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Sunday, 28 August 2016

‘A’ Level Geography 1977

A nostalgic look back at the 1977 Joint Matriculation Board ‘A’ Level Geography Paper

“Le Creusot,” I enunciated excitedly in my best ‘O’ Level French accent as we sped past the road sign. “That’s one of the most important steel producing towns in the country.” The others in the car yawned.

Some hours later there was a sign to Montélimar. Rod and Tony started to sing George Harrison’s ‘Savoy Truffle’ but instead of joining in I said “Great! We’re getting near the André-Blondel hydro-electric scheme at Donzère-Mondragon. And we’ll soon be near the Marcoule nuclear power station.”

I had been like that all day. Rod and Tony must have been pretty fed up with the running commentary. We were driving down through France on our way to Provence and I was prattling like a poor Geography text book about the country’s electric power and industry. Having memorised most of the sketch maps in A Map Book of France by Tussler and Alden for ‘A’ level, I thought everyone ought to be fascinated by French economic activity. 

Such is the power of knowledge. It gives you the means to bore everyone else to death in the mistaken belief you are being interesting.

Geography was the second subject I took late at ‘A’ Level. It was going to be History but just as with English, the Woolsey Hall correspondence course started badly. The first half dozen pieces of work on Tudor and Stuart England came back from the tutor in Clacton-on-Sea graded from Very Good down to Weak without any clear indication why. Correspondence courses are not always a good idea, especially in subjects that benefit from face-to-face discussion.

But then, a couple of strokes of good luck. An old school friend, now a Geography teacher, suggested his subject would be more straightforward. He gave me a one-evening crash course and overview of the syllabus, and I decided to switch. Then, a friend of a friend lent me her impressively thorough notes from a few years earlier. They were full of splendid sketch maps and diagrams of river valleys and other landforms. She had got a grade A. You could almost fall in love with someone through the beauty of their ‘A’ Level Geography notes.

So I did Geography on my own, without a formal course, and got away with it. I bought a copies of the syllabus and previous papers, analysed them carefully, pared everything down to what could be achieved in a year and planned my time meticulously. Just as in English Literature, the Geography syllabus offered an excessive amount of choice, which meant you could omit complete sections. Again, you were allowed to take away the question papers after the examinations, so here they are (click to enlarge). My son, who took ‘A’ Level Geography in recent years, was surprised by the high quality of the supporting maps and photographic materials.


Section A: Geomorphology. On first sight it seems you had to answer one question from three, but as the second question was an either/or on different topics, it was effectively one from four.

There were questions on lakes, erosion in different climates, landforms and coasts. It looks like I went for Question 2(b) on landforms.

I enjoyed this part of the syllabus and covered more than necessary. I still pretend to be knowledgeable about such things when out in the countryside, and have kept my copy of the wonderful Physical Geography by P. Lake.

Of the accompanying images, Photograph A was obviously the magnificent Flamborough Head which I know well. Please could someone enlighten me as to the location of Photograph B?

Section B: Meteorology, Soils and Vegetation. You had to answer just one question from these topics. In other words, you could omit two thirds of the syllabus here. I prepared the question on soils. Consequently I am still unable to distinguish stratus, cumulonimbus and other cloud formations.

Section C: Economic Geography. You were required to answer two questions from six.

Candidates still attending school would have carried out field studies covered by Questions 9 and 11(a), but not me. 1977 may have been the last year you could get away without doing a practical element.

I am no longer sure how many topics I did prepare, but it looks like my answers were on hydro-electric power, cotton and maritime fishing.

The street plan for Question 11(b), which I avoided, I can now identify as part of Bristol. 


Section A: map reading. One compulsory question.

The map covers an area to the south of Chatham in Kent.

Many faced map reading with trepidation but for me it was the part of the examination about which I felt most confident. Just like a driver with a few years’ experience, several years of country walking had made me certain I was an expert. It serves as a warning not to rely on confidence alone. Afterwards, I thought I had messed up this part so badly as to fall short of the grades I needed for university (BB or BC). I put in late Polytechnic applications and received offers of DE and EE. They turned out to be unnecessary.

