Cricket vs Baseball



Reading the Game: which is the better sport, cricket or baseball? Ed Smith deliberates between the two

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2014

Like parents and their teenagers, cricket and baseball are very much alike and yet determined to remain a mystery to each other.

Fourteen years ago, as a 22-year-old professional cricketer who spent his winters in New York, I began writing a book comparing these two sports. I joined up with the New York Mets and swung at some pitches. I lived through an all-New York World Series, trying to follow the path that leads from the baseball diamond to America’s soul. I wandered the streets of Manhattan in the days after 9/11 and watched the Yankees summon a moment of sporting ecstasy amid the rubble. “Playing Hard Ball” was the result. But one question—the big one—seemed too risky even to address. Which game is actually better?

Constraints came from both directions. I felt loyalty to cricket, which paid my wages and filled my dreams. Baseball exerted a different hold: a sense of joyous thanks, bordering on infatuation, towards not only a game but also a city. Now there are no such excuses; daunted but accepting, I must plunge into judgment. It’s a penalty shoot-out, cricket versus baseball, played over five criteria.

First: drama. Cricket, especially the five-day Test, has the ability to nurture deepening tension. The crowd hold several narratives in their minds. What might happen is as interesting as what actually happens, an imaginative depth made possible by cricket’s defining characteristic: time. But for sheer dramatic ecstasy, baseball has the edge. In its rarity and decisiveness, the home run—two extreme forces colliding with brutal symmetry—is like a goal in football (only less liable to be scrappy and untidy). One-nil to baseball—or one-and-oh, as pitchers say.

Second: beauty. Both sports are photogenic. Baseball’s archive of black-and-white photos—the slide home to base, studs high and mud flying, grace and clarity of purpose down in the dirt—matches anything in the museum at Lord’s. The double play, devastatingly complete and perfect, may even trump the direct hit that follows a diving stop at midwicket. But even the smoothest line drive must bow down before cricket’s cover drive. You could watch decades of baseball and never see the equal of David Gower driving. The bat held loosely, the swing an unfurling rather than a coiled spring, the effect gentleness as well as majesty: 1-1.

Third: psychological depth. Before I understood baseball, I used to think this was no contest. But I was watching the wrong things. I used to study the batter (my sporting cousin, after all), trying to enter into his mind, feel his struggle. But the psychological roles are reversed in baseball. In cricket, because he is expected to win any given ball, and because losing his wicket is utterly final, it is the batsman who lives with the guillotine hanging over his neck. In baseball, I eventually realised, that is the life of a pitcher. He, not the batter, is expected to prevail in the next play. Giving up a run in baseball is rare and potentially disastrous, so it has more in common with losing a wicket than with scoring a (cricket) run. This is sport’s ultimate paradox: the more you are expected to succeed, the greater the pressure. The scoring units are just a currency—the more numerous they are, the lower their value. When I saw the torment in the eyes of pitchers, how they live with the terror of conceding a run, how they are solitary and exposed, surrounded by teammates whose primary purpose is to score runs not to prevent them—grasping all this suffering, I felt suddenly at home.

Cricket at its best, however, offers a more symmetrical psychological contest. Baseball batters are not around long enough to go through as great a struggle. In cricket, when bat and ball are in perfect equipoise, each protagonist in danger of toppling over with only the slightest misstep, the pressure is equal on both. It’s 2-1 to cricket, by a whisker.

Fourth: is it fun to play? Any sport, at a level of mastery, offers deep satisfaction. So let’s focus on the experience of the amateur or the child. How high are the barriers to pleasure? Cricket’s technical restraints—bowlers forbidden from bending the arm, batsmen taught to remain stately and sideways-on rather than rotating like a lumberjack hacking at a tree—are bound up with its aesthetic potential. But they certainly don’t help the uninitiated. Baseball, more natural and less buttoned-up, is much closer to the way we throw and hit before we learn how we are supposed to do it. And the grass doesn’t have to be so manicured. In ordinary life, too, cricket’s hunger for time becomes a drag, with the club game relying on spouses being willing to put in a long shift as a single parent. Messing around in a field after a picnic? It’s got to be baseball; 2-2.

Judging the Booker prize, Philip Larkin set himself the ultimate test: “Did I care? If so, what was the quality of the caring?” All sports fans care. But not all sports allow the same complexity and subtlety. Every contest has a clear central story, but what about the subplots and counter-rhythms? Here cricket, which can lay on a series of five Tests, is unrivalled. It becomes something you live with. Baseball is a stirring symphony, cricket is the Ring Cycle.

So 3-2 to cricket? For now, yes. But if Twenty20—an effort to squeeze cricket into the three-hour slot that baseball has always occupied—consumes the whole sport, cricket will be just another game, lacking a USP and looking worryingly desperate to please.

Cricket can’t beat baseball by imitating it. The parent is rarely well served by copying the child.

Ed Smith is a former England cricketer and Times leader writer. He is now a commentator on “Test Match Special” and the author of “Luck”

Image Topham

The Flow of History


The Music of Science: a river in Germany shows how, when man channels the landscape, he channels much more besides. Oliver Morton dives in

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2014

IN Science

Earlier this year, I was on the faculty of a summer school at the University of Heidelberg. My daily walk to the campus took me across a footbridge over the Neckar. By British standards the Neckar, like most rivers that have chunks of a continent to drain, rather than just slices of an island, is impressively large. It is also impressively constrained. For most of its span, the footbridge passed over a system of weirs and gates which, when open, let the river tumble a few metres with a pleasing power into a downstream bed laced with gravel banks and willow trees. At the north end a drop-free navigable channel allowed barge traffic to remain above the fray as it moved to and from a set of locks downstream. The weir gates opened and closed according to a logic I could not fathom; the barges passed through according to the rhythms of trade.

In his excellent book “The Conquest of Nature”, David Blackbourn tells the story of how the Germans came to control their often unruly rivers. The star of the show is the upper Rhine, into which the Neckar flows at Mann­heim, about 20 kilometres downstream. In its southern part the upper Rhine was, in the 18th century, a broad, braided maze of lagoons and backwaters; in the north, a higgledypig of meanders. In both parts it was capricious, changing its mind regularly about which way to flow, flooding towns and villages regularly and, sometimes, permanently.

In the 19th century it was brought to heel, in large part by Johann Gottfried Tulla and those who carried on his vision after his death. “No river…needs more than one bed,” Tulla declared, and he set about putting the upper Rhine into what he decided was its place. Its course was shortened, its flow quickened, its lines straightened. The process Tulla set in train continued through the 19th century to the 20th, constraining Germany’s rivers more and more.

