Archive for the ‘Culture & Media’ Category

It wasn’t who was thrown off Hammersmith Bridge, but what. And as it happened over a hundred years ago, you’d expect it to be long forgotten. But someone couldn’t help dredging up the past. Before we get to that however, I’ll need to tell you a little about typefaces.

When books and newspapers were typeset manually, a font referred to a particular size, weight (light, bold) and style (regular, italic) of a typeface. Each letter in the typeface had its own type or ‘sort’ like those at the end of the hammers of an old-fashioned typewriter. A typeface comprised a range of fonts sharing the same overall design. The word font (traditionally spelt fount in British English) comes from Middle French founte meaning ‘something that has been melted; a casting’ and refers to the process of casting metal type at a type foundry. All this has of course been superseded by and large by digital printing, though we still refer to electronic typefaces as fonts like Calibri, Helvetica, Times Roman, and Verdana.

edward johnston, johnstone typeface, london underground, roundel

The Johnston typeface first used in 1916, and an underground roundel from the 1920s that uses the typeface. A licence is required from TfL if you want to use the font or its successor New Johnston.

Some typefaces are better known than others. Johnston has been the corporate typeface of public transport in London since the foundation of the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) in 1933. Its use is one of the world’s longest-lasting examples of corporate branding, and it remains a copyrighted property of the LPTB’s current successor, Transport for London. Edward Johnston was commissioned in 1913 by Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London to design a typeface as part of his plan to strengthen the company’s corporate identity. Pick specified to Johnston that he wanted a typeface that would ensure that the Underground Group’s posters would not be mistaken for advertisements, and that it should belong ‘unmistakably to the twentieth century’. The typeface was originally called Underground, then Johnston’s Railway Type, and later simply Johnston. In 1979 the typeface was re-designed to make it more versatile and this became New Johnston.

eric gill, gill sans typeface, edward young, penguin books

Gill Sans was used by designer Edward Young on the modern, minimalist, and now iconic covers of Penguin Books. This was one of the first editions launched on 30 July 1935

The Johnston typeface however was not available for use by anyone else. It was one of the public faces of the London Underground and no one else would be allowed to use it. One of Johnston’s students at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts, Eric Gill, who went on to become a well established sculptor and graphic artist, had however worked on the development of the Johnston typeface. He went on to produce a new typeface, Gill Sans, that blended the influences of Johnston, classic typefaces and Roman inscriptions. The design of the new font was intended to look both cleanly modern and traditional at the same time. When it was released in 1928, it was an immediate success, with the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) using it for its posters, timetables and publicity material. On its formation in 1963, British Railways continued to use Gills Sans. In the digital age, Gills Sans remains in widespread use, and is one of the fonts bundled with Mac and Windows software.

In England, type foundries, where typefaces were designed and type was cast, began in 1476, with the introduction of the printing press by William Caxton. The creation of typefaces required considerable design and typographic skills (typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language readable and appealing), and type designers were immensely proud of their work. In fact most people in the printing trade were characteristically proud of their work. In the early 1900s, a bitter dispute over a typeface between the two partners of a printing press led to one of the most infamous episodes in typographic history.

emery walker, thomas james cobden-sanderson, doves press

Emery Walker and Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson: friends, business partners and then bitter enemies. © Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery

The Doves Press was a private press based at 1 Hammersmith Terrace in west London, and was named after the Dove Tavern, an old riverside pub nearby that still stands today. The press was founded by a bookbinder Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson (who already ran the Dove Bindery on the same site), and an engraver and printer Emery Walker. Cobden-Sanderson and Walker had been close friends of William Morris, the English textile designer, poet, novelist, and socialist activist, who had died in 1896. It was Morris’s wife, Jane, who had encouraged Cobden-Sanderson to become a bookbinder, and Walker’s expertise and his collection of 16th-century typefaces inspired Morris to create the Kelmscott Press. All three men were closely associated with the British Arts & Crafts movement.