Sections B and C: Europe (3 topics) and other parts of the world (7 topics).

Sections B and C cover ten topics in all, with a choice of six questions on each topic. You had to answer a total of three questions including at least one from each section. As there was nothing to stop you choosing two questions on the same topic, you could get away with preparing only two topics out of ten.

I thoroughly prepared B2 France and the Benelux countries (on which I answered two questions) and C6 the U.S.S.R.

Despite approaching it in a very strategic way, I liked this part of the syllabus too. It was great to find out more about the Charleroi area – the location of my foreign exchange trips while still at school (I had A Map Book of the Benelux Countries too). And in part C, I was captivated by the romantic and mysterious places of Asian Russia, such as Novosibirsk, Petropavlovsk and the Silk Road towns of Samarkand and Tashkent, then still little known behind the iron curtain.

Rod and Tony should have been thankful we were only spending a day driving South through France rather than a fortnight across the Soviet Union.

The full list of topics in Sections B and C was:

B1 West Germany, Norway and Sweden
B2 France, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands
B3 Italy Switzerland and Austria

C1 The U.S.A. and Canada
C2 Latin America (including the West Indies)
C3 Africa
C4 India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka
C5 Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia and New Guinea
C6 The U.S.S.R.
C7 China and Japan

Monday, 25 July 2016

My Picture Book of Ships

On the bottom shelf of my dad’s bookcase were some of his childhood books. He was nearly as daft as me for keeping things. There might have been many more treasures but for mum’s propensity for throwing things away, although the bookcase was sacrosanct, even to her.

I always knew he had them, of course, but never took the time for anything more than a superficial glance at the pictures. He must have treasured them greatly. All have his name and address inside and some also the date.

The earliest and most dilapidated is My Picture Book of Ships which he got in 1926 at the age of five. To a child at that time the cover must have looked thrilling: the vast bulk of the ocean liner soaring proud above the waterline, the towering hull and funnels, the dense spray from the bow-wave hinting at the rumbling power of the great engines and propellers, the huge anchor tight against the ship’s side. People yearned to travel in the luxury of these floating palaces. They were the dream machines of their day: the supersonic jets, the Lamborghinis, the spaceliners, the high speed trains, the earth moving machines, the ice road truckers. Even their names implied substance and opulence: Majestic, Britannic, Olympic, Leviathon, Edinburgh Castle.  

We used to look at it together when I was little. We studied the sixty two illustrations but never read it. The text tells of two children, Tom and Betty, who ceaselessly ask Father question about ships. They also play at ships: Tom is Captain and Father the pilot, while Chief Officer Mother sleeps “on watch” below and poor Petty Officer Betty gets ordered around.

Father of course answers all their questions patiently, knowledgeably and at length. He tells them about how the voyage of an ocean liner is organized, how sailors are trained, shipbuilding, shipwrecks, coal and oil power, sail, cargo vessels, lifeboats, light houses and light ships, paddle steamers and ferries. How he knew all this stuff is not clear. He just did. Perhaps he was a seaman himself, or maybe like my own dad his grandfather had been a Captain and his cousin was at sea. Oh yes, all dads knew everything there was to know about ships; especially when they had grown up in a Yorkshire port.

Dads could describe and explain all the pictures: cargo being unloaded at London docks, the Harwich-Zeebrugge railway ferry with wagons on board, a big ship under construction inside a massive gantry, and boys lining a high mast at a sailors’ training school. I certainly would not have wanted to have been the baby thrown through the air to a lifeboat in a rescue at sea. My dad used to pick me up and pretend to act it out.

