Sunday, 27 July 2014

Heavy engineering

I went to the Flea-Market yesterday with the intent of bringing back some fine Georgian glass, and ended up by purchasing this 15 pound lump of iron. Do you know what it is? Would you like me to tell you? Well tough. I'm not going to.

Oh all right then, it's a military tow-hitch for a Land Rover. I have a friend who is a bit of a Land Rover nut, and he recently bought a military trailer to go with it which I quite fancied borrowing, but without one of these attached to the back of the Volvo, I can't. I can't tow a howitzer either.

He already has one, but he does have another Landy without one, so I'm giving it to him.

My friend is the Chief Engineer on board a ship which is normally employed in the oil world, but right now he is laying the foundations for an off-shore wind-farm, somewhere in the North Sea - I think.

To give you an idea of the scale of this operation, the ship is fitted with several cranes, each one of which is capable of lifting 1000 tons. I thought that was quite a lot, but he has worked on boats with 7000 ton cranes.The foundations for the legs of the turbines are individual units which are simply dropped onto the sea bed, and because they weigh 500 tons each, they bury themselves into the mud without the need for excavation.

The cranes are operated from the bridge with the use of a lap-top computer-type thing, and the raising and lowering of them is effected by touching parts of the screen. That's quite an app.

The Chief Engineer does not just do the glory jobs like this, but everything else that involves taking machinery apart or putting it back together again. One minute he will be fitting a new piston into the main engine (he tells me that the pistons are so big in this machine that a man can stand in the pot which contains it, and not be seen from the other side), and the next he will be clearing blocked units in the toilet facilities. I think he delegates this job to a subordinate.

When they find old condoms in the blockage, they try not to ask themselves what they are doing there on an all-male ship. Worse things happen at sea - Britain's first female Naval Commander has just been relieved of her duties for - allegedly - having an affair with another crew member.

He does the usual routine of one month on, one month off, and during the 'off' month, there is nothing he likes better than coming into the pub where this photo was taken, when he is not restoring his old Land Rover. No alcohol is allowed on board, but recently one of the crane drivers - of the 1000 ton cranes - was found paralytically drunk in the cab of his crane, and went home early. I think he had discovered some medical spirit hidden away somewhere.

After one period of leave recently, he went back to his ship to find that another engineer had bent one of the legs of the cranes. These legs are so tough and so big, that you can lower all four onto the sea bed and lift the whole ship out of the water, so nobody could quite understand how it happened.

A little mistake like this costs millions of pounds, so I suppose in the scale of things, me dropping a quarter-ton piece of marble worth £200,000 is roughly proportionate.

It's all academic as far as I am concerned though - if I dropped that marble, it might as well be a 5 million pound mistake. Sheep and lambs.

Just bought this other metal item today - it is getting much interest already, despite/because of the hostility/sympathy toward all Moslems right now.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

But she looked 14, Your Honour

The tourist season has reached its zenith here in Bath, and I only have to glance out of the window to see about five coach-loads of European adolescents walking up the street at any given time.

I suppose it must be something to do with how they structure the school holidays, but right now the predominant nationality of young tourist is Spanish. There are hardly any Americans this year, and this must be to do with the dollar being set at about $1.80 to £1. Their mums and dads really don't feel right about paying $7 for a small beer, even if it is stronger than Miller Lite and the bar is 250 years older than their local back home.

It was only after I got back from Spain with a 14 year-old girl that I learnt that the age of consent is 14 in that country, and I cannot decide whether or not I would have been comfortable knowing it at the time.

It set me thinking about the legal as opposed to moral dilemmas that might face the older man who has an eye for young ladies, coupled with a lack of scruples that govern most of our lives when it comes to self-imposed inhibitions about trying to actually acquire one as a playmate.

Two years is a long time in the life of an adolescent, and most of them like to hang on to as much of their childhood as is allowed to them these days, at the same time as not having to miss out on all those parties which their older brothers and sisters go to on the hot Summer nights. This is just one reason why adolescence is such a painful process. The transition between childhood and adulthood takes a lot longer than turning on a light, and can stretch - sporadically - over a period of many years.

But they hit the age of about 12, and suddenly find themselves the target of overt sexual imagery from all sorts of clothes and music-video vendors, then there is no getting off the roller-coaster that will eventually eject/reject them and make them invisible to the new generation of customers at the age of 50. That's where Saga takes over.

There is a new outlet of 'Primark' opened in Bath, and since the fanfare of the ribbon-cutting ceremony has died down, I see loads of girls and young women walking down the street with a Primark bag stuffed full of shoddy goods.

Primark is ideally suited to the youth of its core customers, mainly because it is so cheap. The reason it is cheap is because (I suspect) that the clothes are made by people in a distant land who are even younger than its customers, and work for less money than its customers get as weekly pocket-money to spend in Primark.

