The Ring

I have a friend who is about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, an epic I started back in 1974 and have yet to complete. It is a journey of many levels and depths. It is a journey of elements – earth, air, fire and water – brought into conflict with each other. It is a political journey, the clash of different ideologies. It is a journey on the edge between good and evil, morality and hedonism, truth and lies. It is a journey of philosophy, ideology and rhetoric, of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Above all this is a human journey, the maelstrom of love, hate, jealousy, betrayal, forgiveness and understanding. And this is a journey for our time, no less relevant today than at its world premiere in a sleepy Bavarian town 145 years ago. I’m talking, of course, about that enormous operatic tetralogy Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

I have done my best to prepare her, to point out the staging posts along the journey, the sights and sounds (above all, sounds) to be expected, the people she will meet along the way, who to trust and who to avoid. But in the end, nothing prepares you for the experience. And if you are lucky, the experience will be transformational.

You can enjoy The Ring at many levels and it doesn’t hurt to see it simply as one of the Norse sagas, the story of men and gods, of dragons, giants and dwarves. A Ring of drama, action, heroism and magic. There is plenty to entertain at this ‘entry’ level.

Or maybe, for you, The Ring is a huge sprawling transgenerational love story. And make no mistake, The Ring is a love story in physical, metaphysical and sentimental ways. The Ring is a story of unrequited love, of incest, rape, domination and passion – the currency of tabloids and Victorian prurience.

The Ring is a political drama, the clash of totalitarian, administrative, political and extremist, the balance of idealism and pragmatism, of alliances built and broken, of militias, trust misplaced or endorsed. The Ring is the reality of Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, a contemporary work of unsettling relevance.

The Ring is a Greco-Roman drama, narrated by the orchestra as Greek ‘chorus’, pregnant with symbolism and meaning, letting us into tiny secrets and explanations.

The Ring is an existential drama, a perennial battle of greed and generosity, parable for our time. The drama of The Ring is the drama of humanity.

And The Ring is a sound world, full of leitmotifs, tiny fragments of music swollen into torrents of orchestral sound. It is a drama of long architectural acts, of tiny shimmering passages, of mood and moment, a tsunami of sound.

My friend stands on the banks of the Rhine, waiting as that E flat sounds on the horns in the dark depths of the river. The world’s beginning, if you will. 15 hours in time as we know it, generations in opera time before the strings take the listener to redemption through love. Fasten your seatbelt.

I am on the one hand jealous of someone who still has that journey about to unfold in front of them. On the other, I feel responsible, taking her to the place where our travels part. Sure I can share what I learnt on the journey. But in the end, The Ring is a solo journey, a journey into the soul.

What will a cure for Parkinson’s look like?

I’ve had a bit of time to think about this. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the young onset variety, in late 2006. So I’m well into my 15th year of cogitation on the matter. And if you count my research career beforehand, messing about with dopamine in the basal ganglia, you can probably add another 23 years to that. Not full-time you understand. Nobody can think about any issue with that intensity. But always simmering away somewhere at the back of the stove. Of course, having the condition myself focuses the mind wonderfully. What was previously simmering, comes to the boil quickly. There is nothing like the symptoms of Parkinson’s to help drive a sense of urgency into one’s own personal agenda even if not to the same degree to a wider caucus. An academic interest in the subject – and I hope my scientific and clinical colleagues will forgive me – doesn’t quite generate the same sense of urgency. I know – I’ve been there.

Over those 37 years, I’ve listened to, interviewed, challenged, agreed and disagreed with some of the finest thinkers on the subject. And a few klutzes as well, obviously. Useful tip: if you are speaking to people with Parkinson’s about Parkinson’s you will always be asked for your thoughts on a cure. Better have your answers ready. People with Parkinson’s expect clear thinking.

I would like to be able to say that I will present you here with clear thinking. That would probably be disingenuous or at the very least overambitious. Greater minds than I have pondered this without reaching any persuasive conclusion.

It is important above all to not allow one’s thinking to be clouded by emotion. We all want a cure. Yes we do so let’s quickly brush aside any conspiracy theory nonsense about the pharmaceutical industry’s preference for long-term treatments rather than quickfire cures. Obviously pharma is not innately philanthropic but that does not render it complicit in some global conspiracy. Let’s put that aside immediately. If you are unable to do so, well I suggest you go back to playing with those unicorns.

From day one post diagnosis, the clock is running and each day, week, month and year we register some further erosion of our abilities. Each day puts distance between our old pre-diagnosis selves and our current manifestation. By the same token each day brings that dark dot on the horizon a little bit closer, makes the heart beat a little bit quicker and renders our perceived need for a cure that tiny bit more pressing.

You might think that would drive the research programme with more force and energy. Show the scientists our raw selves and perhaps they might themselves be imbued with our urgency? You might think. Many of the best scientists do cultivate relationships with patients explicitly to understand the driving forces for people with Parkinson’s. In many respects they gain hugely from those patients in the same way that the patients feel empowered. But don’t expect the scientists to walk in the patients’ shoes. And nor should they.

The best scientists will have a deeper awareness, a more visceral grasp of the condition but always ultimately be one step removed from the full Parkinson’s experience (unless of course they contract Parkinson’s themselves – oops). We, as patients, can take them just so far along the road but no further.

And that’s the way it should be in my view. Scientists do not, in the final analysis, share our gnawing fears. And nor should they. They make decisions and interpretations in the light of cold hard numbers and statistics. Their decisions are certainly informed by their contact with patients but remain or should remain emotionally neutral. The best science is not driven by panic.

That’s a long way of saying that patient input is vital but should not cloud scientific judgement. No amount of desperation changes hard facts.

I wonder how many of us were told on diagnosis that old favourite “there will be a cure in 10 years”. The kind of glib blanket reassurance that so discredits the medical profession. The substitution of measured reason by tired platitude. Ultimately this does little but breed resentment as the 10 year mark approaches, placing a further barrier between patient and physician. To raise false hopes is every bit as damaging as crushing overoptimistic expectations. Neither help.