Learning all this added to my appreciation of the subject that had brought me to Heidelberg in the first place. The summer school was being held for the benefit of young researchers from all sorts of disciplines who had an interest in climate geoengineering—the deliberate use of technology to counteract, in whole or in part, the anthropogenic warming of the planet. Such efforts could well be seen as Tulla’s sort of thing: one of the justifications he gave for his great labours in “On the Rectification of the Rhine” was that “the climate along the Rhine will become more pleasant”. To his Enlightenment mind, improving on nature through grand engineering schemes seemed, well, second nature—a second nature, superior to the first, that it was human nature to create.

The subordinate Neckar of today might reinforce Tulla’s feelings that human control over nature was possible and justified. But looking a little further shows some of the drawbacks. Tulla was motivated mostly by a desire to do away with floods—but to a large extent he merely moved them downstream, as critics warned would be the case. The rectification of the upper Rhine let floodwaters from the Alps and the Black Forest get to the lower Rhine quicker, to the soggy detriment of Koblenz, Bonn and Cologne; the flood defences they then put in place led to the floods moving yet farther north as water from the heart of the continent found itself reaching the end of the Rhine twice as fast as in years gone by.

There were other drawbacks. The new belief that people could safely farm right up to the banks of the Rhine meant that its beautiful riverbank forests of oak, elm, alder and willow were cut down, its otters driven out. And though navigability had never been part of Tulla’s agenda, his better-controlled river encouraged larger barges, which in turn encouraged straightening and deepening well beyond that needed for flood control. It was, indeed, for navigation, not flood control, that they chained the Neckar in the early 20th century. The swifter rivers, stripped of sandbanks and still waters, lost their salmon and sturgeon, gaining eels, carp and perch instead. No one appears to know why there is a fish-ladder on the weir at Heidelberg; no fish seem to use it.

All of which holds lessons for would-be geoengineers. The first: there will be unintended (if not unforeseen) consequences. Tulla was not planning to flood Koblenz. The second: those consequences may be as likely to lead to calls for further engineering as to calls for stopping what has been started. Anyone who thinks that they can start re-engineering the planet just a bit and that no one will take the ideas further needs to know that history is against them. This is all the more so because once you engineer for one purpose, other applications have a way of following on. If Tulla had no thought for the navigation that now dominates the Neckar, he certainly didn’t care about the modest amount of hydropower generation that now takes place at its weirs.

The flow of history is less easily channelled than that of rivers, and anyone who thinks otherwise has no business trying to change it. Climate geoengineering would be a radical step with unforeseeable consequences. It is surely not to be undertaken rashly, for the sake of a few, or as a seemingly simple way out of the world’s problems. At the same time, it is worth remembering that even great change comes to be accepted, even quotidian. The smooth-flowing Neckar above the weir is grand, its park-like verges happy playgrounds; the messy bit below the weir is charming too. The great barges carry people’s livelihood. And on a stone pier above it all perches a heron, hopeful and beautiful.

Oliver Morton is briefings editor for The Economist and the author of “Eating the Sun”

Illustration Pete Gamlen



The urge to tell stories has been with us for ever—but it still needs looking after. Tim de Lisle reports on three bright ideas that have become powerhouses of literacy and creativity

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2014

Chapter 1: The Museum of Stories

ON A SUMMER’s afternoon, Oxford is looking as it does in the imagination, clad in shades of glowing saffron. Tourists are trickling out of Christ Church, the grandest of all the colleges and even more of a draw since its hall landed the plum role of Hogwarts’ dining room in the Harry Potter films. Some of the tourists will know that it also has an older claim to fame in children’s literature: it is where Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was teaching maths when he told a story to amuse three girls in a boat, the daughters of the dean of the college, about the adventures of a child called Alice. As he sat in his rooms in the early 1860s, expanding that story into a book, Dodgson had a view down Pembroke Street.

About 70 years later, another don with a sideline as a storyteller could have thrown one of his books into Pembroke Street, had the urge come over him. J.R.R. Tolkien had rooms at Pembroke which came with his job as Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon. One day he was marking exam papers written by 16-year-olds for the School Certificate. Possibly bored, he reached for a sheet of blank paper. “In a hole in the ground”, he wrote, “there lived a hobbit.”

If these two weavers of world-famous fantasies could walk down Pembroke Street today, they would be sure of a big surprise. Within a few yards, they would stumble into the Story Museum. Oxford is a city of stories, and a city of museums—the Ashmolean, the Pitt Rivers. But until the 21st century nobody had put the two together. The person who spotted this was Kim Pickin, a branding executive who had settled in Oxford and brought up three sons there. She had been working on a project about Britishness and what the rest of the world liked or disliked about it. “Children’s literature is such an important aspect of British culture, probably our most loved export,” she says. “It was fascinating to see how ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ is loved in Japan. And children in Africa read ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, and of course lions mean more to them, and snow means less.”

Pickin had no experience of working in a museum, let alone creating one, but she had drive and persistence, and she was very much her own person (in the age of the mobile phone, she didn’t have one). Slowly she turned her observation into a mission. I was introduced to her four years ago by a mutual friend who knew that Intelligent Life had a passion for museums. Kim had just got the keys to her new kingdom on Pembroke Street, so she offered us a guided tour. It was an odd place, to say the least: a former sorting office that had also been Oxford’s first automatic telephone exchange, spanning three assorted buildings, pre-Tolkien but post-Dodgson, wedged around a triangular yard. There were still hooks on the walls for the mailbags (Wantage, Abingdon), and a sign in the canteen listing sandwiches (egg mayonnaise, 20p). No two rooms were alike, except that they were all cold. The feel was functional with a twist of eccentric, halfway from an abandoned hospital to a rabbit warren. In the land of stories, a rabbit warren is a des res, but it wasn’t easy to see how this one was going to mutate into a museum. Kim showed us round with a mixture of pride, joy and apology.

Four years on, the Story Museum is holding a launch party for an exhibition, “26 Characters”. It’s May 2014 and the entrance on Pembroke Street, once forbiddingly industrial, is now friendly and bright. The foyer is lined with books for sale, so visitors enter through the gift shop. Every guest is handed a blank badge and a Sharpie and told to be a favourite children’s character: becoming someone else, an indispensable component of childhood. I choose Lyra from “His Dark Materials”, a local heroine, albeit from a parallel universe. “We’ve already got one Lyra,” says the woman on the desk. “We gave her a chameleon to be her Pantalaimon.”

Crossing the yard, which now has a giant strip cartoon along one wall, the guests gather in a large first-floor room. I find Kim Pickin and inquire about progress. “We’re open six days a week, we have exhibitions and author events.” So is the museum fully launched? “No, we’re at the end of the first chapter. Two-thirds of it isn’t done yet, but we’re using it in its rough state.” A wry smile. “It’s a bit leaky in places.”