Cobden-Sanderson chose the books and had the final say in their design, and Walker managed the technical side of the business. Cobden-Sanderson had commissioned a new typeface in 1899 which was to become the Doves Type. It was crafted by master punchcutter Edward Prince, based on drawings produced by Percy Tiffin of the pioneering Venetian type created in 1470 by the French designer and engraver Nicolas Jenson.

john milton, paradise lost, doves type, doves press

A page from John Milton’s Paradise Lost illustrating the Doves Type which was printed in two volumes by Doves Press in 1902-05.

The books published by the Doves Press looked very different to most private press books of their time. The clear typeface and the lack of decoration gave the books a very simple and austere look. The only decoration in the books were the capitals created by Edward Johnston (who was later to design the Johnston typeface described above) and ink flourishes by the calligrapher Graily Hewitt. Although most of the Doves Press books were simply bound in vellum, many of the bindings produced by the Doves bindery were very ornate and elaborate. The masterpiece of the Press was their five-volume Bible, completed in 1905. It was set by hand and printed on a hand press, with the only decoration being printed red initial letters by Johnston.

But while the books were successful, the partnership between Walker and Cobden-Sanderson became unworkable.

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In December this year there will be a UN climate change conference in Paris. Scientists and environmentalists have said that this is the last chance for governments to act to keep the increase in global warming to within 2 degrees. The effects of a 2 degree rise in the temperature of the atmosphere are serious enough, but rises above this level will increasingly threaten human life on the planet.

Population, Consumption & Global Warming

Increasing population and increasing consumption have caused global warming by the continued burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Global warming is causing more extreme weather, droughts and reduced crop yields, more wildfires, rising sea levels and flooding, loss of sea ice and glaciers, changes to the range of animals and plants. But increasing population and consumption have had other consequences as well. The resources of the planet that we rely on: the forests, rivers and lakes, the seas and oceans, the diversity of wildlife, the soils and minerals, are all being depleted or destroyed. The current world population today is 7.35 billion (considered by some environmental scientists to be already two to three times higher than what is sustainable). This is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 (and it is not expected to level off as previously thought).

And humans are living in increasingly crowded and polluted cities in a state of growing inequality and scarce resources. Desertification and conflicts over water scarcity and land grabs are leading to increased migration.

People in Developing Nations Want the Same as Us

The over-consumption of food, fuel, building materials, and manufactured goods in developed countries has played a major part in the depletion of the earth’s resources, but people in the developing world understandably desire the same things: more and better housing, heating and lighting; more cars and roads, more electrical goods, more shops and malls, more food and more meat, more flying as people want to travel overseas, and so on. An obvious example is China. China today has 78 million cars. If China was to have as many cars per person as in Britain (approximately one car for every two persons), then the number of cars in China would increase ten-fold to 705 million. This alone would require the current number of barrels of oil produced in the world today to increase from 87 million a day to 132 million a day. To build this number of cars (and to build their replacements when they become obsolete) would require a dramatic increase both in the materials that would have to be extracted from the earth, and of the energy required to build them. Also to be considered are the additional roads that China would have to build and the effect of a huge increase in pollution in its cities, many of which are already heavily polluted.

It is self-evident that the resources of the earth on the planet are finite; our exploitation of those resources is unsustainable. With the UK general election taking place on 7 May, are people in Britain aware of these issues?

ofcom, bbc one, itv, bbc website, sky news

According an Ofcom survey in July 2014, the most used news source is BBC One, which is used by 53% of people. 33% of people use ITV as their main source, 24% use the BBC website or app, and 17% use Sky News

How do people find out what’s going on in the world?

People in Britain get their news from an average of 3.8 different sources ie. newspapers, TV, radio, website or app, or social media. The main reason given by people in Britain for following the news, almost three in five people, is to find out ‘what’s going on in the world’. The top ten media news sources in 2014 were, in descending order, BBC One, which is used by 53%, ITV by 33%, BBC website/app by 24%, Sky TV by 17%, BBC News channel by 16%, The Sun by 11%, BBC Radio 2 by 10%, The Daily Mail by 9%, BBC Radio 4 by 9%, and Channel 4 and Google jointly used by 8% (Ofcom figures)

And so for the first time, adults are more likely to access the internet or apps for their news rather than newspapers, 41% compared with 40%. In any case, you will read very little about what is happening in the world, let alone the issues referred to at the beginning, in tabloid newspapers in Britain, and I don’t think that you will much about them either in some of the broadsheet newspapers.

