A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

War in the Air (BBC)

Since I may be the only man in Northern Europe who failed to see the superb lunar eclipse the other night, I am keeping a low profile. I meant to watch it - I had the blinds wide open on the roof windows, the conditions were crystal clear (we have no light pollution at all here), the moon was big and perfectly placed, I had my camera standing by - and I fell asleep before the eclipse started. Oh well.

To change the subject, about 10 miles from here is the village of Athelstaneford, which is noted for a piece of (debated) history. It seems that in 832AD there was an invading force from Northumbria up here, possibly commanded by a chap named Athelstan (not the king of the Angles who lived in East Anglia, he would have been 5 years old...), and a battle took place near the village whose name now commemorates the visiting commander. On the morning of the battle, the king of the Picts, Oengus II, saw a St Andrews cross (saltire) in the blue sky, and knew that he couldn't be beaten. Subsequently, the blue and white saltire was adopted as the Scottish flag. The story might just possibly be mythical, of course, but there is a little museum behind the church in Athelstaneford dedicated to this tradition, so at least the Visit Scotland people believe in it.

Nowadays, of course, we would just assume that old Oengus had simply seen a couple of aeroplane trails - as exemplified by the photo at the top of this post, taken by the Contesse over Asda's car park at Dunbar, around 7:30am today. Combination of humidity level, still air and the right number of planes - not an uncommon sight, but still worth a look, I think. Less of a saltire, more tartan?

In a very roundabout way, this gets me to the BBC's famous series of films on WW2 aerial warfare, War in the Air, which I bought on DVD recently and have started working my way through. They are really very good - the series was made in 1954, so the emphasis is very much on what a jolly good, heroic show the RAF put on (no complaints about that), which is probably why this series has been repeated on TV much less frequently than the Thames TV World at War series, for example, which was made some 20 years later, and which gives a more rounded view of the history.

The quality of the newsreel and other archive film is remarkable - so much so that I have occasionally got sidetracked trying to spot the joins between the dramatised bits and the original film. Maybe there are not so many joins - I guess a lot of documentary film was made during the war which required people to play, or voice-over, some of the parts - maybe they even played themselves. There are scenes involving dialogue which are set in the full operations room, with girls moving markers around the giant map with the long poles - I doubt if the BBC had the budget or the scope to reconstruct a complete ops room, and the scenes involving streets full of smoking rubble look obviously authentic - these must be original contemporary films which required people to speak, I suppose. Some of the acting is certainly hamfisted enough to have been done by amateurs (real people?), though it does seem unlikely that we would have a film archive of a meeting during which someone announced that he had invented radar.

Whatever, I enjoyed an episode involving some excellent Coastal Command material last night. I promise not to get sidetracked, but I have been fishing around, trying to find out more about the making of the series. It is interesting to surmise which bits are

(1) original wartime action archives

(2) scripted wartime documentary films, involving written dialogue

(3) scenes shot specifically for the BBC series

There's some fine, vintage stereotyping in the voices - all officers have nice, plummy accents, and the occasional fireman or groundcrew will be a Cockney. There is also a slightly crazed German voice which explains what the enemy were trying to do. Again, I have to emphasise that there is some superb archive material, including a great deal that I have never seen before (not that I am any kind of expert, of course).

Really very good - a worthwhile addition to my DVD collection.


Late edit:

Jimmy "One a Day" Rankin
My good friend (and musical associate) Ian lives in Portobello, Edinburgh. Ian is an enthusiastic amateur pilot, and he recently told me a tale of a former resident of his home. Ian bought this house, which came up for sale opposite his mother's home in about 1985, and his mother remembered a previous resident, a Mrs Rankin, whose son grew up to be Sq/Ldr "Jimmy" Rankin, who served at Biggin Hill and elsewhere during WW2. He flew with the Fleet Air Arm and with 92 Squadron of Fighter Command, and he had 17 confirmed kills. At one period his success rate was such that he was known as "One a Day" Rankin. There is also a story that for a while he was stationed at Drem, in East Lothian (very close to Athelstaneford, in fact), and he used to fly over his mother's house to signal that things were OK. This story may, of course, be up there with Oengus and his blue-sky visions - I have no idea.

Monday, 21 September 2015

1809 Spaniards - some more test figures

Recently I've got into the habit of painting up prototype figures to see what the uniforms for specific units will look like, and how much work they involve. Here's another couple of trials for Spanish line regiments - on the left is a fusilier of the Regimiento de Ordenes Militares, in the 1805 regulation uniform (white with dark blue facings for this lot, and not much blue in this case), and on the right is the Regimiento de la Corona, in the 1802 uniform (which was the same for all line infantry regiments). Things did not happen very quickly in the Spanish army - Ordenes Militares received their 1805 kit by March 1808, while the Corona boys did not receive their 1802 uniforms until August 1804, and both these units would still have been dressed like this picture at the Battle of Ucles in 1809.

