Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “transport”

New traffic laws?

I saw a link to this article on Facebook, which seems to me to have some ominous implications Read: From 11 May SA will have new speed-limits and other driving regulations:

From 11 May SA will have new speed-limits and other driving regulations: Every festive season we hear about numerous deaths from road accidents, sadly the end of last year was no different. The minister of transport Dipuo Peters, has been actively working on new regulations and plans that can get the accident rate down. Not just over the festive period but for the entirety of the year.

This seems to hark back to the days of John Vorster, who used to try to solve all problems by legislation to make things illegal that were already illegal, and so enhance his public image of kragdadigheid — if there is a problem, pass a new law so you can be seen to be “doing something”.

Donald Trump seems to be doing the same thing in the USA — giving executive orders with little thought given to the practical implementation or their effects.

So are these changes necessary, and what are the likely effects?

  • When renewing your license [sic] drivers will now have to undergo a practical re-evaluation.
  • K53 is going to be completely reviewed and revamped (finally)
  • A variety of speed limit changes: Speed limits to be reduced from 60km/h to 40km/h in urban areas, from 100km/h to 80km/h in rural areas, and from 120km/h to 100km/h on freeways running through a residential area
  • Large goods vehicles above 9000kg GVM to be banned from public roads during peak hour traveling [sic] times.

I think this might be just as much subject to the law of unforeseen consequences as the travel ban on children without full birth certificates.

Take the first one — a practical re-evaluation for drivers.

Who will do it? Do they have qualified staff who are competent to re-evaluate drivers when they have difficulty in coping with applicants for new licences? And will they be any less susceptible to demanding bribes than the existing staff?

Part of the problem is the number of unlicensed drivers on the roads, because many have got their licences through bribery. The way to deal with that is surely to implement the existing laws properly. I foresee a huge increase in the number of unlicensed drivers on the roads, because the process for renewing licences will have become so cumbersome as to be unworkable. It will not weed out the incompetent, but will penalise the competent.


It would be far better to improve the enforcement of existing laws, many of which seem to be increasingly disregarded. It used to be quite rare to see vehicles driving through red robots, but now I see it once a week or more frequently (and I don’t go out much). I’m not referring to occasions when the light has just changed and the driver did not have time to stop, but when it has been red for ten seconds or longer, and someone has just sailed through. There are also practices like going straight from turning lanes that are dangerous as well.

Passing legislation is relatively easy. But the difficult part is the implementation. And trying to apply the changes described here will probably lead to more mess and muddle, and not reduce the road accident rate at all.


Beaufighters over Burma

Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45 by David J. Innes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spotted this book in the library, thought “That’s interesting”, then took it out and read it, interrupting all my other reading to do so, and found it more absorbing than many novels. Having finished it, I’m left wondering why.

It’s not particularly well written, and has the rather annoying habit of some writers of military history of putting a list of all the medals a person was awarded after their name in the text. But I still found it fascinating, and I find aircraft of the Second World War particularly fascinating.

I’m not sure why I, a convinced pacifist, should find that particular conflict so interesting. Perhaps it is because I was born during the war, and I was four years old when it ended, and so war seemed to be part of the normal state of things, and when it ended, the world seemed to be in an abnormal state. My uncle, who had been in the paratroop regiment, had a couple of books called Aircraft of the Fighting Powers and I read them with great interest when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and had the specifications of several of the aircraft memorised, even though some of them were probably inaccurate to confuse the enemy.

One of the things that struck me about Beaufighters over Burma, however, was the logistics and bureau7cracy of war, with people being posted into and out of squadrons for no apparent reason. That must have been an enormously costly exercise in itself, and I wonder who decided such things and why. There was this squadron with trained crew and pretty expensive aircraft, and they would have pilots and navigators transferred in and out and all over the place, for no apparent reason. And in the days before computers, who kept track of these things, stores and supplies and personnel, not to mention petrol and ammunition to keep the planes flying and shooting up the Japanese occupation army in Burma, and trying to disrupt their supplies of petrol and ammunition and personnel.

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Networking and consciousness

A blogging friend recently drew my attention to an article about scientists’ attempts to understand consciousness — World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness – Scientific American Blog Network: The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as “The Curious Wavefunction,” wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:

I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness…

Now I’m no scientist. I haven’t gone beyond high school physics and that was more than 50 years ago, and string theory wasn’t around then, so if you think that what follows is the insane ramblings of a lunatic, you’d better stop reading now. Check the right-hand column for something else to read, or close this window.