So newspapers are no longer so influential. Television and websites are now the main sources of news for the majority of people, and the effects of global warming and environmental issues are covered by these media, though the depth of the reporting is extremely variable. But these global issues are overwhelmed by other hard news such as the economy and jobs, housing, the NHS, education, crime, immigration, welfare and pensions.

What are the issues that voters are most concerned about?

2015 general election, most important issues for voters. ipsos mori survey

These are the most important issues facing Britain today according to an Ipsos MORI survey of a 966 British adults between 6th and 15th February 2015.

Pollsters have been out and about trying to find out the issues that voters are most concerned about. When it comes to global warming and sustainability, the issue doesn’t seem to come up at all. The nearest seems to be the vague ‘care for our environment’ or the all-embracing ‘environment/transport’. This may be because pollsters have pre-determined what should be on the list of issues that voters are asked to rank as ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’. Of course they might be right: that it isn’t on their lists as global warming is not a priority issue for most voters.

But it is not as if the threat to the human race is below the news radar. On Wednesday this week, the Independent reported climate scientists as saying that there is now is a one in ten risk that atmospheric temperatures could increase by 6 degrees by 2100. This would lead to cataclysmic changes in the global climate with unimaginable consequences for human civilisation. Would you fly on an aircraft if there was a one in ten risk of it crashing? Are we all keeping out heads in the sand. Is it a case of tomorrow being just another day?

What are the political parties going to do about global warming & sustainability?

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mind the gap, district line platform, victoria station, london underground

A ‘mind the gap’ tile mosaic on a District line platform at Victoria Underground station in London

‘Please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ is a recorded announcement familiar to travellers on the London Underground. The ‘tube’ is the oldest underground railway in the world and when it was built in the 19th century the tunnels often followed the line of the streets above so as to avoid the costs of obtaining permission from owners to tunnel under their properties. The result was that on the oldest deep-level or ‘tube’ lines, the Bakerloo, Central, Northern, and Piccadilly, the tracks in the tunnels inevitably curve quite a bit, which means that when a train comes to rest at a platform that is on a curve, there is a gap between the carriage and the platform. The gap can either be in the middle of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘outside’ of the curve, or at each end of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘inside’ of a curve. There were likely other reasons for the winding tracks underground such as pipes, sewers, and deep foundations that would have been too costly for the construction companies, who were privately-financed, to divert or reconstruct.

This wasn’t so much of a problem when the tunnels were first built as train carriages were much shorter, so the gaps weren’t so great. But as trains were modernised and the carriages made longer to increase their capacity, the gap between the train and the platform was quite a hazard in many stations. Although drivers and station attendants had been warning passengers of the gap since at least the early 1920s, this was proving increasingly impractical, and in 1968 London Underground started introducing recorded announcements to warn passengers to ‘mind the gap’.

oswald laurence, actor, rada, three men in a boat, mind the gap, london underground

Oswald Laurence joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1938 at the age of 17. The dashing actor appeared in a number of minor roles in films including Three Men In A Boat, a 1956 comedy starring Laurence Harvey, Jimmy Edwards, and a young Kenneth Williams playing a bit-part, as well as appearances in the TV series The Saint, starring Roger Moore.

One of the early announcers was Oswald Laurence whose clear compelling voice was heard by millions of people at many stations on the Northern Line. In the early 2000s however, the minimalist message to ‘mind the gap’ was deemed an insufficient warning. What was the gap? Where was it? Whilst there are no records of anyone misunderstanding what the announcement was referring to, only of people not taking notice of it, or being in a state of intoxication such that they were incapable of acting on it. Nevertheless the announcement was re-recorded and the location of the gap clearly identified: ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’.

