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Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Day We Saw The Queen Mary Sail

(and C. P. Snow’s surprising digital footprint)

R.M.S. Queen Mary

My dad was captivated by ships from childhood, when ocean-going liners were surely the most exhilarating machines that would ever be built. He knew the names and colours of the British shipping lines – Cunard: red and black funnel, yellow lion on a red flag; Union Castle: also red and black funnel, red cross on a white and blue flag; Peninsula and Oriental: buff yellow funnel, blue, white, red and yellow flag – and some of the foreign ones too. It was at least partly the reason we found ourselves on holiday near Southampton, the first time we had ever been so far from Yorkshire. Once there, it was inevitable we would visit the docks.

RMS Queen Mary arriving at Southampton 1967 RMS Queen Mary departing Southampton 1967
RMS Queen Mary arriving at and departing from Southampton (click to play)

As we approached Ocean Terminal, three towering Cunard funnels told us the Queen Mary was in port. Small boat owners vied for passengers to take on sea trips to see her sail that same afternoon: an opportunity not to be missed.

Southampton pleasure boat

We boarded a launch and sped off down Southampton Water leaving the Queen Mary at the quayside. Any doubts as to why we had sailed so far ahead were soon answered. “The Mary’s moving,” our own captain announced, and within a short time she had overtaken us, a vast floating palace gliding high above us, smoothly and effortlessly as a sunlit cloud in a steady breeze. Her powerful engines were easily capable of 28 knots (about 30 miles or 50 kilometres per hour) compared to our 6 or 7. We were left bobbing like corks in her wake as she turned into the Solent. Dad remembered the day for the rest of his life.

From photographs and postcards I can work out it was towards the end of August, 1960, during the last dying years of the transatlantic passenger trade. From genealogical web sites, I can actually pinpoint the date as Thursday 25th. The Queen Mary called briefly at Cherbourg before crossing the Atlantic to arrive in New York on Tuesday 30th, a five-day voyage. Not only that, but, incredibly, you can see the ship’s manifest listing the individual names and details of every one of the 1,024 passengers and 1,203 crew under the command of Commodore John W. Caunce. It is an incredible digital footprint.

Ships manifest: RMS Queen Mary, 25th August 1960

Many of the first class passengers are Googleable, among them two writers, Charles and Pamela Snow. They were the distinguished novelist and scientist C. P. Snow and his equally-accomplished wife, the novelist and playwright Pamela Hansford Johnson, travelling with their son Philip and her teenage daughter Lindsay Stewart. Philip was just one of eighty children on board. Some of them stood on deck and followed that incomprehensible human instinct to wave to strangers in the accompanying flotilla of pleasure boats. I wonder if any of them noticed a ten-year old boy waving back.

At the time, C. P. Snow was enjoying the controversy caused by his Two Cultures lecture the previous year, in which he had lamented the gulf between science and the Arts. He had implied that many scientists would struggle to read a classic novel, and that many humanities professors would be unable to explain simple scientific concepts such as mass and acceleration, making them the scientific equivalent of illiterate. Most resented the insinuation that a poor knowledge of science rendered them uneducated and ignorant, including the acclaimed literary critic F. R. Leavis. He let loose an astonishingly abusive and vitriolic response, part of which went:
Snow is, of course, a – no, I can't say that; he isn't. Snow thinks of himself as a novelist [but] as a novelist he doesn't exist; he doesn't begin to exist. He can't be said to know what a novel is. The nonentity is apparent on every page of his fictions.
Leavis continued the attack at length, giving examples of what he said was Snow’s characterless, unspeakable dialogue, his limited imaginative range, and his tendency to tell rather than show. Others jumped to Snow’s defence, suggesting it was in fact Leavis who could not write. It was brilliant, sensational stuff, still talked about decades later. Both academia and the general public, including my dad, soaked up the spectacle in pitiless delight, entertained by intellectual heavyweights slugging it out with metaphorical bare knuckles.

None of this meant anything to me at the time, of course. It would be another twenty years before I discovered and found it greatly amusing, but my dad would have been fascinated to learn that Snow and his wife were on board. A little more Googling reveals they were on their way to spend the autumn at the University of California at Berkeley. Before their return, both, along with the prominent English writer Aldous Huxley and the American Nobel chemist Harold C. Urey, took part in seminars on Human Values and the Scientific Revolution at the University of California Los Angeles on the 18th and 19th of December. The Staff Bulletin described it as “one of the most distinguished intellectual occasions in the history of the University of California”.

