Target London – Where’s the damn map?

January 15, 2014

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Target London, by Christy Campbell, tells the story of the second London blitz of 1944 by unmanned flying bombs and supersonic rockets.  The story is told in detail – great detail.  In fact, the first half of the 400 pages, before the first V-1/buzzbomb/doodlebug hits England, is at the same time extraordinarily tedious and gripping, narrating as it does the years of intelligence work that preceded the first attacks.  We have a front seat on the bureaucratic infighting, brilliant and difficult personalities, blunders and  intellectual coups transpiring as the British sifted through mountains of intercepted messages, once they had cracked the Enigma codes, of course.

All of this was done before the digital age had dawned, although they did have the essential help of the earliest of computers, which they called “bombes.” All very, very, Ultra secret.  Only a select few were allowed to be “in the picture.

Part of the British intelligence game was not letting the Germans know how much they knew about what the Germans were doing. Giving that game away would prompt the Germans to change methods, tighten up security, adopt different covers, which would then have to be blown again.  There was a lot of deception, misinformation, cover stories, hoaxes, some of which seems to have amused the directors greatly.

When the Germans finally got their V-1 (V for victory and revenge, revenge for the British terror bombings of civilian urban centers) buzzbombs flying into London, the engineers needed accurate information on where they struck. This was essential for evaluating and improving their performance.  Juan Pujol, a London-based Spanish  double-agent under British control was tapped by the Germans to report. They wanted information on bomb strikes plotted on a London map, ruled into squares, a grid.  As Campbell relates:

Juan Pujol, agent Garbo, still had to get the right map on which to plot where the Maikäfer [Maybugs - the German nickname for the V-1] were falling. It was proving a problem. Garbo radioed his control, and bought the Baedeker guide to London from a second-hand bookshop. But Control insisted on the Pharus version. Garbo’s research took him to the British Museum Library, where he found “the only copy in existence. I learn that the German map was edited in 1907 and therefore is very antique indeed. It seems to me very strange that the war plans are worked out in Berlin on such antique maps.”

But now, at least, everyone was working from the same grid.

Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, made the idea of gridded London famous.  In the first part of the story, exactly that type of map – it probably was not a Pharus! – is tacked to the wall of the flat where Teddy Bloat, Tyrone Slothrop, and other servicemen are living during the V-2 assault.  The map shows a strange convergence of data:  Slothrop’s female conquests and the rocket strikes seem oddly congruent.

Ah, yes, if you are not all using the same set of coordinates, your data will be meaningless.  I know about that personally.  Here is the map that the German rocket masters wanted to use – German, of course – and very nice indeed.

il_570xN.492779607_o6ju  20622-01

Well, it’s not just German commanders who have some problems with maps:

HOTSPUR: Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower, Will you sit down? And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!

I have forgot the map.

GLENDOWER: No, here it is.

William Shakespeare Henry IV (Part 1)

The British were able to defend against the V-1 to some extent.  Fighters and anti-aircraft guns could shoot some of them down, and their noise and relatively low-speed provided warning to civilians.  The V-2 was a different story.  Here is another peek at a stamp issued late in 1944, I think, that celebrates the launching of the ultimate revenge weapon, the V-2 rocket, against which there was no defense possible.  The image is pure propaganda: rockets ascended vertically and were never launched in such salvos.  Just as British intelligence confused and conflated the flying bomb and the true rocket for a long time, this stamp combines the powerful launch of the V-2 with the slanting trajectory of the V-1, which was shot from a ramp.

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Here is a reconstructed V-1 on a launch ramp.  As you can see, the ramp is light, and easily transported.  The Germans developed portable pre-fab ramps after the Allies started bombing their hardened launch sites.

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The bombing wasn’t all that effective, but it did disrupt testing and perfecting the V-1.  Precision bombing isn’t all that it was cracked up to be in those days, or today.