Primark have just been ordered to remove a mannikin from their windows which depicts a body that is either emaciated through anorexia, or has the natural bony rib-cage and concave stomach of an immediately post-pubescent girl. Either message contrasts sharply with the ever-growing population of obese children, made fat through cheap junk food.

In all the hundreds of Spanish kids walking around right now, I have not yet spotted one over-weight one - they are all just the size and shape they should be for their age.

I suppose they all eat good food in Spain, and have Zara rather than Primark. They also learn how to drink in moderation there as well, which is why you never see them rolling in the gutter either.

Maybe 14 is the right age for Spain.

Friday, 25 July 2014

The Art game

Yesterday I bought about three tons of marble - literally - and today I am about to buy the same weight in biscuits.

Yes, H.I.'s Summer School is about to start again, and those people certainly know how to put away the biscuits. You would not believe how many biscuits they can get through in a five day period - secretive locusts come to mind.

Some people are born teachers, but I am not one of those. If I have anything of value to pass on to others, it's probably not teachable in any case. Teaching Art just has to be an absolute minefield of an area to find yourself in, especially as opinions on what constitutes it vary so widely, even within its own confines, so H.I. just sticks to what she knows to be the real, measurable thing - Painting and Drawing.

A friend of mine once asked me to take over his sculpture classes to adult amateurs for a couple of evenings, and I agreed to do it whilst stressing that I would be acting as a technical assistant only. This was easier said than done, because every single student in the class seemed to believe that they deserved more attention than the short time allotted for all of them put together.

The first one I dealt with was a woman who I saw struggling to get a particular shape from a resistant lump of limestone, and I was alerted to her plight by the scream she emitted after smashing her finger between the chisel end and the wooden shaft of the iron mallet.

This can happen to the best of us, but it is more likely to happen when you are looking at the end of the mallet rather than the end of the chisel, as you must in order to see what you are taking off with it. These are the basics.

I told her that in order to have a clear idea about the shape she was trying to find in the stone, she really ought to make it in clay to begin with. She said this was the last thing she would be doing because she was a professional potter, and wanted to take a break from clay. I left her to her mistakes - there was nothing else I could do for her. People - initially - become blindly embroiled in the medium and technique, completely forgetting the whole point of the activity, which is the end result.

Then I spotted a man who was covering a head-sized object with wet plaster, so I wandered over to see what he was up to.

There is another type of student who - far from being overly needy for attention - just wants to be left alone to find out the hard way. He bristled with hostility at my approach, and told me that he was casting a head he had modelled in clay the previous week.

His technique was to simply slop plaster over the whole thing without any joints, trapping the object inside it without any way of getting it out in one, undamaged piece. I told him that he really must turn it into a two-piece mould whilst he still had a chance, but he said that he knew what he was doing thank you, and would I leave him to get on before the plaster went off.

My friend told me he had to smash the thing to pieces the following week.

Then I saw a lovely, very old lady who was struggling to model a life-sized Robin in wax, using a hot spatula. When you model directly in wax, you can then 'invest' the wax positive into a fire-proof mould, melt the wax out and fill the cavity with molten bronze, and this is what she intended to do - make a bronze Robin.

As you know, Robins have very spindly little legs which make life very difficult for elderly people whose hands perpetually shake as much as this lady's did, so I asked if she wanted me to add the little wax rods with the spatula.

She had spent weeks - literally - trying to finish this simple task, and nobody had offered to help her. She was too self-effacing to ask for any help, and too dedicated to give up.

I welded some wax rods to the Robin and it took me about four minutes. She was pitifully grateful, even though I was simply doing my friend's job for him.

I saw the Robin in bronze form, and it was the nicest bit of work of the whole class.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Be careful what you wish for

You may remember me having a little moan about the blue smoke and smells of cooking belting out of this cylindrical chimney over the new Caribbean restaurant recently, and how I and a few loved-ones got a free meal as a result of my polite complaint.

The smoke carried on as normal for a week or two, so I made another polite - very polite - complaint to the manager, who told me that the wrong filter had been fitted and that the correct one would be installed this (last) Monday. He also gave us another free meal which we have yet to eat.

I was beginning to think that he was fobbing us off with excuses - until last Monday, when a few blokes began lugging several huge, black metal units up onto the roof and assembling it to make the gigantic contraption below.

It is difficult to understand the size of it from these photos, but suffice to say that the longest side is about ten feet.

I first thought that this restaurant might not last very long due to a sort of lack of commitment, but I have changed my mind since - they obviously mean business.

I had to laugh as it was being built - it was, after all, me who asked for it!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Mathematical genius

Didn't I always say that Carol Vorderman had a great arse? Well if I didn't, I aways thought it under my breath.

Well she has just pipped some young X-Factor starlet to the post in the arse-stakes to scoop the much-coveted 'Best Arse on T.V.' award, and apparently it's not for the first time. She's not just a pretty face.

