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Sunday, 26 February 2017

Dad’s 1950s Films

After posting recently about Nevil Shute and the R100, I found myself dreaming about the film of his book On the Beach which I saw around the age of ten. If you know it, you might wonder how a ten year old in 1959 got to see something so pessimistically awful and depressing. It was because my dad took me. We went once or twice a year from perhaps as young as four. It was always to see what he wanted to see. I had no idea what was on.

Over the next couple of weeks the names of other films came back. I am surprised to be able to recall twelve titles, all from before the age of twelve. They were mostly nautical, or about the war, or both, and are listed below with links to trailers or clips, together with my own vague, idiosyncratic, reconstructed childhood impressions.

What an unsuitable catalogue of horror they are: casual violence; cold blooded killing; wartime death and destruction; the stuff of nightmares. Although most had ‘U’ certificates meaning Universal or suitable for children, that does not mean they really were. Films tended to be restricted more often because of sexual content than violence. The films I saw would now be considered highly inappropriate for children. But fear not. I think I emerged undamaged. For most of the time I was completely mystified as to what was going on: a feeling not experienced again until I sat through films in French during foreign exchange trips to Belgium.

Just as with everything else, children have to learn how to make sense of the special language of film and moving images, and those of us born before every home had a television would have came late to this kind of literacy. It was especially true for me. We did not get a set until I was around twelve, and as I went to my grandma’s on Saturdays I never went to Saturday morning children’s cinema. It is no surprise I did not understand the films I saw. Sometimes I don’t even now.

We can now easily look up film release dates and work out my age at the time, although they may have taken a few months to reach our small Yorkshire town. 

Shane (Certificate A, released April 1953, aged 3)

Shane had lots of shooting and fighting in magnificent landscapes. It also had an ‘A’ certificate which meant children were allowed to see it only if accompanied by an adult. It is pretty violent. Did my dad really take me to see this aged four at best?

He always enjoyed a good ‘cowboy’, as he called Westerns, and I remember his infatuation with Alan Ladd’s quick draw, but how can I be sure it was this particular Alan Ladd Western we saw? On seeing the trailer again now on YouTube, I feel sure it was indeed Shane. Not even a four year old could forget nasty Jack Palance’s flat nose, deep-set eyes and wide cheekbones. 

The Student Prince (U certificate, released June 1954, aged 4) 

The only film not to have guns, ships or aeroplanes. Not at all what you would think my dad would see. Despite being only four or five I retain some faint impressions. It was in colour and there was lots of singing, most memorably the Drinking Song, “Drink, Drink, Drink”. My dad believed he could sing as well as Mario Lanza whose voice was used in the film.
The Dam Busters (U certificate, released May 1955, aged 5)

Some of my dad’s school friends had flown in bombers, and many had died in them. He talked about having a drink one wartime Thursday evening with a lad who flew as a navigator and had to return to his squadron on the Monday. He was terrified. He was lost over Germany a week later.

The Dam Busters might have given my dad some idea as to what it was like but all I saw was lots of aeroplanes flying. The only incident I specifically remember is the black dog belonging to one of the pilots being run over and killed. It was most distressing. Today people only get upset at its unfortunate name.

Thanks to Uncle Mac and Children’s Favourites we can all still hum the iconic theme tune (‘Derrr der der der de de der der’). I also subsequently learned that some of the aerial sequences were filmed over the River Don at Goole, otherwise known as the Dutch River, a dead ringer for the Dutch canals.

Reach for the Sky (U certificate, released July 1956, aged 6)

Another war film. Kenneth More walks about with a stiff upper lip and even stiffer legs playing Douglas Bader, the amputee wartime fighter ace. Again there were lots of aeroplanes but More’s delivery was far too fast and clipped for my Yorkshire ears.

Around the World in 80 Days (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)

Another display of British stiff upper lip, this time with David Niven playing Phileas Fogg who bets he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. He arrives back five minutes late, losing £20,000. The twist is that because he travelled eastwards he gained a day, so wins the bet after all. That was useful in school Geography, years later.

Afterwards I always recognised David Niven and remembered the odd name of his character from before it became a brand of crisps, and also that of his sidekick Passepartout. The film now seems like an attempt to get the most stars possible into one production, but I knew none of them at the time.