Soon she is making a speech, thanking authors and supporters; standing at the back, with a sharp gaze and flowing grey hair, is a man who is both—Philip Pullman, the museum’s patron. A class of schoolchildren, aged about seven, sit on a mat at the front, wearing badges, one saying Alice, another Horrid Henry. A smaller boy walks past, blond, bespectacled and solemn, despite wearing a full-length crocodile suit.

The exhibition is about dressing up too. Pickin—who still doesn’t have a mobile—now has a co-director, Tish Francis from the Oxford Playhouse, and a team of ten, mostly young women. They have cajoled 26 children’s authors into picking a favourite character, not their own, and being photographed as them. Pullman is Long John Silver, Malorie Blackman is the Wicked Witch of the West, Charlie Higson is Tolkien’s Boromir, and Francesca Simon is Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. The photographer sounds equally far-fetched—Cambridge Jones—but turns out to be a pseudonym rather than a complete fiction. His portraits are classy as well as engaging, some life-size, others no bigger than a book, each set in a tableau that takes you into the character’s world: Just William’s shed (for Terry Pratchett), Badger’s study (Neil Gaiman), Magwitch’s graveyard (Michael Morpurgo). The designs, by set designers from “Harry Potter” and “Doctor Who”, are lively and lavish. Once you pass Pullman and Higson, your path is blocked by a wardrobe. “It might be worth opening it,” says a steward with a glint in his eye. You step through into yet another world dreamed up by an Oxford don: Narnia, recreated with a gleaming carriage that you can sit in, drifts of artificial snow, and a shot of Holly Smale, author of “Geek Girl”, as the White Witch. Writers, it seems, are suckers for witches.

The exhibition is light on its feet, yet full of wit and wonder. It catches some of the essence of children’s literature—the playful charm, the vivid sensuality. It makes you want to go back to the books, and lets you start right here, as each tableau includes an iPad, playing extracts read by Olivia Colman or Christopher Eccleston. It turns the strangeness of the building into a strength, with fresh surprises lurking round the many corners. A stainless-steel sink survives from the old canteen and tucked beneath it are the Borrowers, watching “The Simpsons” on their tiny telly. Across the room is a spooky lab for Dr Jekyll (Anthony Horowitz). “That’s where the ceiling is leakiest,” says Pickin, still proudly apologetic.The plan was to close “26 Characters” in November, but there have been more schools wanting to see it than there are slots, and some punters keep coming back: “the record is seven times so far”. So they will keep an edited version open indefinitely, still with 26 characters, but in smaller spaces.

All this is funded largely by private donations, with some help from the Arts Council. Pickin has raised £6m so far, including two hefty gifts at vital moments: £150,000 from an anonymous well-wisher early on, which allowed the museum to be more than a one-woman show, and £2m from another nameless fairy godparent later, which helped secure the building. Pickin also gives credit to the Garfield Weston Foundation, which dispensed tough love, pointing out that she didn’t have a track record in the field and suggesting she pick up experience and put on events in schools before landing herself with premises. Stage two of the funding starts now, aiming at another £9m. All being well, the buildings will be fully converted and modernised with a rooftop walkway, fully accessible to buggies and wheelchairs. The freehold belongs to Merton College and the museum has a lease for 130 years, “which is about as good as it gets in Oxford, unless you’re a college”.

The place is so appealing to the child inside the adult that it’s hard to tell if this is a children’s museum or not. “We think of ourselves as aiming at all ages,” Pickin says, “which sounds a bit ridiculous, but we’re trying to give everybody a story-rich experience. The child bit comes in because we’re trying to focus on the stories that everybody can enjoy together. That could be ‘The Iliad’ or ‘The Odyssey’ as well as ‘The Gruffalo’. It’s less likely to be experimental French literature.” As if to illustrate the point, in September there was a surprise birthday party in the middle of the Narnia scene—for a girl of 19.

The young visitors don’t just look and learn: they write. In a big room at the top that will one day be a small theatre, there’s a giant wheel of story ideas. The nearest wall, papered with stories way above head height, shows how many people have taken up the invitation. There’s also a dressing-up room, equipped with a rack of theatrical costumes, a set of clapperboards and satisfyingly chunky words that allow you to concoct an unlikely title for a story—The Such-and-Such Something of Somewhere. Once dolled up, you sit on a speaking throne, which declaims your title as if by magic. The game relies on microchip technology, but brings an old-school bonus: forced to pick an adjective and two nouns, the kids get a quick grammar lesson, smuggled in like carrots in their pasta sauce. Which chimes with one of Pickin’s guiding mantras: “Strawberries, not spinach. And not chocolate either.” The Story Museum is good for you, but not aggressively so.

In the yard is a boat where children can play while their parents have a coffee, and a sofa where anyone can sit even if they haven’t paid for a drink, reflecting a “pet peeve” of Pickin’s from when she used to push her boys round museums: “you’re tired by the time you get there, having lured them and wheeled them.” Still in the yard, there’s a shed where you can fire gobstoppers into the mouths of some of Richmal Crompton’s characters. “We felt we hadn’t fully exploited the catapult possibilities in ‘Just William’. I’m just kind of acting out what I’ve always wanted to do. And still do, after hours.”

Pickin runs her team in a collegiate way, and says her litmus test for a project is whether they are having fun. A poster on the wall plugs a new venture: singles evenings. “It’s partly because we have some gorgeous youngsters working on the team who are out looking for a mate. And there was an office conversation about how excruciatingly embarrassing those things can be.” To break the ice, the singles are told to bring a favourite book. “I think we have 20 boys and 20 girls each time, and we have a literary conversation menu, and between that and the cocktails people relax a bit.” It’s for people in their 20s and 30s, “but we’ve been asked if we can do it for older people.”

The museum still puts on workshops in schools, and every year it choreographs Alice’s Day, a joint effort by 20 Oxford institutions, including the Bodleian Library. This honours “Alice” as “the birth of modern children’s literature—after ‘Alice’, children’s books became less stuffy and more entertaining”. The same revolution was sorely needed in museums, and it took a lot longer. There are some famous old museums whose default position for decades was to be half-dead. In the past 30 years, they have woken up to the need to graft the active on to the passive. A new museum has the advantage of being able to begin in the active: the Story Museum doesn’t even have a permanent collection. “It is pretty rough, a lot of it,” Pickin says, “extremely cold and slightly damp in the winter, which would make it impossible to store any treasures.”