So what is the path to a cure? Is there one? Are we still fumbling our way through the undergrowth hoping to pick up the path? These things typically only become apparent with hindsight. We only understand the link or otherwise in 20:20 hindsight. Decisions and choices which at the time seemed capricious are rationalised as logical steps along that particular path. What was a wild stab in the dark is reconceptualised as the product of linear thought.

On the whole, science isn’t like that. But it’s difficult to budget for serendipity. Science is always willing prey to serendipity. As it should be.

What patients want to hear of course is that there is, in the pipeline, some drug or treatment that will permanently remove their symptoms. A simple definition of cure. Do I believe in such a simple definition? No, I don’t think I do. If we regard three steps as being the sequence of events towards a cure – slow, stop and reverse the pathology – we currently stand at the “slow” stage. There are reasonably plentiful indications that we can make a difference at this stage. Stopping the progression of Parkinson’s is an amplification of that. Reversal however involves a whole different sway of biochemical processes. It is not simply a reversal of neurodegeneration. It will require rebuilding the neuronal architecture as much as patching up faulty biochemistry. The paths of degeneration and regeneration are not mirror images. Regeneration will be a much tougher nut to crack.

The overwhelming problem with Parkinson’s, and a thorn in the side of every research endeavour, is the extent to which the pathology has progressed before it translates into symptomatology. We lose more than 80% of our dopaminergic neurones before we even show the slightest finger tremble. By any reckoning this is stacking the odds against us. If neurodegeneration is holding all the aces, how can we intervene and successfully expect to be able to reverse that damage?

The answer lies in biomarkers in general and early presymptomatic markers of Parkinson’s in particular. We need to know who is going to develop Parkinson’s before they do so. This is the incentive to develop drugs that will slow progress or even stop it. Let’s focus our efforts on finding those predictive markers and mass screening. I think there is every reason to hope that we can, if we catch it early enough, prevent it developing into full-blown Parkinson’s.

In other words, I think the elimination of Parkinson’s is going to come less from treatment of those already afflicted than the prevention of its occurrence. In the same way that we have eliminated conditions like smallpox not by the development of novel therapeutics but by its prevention. We will beat Parkinson’s by its prevention. Screening with reliable biomarkers, alongside the development of drugs to slow or stop progression will, over the course of a generation, eliminate Parkinson’s.

So where does this leave those already afflicted? Well certainly it’s not the solution that might be wanted but it’s fair to say that development of neuroprotective agents will benefit those already diagnosed as well as those who will be. We know so much more now about the pathway to neurodegeneration that “slow” and “stop” are parts of the usable vocabulary of Parkinson’s, not science fiction. Much has been spoken of the so-called oncoming Parkinson’s pandemic. Indubitably that will provide an impetus for research into prevention.

What of my own Parkinson’s? After all I’ve had its more than 10 years. Do I expect a cure? Truthfully, I do not expect to see a cure for myself in the course of my lifetime. Does that make me downhearted or resigned? No, it doesn’t. Because I know that the same impetus to develop neuroprotective agents in combination with a greater understanding of the presymptomatic biomarkers will benefit my generation as well. I may not live to see a cure but I will live to see benefit (touch wood). And I will know that, in whatever tiny little way, I played my part. That keeps me going.

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Karfreitagszauber

People who know me well know that my fondness for Wagner is limitless. I have multiple recordings of each of the great Wagner operas and when you consider that each averages about 3 to4 hours in length and therefore 4 to 5 CDs each, this amounts to quite a considerable outlay. The other day I mentally totted up how much I have spent on Wagner – it’s four in the morning, what else is there to do – and let’s just say it would have funded a pretty decent family holiday in Australia or a modest sports car. Or famine relief in Africa. It would probably have gone a fair distance towards putting a man on Mars.

Put like that the expenditure seems extravagant. My father questioned whether I needed one recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen let alone a plurality. I remember as eyes rolling heavenward when I let slip that I had bought a second recording of the Ring (Karajan) in addition to my much worn copy of Solti’s landmark recording from the 1960s. Indeed many of my friends were askance even at that, costing as it did £50 give or take a shilling, back in 1971. And £50 was quite a lot of money then. To shell out that kind of moolah on music by Wagner was evidence of clear insanity. It put me in the same psychological bracket as Hitler. At least in my friends eyes.

But I should like to go on record as saying that, no matter how passionate I am about Wagner I have never felt the need to goose step into Poland or to annex the Sudetenland. Besides Hitler’s favourite Wagner opera was Rienzi so his judgement was flawed anyway. Rienzi I ask you. What a twat.

My father believed that Wagner was best in the parts where the people weren’t singing. In other words in the overtures, preludes and finales, those glorious bits where the orchestra blazes away, brass rasping, strings shimmering and woodwinds struggling to be heard. That was my father’s idea of Wagner – bleeding chunks excised from the mother work. And of course there is plenty of Wagner to fit that bill.

All my attempts to make Wagner accessible to him fell on stony ground. Goodall’s recording of the Ring, sung in English, was just the ticket, I thought, to immerse him in the drama. He listened conscientiously, gradually began to fidget and eventually asked me to turn it down which, as we all know, is the polite way of saying turn it off. “I don’t mind what language it’s sung in” he said “as long as it’s one I don’t understand”. Case closed.

Mercifully he went to his grave largely oblivious of the extent of my Wagner habit. I had long since stopped telling him each time I bought a new recording. Rolling eyes, and a look at benign indulgence gradually gave way to outright incomprehension. And at that stage I had only added Furtwangler’s live recording from La Scala in 1950. A stellar cast, unachievable today, led by Kirsten Flagstad trying to make themselves heard over the notoriously rude Italian audience. With the incessant coughing – it was obviously recorded during a tuberculosis epidemic – and I could begin to see my father’s point.