The Battle of the River Plate (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)

My dad especially liked films about the sea because his grandpa had been a captain and his cousin was in the merchant navy, so he knew all about it. Three Royal Navy cruisers chase the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee around the Atlantic Ocean. There was lots of naval shelling and one of ours, the Exeter, was hit and caught fire. The main thing I remember though, was wondering what on earth was a “pocket” battleship.

Dunkirk (U certificate, released March 1958, aged 8)
I remember this quite well, especially the terrifying Stuka dive-bombers with their wailing sirens, and men queuing chest deep out into the cold sea to be picked up by small civilian boats. I wonder whether the new film to be released this summer will be anywhere near as good.

I was fascinated by my dad's personal acquaintance with small boat owners on the Yorkshire Ouse who had sailed down to Ramsgate to take part in the evacuation. 

The Vikings (A certificate, released June 1958 , aged 8)

Did my mum really know what my dad had taken me to see – a violent certificate ‘A’ Norse saga?

Kirk Douglas with his ridiculous dimpled chin has his eye pecked out by a falcon and leaps about with a disgusting blind eye for the rest of the film. When he dies at the end his body is cast out to sea in a burning Viking longship with dragon heads at the ends and a big square sail.

I recognised other actors who later became familiar as having been in the film, most notably the tousled head of Tony Curtis and the lined face and wide toothy grin of Ernest Borgnine. The most memorable thing however was the theme tune played over a backdrop of animated Viking scrolls. I can still hum it after nearly sixty years.

A Night To Remember (Certificate U, released July 1958, aged 8)

A film about the sinking of the Titanic, said to be the most historically accurate of them all. Kenneth More’s stiff upper lip made another appearance but with working legs this time. I remember thinking I would not want to be a stoker down in the boiler room, and also asking what was wrong with the wobbly guy who drank the best part of a bottle of whisky which later supposedly protected him from the cold, but don’t think I followed much else at all. Events take place calmly and without panic so as not to frighten the passengers – or the audience.

On The Beach (Certificate A, released December 1959, aged 10)

A film about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Only the Southern Hemisphere remains inhabitable. To the strains of Waltzing Matilda, men spend interminable boring hours in a submarine sailing from Australia to America to investigate the source of telegraph signals which they discover are caused by a bottle suspended as much as your disbelief from a fluttering window blind so that it rests upon a Morse key which happens still to be powered and switched on. They then go back to Australia where everybody either kills themselves or dies of radiation sickness. It is so boring that the trailer has to focus on telling you how good it is rather than showing you excerpts from the film. Oh well, Nevil, at least it would have put an end to those brutish and uncouth Yorkshire women, as you describe my grandmother’s social group in your autobiography.

Sink the Bismarck (Certificate U, released February 1960, aged 10)

The fifties have ended but my dad is still taking me to see yet more rousingly patriotic films about the war at sea. Again we see Kenneth More and his unintelligible stiff upper lip. H.M.S. Hood explodes when hit in the magazine (armoury) by a German shell but we begin to get our own back when we attack with torpedoes delivered by Fairey Swordfish biplanes. I still know the names of all the English and German battleships.

The Alamo (Certificate U, released October 1960, aged 11)

At last I get to see something I had asked to see: Davy Crockett in his bizarre hat – basically a dead raccoon on his head with its tail hanging down the back. There were lots of people fighting, riding horses and shooting each other. It was just as boring as my dad’s films.

I had only wanted to see it because of the Davy Crockett song (thanks to Children’s Favourites again):
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.

Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.
But the song wasn’t in the film. I didn’t like John Wayne’s sanctimonious voice either. 

Davy Crockett was the last one. Soon afterwards we got a television which put paid to our joint cinema outings for a decade.

I may have forgotten one or two. I definitely remember going to see Bambi at some point, but it wasn’t with my dad and certainly not in 1942 when it came out.

I think we only went to the pictures together twice again, for The Battle of Britain in 1969 and Murder on the Orient Express in 1974 which we saw in Leeds. That was another film with a lot of stars. My dad wanted to see it because of Lauren Bacall.

Now I wish we’d gone more of course.

The links to the trailers on YouTube may cease to work if blocked by the copyright owners.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Real Marigold Hotel

Amanda Barrie, Paul Nicholas, Bill Oddie, Lionel Blair, Dr Miriam Stoppard, Dennis Taylor, Rustie Lee and Sheila Ferguson

Watching the second series of The Real Marigold Hotel (currently on Wednesdays on BBC1) makes me wonder what the elderly celebrities say to each other when the cameras aren’t rolling. In particular, has Bill Oddie apologised to Lionel Blair for what now seems the less than politically correct song ‘Les Girls’ he wrote to end the sketch about the Miss World contest in the ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ New Year Special broadcast on BBC Radio Four on the 31st December 1970.