Like the other quirks of the place, this has been a blessing in disguise. If you’re trying not to be stuffy, it helps to have no stuff. In August, Mark Cousins, a Belfast film-maker whose CV includes organising flash mobs with Tilda Swinton, wrote a piece for the Observer arguing that middle-class arts administrators tended to bring “a deadness” with them. “They get the content right, the ideas, the themes, the politics. But they haven’t a clue about how to embrace things…They don’t understand the warmth and feel of buildings, so well described by Gaston Bachelard in his book ‘The Poetics of Space’…He says that the spaces that we love are ‘especially receptive to becoming’—welcoming places reduced of inhibitions.” The Story Museum proves the exception to the rule, a middle-class creation that fully embraces the need for a warm welcome. The quote sends me off to look up Bachelard. He was a physicist, a philosopher—and, before that, a postmaster.

Chapter 2: The Sport of Reading

IN A QUAINT old theatre in Falmouth, Cornwall, a tall gentleman in a top hat stands facing the stage, like a conductor. Behind him is an audience of about 100, mostly parents and teachers. Spread out on stage are seven square tables, each bearing a buzzer, each flying a national placard and each occupied by four children, in school uniform, intent, nervous, waiting to pounce. They are aged 10 to 13, which makes for a diverting variety: one of the boys is a hefty six-footer, shoehorned into grey shorts, while a few of the others could almost be his offspring. This is the final of the Kids’ Lit Quiz, the “University Challenge” of children’s books. It is both a world championship and a well-kept secret.

The first round consists of film clips, the man in the hat says, and each one will have “a literary aspect to it”. The children have to identify the film, swallow their nerves and hit the buzzer first. Their team will get two points for a right answer, minus one for a wrong one. A still from the first film appears on a rather hazy screen at the back of the stage. Before the picture begins to move, someone buzzes.

“New Zealand!” says a deep voice.

“‘Shrek’!?” says a high voice.

“‘Shrek’ is correct!” says the man in the hat.

The same thing happens five more times, prompting the man in the hat to turn to the audience. “Took me about 100 hours to find those clips,” he says, in a tone of outraged delight. “Took the kids six seconds to spot them!”

The man is not just the ringmaster and question-setter for the Kids’ Lit Quiz but its founder and driving force. His name is Wayne Mills, and he is four days into retirement from his day job as a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland. His subject was education itself, so he saw many schools. “I would go to assemblies and the prizes would be dished out for sport, sometimes maths and English and so on,” he tells me. “But never ever did I see anyone being recognised for being good at reading. That was the catalyst.”

He knew that boys were liable to lose interest in reading, and that, even for a bookworm, it could become a chore as they read less for fun and more for knowledge. “This is the age group where, round about now, reading drops off.” So he targeted the under-14s and turned reading into a competition. The Kids’ Lit Quiz has a telling subtitle: the sport of reading. “I talk about the quiz being a sport because the kids have to try out for the team—you may only see four kids here, but there may have been 80 or 100 trying to get into that team. And they practise, and travel together, and high-five, and so on.” Mills gives them a pep talk about sportsmanship, stressing that even if they finish last, they have done very well, and urging them to applaud each other. “These kids have rarely ever lost. They’re clever kids and they have to learn to lose gracefully.” The Singaporean team, not the best at buzzing, emerge as world-beaters when it comes to magnanimity.In Falmouth, there is plenty of high-fiving and clenchings of fists. The brainboxes are often every bit as competitive as the jocks, and here they have the chance to show it. For the spectator, the contest has the ebb and flow that a sports fan wants to see. There are enough rounds to sort the sheep from the goats and the hares from the tortoises. The boys buzz more early on—this is the first time they have outnumbered the girls in the final—and the all-male team from Australia race into the lead, with South Africa, also all-male, on their tail. The four girls representing Britain start slowly, then sneak up into third. Australia pull away, Britain stall: we think it’s all over, but Australia freeze, South Africa fade, New Zealand surge, America flicker, Britain have one big round and keep going. The result is in doubt till the moment the compères, a comedy act called The Two Steves, read it out, agonisingly slowly, as if this were a TV quiz show—which it surely should be. The winners are Team UK, City of London School for Girls, who also won in 2010. In a twist worthy of the back pages, their line-up contains two Australians, an Irish girl—and only one Briton.

It all began in 1991, when Mills, then working at the University of Waikato, held the first Kids’ Lit Quiz in Hamilton, with 14 schools taking part. It took him 15 years to reach Britain, which hosted the first world final in Oxford in 2007. How many schools take part now? “Thousands,” he says. “We’re in 11 countries, if you count Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as separate.” He has his eye on India next. The quiz was in Shanghai for five years, but it relies on local volunteers, and the co-ordinator there pulled out. It carries on in Hong Kong, whose team couldn’t come this year because they had gone home to their families in different countries. Mills feels for them: “they got the best score in the world.” In every nation, the questions are Anglocentric. “In New Zealand, we publish about 125 kids’ books a year. You guys publish about 15,000. Why would you want to read any other nation’s books?” Kim Pickin was right about British children’s books.

Any team that makes it to the final has come a long way. They will have won their regional quiz, back home in Johannesburg or Toronto, seeing off maybe a dozen other schools over ten rounds of ten questions each. At this stage the answers are written and the questions are concise: “Which novel begins, ‘In a hole in the ground lived…’?”

They meet the other regional winners in the nationals, where buzzers appear and the questions mushroom—though that may be the wrong vegetable to invoke, as Mills delights in coming up with questions of many layers. “This author was born in Victorian England,” he will say, “and wrote around 40 books for children. She has been credited with pioneering a new kind of children’s literature, dealing with ‘tough truths’. She had five children herself and was a founder member of the Fabian Society. One of her books became a well-loved film, ‘The Railway Children’—” whereupon the contestants will spot the name nestling inside the onion: E. Nesbit.

Long, educational and demanding, the questions are designed to favour the brave or the supremely informed, of whom there seem to be plenty. “I was really impressed with the finalists’ knowledge,” Mills says a few days later. “The cream really rises to the top.” And here is another parallel with sport: the quiz unabashedly rewards the best. At the dinner after this year’s final, Mills sat next to a woman from a Toronto bank which was putting C$16m into literacy. “But it all goes to the bottom end,” he says, with a twinge of envy. “We do need to support kids who can’t read, but nobody is doing much for the kids at the top end.” The Kids’ Lit Quiz has had various sponsors over the years, but looks as if it could use a big one, and a PR: in New Zealand and South Africa, it draws TV crews and reporters, but in Britain the silence has been deafening, perhaps because the schools that have done best in it have been private, apart from Cockermouth in Cumbria.We are talking at Mills’s British base in Bracknell, Berkshire, the home of his son-in-law’s parents. A small grand-daughter pops a quizzical blonde head round the door. She is at the stage of nursery rhymes and picture books, which form one end of the spectrum for her granddad’s questions. The other end is “The Hunger Games”, which just squeezes in: “I suppose you could say it’s awfully violent, but it’s also an indictment of society and reality shows, and there’s a degree of black humour.” Just beyond the pale is “The Fault in Our Stars”. “John Green is one of the best teenage authors in the world, but there are instances of sexual behaviour.” The boundary was tested by Robert Muchamore’s “Cherub” series, in which children are trained to spy on terrorists. It begins when the hero, James, is 11 and innocent enough. “But soon he’s 17 and his girlfriend is shagging his best friend on his bed, and someone is videoing it. And kids are reading the whole series.” Still, even Harry Potter gets a girlfriend in the end, doesn’t he? “Yes, but we don’t see him consummate it.”

