Monday 31 August 2009

Invictus. Playing the Enemy book review

Invictus, Playing the Enemy
Book review
31st August 2009

You may remember that I posted an entry a while ago about the amazing experience of Zak Feaunati being unexpectedly cast in the role of Jonah Lomu in Clint Eastwood's new film, the Human Factor.

Well, I vicariously lived through the entire filming process courtesy of his wife, who I work alongside and who has lent me a copy of John Carlin's 'Playing the Enemy', the book on which the film was based.

It was an unusual read - truly a book of two halves. The first was a historical perspective on the rise and fall of apartheid, all linked to the life and times of Nelson Mandela, its central character. This element reads like a history book, because it is! It is even published under History / Politics. Whilst interesting, this section was heavy going and in the end it took me three months to get to the half way point, and had me wondering why anyone could see it as a seam of credible cinematic material.

But then I entered the second half passing through the obligatory selection of black and white images into the vibrant technicolour of the 1995 Rugby World Cup competition. From the here the story really picked up the pace, gaining speed akin to Jonah Lomu's legendary turn of speed. Suddenly, I found myself captivated by the storyline and the spectacle the book conveyed. Whilst the first half had been a three month war of attrition, much like the cup final match itself, I raced through the latter stages in as many days.

The story provides a powerful insight into Nelson Mandela, founding father of a divided nation. His skill in achieving the seemingly impossible dream of a united South Africa is stunning, and his use of Rugby as the glue to hold a fragile infant nation together can only be described as pure genius.

History already dictates a fairytale ending, with the unfancied Springbok's achieving a surprise victory against the All Blacks, the tournament favourites which included Lomu, their secret weapon. But the true miracle of the tale is how the sporting event played a direct part in drawing together the factions who had long been enemies. Its a story of great hope.

If this can be achieved in South Africa why not in the Middle East?, why not in the Balkans?, why not in the war torn areas of central Africa?

The book's sub title is "Nelson Mandela and the game that made a nation". That says it all really.

What has all this to do with waterways? Virtually nothing! However, the book spoke to me, so I thought I would share my enthusiasm.

The Book is available from Atlantic Books for £12.99
ISBN 978 -1-84354-869-0

As for the film? It is due out on 5th Feb 2010 and I can't wait. See you at the premier.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Seeing red about Diesel

Seeing red about diesel
27th August 2009

You don't read much about the Red Diesel issue since the self certification arrangement came into force last Autumn, but I am not sure that silence really is golden.

In recent months I have been out and about on the system, filling up with diesel from a number of suppliers and have been surprised by the diversity of propulsion / heating and generation declarations recorded on the vendors sales sheets. I recently purchased diesel form one very well known and high profile boatyard and was amazed to see that of the 20 names on the list, 19 had declared 0% propulsion!

Now we all know that the Government didn't really want to implement this European driven change, and were all relieved that the self declaration process introduced a measure of sanity into the situation, but now I am concerned.

If the self declarations I have seen are typical, I think that the boating community could stand accused of not playing the game. And if we can't be trusted to take a reasonable approach self declaration, the option may be removed and we will all end up paying full duty on all our diesel.

I fear that this may be a classic case of having an elephant in the house - we all know that there is an issue, but no one wants to talk about it.

We should all take care in our declarations as this is probably a case of "if you abuse it you lose it".

Saturday 15 August 2009

Exercise and Solitude

Exercise and Solitude
15th August 2009

I find myself on the receiving end of my own advice for once.

My time as a Personnel Manager brought me into contact with all sorts of people with all sorts of problems, many of them stress related. One of the key bits of advice I used to dish out was to take regular exercise to alleviate all the adrenalin caused by our fight or flight reaction, which would otherwise have nowhere to go.

I now find myself in a highly stressed situation, not of my own making but brought on by external and unavoidable factors. And so I find myself in need of extra exercise.

I can't sleep properly when stressed, waking at 5.00am so I suppose an early morning run makes sense. Today it was four or five miles through Sutton Park, pausing at one of its seven pools and letting it's first light stillness flow into my being. Apologies for the quality of the photo - taken on my Blackberry in very poor light.

I can't claim to be an oasis of calm just now, but being near water helps when boating isn't possible.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Royal Gunpowder Factory

Royal Gunpowder Factory
Lee and Stort Navigation

One of the unexpected benefits of my ongoing search for aqueducts is the habit of finding out about little known sites full of local history.

I recently stumbled upon references to the Royal Gunpowder Factory in Waltham Abbey, sometimes referred to as the Royal Gunpowder Mills. The site was home to one one of the largest producers of explosives right up to the second world war but is now largely forgotten.