The song later re-appeared in a 1975 episode of ‘The Goodies’ called ‘Chubby Chumps’, described on a fan site as follows:
The 'Housewife Of The Year' contest in 'Chubby Chumps' is kicked off by Bill masquerading as Lionel Bleeeah performing a very camp rendition of 'Les Girls' with the help of a troupe of pink-suited male dancers. As Bill sings "Boys, she'll really make you a man ..." one of the dancers sashays up to him and utters "Oh will she make me one too?!" and at the end of the song Lionel prances off the stage hand in hand with another of the dancers before Terry (Graeme in disguise) introduces the judges and housewives.
This, of course, is from the era of shows such as ‘Are You Being Served?’, ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’, when racist and homophobic comedy was endemic. Those who weren’t around in those days look now in sheer disbelief that they were ever broadcast. And apart from all that, the ISIRTA/Goodies song was so unjust to Lionel Blair anyway. But it so happens that I recorded the ISIRTA programme, and still have it. Here is my transcript:

And so with a fitting climax to this annual cavalcade of beauty, let’s take one last look at this sparkling line of lovelies. Yes, here they are, Lionel Bleeagh and his boys, to sing their tribute to Les Girls.

[spoken over intro music]
Come on come on come on lads. Are you ready?
John! John! Straighten your tie.
Slow down I’ve got a ladder.
Let me climb up it.
Cheeky cat.
That’s enough!
It’s not enough.
Butch voices, right?
Right hard face.
One two three ...

[sung to showbizzy tune which begins a bit like ‘Back Home’ by the 1970 England World Cup squad]
Les Girls, Just show us the way to
Les Girls, Let’s do it their way.
I’m a red blooded fella with hair on my chest,
I got my hat got my cane and a pink woolly vest.

Les Girls, I'm simply astounded,
Les Girls, I'm completely surrounded
By dimple cheeks and beautiful curls.
Les Girls. Les Girls.

I’m as butch as the next man.
I’m the next man.

Les Girls, Oh that’s what they call us.
Les Girls. We’re the gentlemen’s chorus.
I love the way they wiggle of their big blue eyes,
I love the low cut dresses. Oh just my size!

Les Girls, I wanna kiss them quick.
Les Girls, I think I'm going to be sick.
Big big diamonds, rubies and pearls, [and me]
Les Girls. Les Girls.

Oh you’ll do a lot of things you never knew you could do,
If you’ll only let a woman get a hold of you,
Boy she’ll make you a man.
Will she make me one too?
Les Girls. Les Girls. Les Girls.

[spoken on telephone]
All right all right! Director General Here again. We don’t want any nancy poofta nonsense on the B.B.C. Let’s have some nice seasonal entertainment. Some jolly Christmassy songs. Eh? Not too late for those.
[on to Censored Bawdy Christmas Songs sketch]

Oh dear! I’ll be carefully observing the interaction between Bill and Lionel.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Hi there Duggy!

A student sends an awkward email to an eminent professor

Early in the nineteen-nineties, I came across a strikingly enlightening piece of research which suggested that girls who work together can be much better learners than boys. It was an experiment in which pairs of eight-year-old children worked from an interactive multimedia videodisk – a very new and unusual experience at the time. Some weeks later they were asked to write essays about it on their own. The surprising result was that girls who had worked with other girls remembered twice as much as either boys or girls paired in other combinations.* There were many other aspects to the experiment too, making a useful contribution to the idea that educational software can encourage collaboration as well as individual learning.

I stumbled upon this research as a newly appointed lecturer at a recently upgraded northern ex-polytechnic, hoping to develop a career by devising innovative courses about the new technologies. I asked each student to lead a short seminar discussion about a published research paper they had chosen from a list. One student, let us call him Arshad, chose the paper about the pairs of children and the videodisk. 

Email was also relatively new in those days. Some university staff still resisted its use, and those who welcomed it were having to come to terms with the accessibility and informality it brings. We took pains to educate our students about the possible pitfalls. It seemed inevitable that it would sometimes be used inappropriately, but it was with disbelief that I read the email Arshad sent to the author of the research paper.

