager by Holly Taylor, has not been through the Red Room process (or it's real world equivalent), and in total ignorance of her parents real identities has discovered religion via college.

How they expect to train what has become a young committed Christian to perform the acts required of Phillip and Elizabeth would be worthy of entire comedy series all on it's own - if we hadn't seen the shocking first attempt to recruit a second generation  spy at the climax of Season 2 (Spoiler : it didn't go well). The sheer impossibility of this is apparent to her parents, who are blinded both by love for their children and the unflinching Stalingrad like devotion to the cause.

A British version of this would stray into comedy at virtually every turn. The brilliant capacity for un-sneering sincerity in US drama is really shown in the sub-plot with Martha, Philips other wife. Martha is a lonely female employee at the FBI duped into marrying and spying for someone she thinks is working for FBI internal investigations. By the time she realises the truth she is in too deep emotionally and professionally to escape.

In a British show Martha would be a sad joke, but here, played with heartbreaking engagement by Alison Wright, she is almost the centre of the human tragedy taking place. The scene in which she thinks she marries her husband (known to her as Clark) while Clark/Philip's real wife Elizabeth is forced to attend as his "sister" is quite emotionally brutal all round - especially when it it revealed that as part of the KGB selection process, which led to a twenty year marriage with two kids, Elizabeth and Phillip never had a marriage ceremony themselves.

As a 'Black Widow' played for real, Keri Russell is terrifying, and  as hard as nails discovered in a tin at an abandoned camp during the Siberian winter. Infinitely more convincing a product of The Red Room as anything in the world of Marvel, you would hope writers working on any further iterations of The Black Widow in AGENT CARTER or the movies storyline are watching 'Elizabeth Jennings' religiously.

Good as the actresses are in this, it would probably be unwatchable without the restraint and humanity of Matthew Rhys who is the heart of the show. He has the seemingly impossible task of of engaging audience sympathy in a family of KGB murderers and with their mission. Core credit must of course go to the writers lead by showrunner Joe Weisberg - who virtually every episode prompts the thought "How the hell will they get out of this - and why do I care so much?".

One of the left field shocks is Richard Thomas, still best known to British viewers from The WALTONS, playing reptilian FBI supervisor Frank Gaad as if he had just walked off the set of the V alien invasion mini-series briefly popular at the time.

A constant pleasure is the almost Scorsese-like eye for brilliant period music. None of it obvious, a lot of it is British - such as Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac. One whole episode is devoted to the release of a Yazoo album!

Rhys and Russell are a real world couple now apparently, and I can't say I'm surprised. The chemistry between the two is immediately evident in the pilot. You wonder if the meta levels of role playing and acting in the THE AMERICANS make it easier for the performers to lift themselves out of the roles and get the downtime they deserve. Is this an actors dream - playing virtually every scene as a different character? Russell comes off worst here as most of her roles are utterly ruthless manipulating vamps that even HYDRA would think twice about employing.

Those Marvel fans who want an idea of the Black Widow's 'ledger' of previous crimes teased in Captain America : Winter Soldier and ignored in Age of Ultron? should watch "Elizabeth Jennings" at work in THE AMERICANS. It would be fascinating to watch how a character as committed to the cause as this, to be able to commit acts of that, ultimately chooses to retire to hang around with the likes of Tony Stark. I can just about imagine respect for Steve Rogers getting under the skin of Keri Russell's monster, or Banner, for obvious reasons, but likely she'd gut, skin and mount Stark first chance she got (though probably in  a different order).

So if it is so good why is THE AMERICANS so unknown in the UK?  Right now you can't even get to the official website from this country.
ITV bought it up. 
ITV showed two seasons of THE AMERICANS and dropped it like a stone. Those X Factor repeats are so much easier to sell when your overall share of the UK viewing audience drops by 5% every year. Maybe ITV would be more comfortable remaking THE AMERICANS themselves with Ant and Dec playing the Elizabeth and Philip?



Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Will Scottish votes tip Britain out of the EU?