Gradually over time, and don’t forget I’ve been collecting Wagner for nearly 50 years, I have added Rings by Knappertsbusch, Goodall, Haitink, Barenboim, Bohm, Janowski, Kempe and heaven knows who else. A total of 26 different recordings, each on average 14 CDs. When I put it down on paper like that, I can’t quite believe it myself. Perhaps it’s time I turn up to a session at Wagnerholics Anonymous. “I’m Jon Stamford and I’m a Wagnerholic”. There, I did it. They say admitting the problem is the first step on the road to cure.

But I don’t want to be cured. And I certainly don’t expect to be. Especially today, Good Friday. With a significant part of its drama set on Good Friday, there is only one opera for today’s listening/viewing. Parsifal. Wagner’s final opera and one in which even hesitated to call it an opera it was a Buhnenweihfestspiel, or in plain English, “a festival play for the consecration of a stage”. Wagner was never good on plain English (or plain German for that matter). Three acts and a mere four hours in length one critic once described it as “the kind of music where you sit down in the opera house at 6 PM, listen to 4 hours of music, then look at your watch and see it’s only 6:15 PM”. But that’s just rude although I will concede that it is one of Wagner is more static operas. I prefer to think of it as majestic rather than bombastic, measured rather than dragging.

It took me a long time to come to Parsifal. I already had multiple recordings of many of the other Wagner operas and I knew, or at least I thought I knew, what to expect from Parsifal but somehow I put off buying a recording for ages. I think it was a tacit acceptance that, beyond Parsifal, there was nothing else. It was like the best novel imaginable. You don’t want to read that final chapter because then the stories in the past tense and there is nothing further to look forward to. Same with Parsifal. I don’t mean “nothing further to look forward to” in a morbid sense. Get a grip – at the end of the day it’s just music. But when I did finally steel myself to buying Solti’s sublime 1973 recording, I immediately realised that this was not the ending of the journey but the beginning of another.

So today I have a tough choice – 29 separate recordings of Parsifal and only 24 hours in the day. Which one gets the nod?

London buses as a unit of quantity

I heard BBC commentators the other day trying to put the scale of the Covid death count into some form more intellectually digestible. Not an easy task. But in some arenas, the use of apparently ludicrous measures is commonplace. Like dinosaurs for instance – the size of these creatures is always described not in feet and inches or even metres and centimetres but London buses. Tyrannosaurus may be one London bus whilst a good-sized diplodocus could be as many as three. At the other end of the size spectrum, the principal currency is minis or, for those who can remember, London phone boxes. “These creatures were so small that you could fit thousand million into a London phone box”. Or “a colony of these tiny little birds would fit in the boot of a mini”. And although I haven’t seen the footage, I’ll bet that David Attenborough has used those units somewhere on camera. And so on.

Why on earth a London bus should be chosen as the definitive unit of dinosaur size heaven knows. It’s the same with those daredevil motorcycle riders. Once again their achievements are measured in London buses. Evil Knievel could jump 15 London buses say whilst his rival Hamish McRubbish could barely clear 12. On the other hand his forte was London taxis where he thought nothing of clearing 20.

Okay I’m making this up but merely to illustrate a point. We may not be great fans of the metre or the kilogram, foot, pound, furlong, chain or whatever. But that’s no justification for randomly allocating new units inappropriately. Where will it end? I rather like the idea of fish as units. And in inappropriate scales. A pint of beer might be 2.6 deci-haddocks. A night out for two in Chinatown might leave you little change from a giga-halibut. And talk about inflation – rising by more than 19 milli-shrimps in the Covid aftermath.

Now Covid, there’s a good point. The commentators on the BBC told us that we had lost the equivalent of a medium-sized city in deaths due to Covid. Averse as I am to novel units, this somehow made sense. Indeed, why stop there? Why leave it at “a medium-sized city”. Let’s be more precise.

Since the first Covid related deaths in the UK on 5 March 2020, the death toll rose quickly. Three weeks later we had lost just over a thousand, the equivalent of some small unnamed village. Chipping this, Greater and The Other upon sea. By 11 April however we were on the map, or rather for the town concerned (Skipton), off it. We had already long lost the equivalent of Marlow, Troon, Enniskillen, or Newport Pagnell. By the beginning of May, the Grim Reaper had put paid to Ripon, Saffron Walden, Tonypandy, Buxton or Godalming, barely resting in Belper, Arbroath or Felixstowe on its way through to Skegness, Newton Abbot or Melton Mowbray.

The whistlestop tour continued. By the beginning of June Covid had taken the equivalent of Ashford, Pontypool, Stratford-upon-Avon, Sevenoaks, Windsor or Motherwell, barely catching its breath while heading for Leatherhead, Morecambe, Pudsey, Billericay or Bridlington. By the end of July, release from lockdown had taken the toll, by way of Falkirk, Haywards Heath, Canvey Island, Cleethorpes or Great Yarmouth as far as Tonbridge. 74,265 dead.

By the time we reached the beginning of December and everyone began to think of Christmas, the virus had devoured Braintree, Bexhill-on-Sea, Salisbury, Inverness, King’s Lynn, Durham or Royal Leamington Spa. By the arrival of Christmas, coronavirus had taken Altrincham, Gravesend, Aldershot or Tunbridge Wells. The release of the lockdown over Christmas, whilst compassionate, was ill judged. By New Year, the virus had rampaged as far as Lowestoft, via Bognor Regis, Walsall, Paignton or Harrogate. Death toll: 108,165.

As the self-flagellation began over the Christmas relaxation blunder, the virus pressed on, through Paisley, Londonderry, St Albans, Hastings or Bath. After taking the waters, the Covid roadshow passed Lincoln, Stockport, Doncaster, Maidstone, Cheltenham or Gateshead.