But that is not what used to frighten me most. I was terrified of the strange double-page cartoons inside the front and back covers. Why a factual book about ships should contain such irreverent drawings is a mystery. They are not even proper ships. They show traumatised people in canoes, punts and rowing boats on an overcrowded river, being attacked by pigs, cows and swans, knocked overboard by clumsy oarsmen or tormented by badly controlled fishing lines. They all have ugly ears, gaping mouths and grotesque faces. I could never bear to look. It is still difficult now.

As Nick Ross used to say: “Don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well.”

My Picture Book of Ships published by Ward Lock & Co. (c1922) is believed to be out of copyright.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Side By Side Images in Blogger

(An off-topic post)

This post shows how to change the default layout of multiple photographs or other images in Google Blogger so that they appear side by side on the page instead of sequentially underneath each other. It works for two, three or more images. It can also be used for videos.

There are different ways to do this. Some people suggest using HTML tables, others using an image editor to combine several images into one. I have used both these techniques elsewhere in my blog, but the following is simpler. As well as being simple it has the advantage of keeping the images separate so that if desired any one could be changed later.

First upload your images in the normal way by means of the Insert Image button on the toolbar. Let us assume for now that you have just two images. By default, Blogger displays them consecutively on the page, one above the other as shown below. The issue with this is that readers might have to scroll quite a long way down before they come to the next piece of text.

To put the images side by side, go to the HTML part of the editor. At the top left click the HTML tab as indicated and you will see the underlying code for the page, like this:

You now need to find the code for the images. The file names for mine are Image01.jpg and Image02.jpg and you can see these names each inside the middle of some complicated looking chunks of code. But in between these chunks you can see the following which begins at the end of one line and continues on two more lines (as highlighted above):

           <br />
           <div class="separator" style="clear">; both; text-align: center;">

All you then need to do is to delete this section of code. Be aware that, depending on how you have uploaded your images, the <br /> line might appear more than once or might be completely absent. If there is more than one then delete them all. If it is absent then don't worry. Basically you should just delete everything from </div> to .... center;">.

Be very careful not to delete anything else. Do not delete anything other than </div> at the end of the first line. You might want to make a copy* of your blog post first so you can recover if you make a mistake.

After deleting the code, your images will be positioned like this:

Technically, what this achieves is to place both images inside the same <div> section of the page, rather than in separate divisions as occurs by default. 

You might have problems if your images are too wide for the page layout you are using. You will have to resize them. For example, my images are portrait orientation and set to the Blogger Medium size, but if they were in landscape orientation then they would not fit across the page. The second image would overflow to the next line so they would still appear one above the other. I could get round this by using the default Blogger Small size instead of Medium. 

You can use this technique to place three or more images side by side by deleting the two lots of intervening code. For three images I do need to resize them to Small to get them side by side across the page as shown. This works when viewed on a computer. It might not always work when viewed on smaller-screen devices such as phones and tablets.

To display a greater number of images side by side, even the default Blogger Small size might overflow to the next line. I can get round this by specifying the size of the displayed images directly, but this requires more detailed editing of the HTML code which needs greater care.

The code for each image will look something like the following. It specifies the image size, in this case height="200" and width="133".

<img border="0" height="200" src="" width="133" />

If I reduce these dimensions by a scale of 0.7 so that height="140" and width="93" then it is possible to place more images across the page.

Readers can always click on the images to look at them full size.

In the above I have also removed the code style="margin-left: 1em; margin-right: 1em;" associated with each image (i.e I have had to remove five instances of this) to reduce the margin spacing and pack them closer together.

The remaining frames and shadows around the images are defined at a higher level - the css level - and will appear on all images on all posts on your blog. It is possible to remove these too, but to do so for a single image is beyond the scope of this post. However, if you want to remove the frames (but not the shadows) from all images on a single page, then insert the following code in the HTML editor at the very beginning of the blog post.

     <style type="text/css">
     .post-body img, .post-body .tr-caption-container, .Profile img, .Image img,
     .BlogList .item-thumbnail img {padding: 0; border: none; background: none;}

Be very careful when editing HTML. It is so easy to wreck the whole page or lose it irrecoverably. When you have a lot of content it is usually best to play safe and make a backup copy.*

To see another example, I have used this technique for the cigarette card album at the end of my post Cartophilic Concerns. However, the first composite image in that post was put together using an image editor.