Mr Laurence, who as an actor had made the recording in the 1970s, died in 2001 at the age of 80, and his place in history might have been forgotten. Except that when his announcement at Embankment Station, the last station to play the recording, was replaced in November 2012 by a new one, his widow, Dr Margaret McCollum, wrote to London Underground. Dr McCollum asked if they had a recording of the announcement that her husband had made some forty years before, and explained that she would go to the station if she was travelling that way, to hear her husband’s voice. ‘Knowing that I could go and listen to his voice was simply wonderful. It was a great comfort. I would go and sit on the platform, and sometimes miss a couple of trains just so I could hear it’. Here is a video of an interview by the BBC with Dr McCollum.

margaret mccollum, oswald laurence, mind the gap, london underground

Dr Margaret McCollum met Oswald Laurence in 1992 when she went on guided tour holiday with Mr Laurence as tour guide. She heard ‘the most gorgeous voice’ behind her and the pair were instantly attracted.

Somewhat unexpectedly, given that London Underground has a lot on its plate, carrying over four million passengers every day and rising, tracked down the recording, and not only did they send Dr McCollum a copy of the recording on a CD, they also decided to reinstate his announcement at Embankment station. So now if you stand on the northbound platform of the Northern Line at the station, where MIND THE GAP is painted at intervals on the platforms edge, it is an eerie experience hearing Mr Laurence remind people in his precise authoritative voice, not once but three times, as trains rush into the platform and come to a rest, to ‘mind the gap’. You can hear him here.

There are two other locations where ‘mind the gap’ warnings are most notably played: the Central line platforms at Bank, where there can be a 1-foot (30cm) gap, and the Bakerloo line platforms at Piccadilly Circus.

the queen, baker street station, 150th anniversary, london underground, mind the gap

The Queen inspected a new train at Baker Street station during the 150th anniversary of the London Underground in March 2013. Baker Street is one of the oldest and ornate stations on the Underground. Here the Queen alights carefully from a carriage, though the gap at this particular platform is not that wide.

The ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ warning is also used where there is a difference in height between the platform and the floor of the train carriage. This occurs where a platform is used by both deep-level ‘tube’ trains and larger ‘sub-surface’ trains, and in these situations the height of the platform is a compromise between the different floor heights of the train carriages (a difference of 8 inches). That’s why you will hear the warning at a number of stations in west London, which although having straight platforms, serve both the larger District line trains and the deep-level Piccadilly line trains.

If you are really interested, you can read a lot more about London Underground platform gaps on Mike Horne’s website here. Amongst many fascinating facts, Mike Horne has identified that the largest gap between the train and the platform at any of London’s deep-level ‘tube’ stations is at the west end of the eastbound platform of the Central Line at Bank station, a scary 375mm or 14.76 inches!

Going back to Oswald Laurence, in February this year, a short film Mind the Gap was shown at the London Short Film Festival which tells Dr McCollum’s story. The poignant film was written, directed and produced by Luke Flanagan with Eileen Nicholas played the lead role, and you can see it here. The main location for the tube shots was Barbican station which is in the open, and as the tracks are straight at the station, there is no gap, and hence no announcement is needed, but filming in the deep-level tube stations such as at Embankment would have proved difficult.

And here is the voice of Oswald Laurence again.

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Between 1950 and 1957, the York chocolate maker Rowntree used portraits of women in national advertising campaigns in newspapers, magazines, and on ITV for their Aero chocolate bars. In post-war Britain, sugar rationing had finally come to an end, but Aero would still have been a luxury item. The advertising firm J W Thompson ran the campaign with the slogan ‘DIFFERENT … For her; AERO – the milk chocolate that’s different!’

‘Esteemed and emerging portrait painters and illustrators’ of the day such as Anthony Devas, Henry Marvell Carr, Vasco Lazzolo, Norman Hepple, and Fleetwood Walker, were commissioned to create forty paintings in oil of ‘large illustrations of girl’s heads’. Only twenty of the paintings however are known to still exist.

aero bar, chocolate bar, rowntree, rowntree's

In early 2013 researchers Kerstin Doble and Francesca Taylor, seconded from The National Archives to work at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at York University, were going through boardroom papers from the Rowntree company when they discovered the paintings. In October that same year they initiated an art and social history project called Who were the Aero Girls? to research the portraits. A national quest to uncover new information about the portraits was launched during National Chocolate Week 2013 with an exhibition at York Mansion House.

Some of the artists were known, though all but one of them are dead. The names of most of the sitters were unknown with their names written in pencil on the back of the canvas stretchers: ‘Alice’, ‘Anna’, ‘Audrey’, ‘Avril’, ‘Mary’, ‘Nancy’, ‘Wendy’, ‘Yvonne’, ‘The Country Girl’, ‘The Art Student’, or just ‘Unknown’.