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The work of building the flying bombs and rockets was moved to a fantastic underground system of factories excavated and manned by slave labor overseen by civilian engineers and managers. Wernher von Braun, later the leader of the American rocket development effort for war and peace, was as undisturbed by these facts as are the suited civilians in second photo below.  These incredible color photos were taken by Walter Frentz, a colleague of  Leni Riefenstahl, apparently as part of propaganda/selling job for the project.  Notice how nicely groomed the slaves are.  Of course, those needed for skilled technical labor stood the best chance of surviving.  More photos and history at this excellent site.

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“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.   

Tom Lehr

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Ground-Truth

May 18, 2013

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Bellagio is a beautiful place, set on a promontory between two arms of Lake Como, the Swiss Alps in the distance, lush vegetation all around, mild climate…no wonder Stendhal, Manzoni, and Virgil, to name a few, loved it.

Searching for the location of our hotel, after booking it online months ago, I saw this image on GoogleMaps.  A villa with a front lawn extending the width of the town?
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Last week, I found myself there, walking that grassy avenue, the Vialone.  It was built by the owner of Villa Giulia, visible on the right, with formal gardens at the lakeside, so that he could have an unimpeded view of both arms of Lake Como.  It’s always a bit strange to find oneself walking terrain that one has previously only known from a map or aerial view.  Was someone watching me from above?

The Vialone terminates in a flight of steps down to the lake on the western side.
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Walking the Vialone in the direction of Villa Guilia, facing east.
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Melville on Vere on Melville

November 19, 2012

From Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, on Captain Vere, emphasis added:

… not only did the captain’s discourse never fall into the jocosely familiar, but in illustrating any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time, he would cite some historical character or incident of antiquity with the same easy air that he would cite from the moderns. He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such allusions, however pertinent they might really be, were altogether alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the journals. But considerateness in such matters is not easy in natures constituted like Captain Vere’s. Their honesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.

I think he could have been describing himself and his own prose.


Soul

September 27, 2012

Soul is a novella by Andrey Platonov, who also wrote the fascinating, disturbing, and enigmatic Foundation Pit.  Thanks again to the NYR Books imprint for publishing these new translations.  The story tells of a young engineer who returns to his homeland to ‘save’ the Nation that gave him birth.  It’s a very mystical and dreamlike take on Stalin and the ‘nationalities problem.’  It reads like a metaphysical poem crossed with a J.G. Ballard story, and the language is less difficult than that of The Foundation Pit, but no less precisely styled, at least as far as translations allow us to glimpse it.

The ethnic group from which the hero springs inhabits the area shown in the yellow circle of the map above, one of my collection.  I like maps of that region:  they are so incomplete, so lacking in clear national boundaries, standing in the cross-roads of colliding and migrating cultures.  Also, the Aral Sea is there, a great monument to modern hydrological radicalism.  The NYRB edition includes a map of the region:  the different shape of the Aral is not due only to changes in mapping science in the intervening 300 years; it’s disappearing rapidly.

I have not read all of the stories in this collection, but The Return, the wrenching tale of a WWII veteran coming home after the war, and The Third Son, the very short story of the return home for the funeral of their mother of an old man’s six sons, are remarkable.  Both stories leave us with a sense of the transcendent humanity inherent in universal domestic events.

Platonov was a remarkable genius.


Maps in the News!

March 21, 2011

The grid of streets in Manhattan is celebrating its 200th birthday this week.  The urban grid itself has a much longer history than that, of course, going back at least as far as the Greek settlement in Turkey at Miletus.

Evacuation zones are on the minds of many who are watching developments at the Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan:  A map of similar zones for NJ was published in several newspapers recently.  An article in today’s Times indicates that these cartographies of danger are more fantasy than reality.  Not in the sense that the dangers are not real, but in that the ‘plans’ associated with the maps are infeasible.

Which leads me back to a more benign example of zones of influence that is similar in form, but different in intent from these buffer zones of horror – personal space.

her fame had spread itself to the very out-edge and circumference of that circle of importance, of which kind every soul living, whether he has shirt on his back or no,-has one surrounding him…But I must here, once for all, inform you, that all this will be more exactly delineated and explained in a map, now in the hands of the engraver, which with many other pieces and developments of this work,will be added to the end of the twentieth volume

from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne


Rogues Gallery

August 13, 2010

 

Some movies are more fun to think and talk about than to watch, and I found High Sierra and The Big Steal to be two of those.  Sure, Sierra was pivotal for Bogart’s career, and it is seen as the hinge between the older gangster genre films and the coming film noir, but it just didn’t move along smartly enough for me, much as I liked parts of it. 