The author was Professor Dougman Fairwood, an eminent and influential Head of School in a top Russell-group university, author of numerous books, review articles and research papers across a wide range of topics. He had been awarded several high-value research grants, guided no end of doctoral students to successful completion, served on government advisory committees and was internationally respected in his field. You get the idea. Most of these over-achieving professors are pathological workaholics and take themselves very seriously. They get upset if you don’t address them formally, or fail to treat them with the respect and deference they think they deserve.

This is the email Arshad sent:

Subject: Study questions?
Hi there
Hows it going, My name is Arshad A-----, Im a student at --- University, Currently I am reviewing one of your publications titled “--------- ------------ --- ------- --------”. I would be very gratefull if you would be so kind to answer a few questions reagding the study.
1 - Was there any initial assumptions taken into account about the children taking part in the study? (if any, how valid were the assumptions?).
2 - Taking a retrospective look at the study, how well do you think the study was carried out?, do you think anything was overlooked in terms of implemantaion or methodolgy?
3 - Do you think your study has any implications or links to other ideas?
4 - How importantly do you think your study is relevent today and more importantly in the future?
Thanks in advance
Arshad A-----.
It was not long before an angry reply was circulated to staff.
Dear Colleagues

The attached is a message received both here and by my co-author, and comes, apparently, from a --- University student. The student does not identify his Department, so I’m sending this complaint to the Heads of Psychology, Education, Computer Science, Engineering, Multimedia and Information Systems, with a copy to the Vice Chancellor.

Your student appears to be writing an assignment on one of our papers, and the questions that we are being asked would be just the kinds of questions that a tutor might set. Is it your practice to have your students get the answers to their questions by doing the equivalent of looking at the back of the book? Obviously not, and you might want to take some action to inform the student about your preferred practice.

But the main reason for writing is to complain about the e-mail itself. The interrogational style had ---- and I phoning each other to ask what was going on here. Speaking for myself, I am decidedly cheesed off with this e-mail. Being asked to justify the validity of my own assumptions, or the relevance of my work, is something that I do not expect from a student hoping to pass a term paper. Of course, if you believe that your student is doing exactly the right thing here, then I would be especially grateful to hear from you.

Best regards

Dougman Fairwood.

Professor Dougman P. Fairwood BSc PhD DSc CPsychol FBPsS
Head, School of -----
University of -----
I can think of at least five so-called rules of email etiquette Arshad ignored, but even had all been correct, the content was way out of order. Students may well have genuine grounds for writing to staff at other universities, but they should always pass it by their own supervisors first. They certainly should not do it in such a clumsy and tactless way.

I drafted a grovelling apology but never had to send it. It turned out that our Head of School had already apologised on behalf of the university believing that Arshad had been looking at the paper for his final-year project. No one ever associated his email message with the course I was teaching. That was fortunate because at the very next conference I attended, I got into conversation with the friendly chap sitting next to me and asked his name. “I’m Doug Fairwood,” he answered. “Going for a coffee?” We had an interesting chat about interactive talking books.

When Arshad’s seminar came along it was fairly obvious that either he had not understood or had not read the paper at all. He still graduated that year with a respectable degree – well, he was a nice enough lad and the university did not like us to fail people. I wonder what he’s doing now.

* One possible reason for the girls’ so much stronger recall is rehearsal. Girls, being more sociable, seem more likely to have talked about their experiences afterwards, possibly in play. Strangely, the authors did not consider this in their paper.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Restless Friend

From Great Heck and the Norfolk Broads to Southern Rhodesia: the contrasting lives of childhood friends.

High on the mantelpiece in the back room of the house where I grew up, were photographs of my mother and father taking turns to wear a captain’s hat at the wheel of a houseboat on the Norfolk Broads. My dad’s pipe is jauntily raked at an angle that would not have been out of place in someone commanding a much larger vessel. He puts on a show of self-importance while my mum looks relaxed and happy. How young and carefree they seem; from a time before I was born. 

My dad remembered this post-war holiday fifty years later. They went with his school friend Freddy and wife Sylvia. My mum, Freddy and Sylvia went on ahead because Dad had to work the first Saturday. He took his suitcase in the firm’s van and was dropped off at Heck railway station, between Selby and Doncaster, where he took a direct train to Norwich. He remembered the splendid sight of Ely Cathedral in the evening sun. He was young, the war was over and he was off on holiday with his new wife and friends: for all of them the future was rosy. 

