Thursday 25 February 2016

Cosmonauts at the Science Museum

A stunning exhibition for fans of space travel and space art

I took the advantage of a day of annual leave on Monday to visit the Cosmonaut exhibition at the Science Museum. We had considered going at the weekend but decided not to as it was the end of the half term holidays and we thought it would be  uncomfortably full. It was a really fascinating show, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly.

As everyone knows, the Russians (or Soviets as they were then) were the first into space. They sent up the first satellites, the first dogs (poor Laika, who never returned, and then Strelka and Belka who did), and the first humans. This exhibition has a fascinating range of exhibits. There are documents like the prescient drawings made by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the first rocket scientist, who imagined with remarkable accuracy in the 1930s what life in space would be like.

A page from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Album of Cosmic Journeys, 1932–33. (he Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences / State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO)

There are spacesuits, engineering models, and even some of the original spacecraft which made it back to earth, and which have never before been shown in public.

This was real pioneering stuff and it was fascinating to see it close up. The displays were well arranged so as to allow this. Some of the spacecraft were smaller than I had expected. The first satellite ever launched into space, Sputnik 1, was a small sphere 585 mm in diameter.

Sputnik 1
Image from the Science Museum

The Vostok spacecraft which carried the first cosmonauts seemed tiny and incredibly cramped to me. There’s more space in my Nissan Micra, but Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, spent 3 days in one of them.

Valentina Tereshkova and her actual spacecraft, Vostok 6, at the Science Museum

According to some accounts, she was dizzy and vomited in her space suit, found that the toilet system did not work too well, and may have had her period at the time (Ref). She still managed to spot something amiss with the alignment of her craft, and it turned out that there had been an error in the set-up which would have resulted in her being shot into outer space. Fortunately ground control were alerted and were able to send up a computer programme to correct the error. At the end of the trip, as was the norm for the Vostoks, she had to ejected and parachuted back to earth from an altitude of about 7 kilometres.

The next generation Voskhod capsules seemed no bigger to me, but they managed to cram up to three cosmonauts into them, arranged in a staggered fashion, and looking rather scrunched up.

If you imagine spacecraft to be all smooth, white and glossy, an impression created perhaps by the ceramic-tiled NASA space shuttles, science fiction movies, and Richard Branson’s latest project, the Soviet spacecraft might come as a surprise, with their protrusions, plates and exposed bolts. The space capsules which had returned to earth bore the scars of re-entry. It was not at quite how I expected it to be. I imagine that steampunk enthusiasts would love it.

Image from the Science Museum

It’s all pretty mind boggling when you consider the technology at the time. The computer on board the American Apollo 11 moon lander capsule had 64 KB of memory and 0.043 MHz of computing power. (Reference)

Amongst all the historical, scientific and engineering displays, there is a stunning collection of Soviet space art, mostly posters, but also paintings sculpture, well worth seeing in their own right, but given added meaning when displayed in their proper context.

 Konstantin Ivanov, The Road Is Open for Humans by Konstantin Ivanov, 1960. 
(Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics)

Boris Staris, "The fairy tale became truth", 1961. (Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics)

Iraklii Toidze, "In the name of peace", 1959. Published by IZOGIZ. (Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.)

There's even a Sputnik samovar for making tea, Russian-style.

Image from the Science Museum

If this last item takes your fancy, there is at the time of writing one for sale on eBay.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age
Science Museum, London
ends 13 March 2016

Thursday 18 February 2016

The World of Charles and Ray Eames, and some ramblings about modern architecture

A cheerful exhibition at the Barbican gets me thinking about modernism

We visited the Eames exhibition at the Barbican on Saturday, the day before it ended. Everyone probably recognises their furniture, and architecture enthusiasts will know their house.

The exhibition was a chance to see many other things: the wooden splint for casualties they designed during the second world war, the exhibitions they planned, the films they made, the things they collected.