If Britain voting to leave the EU triggers another vote for Scottish independence - what incentive do the Scottish Nationalists have for voting to keep Britain in the EU?

Surely it makes sense for them to vote en mass for Brexit - and then get another vote to the leave the UK as a 'material change' in the Union will have taken place.

General Election 2015: Could the threat of Brexit trigger a second Scottish independence referendum?

For those keen on Scotland leaving the Union and England leaving the EU, consider the 'benefits' when we have an open land border with an enthusiastic EU member like post independence Scotland. How much control will there be over England's borders then?

What next then? Full border controls and a fence accross the north? Say hello to your English/Scottish nationalist future

Pic of fortified Scottish border from Neil Marshall's disappointing DOOMSDAY


Monday, 11 May 2015

30 years since Bradford Stadium fire

30 years ago it was a boring Saturday and I was half watching World of Sport.
Suddenly it cut to live footage straight from Bradford City's Valley Parade ground, which was surprising  as very rarely would you see live footage from a football stadium at 4pm on a Saturday.

Crowd trouble they said.

"Oh god not again" I thought
There did look to be some trouble and I remember the weary resignation in the voice of the announcer. Quickly they went back to normal programming.

A few minutes later they cut back to Bradford, to say that apparently there was some sort of fire. Yeah  - there was some sort of fire.


Camera closed in on a policeman dragging a fan across the pitch, fans clothes were on fire.
What shocked me to the core however was not the fan but the policeman, who was without his helmet, and seemed completely unaware that his own hair was on fire.
World of Sport soon cut away.

I've just had to look this is up to confirm it wasn't some horrible nightmare, and the fact that this is the first time I've felt the need is evidence of how shocking it was. My spine is tingling now looking at the picture here.

There were of course several football disasters at this time, Heysel and Hillsborough chief among them, but you will notice Bradford often gets forgotten and is talked about quite differently. There is none of the anger or recrimination of those incidents because simply this incident is just too horrifying to revisit. Everyone just wanted to move on and not think about it.

Perhaps this is the reason it has taken 30 years for people to realise the history of fires at businesses owned by the Bradford City chairman Stafford Heginbotham. Eight fires in the 18 years before Bradford, many catastrophic, and many leading to large insurance payouts.

As detailed in Martin Fletchers; Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire:

"The club at the time took no actual responsibility for its actions and nobody has ever really been held accountable for the level of negligence which took place. It was appalling that public money was given to the club while it was still owned by the same shareholders under whose direction the fire had happened. I do not include the people currently running the club, who have always displayed a great, sensitive duty to the memory of those who died."

BBC Radio4's Today show this morning played the live audio of the local radio reporter covering the match and it is quite shocking. That horror of fire and people being within it is immediately reminiscent of another more famous piece of live audio recorded in 1937 at the destruction of the German airship Hindenburg.

Rather different outcomes though from those two incidents.

1937 - 36 people die in the Hindenburg disaster.
Result : a whole distinct form of passenger transport - the airship - is scrapped

1985 - 56 people die at a football match in Bradford.
Result : Inquiry concludes - it is just ...one of those things

Two weeks ago our tutor on my CyberSec course wondered what would happen if terrorists attacked a football crowd.
"Depends what they attacked them with.." said one of the students
"..If they burnt the stadium down maybe there wouldn't be any blame attributed at all. That's what happened in Bradford"

Friday, 8 May 2015

UK Election Meltdown 2015 a result of historic coffee and muffin disagreement (UPDATED)

Danny Alexander (looks and sounds like a Gilbert and Sullivan character - became Chief Secretary to the Treasury)
and  Ed Balls (looks and sounds like a character from Revenge of the Pink Panther - became Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer)
who couldn't get on over coffee during the failed Labour/Liberal Coalition negotiations in 2010, have now both lost their seats in last nights election meltdown.