Kerstin Doble told Channel 4 News, ‘When I first saw them it simply struck me that these oil paintings were hugely accomplished portraits of a disparate group of women, with plenty of references to old masters. Portraits in oil paint seemed out-of-place for commercial art of the 1950s, and I wondered how they had ended up in an archive otherwise filled with paper and parchment documents. They were hidden away alongside boxes of Rowntree’s sales figures, chocolate recipes, and board meeting minutes rather than with other artworks.’

A link to the project and to fifteen of the paintings is here. If you click on the Paintings link at the top, a mosaic of the paintings is displayed. Clicking on a particular picture displays a larger image of the picture and details of what is known about the artist and the sitter, and how the picture was used. There is a lot more information under the Explore link. Kerstin Doble has also written more about the project here.

In March 2014, Kerstin Doble wrote on the National Archives blog, here, that a more complete picture of the sitters and artists had begun to emerge. One of the sitters at the time was an impoverished art student, Rose Wylie, now 80 years old, who had just won a prestigious painting award.

Here is a black and white campaign advert that was shown on Yorkshire Television in 1955 though the identity of the sitter seems to be one of those that is unknown. It is not clear if the campaign was successful, since much of the increase in Aero’s sales during this post-war period can be attributed to a renewed appetite for consumer goods and the end of rationing after 1954.

aero bar, chocolate bar, rowntree, rowntree's

A display of Aero bars from 1935. The aerated chocolate was completely new and helped Rowntree’s compete with the other main chocolate maker Cadbury’s.

Aero chocolate was originally introduced by Rowntree’s in the North of England in October 1935 with the aim of wrestling a share of milk chocolate block sales from their rival Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. The bar was Aero Mint and it cost 2d (old pennies) equivalent to just less than 1p. But by the end of the year, it had proved so popular with customers that sales were extended throughout Britain. The popularity of the chocolate is due no doubt in part to its unique honeycomb bubbly texture that collapses as the bar melts. A milk chocolate variation was introduced in the 1970s, and many flavours and varieties have followed. It is now sold in over 30 countries. Aero has been manufactured in York by Nestlé since 1988, and three hundred and thirty Aero bars are wrapped per minute.

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imitation game, alan turing, benedict cumberbatch, bletchley parkThe Golden Globes and the BAFTAs are behind us, and the Academy Awards ceremony for the best films in 2014 will be held this Sunday 22 February. Leading with the way with the most nominations for an Oscar are Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel with nine nominations each, followed by The Imitation Game with eight nominations.

I saw The Imitation Game and I thought it was a stirring and persuasive film, particularly its portrayal of the last few years of the life of wartime cryptanalyst Alan Turing following his prosecution in 1952 for homosexual acts, and his death from cyanide poisoning in 1954. However the statement in the film credits that the film was ‘based on the true story’ stretched the claim to the limits of its meaning. There were so many inaccuracies in the film, particularly those that served to exalt Alan Turing’s role in the Second World War to quite ridiculous heights – as if that should have been necessary considering his genius and pivotal role – that the film is a sad distortion of history. For the film to have received eight nominations, including that for best picture and best adapted screenplay, says a lot about the superficiality of our emotions and our disregard for the truth. The quote from Mark Twain ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story, unless you can’t think of anything better’ is most apt, and The Imitation Game is a dashing good story.

Bletchley Park and Ultra

bletchley park, mi6, gc&cs

The arrival of ‘Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party’ at Bletchley Park in August 1938 was the cover for a visit by members of MI6 to see whether it would work as a wartime location, well away from London, for intelligence work by GC&CS.

The Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing played a key role in the allied victory in the Second World War in the cracking of German radio messages, or signals, which had been enciphered using Enigma machines. This decipherment yielded high-grade German military intelligence, dubbed Ultra, from ‘ultra secret’, which had a dramatic impact on the course and duration of the war. (Strictly speaking when one letter is substituted by another to make a message secret, it is a cipher, not a code, which is when letters or symbols are used to mean whole words or phrases. Therefore when codes or code breaking are spoken of it is usually ciphers and decipherment that are being referred to).