You might be surprised to learn there was ever a direct train from Heck to Norwich, but during the war the tiny station at Great Heck gained unusual importance due to its proximity to No. 51 Heavy Bomber Squadron, R.A.F. Snaith, a short distance along a country lane between Heck and nearby Pollington. Also at Pollington were army barracks and one of the largest Women’s Land Army quarters in the country. Some 3,200 extra personnel were drafted into a village of 650. My dad’s train was a residual wartime service. He actually caught it on the very last Saturday it ran.

Great Heck has no railway station at all now. It disappeared around nineteen-sixty along with its neighbours at Temple Hirst, Balne and Moss. My dad once took me there in the nineteen-fifties to watch powerful Atlantic and Pacific locomotives race through non-stop on the East Coast Main Line between York and Doncaster. By then the station had already declined into obscurity and might never have been heard of again had it not been the site of the terrible Great Heck rail crash in February, 2001. Even that is often referred to as the Selby rail crash.

Pollington Airfield has also gone. A few derelict hangars remain but the runways and taxiways have all but crumbled and the site is used now by haulage and storage companies. For much of the nineteen-sixties and -seventies it was a popular off-road spot for learner drivers to make their first juddering attempts at starting, steering, stopping and changing gear.

Back in the photographs, it is Freddy’s cap they are wearing. On leaving school he had initially begun to train as a ship’s officer, but wartime on the ominous North Atlantic convoys had left him restless. He exchanged his sextant for the cricket team and a job in a railway office. The drudgery was too much. While my dad remained in his small Yorkshire town, Freddy left for the champagne air of colonial Southern Rhodesia, seeking excitement and adventure over caution and insularity. Sylvia followed soon after with their two young children. That is what wives did in those days whether or not they really wanted to. 

They left in 1952 and lived very comfortably for a time. Whites in Rhodesia had servants, sizeable houses with pleasant gardens and swimming pools, and good health care and education. The climate was wonderful and it was one of the richest communities in the world. I don’t know whether Freddy ever came back. Online ships’ manifests only show Sylvia and the children spending five months in Yorkshire without Freddy in 1955, but the records are incomplete.

What I do remember is that each Christmas Freddy sent my dad a subscription to the Reader’s Digest. My dad thought it the affected urbanity of a smug high-flier and was irritated by the complacent, patronising content. But children have time to read such things: the features such as ‘Laughter the Best Medicine’, ‘Humour in Uniform’, ‘Life’s Like That’ and ‘Test Your Word Power’, the biographies and articles on technology and medicine, the condensed books. I still, for old time’s sake, go straight to the piles of back-issues in holiday cottages and waiting rooms. Thankfully my word power fairs better now. It is easy to see why it was once one of the highest-circulation periodicals in the world, despite all the junk mail that comes with it.

The gift subscription continued into the nineteen-sixties despite nothing ever being sent back in return, not even a Christmas card, as we did not know Freddy’s address. It may have been in Bulawayo. One year the subscription stopped. Perhaps he had decided not to bother any more. We gradually forgot about it. It was a long time before we heard what had happened.

Two decades later, Sylvia unexpectedly returned to England, alone and penniless. It transpired that Freddy, clever with money, had made a small fortune on the stock market, but had also developed an alcohol problem. Eventually he left and moved to Hong-Kong where he later died. Sylvia had remained in Rhodesia (by then Zimbabwe) until, forced by the economic and political situation there, she returned to Yorkshire. She had not been allowed to bring any money out of the country. She came back to be near her daughter, but her daughter died fairly soon afterwards. Sylvia spent the rest of her days in our small Yorkshire town on benefits in a bedsit, surrounded by second-hand furniture.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Dill in Mustard Sauce?

“But dill is a herb!” My wife looked at me in such a way she did not need to use the word ‘stupid’. I still thought I was right.

“They’re little fish - dill in mustard sauce.”

She began to sound exasperated. “It’s a herb. You wouldn’t get dill in mustard sauce. That would be like having basil in Worcestor sauce or parsley in pineapple marinade.”

I sighed. “There was a tin in one of those Christmas hampers your mother gets from the pension company: a tin of dill in mustard sauce. They were little fish. She gave it to us and they were really nice.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t sild?”

“No it was definitely dill. As in a shoal of dill.”