The background is all in here, Film4's COALITION

2010 - After Britain's first televised leadership debate all sides rush to agree with new political star Nick Clegg, who goes onto lead his minority Liberal Democrat party into the hung parliament after the 2010 election. The Liberal Democrats, a more fresh faced and naive bunch of political meerkats you'll never find, reject the chance to form a government with natural left of centre allies Labour and instead form a government with the Conservatives, mainly because Danny Alexander and Ed Balls didn't get on during negotiations over coffee and muffins.
(Coalition is great UK political drama that bears comparison with HBO's RECOUNT and GAME CHANGE, I particularly liked Mark Gatiss as Prince of Darkness spin doctor Peter Mandelsson.)

Since the events depicted in Coalition the hard nosed Conservatives and their friends in the media have rammed through a very conservative agenda and generally have played the Lib Dems like a fiddle.

Meanwhile the equally amateurish Labour Party have been gutted by support for Scottish nationalists, perhaps because they are led by a man who managed to exceed expectations in the campaign only because the expectations were so rock bottom.

"The Right Wing Press destroyed Ed Milliband!" they will say
The Labour Party needs to take a very long hard look at it's selection process, as in this case the Progressive cause has been led for the last five years by a man who makes Micheal Foot look like John F Kennedy. Whatever Labour party workshop of work-shy policy wonks and self serving trade unionists engineered a leadership election where the choice was between two equally clueless looking brothers (the other Miliband is just as convincing) needs to take a long hard look at themselves.

This is The Guardian's Charlie Brooker on 'inherently comic' Ed Milliband

"The other week he was pictured in Elle magazine wearing the Fawcett Society’s “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt. Last Sunday the Mail claimed those T-shirts are stitched together in a Mauritian sweatshop by women earning 62p an hour. - A T-shirt. He can’t even wear a T-shirt without somehow condemning both himself and any surrounding witnesses to ridicule. What’s going to trip him up next? A doorknob?"

(Ed subsequently tripped leaving the stage after one of the televised leadership debates).

Dear Labour Party
for the rest of the UK politics is not a joke, it is not a hobby, it is not a passtime to brag about in North London dinner parties. Globalisation has taken a vast number of good jobs (for men and women) from this country and likely they won't be coming back. The only future I can see from here is a repeat of the 1870s - minus Scotland.
Look at this picture, one of a series of endless media disasters, taken from the incident alluded to by Charlie Brooker above - does this look like the face of Austerity Britain to you? Or a pair of dozy career politicians advised by dimwits living on Planet London?

Update :
It appears Clegg and Milliband will now resign as a result of yesterdays events.
I type this in the once rock solid Liberal seat of North Devon - Jeremy Thorpe's seat for most of the  Cretaceous Period and since - which is now solid Conservative after unseating Nick Harvey after 23 years in 70% turnout. UKIP vote seems to have collapsed, perhaps as a result of the SNP panic.

Will historians draw a parallel between Netanyahu's recent scare tactics in the Israeli election with that of Cameron's threat of the Scottish Nationalists here? Is 2015 the year of the scare? Will this be a feature of the US election?

To the surprise I'm sure of absolutely no-one in the rest of the UK, Labour has been quite successful in London. Elsewhere we have Scottish nationalists in total control of Scotland and English nationalists in control of nearly everywhere else.
Interesting times ahead.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

More Gerry Anderson Aerospace

After the hybrid air vehicle that looks like Thunderbird 2 in last post, I bring you the new commercial satellite launcher that looks like Fireball XL5




Highlights from Blue Origin's New Shepard space vehicle as it makes its first developmental test flight.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

THE HYBRID GESTATES (Airlander April 2015)

In 2014 an old airship hanger in Cardington Bedfordshire sold for £2million. Shortly after the American equivalent hanger was bought by Google for $1.16 billion. And that was just a 60 year lease.

This is probably indicative of nothing other than Googles acquisitional nature and the difference in property prices between Bedfordshire and Silicon Valley - but it might indicate British industry and finance is missing something happening right under its nose.

I'm not here to talk about the potential of this industry - there are professionals doing that here
and here.
I'm just blogging my trip to the Airlander factory. You'll find my gushing about Cardington and the Imperial Airship Scheme here - all my talk about Airships stops on that page because
Airlander is not about Airships. Looks deceive.
Airlander is not an airship. Airlander is a Hybrid Air Vehicle.

