The POW Artists of Changi

Fred Binns in Changi Gaol

My mother’s first husband, Fred Binns, in Changi Gaol, 1943

The painting above depicts my mother’s first husband, Fred Binns, as a Japanese Prisoner-Of-War (POW) in Changi Prison, Singapore, in April 1943. It’s quite astonishing that this painting not only survived Fred’s imprisonment and subsequent liberation, but also that it was inherited from Fred by my mother, and then passed down to me from her.

If the painting could speak, it would surely tell a harrowing tale, of how it was perhaps painted using strips of bamboo and human hair, using tints mixed from different soils, then hidden from confiscation by being placed under the corpses of cholera victims. Despite all that horror, it depicts a joyous scene, showing Fred enthusiastically playing the double bass. If the proportions of the bass seem odd, that’s not due to any lack of skill on the part of the artist. That was in fact the appearance of the real instrument, because Fred had built it himself from scrap wood.

Changi Prison seems to have housed an astonishing concentration of creative talent. As shown above, Fred was himself a keen amateur musician, but there were also many artists in the prison.

Sadly, despite having survived all the horrors of imprisonment in Singapore for 4 years, Fred died prematurely of tuberculosis in 1949. He had contracted what was then usually a fatal disease during his internment, but was not aware of it at the time. By the time he died, he had married my mother, and she caught the disease from him. She was admitted to the ominously-named Killingbeck Sanatorium, and it was only thanks to the development of new “wonder drugs” that she survived at all. Her curative treatment was long and unpleasant, involving the complete collapse of each lung in turn, to rid it of the disease. Nonetheless, she survived the hideous disease that had killed her husband, and was able to resume a healthy life, which eventually included marrying my father and giving birth to me!

Ronald Searle, Des Bettany & Fred Binns

Perhaps the most famous of Fred’s bunkmates in Changi was the artist Ronald Searle. My mother knew that this painting of Fred was not by Searle, but we were not able to identify the actual artist. There is a signature in the corner, but it was too smudged to be readable.

Recently, while researching for this article, I viewed images of artwork by other Changi prisoners via the internet, and was able to match the style, and the color palette, to a man called Des Bettany. Now that I’ve seen Bettany’s signature, it matches that on the painting, so I have finally established the identity of the artist who painted Fred.

Des Bettany went on to have a successful career as a cartoonist, and eventually migrated to Australia, where he taught art, eventually rising to become Acting Principal at the South Australian School of Art in Adelaide.

The Heyday of St Trinians

Searle is probably most famous for having created the fictitious girls’ school St. Trinian’s. The drawing below is the first-ever published “St. Trinian’s” cartoon, although the caption reveals that the girls shown are pupils of an anonymous opposing school.

Searle's First St. Trinian's Cartoon

The first St. Trinian’s cartoon by Ronald Searle, 1941. Copyright © Estate of Ronald Searle

Searle had drawn the cartoon before leaving England, but it wasn’t actually published until late 1941, when Searle saw it in Lilliput magazine while fighting on the streets of Singapore!

Although Searle’s invention of St. Trinian’s predated his wartime experiences, he did use some of those cruel experiences as inspiration for his subsequent cartoons. For example, there is a St. Trinian’s cartoon titled “Bloody Sportsdays…”, which depicts the girls being forced to pull a roller to flatten grass. This was adapted from Searle’s wartime sketch “Light Duties for Sick Men”, which showed prisoners being forced to haul trees for land-clearing, during 1944.

By the early 1950s, the St. Trinians’ cartoons had become so popular that they became the basis for a series of movies (The Belles of St. Trinian’s, Blue Murder at St Trinian’s, The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s, and The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery). In most of the movies, the headmistress of the school (Miss Fritton) is played by Alastair Sim, who also plays the headmistress’ brother! One of my favorite Sim quotations from the first movie sums up the ethos of the school:

In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared.

Even in modern times, movies in the St. Trinian’s genre continue to be produced, although it must be said that the themes seem increasingly anachronistic.

The image below shows the publicity poster for the latest St. Trinian’s movie, The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009). Incidentally, the actor in the center, who played head girl Annabelle Fritton in the movie, is Talulah Riley, who is in reality the ex-wife of entrepreneur Elon Musk.

[Postscript 8/15/20: What a coincidence. I just discovered that Talulah Riley’s grandfather was also at Changi, as she mentions in this Twitter post: https://twitter.com/TalulahRiley/status/1294569052258664451]

Poster for Movie: The Legend of Fritton's Gold

Publicity Poster for the Movie: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold

If you are interested in more details of Ronald Searle’s life, there is an excellent biography by Russell Davies. Further details of Des Bettany’s life can be found here. For details of the life of Fred Binns, however, I’m afraid that it seems you’ll have to rely on me!

I feel truly privileged to have inherited such a unique and wonderful piece of artwork, but also very glad that I never had to endure any of the horrors that led to its creation!

For more details of the POW artists in Changi, see changipowart.com.

Fred Binns in Changi Gaol

My mother’s first husband, Fred Binns, in Changi Gaol, 1943

Do We Need A White Christmas?