Mills writes every question himself, charging only expenses and a fee for the rights. For his 23 years’ service to reading, he has been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Even more usefully, the quiz has a celebrity alumna: in the New Zealand team of 2009, which finished second, was Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde, who had a global hit last year with her song “Royals”. The trip to the world final in Johannesburg was the first time she had been overseas.

Now that he is retired, Mills wants to put the quiz on a more businesslike footing. At the 2015 world final in Connecticut, the first to be held in America, he will launch the Kids’ Lit Quiz app for Apple and Android (99 cents). “It’ll have 100 questions at level one, 100 at level two, and once you get through, the world-final questions. And no multiple choice. If you don’t know the answer, you have to go and read the book.”

Chapter 3: The Crunch of Reality

BACK TO OXFORD—a very different Oxford. At the Story Museum, Kim Pickin called the location “a good mix of town and gown”. At Oxford Spires Academy, three miles away in Cowley, it’s more a case of town and veil. This is a co-ed state secondary with 1,100 pupils, many of Asian descent. It bears the scars of decades of political wrangling. It has been a grammar school, a comprehensive, a foundation school and now an academy, answerable to Whitehall rather than the city council. It is outstanding at one thing: growing writers.

Wayne Mills had said you could tell a lot about a school by its library, “and often in Britain it’s a broom cupboard”. At Oxford Spires, the library is the dominant building, light, airy and large enough to hold an event. On a warm July evening, it hosts the launch of “Wings”, a paperback anthology of writing by the school’s First Story group. The book is on sale for £10, so I buy it and read a couple of poems—“Wings” itself, by Maah-Noor Ali, and “For My Future Lover”, by Esme Partridge. One is a riff on the myth of Icarus, the other, as its name suggests, a future love poem (“It takes everything in me to wait for you”). Both are vivid, succinct and touching.

First Story is a charity that “supports and inspires creativity, literacy and confidence in challenging UK secondary schools”. “Challenging” means the school must be in the bottom third in terms of the pupils’ “postcode affluence”. First Story sends in a writer-in-residence to spend an afternoon a week coaxing teenagers to write. At Oxford Spires, for six years now, it has been Kate Clanchy, poet, novelist and former teacher. She is standing in the library with Katie Waldegrave, another ex-teacher and the co-founder of First Story.

“This school wins all the prizes,” Waldegrave says.

Clanchy looks abashed, but only briefly. “We do win everything,” she says, “the Foyle’s, the Betjeman, the Tower…”

When I check the Foyle’s Young Poets of the Year, open to 11-to-18s, Esme Partridge, 16, is the winner. The Christopher Tower poetry prize, run from Christ Church but open to all British 16-to-18s, was won in 2013 by Azfa Awad, 18, an Oxford Spires student, returning today as the Oxford youth ambassador for poetry. When the shortlist for the Betjeman poetry competition for 10-to-13s appears, two of the three nominees will be from Oxford Spires.

Teenagers mill about, raiding bowls of crisps. Some are in purple school V-necks, others in jeans, many in hijabs. Then everyone sits down and the principal, Sue Croft, makes a speech. “I commend every word in this,” she says, brandishing the book. “Such a powerful, emotive, brilliant publication. I’m so proud of it. Lots of great things have happened to Oxford Spires, but the two best are First Story and Kate Clanchy.”

The kids go up on stage to read their work. Writers are often made of opposing forces, shyness and showmanship, and you can see that here. Maah-Noor Ali is quiet and quick. Jasmine Burgess, twice a Betjeman finalist, is more measured; at 13, she already has stage presence. Esme Partridge, clear, good at pauses, gets a laugh before she starts by saying “this is a poem I wrote in the night, feeling far too beautiful and too clever for my own good probably.” You believe her when she comes to the line, “it takes a lot of boy to scare me.”

Creative-writing exercises can easily be hazy, but these kids’ work has the crunch of reality. It homes in on home, on family and ethnicity. Half the pupils in the school have grown up with English as a second language. The first reader calls himself “a very proud Nigerian”; others mention Tanzania, Bangladesh and Hungary. One girl dedicates her poem “to a lovely lady who was my counsellor when I had depression”. Another writes about “my dad having a really bad case of pneumonia”. A third reads “a letter to my dad who passed away”. Her voice is calm and piercing. “I sometimes feel cold,” she says, “as though part of me is missing.”

Oxford Spires is exceptional, as its trophies attest, but it is only one of 50 schools that have a First Story group. Each one produces an anthology, which features every member of the group. At First Story’s office near the Tower of London, 150 anthologies sit proudly on the shelves: around 2,500 teenagers have become published authors. All this began in 2007 when Katie Waldegrave, then teaching in a challenging school near Heathrow under the Blair-era Teach First scheme for graduates, met William Fiennes, author of “The Snow Geese” and later of a series of walks for this magazine. “We were introduced by mutual friends,” Waldegrave says. “I was a teacher interested in writing, he was a writer interested in teaching.” Fiennes had formed a writing group at the American School in St John’s Wood. “He was talking about what it did for those students, how they became more confident. But that’s a very swanky private school.” She should know: her father, Lord Waldegrave, a Tory minister in the 1990s, is the provost of Eton. “I was saying it would never happen at a school like mine. And to Will’s eternal credit he said ‘let’s give it a go’.”

So they did, on a Wednesday afternoon. Fiennes gave his time, unpaid; Waldegrave, conscious that staying late usually meant football or detention, lured the kids with “a lot of bribery—biscuits, and having a famous person helps”. Even if they hadn’t heard of him? “Yes, but they could Google him.”Left to their own devices, the kids didn’t write about what they knew, they wrote about what they had read. “It used to be Harry Potter, now it’s vampires. At my school, we didn’t have any white students in the group, nobody had a name like Jane or Mary, but they were writing stories about Harry and Jane and boarding school.” Drawing them back to reality meant getting them to put down their pens. “Kids are keener to talk than write, as most of us are, so we would get them talking about their lives and say ‘that, there, is a story’. Will was brilliant at that, showing them there was a story under their nose.”

