Thursday, 24 June 2010

World Cup games as they *should* be played: North Korea vs South Korea

Alas for me, who cannot raise any level of enthusiasm about football on any level, let alone the World Cup. It doesn't even have the mildly entertaining residual political spite of Eurovision, the voting of which can be predicted quite accurately without hearing the songs (in fact that's preferable to hearing the songs, any of which are capable of melting a musically-trained brain).

And on thinking that, it all became clear to me: If we put international relations and football together, slack-trousered youths would take more of an interest and the games would be far more interesting to people like me who care not a jot for sport.

So in the usual helpful spirit of public enlightenment that regular readers of this blog (both of them!) have come to rely on, LastDjango offers a match summary of North Korea vs South Korea (aka "The Korean Match").

Pre-kickoff: The US assistant coach tells journalists that the South Korean penalty area "is not part of his defensive perimeter".

1 min - The North Koreans kick off (with encouragement from Russian consultant coach J. Stalin) and quickly put together a strong move into the South Korean half. South Korea claims it wasn't ready. North Korea score.

5 mins - The South Korean manager pulls nine of his players off and substitutes them with members of an international all-star XI, who quickly overwhelm the North Korean defence and equalise. International all-star XI celebrate by trying to introduce freedom, democracy and random death in the North Korean half. South Korean fans start singing "Inch-on, Inch-on, with hope in your heart..."

7 mins - As North Korea kick off, the pitch is invaded by 473 "Chinese volunteer players" who stabilise the situation in midfield.

10 mins - a US player is brought down by a Chinese opponent. The US player is evacuated by helicopter and handed over to the care of Maj. 'Hotlips' Houlihan and her magic sponge. The game is temporarily halted while several hundred 40-something geeks who watched MASH as sex-starved teenagers in the late 70s roll about on the pitch hoping vainly for similar treatment.

13-90 mins - The game degenerates into a pointless stalemate on the halfway line, which is eventually de-footballized and across which the two teams glare at each other impotently.

As of writing time several hours later, the game has yet to end officially.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Wifely compassion - an historical overview

The suburban foxes are back (see this blog, passim). Only now there are more of them - we saw a vixen and two cubs playing merrily in our garden at twilight the other evening (it was an elaborate game called "first one to dig up and savage a plant with an expensive-looking garden centre price tag gets to crap in Guthlac's sand-pit!"). They also started excavating a seven-room luxury earth under our decking.

It was therefore only a matter of time before Mrs Byard politely ordered me to "fox-proof" the decking by wedging bricks into gaps and adding an extra plank to cover the long gap at the front. While simultaneously "minding Guthlac". Trust me, the mixture of hammers, nails, planks and an inventive two-year-old is not what one, as a male, wishes to have imposed on him for multi-tasking after a hard day at work.

Anyway, I gamely set about the impossible task. Guthlac was surprisingly keen to help, and while I was lying prone on the decking trying to wrestle the plank into position, he picked up a hammer which shortly afterwards came into sharp contact with my head. For a moment, I was unable to restrain my natural eloquence, upon which Mrs Byard took his side, helpfully explaining that "He was just holding the hammer and you nudged it with your head!"

One wonders whether Marie Antoinette scolded Louis XVI for nudging le guillotine with his neck and thus spilling blood on his new shirt; or whether Alexandra's last words to Nicholas in the dank Yekaterinburg cellar were an admonition to stop nudging the unwashed Bolsheviks' bullets. Did Archduchess Sophie turn to Franz-Ferdinand as Gavrilo Princip stood and fired and say "That's what you get for nudging Serbia"?

Probably not. But then, they had servants to fox-proof their gardens. It's alright for some...

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Mechanical eptitude

Recent comments on Guthlac's misadventures with vintage engines have set me thinking about the critical part that "being practical" played in the lives of my father's and grandfather's generations, and how a mechanically able man still commands blokish respect. No man wishes to sound, for instance, clueless in front of his garage mechanic (partly lest they slap a 200% clueless twerp surcharge on your bill for 'adjusting the sparkplugs on your diesel' or similar, but partly out of desire not to lose face).

The male half of humanity, it seems, is divided into tattooed Morlocks who can tune an engine and linen-jacketed Willas who write supposedly hilarious and heartwarming columns in the broadsheet press advertising their cluelessness in terms which still produce a torrent of Black-Country eloquence from my father's aged lips.

The former is represented by my biker mate and sometime commenter on this blog Mr Wessex, a motorcycling gentleman of intimidating bulk who is capable not merely of stripping down and rebuilding vintage motorbikes, but of lifting them with one hand and eating them; or by my friend Hubert, an engineering graduate whose idea of helping to fix a car is (deliberately and expertly) to replace the gearbox back-to-front so that the car has one very slow forward gear and five reverse ones. The latter is - surprisingly - the realm of No Good Boyo, a man whose unfamiliarity with his own car led to him being unable to close the sunroof during a snowstorm.

