Saturday, 21 May 2011

The A303

If you haven't seen it, and have access to the BBC iPlayer (is it available overseas?), may I recommend a programme which went out on BBC Four TV last week on Thursday, A303: Highway to the Sun? Tom Fort does a nice, unflashy job of looking at the palimpsestic nature of the British landscape, as revealed by the journey along a road I know only too well.

Apart from its intrinsic merits as a typical example of the best of current "B list" BBC programme-making -- there's clearly something of a Silver Age happening on BBC Four, and if I had more time I'd be watching more such programmes -- I think it gives a nice insight into the world as seen from this blog. A world populated by middle-aged, white-haired enthusiasts, annoying the hell out of people by pulling off roads and parking scruffy, "characterful" cars in odd, often illegal, spots on the side of the road, just to get a particular view, or to visit an obscure monument.

Britain is full of such people, quietly pursuing semi-academic / quasi-artistic / mildly physical enthusiasms, and they are my tribe. Often retired public-sector professionals, they are the inheritors of traditions of amateurism handed down from 18th and 19th century clergymen, those diggers of barrows and collectors of butterflies and rocks. If you can understand Tom Fort's enthusiasm for one road, as a way of drilling down through the impacted layers of our history, you will understand why I spend my weekends hanging around the M3 cutting and the Hockley viaduct.

The programme was part of a BBC Four "landscape week", and I'll catch up with the others (including Alice Roberts doing some "wild" swimming, à la Roger Deakin) in due course.


24 comments:

Martin H. said...

I've just watched this on the iPlayer. Thanks for the 'heads up'.

Bronislaus Janulis said...

palimpsestic?

Eschew obfuscation!

Nice image, though the white of the cut is a little abrupt?

Bron

Mike C. said...

Damn, and I thought everyone knew what a palimpsest is!

The white of the cut is what it is, where it is, and I didn't put it there... That's what makes it so attention-grabbing -- a big white trench slashed through what used to be a gently rolling chalk hill. Some people find it an offensive symbol of what we do to our environment, a lot of people don't even notice it any more.

I suspect the Victorians who built the viaduct (which simply took a railway line over a small river -- this is not the Grand Canyon) would have relished the opportunity to show off by putting a tunnel through instead...

Mike

David Brookes said...

Mike

We watched this programme and thoroughly enjoyed it (far more enjoyable, in fact, than the traffic on the A303). I agree with your comments about the British tradition of amateur enthusiasts - probably one of the reasons why I enjoy your blog.

Mike C. said...

David,

I think the rest of that week's "landscape" programmes are probably worth a watch, too.

I've only just started using the iPlayer, and can see it's going to soak up a lot of my spare time quite enjoyably (I watched Alice Roberts swimming in a Lakeland pool last night, for example, all in the interests of landscape research, of course).

Mike

David Brookes said...

Mike

We have recently been able to connect our router directly to our Humax satellite box, and that enables us to watch iPlayer through the TV - more convenient than sitting at the computer. If your broadband service has a monthly limit, however (ours is 10GB / month) you can get to the limit pretty quickly by watching iPlayer!

Mike C. said...

David,

Strange as it might sound, I have come to like watching TV on the PC -- we only have a 12" TV anyway, so the difference is not huge, and I can multitask in the dull bits. I think once you've watched something as intense as all four series of The Wire on your PC, you come to have good associations with the setup.

Mike

Huw said...

Mike,

Richard Klein has been BBC Four controller since 2008 and has commissioned some excellent programmes, often tying them into short seasons like last week's. I enjoyed last year's Japan season.

Wild Swimming was delightful; have you read Deakin's Waterlog? It conforms perfectly to your vision of 'semi-academic / quasi-artistic / mildly physical enthusiasm'.

Like David we can now watch iPlayer via our television and it makes a huge difference (although it's mostly used for Zingzillas and Chugginton).

Huw

Mike C. said...

Huw,

Yes, I've all the Deakin there is (sadly), plus a fair bit of Annie Dillard, Richard Mabey, Kathleen Jamie, and some of the others who have established the contemporary "nature writing" genre, where Natural History is something you do, rather than something you study.

When I was kid, I wanted nothing more than to be a "naturalist" -- I collected moths and butterflies, fossils, natural detritus of all kinds. Unfortunstely, our school insisted that Biology, English and German was not an allowable A level combination... Mind, I did Geography instead, which was great. I can feel a post coming on...

Mike

Huw said...