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

The photo above was taken by my father during the severe winter of 1962-63, and shows me using our coal shovel to “help” clear snow from our front garden in Scarborough. Today marks the Winter Solstice here, so it seems like a good moment to reflect on something that many people seem to hope for at this time of year.

As the photo above demonstrates, some of my earliest memories of this time of year were associated with snow. This was largely because the winter depicted in the image was the coldest in Britain since 1895, a record which has still not been broken in the part of the country in which I was living.

As a result of that experience, as I grew up, I tended to assume that Christmases should be snowy, and I was most disappointed in later years when there was not only no snow on Christmas Day, but it was actually even sunny!

As I grew more mature, of course, I realized that my expectation was not particularly reasonable, and that it had in fact been instilled by episodes of weather that were anomalous, coupled with myths about what Christmas was supposed to be like.

Last weekend, I attended a “Holiday Soundtracks” concert by Michael Berkowitz at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa where we heard, once again and as we do every year, melodies proclaiming the desirability of a “White Christmas”. The photo below shows a view of the concert.

LutherBurbankCenterXmasSoundtracks1

Holiday Soundtracks, Santa Rosa

In a pre-show discussion, Berkowitz himself pointed out the irony of a “Christmas” show being presented by a Jewish conductor, and indeed several of the writers of those famous songs were also Jewish.

The origin of my own childhood views about snowy holidays are obvious to me, but the concert led me once again to consider why so many other people should also want this end-of-year festival to be “white”, that is, to have snow on the ground.

A Northern European Tradition

Presumably the source of the association of the Yuletide festival with snow was that most of its traditions originated in Northern Europe, where there was usually snow at this time of year.

Later, in North America, many of the regions that were settled earliest by European peoples also experienced snowy winters, so those traditions continued.

In the Southern Hemisphere, of course, it’s Summer at this time of year, so the idea of a “White Christmas” makes little sense in many places. However, even in Australia, there are high-altitude ski resorts where you can experience snow in mid-summer if you really want to, as described in this article.

Maintaining the Myths

Many blame the media for propagating the myth of the desirability of a snowy holiday, as in this Boston Globe article. There is also the ever-popular Santa Claus myth, which includes the idea of his living at the North Pole.

When I discovered the truth about “Father Christmas”, after my mother admitted it to me when I was about 8 years old, I was actually quite angry that she had conspired with my father to deceive me for so long!

Snow in London

After leaving my home town, I attended university in London, and lived there for several years. The climate in London is only slightly milder than that in Northern England, so of course it also snows in London during the winter.

I took the photo below, of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, during my first winter as a London student.

AlbertMemorialSnow1981Cright

Albert Memorial, London, in Snow, 1981

There’s no question that it’s a pretty scene, but getting around in the city after a snowstorm wasn’t necessarily any fun. The snow quickly turned to dirty slush, which would often then refreeze overnight, creating black ice the following morning. Travel became unusually difficult and dangerous.

As I’ve said so many times since then, it’s great to be able to look at a snowy landscape, as long as you don’t have to go anywhere in it!

Snow in California

If anyone had asked me before I came here whether it snows in California, I may well have replied “No”, but I’d have been very wrong. At the higher elevations in the state, such as the Sierra Nevada, it snows every winter. In the lowland elevations where I live, however, it almost never snows. For example, I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula for about 20 years, and during that time it only snowed once at our house (and only very lightly), although we could sometimes see snow on the surrounding peaks.

The elevation of land in California ranges from sea level to about 14,000 feet above sea level, so the state has a corresponding variety of climates. Contrast that with the highest elevation in Britain, at about 4,400 feet, which is the peak of a mountain (Ben Nevis), while the whole of Lake Tahoe in California lies at 6,225 feet.

Thus, if I were to decide now that I would like a “White Christmas”, all I have to do is to get in my car and drive up to the Sierras. It’s nice to feel that, although I don’t need snow for the holiday, I have the option of it if I choose!

The photo below shows a typical local California view, taken near Cotati, on the occasion of the Winter Solstice in 2014. There’s mist over the hills, but no snow anywhere nearby.

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Let It Go

If you happen to live somewhere that does not have snow at this time of year, then perhaps it will help to realize that its desirability is actually just a myth, and that there are actually definite benefits to a holiday without such weather!

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Thanksgiving in Sonoma (Again)

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Yesterday, we traveled again to Sonoma for Thanksgiving dinner, which is how we’ve celebrated the occasion for the past few years. My photo above shows Sonoma Plaza lit up for the holidays. The large red letters spelling “LOVE” are a new addition this year.

One other difference that you may notice, relative to my Thanksgiving post last year, is that the roads in the photo above are wet. The rainy season started late this year, but we’re very glad that it has finally arrived, to wash away the lingering smoke from the Camp Fire, and also hopefully to extinguish the remains of that terrible fire.

The photo below, taken from our bedroom window earlier in the day, shows a mixture of sun and rain as showers passed overhead. The view was brightened by the fact that the leaves on our ginkgo tree have just turned yellow. Unfortunately, the view was also marred by the work going on around the park (on the left) to remove and replace trees.

