Tuesday, 15 March 2016

229. Up in the clouds

28th March. I came across this image (as you do) by happenstance.. I like to think of it as natural justice in action..

"Right, gentlemen, which one of you was clapping?"
I have little sympathy (as in absolutely zero) with anyone finding themselves in this position!

This afternoon we went to Salies-de-Béarn to see Art en Vrac - an art exhibition that was taking place in many different locations across the village.

Before talking about the art, it should be said that the village is undeniably picturesque and well worth a visit.. Totally different style of building compared to what we see in the Pays Basque.

To me, there was one stand-out artist -  NabARus (it's how she spells her name) - whose work was not only head and shoulders above any other work we saw today but also above anything we've seen for a very long time. The range of her work reflected an original eye, an astonishingly creative mind and a command of colour and technique. More here and here.

This (below) was a large portrait that caught my eye.. I found myself returning to it again and again.. Reduced to this size, it loses much impact but full size is a different story.

This is a painting I would have liked to own.

27th March. Europe's gypsies have an annual pilgrimage (in May) to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue in southern France to pay homage to their Saint - the Black Sara.. This video features that great gypsy guitarist (and violinist) Dorado Schmitt as he and his friends provide the musical accompaniment (I think I've posted this here before - but I make no apologies for doing so again). It's in 3 parts - the opening part where they play in a small chapel, then the outdoor ceremony - and then the jam session round the table after a good lunch!

Here's Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán with their interpretation of an old 60s hit:
This was Easter morning at the beach at Anglet.. By the way, these aren't Antony Gormley figures made of cast iron on the beach - they're the real thing!

26th March. I believe "Across the Street and into the Grill" won 1st prize in a competition to write the best Hemingway parody. See what you think..! Some more: "Big Too-Hardened Liver".. "Across the suburbs and into the express lane"..

20th March. When I see these images of the old tramway that ran the 6 km from Bayonne to Biarritz via Anglet, it's hard to imagine that these structures actually existed. There are very few traces of them left today.
Here's a video about Biarritz I've been meaning to put here for a while..
16th March. This is a report, featuring the Pays Basque, taken from a series called "100 Must See Places" on France 5 - it starts at 1:13.

15th March. I spent Sunday with a mixed group of walkers from both sides of the frontier in the Baztan valley* retracing a route used by evading Allied airmen during WWII as they made their way across the Pyrenees into Francoist Spain for onward passage to Gibraltar and then England. 
* we were fortunate to have Georgina Howard with us. In addition to running walking holidays in the area, she's a polyglot - speaking English, French, Spanish and Basque!  
Several of the Spanish walkers had family ties with the Comet Line's wartime guides and it was clear that there was much common ground between us. Basque speakers from both parties were soon swapping notes. 

I've walked other routes like this several times before but this was one of the hardest I've experienced. It wasn't helped by the rain-soaked ground that caught some of us out (not me) with slips into water-filled boggy areas - I needed a soggy foot like the proverbial hole in the head. 

We dropped our cars at Amaiur-Maya then took 2 minibuses to the vicinity of the former safe house at Jauriko borda from where we'd start the walk proper. Jauriko borda was a 'safe' farm that lay just inside Spain and it had been used many times by airmen. They'd rest up here after their gruelling night hike that had threaded them through the numerous border patrols, guided by mountain guides in the service of the Comet Line. 

After an hour or two, we came upon a clear area on a hilltop to find a Spanish 4x4 there with a small team preparing an alfresco Spanish-style breakfast for us.. spicy sausages, ham and fresh bread, with cider and/or red wine! (breaking the habits of a lifetime, I stuck to water) This was followed by brioche and coffee.. This surprise meal really hit the spot and gave us the time to talk more with our Spanish Basque hosts.    

Refreshed and replete, we set off again and, for some of us (viz your correspondent), the pain kicked in.. However, loins were girded, teeth were gritted and aches and pains ignored as we traversed some of the most stunning scenery in this part of the world. Wild cattle and horses were in evidence and mountain oak clung on to the hills as we climbed higher and higher until we reached the snow line. Soon it was time to descend again which unfortunately turned out to be just as painful as climbing.. 

This farm Kanttoreneko Borda, that now appears derelict, was used as a 'safe' hiding place in Spain by Comet: 
Finally, after 13km, we arrived back at Amaiur-Maya, the picture postcard Basque village where we'd left our cars 6 hours previously. After changing our mud-splattered walking shoes, we entered a restored mill where the promise of a cold beer awaited us. We were served thin corn flour pancakes filled with cheese and bacon.. and, later, others with dark chocolate.
The whole was a totally beguiling experience and I'll be returning there with Madame before too long.  

I managed to catch the second half of the Scotland - France 6 Nations rugby (well done Scotland!) and then after a bowl of soup, I hit the hay at 8pm.. Instant oblivion.. zzzzz-zzz-zzz-zzzzzzz

Thursday, 3 March 2016

228. The rider who came in from the cold

3rd March. Apologies in advance for this post which is entirely free of any references to the Pays Basque (apart from this). Walter Kaaden, claimed by some to be the father of the modern two stroke engine, died twenty years ago today. I suspect though that his name won't ring as many bells as perhaps it should.