My picture of consciousness or an analogy for consciousness is that it arises out of the complexity of networks, and in this case the networks of neurons in the human brain.

This idea was suggested to me by a science fiction short story called A subway named Möbius. “When the MBTA (Boston’s Public Transportation authority) introduces a new line, the topology of the network become so complex that a train vanishes…lost in some fourth dimensional properties of the network.”

The Boston T

The Boston T

I read the story in 1962, when I was 21. There was no Google in those days, so I had to go searching among mathematical texts in the library to discover what topology was. The story mentioned a Möbius strip, which had one side and one edge, which the author described as a “singularity”. It also mentioned a Klein bottle, which managed to be inside itself, and had two singularities. The mathematical texts that I found explained and illustrated these, so at least I could form a mental picture of them, and for a while I enjoyed making Möbius strips and astounding my friends by demonstrating that they had one side and one edge. In the story a mathematician, Roger Tupelo, explains the disappearance of the train referring to the topological qualities of the network. It is a closed system, so the train must be somewhere on the system, but it has no real “where”.

The story suggested to me how it might be possible to have infinity in a finite space. It gripped my imagination, and I wondered if that was what consciousness was. Could this be an analogy to the link between the metaphysical mind and the physical brain? That the network of our brains was so complex that our thoughts jumped into another dimension?

A few years later I came across a play by N.F. Simpson called A resounding tinkle. At one point in the play a radio is playing in the background, and something resembling Anglican Evensong was playing, with dialogue something like this:

Versicle: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality.
Response: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency.

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At thought.
R: which is an illusion caused by certain electrochemical changes in the human brain structure which, had they been otherwise, what is now commonplace would be beyond our wildest imaginings, and what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would be commonplace.

And the connection between brain and mind would be as much beyond our wildest imaginings as that.

Of course this is all completely unscientific, being based on science fiction and the Theatre of the Absurd, but I rather liked the idea that the topological qualities of a network could make the whole network greater than the sum of its parts, and the brain as a neural network is a lot more complicated than an underground railway. I’ve always liked visible networks, like railways, and prefer trolley buses to oil buses, partly because their network is more visible.

When I actually visited Boston, I was rather disappointed to discover that the MBTA network was not nearly as complex as the story suggested, and in that respect did not compare well with the Moscow or London networks.

The Boston T -- August 1995

The Boston T — August 1995

I mentioned this theory of consciousness in passing in another blog post, where I suggested that it could also be used as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that God has us all backed up on tape or some kind of super DVD, and that on the last day we’ll all be rebooted into new and better hardware.

The idea of egregores allows one to extend the analogy, or the metaphor, even further. If the human mind is greater than the sum of the parts of the human brain, then an aggregate of human minds working together could be greater than the sum of the brains that compose it. According to the modern nation, an egregore is a kind of group mind which is created when people consciously come together for a common purpose. Each of us belong to several of these groups. The process is unconscious. There also are drawbacks, some disturbing psychic influences in many cases, and a restriction of freedom. It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in.

The egregores of the country one lives in bear a strong resemblance to the angels of the nations referred to in the Old Testament, and the Greek word egrigori (watchers) is sometimes used to refer to them.

Consciousness is sometimes described by scientists as being comparable to both waves and particles. So could not the angels of the peoples be both a kind of group mind, and also bodiless powers?

I’m not proposing a new doctrine here, it is just a theologoumenon. But it might provide a useful analogy.

UK trip 19 May 2015: London

Continued from UK trip 18 May 2005: a day in Oxford | Notes from underground

We took the R73 bus to Richmond Station, and got the District Line train to Monument station, and then changed to the Docklands Light Railway, and rode to Lewisham. It seemed to be the best way to see some of the parts of London that had changed most since I had last been there in the 1960s.

Some of the changes in London -- the docklands had become a business distict

Some of the changes in London — the docklands had become a business distict

The railway had not been here for one thing, and as parts of it were on elevated track there were good views over the rebuilt docks area, with tall office blocks, which looked a bit like the financial district of Johannesburg or central Sandton. It was a lot cleaner and smarter, but also was a reminder that Britain was no longer a country whose products were exported all over the world. Manufacturing industry in Britain seemed to be dead. The streets were full of French, Italian and German cars, and even the Vauxhalls were simply rebadged Opels.