Rain, Sun & Autumn Leaves

Rain, Sun & Autumn Leaves

Sonoma’s Historic Plaza

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Sonoma is today a rather small and quite sleepy city, but was once the military center of Mexican Alta California. It was probably for that reason that it became the hub of the Bear Flag Revolt, which led to California’s becoming independent of Mexico, and then soon after joining the United States.

I took the 2 photos below yesterday evening, with the wet roads reflecting the street lights. The first photo shows the northwest corner of the Plaza. On the right is the Swiss Hotel, which dates back to Mexican colonial days, having been built circa 1836 as a home for the brother of General Vallejo, who was one of the last Comandantes of Mexican Alta California, and went on to become a prominent citizen of the new US state of California.

Immediately to the left of the Swiss Hotel, where now stands the apartment building shown below, stood the main military barracks.

Sonoma Plaza, Northwest Corner

Sonoma Plaza, Northwest Corner

The second photo shows the north end of the Plaza itself, which until 1890 was the site of the city’s railroad depot. The main line ran along the road on the left, and the locomotive turntable was in the square, approximately where the tree lights are in the photo. Local property owners sued the railroad, and eventually forced the removal of the tracks and the depot several blocks northwards. The depot building was physically dragged all the way from this location to its present site.

Sonoma Plaza. Site of Railroad Depot

Sonoma Plaza. Site of Railroad Depot

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, then I hope you had an enjoyable one this year! If you’re not celebrating Thanksgiving, then I hope you enjoy your Black Friday, which now seems to have been embraced in many countries outside the US!

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Centenary of the Great War Armistice

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

The photo above, which I took during an early visit to London, shows the RAF memorial church of St Clement Danes. The building was completely destroyed during the Second World War, and fully restored in 1958, to act as a war memorial for the Air Force.

As most people are probably aware, today (11th November 2018) marks the centenary of the end of the First World War (known earlier as the Great War). There has been and continues to be much debate about the causes of that devastating war, and the issue will probably never be completely settled. What does seem clear is that, in those days, many European nations saw warfare as a satisfactory way to resolve disputes or gain territory, and had created detailed plans defining exactly whom they were going to attack and how. Their autocratic leaders were really just “spoiling for a fight”, and were supremely (but mistakenly) confident that they could win a swift, decisive victory.

It seems clear now that, if the conflict hadn’t been sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Yugoslav nationalist, then some other equally parochial incident would have served as the trigger.

The situation was made more volatile by the nationalistic attitudes of the general populations, who tended to see war as a spectator sport. Many were quite prepared to sit happily on the sidelines and cheer as their “team” slogged it out with the opposition. Warfare had usually been conducted that way for centuries, but all that was to change as the Great War turned into “total war”, involving substantial portions of the civilian populations.

The Invasion of Leeds?

Of course, I’m not nearly old enough to have lived through the First World War, let alone remember anything about it. However, my father was 5 years old when the war began in 1914, and he did have some memories of the time.

His family lived in Leeds, Yorkshire, which is some 60 miles from the coast of the North Sea, and thus was not likely to be in any direct danger from enemy action. Nonetheless, my father’s mother was apparently certain of an immediate German invasion, and insisted upon placing sandbags around the house on the outbreak of war! Apparently, even then, not everyone believed that the war would take place on faraway fields.

Raid on Scarborough

My home town of Scarborough became a flashpoint during the First World War, after being subjected to a German naval raid during December 1914. That attack was characterized as a brazen assault on civilians (and it’s difficult to see how it could have served much other purpose), and had the presumably-unintended consequence of offering a major propaganda opportunity for the Allied nations.

During the bombardment, Scarborough’s lighthouse was one of many buildings that were hit and damaged, but it was subsequently repaired, as shown in my photo below.

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

British illustrator Frank Patterson, whom I’ve mentioned in a previous post on my professional web site, normally avoided propaganda-style artwork. Apparently, however, he was so incensed by the attack on Scarborough that he produced the illustration below, showing a thunderous Kaiser glowering at the town from over the horizon.

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

A Changed World

Whatever its actual causes and motivations, there can be no doubt that the First World War changed the course of history very significantly, and not only in terms of international relations and territorial dominance.

The war essentially spelled the end of the colonial empires created by European powers during the preceding few centuries. Admittedly, some empires (such as the British and French) clung on for a few more decades, but the new order of affairs was already being set up at the end of the First War.

On the social level, agreements made during the War led to women eventually obtaining the right to vote in several countries, such as Britain. From the modern perspective, it seems astonishing that such a development took so long, and no sane, educated person would now suggest that women should not have such a right.

The First World War was undoubtedly a disaster of immense proportions, but some social good did eventually come of it.

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

Strange Sights in Sebastopol

 

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

Just a few miles to the west of our house is the small city of Sebastopol. There are sometimes strange things to see in Sebastopol, as I confirmed last week when, while driving along Main Street there, I spotted a huge traffic sign that immediately reminded me of our cat, Ginger (Tom).

The real Ginger is in fact no stranger to car travel, as seen below in San Francisco, during a visit that I described in an earlier post!