That bulbous shape may contain helium  (the inert gas - not explosive hydrogen, which filled the old airships) but it gains 40% of it's lift from its shape. Airlander is actually a heavier than air craft making it a great deal easier to maneuver at ground level, and has handled 50mph cross winds which are the standard measure for civilian air transport landings.

And there's more - a lot a more. The Hybrid Air Vehicles story so far is essentially this:
  • Pentagon throws billions of dollars at a giant heavy lifter drone that can be flown into a warzone by a pilot, landed on any remote ground, and flown remotely, like a drone after that. British engineers working on it create a hybrid aircraft which looks like an airship but is actually heavier than air and generates 40% of it's lift just from it's shape.
  • Prototype is built and flown successfully in 2012
  • As part of the pull out from Afghanistan Congress cancels the Project.
  • British engineers recover the prototype and bring back to Cardington.
First flight in 2012
Fortuitously, at the same time (see other post) Bedfordshire County Council sells the site of what was the Imperial Airship Works in Cardington to a property developer (yes - this is all driven by the UK housing crisis)
- with the proviso that they restore the gigantic airship sheds which are now Grade two listed buildings. Hanger 2 is used as a studio and is basically Christopher Nolan's second home (BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT, THE DAR KNIGHT RISES plus INCEPTION and INTERSTELLAR were shot in Cardington Hanger 2). Hanger 1 will shortly be a fully restored Airship shed built to accommodate the largest ships of the 1930s, the heyday of that technology.As a Grade two listed building there are only a few uses to which this giant airship shed can be used. As fate would have it..

We were asked not to take close up photographs. Amongst the recent guests before us was a representative of the Swedish air force, (also a friend of Airlander investor Bruce Dickinson - called 'Tin Tin' apparently) who remarked that the controls in the cockpit were exactly the same as the F-35 which is still years away from service.
As I know from my CyberSecurity Msc that the Chinese hacked the plans to the F-35 some time ago I guess this will have the added advantage of saving in training time in future contracts with China.

So hidden in a shape from apparently from an earlier era is actually some very current technology. The capability for remote piloting, effectively making the aircraft a giant drone, is still there but currently unused. Yes - the most advanced parts of this project are currently on the backburner because they are a distraction!

Much of the work being put into Airlander is breaking new ground in aeronatutics. Perhaps in a wider context Airlander is the impetus that the civil aviation industry needs to bring itself into the 21st Century. Main holdup at present is that EU regulations simply do not exist for hybrid air vehicles -  and what the regulations there are on airships are being hastily updated.

"Type certificates may be required that deal with matters such as airworthiness, noise, capabilities, etc.  Different configurations would also need to be addressed, looking at fixed wing, rotorcraft, airship and powered lift operations."
From Forbes.com

There are no regulations on long distance drone flying despite most of the current commercial flying being highly automated. Airlander is prompting a re-think on this as well. Why should Airbus pilots not sleep on long haul flights while the aircraft is on autopilot? - based on recent events the passengers might actually be safer.

Another innovation - Because the cockpit of Airlander is so quiet the engines are monitored by camera and microphone. A question I never got to ask (see below) is how common is engines monitored by camera and microphone in the wider world of air travel? You assume it wouldn't be much of a problem to achieve but as we recently found that modern passenger airliners contain black boxes containing technology concurrent with 8 track stereo I guess we can't take anything for granted.
Has Airlander thought of marketing it's camera and microphone monitoring of engines technology separately to Boeing and Airbus?

Airlander rear propulsor, derived from Mercedes diesels

Most immediate civilian use in the UK?
A mobile phone mast for Glastonbury Festival. If you've been there you'll know why. 350,000 highly connected Glastonbury Festival patrons need unlimited mobile usage but just for 7 days. There is also some talk of having a band play on the Airlander to the Festival below. I think they'll have to jazz up the colour scheme somewhat for this but apparently the outer skin is where most of the Pentagon's money went. A flexible, very tough radar absorbent material, the Airlander people seem very protective of it and wouldn't take suggestions of solar coverings. 