Finally, you can also use these techniques to place videos side by side. In the following, the video thumbnail images have been resized and placed within a single division rather than the default two. Again, this has the proviso that it works when viewed on a computer but not necessarily on phones or tablets, or in email feeds.


* One way to make an exact copy of a blog post is to go into the HTML code editor, place your cursor anywhere within the content, press CONTROL-A to select all the content, then CONTROL-C to take a copy. Close the window (do not save if prompted), begin a new blog post and give it a name such as 'Backup', go into the HTML editor and place your cursor in the empty window, press CONTROL-V to retrieve the copied content. Save but do not publish the post, then close the window. If you then make a mess of editing the original blog post you can always delete it and rename the Backup with the name of the original.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Developing, Printing and a Trip to London

All the palaver of pre-digital photography: it seems as much of the past as typewriters and tape recorders – the business of loading the camera, rewinding, posting off the film, waiting for the prints or slides to come back hoping they will ‘come out’ all right, rationing your few remaining shots to avoid having to buy a new film, ordering extra copies for Grandma, and cluttering up drawers with boxes of colour slides, photograph albums and packets of negatives, and lofts with the slide projector, carousels and the glass-beaded screen.

And then there were those of us who took things a stage further: home processing. For that you needed another whole cupboard-full of esoteric paraphernalia.

It was Terry Hardy across the road who got me started. His dad developed his own photographs and had given him a packet of out of date contact papers. They darkened in light, so objects such as leaves or your fingers would leave a white silhouette. You could even print crude photographs from negatives in the same way. The problem was that the contact papers would continue to darken until they were completely black all over. Your silhouette or image lasted only five minutes at most.

Well, one thing led to another, and before long I was making proper prints from negatives. I turned the yellow shed into a dark room, got a device a bit like a flatbed scanner for exposing photographic paper and negatives to light for just a few seconds, and began to spend my pocket money at the local chemists on packets of contact papers and bottles of photographic chemicals: developer to bring out the images and fixer to make the prints light-proof.

With the idea of taking photographs of London, we went down on the train to stay with Terry’s grandma in Hounslow for a few days, where turboprop aeroplanes rumbled low overhead smelling of paraffin, and we had to be up early so her night-shift lodger could use the same bed. We freely roamed the Underground on our Rail Rovers (would you let two fourteen year-olds do this now?), went to the Science Museum, saw the Houses of Parliament and The Monument, howled with laughter at The Road to Hong Kong in which Bob Hope and Bing Crosby get fired into space in a capsule designed for monkeys, and got free tickets for the live Friday lunchtime broadcast of The Joe Loss Pop Show with guests The Barron Knights and regular singer Ross McManus – Elvis Costello’s dad. Actually it was a bit disappointing to find the guests were only The Barron Knights whose act basically consisted of making fun of other groups. A few weeks earlier they’d had The Rolling Stones and The Searchers.

London Airport, 1964 (renamed Heathrow in 1966)

I took my new Kodak Brownie Starmite camera (12 images of 4x4 cm on rolls of 46mm 127 sized film), but none of the photographs were any good except for one of London Airport (not yet called Heathrow): the last frame on a colour film left over from our family holidays.

I used the Brownie camera for the next ten years but always with black and white film because colour was so expensive. I could occasionally afford the flash bulbs though: disposable one-use plastic coated bulbs filled with magnesium and oxygen, sparked off by a battery. They melted when fired, leaving ash-filled knobbly glass inside the protective plastic coating.