Ginger in the City

Ginger in the City

The city name Sebastopol perhaps seems surprising for California, and you could be forgiven for thinking that there must be a connection to the one-time Russian settlements along the California coast. However, those settlements were further north, having never reached further south than Fort Ross. In any case, by the time that Sebastopol came to be so named, during the 1850s, the Russians had already abandoned Fort Ross.

In fact, it seems that the name Sebastopol was chosen as a result of a local bar fight that reminded locals of the contemporary Siege of Sebastopol! The California settlement, which had originally been called Pinegrove, came to be known by the new name, and was incorporated under that name in 1902.

During the late nineteenth century, the area around Sebastopol developed into a major center for the growing of fruit and vegetables. Nowadays, most of the local crop consists of grapes for the wine trade, but back then a much wider variety of fruits were cultivated. One variety of apple that became very popular in the district was the Gravenstein (although it’s no longer a popular variety today).

The image below shows a real fruit label, probably from the mid-twentieth century, which I found in a local antique store. Although the apples shown on the label are not identified as Gravensteins, they probably were.

Kikuchi Apples Label

Kikuchi Apples Label

Move it by Rail

In those days, the usual way to preserve produce was to can it (since, even when refrigerated transport was available, most homes still did not have refrigerators), and the best way to ship it over any appreciable distance was of course by rail. Inevitably, therefore, railway lines were laid to Sebastopol. The first was the San Francisco & North Pacific Railroad, which eventually became the North Western Pacific (NWP). Their branch from Santa Rosa reached the town in 1890.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a rival railroad called the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad (P&SR) was proposed, including service to Sebastopol on its main line, the plan being for this to be an electrically-operated interurban network. Not surprisingly, the NWP violently opposed the construction of the P&SR, leading to the locally-famed Battle of Sebastopol Road in 1904.

Eventually, however, the P&SR was completed, the rival railroads learned to co-exist, and both served the people and industries of Sebastopol.

Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad

The P&SR station (depot) in Sebastopol faced onto Main Street, because the railroad itself ran down the middle of Main Street for some distance. The depot building was actually in the middle of a rail “wye” where the P&SR branch to Santa Rosa joined the main line between Petaluma and Forestville (which, thanks to the intervention of the 1906 earthquake, was as far north as the P&SR ever reached).

Fortunately, even though all the remaining railroads in the city were abandoned in 1983, and the rails removed shortly thereafter, the final depot building and nearby powerhouse have survived.

The final P&SR depot building, which was built in 1917 from stone quarried at the nearby Stony Point Quarry, has become the West County Museum. The museum is open to the public 4 afternoons per week, and displays various exhibits related to Sebastopol and its railroads.

The photo below shows the former depot facing Main Street. The P&SR main line ran along the middle of the street in the foreground, and the branches of the wye heading for Santa Rosa joined that line on either side of the building.

Former P&SR Rail Depot, Sebastopol

Former P&SR Rail Depot, Sebastopol

Immediately behind the depot building, on what appears to be a surviving short section of one of the storage tracks, is a former Pacific Fruit Express refrigerator car. Apparently, this box car now houses the museum’s stored collections, hence the steps visible in the photo below.

Refrigerator Car at P&SR Depot, Sebastopol

Refrigerator Car at P&SR Depot, Sebastopol

The former P&SR powerhouse, which was built from the same stone as the depot, has now become the very popular Hop Monk Tavern, as shown below.

Former P&SR Power House, Sebastopol

Former P&SR Power House, Sebastopol

All Change at Gravenstein

About a quarter-mile east of the surviving P&SR railroad depot is the site of the NWP’s depot and freight yard, where there was a substantial array of sidings serving the local canneries and industries. There’s nothing left of this complex, but, on the site of part of the sidings, a modern shopping center was built during the 1980s.

The shopping center is called Gravenstein Station, and incorporates various features that commemorate its railroad heritage. From the road, you can see what appears to be the end of a railroad carriage sticking out of the building, as shown in my photo below.

Another Strange Sight: Gravenstein Station

Another Strange Sight: Gravenstein Station

At first, I assumed that this carriage must be a fake, since it’s clearly too close to the ground to be standing on a track. However, on looking at it more closely, inside the building (as shown below), it seems that it must be the body of a real Southern Pacific dining car, now used as a restaurant. Presumably the body was removed from the chassis because it was too high for the building.

Gravenstein Station: Former  SP Dining Car

Gravenstein Station: Former SP Dining Car

Also inside Gravenstein Station is a former Southern Pacific caboose, this time complete with its chassis and standing on a section of track. As shown in the photo below, it now houses a florist shop.

Gravenstein Station: Former  SP Caboose

Gravenstein Station: Former SP Caboose

Across the road from Gravenstein Station, on the site of the former NWP depot, is the Barlow shopping and office center, as shown below. The line of the NWP track to its depot approximately followed the line of cars parked in front of the building.

The Barlow, Sebastopol

The Barlow, Sebastopol

Sebastopol is an intriguing little community that has succeeded in making the most of its location in California’s fertile Wine Country, and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

The Century Numbering Mystery

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

The photo above shows the Arch of Titus, spanning the Via Sacra near the forum in Rome, taken by me while on holiday there in 1978. Although the arch displays several Latin inscriptions commemorating the achievements of the Emperor Titus, nowhere in those inscriptions are any numeric year dates provided.