Turing started working part-time at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire in September 1938. Bletchley Park was the central site during the war of the government’s secret code and cipher school (GC&CS). Every one of the 12,000 staff who had ever worked at some point at Bletchley Park had signed the Official Secrets Act, and the government continued to enforce their silence long after the war was over. This was mainly because Britain’s code-breaking success had to remain secret during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but also because Enigma machines were still in use around the world and Britain wanted to be able to read this signals traffic. Therefore the relatives of the staff at Bletchley Park never knew more than that they had done some kind of secret war work, or were told a cover story about clerical or statistical work. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the war referred to the staff at Bletchley as ‘The geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled’. It was only with the publication of Frederick Winterbotham’s book The Ultra Secret in 1974, some thirty years later, that the public began to learn of the secret of Bletchley Park.

The Imitation Game

alan turing, cambridge university, universal computing machine, turing machine

In 1936, Alan Turing (23 June 1912–7 June 1954) was a shy, eccentric student at Cambridge University, but he conceived in his ‘universal computing machine’ the basic principle of the modern computer, that is, controlling the machine’s operations by means of a program of coded instructions stored in the computer’s memory.

In the film, the Second World War has just broken out, and the British intelligence agency in September 1939 recruits Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing to join a team at Bletchley Park who are attempting to decipher Enigma messages sent by the German military, that cryptanalysts had thought unbreakable. Turing wants to build a machine to help crack the messages, but the head of Bletchley Park, Commander Alastair Denniston opposes this. Turing appeals to Winston Churchill for funding and is put in charge of the team. Turing sacks two members of the team, and recruits Joan Clarke, with whom he subsequently becomes engaged.

Turing successfully builds the machine – which he names Christopher after one of his childhood friends – that deciphers the messages. The deciphered messages, called Ultra, are used by the team to warn Britain’s armed forces of Germany’s detailed war plans, thus shortening the war. Some years after the war, Turing is prosecuted for indecency (at a time when homosexual acts were illegal) and he accepts chemical castration as an alternative to prison. He deteriorates physically and mentally with few people knowing of his crucial role.

The screenplay was written by American screenwriter and author, Graham Moore and was said to be based on the 527 page biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. The main characters in the film and the actors who played them are Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), and the other members of the team, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and Jack Good (James Northcote).

So what was wrong historically with the screenplay?

Characters in the Film

Turing’s social difficulties – he is brusque, arrogant and narcissistic, he doesn’t understand jokes, he avoids eye contact – are exaggerated in the film to the point of depicting him as being on the autistic spectrum. While it is true that Turing had his share of eccentricities, Turing had friends and was viewed as having a sense of humour with good working relationships with colleagues.

gordon welchman, cryptanalyst, alan turing, bletchley park, bombes

Like Turing, Gordon Welchman decrypted German messages, and they both worked on the re-design of the code-breaking machines called Bombes, but Welchman doesn’t appear in the film.

Hugh Alexander plays Turing’s boss at the start of the film, though he never was in real life. Turing joined Bletchley Park in 1938 before the outbreak of war and Alexander didn’t arrive until 1940 as until then he was head of the John Lewis research department. A better counterpart to Turing would have been Gordon Welchman, who was in charge of Hut 6 at Bletchley Park breaking German army codes, when Turing was in charge of Hut 8 breaking German naval codes. The two also worked together designing the code-breaking machines, called Bombes. But Welchman doesn’t appear in the film perhaps because Turing would not then appear so pre-eminent. Turing did not get involved in organisational matters at Bletchley Park. Welchman was the man who realised the necessity of setting up staff into three shifts to handle intercepts 24 hours a day. Hugh Alexander eventually took over the running of Hut 8 from Turing, and eventually became head of cryptanalysis at Bletchley.

Turing originally worked on the naval Enigma on his own and he does break it. He was joined by Tony Kendrick and Peter Twinn, who are not featured. Clarke, Alexander, Good and Hilton only joined later, in that order.