In a grim sort of way, these units mean something. Probably more so if you happen to come from any of these towns or cities. To think of those towns empty of people is a surprisingly potent way of driving home the message.

Today, the totaliser stands at at the equivalent of High Wycombe with just under 126,000 casualties. I wonder what that is in London buses.

For the love of hi-fi

I greatly regretted the passing of LPs and vinyl generally around the early to mid 80s. I had been an avid collector of music since my late teens. I can remember the very first pop record I bought in the mid-70s. No sooner had I left the shop than I had the album out of the carrier bag to admire it. I would like to say it was something really cool like early Velvet Underground or the Doors but it wasn’t. Moving swiftly on… Really? Well if you must know it was Hot August Night by Neil Diamond and as if that wasn’t bad enough it was a live double album. For many years, as my tastes matured (if that’s the right word), I hit it back to front so that the spine wasn’t readable among my other records. Ironically some 45 years later, Neil Diamond is somehow fashionable again and that particular album somewhat sought-after. I even played it myself the other night, singing along to Sweet Caroline of course, to the amusement of the neighbours. I had forgotten that the window was open and the nets were in the wash.

Of course back in the 70s I was at boarding school and couldn’t afford a proper hi-fi, not that there was room anyway in my tiny little bedsitter room. I had a second hand music centre with a couple of puny speakers that boasted a massive 6 W output. I say ‘boasted’  but, if truth be known, there was nothing boastful about my meagre music centre. I don’t recall it even having a headphone socket. Definitely not proper hi-fi. And ‘proper’ in those days meant an amplifier the size of a suitcase powering speakers as large as coffins with 12 inch woofers or larger, capable of  curdling milk or detaching retinas. My enduring memory of that school was the end of prep each evening when the porter’s lodge bell would sound and, practically in unison, all the biggest hi-fi systems would blast out Smoke on the Water, accompanied by the sound of falling roof slates.

I especially remember buying my first ever classical record – Grieg’s Peer Gynt music – not because I particularly liked this cold Scandinavian music but because Morning had been used as incidental music in a production of Orpheus and Eurydice in which my unrequited love Jackie V, from Summerfield House, had starred. To this day I cannot listen to that music without thinking of her.

Eventually when I left school and went to university, I bought more albums, popular and classical. It was still three decades before I would appreciate jazz. My degree course incorporated a placement year. For many, this amounted to pressing the pause button on their degree for a year, serving no really useful purpose other than ensuring they had forgotten everything they had learnt in their degree on their return the following year.

For me, dispatched, initially reluctantly, to Glaxo at Greenford, it was a revelation. Paid as a junior technician, it was approximately four times my student grant. I had money to burn. And being only a temporary job, they paid me in cash. And weekly. Each Friday I would collect my winnings (sorry I mean earnings) and skip back to my room in the hostel, conveniently located 20 yards from the main entrance and directly across the road from the Flying Horse. Senior management drank there. The juniors walked a quarter of a mile down the road to the company’s social club where the beer and food was subsidised and you could play a game of pool without intimidation by local thugs.

I had more money than I knew what to do with. If I had been sensible, and who is at that age, I should have banked it. As it was there were pay envelopes in every drawer, cupboard and briefcase. I remember when I left at the end of the year finding money in shoes, wash bag and lab coat. To this day I don’t know whether I found all of it.

After I had been there perhaps a couple of months, I decided it was time to spend some of this and what better thing to spend it upon than a hi-fi. By purchasing my own system I would somehow exorcise all that embarrassment and teasing about my puny music centre. Off to Laskey’s in the Tottenham Court Road, my jeans bulging with money, to splash the cash.

You remember your first hi-fi like your first girlfriend. Often more fondly. And I can remember exactly what I bought: a Pioneer PL 514 turntable with a Shure cartridge, a JVC JAS 11 G amplifier and a pair of Wharfedale Glendale XP2 speakers. I can’t believe it looking back but I actually carried all this kit from Laskey’s to the Tottenham Court Road underground station and from the Greenford underground station back to the hostel. We wrapped the packages tightly together and taped them into one enormous structure. They must have thought I was doing it for a bet but the truth was that to buy the XP2 speakers rather than the earlier 3XP model, I had spent an extra £15, money I had allocated for a taxi ride home.

I remember nothing of that journey between leaving the hi-fi shop and unlocking my door back at the hostel. It was mid summer and I must’ve sweated pints (this was before metrication). The sensible thing to do would have been to drink plenty of water and lie down for an hour or so to recuperate. I did neither.

Within 10 minutes I had extracted all the electronics I had purchased from its cardboard and Styrofoam packaging. A Matterhorn of Styrofoam as I recall but of course we weren’t trying to save the planet then. In fact we weren’t aware it needed saving. That came later. A further 10 minutes to check the electronics – yes, the mains lights all came on. Just needed to connect up the speakers. It was 6:05 PM

Soon it was 6:05:01 PM. My heart sank. I had no wires to connect the loudspeakers. The shops had shut, five minutes earlier. I briefly considered dismembering a small standard lamp which came with the room. Nobody would notice. Fortunately sense prevailed. The amplifier came with an overly generous mains lead. Another 10 minutes of blundering with a Swiss army knife and we were in business. Speakers connected, amplifier on, turntable ready. All systems go!

How do you baptize your first hi-fi? I chose the Berlin Phil, under Lorin Maazel, playing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. I looked at the record, turning it to catch the light. No scratches, smooth as a baby’s bottom. Onto the turntable, 33 rpm, arm extended over the record poised for action. A careful wipe of the record surface with a velvet pad to remove any dust. Slight rumble as I lowered the needle onto the lead-in groove. A few seconds seeming like minutes before a flutter of strings and the rasping brass calls of the Firebird. It was the sound I had dreamt of all my life. I heard sounds that had not been there previously. The cavernous bass of Mahler’s third symphony, the Stradivarius violins used by the Lindsay Quartet in the Beethoven late quartets. That cigarette scraped voice of Janis Joplin’s song to Bobby McGee. Lee Morgan’s in-your-face trumpet on The Sidewinder, the effortless top Cs of Birgit Nilsson singing the Liebestod from Tristan. I hadn’t just bought a hi-fi that afternoon. I had bought a new record collection. After an hour of frenzied disc swapping, I had listened to half my record collection. It was like a curtain being pulled back to let the light in.

