Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Farren Collection

Do you know what makes a good b├ęchamel sauce? A bit of blue cheese. Not too much to be overpowering but enough to make it’s presence felt. Of course this is not news to anyone with rudimentary culinary skills. A basic white sauce is, well, just that: a base from which many moods and flavours evolve. But it is news to me. 

Bicycling through Time is a book by Paul Farren about his collection of antique bicycles. He has over 200 stored in a warehouse in Melbourne and he gives an outline of about half of them (I count 94) in this fabulous book. If history informs then there is much to learn from Mr Farren’s collection. 

A compendium of very nicely shot pictures (and a picture book is my most favourite kind of book) encourages the reader to flick back and forth through the pages rather than follow a singular narrative from front to back. And it got me to thinking about how this differs from opening several pages at once on a digital screen. Say, for example, when referencing bicycle images stored on my hard drive (lots) to those accessible through the internet (uncountable). It’s different. And palpably so. At least for a brain wired up before the rise of computers and the internet.

Like the clay tablets they replaced, a book has presence and purpose. A robust physicality made just to deliver that quarry of information bound between the covers. Computers and their kin (electronic tablets, smartphones, some smart appliances like fridges and washing machines) also have presence but increasingly serve as an interface for accessing data stored elsewhere on the internet. And they do an awful lot more than tell a story. If a book is like a painting, a computer is like a window... a window with which we can organise our life,  check the time, watch movies, and play Battlefield 4.

There has been much written about how computers and the internet (and the arrival of virtual social networks) change the way we think and act. I hunt my brain for references to allow me to understand.

(the chair is on loan)

So I turn to Google and discover this, and this, and this, and this. But nothing to explain my situation.

I clear my desk, switch off the computer, put Mr Farren’s book back on the shelf, and go for a run. For running allows random thoughts to jangle around and occasionally they congeal into a more-or-less coherent narrative. And I come to the realisation that I am a hopeless runner. Despite all the hours spent pounding the pavement. And, despite all the years spent accumulating bicycles, that I really don’t have anything that someone might consider putting into a book. But I do have two bicycles that carry a consistent theme in that they are both Australian-made track bikes. A 1940s Speedwell Deluxe previously posted here. And a mid 90s AIS/RMIT Superbike with 700c wheels front and back (a design that never made it to proper production) previously posted here

Put them together on the same page and we have this: 

For those that might have expected more, I apologise for ripping these photos straight off their respective posts. Mainly because setting up a camera to take more mediocre photos of a couple of bicycles that I have already photographed is a step beyond my enthusiasm for such things. But also because I want to make a point.

Putting the images on the same page presents a different perspective of the same information. Both bikes represent the pinnacle of what was available in track racing for their time. Both (to my eyes at least) are nice enough on their own. Looking at them together shows what a difference 50 years of bicycle development makes. A similar theme (Australian track bikes) with a different emphasis (change in technology). 

Perspective is a position that comes about not just from having information, but also from how that information is curated. How we process, interpret, imagine and subsequently project information comes about from how we experience it.

This is why the Farren Collection is important. There are plenty of bicycle enthusiasts out there with collections that are interesting, expensive, focussed or just plain whacky. Collections reflect the quirks and desires of their owners. There are only a handful of bicycle collections as universally significant and as comprehensive as what Mr Farren has amassed. A collection like this outlines the early history of bicycles with the inclusion of a (very) substantial number of important designs. But bicycle collecting isn’t rigorous discipline like, say, palaeontology. And so it shouldn’t be. Palaeontology is a well-connected field of science where material and information from all over the world gets shared to create a knowledge base: a universal understanding which serves as a foundation for further research. Although there are a number of books written about the history and evolution of bicycles, a large portion of the actual specimens lie disseminated and fragmented around the world. And each has a story to tell. Great stories as they are, they form a hodgepodge of information, conjecture, supposition, and misinformation (this blog included). 

A comprehensive collection like Mr Farren’s brings the written history of bicycles (or at least a significant portion of it) to life. And grounds it in reality.

Not that the whole palaeontological timeline for humans is anywhere near complete either. Just as we come to terms with the fact that Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals (and their genes live on within us to varying degrees) we are now told that there is another entirely different lineage of hominids, the Denisovan, that lived around the same time as modern man. And that we interbred with them as well. And, get this, anthropologists now think that there were also other hominids hanging around that we don’t yet know about as their remains are either not yet discovered or in some dusty drawer misclassified as something else. And, guess what (the theme continues), our ancestors probably interbred with them too... Good God. If man was made in His image, it now appears that He didn’t choose to make him the discerning type. 

Back to the Farren Collection. Hopefully a collection as significant as this will stay together.  And be open for public viewing either on its own or, better still (for a wider audience), on display in the transport or technology section of a larger museum. A collection of individual specimens allows a clearer perspective of the whole. Losing a collection like this to small private buyers would be a shame. The amount of coin required to bring together such a collection in today’s market is not insubstantial. The value of having a knowledgeable, determined, persistent and resourceful collector is unmeasurable. 

Back to my original question. I think most people agree that it doesn’t really make a big difference whether we get information in the quaint aliquot of a book or through the flowing stream of the internet. A book with a stamp of authority sharpens the focus. It’s probably a little easier to lose our place and become distracted when surfing the net. But humans, some  more so than others, have always attended to distractions whether they be based in the real world or otherwise. Sometimes it is easier to blame technology (and society) for failings within ourselves.