Lewisham was much changed from when I had last seen it too. Buildings seemed to have been demolished to make way for a bus station, and just about every route seemed to be run be a different bus company.

Leisham bus station.

Leisham bus station.

We went to have breakfast in a place called Maggie’s, which had an all-in breakfast of as much as one could eat for £4-50, which Val had, and I had a Spanish omelet and chips, which was a bit cheaper, though they refilled my tea cup three times, speedily and efficiently. At one point a bloke nicked my rucksack, then gave it back, saying I should be more careful.

Maggies Cafe in Lewisham, where we had breakfast.

Maggies Cafe in Lewisham, where we had breakfast.

Afterwards we wandered about a bit, and saw the church having a market. It seemed to be a fairly high church, advertising Mass.

Church in Lewisham

Church in Lewisham

We rode back to Bank on the Docklands Light Railway. The trains were driverless, and seemed to sway and shake a lot.


Docklands light railway, but no docks in sight.

Docklands light railway, but no docks in sight. Driver’s-eye view, but no driver in sight either.

We walked down to London Bridge past the monument to the great fire of London, and there was not a bowler hat in sight. In 1966 London Bridge had been a sea of bowler hats and umbrellas, crossing to the north bank at 9:00 am and back again at 6:00 pm, when I was driving the 133 bus. Back then they had seemed horribly old fashioned, like something out of the 1920s, and I thought that if such a tradition had persisted so long, it might have persisted longer, but it has not.

The Bank of England, the famed old lady of Threadneedle Street. n 1966 the streets in the vicinity used to be a sea of bowler hats, but in 2005 there wasn't one to be seen.

The Bank of England, the famed Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. In 1966 the streets in the vicinity used to be a sea of bowler hats, but 40 years later there wasn’t one to be seen.

We looked for a loo, but there hardly seemed to be any on London Bridge station at all, and those that there were were small prefab plastic structures sitting on the platforms and required 20p coins, and some of them needed pound coins. Another change, and a major one this time, as it seems to involve a genetic mutation. Brits no longer need to piss, or at least they must have evolved larger bladders so they only need to do it before they leave home in the morning and after they get home at night. When I was here in the 1960s you could buy a review of public loos called The Good Loo Guide, but it would be of purely historic interest now, as the loos are no longer there.

GillyHopWhile we were crossing London Bridge it began to rain, though not very hard, so we cut our sightseeing, and made our way to Foyles Bookshop on the Underground. We had at first decideed not to buy any books, lest we get overweight on the plane going home, but decided to chance it anyway, and stow them in pockets. Val got a book for our son Simon on his computer program XSI, and one for Jethro on Formula I racing. I found Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins, which I had never seen in South Africa, either in bookshops or libraries. I’d read another book by Katherine Paterson, called A bridge to Terabithia, and had quite liked it, except for the fact that it had a boy with a girl’s name and a girl with a boy’s name, so I kept confusing the characters when they were referenced by pronouns. Perhaps it was trying to make some weird feminist point. I looked for Charles Williams books, of which Frank Cranmer had a complete set, but did not see any.

We walked down to Leicester Square Underground station, and then to Waterloo to get the 15:57 train to Strawberry Hill via Teddington, and walked back to Frank Cranmer’s cottage through the drizzle.

The walk from Strawberry Hill station to Twickenham

The walk from Strawberry Hill station to Twickenham

Frank and Helen came about 7:30 pm, and we took them to supper at Arthur’s restaurant, across the green. The restaurant was a converted public loo, which Frank said had been closed because it was too expensive to run. Perhaps that explained what had happened to the other’s too. There was a noisy party next to us, and so after our meal we returned to Frank’s cottage for coffee.

Concluded at UK trip 20 May 2005: London, and going home | Notes from underground.

Index to all posts on our UK trip here UK Holiday May 2005

UK trip 18 May 2005: a day in Oxford

Continued from UK trip 17 May 2005 London: Newspapers and Books | Notes from underground

We took the train from Strawberry Hill to Waterloo again, and this time it took a more northerly route, which was a bit shorter. We took the Bakerloo line on the underground to Paddington station, and then a train to Oxford, which we had to pay for, as it was not on the visitors travel passes we had. The “cheap” day return was a little over £17 each, which was pretty expensive, I thought. The journey lasted a little over an hour, and the train stopped at Slough and Reading, and was going on to Great Malvern.

