Monthly Archives: March 2014

The British Disease.


A Triumph from the new(ish) Hinckley Factory in the Rhine Gorge.

Having written ‘The Trouble with Germany‘ and committed it to the printers I of course immediately came across a book which was entirely relevant to my thesis and would have given further insight into my arguments. The book in question was English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850 – 1980 by Prof Martin J. Weiner of Rice University, a privately run establishment in Texas.

His argument runs along the lines that the industrial revolution in Britain was an accident of history, an interloper upon the rustic idyll which was itself an imagined society of honest squires and contented peasants  that was cherished by the upper classes mainly because it reinforced their belief in their right to rule, and by the middle classes because they were of the opinion that their interests were best served by hanging on to the coat tails of their betters. As for the the working man, and eventually woman,  then it empowered them politically which naturally irked those who would position themselves higher up the social hierarchy.  He does rather beg the question as to whether the almost willful destruction of British industry in the latter half of the 20th century was some sort of revenge, a misguided reassertion of the old order by those wishing to see the return of the great unwashed to what they considered their proper, lowly, position.

Weiner is obviously of this opinion and relies heavily upon the literature and opinions of the movers and shakers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras to make his point. Time and again he treats us to examples of the distaste and contempt with which industry was met by the old guard from the start of the 18th century onwards as the emergence of the Pre Raphaelites went on to confirm. This group of vexed and well to do artists  were the young fogey’s of the day and supported the aura of romance and mythology that centred around the ancient cultures of Italy, Greece and, rather ironically, elevated the Rhine with its adjacent forests to an unspoiled land of honour, nobility and heroes. 100 years after the group’s formation Britain found itself emerging, bankrupt, from a war with that now highly industrialised state that members of the establishment had been brought up to idolise through art, but instead of taking the opportunity to clear out the stable and start again (as was forced upon the losers of the conflict) she fell back into old habits, the eternal class struggle that only a country that had hitherto been relatively unthreatened by invasion could develop and promote  in such a senseless way over the centuries.

This is not the version of history that is generally promulgated within the British media or political establishment, but if there is one clear advantage in moving outside the country of ones upbringing it is that  one can look back and more clearly appreciate the origin of its social beliefs and point to the fallacies contained therein. I still retain a great love for one particular British Icon and that is Triumph Motorcycles (originally founded by a German), but I no longer subscribe to the commonly held belief that it was just bad manufacture and contempt for the customers that caused the original company’s downfall during the post war period, there is so much more to it than that. The whole of British industry suffered, not just the motorcycle industry, and to consider the travails of Triumph, BSA et al in isolation from the general demise is to miss the crucial point of the disinterested leadership that the country unfortunately endured during this period.

In 1948 the US started to hand out millions of dollars to help the war ravaged economies to recover, the scheme was known as  Marshall Aid. Each recipient country had to apply for the largesse and so Germany prepared a document detailing how it would rebuild it’s industries with the money and specifically talked about the new technologies that the the war had brought forward. Britain’s Oxbridge, and predominantly arts educated, civil servants on the other hand produced an application that was full of rather unfocussed generalities about using the money to ensure the country retained influence upon the world stage.  A decade later the German motorcycle manufacturer, NSU, was the largest in the world, their success due to a range of completely new models designed to meet the country’s needs. A couple of wet summers and rising prosperity amongst the citizens soon persuaded the company to switch to car production and it eventually became part of Audi. Out on the edge of Europe, nearly 40 years after the war had ended, the old Triumph Engineering company finally succumbed to bankruptcy in 1983,  it was still using an engine design from 1938 and, it is said, factory tooling even older than that.

Britain received well over twice the dollars from the Marshall Plan than Germany did. Where did the money go? If it had been spent on perpetuating the UK’s industrial base rather than trying to build a new Jerusalem, John Bloor, the savior of the Triumph marque, may well not of had the opportunity to so spectacularly turnaround just another broke UK manufacturing company.


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A quiet slice of Ireland.



Ireland is usually described as small country, insignificant to world events and largely ignored by all other countries unless they want our money to prop up the banking system or our votes to perform a similar service for the great European project. Yet there is something rather special about the place, something that you need to physically experience to truly appreciate.

Traveling up to Co Mayo this week I was reminded of this when pulling off the road for a break. A sign with the simple words ‘Luimnagh Quay’ enticed me for a mile or so down a single lane until I came upon the waters of Lough Corrib which on this day wore an unruffled cloak of reflected blue that was not of any one particular hue or another.  I rested the car while easing the stiffness of the miles with a stroll around this stone structure that  lay as silent testament to the lake’s past role in the lives of the trading folk of the district. All was still, all was quiet and, above all else, all was tranquil.

In fact so tranquil was the place that it was the very silence that dominated these few minutes. Tranquility is certainly not unique to Luimnagh Quay, we can meet it wherever we are in the world, often unexpectedly but always with warm appreciation and it is of course relative to the environment previously encountered.  Yet here there was nothing to distract from it, no large mountains loomed from across the shore, trees and boulders were modest in size and the few houses that were dotted around hid either in the distance or behind high walls offering nothing in the way of entertainment for the unsettled mind.

The canvas was not completely blank however, for there stood, just a dozen yards away, a small bridge that at first glance was so utterly purposeless as to immediately suggest it was ornament rather than artifact. Closer inspection revealed that it spanned a gap between two minor stone jetties that presently lay submerged beneath the high waters. It stood as a symbol of the mood, disconnected from the solidity of life yet holding the potential for future use. Like myself it appeared to be resting from its labours, just for this minute it was untouchable by those who may demand that it function as it was created to do, but it was now blessed with the same peace that I possessed in observing its solitude.