Historians believe that the arch was built in 82 AD, where AD (Anno Domini) is of course a reference to the supposed year of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but at that time Rome was not Christian, so obviously they would not have been numbering years “AD”. How then did the Romans, and other early civilizations, number the years?

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

Given that so many aspects of our civilization can be traced back to the Classical times of Greece and Rome, it’s reasonable to assume that our system for numbering years would have Roman origins. However, thanks to an attempt to “Christianize” the Roman system, our current system has some strange quirks that continue to cause confusion.

Recently, during a news report, I heard the announcer state that an event that had occurred during the 1920s took place in the “Nineteenth Century”. In fact, as most people know, the period from 1901 through 2000 was the Twentieth Century, but exactly why is that? Why aren’t years from 1900 through 1999 referred to as the Nineteenth Century, and why did the Twentieth Century start in 1901?

I’ll answer those questions here, but I’m afraid that the answers may be rather uninspiring!

Trick Questions

When I was growing up, I used to spend quite a lot of time watching quiz shows on TV. (Well, we only had two channels, so there wasn’t much to watch!) Most of these were “trivia” contests, where the participants were asked questions to test their knowledge of a wide variety of subjects.

I’m not sure how educational those experiences were, but I do recall one type of “trick question” that was often asked on these shows. The quizmaster would ask something like, “What is the first year of the Twentieth Century?” The correct answer is 1901, but the anticipated wrong answers would be either “1900” or even “2000”.

These oddities sparked my curiosity, leading me to ask the questions listed above. I asked my schoolteachers about it, but they seemed unable to give a rational answer. Eventually, as an adult, I discovered that the reason for this mystery is, in part at least, ancient ignorance!

Year Zero

Our current “Common Era”/”Before Common Era” year numbering system (abbreviated to “CE/BCE”, and previously called the “AD/BC” system) is one among several systems that have been used during the past few thousand years. Some other systems are still in use now.

A common feature of all these systems is that the starting year is completely arbitrary. Some systems attempted to number years from the supposed creation of the Earth, but their estimates of Earth’s age were wildly inaccurate, so in effect the starting year was still arbitrary.

In fact, it may be just as well that we do have an arbitrary datum year, and that we don’t attempt to number years from the date of Earth’s creation. According to the latest research, Earth is about 4.54 billion years old. Every time you sign a check or contract, would you want to have to write out the year as something like “4,542,311,018”? I don’t think so!

The Years AUC

When Romans in the West wanted to provide a numeric year date, they sometimes numbered the years from the supposed “Founding of Rome”, which they named Ab Urbe Condita (AUC).

This date again was arbitrary, in the sense that there was no independent confirmation that Rome had really been founded in that year. In our current CE/BCE system, the year 1 AUC corresponds to 753 BCE.

The AUC system was not used consistently, and such dates may have been added in surviving literature.

The Years AM

The Byzantine Empire (which was the development of the Eastern Roman Empire) used a year numbering system known as AM (for Anno Mundi), which supposedly numbered the years from the date of Earth’s creation. The Year One AM was from September 1, 5509 BCE, to August 31, 5508 BCE.

This also illustrates the point that, even in our own calendar, the start of a year hasn’t always been on January 1st. This fact makes it more difficult to align year computations in different calendar systems.

In about 525 CE, a Christian monk called Dionysius Exiguus was once again engaged in an attempt to determine the age of the Earth from the Bible, and this led him to develop the CE/BCE (or AD/BC, as he called it) year numbering system that we now use.

Ancient Blunders

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

My illustration above shows Frankie Howerd performing in the stage play version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His expression seems appropriate in this context, because some details of the CE/BCE system seem like something that Howerd’s Roman slave character might have concocted!

The CE/BCE system also has an arbitrary start year; in this case the supposed birthdate of someone who may never have existed (and if he did exist, probably wasn’t born in that year)!

If you’ve learned about the history of arithmetic, then you’ll know that the concept of zero was introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages from the Arabic world, and was previously unknown to Western civilizations. Dionysius Exiguus apparently wasn’t familiar with the concept, so he omitted it from his year numbering system.

As a result of that ancient ignorance, there is no Year Zero in the CE/BCE system. The year numbering goes straight from 1 BCE to 1 CE. This is part of the reason why century numbering in this system seems so confusing.

The system also has no concept of a “Zeroth Century”, either BCE or CE. Thus, the years from 1 CE through 100 CE are the “First Century CE”, which accounts for the correct answer to that “trick question” about why the years from 1901 CE through 2000 CE are the Twentieth Century CE.

Below, I’ve created a table showing how the years AUC, CE and BCE align with century numbering. This should be a helpful reference, at least for people like me, who are more visually-oriented.