As well as the interest from Sweden already alluded to there is enquiries from civil air companies in Canadan and military interest from the UK, There is is still continuing interest from the United States miltary and DARPA which is understandable as to date they have paid for most of it.

Chris Daniels, Hybrid Air Vehicles Head of Partnerships and Communications seemed disappointing that there had not been more media coverage beyond comparisons in GQ with Kim Kardashian's arse. I tried to suggest that interest would pick up when the competition hots up, as can be fond with SpaceX prize and Bloodhound.
"You are in a race with Lockheed aren't you?"

According to Chris Lockheed's competing vehicle is a concept, not even a design at this stage. The other American competition, Aeros Dragon Dream, based on quite smart compressed helium technology, will not work without further development and in any case had it's hanger collapse on the prototype recently. I noticed myself that is a US Marine Hanger. Those aware of the recent track record of the US Army Corps of Engineers might not be too surprised by this turn of events.


Airlanders fins still in storage


The mobile landing gantry betrays the project's military origins and looks suitably Thunderbirds at the same time

Hard hats are required at Cardington, not because the interior or the contents are falling to pieces but because the interior is so enormous pigeons are roosting within it and they often pick up loose items which are then dropped. On a recent visit a UK minister was nearly hit by a loose item stolen by a pigeon which bounced off the Airlander.


Hybrid Air Vehicles' head office within the restored hanger will be in the old Cutting Room, which was used to cut silk for the Airships of the 1930s.

Rear of Airlander Prototype
In a mirror of cinematic events in Hanger 2 the Airlander Prototype has been christened MARY, partly because it is an anagram of ARMY (the original customer) and partly because of a the female mutant in Paul Verhoeven's TOTAL RECALL.



Back in the 1930s access to helium was a major issue. The United States jealously controlled all the worlds reserves reserves meaning European lighter than air projects had to use hydrogen as a dangerous alternative. In the 1980s the Americans sold off all it's Helium reserves causing a crash in the global price. It has since recovered but as helium is a by product of mining for natural gas access is no longer an issue. Airlander currently gets it's helium from BOC and then refines it to a 99% purity. Before long it expects to pickup up helium direct from Qatar at much lower prices.

Mid hanger wind break
Despite having the same lift potential the hybrid Airlander prototype takes up so little of the interior space of Hanger 1, compared to previous Airship occupants from the 1930s, it requires a windbreak in the middle of the hanger to protect it from wind blowing in off the Bedfordshire steppe.

Other notes of interest
  • BBC want to show next years test flight live (current Airlander focus is on engine testing while the civil air regulations struggle to catch up with technology)
  • Top Gear producer Any Wilman has been in contact with Airlander all year for reasons Chris Daniels would not elaborate on
Top gantry of Hanger 1 just visible

Stupid questions I never got to ask
  • Have you thought of painting it green and putting a huge 2 on it just for the publicity?
  • You refer to Flight Deck, Mid Body Aft body as the 'Payload Module' does that suggest, like TB2 you have plans to swap for different Payload modules?
  • I read somewhere one of the designers has met Barnes Wallis - is there any Wallis in inspired design features? Geodesic construction?
  • You are quite keen to promote the Hybrid Air Vehicle concept - do you think Airship fetishists will be a hindrance to you ? (glad I didn't ask this one)
  • What is shooting in the other hanger at the moment? Has Christopher Nolan poked his head in here yet?
  • How much of a cross over is there into drone technology? Do you have plans to launch and recover drones from the Airlander?
  • Do you have any orders yet from rich Billionaires?
  • Any crossover/contact with other British hitech industry? Reaction Engines perhaps?

Can you spot the person in this lineup who knows nothing about engineering?