Black and white film was easy to develop at home if you had a light-proof developing tank, and one conveniently materialised at Christmas. The most difficult part was getting the film into the tank. You had to separate it from its light-proof backing paper and feed it into a plastic spiral which went inside the tank, but you had to do it completely in the dark. The yellow shed was just about dark enough for contact printing – you could do that in the dim orange glow from the contact printer – but film was ultra-sensitive and had to be handled in pitch-black. You had to wait for night time, and then found yourself with head and arms beneath thick bedclothes, trying not to breathe on the film, getting hotter and hotter and gasping for oxygen. You really had to get a move on.

Once the film was safely in the tank the lid stayed on and you could work in daylight. It was essentially the same process as developing contact prints. You filled the tank with Johnson Universal Developer for a fixed amount of time, emptied it and replaced the developer with Johnson Acid Hypo Fixer for around a further thirty minutes, rinsed everything thoroughly with lukewarm water, took the film out of the tank and just like in Blow Up hung it to dry weighted by a bulldog clip to prevent curling. After that the negative images on the developed film could be contact printed.

It was always exciting to take the shimmering wet film out of the tank to see the dark negatives for the first time and try to make sense of what they were. You could easily have forgotten because the earlier images on the film would often be several months old. When you then printed the photographs it was fascinating to watch the images emerge under the surface of the developing fluid, trying in the dim light to judge when they were ready. 

I was never more than an occasional snapshot photographer, but my uncle gave me his old enlarger for making prints bigger than the negatives and I avidly watched the BBC series Better Photography on Saturday mornings through the autumn of 1965. The Brownie Starmite was superseded by a Zenith E, a fairly basic Russian-made 35mm single lens reflex camera for which I bought extra lenses, an electronic flash gun and extension tubes for close-ups. I later tried the much more complex process of colour developing and printing but tended to have difficulty with the colour balance (see Colours I see with). Eventually I moved on to colour slides, and home processing came to an end.

Now, of course, everything is digital and so another of those experiential manual skills has been lost to the electronic world: the exercise of judgement, the physical manipulation of the materials, the strange saliva-inducing smell of the chemicals, the satisfying darkroom perfectionism ... all gone! Instead we compile our digital albums, Photoshop our images, blog about what fun things used to be and exercise our vainglorious self-expression in all kinds of other undemanding, pretentious, posey ways.

- Maurice Fisher’s web site Photographic Memorabilia is a real treasure trove of images and information about photographic film processing and equipment.
- The images of the Kodak Brownie Starmite camera and AG1 flash bulb are by Adamantios and Gotanero on Wikimedia Creative Commons. The image of the Paterson contact printer is in the Paterson developing tank instruction booklet. Inclusion of the cover of Better Photography is believed to be fair use. The other images are my own.

- My developing tank was a Paterson Major II but strangely, as shown in the photograph, the instruction booklet supplied was for the earlier Universal II model. The difference was not significant.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Airship in the Shed

Nevil Shute and the R100

In his autobiography Slide Rule, the author Nevil Shute (1899-1960), a man of his time with attitudes to go with it, remembers serving as an engineer building the R100 airship at Howden in the nineteen-twenties. Much of the workforce consisted of local lads and girls from the farms trained to carry out riveting and other tasks high up in the ribs and spines of the airship skeleton. Of them he writes:
The lads were what one would expect, straight from the plough, but the girls were an eye-opener. They were brutish and uncouth, filthy in appearance and in habits ... these girls straight off the farms were the lowest types that I have ever seen in England, and incredibly foul-mouthed ... we had to employ a welfare worker to look after them because promiscuous intercourse was going on merrily in every dark corner ... as the job approached completion ... we were able to get rid of the most jungly types.
Whoa there Nevil! Better check your privilege. You are talking about my grandmother and her friends and cousins. They never had chance to go to preparatory school to become Old Salopians and Balliol graduates. While you spent your evenings and weekends dancing, playing badminton, flying aeroplanes and writing novels, they would be toiling away tending crops and animals in their damp and dingy dwellings. And while we are at it, why is it all right for the lads to be straight-from-the-plough, salt-of-the-earth, vital rustic types while their sisters are jungly beyond vulgarity? Too rough for you were they? You weren’t so aloof in the army:
The language of the men was no novelty to me, of course, and I could out-swear most of them, but their attitude to women was shocking to me in my immature state.
Quite! What class of degree was it you got?