This took time, so they decided that the arrangement needed to run for a school year. They set up as a charity, appointed a board, spread the word and sent writers into eight schools. “We were probably really naive. We thought we can just raise a bit of money, I’ll send some e-mails…” Would they have done it if they had known what they were getting into? “Probably not, but I’m very glad I did.”

First Story now employs nine people, “mostly part-time, so we add up to about five”. One of them is a paid intern, Jay Bhadricha, who was a member of an early First Story group and went on to read English and history at Exeter. Just as boys are usually outnumbered by girls among the young writers, so Jay now finds himself the only man in the office.

Over the years Waldegrave has learned which planets have to be aligned for the system to work: “It needs a teacher who loves the idea of it, ideally two, and the head teacher, and the head of department. Schools are complicated places.” After getting the writer free at first, the schools now pay about a third of the actual cost of £13,000, with the rest covered by private donations and an Arts Council grant. First Story has an annual budget of just under £700,000. Waldegrave, who achieved her ambition in 2013 with a biography, “The Poets’ Daughters”, wants to write more, so she is stepping back. The new director is Monica Parle, a Texan with a big smile who has been on board for four years after working in publishing.

As my tour ends, what strikes me is the genes these three projects share, beyond banging the drum for literacy. Each started as just a spark in the mind of a thoughtful person. They all turned that thought into action, even though they had no experience of the field. They all showed grit as well as get-up-and-go. The three projects run on a wily blend of idealism and pragmatism, warmth and steel. And they are all inspiring. First Story runs a residential summer school, with one or two kids from each group. This year they spent five days in rural Somerset. “We drive down in coaches,” Waldegrave says, “and they’re absolutely silent, homesick.” But they soon warm up. As Will Fiennes put it on Twitter: “60 teenagers, writing. Also: water fights.” While she was there, Waldegrave got into a debate with an inner-city kid about a sheep. “He was pretty sure it was a pig.” Not only was he unused to the country: he clearly hadn’t read many children’s books.

How quantum theory is helping to explain the mysteries of life science

Quantum biology
Nature, the physicist

How quantum theory is helping to explain the mysteries of life science
Nov 22nd 2014 | From the print edition

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. By Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden. Bantam Press; 355 pages; £20. Buy from;

LIFE science still hides a few mysteries. How do migratory birds sense direction? How are molecules in the air perceived as a smell? How, precisely, do tadpoles lose their tails? For years, scattered views from the fringes have attempted to explain such phenomena using quantum mechanics, a weird bit of physics that predicts oddities such as particles being in multiple places at once, eerily connected across vast distances or tunnelling through seemingly insuperable barriers.

Yet a growing body of experimental evidence suggests that quantum oddities may really be responsible for many of life’s engineering successes. Quantum biology, the name given to the nascent field that draws these diverse data together, is moving in from the fringes and becoming established. “Life on the Edge” is the first popular science book to outline it.

Quantum mechanics is one of science’s most successful theories, superseding Sir Isaac Newton’s “classical” physics, the workaday version taught at school. The theory’s weirder predictions—spooky connections, tunnelling and the like—are not part of people’s everyday experience. They happen at a microscopic level and, it was thought, only under precisely controlled conditions. Experiments were done by the steadiest hands in the darkest labs at the lowest achievable temperatures.

But life is nothing like that. Plants and animals are warmed and lit by the sun, mostly, and tend to be squidgy, moving and watery. It had long been assumed that a living being is a poor laboratory in which to carry out quantum experiments. But in 2007 scientists who were trying to understand how plants gather the sun’s energy so efficiently stumbled across something strange: that energy was sloshing around in what are called quantum coherences. In effect, the energy is in multiple places at the same time and “finds” the most efficient route from where it is collected to where it is put to use.

This first credible example inspired other scientists to follow similarly bold avenues of enquiry. To grasp these new threads in quantum biology is to grasp a quantity of quantum theory; the coherence is just one of the complex phenomena that Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden set out to teach the reader. They succeed by using delightfully revealing analogies and similes, some borrowed from their prior work, that make slippery concepts sit still for study.

The notion of “quantum entanglement” makes more sense when depicted as a pair of loaded dice. Molecules with left- and right-handed forms that vibrate in identical ways become left-handed Jimi Hendrix and right-handed Eric Clapton playing the same tune.

Once the quantum genie is out of the bottle, it is tempting to use it to explain all manner of phenomena. The book suggests that a molecule in birds’ eyes might be the site of a quantum effect that permits them to “see” a magnetic field and thereby to navigate. Subatomic particles tunnelling across gaps in the nose when aroma molecules are around may be the first step in how animals sense scent. This same tunnelling is presumed to be at work in the action of enzymes, those proteins that shuffle chemical reactions along in living things (among them, the breakdown of tadpoles’ tails as they become frogs).

Some of the ideas presented are quite speculative. Quantum weirdness, after all, has long been used to excuse all sorts of questionable science. In 1989 Roger Penrose, an Oxford mathematician, proposed a quantum mechanism for consciousness that was met with deep scepticism. Yet Messrs Al-Khalili and McFadden go on to revise Mr Penrose’s theory in light of more recent experiments. Where doubt remains, work continues. The authors themselves are leading the search for a quantum mechanism in genetic mutations, which might be giving evolution itself a helping hand.

That quantum effects are an incontrovertible part of some of life’s machinery is reason enough to go looking for more examples. The ideas in “Life on the Edge” may be dead ends, or they may be just the beginning. Either way, the quantum telescope is set on far horizons.

From the print edition: Books and arts

Reviewing the Polaris Slingshot

Low to the Ground and Out of This World

Reviewing the Polaris Slingshot SL
Continue reading the main storySlide Show


Living in the same home for nearly 30 years, I am accustomed to the neighborhood teenagers asking, “What kind of car is that?” when a new model to be reviewed arrives in my driveway.

But on the morning last month that a Polaris Slingshot appeared, those gawkers weren’t sure how to classify a vehicle that looked freshly ripped from the pages of a superhero comic book.

“What is that thing?” they wanted to know. A fair question, really.

To these predrivers, dawdling on their way to junior-high classes, the Slingshot seemed a come-to-life vision of a sci-fi fantasy, a “Star Wars” runabout with an ominous snarl and a brilliant red glow. The stealth-fighter face, all angles and edges stacked on multiple levels, is but the first feature to rivet the gaze, foretelling the disconcerting details beyond: The front tires are in full view. There are no doors. And there’s only one wheel in the back.

This one, the styling promises, is going to be some fun.

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The 2015 Can-Am Spyder F3.Suddenly, a 3-Wheel Traffic Jam NOV. 14, 2014
Polaris, the Minnesota-based maker of motorcycles, A.T.V.s, snowmobiles and all sorts of off-road utility buggies, has conjured up an alternative form of transportation — or recreation — that’s not readily defined. Like a car, it has a steering wheel. The gearshift and clutch pedal poke up from the floor. You sit in conventional-looking seats with three-point safety belts.