The dictionary made no mention of dill as a fish, only as Anethum graveolens, a European, pungent, aromatic, umbelliferous, annual yellow-flowered herb of the celery family Apiaceae, used in flavouring pickles or to relieve excess wind, although in Australia and New Zealand it colloquially means a fool. I said we should get a better dictionary.

At Christmas, I can usually guess my presents before I unwrap them, but this one had me wondering. It was too hard for a paperback and the wrong shape for a DVD. In the end I had to unwrap it without guessing. It was two tins of John West herring fillets in mustard and dill sauce.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Mighty Micro

In August, 1978, Dr. Christopher Evans, a psychologist, computer scientist and world-leading expert on the future of computing, placed a letter in a time-capsule at the London Planetarium. He hoped to be present when capsule was re-opened in the year 2000.

The capsule was sealed at the press launch of Omni, a glossy futuristic science magazine. Asked why the proposed opening date was so close, Evans replied that although it was only twenty-two years away, the changes about to take place during these two decades would be so stupendous as to transform the world beyond recognition. The computer revolution would bring about more changes in the next twenty years than in the whole of the two previous centuries. We were about to experience rapid, massive, irreversible and remorselessly unstoppable shifts in the way we lived.

Evans’ letter listed four predictions about which he felt most confident. One was that the printed word would become virtually obsolete; another was that computer-based education would begin to supplant teachers; a third was that money, in terms of physical bits of metal and paper, would almost have vanished; the fourth was that substantial and dramatic advances would have taken place in the field of artificial intelligence. His only uncertainty was about the pace of change. His predictions might take a decade or so longer, or they might occur more quickly.

Sadly, neither Evans nor Omni survived to the year 2000. Evans died in 1979 and Omni ceased publication after the death of its founder in 1997. It is not even clear what happened to the time-capsule or whether it was opened. The London Planetarium closed in 2006 and its building is now called the Star Dome and houses Madame Tussaud’s Marvel superheroes attraction.

Before his untimely death, Evans was however able to explore and expand his predictions at greater length in his 1979 book and ATV television series The Mighty Micro. As well as the four predictions in the letter, he thought we would soon see self-driving collision-proof cars, robotic lawn mowers, doors that open only to the voices of their owners, the widespread commercial use of databases and electronic text, a ‘wristwatch’ which monitors your heart and blood pressure, an entire library stored in the space of just one book, a flourishing computer-games industry and eventually ultra-intelligent machines with powers far greater than our own. Every one of these things seemed incredible at the time.

But it was the social and political predictions that were most mind boggling. Evans foresaw a twenty-hour working week for all, retirement at fifty, interactive politics through regular electronic referendums, a decline in the influence of the professions because of the widespread availability of specialist information, the emptying of cities and decreased travel as we worked more from home, and the fall of communism as underprivileged societies become astutely aware of their relative deprivation. 

I remember how fantastic and exhilarating this view of the future seemed at the time, but it gave me a serious problem. By 1979, having escaped my previous career in accountancy, I was more than half-way through a psychology degree trying to work out what to do next. If Evans was to be believed, and I believed a lot of it, then most of the then-present ways of earning a living were in jeopardy.

What was I to do? The answer seemed obvious: something that involved computers. So like Evans, I looked for ways to combine psychology with computing, and after gaining further qualifications that is what I did. From this perspective it is fascinating to revisit Evans’ predictions, thirty-eight years after he made them, and seventeen years after their target date. How many were correct, what would have surprised him, and why?

Some who have revisited Evans’ book have tended to conclude he got more things wrong than right, but I am not so sure. Undoubtedly, he over-estimated the pace of change, especially the emergence of advanced artificial intelligence, yet recent commentators insist this is now imminent. Stephen Hawking, no less, has warned of the terrifying possibilities of machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails. On the other hand, it may still be as far away as ever. It remains unclear what qualities such super-intelligence might have, or indeed whether intelligence might actually have an upper limit (rather like the lower limit to temperature). Perhaps our inability to imagine these things defines our stupidity.

What of Evans’ not-so-bizarre predictions? I think many of them were right, albeit a little later than anticipated. Taking his three other most confident predictions: the printed word no longer predominates, but has not been displaced entirely; computers now pervade education, although not in the way Evans imagined; and nearly all significant financial transactions are now carried out electronically. 