Centuries BCE and CE

Centuries BCE and CE

The general algebraic formulae for the centuries are as follows:

The Nth Century CE runs from [(N-1)*100 + 1] CE through N*100 CE

The Nth Century BCE runs from N*100 BCE through [(N-1)*100 + 1] BCE

Of course, as I mentioned above, years didn’t always start on January 1st, so this table is only a rough guide. There have also been date adjustments over the centuries, such as when the Gregorian calendar superseded the Julian calendar, so, before asserting the exact equivalence of two dates, further checking would be wise.

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Flying North Again

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The photo above shows a preserved Tatra T87 automobile, which, in my opinion, must surely be the ultimate “Art Deco Car”. Designed in Czechoslovakia in 1936, this particular example was built in 1948. The swooping lines and graceful curves of the design are highlighted in this case by the gleaming silver paintwork.

I’d have expected to find a car such as this on display in a prestigious European motor museum, so I was quite astonished this week when I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in the Midwest of the USA, and found it there.

The reason for my visit to Minneapolis was simply because that’s my wife’s hometown. We went there to visit her family, most of who still live in or around that city. We had a great visit with everyone, but I must confess that, as I get older, I increasingly prefer the comforts of my home, so I was glad to get back!

Far Away is Close at Hand in Models of Elsewhere

Many years ago, during the 1970s, there was a famous item of graffiti that appeared near the approach to Paddington railway station in London, which ran:

FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE

The first inkling that I ever had that there existed a place called the “Midwest” was when I was about 7 years old. In 1967, the Trans-World Model Railway opened at the Corner Café in Scarborough. This was a gigantic OO/HO scale model railway, which included inter-connected sections depicting Britain, France, Germany, and, via an “Atlantic Bridge”, the USA and Canada.

One of the US sections was captioned “The Midwest”, but of course I had no real idea where it was, nor did I ever expect to visit such a place, and I certainly never imagined that I might one day marry someone from there!

Having been married to Mary for some 27 years now, I’ve traveled with her to Minnesota on many occasions. We try to visit different places during each visit.

The Inland Beaches

As you might guess, the Midwest is far from either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, so there’s no ocean frontage to be found there. Nonetheless, given that Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, there are still beaches within the state. The photo below shows one: Thomas Beach, on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, with the skyscrapers of downtown visible in the distance.

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

As a girl, my wife lived in an apartment that’s behind the trees on the far side of the lake, and she used to swim at this beach.

A Cultural Center

I realize that the Midwest may not generally be thought of as a center of culture, but in fact (probably thanks to its industrial wealth) Minneapolis has more than its “fair share” of cultural attractions.

In the past, I’ve visited the Walker Art Center, and various local museums, but I’d never before been to the vast Minneapolis Institute of Art. Hanging above the lobby of the Institute is a large glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, as shown below.

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Inside the Institute, many substantial collections are on display, covering all time periods from the Stone Age to the present, and spanning all continents.

Amid the collection of Twentieth Century artwork, there’s one painting by Piet Mondrian, whose art and beliefs I discussed in an earlier post. The photo below shows a closeup of his initials at the bottom left of the painting, to prove that it’s really his, rather than some simulation that I cobbled together on my computer!

Mondrian's Initials

Mondrian’s Initials

There’s also a large collection of Impressionist works, three of which are shown below. The painting on the left, Notre Dame de Paris by Maximilien Luce, sold in 2011 for $4.2 million, a record amount for an Impressionist work.

Some Impressionist Works

Some Impressionist Works

It’s impossible to do justice to the scale of the Institute’s collections in this short article, and I would encourage you to visit this amazing museum yourself if you’re ever in the vicinity.

The Scandinavian Diaspora

Many of the early European settlers in what’s now Minnesota came from the Scandinavian countries; Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Apparently, circa 1900, about 25% of the population of Minneapolis consisted of Swedish emigrés. Thus, it’s perhaps not surprising that Minneapolis is home to the American Swedish Institute. We visited this Institute too, and took the tour of the Turnblad Mansion, which was built in 1908 by the proprietor of a Swedish-language newspaper. The mansion is shown in the photo below, seen from inside the modern extension built next to it.

The American Swedish Institute

The American Swedish Institute

The ASI also has an excellent restaurant, FIKA, but it’s an understandably popular lunch venue, so you may have to wait for a table!

Flying Home

We returned to San Francisco airport directly from Minneapolis. I took the emotive photo below from my seat, as our Boeing 737-800 was descending to land in San Francisco. Our flight left Minneapolis at about 6.30pm, so we were “chasing the sunset” back to California as shown in the photo.

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

The circumstances of my flight reminded me of the lyrics of Thomas Dolby’s song Flying North, which was popular in the early 1980s when I was first traveling to the US. Part of the lyrics are:

Metal bird dip wing of fire

Whose airlanes comb dark Earth

The poles are tethers we were born in

Now I’m back in the London night

On a bench in a launderette

I’m staring right into my face

And I’m drawn out like a plot

And I’m flying North again

Tonight

These days, I’m no longer flying home to London, of course. Instead, we just had a wonderful dose of Midwest culture, and now it’s great to be back home in California!

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The Last Day of Steam at Agecroft

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Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

The image above shows two steam locomotives that, on the day that I photographed them, were just being retired from active commercial service. On the basis of that description, you might think that this must have occurred some time during the 1940s or 1950s, but I’m not that old! In fact the date of the photo is Saturday, 12 September, 1981.