The film sets up Denniston, the operational head of Bletchley, as an antagonist to Turing, portraying him as an overbearing rigid officer bound by military thinking and eager to shut down the decryption machine when it failed to deliver results. Denniston’s grandchildren have said that the film takes an ‘unwarranted sideswipe’ at their grandfather in showing him as a ‘baddy’. He was a gentle man with a completely different temperament than the one portrayed in the film. There is no record of the film’s depicted interactions between Turing and Denniston.

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Cancer has been in the news a lot recently. In the last few days, there have been separate reports in the newspapers about the high cost of some cancer drugs, and the prediction by a national charity that there will be a crisis of unmanageable proportions in the NHS due to the record number of people with cancer. But there were two reports that appeared over the Christmas period that caught my eye.

The First Report

bmj, british medical association, medical journal

BMJ, the weekly journal of the British Medical Association, was first published in 1840 and is one of the world’s oldest general medical journals.

The first was a story in The Independent (31 Dec 14) with the headline ‘Cancer is the best death – so don’t waste billions trying to cure it, says leading doctor’. The story originated from Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of BMJ (previously the British Medical Journal), who had argued that cancer allowed people to say goodbye and prepare for death and was therefore preferable to sudden death, death from organ failure, or ‘the long, slow death from dementia’ adding ‘let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death’.

My initial reaction was to think that whilst having cancer in later life might to some be preferable to developing dementia, what of people who die of cancer much earlier in life: children and young persons, parents with young children, or just someone who happens not to even reached their 40s? What of people who die quite suddenly of cancer, within months rather than years? Another concern was about the drugs and treatments that alleviate the symptoms of cancer rather than cure it? Is it similarly misguided to incur these costs? With the prospect of us all living longer, the increasing cost of healthcare is a big challenge so perhaps Dr Smith was only joining the debate on how far can we fund these costs.

The Second Report 

BBCCancerBadLuckThe second story, on the BBC News website (2 Jan 15), which had the headline ‘Most cancers types just bad luck’, came from American research, unspecified, saying that ‘new research has suggested that most types of cancer are the result of bad luck, rather than an unhealthy lifestyle or genetic factors’.

My first thoughts was to question who had suggested that a large proportion of cancers were related to lifestyle anyway. Of more concern was the notion of ‘bad luck’ as if there was nothing we could do about it. I didn’t think that scientific research recognised bad luck. There is surely a mechanism, a cause, to everything in the natural world even if the processes are beyond the limits of our current knowledge. But perhaps I don’t know enough about random events. Further, I found myself thinking that if lifestyle wasn’t the cause of two-thirds of cancers, that perhaps lifestyle wasn’t relevant either in the treatment or survival of the disease. This would of course be nonsense. Keeping fit through regular exercise or healthy eating is a vital part of managing ill-health, including cancer. And this is so even if our knowledge of exactly what it is in particular foods that makes it a good food or a bad food is imperfectly understood, given the immense difficulty of scientifically trialling particular foods.

I decided to look into the sources of these stories. How accurate was the reporting? Is the science behind the stories much more complicated than how they are presented? Are readers being misled?

Health in the Headlines

But it was not just these stories about cancer. Every newspaper seemed to run at least one quasi-scientific story each day about how to live longer or eat more healthily, or the latest cures for cancer, dementia, heart disease etc. Here are some of the headlines that I found over the last month or so:

‘Keeping cold could keep you thinner, scientists say’ (The Independent 8 Jan 15)

‘Porridge helps to protect against heart disease’ (Daily Express 8 Jan 15)

‘High blood pressure? Eat like a Viking’ (Daily Telegraph 7 Jan 15)

IndependentPorridge‘Porridge could be key to a healthy life, Harvard research finds’ (The Independent 6 Jan 15)

‘The secret of eternal youth: skin-tight Lycra and a bicycle’ (The Independent 6 Jan 15)

‘Could a pill containing Viagra cure illnesses from Ebola to brain cancer, hepatitis to MRSA? (Daily Mail 5 Jan 15)

‘Chips may cause cancer’ (Daily Mail 4 Jan 15)

‘Junk food may not be dangerous for a quarter of people, says scientists’ (Daily Telegraph 2 Jan 15)

‘Scientists crack why red meat is linked with cancer – and sugar may be to blame’ (Daily Mail 30 Dec 14)