Many of Evans’ other predictions have also come about. Self-driving cars are almost here, and we already have automatic urban metro trains, vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers. Smart locks and personal biometric monitors are available if you want them, and the whole twenty terabytes or so of the American Library of Congress could be stored on a less-than-book-sized hard-drive. No reasonably complex business could now function without computers and the computer-games industry is one of the biggest wealth creators in the world.

Where Evans was wrong, if can be regarded as wrong, was that he was no seer. He was unable to foresee the innovative new uses of computers. He only saw them from the viewpoint of the nineteen-seventies. Rather as early motor cars were understood as ‘horseless carriages’, he could not escape the prevailing mindset of their time. Those who do, if they also have the luck and determination to see things through, become world-famous billionaires. Evans was no Henry Ford or Bill Gates.

Dr. Christopher Evans talks about educational software
Take computer-based education for instance. Evans correctly envisaged that it would become important and pervasive – he thought it would be built upon deeply engaging techniques from the computer games industry – but along with most other computer experts in the nineteen seventies, he thought it would take the form of computerised teachers that assumed a didactic, tutorial role in leading, coaching and directing individual learners through subject matter. Few foresaw how much we like to learn in social groups rather than in isolation at home, or that we do not react well to being closely directed by machines. There was little understanding of how computers could be effective in education, such as in providing learners with tools for research, for modelling data and for exploring educational environments. In this, human teachers become guides and facilitators rather than instructors. The outcome that we still have just as many expensive teachers and costly school buildings as ever is perhaps what would have surprised Evans most.

A more unequivocal example of what Evans and other futurologists of the time failed to anticipate is the internet, then still more than a decade away. Evans makes no mention of hypertext and hypermedia. Multimedia crops up only in the form of a brief mention of “colour graphics”. Graphical user interfaces (windows, icons, mouse and pointers) were still little more than a research project at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. Anything beyond text-based command-line interfaces were regarded by most computer scientists as inconsequential playthings. It was also thought more likely that computers and telecommunications would combine through “the family television set” rather than personal hand-held devices. Evans did foresee basic speech interfaces, but it seems not to have occurred to him that one day computers might handle touch, gesture, emotion, 3D, virtual reality and so on. All this was hidden over the horizon.

And if you could not foresee these things, there is no way you could imagine how they would be used. Evans, with a seemingly naive view of human nature, imagined we would all be using computers to improve ourselves and make our lives easier; that our leisure time would be devoted to cultural, artistic, philosophical, scientific and creative endeavour of various kinds. I wonder what he would have made of internet pornography, fake news, selfies and cat videos. I do hope blogging would have met with his approval. 

Evans’ over-beneficent view of human nature coloured his vision of the social and political changes he thought would take place. Take the twenty-hour working week and retirement at fifty. I feel certain that, had we wanted it, the efficiencies brought about by computers could already have reduced our working hours and years significantly, but we have never had it offered. It would upset too many powerful interests. Governments answer to the establishment rather than ‘the man in the street’. As a result, for those who have jobs, the trend today is the complete opposite. And for those who don’t – well, wouldn’t it be fairer to share the jobs out?

Imagine if twenty hours per week up to the age of fifty was all we had to do. What would happen? For a start there would be those who decided to take on additional work in order to fund superior accommodation, private education, health care, better holidays, a more luxurious lifestyle and a more comfortable old age. Anyone content with just one job would begin to lose out. To keep up, we would all continue to work more than necessary, and the extra wealth this generated would evaporate through increased spending, inflation, and rising house prices, and disappear into the pockets of the elite minority. Does that sound familiar? The only way to avoid the inevitable self-satisfied winners and miserable losers would be to ration the amount of work one could undertake, or the amount of wealth one was allowed to have. The necessary laws and financial penalties would be difficult and unpopular.   

And how would we use our over-abundant spare time? Without appropriate social structures in place to support it, one could easily imagine an intensification of social ills – epidemics of obesity, alcoholism, drug dependence, mental health issues and the breakdown of law and order.

Where computers have brought about efficiencies, then ‘Parkinson’s law’ – the adage that work expands to fill the time available – takes up the slack. Anyone with experience of large organisations over several decades will know how work that would once have been considered inessential or unaffordable now occupies an entire additional workforce to administer functions concerned with quality, accountability and so-called ‘political correctness’. Much of this is government-imposed bureaucracy. Rather than reducing the overall workload, computers have increased it by making possible what was once impossible.