The R100 in its construction shed at Howden, and later from below as my dad must have seen it.

One personal legacy of the R100 was a thin semi-cylindrical piece of silver metal, possibly aluminium, around an inch and a half long (4cm), flat on one side, curved like an airship with a round nose and tail fins on the other. My maternal grandma gave me it as a toy and it became an imaginary submarine. I think she said it was cast as part of an airship brooch but at the end of production there was insufficient metal to complete it.

My dad also had a childhood memory of the R100 when in 1929 he was taken by his dad to the construction shed at Howden. They drove there in my grandad’s Model T van across the newly opened Boothferry Bridge, the rivers swollen by floodwater. When they entered the shed and looked up my dad had no idea what they were supposed to be looking at. At 700 feet long (220m) and 130 feet in diameter (40m), the airship was as big as a street with houses and front gardens on both sides. It was so huge he was unable to see it. He thought it was the roof.

The phrase “the elephant in the room” is often used to refer to something so obvious and difficult that no one wants to talk about it. Perhaps we should use “the airship in the shed” to mean something so enormous that some people cannot see it at all, like snobbery and misogyny.

The photograph of Nevil Shute is in the public domain. The photographs of the airship under construction are from a set of postcards believed to be now out of copyright, as is the following article from 16th December, 1929.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Siemens A55

In the news recently: gasps of astonishment as billionaire Sir Philip Green, answering MPs’ questions about the BHS department store, checks his texts on a cheap, twelve-year-old Nokia 6310. Surely, you would expect him to be able to afford the latest Diamond Rose iPhone.

All kinds of reasons why he might be using such an obsolete device were suggested, including: the Nokia was made to last; battery life is outstanding; he does not want constant email interruptions; pre-GPS phones are not so easy to track; he is penny-pinchingly mean; he likes playing Snake 2.

Who knows? Maybe all of these. But I’m with you Sir Philip. Here’s mine – a Siemens A55 bought October 2003. Even older than yours! It’s a phone. It does texts. It works. And no, I do not play Stack Attack, Balloon Shooter, Move the Box and Wacko.

With O2 Pay As You Go, if you don’t top up at least once every 999 days you lose your account along with any credit balance remaining. My diary notes I need to add £10 on 13th July. It should keep me going for the next 999 days.

There is also a usage requirement. A weekly text from the bank meets that. Some weeks it’s the only time I switch it on.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Lytton Strachey

It was a most unlikely book for me to be reading, the life story of an effete, gangling, weirdo, homosexual biographer with a big nose, unkempt beard and light, reedy voice. Had I known beforehand I would never have looked at it and thus missed out on a formative literary experience and improbable source of inspiration.

I acquired Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) by negligence.* It was the book of the month from the postal club I was in, one of those that sends their selection automatically unless you tell them you don’t want it. It arrived due to my inattention.

I opened its 1144 printed pages wondering what on earth I had got, and was immediately drawn in by the Preface: an account of the time Holroyd spent researching and writing the book. He did much of this work at the home of Lytton’s brother, James Strachey, who was every bit as odd as Lytton. James and his wife Alix were psychoanalysts. It was said they had rented the attics of their house to various tenants and psychoanalysed them into such state of insensibility they no longer knew anything other than the amount of their rent and when it was due. Alix Strachey had once been a brilliant cricket player and was now an authority on cowboys. James Strachey had translated the whole of Freud’s work into English, producing a cross-referenced and annotated work of such glittering scholarship that a German publishing house was considering translating its twenty-four volumes back into German. For me, this kind of eccentricity is hard to pass by.