But don’t jump to conclusions yet: The Slingshot has no top, folding or otherwise, and no windows to roll up. Its single rear wheel is driven by a belt.

Three-wheelers are hardly revolutionary; Karl Benz chose this layout 130 years ago, though his creation had a single wheel in front, tricycle-style. Still, a resurgence of interest in recent years has resulted in entries that include clean-sheet designs like the Can-Am Spyder and nostalgia-infused revivals like the Morgan 3 Wheeler and the Harley-Davidson Trike. Some are clearly variations on a motorcycle theme, while others attempt to fill in as minimalist automobiles.

There is solid logic behind the investment Polaris has made in producing something unlike anything else in its portfolio. The ever-present risks of the road are a strong incentive for prospective riders to seek more stable platforms, particularly as their families grow and their reflexes slow.

Many of Polaris’s customers are part of this aging demographic, given that the company’s motorcycle brands — Victory and Indian — make larger-displacement, higher-end bikes. The company is betting that the right sort of 3-wheeler might appeal to those enthusiasts, whose muscles are protesting or knee joints are wearing out. That would let riders like my family doctor, who sold his Harley only when knee problems forced the issue, continue to do weekend treks with his gang of surgeons and specialists.

While trying to place the Slingshot in a single category is destined to be a frustrating exercise, Polaris is very clear on the matter: The Slingshot is a motorcycle and will be registered accordingly. In states that require such things, the person in control must have a motorcycle license and all aboard should be wearing helmets. There are no airbags.

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Even so, the Slingshot has many things you won’t normally find on a motorcycle: A reverse gear, for instance, and on my Slingshot SL test vehicle, a reverse camera. Also, a Bosch electronic stability control and forged aluminum roll bars.

Polaris builds two levels of its 3-wheeler. The base Slingshot, finished in metallic gray, costs $20,959 including the delivery charge. The pearl red Slingshot SL is $24,959 and adds larger wheels, a weatherproof audio system and a low windscreen.

The simplest description of the Slingshot would say that it has a steel tubing space frame enclosing a General Motors Ecotec powertrain, all wrapped in plastic body panels. Despite the otherworldly visage, much of what bystanders cannot see is actually familiar. The 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, which produces 173 horsepower and spins to 7,000 r.p.m., is essentially the engine that served in the Pontiac Solstice.

The front suspension design uses conventional automotive control arms (though done in forged aluminum rather than stamped steel). The rear, appropriately, uses a motorcycle swingarm layout, its motions controlled by a hefty coil-over-shock unit.

Whatever the Slingshot should be called is less important than how it delivers on the promise of its appearance. Preparing for the first drive may be more disruptive than an attempt to define the Slingshot.

Putting on a helmet, but sitting in a chairlike seat rather than straddling an engine, reminded me more of driving a racecar than being on a bike. The visible frame tubes and low seat, barely off the ground, only reinforced the impression.

I quickly came to terms with that and soon dismissed my initial concerns over whether tall S.U.V.s and 18-wheelers would see me on the Interstate. (The Slingshot’s large blind zones are more worrisome.) Its wide stance — the front track spans 69.1 inches — takes longer to reconcile, and there’s a soundtrack of mechanical noises not heard on motorcycles or in cars.

All of that fades quickly, though, once you’re moving down the road. The engine is willing, and the 5-speed manual transmission shifts effortlessly; enthusiastic use of both kept mileage in the mid-30s.

Compared with a top-level sportbike, the Slingshot is hardly fast, having roughly the same horsepower but, at 1,740 pounds, more than three times the weight. The same math applies to the brakes: They are competent, but do not have the arresting-hook immediacy of a sport motorcycle.

A low seat and wide-open cockpit make for a purist, and somewhat throwback, driving experience that typical convertibles just don’t provide. The ride is delightfully compliant, and the Slingshot corners swiftly and accurately. More important, I detected none of the handling quirks, driving by myself or with a passenger, that are unavoidable in machines configured with a single wheel in front.

I would say that the Slingshot I drove — a preproduction example — had some room to grow. The exhaust exits under the front floor, making ear plugs, which I always wear on a motorcycle, a necessity. The bar-type gas gauge is so tiny that it went unnoticed for miles, and the accelerator pedal was too stiff. All are small, easily corrected niggles.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
If one must parse the terminology, the Slingshot is much closer to being a car than to its official designation of motorcycle. Beyond the obvious, there are other minor reminders: a parking brake between the seats, an ignition lock and turn signal stalk on the steering column.

Texas seems to have its own point of view, last week notifying Polaris that the Slingshot could not be registered there as a motorcycle for road use because the operator sits in a seat rather than straddling the machine’s backbone.

Polaris told dealers that the Slingshot had been approved by the state’s motor vehicle department, which then changed its policy. Shipments to Texas have been stopped, and the company is working to resolve the matter. When that happens, Texans will be able to join the fun.

Whatever unfinished business there is in the Slingshot’s first release will, I’m certain, be resolved by devoted owners who assemble in online forums to work out turbocharger kits and a thousand other upgrades. It has that degree of cult appeal.

As a tweener, the Slingshot runs the risk of meeting the wants of no one. Polaris has smartly avoided that fate, devising a roadster that is attention-getting, responsive on the road and thoroughly entertaining.

The SL version costs about as much as a base Mazda Miata or any number of decked-out large-displacement motorcycles, but that’s no measure of what an altogether different breed of machine it is. It stands alone as a recreational diversion that doesn’t need justification.

If only it leaned to turn corners.

A Somber Anniversary


Battle of Belleau Wood WW1, Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Me
It is 100 years since the first world war broke out. Brian Harris’s photo essay marks the anniversary by capturing the stillness and symbolism of the battlefields. He talks to Simon Willis

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2014

One evening last March, Brian Harris stopped his car at the side of the road near Douaumont in north-eastern France and walked into the forest. After about 50 yards he came to a trench winding its way through the trees. He’d been there earlier in the day, but the light had been too sharp, the shadows cast by the trees too deep, and children from a school party had been running up and down the trench, their picnic laid out nearby. But now the light was softer, and the woods were gloomy and quiet. “I wanted to photograph the darkness where that trench went,” he says. “I knew that if you dug down into that ground you would find bits of body. In that forest there are the remains of men. Those roots are feeding off men.”