Ghosts of Imperial Airships


Lying apparently forgotten In the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside are two hangers so large they could be mistaken for vast upturned ocean liners made from corrugated iron. The patches of rust from as yet un-restored parts (only one corner now) are a relief to the eyes in that they are the only way of judging the scale of these enormous structures which date back to the early 1930s and are Grade Two listed buildings.
Cardington as seen from side road (white van bottom right)

GoogleMap screenshot of Bedford showing scale of Cardington (bottom right)
This is Cardington, for most of it's life regarded as a monument to technological arrogance and an embarrassing Imperial folly. Now - not so much. I'll get onto my visit to Hybrid Air Vehicles in Hanger 1 in the next post, but for this one I just want to convey the grandeur of these buildings and their environs. This isn't just the ultimate post of a man loving a shed - it's an appreciation of a nexus of alternative realities.

Main doors, Hanger 1
Cardington was to be the base of the Imperial Airship Scheme, the 1920s-30s effort to link the already crumbling British Empire together with a fleet of world spanning lighter than air liners based on the work of Count von Zeppelin.

Such was the importance of the project two gigantic airships were built to test the concept. The first, the R100, was built to a strict budget using tried materials and techniques by a private company (Vickers, in Yorkshire) and designed by a promising young designer called Barnes Wallis, who would go on to become an engineering legend immortalised as the creator of the bouncing bomb in THE DAMBUSTERS. The other airship, the R101 which was increasingly seen as a competitive exercise, was built as a government project actually at Cardington. Government was Labour at the time and so the papers dubbed the R100 the 'Capitalist' airship and the R101 the 'Socialist' airship. To be more accurate one was built by engineers using established engineering techniques, and the other was built by a committee to a timetable.

The unfolding tragedy is explained best by Nevile Shute in his book Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer, which we have to take as the authoritative source as he was a designer on the R100 at the time. It is summarised well here

Un-restored corner of Hanger 1
The R100 was an unqualified success and made a maiden trip to Canada. Amongst many of  Barnes Wallis's innovations, including the strong, light geodesic construction that would be used in Wellington aircraft in World War 2, the R100 was designed to be easily mass produced by materials and factories already available in Britain at the time.

The R101 was a disaster even before it left the drawing board. Pushed into a maiden flight to India by political pressure, before it was ready and in the middle of a raging storm, it crashed in France killing 48 of the 54 on board including many influential members of government and society - wiping out at a stroke all the influential advocates for airship travel in Britain. Shortly after the blameless R100 was quietly scrapped.

Hidden is a restored corner of Hanger 1 is one of the original docking towers from the 1930s
Other high profile airship disasters followed. The USS Ackron and USS Macon, giant lighter than air aircraft carriers for the US Navy, foundered in storms in the Pacific. Shockingly the Nazi airship Hindenburg exploded in front of the worlds camera's - perhaps as a result of terrorism. (In similar fashion to the fate of the R100, the Graf Zeppelin I, Hindenburg's predecessor, veteran of 590 flights covering more than a million miles was scrapped after nearly a decade of successful service) . These killed airship travel world wide, but particularly in this country, 80 years after the event R101 is a still byward for disaster so strong that modern equivalents refuse to associate themselves with the term Airship.

No amount of train crashes, air disasters and Titanic tragedies have had the effect on an industry that the R101 disaster had. The truth is the British Empire stopped paying for itself some time in the 1920s and became a burden after that (financially as well as morally) so who knows what the Imperial Airship Scheme might have achieved. Likely World War 2 would have ended it anyway, but it is hard not to stand next to Cardington and think how busy and influential the place is in the universe of alternative reality's we are told exist beyond our own.

"R-100 attached to mooring mast in Bedforshire, 1928" by Nationaal Archief - Zeppelin aan landingsmast / Zeppelin attached to mooring mastUploaded by PDTillman. Via Wikimedia Commons"


Inside Hanger 1, the original floor from 1917 is now several feet beneath the current level.
Both of the giant hangers at Cardington and being fully restored. For details on current going's on see the next post in this blog.

Shortstown
Just north of Cardington, well within site of the sheds, is Shortstown. This was the 1930s new town, built in the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside to accommodation the families of those working on the Imperial Airship scheme. This lost little world has been rediscovered by the property developer, who has added to the charm of the original community by renovating the great old Shorts building and adding a much larger modern housing development which (I think) compliments the original site.