Lytton’s papers were stored in an outbuilding, the ‘studio wilderness’. They were in such abundance it took Holroyd five years to work through them. He describes this period as “not simply the composition of a large book, but a way of life and an education.” As he ploughed through the plethora of Lytton’s early correspondence with its detailed accounts of faulty digestion, illness, apathy and self-loathing, he began to experience many of the same ailments himself and wondered whether they could be posthumously contagious. If so, he resolved that the subject of his next biography must be someone of extraordinary vitality.

Holroyd was working from sources largely untouched for decades. He became a foremost expert in the colourful lives and characters of the now-famous Bloomsbury Group, which included the writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the post-impressionist painters Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. His life as a writer and researcher seemed hugely preferable to mine. My days as a trainee accountant were spent constructing tedious control accounts and trial balances. It was anything but an education. There had to be things more edifying than an accountancy correspondence course.

If Holroyd’s account of writing the biography drew me in, his early descriptions of the Strachey family had me hooked. There were numerous uncles, cousins and other visitors, many either distinguished, completely potty, or both. Holroyd describes them as “the flower, perhaps, of originality gone to seed.” One Strachey uncle had lived in India for five years, and subsequently organised his life to Calcutta time, breakfasting in the afternoon and living by candlelight – at least that is what the biography says, but isn’t Calcutta time some four hours ahead of London time? Was he twelve hours adrift? Shouldn’t he have had his breakfast around four o’clock in the morning?

Other oddballs walk on and off stage throughout the book. One of my favourites could have been invented by the comedian Ronnie Barker. He was “dr. cecil reddie”, the headmaster of Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire where Lytton spent the 1893-94 school year, and a leading member of “the league for the abolition of capital-letters.” In retirement he corresponded with “lytton” from his address at “welwyn-garden-city, hertfordshire.”

Having chuckled my way through the first few chapters, I became immersed in Lytton’s school and university days. I identified with his shyness and awkwardness in company, the feeling of somehow not fitting in, his difficulty in making friends. But when he got to Cambridge he began to thrive. He was elected to the Cambridge Conversazione Society, otherwise known as the Cambridge Apostles, a highly secretive group which met in members’ rooms on Saturday evenings to eat sardines on toast and discuss intellectual topics.

The Society is rumoured still to be active. Members consider themselves the elite of the elite. Membership is by invitation only and potential recruits are unaware they are being considered. But despite the secrecy, one has to wonder whether Apostles might be identifiable by their supermarket trolleys overstocked with excessive quantities of tinned fish and toasting bread on Saturdays. They need to address this security weakness urgently.

Through the Apostles, Lytton became friends with leading writers and intellectuals of the day, such as Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Rupert Brooke and John Maynard Keynes. Many of them thought Lytton one of the cleverest people they had encountered, but the immediate success he might have expected eluded him. His history degree was Second Class, his application to the Civil Service unsuccessful, and he was twice rejected for a University Fellowship. He found himself back at home in London writing reviews for the Spectator and other periodicals, and generally drifting. Churning out articles left little of his scant energy for the great work he hoped to write. Eventually, at the age of thirty-one, he did manage to produce a book, a history of French literature, but it failed to bring him either the wealth or the success he sought.

I would have been happy enough to get into any university, let alone Cambridge, and it would have been the sauce on the sardines to be invited to join a secret club as well. My not-so-exclusive group of mates who met on Saturday evenings in the Royal Park Hotel to drink five pints and tell sexist and racist jokes did not have quite the same intellectual mystique. Even so, Lytton’s life at this time seemed no more purposeful than mine, with a similar pattern of futility and wasted energies. But wouldn’t it have been nice, when feeling a bit fed up as Lytton often did, to be able to take oneself off to relatives in the Cairngorms, or to friends in Sussex or Paris? I was slave to a thirty-eight hour week with just three weeks’ annual holiday.

One of the most startling revelations of Holroyd’s book was its frank treatment of bi- and homosexuality. At its time of publication, the diversity of Bloomsbury predilections was not widely known. The exposure of John Maynard Keynes as one of Lytton’s lovers was received with considerable resentment. When President Nixon declared “We are all Keynesians now”, the world sniggered at the thought he might be referring to something other than economics.