The effects of globalisation – the free movement of wealth and labour around the world – were also not fully anticipated. Some of the wealth from the computer revolution has been distributed internationally, with manufacturing and administrative tasks ‘outsourced’ to other countries.

Stephen Hawking concluded his forewarnings about super-intelligent computers as follows:
Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far the trend seems to be towards the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
Perhaps this is why we do not have regular electronic referendums, despite their technological feasibility. They would risk returning the ‘wrong’ results. You only have to look at ‘Brexit’ as an example. Our U.K. politicians won’t even allow us proportional representation. Even where communism did fall as predicted, it has not always been replaced by fairness and democracy.

It seems that most of the wealth that might have funded our “life of luxurious leisure” drifted upwards to a wealthy minority, with crumbs falling downwards and outwards across the global multitudes, while the gap between the richest and the poorest in society gradually increased. And so we work longer hours and more years than before. The professions and middle-classes hold out with a struggle, but for how long?

Christopher Evans died shortly after his book’s publication, three weeks before the first part of his six-part television series was broadcast. It is often said that if you make predictions about the future the only certainty is that you will be wrong. Evans would have known this, but I suspect he would have been fairly satisfied by the extent to which he was right.

The best evidence of this is that the book and television series now seem mundane and ordinary, with little of the ‘wow’ factor they once undoubtedly had. But they are worth reading and watching again if these things interest you.

All six episodes of The Mighty Micro are available on the Internet Archive, linked below. Some are also available on YouTube. 
          Episode 1 – The Coming of the Microprocessor
          Episode 2 – Of Machines and Money
          Episode 3 – The Political Revolution
          Episode 4 – The Introverted Society
          Episode 5 – The Intelligent Machine
          Episode 6 – All Our Tomorrows 
The last programme, introduced by the series producer Lawrence Moore after Evans had died, consists of interviews with four leading thinkers of the time: Tom Stonier, Professor of Science and Society at Bradford University; I.J.Good, the professor of computing science who coined the term ‘ultra-intelligent machine’; James Martin, a database expert; and Barrie Sherman, a trade unionist. It gives a fascinating view of the future as seen in 1979.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Hornsea Pottery

I broke my little plate the other night: my treasured Hornsea Pottery Fleur seven-inch side plate. I knocked it off the end of the washing up rack on to the cooker hob. It’s a disaster – so distressing.

I once had much more of the same: breakfast bowls, dinner plates, cups and saucers, a milk jug. I bought it all from the pottery shop at Hornsea in the nineteen-seventies but gave it to someone whose set had pieces missing when I moved house a long time ago. Later, I found I still had the little side plate along with a couple of egg cups and storage jars. I have used the plate almost every day since. Only me: it’s my plate.

Hornsea Pottery was based in the out of-the-way Yorkshire seaside town of Hornsea to the north-east of Hull. One of my friends had a family caravan there on the cliff top to the north of the town. We sometimes hitchhiked there for the weekend, or after I learned to drive borrowed my parents’ Hillman Super Minx for the day. We would play football on the sandy beach, hoping the ball would not get blown away by the wind, or walk along searching for fossils in the muddy debris of the rapidly-eroding cliffs. You could find different types from different periods dragged down from the north during the last ice age. And if we got bored there was always the Marine Hotel for an under-age pint.

My friend spent most of his sixth form and university summers at the caravan earning good money as a pottery tour guide. The student guides used to compete to spin the tourists the most outrageous lies. Goodness knows how many went off believing there was a machine called a ‘frigger’ that could turn out fifteen thousand pots per hour.

The pottery expanded to a second site in Lancaster in 1976, and then in 1994 branched out and opened Hornsea Freeport, said to have been the first Retail Outlet Village in the country. Initially the Freeport was very successful but it now struggles to compete with better located outlets such as Junction 32 at Glasshoughton near Castleford. The Freeport survives but the pottery is long gone from both sites. They stopped making the attractive light green Fleur tableware in 1992, and closed for good in 2000. I was last in Hornsea around 2001 when the pottery had become a depressing scene of rusting machinery, discarded clay and sad derelict buildings beyond a high wire fence. It is now a housing estate. Some think the Freeport may sooner or later be heading for the same fate. 

Some things you can’t change, but I can do something about my plate. I have ordered a replacement on ebay. I’ll probably try to kid myself it’s the same one.

An online directory of Hornsea Pottery is at