For the rest of the weekend I did not leave my room. Except for meals. A sunny day it might have been but I cared not a jot. I was listening to my new record collection on my hi-fi. I even said the words aloud to savour their unmitigated joy.

That weekend was the beginning of my love affair with vinyl. I rather enjoyed the rigmarole, the ritual. Selecting the album from the collection, gently removing it from its outer then innner sleeves, examination for scratches or defects, cleaning it on the turntable, adjusting the volume, releasing the arm and returning to one’s seat with the album cover to follow the lyrics or to read more about performers. It was almost a religious ritual, part of the many procedures to keep the disc’s in top condition over many years. It wasn’t a chore it was an act of love. And I think also a largely male state of mind. I don’t know of any women who showed the same tenderness to their records or nurtured them with the same love. More than once girlfriends had given me its-the-records-or-me ultimatum and been disappointed not only by the polarity of the response but with its speed of delivery. Sorry, girls. It reminded me of the words to Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi”. You know the ones I mean.

Vinyl had everything I wanted from music. This seemed almost to be a spiritual connection between the vibrations of a tiny diamond along a track and the neuronal wiring that turned those sounds into music.

When the first CD was released in 1982 (an Abba album since you ask) I was sceptical. Not least because I had, only three years earlier, bought a pricey (well, for me) turntable and suddenly here was this new kid on the block. Whereas some embraced the new format wholeheartedly, I was slightly underwhelmed. Part of the enjoyment of the music was examining the notes in the album cover. Something large to read and admire. In those days some bands (Yes, Genesis et cetera) commissioned works of art for the cover of their rather overindulgent – if we are honest – triple albums. You didn’t get that with CD. Those little jewel cases were difficult to open and, despite what the manufacturers said, fiddly. I mean:

“What have CDs ever done for us?”

“They’re smaller, take up less space. ”

“Okay, I’ll give you that. But apart from being smaller and taking up less space, what has CD ever done for us?”

“They’re much stronger and difficult to damage”

“Fair enough. That’s a good point. But apart from being smaller and taking up less space and being stronger and more difficult to damage, what have CDs ever done for us?”

“They have much less distortion and the sound is more realistic”.

“Yes you have probably got a point. Still I ask you, apart from being smaller and taking up less space, stronger and more difficult to damage with much less distortion and a realistic sound, what has CD ever done for us?”

“Well they…”

“Oh shut up”. (With apologies to Monty Python).

NAS Lakehurst (NJ). D-LZ 129. 6/5/37. 19:25EST

Film crews assembled, the world’s media on hand, every hack worthy of the name present to witness the spectacle. She was already 12 hours late. But they couldn’t leave and miss such a grand entrance. Because of poor weather – thunderstorms had delayed the arrival anyway – many of the journalists had booked to stay in Lakehurst overnight rather than return to New York immediately. They could wire the stories in. Photographers checked their flashes and shutters. The hacks, their stories all but written, needing only to record the exact time of arrival and, if lucky, to catch a few words from Max Pruss, the captain.

An armada of taxis waited to take passengers elsewhere for their connections. A little after 7 PM, she was visible and making her way slowly towards her docking point. Cameras rolled, the journalists did their pieces to camera, and waited. Capt Pruss slowed the engines, hard astern, at 7:14 PM, then released the mooring chains at 7:21 PM. The port line was tightened before the starboard was attached causing the ship to judder. Immediately after, at 7:25 PM, there was a loud thump sound aft as the rear three hydrogen cells of the Hindenburg burst into flames. The film crews were caught with their pants down, preparing for their ground shots with the captain,  not pointing skyward. Amazingly not one of the four film crews caught the moment of explosion although the ensuing conflagration was captured in full. All 37 seconds of it.

The Hindenburg that evening was carrying 36 passengers from Frankfurt and 61 crew, 21 of them trainees. A total of 36 died due to the explosion, 13 passengers, 22 crewmen and one unlucky person on the ground. Ironically, the ship’s tardiness in arriving saved a great many more lives. In the time between change around for the return flight to Europe, it was common practice to allow spectators at the mooring mast, some even being shown on board. On this occasion there wasn’t time.

In those 37 seconds, the future of passenger carrying transatlantic airships was decided. The images of the blazing giant, its nose pointing skyward like some wounded Leviathan, went viral so to speak. In those 37 seconds, the public’s perception of airships took a sharp about turn. Previously, the safety of passenger carrying zeppelins had been exemplary, with not a single passenger killed in around a decade of service. An earlier airship from the same stable, LZ 127 (the Graf Zeppelin), had even circumnavigated the globe and flown just under a million miles without mishap.

Although the precise cause of ignition remains unknown, the demise of the Hindenburg can be traced back to the breakdown of US-German relations. The Hindenburg was designed to use helium for buoyancy. Not hydrogen. And although the buoyancy of helium is much lower than that of hydrogen, this was taken into account by the designers to the extent of incorporating the largest gas cells ever used. But the US cornered the market in helium, and, fearful that they might be used for military purposes, declined to provide the Germans with adequate helium. And let’s face it, their concerns were probably justified – some 70 odd zeppelins had waged war for Germany less than a couple of decades earlier.