And then there is me (and, I suspect, several million others) squatting nervously in the no-man's land of this particular cultural divide. I am not the man to turn to when you have broken down, taking painfully long periods to complete even relatively simple mechanical procedures and needing to "pop out to Halfords" twice in the middle to buy new tools that I need but don't have, only to return and find that I did have one after all lurking in the depths of the toolbox and now have two, which is twice as many as I will need for the one time in my life I shall be called upon to use them.

And yet I cannot raised myself to the lofty Mandarin magnificence of the resolutely unmechanical. I can change a wheel, do an oil change, rewind fuses and change tap washers. Most of the shelves I have put up are still in place. I can even explain what most of the bits under the bonnet of my car do, albeit with a large sprinkling of metasyntactic variables: "Yeah, that's the oil filler cap. And that's the cylinder head thingy. And then that doodad goes round and round so that the whatsit wobbles up and down on the oojamaflip..."

I put my state of partial confusion down to a traumatic experience in my teens. One Saturday morning when I was 14, my father sought me out in my foetid lair. "Son" he said in a kindly way, "You are now approaching manhood, and there are things you should know - " I prepared a teenage sneer and was just about to roll my eyes at his naivety "such as how to remove, strip down and replace the gearbox on a Ford Escort. Follow me." Gobsmacked, I complied.

His method of instruction took an unusual form. He donned a boilersuit and eye protection and then sat himself on a stool with the Haynes Manual open upon his knee while I grubbed around underneath the car, struggling to understand his instructions. The conversation was full of exchanges such as:

"Now pick up the radial torque wrench and fit the 3/4" Hackett ratchet sprocket."
"What's that look like?"
"It's the one we had to have surgically removed from Uncle Frank after the incident at Lutterworth."
"Ah. I'll just put rubber gloves on..."
"Now unlatch the self-tapping grommet plunkets."
"Where are those, Dad?"
"There boy - just behind the 4 1/2" pillion bush!"

And so it went on. The result of this form of mechanical education is that I ended up knowing with a fair degree of certainty what things were and how they worked, but not what they were called.

Furthermore, in my mind's eye all cars are now Ford Escorts. If I open the bonnet and see things that look like the equivalent on the Escort I have a fighting chance. Any other layout or form of engine and I'm sunk. Front-wheel drive is still an impenetrable mystery. But even that's better than everything being an impenetrable mystery.

Now if you will excuse me, Mr Wessex and I are just popping out to replace the sparkplugs on Boyo's diesel. And we're only charging him 50 quid...

Monday, 7 June 2010

Futurism - it's so last century...

As I may have noted in passing before, our two-year old offpsrog Guthlac is a pushover for anything mechanical and - preferably - noisy. The other night he was heard talking in his sleep, muttering in an agitated but intelligible voice "Mummy, no, Guthlac flyyyyy de plaaaaane..."

When Djangolina and her visiting friends from Germany opted for a trip into Birmingham, it quickly became apparent that the one place I knew Guthlac would adore was not on their agenda. So we agreed to split - the girls would go to the Sea-Life Centre to coo over cute turtles and seahorses, while Guthlac and I would head for the science museum at Millennium Point to coo over steam engines, old cars and Spitfires.

I was right - he did adore it. I let him have a run around first, richocheting from wonder to wonder in a state of chronic indecision as to which admire the most - the traction engine? The steam locomotive? The vintage cars? The vintage motorbikes? The Spitfire and Hurricane suspended tantalisingly out of reach from the ceiling? We then had a spot of lunch, after which I plonked him in the buggy for a more leisurely tour. This time, we headed for the other end of the hall, where the assorted industrial steam engines are kept.

There is something hypnotic about the workings of an old engine, and one very good thing the Birmingham musem does is keep as many of the machines turning over as possible. In addition, there is a series of enlightening hand-cranked exhibits showing how piston movement is tranferred into rotary motion, how a governor works, and the motion of planetary gears. Personally, I prefer that to Damien Hirst's sliced dead things any day - but then, I grew up in the Black Country where such things are considered the summit of our culture.

Much as I hate to agree on any level with tedious proto-fascist madman Dick Marinetti (purists may argue that his name was Filippo, but personally I've always thought of him as a Dick), there is beauty in the workings of machines. And particularly, the kind of machines that were around at the end of the 19th century.

It's not just the pleasing steam-punk elegance of turned brass handles and white-backed, glass-fronted dials; it's also the fact that so many modern machines are impenetrable 'black boxes' which do clever things but cannot be seen to be doing anything at all. And that had me wondering sincerely about when exactly the point was when futurism became retro. Was it when valves replaced cogs? Or when transistors replaced valves?

At this point, I became aware of a subtle change in the sound of the machine in front of me, and upon looking down realised that the noise was being caused by Guthlac's hat, which in an experimental turn of mind he had fed into a gear mechanism.

Condensing the entire experience, I have learnt two important things:
1) Form guided by function can be as aesthetically beautiful as pure art, possibly because the challenge of achieving a funtionally working form gives vital grist to the designer's mill, and
2) A two-year old in a museum requires absolute 100% attention at all times.