I wandered on, a lady walking a greying dog stopped me and we chatted for a while, of the wagtails at the waters edge, the nesting mallards behind the wharf, the early appearance of a particular fly the name of which, to my shame, I have forgotten, and to the arrival of spring in general.  The changing season would not be long in bringing the energy of nature’s green powerhouse once more to the brown reads, the hazel and all that grew around, it was the lull before her onslaught that would peak in June and then ebb gradually away for the winter slumber. Each moment in the earths cycle is one to be savored yet the business of living in our artificial world breaks the bond twixt us and where we are from and like the bridge we are left aloof from all that is truly substantial. Ireland has a curious way of reminding us of this, of our very mortality and as I made my way back to the road to rejoin my journey I once more sincerely thanked her for that.

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Old School Photography


A manic decade of development has seen the digital camera evolve from little more than a novelty to an instrument that is capable of producing images that would either have been ultra expensive or merely impossible back at the turn of the century.  There is no going back, the new way is king and rightly so for many good reasons, convenience was always the major selling point but no longer, for quality is now also superior in just about every case, or is it?

I was prompted to this question by a good friend who is as passionate about the craft of photography as he is knowledgeable and accomplished.  He recommended to me a documentary on George Tice (IMBD, George Tice) who is the sort of photographer that most pro’s just love to hate under normal circumstances, but now that he is justifiably famous they can somehow bring themselves to overlook his humble beginnings in, whisper it quietly,  a camera club of all places.

Tice is indeed a great photographer and in the true sense of the word. His craft is his life and his mission is to seek perfection but at no time during the programme will you hear any mention of digital or see him with anything other than a 10×8 large format camera or the Kodak Pony he kicked off with back in the Fifties. George’s world is that of the artist working in black and white, a world where the medium of film is pushed, prodded, manipulated and exploited to produce images of breathtaking impact without any ‘pop’ or drama, just a simple beauty that relies on the presentation of the subject more than the subject itself.

We all love black and white photography, although I have yet to see why this is so explained satisfactorily,  but what George demonstrates is that there is a level of skill that can grace any subject with an importance and immediacy that goes far beyond the simple pushing of the desaturate button in Photoshop.  This ability certainly relies on instinct but there is also a terrific amount of technical awareness of the materials he works with and this constant desire to produce the best that is possible is evident in the the results he places before us. Photography to him is a process running from careful choice of scene to the selection and control of the darkroom techniques that will best yield the picture he craves to create. Compare and contrast with today’s business of firing off a thousand shots in the hope that one or two may turn out right but that is what digital has done to the noble art and I used to joke that once I too went digital then I would never take a reasonable photo again, thankfully that does not apply to my colour images but certainly I have given up the pursuit of excellence in black and white that was, I like to feel, just starting to show some promise before the analogue was brushed aside by electronics.  The above is one such image, it represents the point to which I had got before the Bronicas were placed quietly on the shelf to be used again at some unspecified date in the future when I would once again take up the drive for perfection in black and white   That day is still to come for it will take time to once more adopt the necessary mindset, so all the more reason to salute those who stuck with the values of tradition and excellence, such as George Tice.

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Time to wipe away the tiers.


As a great faceless monolithic Yankee corporation AGCO doesn’t really cut it, not because they are not large or dominant enough in their market or that they don’t try and indoctrinate us with a infuriating southern drawl in their AV presentations, but because, well, they are actually quite nice people, certainly on this side of the pond anyway.  I can happily say this having had the opportunity to chat to some of their European management at their showcase event at the NEC this past week and although they carefully trod the corporate line I wondered if there was not some frustration within the ranks with regards to the great bogeyman that is Brussels.

Any self respecting company will seek to reassure their customers both present and potential, that they are investing in the future and AGCO are no different. We were treated to news of a $10m upgrade to the Massey Ferguson paint shop which follows the acquisition of new facilities for cab production in 2013 and so on, yet the figure that most stuck in my mind was the $25m set aside for research and development by the same company. At first glance this is worthy expenditure but when pressed it was admitted that a great part of this was spent on trying to meet ever more stringent emissions regulations from Brussels. To those who are unfamiliar with the genuinely noble crusade to clean up engine exhausts this probably sounds a good thing yet the latest standard, known as Tier 4, is such a vast improvement over the situation when legislation was first introduced that one wonders just how much further it can go and, more importantly, just what is the point of taking it any further?  The European Parliament obviously thinks it is worthwhile to continue chasing this rabbit because it intends introducing a Tier 5 level  sometime in the future but, as Richard Markwell (vice president and managing director of Europe, Africa and the Middle East) coyly admitted, they haven’t even decided where those standards are going to apply, let alone what they are actually going to be!

This leaves manufacturers somewhere between a rock and a hard place. On one hand they have to put aside funds to develop engines that cause less distress to the environment than a sparrow breaking wind whilst on the other they are expected to create new machines that are more efficient and effective in operation than those of last year. Diverting funds to satisfy arbitrary legislation rather than spending them on genuine improvements to tractor design would appear detrimental to both the advance of farming methods and even the environment itself for efficient farming will create less exhaust whatever its particle content.

Mr Markwell also confessed to representing AGCO on the manufacturers team of representatives in Brussels, so I wonder if he might not take a new message to the powers that be, one that argues for greater economy  rather than the seemingly nonsensical pursuit of a now skeletal bunny.

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