The story of his life reads like a screenplay for a spy film - except that the truth was stranger than fiction. In brief, he'd worked at the Nazi rocket development centre at Peenemunde during WWII and in the early fifties he managed to find a job as head of the racing department at what became MZ motorcycles in the German Democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany). After Germany's defeat in 1945, the factory at Zschopau had been systematically stripped by the Soviets and the machine tools and everything else that moved, including the windows, were shipped back to the USSR. A more inauspicious start you couldn't ask for.

Roadgoing two stroke motorcycles were usually simple, cheap-to-manufacture and run and were predominantly used as ride-to-work machines - with a cloud of blue smoke in close attendance. Many motorcyclists (of a certain age) around the world would have cut their teeth on BSA Bantams in Europe or on Harley Davidson Hummers in the US without realising that they were straight copies of the ubiquitous DKW RT125 that was mass-produced for the German military. Post-war, it was widely copied and re-manufactured by the Allies as war reparations.

Walter Kaaden was fascinated by the 2 stroke engine as it had the potential, if developed, to achieve prodigiously high power outputs - as it fired once every revolution - compared to once every 2 revolutions for a 4 stroke engine. Up until then, the efficiency of a normally aspirated 2 stroke engine was low compared to that of a 4 stroke. All this was about to change.

Kaaden had extremely limited resources and he had to work on the proverbial shoestring. His work at Peenemunde had exposed him to the science of pressure waves that were used so effectively in the pulse jet engine of the V-1. Post-war, he painstakingly investigated exhaust expansion chambers to utilise the reverse pressure wave in order to improve the breathing of the 2 stroke engine. At most rpm settings, the position of the reverse pressure wave didn't match the position of the piston. However, at certain critical rpm settings the pressure wave reflected back from the expansion chamber met the excess charge emerging from the exhaust port and returned it to the cylinder under pressure thus ensuring that it was burnt. Outside the optimum rev range, the performance of the engine would have been unremarkable. However, once the engine hit that crucial and narrow rev band, the power would suddenly chime in and the rider had better hang on tight. The more power that Kaaden extracted from these engines, the narrower the optimum rpm band became (in some cases it was only a band of 400rpm). Accordingly, the number of gears available to the rider grew to 6, 9 and finally 14 speeds in the attempt to keep the engine operating within that critical rpm range.

A standard measure of efficiency of an internal combustion engine was, and still is, a power output of 100bhp per litre. Within just a few short years Walter Kaaden (right) with Ernst Degner had raised that figure for the MZ 2 stroke engine to over 200bhp per litre with the aid of carefully designed expansion chambers, a rotary disc inlet valve and a booster port. He managed to squeeze out 25bhp from a 125cc machine.. thus being the first motorcycle to get into the 200bhp per litre bracket. It was a water-cooled 125cc, with an 8 speed box and a 131mph top speed. All this in 1965! (Full story in French here)

A race-bred 2 stroke engine will never win any prizes for its sound.. Listen to a 1964 MZ 250 race bike.. and then compare it to a 1961 Honda 250 four in the Isle of Man.. Then compare that to the spine-tingling sound of John Surtees on his MV four in the Isle of Man in 1959 - as it fades into the distance..

Where were we..? Oh yes, unfortunately for Walter Kaaden, his star rider, Ernst Degner (left), defected to the west in 1961 to hand over MZ's hard-won secrets to the Suzuki motorcycle company. Suzuki had been struggling - and failing - to get to grips with 2 stroke technology until Ernst Degner came along (whose palm had been greased with the equivalent of £10,000). At the time, MZ were within touching distance of a first World title but Degner's defection put paid to that as Honda took the title.

Here's Kaaden with the MZ team, probably taken in 1961, from l to r: Kaaden, Mike Hailwood, Alan Shepherd, Ernst Degner and possibly a young Jim Redman? Much more of this intriguing story here and here (scroll down to Post 37).

Why my interest in this story? Well firstly, the Kaaden story is one of a man's obsession to prove a principle, made more compelling by the fact he achieved great things without the help of a research department backed by millions of the manufacturer's money. I think there's a parallel to be drawn with Frank Whittle, one of the early pioneers of the jet engine.

Secondly, I've owned some interesting 2 stroke motorcycles in the past. When I was 18, I had a 1948 Scott Squirrel - a 600cc watercooled 2 stroke twin with total loss lubrication. I reluctantly sold it after it seized on me once too often. Here's a model from the late twenties - my 1948 model differed from it only in detail:

Much later in life, I read that the Scott concept had been resurrected and updated by George Silk. He redesigned the engine while keeping the basic concept (watercooled 2 stroke twin) - but he fitted an oil pump (similar to the Yamaha autolube system) that, in theory at least, should have eradicated seizures. I managed to find a Silk 700S (more here) and buy it. It was an astonishingly light machine with race-bred handling that weighed in at only 305lbs (138kg) - less than a Honda 250 but with a 650cc engine. The 2 stroke principle is attractive: very few moving parts compared to a 4 stroke, a power stroke with every revolution of the crankshaft and finally, lightness.

The late Colin Chapman, the ever-inventive Lotus race-car designer had two maxims that best expressed his philosophy:

"Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere" and
"Simplify, then add lightness..".

Apologies for including this post but it's a fascinating story (to me!). And now back to the Pays Basque!