Notice also my "Silence of the Lambs" jeweller's loop specs, with which I have been known to frighten the postie if he rings the doorbell while I am painting, the base of my daylight lamp and one of my dad's old watercolour brushes, courtesy of HM Stationery Office, 1966 - still in good shape.

I was also toying with the idea of painting a staff figure or two tonight - I have Marshal Suchet and his aides to paint, and there is a bit of a backlog of other interesting little projects - including a Portuguese colonel - but the challenge of making a decision proved too much, so I'll try to make a choice tomorrow night.


Sunday, 20 September 2015

Hooptedoodle #193 - Koyaanisqatsi

Today was Saturday, and tonight we had an excellent takeaway meal, from the Bengali restaurant in the village, and afterwards my son said, "Shall we watch a film?", which is what often happens after a takeaway on a Saturday.

After some discussion, it transpired that the Contesse had stuff to do, and chose not to watch a film, but was happy that my son and I should do so. We have little to watch that is new, at the moment, so the standard process requires that we choose a film we have seen before.

Eventually we chose Koyaanisqatsi, which we have both seen many times. Since I have some advantages in the time dimension, I can claim to have seen it more often than my son. In fact I have a long history with this movie - I first saw it in the cinema (1982? - I was going to say "can it be so long ago?", but when I see the clothes and the technology and - strangely - the spectacles, it becomes obvious...), then I owned a VHS tape of it, and now I have it on DVD. I must have watched it on some pretty dodgy TVs over the years, I guess. My first wife hated it - I think she felt that it somehow summed up some characteristics of mine with which she had never come to terms. One has to respect these things - water under the bridge; she was almost certainly correct - she was mostly interested in shopping for clothes and staying in expensive Italian hotels, and thus my tastes often appeared strange to her.

So why do I love this film? - no idea. I am not particularly proud of loving it. I accept that it is very dated now, that it is not a particularly smart film to like, that the eco-political themes and imagery are unsubtle and sometimes actually kind of dumb, but it is a trip, man. I like to sit and stare at the screen and think "Wow!" for 90 minutes, or whatever it is. My long-deceased former roadie and lifestyle guru, Rab the Fab, reckoned that it was right up there with 2001 - A Space Odyssey for watching while under the influence of LSD, an experience I would not rush to try, though 3 glasses of Spanish red wine did no harm this evening. Dumb or not, I still find the wackily hypnotic Philip Glass score very effective, I still laugh like a drain at the scene which alternates speeded-up footage of customers on the escalators in the New York subway with a clip of a machine making frankfurter sausages; also, we still play the game where you have to spot the first signs of life in the film, and then the first evidence of mankind.

At the end, we always feel we should discuss what we have seen, but it never gets very profound. Maybe the film is not really subtle enough to generate much debate. Maybe it is just a trip, man. I have never retained any lasting conclusions other than that I would not choose to live in a city in the USA - at least not in 1982. I'll watch it again next year - I'll look forward to it.

Here is the final scene, which seems to me to depict man attempting (unsuccessfully, on this occasion) to carry his stupidity, waste and ugliness beyond the confines of his own planet...

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Hooptedoodle #192 - More Critters outside the Kitchen Window

The Contesse was busy with her camera again yesterday - here's a quick view of garden wildlife in September in South East Scotland.
Not necessarily welcome, but a handsome specimen

There was another stationed as lookout - they can eat as much of the
geraniums as they like, as long as they stay off the fruit trees...

Chaffinches on the garage roof
Nothing to do with wildlife, but someone drew my attention to this cover from an American Sci-Fi magazine published in 1939 - gripping stuff - I swear this is genuine.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Sky Blue Pink with a Finny-Haddy Border

With better luck, this would have been a post about my trip on Saturday to the Durham Light Infantry Museum (that’s right, madam – in Durham), but I didn’t make it. After dithering over the weather forecast for an hour longer than I should have, I left home around 10am – Durham is about two and a half hours drive from here, and the museum is open 10:30 until 4pm.