Roy Earle (Bogart) comes to the mountains to plan a heist as soon as he is contacted on his release from prison.  He’s older than the crooks running the action now, but these young thugs don’t know anything about anything.  Why on earth do they bring a dame to the hideout?  Marie (Ida Lupino) looks pretty nasty here, but it turns out her heart is golden – not exactly noir territory.

Earle is getting too old for this life, and he is bewitched by a young girl he meets by chance when he helps her family on the road.  He spins dreams of marrying the lovely young thing, and he pays for surgery to correct her mild club foot.  He plays gracious benefactor to the family.

   

Back in the cabin, Roy has feverish dreams of crashing out.  Crashing out of prison, crashing out of his life into a world of respectibility, love, and freedom.  Marie watches him from the other room and senses the depth of Earle’s torment and alienation.  Okay, we’re getting into noir here…  He’s not just a gangster.

 

Earle promised to come see the girl when she was up and walking, despite the fact that she rejected his offer of marriage.  He finds her gussied up and dancing with her fiancé, a stuffed shirt from back home.  Earle sees just how absurd his dreams were for a guy like him.  She doesn’t seem so innocent anymore either.  Everything just turns to trash…

 

The heist doesn’t all go so well, and a chase into the Sierras ensures.  The police communicate by telephone and radio to capture the rat in their trap.  Thumbtacks on a map indicate the ineluctable convergence of the forces of law and order.  Maps have always been instruments of state power.

  

Earle is trapped in a rocky aerie in the mountains while a media circus gathers at the foot of the slope.  Minute by minute newscasts inform the public of his actions and inevitable demise.

A map and a car chase figure in The Big Steal also.  The film is a road movie/comedy/gangster caper.  It has a happy ending, so can we really call it noir?  Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer play a couple thrown together by their mutual desire to capture the lying cad, William Bendix.  He has the two grand she gave him as a loan after they were engaged as well as a much larger sum he filched from an army payroll run.  Mitchum seems like a crook but turns out to be the guy in charge of the payroll who was framed as a fall guy for the heist – he’s out to clear his name and retrieve the loot.  It takes a while before Mitchum and Greer believe each other’s stories and team up for keeps.  During the chase, he says to her, “I’ll believe your story if you’ll believe mine.”   Shades of Don Quixote and Bob Dylan!

Don Quixote coming to the squire, whispered in his ear, “Heark ye, Sancho; since you would have us believe what you say,touching the things you saw in heaven, I desire the like credit from you, with regard to those things I saw in the cave of Montesinos. That’s all.”   Cervantes - Don Quixote

I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.    Bob Dylan - Talking WWIII Blues

   

The chase has many twists, turns, and reverses.  Sometimes she drives!  Looking sharp in a cut silk dress she and he spot their man at a swank hotel.

  

The local police inpsector is playing cat and mouse with all of them, and improving his English along the way.  Only she speaks perfect Spanish of the gringos.  In the hotel, after a tussle, it looks like they finally have him for good.  Of course, he gets away – the film has a reel left.

 

A light moment while the couple pretends to be lovers eloping in order to gain the sympathy of a road construction crew that is blocking their route.

During the final showdown, with everyone in one room and a lot of guns being pointed in different directions, there is this wonderful sequence of two close-ups in very quick succession while the couple communicates their plan of attack.  It’s successful, of course.

  

Geez, another happy ending!  It’s putting me in a bad mood.


New World Order

June 16, 2010

Circa 1540, a map of the New World.  I saw this at the New York Public Library exhibit on the history of mapping the NYC shoreline.  The same image with coloring is shown below in an image from the University of Houston.  A description of the map from a  dealer follows.

Amazing image!  Looking at this, one understands what that common phrase, The New World, really meant!