This strange place was first used to manufacture explosives in the very early 1800's and needed a transport infrastructure to move its highly unstable raw materials and finished products from place to place. Speed was not of the essence in this industry. They needed something that was as stable as possible and naturally fire resistant. They ended up constructing an in house canal system which eventually expanded to include 10 miles of navigation on two levels, featuring no less than four aqueducts, three of which were made of cast iron representing more than 10% of the total cast iron aqueduct stock in the entire country.

RGPF Powder Boat

I couldn't possibly do this place justice in a single blog post but a visit to Richard Thomas' encyclopedic website is to be recommended.

RBPF footbridge

This was clearly a dangerous place to work, with employees banned from crossing the unusual domed bridges for fear that sparks from their clogs would trigger an explosion. Of the four aqueducts built, two still remain - one with its base plate blasted out by a massive nitro glycerene explosion in 1940! Lets hope that this wasn't due to an over enthusiastic clog dancing munitions boatman....
Mind you, if you have a look at a photo of the boat captains they look like a pretty serious bunch to me - with just cause!

Tuesday 4 August 2009

National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas

National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas
Trent and Mersey Canal
31st July 2009

If you are passing through Alrewas on the Trent and Mersey Canal, or possibly travelling along the A38, and have a few hours to spare consider turning off and paying the National Memorial Arboretum a visit.

We didn't really know what to expect, possibly some sort of mini Arlington Cemetery aped from our cousins across the Atlantic.

What we found was something of a revelation. This is no cemetery, there are no bones or headstones and neither is this an exclusive military garden of remembrance. It is much more.

This huge site in the Trent valley is built on reclaimed gravel workings, leased by Lefarge Aggregates for 999 years on a peppercorn rent and sits amid an array of glittering lakes. The site is split into many gardens and areas, all planted with slowly maturing trees which form part of the National Forest initiative, many of which are dedicated to individuals or groups who have died in the course of serving their country.

But it was one non military garden that brought tears to my eyes within moments of entering its gate. It was the SANDS garden, dedicated to children who have lost their lives during or shortly after childbirth. Hundreds and hundreds of pebbles line the paths, each bearing the name of a child who never had an opportunity to see life in all its diversity. Each pebble lovingly painted or inscribed by mourning parents, grand patents or brothers and sisters, each laid down with care, each a small tribute to a life that never was. It's not an elaborate garden but it is a place of great peace and sadness, a place I will never forget.

Then there are the myriad of other memorials, most quite modest but all erected with love and respect. I was particularly struck by a sculpture carved out of three bits of stone which, when approached from directly in front, revealed a perfectly formed Star of David. Clever, memorable and understated.

Behind this Jewish memorial stands the huge monument to the fallen, a great circular stone fortification sitting atop a mound, its golden tipped obelisk towering above and forming the focal point for the site. There are, as you would expect, hundreds of names carved into the walls, each name loved and mourned by their family. But perhaps the saddest aspect of this structure is the huge wall which remains blank, awaiting the names of the "yet to fall".

Within this blank wall, and its inner counterparty, there is a narrow gap to the south through which, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a shaft of sunlight falls directly onto the central memorial. Simple, effective and profound.

It's a crying shame that as a race we learn so little from history, with each successive generation being obliged to fight and die for the sake of others. Don't get me wrong, a visit to the National Arboretum made me profoundly grateful to those that made the ultimate sacrifice, but I am saddened that such a sacrifice is still necessary.

The Memorial Arboretum is a work in progress and is clearly winning a place in the heart of the nation. Currently the immature trees give it a "new golf course" look, but given 20 years they will have grown and provide green avenues of peace and tranquility, places to walk, read and reflect. A truly special corner of the nations newest forest.

If you want to know where it is from the canal, look out for the tall Lefarge sand excavators which border the car park. Whilst its only a mile or so from the village, an approach by road may be courting disaster. I would suggest you either seek out the local bus service or maybe call a taxi for the short ride.

Entrance is free, but all donations towards it's maintenance, upkeep and development are much appreciated.

Sunday 2 August 2009

BW's real purpose behind bollards revealed

BW's real purpose behind bollards revealed
Ahab exclusive!

They say that the love of money is the root of all evil - but I would say that that dash for cash is firmly embedded into foundations of BW's perverse policy of offside lockside bollards.

BW needs cash and how better than to use it's assets to generate advertising revenue? They have lulled us into accepting the odd square shaped bollards as part of the fabric of the system, and are now cunningly revisiting the sites are turning them into circular advertising platforms. You see them every day beside the roads - why not beside canals.

It's taken a while, but I see that the first advertising contract has been awarded at Penkridge Lock - the local Dickens Tea Shoppe are adverting their wares to lock weary boaters.

But it won't stop there. Demand for this premium space will be high and BW are reportedly experimenting with small solar powered motors which will cause the bollards to rotate and display all sides during the typical time it takes a boat to pass through a lock.

Don't take my word for it. Visit the Dickens Tea Shoppe and askee!