Leg splint 

Model for IBM pavilion, World's Fair, Brussels 1958

Modular toy stage for children

Their collection of toy ships

It also gave an insight into their attitude towards design. Visiting the Corbusier exhibition in Paris, last year, I found myself a little put off by the architect as a personality, and by the abstruse philosophising, notwithstanding the quality of his work. The Eames exhibition, in contrast, presented the couple as good humoured, rational designers, refreshingly free from arcane and quasi-mystical or pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, or “architectology”, as my father used to call it.
"Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design. 
"Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose. "   Charles Eames 
I was captivated by the air of rationality, cheerfulness, and optimism, as well as by the whimsy and humour of the designers. It seemed to speak of a time at the height of the modern movement when a new and optimistic spirit was in the air. It was only on reflection that I realised that it was actually a rather dark and scary time, with the cold war, the threat of nuclear annihilation, Vietnam, and racial segregation. I was struck by the lack of black people in the images and films, but I suppose the times were different.

Chairs with drawings by Saul Steinberg

It got me thinking about how modern architecture had fallen out of favour in the 1980s Britain. Many people these days express a preference for traditional architecture, or perhaps one should say pre-modernist architecture. But stylistic preferences come and go. At one time, gothic architecture was considered primitive and barbaric. Alberti in Rimini, and Palladio in Vicenza, among the greatest architects of their age, covered historic gothic buildings in classical cladding. Taste is often transient.

I think the failures of modernism have less to do with style and more to do with urban planning and scale. Rehousing the less well-off in high rise estates where there was a lack of infrastructure and poor maintenance created problems which were not due to their architectural style, but often attributed to it. As an antidote to modernism, Ricardo Bofill constructed massive classically-styled housing estates on the edge of Paris. Vast and alienating, they were used for the dystopian move Brazil. You can't remedy problems of scale and planning with stylistic tweaks.

Ricardo Bofill, Les Espaces d'Abraxas, Noisy-le-Grand, 2014. Image © Laurent Kronental

It didn’t help that the early modern building boom took place when cities were being re-designed and re-ordered to prioritise cars over people, creating large areas where humans were out of place.


No wonder people preferred the historic town centres, laid out on a human scale. Again, it’s an issue of urban planning, not architectural style. Thankfully, this trend is being reversed. Enlightened urban planners are now designing cities for people, not cars.

There was also the matter of technology. Flat roofs leaked. Before double glazing, the big windows that brought light and nature into the living room also let in the cold. These issues seem to have been resolved with contemporary materials and techniques. Perhaps now we are able to live in modern houses in the way the early modern architects imagined we ought to.

Laura Dewe Mathews, Gingerbread House, London

Lipton Plant Architects, House in Clonbrock Road, Hackney, London

Friday 12 February 2016

The Battle of Pulo Aura

Napoleonic-era Valentine's Day action at sea, off the coast of Malaysia

Pulau Aur is a beautiful island on the South China sea, about 70 km off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, with beautiful white beaches, clear water, and an abundance of marine life, popular with tourists, divers and fishermen.

I was there in the late 1980s on a memorable sailing trip on board a large catamaran. It was less developed in those days. I recall an overnight sail with gentle winds during which when we slept on deck when off watch, buying coconuts from a local who came up to sell them from his boat, attempting to make our own sushi from fish we caught, and generally having a good time, as well as some rather heavy weather on the way back to Singapore.

It was only recently that I discovered by chance that the area had been the scene of a Napoleonic naval engagement, known as the battle of Pulo Aura, which took place on 15 February 1804, in the year before Trafalgar.