An early example of Munster’s map of America, first issued in 1540. The earliest map of all of America and the first to name the Pacific Ocean (Mare Pacificum). It is also one of the earliest depictions of Japan. The depiction of North America is dominated by one of the most dramatic geographic misconceptions to be found on early maps—the so-called Sea of Verrazzano. The Pacific cuts deeply intov into North America so that the part of the coastline at this point is a narrow isthmus between two oceans. This was the result of Verrazzano mistaking the waters to the west of the Outer Banks, the long barrier islands along North Carolina as the Pacific. The division of the New World between Spain and Portugal Spain and Portugal is recognized on the map by the Castille and Leon flag planted in Puerto Rico, here called Sciana.


Hey, man! That’s cool.

January 15, 2009

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Things aren’t looking too hot here in the USA for 2008.

Read more here at the excellent post on climate science, Watt’s Up with That?


Drainage on my mind…

December 10, 2008

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The other night, I caught the tail end of a special on the The History Channel called “The Sewers of London.”  Wow, that must have drawn quite an audience…but I was watching.  It described the horrors of cholera and typhus in London before the scientists had sorted out the causes of these scourges.  The miasma theory (infection borne by odor) which was wrong, but which nevertheless motivated great public works that led to spectacular gains in public health, dominated the medical establishment.

The Great Stink of the the mid-19th century in London arose from raw sewage dumped right into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water.  The theory of water-borne disease was not accepted, and Pasteur’s germ theory was not developed yet.  Get the stink away and the cholera will leave – it was common sense!

bazelgetteEnter Mr. Bazelgette, heroic engineer of the Victorian Age.  (Alas, we  have these giants  no more!)   He built a huge gravity drainage system that directed the city’s sanitary waste to two large pumping stations, from which it was lifted into giant holding reservoirs.  (They must have been a frightful sight when full!)  When the tide on the Thames was going out to sea, the reservoirs were emptied into the river, and the sewage was carried downstream, away from the city.  “The solution to pollution is dilution,” as they say in the engineering world.  Today, the beautiful Thames Embankment, imitated the world over, including in New York City’s Battery Park developments, sits on top of the massive gravity sewers designed by Mr. B.

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Around the same time, Doctor Snow made his famous map, dear to epidemiologists and cartographers, that showed the incidence of cholera in a neighborhood he studied.  He inferred correctly that the cases were all linked to the snow_mapsource of their drinking water, a local pump.  To test his notion, he dared to remove the handle (take note, Mr. Dylan) and the frequency of cholera deaths in the area dropped suddenly.  Case closed!  Disease is carried by…something…in the water, not by smell!

Which brings us to Alida Valli, the woman at the head of this post, the love interest of Harry Lyme (Orson Welles) who meets his ignominious end in the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. I heard about this film from my mother, at a very young, formative age. Was I, perhaps, conditioned by what Pynchon calls the “Mother Conspiracy, ” just as poor Slothrop was? Is that why I now make my living fiddling with drainage systems and subterranean infrastructure? Well, leaving aside my hydraulic-psychoanalytics(and Freud was, I recall, very fond of hydraulic metaphors) it’s a great film.  And if you think I’m the only one who spins strange associations off of this film, read this appreciation of Ms. Valli.

I recently saw Valli in another film, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a not-so-great film in which she plays a wonderful femme fatale. Yep, she did it, she get’s hanged.  The film’s location shot of the court struck me as it showed the corner blasted away from a bombing raid – it was shot in 1947.

And on the subject of sewers and culture, check out:

  • He Walked by Night - Richard Basehart kills and is killed in this Los Angels noir featuring a climax in the storm sewers
  • V by Thomas Pynchon – Benny Profane searches for the albino alligator rumored to lurk within the New York system
  • Need I say it, Les Miserables, which includes an entire chapter devoted to the history and importance of the Paris sewers, and includes some deprecatory words on the modern ones
  • Various memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto – hiding and escaping in sewers was common
  • Adolf Loos’ emphasis on plumbing as the standard by which civilizations are to be judged
  • Gibson’s novel featuring The Stink, The Difference Engine

There are other items I’m sure…send me your finds!

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