Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Of clocks and cars

I'm currently reading Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilisation, the first major study in English of the long history of technology in the West, published in 1934. By an odd coincidence the introduction to my edition is written by Langdon Winner with whom I had to share a bathroom during a recent conference about Jacques Ellul, technology's very own Cassandra.  If only I'd realised! I digress ... In addition to being a revisionist historian of technology - he dismisses the idea that somehow all technology sprang out of the earth with the Industrial Revolution - Mumford was a pioneering student of urban studies, the geographical cousin of technology studies. The machine is not just a metaphor for the modern city; its rational organisation and systematisation is somehow a correlative of an economy and leisure culture which depend on technology as their prime means (and sometimes their prime end).
Lewis Mumford

What has engaged me most in the work so far is the centrality that Mumford gives to the clock in the history of technology. People think the steam engine changed everything, and Mumford does not entirely dismiss this thesis. But, he argues, it is really the invention of the mechanical clock (first records from the 1200s) which marks the watershed in our civilisation. Put another way, it is not so much the clock or what it can do mechanically which are revolutionary. It is its impact on human organisation which is the really significant thing. As the clock intersects with culture, time begins to be measured not by concrete or incarnate phenomena (sunrise or sunset) but by the abstract passage of one hour to another. The ultimate reference point for duration begins to shift from the eschatological to the chronological. Long before the steam engine makes its apppearance, clock-measured time means money, and ownership of a watch or mechanical clock is seen by the emergent bourgeoisie as one of the signs that one has made something of oneself. Time becomes readily divisable in ways it never had before, and rationalisation of one's abstracted hours becomes ever more possible.

All this makes me think of how much my own life is run on time - for professional reasons obviously but in many other ways too. I don't suppose it could be different. I'm glad of having my clock. I suppose I couldn't get as much done as I do if I didn't live by its organisational power. This does make me wonder, however, whether the clock is not an essential cog in the cultural machine that seems to be driving us ever faster and faster. The telephone, radio and TV have done their bit to that end, while email and the internet have sent us into hyperspace (or hypertime?). Meanwhile, on my shelf are one or two works of Paul Virilio, the inventor of dromology or the study of speed. I supppose I really should find the time to peruse them butI have much else to plough through - Bernanos, Gabriel Marcel, Gustave Thibon, Georges Duhamel, Marcel de Corte, Jacques Ellul - before I get to Virilio. The iron law of the clock, eh? Quite.


Meanwhile, I was convinced technology was attempting to take its revenge on me last weekend. We had friends to stay and they and my wife watched in bemusement on Sunday morning as through the window of our sitting room they could see our car's indicator lights flashing wildly while the horn merrily tooted about once a minute. Since I was at that moment upstairs, they wondered if I was sitting on the key fob - which for the record I wasn't. We drove to church and hopped out just in time for Mass, but before we could get ten yards from the car the tooting and flashing began again. Now it was no joke. It was attracting attention. The Birmingham Oratory's choir do not take well to their rendering of Flor Peeters's Mass being accompanied on the car horn (invented, I note by Birmingham's own Oliver Lewis). Bizarrely, by the time we reached the church doors, the tooting had stopped.

All afternoon, while we sat in the back garden eating and drinking, there came not a toot from the car. Yet when I returned home from the train station after dropping our friends off and parked up on the drive, the tooting and the flashing began again. In despair I spent twenty minutes emptying our rather crowded garage and gingerly edged the car through the ridiculously narrow aperture which the architect on his plans laughably designated as the door. I left the car door open to stop the horn tooting, but since we sleep above the garage, we found ourselves woken at 2 am by the sound of the car trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to lock itself. Happily we moved to the guest room and slept on!

'Are you sure the boot is fully closes, Mr Sudlow?' the Brummie mechanic patiently asked me on the phone on Monday morning. Yes, I was! So I took it to the mechanic's, and for a diagnostic test priced £53 + VAT ( @20%), they told me I needed a new key fob with a new remote control thingummy. Job's a good 'un, as they say where I come from. By 5pm the same day, I got my meek and mild car back, and the mechanic walked away with over £200 - for which achievement I quite unjustifiably posed to myself some awkward questions about his parentage.


The point of all that is simply put: technology bites back, as Edward Tenner said. Well, and Plato too. In Phaedrus Plato relates how King Thamus the King once entertained the minor god Theuth who had invented writing and was rather pleased with himself about it. But Thamus was having none of it (or none of 'ith', I suppose): 'Those who acquire writing will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful. [...] What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.' 

If only I could remember what my point was when I started this post, I'd be able to tell you who was right.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Too damn busy ...

... that's my excuse. What's yours?

But, seriously, folks, I promised pictures of the various Bakewell pudding disasters last week and here they now are. Read on at your peril ...