If it is possible discover this much about the activities of (albeit well-known) individuals in 1960, one fears to imagine what digital footprints we might leave behind ourselves. Most of what we buy, our social interactions, our medical and educational records, our motoring activities, and so much more, are now all stored on a computer somewhere, possibly in perpetuity. I wonder who is going to be looking at mine in sixty years time.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

What Is Wrong In This Room?

Brian’s Blog recently reminded me of the puzzles in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia.

Browsing Volume 3 a month or two ago, I came across the puzzle “What Is Wrong In This Room?” which invites you to find seventeen things wrong in a drawing of, presumably, a typical early twentieth-century sitting room. It struck me how different it is from today’s homes, so different that finding all seventeen is nigh impossible. 

Arthur Mee Children's Encyclopedia

I got off to a good start: it slowly dawned on me that the door knob should not be on the hinge side of the door and that the picture above the fireplace is upside down. I didn’t spot the problems with the other two pictures though: that the one near the window is not hooked on to the picture rail, and that the hook for the picture near the door is upside down. How many rooms still have picture rails these days anyway? And what about the large skirting board? Who would spot that it is upside down in the drawing? It looks fine to me. (Score so far: 2/5).

Oh dear, but now for two I might have got with the shrewd intelligence of Miss Marple and the observational acuteness of Sherlock Holmes: qualities I clearly do not possess. The floorboards at the two sides of the carpet run in different directions (no fitted carpets then), and the hands on the clock are not in the correct positions because if the big hand is showing quarter-past, then the little hand should be past the hour rather than before. I got neither of these. It is starting to be as demeaning as University Challenge. (Score now 2/7).

It gets harder. Do any of us still have maids (unless you count wives), or coal fires for that matter? It appears that the hinged handle of the coal-scuttle is unusable – some people will never have heard of coal scuttles – and that the fire the maid is about to load with coal is a gas fire (you just can’t get the staff!). When you look carefully you can see that it is not fully inside the fireplace, and there is also a supply pipe. We used to have a portable stand-alone gas fire similar to that which connected to a gas tap by a long rubber tube. That was in the nineteen-fifties. Where did the fumes go? Poison! Perhaps that’s why my score now sinks to 2/9. 

I put my failure to identify the next ones down to the poor resolution of the drawing – a convenient excuse, I know, but did you notice that the curtain-pole support is fastened on top rather than at the side, making it impossible to put the pole over it, or that the window shutter knob is (like the door) on the wrong side? I didn’t but I’m getting irritated now because is it not possible to slide the pole through, and don’t the window shutters look like folding double-hinged ones which open out to the middle, in which case the knob would be on the right side? Who has window shutters anyway? The answers also say that the window fastener is the wrong way round (the flatter part you move with your thumb is against the window), and that the handle by which we lift the lower half is fixed back to front. I suppose when it comes down to it they are, but you’d think they would be drawn so as to give you at least half a chance of being able to see. Maybe those still with sash windows did better here. An unjust 2/13.

Did you do any better with the soft-furnishings? The box-shaped thing next to the dog is evidently a hassock – a what – a hassock, like the cushions you kneel on in church (well that’s if you go). You are doing very well if you realised that the handle-lugs should be at the ends rather than at the sides. And then there is the chair. The answers say the pattern is upside down. When you rotate the image you can see it appears to show a bird on some kind of perch, but really? And then there is the chair castor which is supposed to be fixed the wrong way round so that it would break under weight. I don’t understand that one at all. When were swivelling ones invented? (2/16).

Lastly, the dog. I’m not a doggy person, that’s my excuse, but I would be surprised if you got it even if you are. It is a spaniel with a collie’s tail. Couldn’t it be just a mongrel?

So, 2/17 for me, 12%, an unmitigated, dismal fail. Even with a lucky resit I doubt I would manage more than six or seven. 

The ten volumes of this encyclopedia were bought in 1927. Were children a lot cleverer then, or is it just that the once-familiar has changed beyond recognition?