The A1 in Northumberland, on a relatively dry day...
Alas, before I got to the border the rain was torrential, and it remained so – could hardly see through the spray, and I had the demister blowing so loud I couldn’t hear Wes Montgomery on the stereo. Not good. Near Stannington, not far north of Newcastle, there were some fairly routine roadworks, which required two lanes of the dual carriageway to merge into one, to be joined shortly afterwards by a busy slip road coming in from the left. Much too demanding for your average British motorist, I fear – no-one will give way; merging of traffic lanes is a simple process, screwed up by heroes (mostly in white 4WD BMWs, on Saturday) who insist on driving up the closed outside lane and forcing their way in at the bottleneck, thus gaining some 200 feet of priority in the queue, but stopping the whole thing dead. By the time I reached Washington services my Durham ETA had slipped by some 50 minutes, and the rain was coming on heavier again, after a brief lull. At best I could expect to get about an hour at the museum before it closed, and I was growing anxious about delays on the return trip. I had coffee and a piece of industrial chocolate cake at Washington, cast an expert eye at the lowering sky, and then headed for home, muttering. The weather and the traffic were both better than expected on the way back, in fact, and I survived to attempt the trip again in a week or two.

So – no news of Durham, and I wouldn’t recommend the chocolate cake.

Right – subject 2.

Painted miniature of an officer in the 1802 uniform
I am preparing to paint up another regiment for my 1809 Spanish army – this will be two battalions of the Regimiento de la Corona, and I intend to paint them in the 1802 regulation uniform, which involves jackets in what Godoy specified as deep sky blue – a shade which seems to be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. I have seen actual sky blue, and the Peter Bunde plates show it as a sort of royal blue. Hmmm.

Peter Bunde plate - not helped by the current state of my scanner
Any opinions on this? I was going to try for a sort of medium blue, not too psychedelic – my preferred options at present are a choice of two old Citadel colours which I have to hand - Ultramarine Blue, and Enchanted Blue – I have no idea what these are called now. I have the Cronin and Summerfield book, the Histoires et Collections volume on Ocaña and all the Bueno books for the period – inconclusive – in any case my colour vision is probably a bit dodgy anyway, but the problem with plates in books is that the reproduction is uncertain, and we don’t really know what the author intended.

So – Spanish soldiers, 1802 uniform – “deep-sky” jackets with black facings, edged red, red turnbacks, brass buttons – what do you reckon? What shade of blue? All clues welcome.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Hooptedoodle #191 - Ephraim's Photograph

This is a true story told to me by my friend Brandon, who lives in California. The story is set in the late 1990s, when Brandon used to work for a world-famous computer firm, at their very large research facility in Roseville.

These hotshot computing firms at that time were strange compromises – most of the propeller-heads who built them up were ageing hippies, but, as the organisations grew at an almost uncontrollable rate, the pressing need for professionalism and state-of-the-art commercial practice meant that a whole pile of untried management stuff was delivered in huge instalments, complete with fresh staff to implement it. Brandon was an engineer, and felt especially bewildered when the world of perfect Human Resource Management suddenly arrived to take control of his working life.

One unpopular innovation in his building was hot-desking – now there’s an iconic 1990s term; all staff had to be mobile – each employee had only a computer, a security badge and a wheeled pedestal with their belongings in it. Everyone – right up to the highest levels in the firm – was required to be able to start work at any location in the building, with whatever transient group of colleagues was required, with a maximum of 15 minutes notice.

Appropriate measures for phones and computer network access were challenging but could be managed, but some other things caused problems – the old human nature thing kept cropping up, and clashing with the new rules. For example, the workstations next to the windows on the top floor were much in demand, because they commanded rather splendid views (or, at least, because it was possible to see the world outside, which is almost the same thing in a work context) – this meant that staff would compete to grab these locations, and would be reluctant to move away from them. This was observed to interfere with the optimal working of hot-desking, so a new building layout was created, such that the spaces next to the windows were now walkways, and no-one had a window seat any more. That fixed it – everyone was now worse off.

Brandon had a colleague named Ephraim, who was even more nerdy and disorganised than Brandon was himself, and he took great exception to these new restrictions on his personal freedom (as he saw them). Things took a turn for the worse when the Corporation issued new rules to limit the “personalising” clutter which staff amassed on their desks – this was a further impediment to hot-desking, since a computer, a wheeled pedestal and an indefinite number of large cartons full of personal junk for each staff member was not what was envisaged in the new scheme of things. Thus there was a major cutting-back on what would be permitted on desks – this actually got as far as some formal definitions. Ephraim – and a few like him – complained bitterly about this, and diverted some of their effort and personal focus into the challenge of retaining as much junk as they could get away with – more, if possible.

At this point, Brandon and a couple of chums realised there was potential for some fun at Ephraim’s expense, and so Ephraim continued to receive a flow of further rulings from the hated HR, though by this stage HR knew nothing about them, since the stuff was being generated on their behalf by Ephraim’s colleagues, specially for Ephraim.