Twenty three years ago I visited the Natural History Museum in London. I spent many hours there. A small, enthralled observer wandering the display cabinets containing the collated nonliving and once-living things of the world. Lost, bewildered and excited by the sheer volume of stuff. A few years ago I went back and saw that much of what is displayed takes on a digital format. Clear, directed, and far less cumbersome. Like many museums throughout the modern world the NHM takes a multimedia approach to enhance many of their displays. It captures the imagination by focussing the interest of the viewer. It's not the same. It is wonderful.

Museums like the NHM and collections like Mr Farren’s makes my world bigger and better.  An ability to focus leads to learning and knowledge. But rummaging around, wandering aimlessly or just getting lost isn’t altogether a bad thing. Spinning around in a world that is too big to fully understand is disconcerting. But recognising and embracing that fact can, paradoxically, help us choose where we place our feet.

There you go.

Do you know what makes a good b├ęchamel sauce? A bit of blue cheese.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Queen and the Soldier

The soldier came knocking upon the Queen's door
He said, "I am not fighting for you any more"
The queen knew she'd seen his face someplace before
And slowly she let him inside.

(Suzanne Vega, The Queen and the Soldier)

Suzanne Vega’s haunting ballad has many possible interpretations. One way to think of it is from the perspective of the soldier with the Queen representing an ideology or belief once held high but then questioned and walked away from. In doing so the soldier, or at least that part of him willing to fight for the cause, dies.

Twenty five years ago a group of university students marched onto Tiananmen Square calling for government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the restoration of workers' control over industry. That group became large, influential and unmanageable. On the night of the 3rd of June, 1989 the Chinese government, after failed negotiations, broke up the protest with an open display of lethal force. The death toll from the massacre lies somewhere between a few hundred to several thousand. The Chinese government does not talk about this. 

It is arguable that the events leading to what is now known as the June 4 Massacre provided the momentum for subsequent reforms that allowed China to rise as an economic powerhouse - whilst China’s elite retains an ironclad control. Her people are more wealthy and able to palp more stuff. They have greater aspirations but remain mostly silent. It’s not exactly what the protesters wanted. And a burgeoning middle class will demand more.

Whether you think it is a good thing or not, it takes time to transition to a western-style democracy. It took a heady mix of underlying disquiet and galvanising events to realise the disaster in Tiananmen Square. In this case the force of ideas and a demand for change stood little chance when facing off the open end of a cannon. The events now taking place in Syria and Egypt indicate that the unseating of despotic regimes requires an equally formidable force. And they bring with them many of the authoritarian traits of those they are trying to remove.

The energy and quixotry of youth may well man barricades and try to bring about a revolution. Age and experience often treads a more pragmatic path. In-between, and, in particular for those that watch from afar, there is that risk of becoming disillusioned: to abandon ideology for the pursuit more immediate fulfilment. To seek material gain as an end in itself and to use a comparison with others as the principle measure of worth. 

The dictates of doctrine often need to be bent to fit the practicalities of a real world. Otherwise we may give up altogether and with that a little bit of what makes us human dies. Take enough away and what’s left is a certain emptiness of a life without meaning.

It matters. Because the human capacity for abstract thought means that some of them will actually use it. 

Suzanne Vega plays at the Powerhouse in Brisbane tonight.

Twenty five years ago on the 15 April, 1989 some Chinese students started gathering on the grounds of Tiananmen Square. 

The soldier came knocking upon the queen's door
He said, "I am not fighting for you any more"
The queen knew she'd seen his face someplace before
And slowly she let him inside.

He said, "I've watched your palace up here on the hill
And I've wondered who's the woman for whom we all kill
But I am leaving tomorrow and you can do what you will
Only first I am asking you why?"

Down in the long narrow hall he was led
Into her room with her tapestries red
And she never once took the crown from her head
She asked him there to sit down.

He said, "I see you now, and you are so very young
But I've seen more battles lost than I have battles won
And I've got this intuition, says it's all for your fun
And now will you tell me why?"

The young queen, she fixed him with an arrogant eye
She said, "You won't understand, and you may as well not try"
But her face was a child's, and he thought she would cry
But she closed herself up like a fan.

And she said, "I've swallowed a secret burning thread
It cuts me inside, and often I've bled"
He laid his hand then on top of her head
And he bowed her down to the ground.

"Tell me how hungry are you? How weak you must feel
As you are living here alone, and you are never revealed
But I won't march again on your battlefield"
And he took her to the window to see.

And the sun, it was gold, though the sky, it was gray
And she wanted more than she ever could say
But she knew how it frightened her, and she turned away
And would not look at his face again.

And he said, "I want to live as an honest man
To get all I deserve and to give all I can
And to love a young woman who I don't understand
Your highness, your ways are very strange."

But the crown, it had fallen, and she thought she would break
And she stood there, ashamed of the way her heart ached
She took him to the doorstep and she asked him to wait
She would only be a moment inside.

Out in the distance her order was heard
And the soldier was killed, still waiting for her word
And while the queen went on strangling in the solitude she preferred
The battle continued on.