Germany fundamentally shrugged its shoulders and went ahead with construction of what was to be at the time the largest airship ever made. Nearly three football pitches long, with a lifting capacity of 232 tons and a maximum speed of 84 mph, the Hindenburg was ideally suited to luxury transatlantic travel. Able to carry up to 70 passengers in the kind of luxury associated with the ocean liners, the appeal was always out of the price range of the proletariat. This was luxury travel for people with money to burn. Literally, as it happened.  The Hindenburg had passenger accommodation inside the hull on two levels, with picture window promenades on port and starboard side, a restaurant, bar and a piano lounge, with an aluminium baby grand. But perhaps most unbelievable of all, bearing in mind the proximity of 7,000,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, the Hindenburg had a smoking lounge.

The smoking lounge was pressure sealed to reduce the likelihood of hydrogen leaking inwards. Although the constructors took all reasonable safety measures, it is a triumph of the power of smoking over common sense that such a thing was ever considered at all. Passengers were prohibited from bringing on board their own smoking materials and were rigorously searched before boarding with denial of passage as the minimum censure. Indeed all luggage was searched prior to boarding. Cigar lighters in the smoking lounge were chained to the tables and the room was staffed at all times to prevent passengers lighting up then absentmindedly wandering off to their rooms.

Amongst the media focus on the Hindenburg, it is often forgotten that the Hindenburg had an identical twin, LZ 130. The fate of LZ 130 as a passenger carrying venture was sealed by the Hindenburg disaster. Denied an international passenger carrying certification without helium and denied helium by the US because of anticipated military usage by Germany, the manufacturer’s hand was forced and the ship was adopted by the military, filled with hydrogen, and used mainly for air to ground observation in the period immediately leading up to Germany’s invasion of Poland. In 1940, it and its namesake the Graf Zeppelin (LZ 127), were dismantled. No hydrogen filled commercial airship has flown since.

What of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin itself, the company that constructed these behemoths? Consigned to the dustbin of history? Actually not. Zeppelin exists to this day and is still making airships. Not on the scale of the Graf Zeppelin or the Hindenburg – new zeppelins would comfortably fit inside the airframe of the old giants’ airframe – but airships nonetheless. Filled with helium.

Doctor doctor

What’s in a title?

For many years I had an unresolved discussion with my father as to the validity of the term “Doctor” as a form of address to academics, medics and otherwise. My father, a physician (MD), held that the term Dr was reserved strictly for the medical profession and that the only way to earn the title correctly was through several gruelling years of medical school. I the other hand, being a doctor of philosophy (PhD), argued that historically the term was applied to academics and philosophers and only used as an honorary term with the medical profession, in deference to their long period of training. Needless to say the matter went unresolved and we shall doubtless take it up again when we meet next.

I earned the title through several years of tough research, a doctoral thesis of 75,000 words and a highly challenging  viva voce examination by two notable academics (who I shall not name except by their initials GC and DS). It was cut and thrust for 2 ½ hours. This was in the mid-80s when oral exams rarely lasted more than an hour. The discussion was friendly and engaging but also challenging and at times teetering on confrontational. At the end of the examination they asked me to leave the room while they reflected on their opinions. I remember at the time thinking that was a bad omen but it turned out to be nothing of the sort. After 10 minutes or so of hushed chatter – I tried to eavesdrop unsuccessfully – I was called back into the room. The examiners asked me to sit down again which automatically raised my stress level a notch or two. Then GC told me that it was a very good thesis and an excellent defence, words which stick with me even to this day. I remember asking them why, if they felt it was such a good thesis, had they given me such a grilling in the examination. DS replied “if we had not done so, you would have had less respect for the degree”. He was right, I felt I’d earned it.

It was the convention in those days for the examiners to make their recommendations to Senate who would then in turn and in the fullness of time notify the candidate of their decision. University administrative machinery was painfully slow in those pre-fax, pre-email days. There were various codicils and caveats in the legislation which allowed Senate, theoretically at least, to overturn or modify an examiner’s opinion. In practice none of these applied. Unless there had been malpractice, the examiners opinion was taken as read. However because of this ratification by Senate, examiners were specifically asked not to pass on their opinion to the candidate in case Senate chose to reassess the matter. In theory, the examiners were not allowed to tell the candidates of their opinion. Needless to say nobody took a blind bit of notice. Examiners routinely told the candidates on the spot. I remember the wording DS used to tell me. “We are not allowed to tell you the result of your examination, Dr Stamford…” GC chipped in “…but if we were, we would tell you that you have passed”. I have been at pains over the years to repeat the very same words to candidates I have had the pleasure of examining.  

So I know what it takes to get a PhD. And in my opinion, that makes me every bit as worthy to be called Dr as any stethoscope wielding white coat!

In my case the situation is slightly more complicated. Not only do I have a PhD but I also have a DSc. This probably takes a bit of explaining. The DSc is both an honorary and earned degree. It is commonplace for universities to award a DSc as an honorary title to a senior academic or to someone who has made a significant contribution to an academic discipline whether through the University system or outside. The other category of DSc is earned and on the basis of a large body of published research in a given field along with submission of a substantial thesis. I was awarded mine in 2000 on the basis of 75 published papers on the dynamics of neurotransmission and a thesis (of my published work with introduction and discussion) of around 700,000 words. A doctorate is considered to be a higher degree. In the same way, a DSc is considered a higher doctorate. Relatively few people with a degree go on to do a PhD. A tiny fraction of PhD holders go on to do a DSc. It carries no value in terms of promotion or of career prospects. It is merely an acknowledgement by the very best of your peers of your standing within the academic community. A vanity in many ways.

A DSc is also a degree largely unknown outside the UK and the UK influenced academic communities worldwide. Very occasionally I meet people who recognise the significance of a DSc but, for the most part, people assume it to be a typo.

Not so in Germany. Germans are sticklers for detail and for achievement and will always err on the safe side. Whereas the French will always refer to even a head waiter as boy (garcon), Germans will elevate even the lowest food server to head waiter (Herr Ober…). In academia, and for absolute certainty, they will throw in Professor for good measure. I have more than once been addressed at conferences in Germany as Herr Professor Doktor Doktor Stamford.