At that time, trade with India and the Far East was of vital importance to the British economy. India was run by the East India Company. The Company had a fleet of armed merchant ships known as East Indiamen, which carried its goods and passengers. In the time of Nelson and Napoleon, the fighting power of ships was described in terms of the number of guns they carried. The most common large warship (or ship of the line) carried 74 guns. East Indiamen carried up to 36, but the guns were inferior to those of naval vessels, and their crews smaller and less well trained, so while they might be able to defend themselves against pirates or smaller armed vessels, they were not meant for serious naval engagements. However they were painted to look like naval vessels, with extra gunports and dummy cannon, so that they could be mistaken from a distance for more powerful warships. The deception could be effective. In 1797, in the Bali Strait Incident, a French naval squadron was fooled into thinking that a convoy of East Indiamen was a British naval force, and they withdrew without a fight.

The East Indiaman Warley, which took part in the events described. 
Robert Salmon, 1801, National Maritime Museum

Every year, a convoy known as the China Fleet, consisting of East Indiamen, as well as smaller merchant vessels, would sail from China and other Far Eastern ports, laden with cargo bound for England. In 1803, Napoleon dispatched a squadron under the command of Admiral Charles-Alexandre Durand Léon Linois to the Indian Ocean to raid British commerce. Notified of the departure of the China Fleet by Dutch informants, Linois set out in search of it.

Charles-Alexandre Durand Léon Linois, by Antoine Maurin 

In January1804, the convoy sailed from Canton under the command of Nathanial Dance with an immensely valuable cargo the included tea, silk, and porcelain. In addition, there were 80 Chinese plants ordered by the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks for the Royal gardens, and transported in a special plant room. The only naval vessel accompanying the convoy was a small brig, a 2-masted vessel more suited to carrying messages than fighting in fleet actions.

Nathaniel Dance

On the morning of 14 February, within sight of Pulau Aur, sails were sighted by the convoy. Dance sent a few of his ships to take a closer look, and found that this was a French naval squadron consisting of a 74-gun ship of the line, and four smaller vessels of 40, 36, 20 and 16 guns. This was a serious naval force, powerful enough to capture the valuable convoy.

Dance cleared his ships for action, and by 1300 the East Indiamen were deployed in line of battle, the fighting formation used by navies of the day. Linois closed in behind the slower merchant ships, but instead of attacking them immediately, he merely observed. Dance took advantage of the delay to move the smaller unarmed ships to the opposite side of his line, so that his armed vessels were between them and the French. At the same time he gathered volunteers from their crews to supplement the strength of his East Indiamen.

At dawn the following morning, both sides hoisted their colours. Dance had the larger British vessels fly naval ensigns to deceive the French into thinking that they were part of a larger British squadron known to be operating in the Indian Ocean. Uncertain as to the nature of the British ships, the French kept their distance, but as the British fleet redeployed into a sailing formation to continue their journey, the French approached more closely.

By 1300 Dance realised that the French might catch up with the ships at the rear of the convoy, so he ordered his leading ships to turn around and come between the French and the convoy. At 1315 the shooting commenced.

The Indiamen (centre), engage the French (left), and protect the unarmed merchant ships (right)

No serious damage was inflicted on either side, and the only casualties were British: one killed and one wounded, but after 45 minutes, Linois ordered his ships to withdraw from the action and sail away as fast as they could. In order to maintain the pretence that they were warships, and to discourage the French from returning to attack, Dance ordered those ships flying British naval colours to give chase, even though there was no hope of catching the faster French ships. They chased the French for 2 hours before re-joining the convoy. By 2000, the entire convoy was safely at anchor at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca, and they made it back to England without further incident.

The convoy was valued at over £8 million, equivalent to £600 million in today’s money. The loss of the convoy might well have resulted in financial ruin for the East India Company and as well as for Lloyd’s, the underwriters. The captains and their crews were highly praised, and rewarded with prize money and gifts. Nathaniel Dance was knighted, and retired from the sea to Enfield Town, where he died in 1827. The unfortunate Admiral Linois did not have much success after this, and was captured in 1806 when he mistook a powerful British naval squadron in the middle of the Atlantic for a merchant convoy.