Lytton’s proclivities also gave irony to his alleged response to the First World War military tribunal that assessed his claim to be a conscientious objector. When asked: “What would you do if you saw a German soldier attempting to rape your sister?” he is said to have answered ambiguously: “I should try to come between them.”

Neverthess, some women were attracted to Lytton, and Lytton to some women. At one point he proposed to Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), who initially accepted him, although both rapidly decided it not to be a good idea. Then, in 1915, he was captivated by an androgynous young painter, (Dora) Carrington (she was known by her surname only). Their story begins when she crept stealthily upon his sleeping form intending to cut off his beard in revenge for an attempted kiss, and Lytton suddenly opened his eyes and gazed at her. Holroyd takes up the tale: “... it was a moment of curious intimacy, and she, who hypnotized so many others, was suddenly hypnotized herself.” From that moment they became virtually inseparable. Her sumptuous portrait of Lytton is a sure statement of love. They eventually set up home together and were often simultaneously besotted with the same, usually male person. Carrington killed herself two months after Lytton’s death in 1932. Their story is told in the 1995 film ‘Carrington’.

Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

In 1918, Lytton’s fortunes changed. His book, ‘Eminent Victorians’, caught the mood of a war-shocked nation, cynical and distrustful of the rigid Victorian morality that had led to the conflict. The title is of course ironic. It dismantles the reputations of four legendary Victorians. To summarise Holroyd: Cardinal Manning’s nineteenth-century evangelicism is exposed as the vanity of fortunate ambition; Florence Nightingale is removed from her pedestal as the legendary ‘Lady of the Lamp’ and revealed as an uncaring neurotic; Dr. Thomas Arnold is no longer an influential teacher but an adherent to a debased public school system; and General Gordon, the ‘hero’ of Khartoum, is shown to have been driven by the kind of misplaced messianic religiosity all too familiar to those returning from the trenches.

‘Eminent Victorians’ reflected the attitudes of Lytton’s Bloomsbury circle of friends. In many ways they anticipated the way we live now. Their way of life foreshadowed wider changes to society, in particular the displacement of public duty and conformity by private hedonism and individuality. But the success of ‘Eminent Victorians’ was not due only to timeliness. It revolutionised the art of biography. It showed off Lytton’s virtuosity as a writer: his repertoire of irony, overstatement, bathos and indiscretion, his fascination with the private and personal. For the remainder of his life his income was at today’s prices in excess of £100,000 per year.

Holroyd’s reputation, too, was shaped by his biography of Strachey, establishing him as part of England’s contemporary literary elite.

For me the book was something of a revelation: both Strachey and Holroyd. Despite its subject matter being worlds away from my own time, place and social class, it stripped away the veils of convention and conformity that school, church, state and society had thrown over us. The parade of headstrong eccentrics showed it was not unacceptable to be different; that you did not have to follow convention or do what others expected; that not everyone has launched themselves into an upward career trajectory by their twenties; that we can all have doubts and be demoralised, yet still come good. You just have to make your own decisions rather than have them made for you.

The pop-culture philosophers had been trying to tell us much the same thing. Northern working class England in the fifties and sixties was as rigidly Victorian as the mores rejected by Bloomsbury. People worked long hours, had few holidays and were poor. Authority went unquestioned and unchallenged. Strachey and his elitist friends were no champions of the servant classes, but by the nineteen sixties the times they were a-changin’. Opportunities were there for all. For me it was not Bob Dylan or John Lennon that brought the message home, but a rare biography of Lytton Strachey. 

* It was the 1973 edition published by Book Club Associates, which was based on previously published parts. The biography was revised in 1995 to incorporate material that had become available since the earlier editions, but I still prefer the detail of the 1973 version. There is now an enormous amount of other material about Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington and other members of the Bloomsbury Group.