By train to Oxford 18 May 2005

By train to Oxford 18 May 2005

We got a bus into the centre of Oxford, and took a walk round the town, up Cornmarket, where we looked at record shops as Val was trying to find a Mother Earth record that our son Simon had wanted for Christmas, but we weren’t successful in that.

Cornmarket, Oxford

Cornmarket, Oxford

We passed Balliol College, where Jan Hofmeyr had been, and Trinity, where Stephen Gawe had been, and looked in at the Bodleian Library.

Balliol College, Oxford

Balliol College, Oxford

We took some photos of the Radcliffe Camera, something that I associated with the essence of Oxford. There is a small round building behind the old Reserve Bank building in Church Square, Pretoria, that always reminded me of Oxford, because it looked like a miniature of the Radcliffe Camera.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford.

We walked down the High to Magdalen Bridge, where there were punts and rowing boats, and took photos of Magdalen College where C.S. Lewis had taught, and where I had once been with Stephen Gawe to visit another South African student back in 1967, Harold Mogona.

Magdalen College, Oxford

Magdalen College, Oxford. C.S. Lewis's College.

Magdalen College, Oxford. C.S. Lewis’s College.

We walked round Merton around the edge of Christ Church meadow, and up past Christ Church, and then had lunch at a pub in the High, and wrote postcards to the children, and went to the post
office to post them. I had thought of visiting John Fenton, the former principal of St Chad’s College, and retired as a Canon of Christ Church, but he seemed to live further out of town, and we did not know how to get there.

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

We took a bus up to Banbury Road, where we had a look at the House of St Gregory and Macrina, at the corner of Canterbury Road, but though we rang the bell, no one answered. It was a kind of Orthodox Centre in Oxford, which I had visited in 1967, during a patristics conference, and met Dr Nicolas Zernov, who had written several books about the Orthodox Church, which I had read before becoming Orthodox.

Oxford, 18 May 2005

Oxford, 18 May 2005

We went back into town on the bus, and looked at a few more record shops, and then walked back to the station, and got the 4:33 pm train back to Paddington, and retraced our journey this morning,
down the Bakerloo line to Waterloo, and the South West Trains to Strawberry Hill, arriving back at Frank Cranmer’s Cottage at 7:00 pm.

Bakerloo line train in the London rush hour.

Bakerloo line train in the London rush hour.

There was a cricket match in progress on the green over the road, as there had been the previous day, though this time there were younger children playing. We went out looking for supper, and tried some of
the other pubs in the neighbourhood. The Sussex Arms did not do evening meals, and the other one around the corner only had a Thai Restaurant, so we went back to The Prince Blucher, and had pie with
mash and vegetables, and were served by a South African girl from the Free State.

To be continued.

Index to all posts on our UK trip here UK Holiday May 2005

UK trip 17 May 2005 London: Newspapers and Books

Continued from UK trip 16 May 2005: Brightlingsea to Twickenham | Notes from underground

We left the cottage at about 8:00, took the bus to Richmond underground station, and then the underground to Colindale, to visit the newspaper library, and spend several hours there looking at newspaper death announcements and obituaries, though the obituaries did not seem to begin in earnest until the early 20th century.

At Colindale Underground station on the Northern Line.

At Colindale Underground station on the Northern Line.

Then we went down to Tottenham Court Road, and walked down Charing Cross Road, where we looked at Foyle’s bookshop, but bought nothing, partly because of the overwhelming choice available, and partly because Val was worried about the extra weight if we tried to carry too much back on the plane.

No South African account ofn being a tourist in the UK would be complete without a picture of Travalgar Square, with South Africa House in the background, so here's the obligatory shot.

No South African account of being a tourist in the UK would be complete without a picture of Trafalgar Square, with South Africa House in the background, so here’s the obligatory shot.