Here is Dance's dispatch describing the events:

If you'd like to read a more detailed account of the battle, see Wikipedia.
And finally something else from that convoy which was carried aboard the Warley, the ship illustrated above: an early Chinese music book.

Thursday 4 February 2016

Chinese New Year: not just for the Chinese.

You don't have to be Chinese to have fun during the Lunar New year

Chinese New Year is coming up. In the same way that millions of non-Christians celebrate Christmas, you don’t have to be Chinese to celebrate Chinese New Year. Here are just a few reasons why:

It’s not a religious festival.

Unlike Christmas, Eid or Diwali, Chinese New Year is not a religious festival as such. There are various customs and superstitions. Some people might make offerings at family altars of to household gods, but not everyone does. I’m pretty sure that for most people, participation in the festivities will not be in conflict with their religious beliefs.

It occurs around February

This is often considered a rather bleak time in the Northern hemisphere. Everyone is back at work after Christmas, it’s cold and dark, and although Chinese New Year is sometimes called the Spring Festival, Spring seems very far away. It’s a good time for some festive activity, especially in countries where Carnival is not a big thing.


It’s the custom to get new clothes and to get a haircut before Chinese New Year.  Not so much an indulgence, as it is for Christmas, but more of an obligation. Something to do with a fresh start, I believe. The colour red is favoured as this is regarded as auspicious, but it doesn’t matter too much if it’s not really your colour.


The eve of Chinese New Year is the traditional time for a family reunion dinner. Another excuse for a family get-together after Christmas, or just to meet up with your friends.

Cash in red envelopes.

Chinese New Year is the time for giving. Not presents, but cash, in little red envelopes.

These are given by adults to children (and teenagers), who are not obliged to reciprocate. On New Year’s Day, the children wish their parents a Happy New Year. Traditionally, this is done in a kneeling position, but a handshake should suffice. The cash is then handed over. During the festive perod, which lasts officially for 15 days, any adult who is known to the child, or who might be an acquaintance of the parents is fair game, and expected to hand over a red packet when greeted. It probably helps keep the young ones well behaved on social occasions.


The tradition is to let off fireworks during Chinese New year, to ward off evil spirits. The period before Chinese New Year is one of the four occasions when it is legal to buy fireworks in Britain (the other three being the time around Guy Fawkes Day, Between Christmas and New year, and the Diwali period). Traditional Chinese firecrackers, the ones that look like sticks of dynamite, also known in Britain as bangers, have been illegal in the UK since 1997, so you’ll have to make do with normal fireworks. But never mind. They’re still a lot of fun, and it’s your last chance before Diwali.

In case you're wondering, this is the traditional version (not permitted in the UK, may I remind you once again).


Traditional Chinese New Year food varies according to region and community, so my advice would be to eat what you like. It doesn’t even have to be Chinese. In  Singapore and Malaysia, one of the traditional dishes is raw fish, sliced finely and mixed with finely shredded vegetables and pickles, and tossed in together with a sweet sour sauce. Known as yu sheng in Mandarin, or yee sang in Cantonese, it’s a sort of sashimi for people who don’t really like raw fish. There’s no beef or pork, so it should be acceptable to most Hindus and Muslims.

The dish is put in the middle of the table and everyone participates by in mixing the ingredients, tossing them in the air as they do so, which is supposed to bring good luck, as shown in the video below. Watch it till the end for a demonstration of the traditional method of consuming alcoholic beverages on festive occasions.

I believe there are restaurants in the UK which serve yu sheng. Because the raw fish is so disguised, there are also vegetarian versions, where you probably won't notice much difference.

This is clearly not a comprehensive account of the Chinese New year, and I may even have got a few facts wrong, but I have tried to show how it is a festival which can be celebrated by everyone. There is no need to be Chinese. After all, what could be more British than red coats, explosions, shopping, hairdressing, parties and cash. Not to mention tossing food around, at least among members of certain social classes.