‘Lifestyle changes ‘could protect 80,000 from dementia’ (Daily Telegraph 21 Dec 14)

‘Is ibuprofen the key to anti-ageing? Study finds painkiller extends life of flies and worms by equivalent of 12 human years’ (The Independent 19 Dec 14)

‘Tamoxifen could protect women from cancer for 20 years if taken daily (Daily Telegraph 11 Dec 14)

‘Oranges could fight cancer, new study reveals’ (Daily Express 8 Dec 14)

‘Mediterranean diet ‘slows ageing’ – and could even help you live longer’ (The Independent 3 Dec 14)

‘HIV drug ‘dramatically slows spread of prostate cancer’ (Daily Express 1 Dec 14) (more…)

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lunchbox, irrfan khan, dabbawala, mumbai

A lunchbox, prepared by a young housewife for her husband, is delivered in error to Saajan Fernandes (played by Irrfan Khan) at his office in Mumbai.

I recently watched an enjoyable film The Lunchbox made in 2013 by first-time director Ritesh Batra, set in modern-day Mumbai. A lunchbox is delivered to the wrong person, and this leads a young housewife, who is ignored by her husband, and an older man, who is about to retire, to correspond with each other through notes in the lunchbox, both seeking an escape from the frustrations of their lives. It is a delightful and engaging film.

The backdrop to the film is Mumbai’s remarkably efficient lunchbox delivery system that collects stacked metal boxes containing lunches that have been prepared by wives and mothers, from the suburban homes of thousands of workers in the morning, delivers the boxes to workplaces in time for lunch, and then returns the empty boxes to the customer’s house in the afternoon.

lunchbox, nimrat kaur, dabbawala, mumbai

Saajan, curious as to where the lunch has come from, places a note in the lunchbox that is then sent back to Ila (played by Nimrat Kaur), and they start exchanging notes.

In the credits at the end of the film it mentions that the film was made with the support of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association. Tiffin was originally the name in British India for a light meal taken in the heat of the day between breakfast and dinner, and the container in which the food was stored, usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container, was known in Urdu as a dabba, meaning a box. The person who carries a tiffin box is known as a dabbawala (also spelt dabbawalla or dabbawallah), and the film shows hundreds of dabbawalas in action. ‘Wala’ is a suffix used to denote a person performing a task relating to a particular thing, so the closest meaning of dabbawala in English is ‘lunch box delivery man’.

The lunch delivery service was started in 1890 by Mahadeo Havaji Bachche with about a hundred men. In 1956, a charitable trust was registered in  under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust, with the commercial arm of the trust being registered in 1968 with the name of Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association. In Mumbai, between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are transported by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all for the extremely low charge of 300 rupees per month (about £3.20 or $5 in 2014) with the utmost punctuality and reliability.

dabbawala, lunchbox, dabba, mumbai

A dabbawala loads up his bicycle with lunchboxes collected from homes nearby, to take them to the nearest sorting point.

A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects the dabbas either from a worker’s home or from dabba makers, who prepare the meals in central kitchens. The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put on trains at railway stations, usually in carriages designated for the boxes. As many of the carriers are of limited literacy, the dabbas are marked in several ways: (1) abbreviations for collection points, (2) a colour code for the starting station, (3) a number for the destination station, and (4) markings for the handling dabbawala at the destination, to identify where the box has to be delivered to ie. the building and the floor. A detailed explanation of the markings can be seen here.

dabbawala, lunchbox, dabba, mumbai

Dabbawalas push a cart loaded with dabbas from a sorting point to the local railway station.

The service is almost always uninterrupted, even on the days of severe weather such as monsoons. Dabbawalas are familiar with their local area, using shortcuts to deliver their goods on time. In the past, people would communicate between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes, as in the film, but this practice is disappearing with the rise of phone texting. Delivery requests are now often made through text messaging.

Each dabbawala is required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the form of a bicycle, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and white topi or cap. Each month there is a division of the earnings of each unit, and each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid about 8,000 rupees per month (about £80 or $125 in 2014). Many dabbawalas belong to the Varkari sect of Maharashtra in which Tukaram’s teachings of helping each other is central to their efficiency and motivation. (more…)

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