Within medicine, the terms doctor and mister are further confused. Whereas in the outside world doctor is considered the higher term of respect, not so in medicine. Surgeons are referred to as mister or, in the case of female surgeons, Miss. This is of historic origin. Back in the 18th century or so doctors still had to undergo extensive training before they were allowed to minister to the sick. Surgeons on the other hand were largely unrelated to medicine and could practice without the need of medical training.

All you needed was adequate premises and the ability to amputate a limb as swiftly as possible. There were no anaesthetics before 1840. Speed was of the essence – the record for the fastest amputation of a leg was by Joseph Liston who performed the task in 28 seconds. Liston also held the dubious honour of being the only surgeon to have a 300% mortality from one operation. So swift was he on that occasion that not only did he remove the patient’s leg but also three fingers of an assistant and a member of the assembled crowd (operations were public events – why do you think they are called operating theatres) who had a heart attack. The patient and assistant died of subsequent infections.

This was not the only time when Liston’s penchant for speed came at a price. On another occasion whilst taking up a patient’s leg, he also removed his testicles. For these reasons surgery was felt to be not the specialisation of a highly qualified physician but as a career path entirely unrelated. Surgeons were often barber surgeons. The mind boggles. But it accounts for why, to this day, surgeons are referred to by their peers as Mr. I think I’ll stick with the German version. Just call me Prof Dr Dr Jon. I thank you.

Covid ‘Lite’

As you know by now, I had my first injection of the Covid vaccine early Monday morning. The experience, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, was straightforward, business like and professional. I don’t think I even felt the needle itself. The nurse told me to expect a sore arm for 24-hours or so and as long as I did not keel over in the car park from anaphylaxis, it should all be plain sailing.

I’m not entirely sure I’d agree. The last 48 hours have been pretty rocky to be truthful. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all in favour of vaccinations but the aftermath has been reasonably uncomfortable. By mid afternoon on Monday I was shivery, aching all over and in a cold sweat. Throw in a splitting headache and double vision and it’s pretty much at Royal Flush of symptoms. I even thought, being a natural hypochondriac, that perhaps I felt a little tight across the chest as well.

I think the general consensus is that the day after vaccination you essentially show symptoms of a very diluted version of the condition itself. Covid light If you will. or Covid Lite if you’re in America.The baby brother of the illness itself. Well all I can say is that I am in no hurry to meet it’s big brother. The baby is a nasty enough beast itself.

 For me, Covid light lasted the best part of 48 hours. For the last two mornings I have woken up, popped a couple of paracetamol and promptly gone back to bed and I recommend this course of action to anyone who experiences a bad reaction to the vaccine.

I should say immediately that my experience is not necessarily normal. Many others have barely broken  their stride. .Many have experienced little or no side effects. And good for them. In any case, even a couple of febrile days in bed is an attractive option compared with death. 

But today I had to get up There was no alternative. Nobody should be forced to watch 3 days of daytime television. 

V Day

It’s barely 6 am and I’m wide awake.  It feels like Christmas. I am jittery. I can’t sleep properly because today is the day I am to be vaccinated. Well the first jab at least. I’m that excited. My appointment is at 9:05 and I am sufficiently fearful of oversleeping that I have set no fewer than three alarm clocks to ring at staggered intervals and at different distances from the bed to ensure  that I am not only awake but out of bed. This cunning plan works well. Too well perhaps as one of the alarms is still ringing intermittently four hours later when I return to the house. In my haste I have pressed ‘snooze’ rather than ‘cancel’. Still it has served its purpose. I am out of bed albeit without the slightest idea of where I am. Or who I am for that matter. But the clocks have fulfilled their part of the bargain. I am up at 5:58, standing bewildered on the landing and wondering where the the last alarm clock although it’s surely loud enough to wake the neighbours. They don’t call them thunder clocks for nothing.  I briefly entertain the notion of going back to bed for an extra few winks but fortunately am sufficiently compos mentis to acknowledge the folly of such action.

For a minute or two I stare blankly into my wardrobe in search of inspiration. What is the etiquette for a mass vaccination? It’s not exactly black tie. A bit like going to work then – commuter train chic? Perhaps more casual? Or should one try to scale sartorial pinnacles? I plump for a pair of forest green cords, my t-shirt with the joke about the 2010 Icelandic volcano and a Fair Isle jumper. A quick glance outside and the sight of my crisply frosted car adds my father’s Crombie and a dark blue trilby/fedora to complete the ensemble. Throw in my brown suede Chelsea boots and I am good to go. I blow my reflection a kiss, instantly embarrassing myself. 

Out of the front door and into the car. Then out of the car and back into the house when I realise it is still only 6:30 and my appointment, only some 5 miles away, is not until 9:05. Even allowing for the most event-ridden journey – avalanche in Sevenoaks, escaped panther at Capel, plague of frogs in Southborough – this is still not going to take me over 2 ½ hours.

Cornflakes and coffee I decide.

It’s still only 7 am even after a couple of weapons-grade espressos.

I turn on the wireless to catch the news and just as quickly switch it off – more Royal family shenanigans. I have a limited interest in such nonsense at the best of times. Royal intrigues simply do not hold my attention. More than I can handle at this hour. Whatever happened to the shipping forecast? 

I find myself pacing the living room. Until I remember that these are the boots I was wearing the previous week when I trod in some undisclosed cat poo in the garden. Probably not my best thinking to pace the living room. I hastily check the living room carpet. Fortunately all is well  with the rug and the shoes pass a brief olfactory inspection.

7:30 a.m. It suddenly dawns on me that the schools are back today and therefore the roads will potentially be choc-a-bloc with school buses, cyclists who haven’t cycled in months and schoolchildren with the road sense of hedgehogs. Plus the usual monday morning mayhem. Better get on the road I decide.