We wandered down to Trafalgar Square, and then got a bus to Aldwych, and another to Waterloo, where we discovered that our visitors travel passes were also valid on Southwest Trains, part of the old southern region of British Rail, now privatised. The trains were modern, and came in a variety of bright livery, in contrast to the dull green of the Southern Region of British Rail in the 1960s, though the one we rode on to Strawberry Hill had graffiti scratched on the windows. We picked up several abandoned newspapers on the train, so we didn’t have to buy one.

On a London bus.

On a London bus.

We got off at Strawberry Hill station and were back at the cottage about 8:00 pm, and walked up to a neighbourhood pub, the Prince Blucher. On the way we passed the green, where a neighbourhood cricket game was in progress. Such scenes always call to mind the song by The Who:

I want to play cricket on the green
Ride my bike across the stream
Cut myself and see my blood
I want to come home all covered in mud
I’m a boy, I’m a boy
But my Ma won’t admit it.

We had bangers and mash for supper at the pub, which was very good, though it cost twice what a similar meal would have cost in South Africa — about 6 pounds, equivalent to about R70.00. I had a pint of bitter and Val had a lager shandy, which she has been drinking ever since the day we arrived, when Richard Wood had one.

Cricket on the green at Twickenham. 17 May 2005

Cricket on the green at Twickenham. 17 May 2005

We walked round the block, down Second Cross Road, and there were three pubs in that block alone. It makes a difference in the way one lives, that one can go walking to a local pub in an evening. In South Africa there is no real equivalent, though possibly the Dros chain of restaurants perform the same function, but one cannot afford them for family meals, and would only go for special occasions, and not just for a drink. But one cannot just walk down the road to them, it means getting in the car and making a special outing. In the townships there are shebeens within walking distance for many, but they are for serious drinkers, and don’t usually serve food.

Continued at UK trip 18 May 2005: a day in Oxford | Notes from underground.

Index to all posts on our UK trip here UK Holiday May 2005


Why I went off the Gautrain

When the Gautrain first began running between Pretoria and Johannesburg, I was very impressed by it, and thought it was the best way of travelling. It was fast, convenient, comfortable and reasonably priced. It saved the hassle of driving in traffic.

Gautrain at Hatfield station, Pretoria, July 2014

Gautrain at Hatfield station, Pretoria, July 2014

So if I had to attend a meeting in Johannesburg, and the venue was accessible from a Gautrain station, I took the train in preference to driving. This was particularly useful in the December holiday season, 15 December to 15 January, when the price of the buses and parking were reduced.

But then I began to notice that it was always costing me more than I thought it did. I would put enough money in the card to cover the cost of my trip and a bit more, so that the next time I rode on the train I could pay when I got off the train rather than when I got on. But when leaving the parking garage, the machine briefly flashed the remaining balance, which was always lower than I expected.

Eventually I got a printout of my last few journeys, and noticed that there was an extra R20 being added to the cost of every journey. The fare between Hatfield and Rosebank is advertised as about R49 in off-peak periods, but it actually cost R69.00, because  of the extra R20.00 being added every time. The reason for this extra charge is not explained in the fare tables.

So the last time I needed to travel to a meeting in Johannesburg, I added up the fares, parking charges, bus fares, and the extra R40.00, and it came to R160.00, and that didn’t look reasonable at all. I decided to go by car instead. The distance by car is 60 km, 120 km return. The cost of the petrol for such a trip is about R100.00. So without the extra R40.00 charged on the Gautrain, the fare at R120.00 might be competitive, considering wear and tear on the car and the driver. But R160.00 is not competitive at all, and if there is even only one other person travelling, travelling by car wins hands down.

One of the aims of introducing the Gautrain was to get cars off the overcrowded roads, but at those prices, there is no incentive.


Nine years of Notes from Underground

This blog opened with its first post nine years ago, on 28 November 2005, so I’ll look back on some of the highlights of the last nine years of blogging here.

When it started, Notes from Underground was on different platform, Blogger, and I was impressed with the east of posting quick articles. The very first post was a bit of an experiment to see what was possible, and you can see what it was about here: Notes from underground: Seek and ye shall find

I’ve lost touch with a few old friends, and so I’ve entered their details in a “reverse people finder” at:

Who? Me? Is someone (old friend) looking for you? People Search Finder.

I’ve subsequently found a couple of them.

One found me through my web page, which shouldn’t be too difficult. Another I found through Google — entering her name in normal search brought up too many hits. But I searched images, and wondered how easy it would be to recognise someone after 30 years. Well, bingo. Up popped an image, and my old friend had changed, of course, but was still recognisable.