He was standing on the Verdun battlefield, one of the bloodiest of the first world war, which began 100 years ago this July. During ten months of fighting in 1916, up to 976,000 French and German soldiers were killed or wounded at Verdun. Many of the dead were never found. “To stand in a wood and listen to the quiet,” Harris says, “and realise that 100 years ago, where you’re standing, was carnage—that’s chilling.” The trench he photographed led from Belleville to the front line and the fort at Douaumont. “It was a pathway to death.” His image—haunted, sombre, terrifyingly tranquil—is his elegy.

Although most of the pictures here were taken last winter, they are the result of a 45-year fascination. In 1969, when he was 16 and living in Romford in Essex, Harris went on a school trip to Belgium. “We stayed in Blankenberge, played on the beach, got drunk on Stella Artois. And we went to Tyne Cot cemetery on the battlefields of Passchendaele. None of us had a clue. I was utterly taken by what I saw. I just couldn’t believe that each headstone represented a life.”

Two weeks later, he joined a Fleet Street picture agency as a messenger boy. He went on to become a photographer at the Times and then the chief photographer at the Independent in its early days, when it was bringing a new elegance and soulfulness to newspaper pictures. As well as covering famines, presidential campaigns and the fall of the Berlin Wall—a subject he returned to for Intelligent Life in 2009—Harris’s interest in the war kept taking him back to those battlefields and cemeteries. “I did little stories about the re-carving of headstones, or the burial of bodies.” In 2007 he collaborated with the writer Julie Summers on a book called “Remembered”, a photographic history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. “I see myself as a historian with a camera,” he says.

The photographs here are the culmination of this work, and his most personal yet. He chose to travel in February and March, when the forests and fields would be free of undergrowth and crops, the trenches and shell-craters well defined, and the light muted. His picture of a line of trees stretching to the horizon on the Somme would have been impossible to take in the summer, when the trees coalesce in a mass of cheerful greenery. And the form of the photograph—the trees as a bare column heading to the ridge, a dark contrast against the sky—is integral to its power. “As soon as I saw the trees I said, ‘Soldiers going into battle, look at them’. The line of trees follows the route of the advancing British troops. That horizon is the German defence line. Men died in that field, attacking that ridge.”

The placid surfaces of these photographs tremble with this mixture of stark fact and strong feeling. Harris knew the history of his locations, and would then sink into their atmospheres. “I have to honour those who fought and died with my time,” he says. “Sometimes I would walk for an hour in a wood or field before taking a photograph.” His knowledge carried him beyond the obvious. Behind him on the Somme was the stately red-brick memorial at Thiepval, but it was the trees that shook him, none of them more than 95 years old. At the Lochnagar crater at La Boiselle—one of the largest on the Western Front—he was walking the rim when he saw a wreath hanging from a fragile branch, intimate and easily missed. “The crown of thorns. That’s what I felt when I took that picture.”

Looking at his images now, Harris thinks of a painting, “Menin Gate at Midnight” (1927) by William Longstaff. It shows ghosts rising from the ground on the plains outside Ypres. “I think you could superimpose those ghosts onto my pictures. I was photographing a ghost story.”

Top Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, Belleau, France

Simon Willis is digital editor of Intelligent Life

Photograph Brian Harris

Sonic Architecture


~ Posted by Charlie McCann, November 6th 2014

When the Australian composer and producer Ben Frost released his fifth album, “A U R O R A”, earlier this year the reviews were rapturous. Rolling Stone called it “unrelentingly menacing”, Drowned in Sound said it was a piece of “aural suffocation” (in a good way), and both picked it as “Best Album of the Year So Far”. Frost, though, is more low-key. His albums, he has said, are “over-glorified business cards”—adverts which get him well-paid commissions (he has written music for ballet, opera and film) and bring audiences to his live shows. He has been touring “A U R O R A” since April, and is playing six nights in Britain next week. It’s only live that you hear the album’s terrifying architecture. Listening to it on headphones is like reading a book about brutalism: it doesn’t do justice to its scale and weight.

An architect is certainly what Frost sounds like when you talk to him. When I spoke to him recently, he referred to sounds as “objects that have texture and shape”, and composing as “an arrangement of space”—which suggests his music is meant to be felt as much as heard. In August in a small south-London club, he played “A U R O R A” so loud and so deep that the audience couldn’t help but feel it. He has likened the pounding of the kick drum to “the externalisation of the human heart”. Shake your head all you like—as the drums thundered my heart hammered, and I began to wonder if it might leap out altogether. Some of the people pressed in close around me looked ecstatic, but plenty looked uneasy: the room cracked with the synthy snap of chain against metal; the air around us walloped with what felt like the weight of concrete slabs. On the small, dim stage, Frost was bent over his equipment, carefully adjusting knobs and dials—though he may as well have been operating a forklift.

In contrast to his previous albums, “A U R O R A” is more militant and synthetic-sounding: there are no guitars, piano or stringed instruments. Instead, he uses heavy percussion, synths and lots of distortion, and he processes the sounds through his computer. The result is a portentous mass of noise undergirded by simple rhythms and melodies that emerge occasionally from the aural chaos. These primarily recall the rhythms and melodies of techno, trance and industrial music, although, with a recurring bell motif and occasional brass burps, there are some classical flourishes. But this kind of music—the kind that hits you in the solar plexus—isn’t produced by simply turning up the volume. It also involves playing sub-bass sounds: frequencies so low they’re not so much sounds as they are thrums, of the kind you’ll feel if you place your hand on a subwoofer.

As PA systems grow in sophistication, musicians and sound designers are exploiting a wider range of sonic frequencies—ones that steal ever further into the realm of the physical. A range of artists—from the Seattle drone-metal band Sunn O))) to the Portland noise artist Pete Swanson and the London DJ duo Raime—have, in the last few years, been experimenting with low-end music that gets at the gut. The music magazine the Wire has called it “a live performance trend”.

But Frost thinks technology will take us further still. As absorbed as he is by music’s effects on the senses, whether aural or tactile, he’s intrigued by how advances in medical technology might improve upon our limitations. “Twenty years from now, I think we’re very likely to be able to have our ears upgraded so that we can perceive a wider range of frequencies—or by-pass the ear entirely,” he says. “I’m personally really excited about that. Every time the fucking jack cable rips out of my headphones when I stand up too quickly and I have to put it back in, there’s always this little moment where I want to jam it straight into my skull.”

Frost might be looking to the future, but he should just look at what’s right in front of him: the people at his gigs, forced to listen with their whole bodies, already have their skulls full of his music.

Ben Frost The Haunt, Brighton, Nov 10th; Thekla, Bristol, Nov 11th; Capsule, Birmingham, Nov 12th; St John at Hackney Church, London, Nov 13th; Gorilla, Manchester, Nov 14th; Howard Assembly Room at Opera North, Leeds, Nov 15th

Charlie McCann is editorial assistant at Intelligent Life


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