I mentioned in an earlier post that, during the summers I spent as an apprentice at Ferranti in Manchester, I was always on the lookout for interesting local places to visit at the weekends. These days, of course, such places are easy to locate—you just do a web search—but back then it was more difficult and more haphazard.

At some point during my first summer in Manchester, I must have spotted a notice somewhere advertising the Last Day of Steam at Agecroft Power Station. I didn’t have a car, which made it difficult to visit places that were not well-served by public transport. Fortunately though, as I learned from my A-Z street map, the power station was in Pendlebury, not too far from where I was living in Middleton, so I went along on the advertised day to see what was happening.

The map excerpt below, which is from a later 1992 edition of a Manchester street atlas, shows the location of the power station, near a railway line and a canal (for deliveries), and the River Irwell (for cooling water). The nearby Agecroft Colliery was the source for the station’s coal. The general appearance of the power station is shown in this BBC photo.

AgecroftPS1992Map

A Coal-Based Operation

As is well known (in the UK at least), British Rail had phased out steam traction in 1968, but that change didn’t apply to other users of steam locomotives in Britain. The locomotives at the power station were owned by the nationalized Central Electricity Generating Board, and, since the station was itself coal-fired, it made some sense to keep the locomotives in operation for as long as possible.

Three locomotives were being retired that day, and were giving joy rides to the public, as shown in these photos. They had all been built by the famous firm Robert Stephenson & Co., in 1948, so by steam locomotive standards, they were still relatively new. Locomotive No. 1 was painted red, and Locomotive No. 2 was blue. Those locomotives are both visible in the heading photo.

Locomotive No. 3 was painted green, and is shown steaming in my photo below.

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Last Day of Steam: Locomotive 3

My photo below shows a more general view of the Power Station, with Locomotive No. 2 hauling joyriders in a set of yellow carriages.

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Joy Rides at the Power Station, 1981

Unfortunately, my photographs are all somewhat too dark, so it’s difficult to see the locomotives well in them. The sky that day was very showery, so lighting conditions were changing rapidly, and my camera had only manual controls. Such concepts as High-Dynamic Range photography were unknown to me in those days, and in any case not available with the equipment that I had.

Fortunately, someone else called Dave Dixon took much better photographs of the same event, and has made them publicly available on Flickr here.

What’s Left Of It All

Not surprisingly, following their withdrawal from CEGB service, all 3 steam locomotives were bought for preservation, so they all still exist. The same cannot be said for any part of Agecroft Power Station itself, which was closed in 1993, and demolished in 1994. The entire site was redeveloped and is now the location of a prison.

My presence at that historic event was very much a matter of chance. It was another of many Manchester locations that I visited, but which have now completely vanished.

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

California’s Petrified Forest

"The Queen": a Live Oak growing through Fossilized Redwood at the Petrified Forest

“The Queen”: a Live Oak growing through Fossilized Redwood at the Petrified Forest

The photo above, which I took during a visit to California’s Petrified Forest, shows the interesting juxtaposition of a live tree growing through the trunk of a fossilized tree.

I mentioned in an earlier post that, before I ever visited California, my ideas of the state had been seriously distorted by representations in British media. As a result, I thought that the Napa Valley must surely be a desert with rows of vines growing arbitrarily in it! Similarly, my view of a “petrified forest” was that it must be a group of blasted trunks standing in an arid landscape.

As you can see in these pictures, the California petrified forest, which is situated in the mountains between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, bears no resemblance to my naïve expectation. On the contrary, the petrified trees are in the middle of a living forest.

The land in which the forest is situated is privately-owned, but can be visited at specified times, and on purchase of tickets. Full details of the forest’s history can be found here, at the owners’ official web site. The fossils were created by what must have been a devastating volcanic eruption of Mount Saint Helena, about 3.4 million years ago. The remains of Mount Saint Helena are still plainly visible from the forest’s location, as shown below.

Mount Saint Helena, seen from the Petrified Forest

Mount Saint Helena, seen from the Petrified Forest

Many of the trees caught in the eruption were species of redwood, which is historically interesting because redwoods are not now to be found so far inland. It’s unclear whether the change was due to altered climate, or to a change in the actual position of the California coastline. The photo below shows a closeup of a living oak tree, growing through the fossilized trunk of a redwood known as “The Queen”.

"The Queen": trunk of Fossilized Redwood

“The Queen”: trunk of Fossilized Redwood

Many other species of tree have been discovered in fossilized form among the redwoods, including one pine tree, oaks, alders, spruces, firs, and so on. The photo below shows living manzanita bushes (with red bark) growing among the moss-covered stumps of fossilized trees.

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Manzanitas growing next to Fossilized Stumps

Following the volcanic eruption, the entire area must have been barren, but most of it is now covered with modern vegetation. However, some of the ash deposited during the eruption is still uncovered today, and little grows in it. Part of one of these “ash fields” is visible below.