That was before Facebook, and I’vw found Facebook a better way of finding old friends. but if your friends aren’t on Facebook, Who? Me? might be worth a try.

Quite early on, however, Google took over the Blogger platform, and began fiddling with the Blogger editor. I had been attracted to it by its ease of use for posting stuff quickly, but Google set about making i8t harder to use and reducing the functionalityy so that eventually I, like many others, moved this blog to WordPress. I left the original one up, so that links would not be broken, but nothing new has been posted there for the last two years.

Within a month of starting this blog it was involved in a blogging experiment. Two Christian bloggers, Phil Wyman and John Smulo, proposed a synchronised blog, or Synchroblog, where a group of bloggers would post on the same general topic on the same day, and post links to each other’s blogs, so that someone could read several different views on the same topic. The topic was Syncretism, and my contribution was an article which I had posted on a Geocities web site, since closed, but you can still see the article at Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism

Abandoned places of empire: Ruins of an English monastery

Abandoned places of empire: Ruins of an English monastery

Synchroblogs became quite popular for a while, and there was one every month or so, with quite a wide variety of views. But eventually it came to be managed by a few people in the USA, who chose topices that were mainly US-centred, and a lot of the variety disappeared. Partly for that reason, I rarely participate in synchroblogs any more, but the main reason  for not participating is that there used to be a mailing list, with a monthly reminder, and those now organising the Synchroblogs disdain to use it, and without the regular reminder I simply tend to forget to find out what the topic and date are for this month. But it can be found out here. if one remembers to look, which I rarely do.

Looking back over the last nine years, some of the best Synchroblogs that I have participated in have been:

Not all blog posts are synchroblog posts, of course, and there have been other kinds of posts over the last 9 years. Still on the theme of the “new monasticism” is

Abandoned places of empire

and another post on the theme of abandoned places concerns the Metroblitz, the ill-fated predecessor of the Gautrain:

Trains and individualism

Other posts on trains seem to be perennially popular:

and, still on the theme of travel, our series of posts on a holiday trip around Namibia and Botswana in 2013, which covers three of our blogs, and so goes beyond this one.

No Highway: re-reading a book after 60 years

No HighwayNo Highway by Nevil Shute

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to re-read a book after a long time, and see whether your opinion of it has changed. I first read [authoer:Aldous Huxley]’s Brave New World when I was about 17, and found it very exciting and stimulating. I re-read it when I was 57, and after 40 years found it rather flat and dull. I’ve just finished reading No Highway after a gap of about 60 years, and found it as good as when I first read it.

It was interesting to see what I remembered and what I had forgotten. I was about 13 or 14 when I first read it, when I was still crazy about aeroplanes and wanted to be a pilot. By the time I was 15 my ambitions had dropped, and my main interest was cars. From the age of 11 to 14 most of what I read had something to do with aeroplanes, and if No Highway had not been about aeroplanes I would probably not have read it at all.

When I first read the book the most memorable things were the technical bits to do with the aircraft. I could recall the love story vaguely, but I could not recall the British Israelite angle at all, though it is quite prominent in the story, though I did recall the part with the planchette.

De Havilland Comet

De Havilland Comet

I read it about the time that the first commercial jets, the De Havilland Comets, were in the news because of unexplained crashes. I seem to recall that when it was determined that the cause of the crashes was metal fatigue I knew what that meant because it was central to the plot of No Highway but it is possible that it was the other way round — that I understood the point of the plot because of the real-life incidents with the Comets.

It was the first book by Nevil Shute that I had read, and because I had enjoyed it I went on to read others written by him, though I still thought (and after re-reading it still think) )that No Highway was one of his best. I think it has aged well. Of course, one is aware that it belongs to its time, and that many things have changed since then. On the technical side the most obvious thing is air navigation. Back then the cabin crews were small (because the planes were smaller and carried fewer passengers) but the flight-deck crew was large, including, in addition to two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and a wireless operator. Advances in electronics have made the last two redundant.

Social attitudes too are different. One of the most noticeable is that sex has replaces smoking as one of the most commonly-described recreational activities. Another is that sex roles were much more rigid back then: males were useless at cooking and cleaning and buying clothes for children; females were useless at research and design.