Perhaps we should set a modern version that they wouldn’t be able to do – a central heating radiator with the pipes attached to the top rather than the bottom, a light with a missing bulb and a television with an image on the screen despite not being plugged in. And how wrong they would be when they said that that our pictures had no support at all. That would show ‘em we‘re not stupid.

You might also like Knockout, Knowledge and Arthur Mee.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Ray Gosling’s Goole

Gosling's Travels 1975: Goole
Gosling's Travels: Goole (1975) (click to play)

In 1975, Ray Gosling made a film about Goole: a place I used to know well. Its people were appalled. They had been looking forward to a film about a pleasant little town on the banks of the Ouse, with friendly folk in homely homes, about canals and railways, brave mariners who sailed the North Sea, the strange salt and pepper pot water towers, and the proud rise of a town from nothing to one of the country’s busiest ports in less than a hundred years: the story of the port in green fields.

But Ray Gosling was never going to stick to that. He homed in on the eccentric linguist who sought out foreign sailors to practise his Russian, businessmen who looked shifty and evasive, dockers who seemed scheming and workshy, the mysterious world of pigeon keepers, and most embarrassing of all, the star turn, some young ladies who also liked to consort with foreign seamen, although not to practise their language skills. Goole: working-class low life in ragged abundance.

Watching again on YouTube, I see the problem. Right from the start, he went straight for the jugular:
I’m walking the streets of a flat little town in Yorkshire that most of you will never have heard of: Goole. And those who do know where it is, between Doncaster and Hull, have nicknamed it Sleepy Hollow, because nothing has ever happened here that’s made the headlines in a newspaper. The place has no history worth putting into history books, and they don’t really manufacture anything. 
You might say: “What did you expect?” It was what Ray Gosling did. He was different from other television presenters. He was cheeky and a bit common, working-class with an East Midlands accent, a university dropout, C-stream and proud of it. He made films about the little things of life, to him more important than the big things: caravans, allotments, sheds, the seedy, the left behind, the small-scale concerns of ordinary people. He was one of them. He wrote about them, ran things and campaigned for them.

The film is pure genius. He had seen the times they were a-changin’  long before Bob Dylan. He had tried to help the lively working-class community of St. Ann’s in Nottingham when the local council wanted to flatten and redevelop the whole district, but the community was lost in the end. He could see that Goole’s canal trains of coal-loaded compartments known as ‘Tom Puddings’, hydraulically hoisted into the air and tipped into the holds of ships, were nearing their end. Goole was a working museum that could not last, no more than the well-meaning vicar and police chief in the film, gullible anachronisms innocently trying to set up a wholesome mariners’ club not run by mariners. It was never going to supplant the Dock Tavern.

Ray Gosling Autobiographies
He had read On the Road and seen Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One (a film banned in Britain) and understood the implications. He saw change in the hearts of young people rejecting their fuddy-duddy parents’ expectations. His autobiographies, Sum Total and Personal Copy are fascinating memoirs of the fifties and sixties. “We were the first generation to be able to busk with our lives” he reflected in 2006 in one of his last films, Ray Gosling OAP. And as he sat waiting for his cluttered Mapperley house to be forcibly sold due to bankruptcy, unable to move around the heaped accumulations of a lifetime’s work: piles of files, mountains of books, scattered nick-nacks; he said:
All my life, I’ve known we are what we collect, what we pick up, so my room with all the detail I’ve kept is what made my work, it was important, to me. The silly nick-nacks are not just nick-nacks, and they’re not silly.
That is truly uplifting to hoarders like me: the glorious antithesis of decluttering.

Hopefully, the links to his films on YouTube will remain active, but they might get blocked for copyright reasons. There is also an archive of his work at Nottingham Trent University.

I'll leave the last word to Ray himself, part of an article in the TV Times in 1975:

... I don’t think facts always tell the truth. And I’m not a promotion man for God, Queen and the Ruling Class in Britain Beautiful – but we do search for the good in a place. And try to film what people naturally do. Try to avoid dwelling on obvious eccentrics, though that’s difficult. We are such an individual fruit and nutcase lot. I’m not hawking any pet philosophy or seeking hidden meanings. The films are simply place-tasters.