The first four disastrous attempts ...

After some refining of the recipe and my technique (loud belly laughs), I managed to make some progress ...

An individual portion of Bakewell Pudding

I thought I had cracked it with this one but here's just another angle to give you the full, sweet-sticky-goo effect. You'll like this. Not a lot, but you'll like it ...

What you have to know is that the introduction of frangipane (resulting from mixing ground almonds with your custard) into Bakewell desserts is a late development. Renaissance or positively early-modern! The real Bakewell Pudding filling should be egg, butter (melted, cooled and slowly mixed into the egg) and sugar with some almond essence for flavouring, laid over a spreading of jam. And no shortcrust pastry either! It's puff pastry all the way.

Anyway, my article on the Bakewell Pudding is done. The cupboard has been emptied of butter, sugar, eggs and puff pastry, and all the sinks are nicely blocked. I have gained about five pounds in weight - which I really could not afford to do. And I think I lost a molar in one discarded crust.

Hey ho. The sacrifices one makes for the cause of research!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Baking well

I have spent considerable time this week on a short chapter for a book about island foods. I saw the call for contributors some time ago, and reflecting on the fact that Britain too is an island, I wondered what I could suggest to the editors by way of worthy British munchables. Fish and chips seemed too much of a cliché, Eccles cakes would be just to weird for foreigners and, being a Mancunian by birth, it would practically be against all my deepest convictions to suggest Yorkshire Pudding. But, I thought, what about the Bakewell Tart? The editors liked my suggestion, and after much procrastination, I settled down a couple of weeks ago to look into the matter.

First tings first: the Bakewell Tart  is not the classic Bakewell dessert for a start. That honour goes to the Bakewell Pudding. The Bakewell Tart appears to have its elan only since its commercialisation in the 1960s by Mr Kipling whose various cakes have been advertised by the fruitily-voiced James Hayter. Youtube offers this little gem from what must have been a trying morning of recording adverts about fondant fancies.

 As I say, purists hold to the Bakewell Pudding as the authentic dish from the Derbyshire town, but its history is beset by half-myth not to say savvy creativity.

The basic story can be found in various places online. One tourist site puts the matter thus:

This famous delicacy was first discovered over one hundred years ago, when the landlady of the local coach Inn (the White Horse Inn) instructed the cook on what to prepare for her guests that evening.

The pudding after the meal was to have been her favourite recipe, but the instructions were not followed as intended, and hence the Bakewell Pudding was born.

The landlady was so overwhelmed by the success of the new dish, she instructed her cook to carry on making it in that way.

That was back in 1820 and the white horse (presently The Rultand Arms Hotel), became famous for its delicious pudding.

Other stories tell us the landlady was called Mrs Graves, that this incident happened around 1860, and that she passed on the recipe to a Mr James Radford who passed it to a Mr Bloomer, the baker. Today there is still a Bloomer's Bakery in the town and they produce Bakewell Puddings.

The truth of the matter is somewhat different . The White Horse Inn was demolished in 1803 to make way for the Rutland Arms Inn. The landlady was Mrs Greaves, not Graves, and by 1860 she had already retired to Manchester. The dish which she and her blundering cook were supposed to have 'discovered' - discovered? I love it. Just like someone once discovered the old Black Pudding Mines of Lancashire - was appearing in recipes in domestic coookery magazines from the 1830s onwards.

So, there you have it. Clearly something did happen in the Rutland Arms kitchen one day concerning the pudding but whatever it was has been lost in a tangle of myth. For my sources, I refer you to the interesting books of Paul Hudson published by Pynot and the fascinating site of Ivan Day, a food historian.

The pudding incidentally differs from the tart in various ways. It has puff pastry, not shortcrust pastry, and its classic filling is not frangipane but a kind of thick, almond flavoured custard / pastry cream. Your servant has been making various attempts at baking one and will post the horrifying pictures later on today. Meanwhile, here is a picture of a real Bakewell Pudding.

A Bakewell Pudding (not a tart!)

Monday, 6 August 2012

Richard Wilbur

A recent concatenation of circumstances too lengthy to explain brought before my eyes once more the name of the American poet Richard Wilbur about whom I have not thought in a long time. I used to have the following piece on my office door. Perhaps I shall do so again:

Having Misidentified a Wild-Flower

A thrush, because I'd been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only. 

That said, I rather like this one too:


I read how Quixote in his random ride
Came to a crossing once, and lest he lose
The purity of chance, would not decide

Whither to fare, but wished his horse to choose.
For glory lay wherever turned the fable.
His head was light with pride, his horse's shoes

Were heavy, and he headed for the stable.

Speaking of which, I think I'll head for my stable also! 