I find the social differences interesting too, because I’m also reading a historical novel, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. When reading historical novels I always have one eye out for anachronisms, things that the author gets wrong about the period in which the novel is set. No Highway is set in our past, but it was contemporary when it was written. So when I first read it, it was much closer to the time in which it was set and I did not notice such things, but the second time around, it gives an authentic view of a vanished past.

There are some less obvious things too. The scientist doing research on metal fatigue, Theodore Honey, also has some other interests that seem bizarre to his colleagues and associates — calculating the end of the world from the dimensions of the Great Pyramid and the like. These interests made them doubt his competence as a scientific researcher, and that would probably also be the case today too. But what his contemporaries thought was equally crazy was his designing of moon rockets, yet within 10 years the launching of artificial satellites showed that that was feasible.

Another, and perhaps a minor one, yet which strikes me as significant, is when the designer of an aircraft is announcing plans for important modifications. The accountaint asks if this will require night-shift work and overtime, except on Sundays. The chairman of the airline then asks that “in view of the extreme urgency of this matter to us, may I ask if Sunday work can be authorised?” To which the designer replies, “On no account would I agree with that. If you want work done on Sundays, you must go elsewhere. It is uneconomic upon any account, and it strikes at the root of family life, which is the basis of the greatness of this country.”

That reminded me that there was a brief period, in the middle of the 20th century, when the interests of Mr Gradgrind were eclipsed, and more basic human values were allowed to take precedence over economic ones. It lasted until the 1980s, when Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan reinstated Mr Gradgrind.

Give it another 60 years, and some things in the book may need to be annotated, because there will then be no one around who lived thourgh that period. But I thought it was a good read back then, and it’s still a good read now, and probably will be in 60 years’ time too,

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Fire and water

Nature is amazing.

Last week water began running down the gutters on both sides of the road that runs past our house. It sometimes does that after heavy rain, but this is winter, and we live in a summer rainfall area with dry winters. There’s been no rain for at least two months.

Was it a broken water main? I went up the road to have a look, and there was no sign of such a thing. The water was coming across the road all along, from the empty veld by the railway line across the road from us. Why would it come when there has been to rain? What would cause the water table to rise so that that dry veld would turn into a swamp?

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line -- water in the dry season

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line — water in the dry season

Then we recalled that a couple of weeks ago there had been a fire over the road. Every winter there’s a fire there, and some of the grass is burnt. But this time it was nearly all burnt. Between our house and the railway line was not a blade of grass, just black stubble. With no grass to suck up the water and transpire it into the air, the water rose to the surface, flowed under the concrete fence and out into the street where it ran down the gutters.

That's our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass/

That’s our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass.

It’s hard to think that the dry grass that was there before the fire sucked up so much water. It is brown and dry and brittle. Yet somehow cattle eat such grass and thrive. It gives them both food and moisture.

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

A little way off was a clump of trees. They too are dry and leafless, winter-brown. But somehow the fire has not penetrated the trees, and there is a clump of aloes where the fire stopped.

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

But when you go to the aloes, you see that they hide a heap of stones. And beyond it there are more heaps of stones. And then I realise that these are houses. Perhaps this is an archaeological site. Who lived here, and when?

And then I realise that this is a relic of the ethnic cleansing that took place under apartheid. Kilner Park, the suburb where we live, used to belong to the Methodist Church, as did the neighbouring suburb of Queenswood. Across the railwayline to the south-east is Weavind Park — all named after luminaries of the Methodist Church. On the hill was the Kilnerton Institution, where many black South African leaders were educated. But it was too close to white Pretoria, so the black people had to go, and all that remains are these piles of stones.

And now the suburban trains of MetroRail run past here. There is no station, nothing to stop for. They are going to Mamelodi, 15 kilometres to the east, far enough from white Pretoria for the black people to live.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

I marvel at the interaction of fire and water. The old elements of the ancient Greek philosophers, earth, air, fire and water. The fire comes, and brings the water. Modern chemists will say that these are not real elements, not the chemical elements of the universe. But they are the elements of human life, of the human world. We need them all to live. In three weeks time spring will begin. Green shoots will appear in the grass, the trees will sprout leaves. The water table will recede again until the rains come in October, and the fire of the sun will enable the grass to suck up the water from the earth, and the life of the world goes on.


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