Part of the remaining Ash Field

Part of the remaining Ash Field

The fossilized forest was discovered in 1870, and its fame soon spread. In 1880, the author Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon nearby (writing about it in his book The Silverado Squatters), and one of the fossilized redwoods is now named for him, as below.

The Robert Louis Stevenson Tree

The Robert Louis Stevenson Tree

You can take a docent-guided tour around the forest, or else stroll around at your leisure. The tour covers about half a mile, and it’s not particularly difficult, but it’s probably best to avoid taking it during the hottest or wettest weather!

If you’re ever visiting Wine Country, then the Petrified Forest is worth a visit. The site was closed temporarily for cleanup following last year’s fires, but is now open again.

London’s Post Office Tower: My First & Only Visit

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

At the age of eleven, I produced the illustration above for the cover of a “London Study” that we were required to write and illustrate at school. The study was created in connection with our school visit to the capital city, which had taken place in May 1971, just before I drew the cover.

As you may expect (given my interests), my cover drawing emphasized modes of transport. Additionally, I chose as the centerpiece a striking modern building to which we had paid a surprise visit during the trip, and which had substantially impressed me. Little did I know at that time that it would probably be my only opportunity ever to visit that iconic building.

The building in my drawing was the recently-built Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower). Even before that first visit to London, I was well aware of the existence of that structure, which was feted as a prime example of Britain’s dedication to the anticipated “White Heat of Technology”. In addition to its role as an elevated mount for microwave antennas, the Tower offered public viewing galleries providing spectacular views over Central London. There was also the famous revolving restaurant, leased to Butlin’s, the famous operator of down-market holiday camps.

The Tower and its restaurant began to feature prominently in the pop culture of the time. An early “starring” role was in the comedy movie Smashing Time, where, during a party in the revolving restaurant, the rotation mechanism supposedly goes out of control, resulting in a power blackout all over London.

In the more mundane reality of 1971, our school class arrived in London and settled into a rather seedy hotel in Russell Square. One evening, our teacher surprised us by announcing an addition to our itinerary. We would be visiting the public viewing galleries of the Post Office Tower, to watch the sun go down over London, and the lights come on! Needless to say, we were thrilled, even though we had no inkling that that would be our only-ever chance to do that.

There were actually several public viewing gallery floors, some of which featured glazing, while others were exposed to the elements, except for metal safety grilles. Fortunately, the weather during the evening that we visited was not exceptionally windy!

Concretopia

I’m currently reading the book Concretopia, by John Grindrod, which provides a fascinating history of Britain’s postwar architectural projects, both public and private.

Cover of Concretopia Book

One chapter of the book is dedicated to what was originally called the Museum Radio Tower (referring to the nearby British Museum). It provides detailed descriptions of the decisions that led to the construction of the tower, and reveals that at least one floor is still filled with the original 1960s-era communications technology.

Due to subsequent changes both in communications technology and British government policies regarding state involvement in such industries, much of the original function for which the Tower was built has now been rendered obsolete or moved elsewhere, leaving the building as something of a huge museum piece (ironically, in view of its original name).

The Once-and-Only Visit

In October 1971, a few months after my school class visit, a bomb exploded in the roof of the men’s toilets at the Top of the Tower Restaurant. Initially it was assumed that the IRA was responsible, but in fact the attack was accomplished by an anarchist group.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the incident, but it drew attention to the security vulnerabilities created by allowing public access to the Tower. The result was that the public viewing galleries were immediately closed down, never to be reopened, and Butlins’ Top of the Tower restaurant was informed that its lease would not be renewed after that expired in 1980.

Nonetheless, the Tower continued to appear in the media as an instantly recognizable icon. At around the same time, it was supposedly attacked by a particularly unlikely monster—Kitten Kong [link plays video]—in the British TV comedy series The Goodies.

My younger brother took the same school trip to London two years after me, but it was already too late; the Tower’s public viewing galleries were closed, so he never got to see the London twilight from that unique vantage point.

The Unexpected Technologist

On that first visit to London in 1971, I had no notion that I personally would ever be a participant in the kind of exciting technological innovation signified by the Tower. In my family’s view, such advances were just something that “people like us” observed and marveled at, from a remote state of consumer ignorance.

I never anticipated, therefore, that I would return to London as an adult only ten years later, to begin my Electronics degree studies at Imperial College, University of London. I had to visit the University’s administration buildings in Bloomsbury to obtain my ID and other information, and there was that familiar building again, still looming over the area. (The University Senate House is also famous for its architectural style, but I’ll discuss that in a future post!)

My 1982 photo below, taken during my undergraduate days, offers an ancient-and-modern architectural contrast, showing the top of the Tower from a point near the Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury.

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

The Museum Tower

The photo below shows the Tower again, during a visit in 2010, now with its “BT” logo prominently on display. Externally, the tower looks little different from its appearance as built, and, given that it’s now a “listed building”, that is unlikely to change much in future.

BT Tower, 2010

BT Tower, 2010

For me, the Post Office Tower stands as a memorial to the optimistic aspirations of Britain’s forays into the “White Heat of Technology”. It seems that, unfortunately, the country’s “Natural Luddites” (which C P Snow claimed were dominant in the social and political elite) won the day after all.

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971