Ten minutes later I am in Tonbridge, parked at the vaccination centre and wondering how I’m going to kill 90 minutes or so in the Sports Centre car park. The cafe is closed –   obviously – and it has never dawned on me to take a thermos or a book. Not that it would have done anyway. My bladder is on a hair trigger these days. Challenging it with a flask of coffee would be supremely ill judged. 

The only reading matter to hand is the car handbook. It turns out to be one of the least compelling reads ever. Not exactly a page turner. On the other hand it fills the time until the vaccination centre opens. And I now know how to do a full annual service, refill the aircon and change all the bulb units. Still a little bit shaky on the electrics.

Still half an hour before my my allotted time slot. I overhear one elderly gentleman saying that there is no strict regulation of appointment times. Sheepishly, I join the queue hoping nobody will notice my early arrival. It turns out they notice but evidently do not care. As long as the system has you detected, directed, consented and punctured, all is well.

Ralph and his iPad identifies me, logs me into the system and then passes me over to Celine whose role is to point left or right depending on which is the shorter of the two queues. I turn out to be a Lefty and am greeted by Jean whose job it is to consent me and satisfy herself that I really want the vaccine. She starts by asking me if I know why I’m here. “Is this not beginners yoga?” I ask. Eventually she is satisfied that am a safe bet on anaphylaxis and passes me on to another pointing person. “Cubicle number 8” she announces in a tone that fleetingly reminds me of Argos. I’m greeted by Janine, the nurse, in a manner that is disproportionately enthusiastic for such an early hour of the day. “Which arm?” she asks “We need to leave you with one good arm”. I quickly check that we are talking about vaccination and not amputation. My meds have not really kicked in this morning and I am slow in baring my arm. Janine wrestles me out of my coat with the kind of fevered urgency of newlyweds. I toy with the idea of mentioning this to her but fortunately think better of it. She is after all holding a syringe. “A little scratch” she says and it’s all done. Nurses no longer say “a little prick”. Apparently some patients take it personally.

Janine’s assistant passes me a card with my next appointment and a sticker saying “I’ve been brave”. OK I made the last bit up. A quick thankyou and I am I shown out via the tradesman’s entrance so to speak, past huge skips of rodent-riddled rubbish with the instruction not to drive for 15 minutes ringing in my ears. Fair enough – I can brush up on the car’s electrics.

Home 10 am. Job done.

Careless whisper

As those of my friends without Caller ID have found over the last couple of weeks, I have had some serious computer problems recently. Specifically the hard disk on my computer has failed. That’s ‘failed’ as in ‘loss of all data and writings over the last year and a half including many photographs of the family and so forth’. Irreparable. At least it hasn’t lost any travel documents, souvenirs and holiday photos since of course, like everybody else, I haven’t actually been anywhere, seen anyone or done anything. A kind of memory nirvana..

Despite the valiant efforts of Chris, my good friend of nearly two decades and general computer wizard, all is apparently lost. Flushed down the toilet of history. My nephew M2 (yes that is what we call him in the family) confirms this. As far as the data is concerned its ‘Goodnight Vienna’ and ‘Auf wiedersehen, pet’.

Obviously, being me, I have mourned this computer mishap extensively and disproportionately. Like Stalin’s funeral or the death of a pope. This has therefore been a rather testing time for my friends who have borne my computer woes with saintly patience although one pointed out, quite correctly, that my computer’s demise was very small beer by comparison with the nation’s collective body count over the last many months. “Snap out of it” were her words. Well, some of them. Her admonishment was delivered in a rather more vivid vernacular. So I sort of did snap out of it. I ordered a new hard drive which Chris was generous enough to fit it and to install Windows once more.

I won’t bother you any more with the laptop – this is not a computer story really. Suffice it to say that the computer worked so I began the long arduous process of re-installation of all the programs that have gone with the wind. And incidentally don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s a five-minute job. Seventy two hours and counting here.

All was going well, agonisingly slowly but, until yesterday morning when I was ready to reinstate the mighty Dragon – voice recognition software not fire-breathing lizard you understand – it was OK. All tickety boo until the final screen of a 40 minute installation when, following a few ominous sounds from the vicinity of the DVD reader, a pop-up told me that the attempt had failed – yes, I got that –  just as it was approaching the home stretch. Then for a microsecond or two the screen filled with diagnostic information and my efforts were nullified. As fast as you can say “shit”, it was all over. The DVD drive came to a screeching halt and contemptuously spewed out my installation disc, with what I fancied was a gallic snort. If it could have thrown it across the floor, it would have done. A second installation sortie proved no better but at least I was able to read the  information screen as it flashed past.  Third, fourth and fifth attempts proved equally futile. and it didn’t, or rather doesn’t, seem to matter whatever I did or do. The dragon will not revive.

To probably most of my readers, speech recognition software is little more than a gimmick of the aren’t-computers-awfully-clever variety. Nothing could be further from the truth for somebody who has Parkinson’s and whose tremor is sufficiently pronounced as to make people feel seasick. For me it is a lifeline. My tremor is of sufficient amplitude that individual keystrokes are a lottery. Couple that with predictive text on phones and the results can be little more than guesswork. Sometimes comical, at other times franky abusive. So typing is a nonstarter. it has to be speech recognition or there is no voice. 

Currently I am at that stage. I have no voice. I am mute. And nothing is more profoundly unsettling than that to someone who still entertains the conceit that he is a writer however remote that reality. Voice recognition is my lifeline. After all, what is a voice if it cannot be recognised. And for those of you that are wondering, this was done, painfully slowly and with a morning worth of necessary corrections, using Google’s voice to text input. Better than nothing but not by much. My voice is little more than a whisper and, with all the erroneous transcriptions, a careless one.

 Careless Whisper – that would be a good song title. What? George who?