Richard Wilbur's poems can be found here.  

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Olympian dreams

I said some harsh words about the Olympic opening ceremony a week ago. But I'm not for a minute one of the disgusted moaners who were featured on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday. I'm thoroughly gusted about the Olympics, as it happens.

Neither do I think that the current love affair being conducted between the nation and several hundred mostly obscure athletes is all about the hype. Of course, some of it is about hype. The Daily Mail's campaign highlighting the 'plastic Brits' will probably be overthrown this week - if it's not already - by default jingoism about British heroism. We're accustomed to, and (I believe) rightly cynical about, the warped image of the nation which is found in those pages (not to mention the pages of many papers right and left).

But, as I say, it is not just about the hype. I could cite the traditional British interest in sports over everything else, though I dare say this only accounts for a small proportion of the current national enthusiasms. I wonder if our system of universal education (or 'edumacation', as I prefer) explains such widespread attachment to these sporting events. I don't remember the sporty people being especially popular at school. This isn't the States, for goodness' sake!

Ultimately, I'm inclined to think that the real hook drawing in the national mind and heart is the story of struggle and victory which each event tells. Maybe it's because struggle in sport is 'safe' and so we can happily afford to watch its denouement without thinking it has anything to do with us. Or maybe - to be less cynical about it - we recognise something fundamentally good about struggle which is hardly represented by our MFI-sofaed, air-conditioned, rich-on-credit lifestyles. In either case, these games are drawing us in. And we are gung-ho for sports we have never even heard of, let alone ever practised.

I suppose another factor here has to be the digitalisation of the games. I recently heard about three Birmingham men who, in 1948, rode over a hundred miles on their bicycles to London to go and watch the Games. Silly buggers! Now, not only can you watch the main events on TV, like you could in the 1990s; you can watch any event you want just by swallowing the red pill, er ... pressing the red button (except ours doesn't seem to work). It makes me wonder what this wonderful world of choice leaves unsaid and undone, not to say unsayable and undoable. We know it's a universal, unimpeachable boon. I'm just wondering what the down side is.

Anyway, must dash. I think it's the semi-finals of the Tiddlewinks in ten minutes ...  

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

If a thing's worth doing ...

... it's worth doing badly. That at least was the opinion of G. K. Chesterton. This is no wilfully perverse paradox, although it is a paradox. I think what he meant was that even if you do something badly, it's still worth doing it. I suppose it is Chesterton's slogan for amateurism.

I have to confess to a lot of bad amateurism lately. We have various vegetable patches, but none of them are especially successful. The rocket is dying where our neighbourhood fox peed on them. I have recently picked up my guitar again after years of neglect. The sounds are painful, though not as painful as the sounds coming from my keyboard. Still, I'm determined to do these things: to garden badly, to stutter through pieces I used to play blindfold, and to labour away at the ivories in the hope that something vaguely musical emerges.

Should I bother? I admit that in an age of specialisation, in which we can buy so many professionalised products off the shelf, such an attitude looks rather eccentric. Why bother doing it badly if you can buy the finished, perfect product? I suppose the answer has something to do the failed promises of consumer power. We live in a context which lectures us constantly about the customer's prerogatives. Nevertheless, in this context, we undoubtedly have less space to contemplate what we lose by standing in the shop queue. There are some things money cannot buy, and that is a fact that most of us would readily agree with. And yet if we find something readily on sale, we are so often tempted into buying it, rather than doing / making it ourselves. In other words, we automatically assume that we can buy stuff: any stuff! Okay, I admit it - I have no shame in confessing to having a large collection of CDs and a fridge regularly stocked from Sainsbury's. And yet ... and yet...

Glenn Gould
... what do we lose thereby? It depends what we are talking about. Take the example of music (since we have already done so). It's a lot easier to have music by putting a CD on the stereo. You can have a near-perfect performance by the greatest musicians in your living room any time you like. A bit of nice music over dinner? Who could question that for a second? And yet, if our only contact with music consists in such practices, then our experience is in someways always narrower and poorer. We bypass the difficulties of mastering a score. We never find ourselves in the mysterious presence of an instrument. We never taste that odd sort of kinship that arises from barging through a tune in the company of a friend. Instead, we are forced to hear the same performance again and again, rather than listening to something which can change, mutate, and challenge us in different ways. Few recordings offer us the groanings and ramblings of a performer like Glenn Gould; most are sanatized for universal export. Those regular, identical bell peppers that we all complain about in the supermarket ... we have had the musical equivalent of those for many a year.

I'm not saying I enjoy bad music! I'm just saying that sometimes it's worth struggling. Beyond the convenience, is it not possible we're missing something that's worth the inconvenience? Excuse me while I go and contemplate the fox's handiwork ...