The next (fake) regulation restricted each member of staff to a single, framed photo of their own family. Ephraim complied, but bitterly and lamentingly. Then the photo was to conform to new maximum dimensions, and only children, partners and up to two family pets were allowed – no grandparents, and no golfing photos or similar. Ephraim was furious, but he became incandescent when HR expressed their unhappiness at the unruly collection of frames which were on display, and actually issued a standard frame, to ensure a more uniform, corporate look.

Brandon briefly considered that his alternative HR operation might ban family photos altogether, but instead he issued a new letter, saying that it had been noticed that some staff members’ families really didn’t match up to the Corporation’s required appearance standards, and that in future a photograph of an idealised corporate family might be substituted in extreme cases.

At this point even Ephraim realised it was a prank, and he sulked like a good chap until it was time to go for a beer, when all was forgiven. Three months of fake HR letters had reaped a handsome reward, but Brandon says that after the chuckles had died away they just had to get on with their wretched hot-desking world, and make the best of it. He lasted another year, and then he set up in business on his own – but that is another story.

So this is just a silly story about a workplace prank, in another century, on another continent. The shine is taken off the joke for me, a bit, by my own experience of HR people who learned about the human race entirely through books. That was one of the trends that eventually took most of the pleasure out of working – certainly out of managing other people – and that persuaded me to retire as early as I could afford. 

Are these beggars still out there?

Death by PowerPoint

Journey to the "Missouri"

I am currently reading Toshikazu Kase’s Journey to the Missouri, which I bought in Kindle version for next to nothing. I’m not going to offer any kind of formal review (I’d be too embarrassed, for one thing), but I have found the book absorbing and educational, and I would recommend it as a beginner’s overview of Japan before and during WW2. I am certainly a complete beginner in this subject.

Kase is in the top hat, right of centre, listening to McArthur's speech
Mr Kase is most celebrated as a member of the deputation which signed the Japanese surrender in 1945, on board the USS Missouri, but he was also a prominent member of the Japanese Foreign Ministry during the 1930s and 1940s, was Japan’s observer at the United Nations after WW2 until such time as they were awarded full membership, and was a delegate thereafter. He was also posted in the London embassy at the time of the Pearl Harbour attack, much to his personal discomfort, since the embassy staff had no prior warning of the attack.

So he was a very high-profile diplomat, and was unusual in a number of respects, since he was educated in the USA (Amherst College and Harvard) and was well accustomed to Western culture and protocols. His (American) editor makes the point that it is a remarkable achievement that Mr Kase wrote his book in English, without a translator – the editor pauses to wonder how many Western diplomats could write such a work in a language which was not their own (which begs the further question of how many could write so well even in their own language…).

I have the Kindle version, but the book was reprinted many times
Kase describes the desperate instability of the political situation in Japan in the 1930s, and the progressive domination of the country by the military, who – under the pretext of obedience to the Emperor – exerted complete control over education, indoctrination of the population, government, religion and foreign policy. This is an astonishing story, and it includes the headlong rush into war and the continuing obsession with fighting on – to the last man if necessary – in a war effort which was clearly doomed from late 1943 onwards.

To an extent, Mr Kase can be expected to attempt to save his nation’s face a little, and to cover himself and the liberal majority who took over after 1945 – there are a good number of points where I found myself thinking, well he would say that, wouldn’t he? He is supremely supportive – to the point of adulation – of post-war Britain and the USA, and generally hostile to Russia and China throughout. His description of Japan’s shameful annexation and exploitation of Manchuria does not accord well with my understanding of what went on there, but provides an interesting alternative view.

He insists that there was a strong anti-war lobby in Japan for a long time before the atomic bomb, though such a stance was likely to lead to disappearance or assassination of the individual. His English is perfect, though a bit rich on occasion – he expresses himself well, but often in emotive terms, and his use of identifiably Eastern imagery takes a little getting used to; he likens the youthful kamikaze pilots to the petals of cherry blossom, and so on.

Mr Kase died in 2002, at the age 101, I understand – apart from the deck of the Missouri, his other most famous appearance was probably as one of the interviewees in Thames TV’s magnificent The World at War (1974) – I have a box set of the DVDs, and I still cannot believe that anything so good was ever produced – it has its critics, and it is probably overexposed (and underwatched?) on the History Channel and elsewhere, but in my opinion those films will never be equalled as coverage of WW2 – it was sufficiently long after the event for a bit of balance to start to appear, yet it was soon enough for a hefty number of the participants to appear to describe and explain their experiences.

I digress – Mr Kase’s book is recommended – I am getting a lot out of it. I hesitate to mention this, but next up on my Kindle list is Mein Kampf – I’ve had it hanging around for a while, so had better have a go at it – I do not expect that it will influence my personal attitudes, but it’s an obvious gap in my reading list!