Maybe my thoughts are turning to this sort of thing because of the weather, which has settled into a very Mediterranean coastal pattern of a stiff and refreshing, incoming breeze in the morning, and an outgoing one in the evening, or maybe it's simply because I really have turned into the filthy old pervert of John's lurid imagination.

Talking of stiff and refreshing, I counteract the day's sweat-drenched activity of my job with an almost deserved couple of cold beers in the late afternoon, but since I do this right through the Winter as well, I  can only describe it as 'almost' deserved.

I'm off to select yet more white marble today, and tomorrow I am going to view some antiques in a yard in Dorset. Both these trips will be in the Volvo, which will have the windows right down the whole way, because the air-con gave up on the old bus years before I bought it.

This plays havoc with my coiffure, but I have never been a slave to fashion, which is why I have never, ever, taken an undignified tumble on the cat-walk. When your whole life is as undignified as mine, you don't need to stand on a dais in front of the world's media to prove it.

About two months ago, I was idling in some traffic in the Volvo and happened to glance at the odometer (this is the 'mile-ometer', and not an onboard device which tells you the state of your armpits in the cramped confines of the cockpit), and saw it read 1260020.

I thought at the time that this was not a great deal of miles for a car as old as mine - I have friends with the same age Volvos, and they have over 250000 on theirs.

Then yesterday, I was idling in some slow-moving traffic again and gave the odometer another glance. It read 1260020. I set the trip to all the zeros and continued for another three miles. They remained at all the zeros and the main meter still read 1260020... You don't have to be Carol Vordeman to calculate this little anomaly.

Unless I run this car into the ground as I have all the others, I might be faced with a moral dilemma when it comes time to sell.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Lusting after your Great, Great Grandmother

Yesterday seemed to be a book-acquisition day - three big tomes: one on Velasquez, one on Hokusai and one on English, Scottish and Irish antique table glass, not that I need it.

They are all reference books, so I need not feel guilty about not reading them from cover to cover, though I did once buy one on Scottish Jacobite glasses which included a very well-written historical background which read like a period thriller.

The Art books once formed part of the collection of an art-collector friend of mine who died a few years ago. His wife died shortly afterwards, and the other day I found all the books piled on the pavement outside his house, with his son selling them for 50p each - a bit sad. That Hokusai book originally sold for £40, sometime in the 1980s.

I arrived a little too late to get the book of Victorian photographic pornography, but the buyer says he will give it to me when he has 'finished' with it.

It is fascinating to look at, especially when you understand that all the beauties contain within have been dead for at least 120 years. Also, most of the images are stereoscopic, so all 'you' will need to do is to slot the double images into one of those hand-held, twin-lensed viewers to take a trip back in time with sepia-tinted glasses.

I love those old stereoscopes - mountain passes, famous buildings, long-dead people - clothed and unclothed - all in 3D so realistic that you feel you can reach out back in time to touch them.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Butterflies or Georgian Bath

Sir Richard Attenborough has asked all us Brits to count the butterflies this Summer, so I had a go one lunchtime last week, out at the rural workshop, not having a garden here in central town.

I got up to four Cabbage Whites and one coloured one before I began to suspect the one of the Whites was doing the old schoolboy trick of running from one side of the panoramic camera to the other so as to be counted twice.

We considered capturing each butterfly and ringing it for identification before releasing it back into the wild, but decided against it - life is too short, especially for the butterfly.

If there is one plant which evokes a long, hot Summer, it is Buddleia - possibly the butterfly's favourite plant. I love almost everything about it - the colour, the smell and the abundance of long-lasting blossoms, and it's ability to survive  - thrive - on the meanest of soils. It chooses places like bomb-sites as a favoured habitat, but thankfully we are relatively free of those in this part of the world at the moment.

I say 'almost' everything about it, because there is one negative attached to Buddleia which is directly associated with its ability to thrive on virtually no soil. Miraculously, one seed will drift through the air and settle in a tiny crack in the mortar of the masonry of a building, and take root very firmly indeed.

The roots will travel through joints of no more than one-eighth of an inch thick, then somehow suck out enough nutrient to produce a massive bush of flowers high up on the side of a Grade One listed building, as if feeding on the air alone. This is good news for butterflies, but bad news for the architecture.

Buddleia loves rocky, alkali places, and you can't get much more rocky and alkali than Bath.

The roots creep in between impossibly tight places in buildings, then exert tons per square-inch pressure in an outward direction, pushing the blocks apart and carrying out a slow demolition process.

Whenever you see a healthy-looking Buddleia high up on the side of a building, you know you are also looking at neglected masonry in danger, which is why I pulled these young plants out of the footings of the pub yesterday before they had a chance to flower, and before I would be too weak to be able do it.

Sorry, Butterflies.