Monday, 15 June 2015

Key Figures In British Engineering History Who May Or May Not Have Led A Secret Double Life. Part 1 In A Series Of 1

I was talking to my choir pal Simon at the end of our practice last Monday. I don't remember the exact route of the conversation, but we arrived at blogging – his many good reasons for not writing, my abject lack of them. He offered me some discipline, challenging me to write a post by the following Monday's practice, so here I am, too proud to fail him and sneaking in just ahead of deadline.

Naturally, I'm cheating a little. This post was conceived many months ago, when I was on a temporary secondment from London living and, for five days out of every seven, I would take a morning constitutional from my incoming train at Kings Cross to the offices of Soho, Covent Garden, Marble Arch and beyond.

I would pass through Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, and sometimes Marylebone, and I learnt that all these streets will force their stories on you, if you allow yourself to make eye contact with them.

From Kings Cross, passing through a small area of Dickensian theming, you will find yourself in Russell Square, where you will see the tiled green turret that serves as the only existing relic from London's time as a fairy-tale principality. 

Though the building of the Russell Hotel has engulfed the ancient structure, it's believed that a princess still lives inside, clinging on to an archaic lease agreement and intent on rescue. Her long, long hair is now quite grey, but she believes it still to have the necessary tensile strength for ropework, thanks to her assiduous application of V05 hot oil treatments (flown up to the windows by magpies who, I think everyone knows, will do anything for cash).

Cross the square and you pass the back door of the British Museum and its heavily secure employees' entrance where you may wonder, as I do, exactly how difficult it would be to gain access this way in order to pass yourself off as a member of staff, wrap yourself in toilet paper and hide in a sarcophagi to 'surprise' groups of nervy older ladies enjoying an improving guided tour.

And then in Bedford Square, you may see a blue plaque celebrating the birthplace of the engineer and charismatic swing-band leader Harry Ricardo.

Among many other achievements, Sir Harry designed the two-stroke engine, which, I think we can all agree, is at least twice as good as the one-stroke engine.

He also had a hand in the internal combustion engine. Not literally, I hope! Ouch!

It's really hard being this funny.

And he completed a further spectrum of crucial and groundbreaking work that I tried very hard to read about but kept getting distrac

His effortless command of a 20-piece musical ensemble is, of course, less well known. This is because I made it up. But surely, with a surname that's all Latin passion and a forename of raffish swagger, Harry Ricardo was born for more than just the careful formulas of physics.

By day, toiling at the coalface of a coalface, by night tearing up the ballrooms of Paris and Palermo, Harry engineered rhythms that people only recognised from their dreams, as he slashed through the air with his baton, like Zorro in slacks.

Leading a double life that John Le Carre would consider complicated, Harry Ricardo would feint and shimmy around the suspicions of his colleagues. Lengthy absences for touring and travel were blamed on vague suggestions of field research and an ongoing nervous condition. On two occasions, that 'field research' happened to be in Hollywood, where he was subjected to campaigns of outrageous flirtation by the young starlets of the day, many of whom called him 'Hank', which he hated. Harry never said anything, though, because he was still an engineer from Bloomsbury, and while his heart did indeed boom and swing with the band, it was studded with rivets from the finest in British engineering.

Once, memorably, Harry briskly pulled out his diagrams for the internal combustion engine from his briefcase only for a handwritten note from Zelda Fitzgerald to flutter out to the floor, in full view of his science brotherhood. Harry, his mind brighter than any diamond as big as the Ritz (where, incidentally, he played often), he managed to convince the chaps that Zelda Fitzgerald was an exotic florist on Gower Street where he liked to buy peonies for his mother on her birthday. 

When the business card of the concierge at the Beverly Hills Hotel was pulled absent-mindedly from a jacket pocket, it was blamed on a mix-up at his tailors.

People did notice that, for an English engineer, he had quite excellent suits. 

And they also remarked, behind his back, on his habit of turning any set of cogs or pipes into some kind of makeshift musical instrument. His mind was so brilliant, they said, that such eccentricities should be expected, and indulged.

Had his colleagues known that from Friday night to Sunday morning (and often for whole weeks inbetween), he was utterly enslaved to the rhythms of swing, they may have doubted his scientific rationale.

But they never did know.

Coming soon: Kenneth Williams, diarist, comic actor (plaque-honoured on Marchmont Street, London W1) and kayak specialist, who saw his dreams of glory at the 1952 Helskinki Olympics disappear down the river after a faux pas in front of selectors at a team-building boardgames night.


Chris Addison said...

I have missed this blog mightily. Still my favourite thing on the internet. Funny and brilliant. I'd like Simon to challenge you more often.


Jane F said...

Seconded. Your blogging always makes me laugh. (I need to chuckle more often.)

PS Always think of Miss Jones when I see a lone glove!

Chezza said...

Welcome back Miss Jones. Even though I see you every week, I have missed your blog. Now don't stay away so long again!

Miss Jones said...

Thanks all. I just need some good old-fashioned discipline. Bring back national service.