Mike,

Have you read Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places? Definitely Natural History as something that's experienced. He comes from it the same angle as Deakin: semi-academic (he's a Fellow at Cambridge, but in English) and very physically involved.

Huw

Mike C. said...

Huw,

I'm aware of it, but haven't read it. If you recommend it, I'll add it to my ever-increasing list of books to read. Of course, that's just the third division -- the 2nd division is the pile of actual unread books next to my desk, plus the virtual pile cumulating in my Kindle ...

Mike

Huw said...

Mike,

It's a strong recommendation. I was curiously wary of it (despite - because of? - Amazon constantly badgering me to buy it based on my previous purchases) but found it deeply readable, considered and inspiring.

Huw

Mike C. said...

Huw,

I know the feeling -- Amazon has deeply misunderstood me, because of the many birthday purchases I've made over the years. Honest, Amazon, I really couldn't care less about Star Wars.

Is it illustrated? If not, I'll get a copy for my Kindle.

Mike

Huw said...

Mike,

There are a few black and white pictures but they're printed on the paper (i.e. aren't 'plates'). I have his earlier book Mountains of the Mind for the Kindle and the equivalent grayscale images are OK.

Huw

PS My main Kindle gripe is how books rarely finish at 100%. A recent one finished at 60%, the rest taken up by poorly formatted indexes and further reading, so my sense of pacing and anticipation was completely wrong. Should probably get my own blog . . .

Mike C. said...

Huw,

Totally agree on the Kindle -- several times now I have had the same experience -- it's especially bad with heavily footnoted books. A lot of this could be overcome by more subtle / dynamic use of the navigation bar at the bottom (it could show chapters, etc, rather than just "progress").

There are several evolutionary steps needed before e-readers become acceptable to most people. Colour, obviously, but intuitive layout, less dependence on menus, and easier navigation are top of my list.

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

I watched the Wild Swimming one as I really enjoyed the Deakin book - and like you, I've got all his and love them. I must admit that I found Alice Roberts a little coy in the skinny dipping bit but I guess I'm just getting old and one step nearer to "dom" status.

Anyway, "The Wild Places" is a must read. I dipped into it last week and have been thinking about reading it again. "Findings" by Kathleen Jamie is hopefully in one of your piles too.

Mike C. said...

OK, that's a definite read for the Macfarlane. I've read "Findings", too, but let's leave my piles out of it.

Mike

Kent Wiley said...

Negatory on video in the iplayer here in USA. Radio seems to work though.

Martyn Cornell said...

The iPlayer works fine abroad provided you use a VPN, which lets you pretend to the BBC that you're based in the UK. If you're not in the US, a VPN is also essential for getting the best out of Google Books, since many sources, for alleged copyright reasons, are "snippet view" only for readers connecting from outside the US. And a VPN is also essential for connecting to Jesus and Mo if you live in the UAE.

Ah, the A303 - forever associated in my mind with my girlfriend of the late 1970s and early 1980s, who came from Devon.

Mike C. said...

Martyn,

What I will never understand, is why "A303" can never be as evocative in a song as, say, "Route 66" or "Highway 61" -- indeed, sounds faintly ludicrous -- whereas, on the other hand, "Ratcliffe Highway" or "Great North Road" work just fine.

It's a mystery.

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

Perhaps God (despite being an Englishman) would never had said, "Abraham kill me a son - out on the A303".

Possibly because he wasn't a poet either.

Mike C. said...

Dave,

Even if you make it rhyme, it's Benny Hill:

God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run".
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin’ done?"
God says, "Way out there on the A301"

Benny was a Southampton man, of course.

Do you want it pasteurised, 'cos pasteurised is best?
She said, Ernie, I'll be 'appy if it comes up to me chest...

(mind, that always makes me laugh).

Mike

Martyn Cornell said...

Kula Shaker hymned the A 303, but it's certainly true that it doesn't match up to Route 66.

Benny Hill was living in Teddington when he died, I'm guessing to be still near Teddington Studios. Ernie's nemesis, of course, was Two-Ton Ted from Teddington, who drove the baker's van, although in the video for the single, Ted is played by Henry McGee who, while suitably villainous, is more Cassius-like than perhaps someone with the nickname "Two-Ton" ought to be …

Mike C. said...

After he died, they brought him back here, and his grave is in the municipal cemetery just up the road. As far as I know, it is not a site of pilgrimage to compare with Jim Morrison's grave at Pere Lachaise.

Though at night I quite often hear ghostly gold-tops a-rattling in their crate.

Mike