I don’t know what you’re going to make of Goole. People live nearby refer to it as Sleepy Hollow, because nothing ever happens in Goole. That’s why I went. It’s one of the most forgotten places of England. Britain’s most inland port, 50 miles from the sea. Just as Bath doesn’t make enough of its spa water, Goole doesn’t make enough of its dirty canal water. Still it is the 11th port of the land. Behind the parish church, you can see hanging from the jib of a crane, Britain’s balance of payments. Steel: in and out. Russian timber imported. We got turfed-off a Russian boat, camera and all – nicely, but firmly. And Goole exports: coals for every purpose.

The great local row was in the pigeon club. Should the birds be flown, next season, from north to south? Opinion divided. I like Goole, I do hope I’ve done it justice.

There was a nice man we wanted to film there; Albert Gunn, dental mechanic, pigeon racer and performer in the amateur Kiss Me Kate at the Grammar School – but Albert was ill, so we couldn’t.

That’s the problem I find filming as against writing. With pictures we have to prove it. Our folks have got to perform in front of the camera.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

People who can‘t say ‘ull

The BBC Radio Four announcer said this afternoon that in half an hour there would be a programme about the 2017 City of Culture.

“I know where he means” I thought, but then he mystified me by saying it was about the Ezzall area of the city. It took me a moment to realise he meant ‘essle. There is a difference. In trying to mimic the local accent, he had over-emphasised the initial E.

Like the friend I had when I worked in Scotland. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how many times I demonstrated, she could never say ‘ull without it sounding wrong. The initial U was too strong, almost beginning with a glottal stop. The voice-onset came too soon. It’s a soft gentle U after the dropped H, not a hard one.

It seems to my ears that people not from the region cannot say ‘ull or ‘essle properly, or for that matter ‘owden, ‘edon, ‘altemprice or ‘umber. Please, unless you grew up in East Yorkshire or thereabouts, don’t try. Just put the H in.

The programme, incidentally, was Hull 2017: The Spirit of Hessle Road.

Hull 2017: The Spirit of Hessle Road

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Brown’s Self-Interpreting Family Bible

Brown's self-interpreting family bible

Is it a sin to destroy a bible? I fear I may have committed sacrilege, not just once but three times over: to God, to my ancestors and to lovers of old books everywhere.

A few years ago I inherited a small suitcase containing a copy of Brown’s enormous Self-Interpreting Family Bible, which my father in turn had inherited from his Grandad Dunham. “You’d better take this” he was told, so he rode home with it balanced on his bicycle handlebars.

It was in pitiful condition: torn and loose pages, detached spine and end boards, faded gilt titles and tarnished metal stubs where clasps once fastened. It was stuck up with yellow tape where someone had tried to repair it. It smelt old and fusty. It deposited dusty specs of decaying leather and paper wherever you put it down. It seemed to be infested with mites. A metaphor, perhaps, for Christianity in the twenty-first century of the Common Era.

It was like a breeze block: about 13 x 10 x 3¼ inches (33½ x 25½ x 8½ centimetres) with over 1,100 pages. Once it would have been very beautiful book. Grandad Dunham, a devout Methodist, would have kept it constantly on display on a special table in the best room of the house, open at the page he was currently studying.

However, it was not really his. It was his wife’s. The inscription inside reads:

Family Bible Inscription
Miss E Mann
A present from
Her Dearly Beloved Mother
On Her twenty first
Birthday March 30th
Amber Hill
Sutterton Fen
It must have cost a lot of money, a sacrifice, but she herself was unable to read it. When she married Grandad Dunham she could only sign the Register with ‘X’ her mark. It seems unlikely that her parents could read it either. Perhaps they gazed in awe at the beautiful pictures inside, learnt their stories and meanings, and got someone else to write the inscription.

Title Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible

The full title was:
Browns Self-Interpreting Family Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, to which are annexed marginal references and illustrations, an exact summary of the several books, a paraphrase of the most obscure or important parts, explanatory notes, evangelical reflections, &., &., by the late Rev. John Brown, Minister of the Gospel at Haddington, with many additional references and numerous illustrations.
Nothing like a snappy title is there, but how was it self-interpreting? It seems to be down to the copious explanations and cross-references throughout, so thorough they effectively paraphrase the whole thing. For example, on the following page from Genesis, the notes are longer than the actual text:

Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible

God, with most exquisite art and skill, formed man’s body of the dust ... and so made him [human] the Reverend Brown interprets Verse 7 for us, and then cross-references this to similar assertions such as: we are the clay, and thou our potter. He continues in similar vein throughout the whole of the Old and New Testaments, exactly what you might expect from a man who despite minimal formal education taught himself Greek, Latin and Hebrew. His fellow members of the Secession Church in Scotland felt so inadequate they thought his learning must have come straight from the devil. He was like a living computer with the NVivo software.

Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible

Yet there is more. As well as the Old and New Testaments, there is a section on the life of the author (1772-1787), followed by a multi-chapter introduction which includes the geography and history of the biblical nations. He really had it in for Moslems:
About A.D. 608, Mahomet, a crafty Ishmaelite, assisted, it is said, by a villainous Jew and a treacherous Christian monk ... contrived a religious system ... promising to those who embraced it manifold carnal enjoyments, both in time and in eternity.
Mahomet’s followers are likened to locusts and scorpions, with men’s beards, but hair plaited like women’s, who ravaged and murdered the nations. They pretended to a masculine religion but their character was marked by lust for women, revenge and cruelty.

Text from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible
If you think that’s not very complimentary, look at what he says about the Romans. When they weren’t burning multitudes of Christians in heaps for Nero’s nocturnal recreation, they were having them torn to pieces by lions and tigers, or pulling off their flesh with pincers, or mangling them with broken pots, or roasting them between gentle fires, or pouring melted lead through holes into their bowels.

Who needs Game of Thrones? Bring on the heathens and their manifold carnal enjoyments. The Reverend Brown’s fire and brimstone sermons must have left his congregation shocked and awed to the core, wishing they could go out and buy the box set so as not to have to wait a whole week for the next instalment.

But, sadly, the bible is beyond repair and too big and dirty to keep. It has come to the end of its time. I have tried to palm it off to various relatives but none will even entertain the idea of having it. In good condition it might be worth £150 or more, but not this one. So, I have cut out and kept the inscription page, along with the pages between the Old and New Testaments where the details of family marriages, births and deaths have been recorded in various hands between 1889 and the nineteen-fifties. The rest is now in the paper recycling bin – not so different from what my dad imagined as he got older: a skip outside his house piled high with all his most treasured possessions: his books, his stamp album, his Panora school photograph with its frame and glass all smashed up, and the family bible on top. 

Sinful? Yes I suppose it is. My only prayer now is that in the afterlife I won’t have to face the punishment of having melted lead poured into my bowels.

Pictorial Title Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Jephthah's Rash Vow Adam and Eve Faicum, Arch of Titus, and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Abraham sending away Hagar Noah's sacrifice Meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt Mount Sinai, Ethan and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible The descent of Moses from Mount Sinai The people of Israel murmuring for water Birds, offerings and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Joshua's defeat of the Amorites Death of Samson David slaying Goliath Animals and birds from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Job rebukes his friends The prophet rebuketh Ahab Baalbeck, Edom, Babylon and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Solomon's judgment Jeremiah lamenting over Jerusalem Daniel interpreting the mysterious handwriting Denarius of Tiberius and Augustus, quadrans, and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible The money changers driven from the temple Christ among the doctors Jesus betrayed by Judas The wise men's offering to the infant saviour Christ and the woman of Samaria Mary anointing the feet of Jesus The woman taken in adultery Bethany, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Jesus before Pilate Christ appearing to two Disciples on the way to Emmaus Tyre, Bethseda, Sidon, Samaria and Siloam

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Hornby ‘O’ Gauge Revisited

A couple of years ago I posted a visual reconstruction of my nineteen-fifties Hornby ‘O’ gauge clockwork train set.

I recently came across the following leaflets that came with the set, saved by my dad between the pages of an old family bible (click to enlarge, or save image for full-size):

Hornby O gauge track layouts Hornby O gauge track layouts
Hornby O gauge track layouts Hornby O gauge track layouts

Did you know that the handle on the winding key was designed to test the correct spacing between the rails?

Hornby O gauge hints Hornby O gauge hints

It seems from the following that only boys who join are entitled to the privilege of free expert advice. Does that mean that girls had to pay? I’m tempted to send off one shilling and 3 pence (6p today) for the official badge and special booklet on my daughter’s behalf:

Application for Membership of the Hornby Railway Company Application for Membership of the Hornby Railway Company

Hornby train set guarantee Hornby train set guarantee