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Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Vauxhall Griffin

Vauxhall Griffin TV advert 1973
Summer 1973 Vauxhall Griffin advert (click to play)

We were working out of the office, auditing the books of a small Vauxhall dealer in Selby. The owner enthusiastically suggested we watch out for the new Vauxhall advert showing for the first time that evening on television. So we did.

The next day the owner was seething.

“Did you see it last night? Bloody awful! I don’t know how they expect that to sell any cars. A big puffy bloke leaping around in tights! Who the hell’s going to buy a Vauxhall after that?”

Watching again now I can see what he meant. This dubious Jack-in-the-Green-type character, loitering behind bushes in what looks like the gardens of a crematorium, seems the kind of guy who might have difficulty in passing a DBS check. What on earth were Vauxhall thinking?

Along with lots of other dealers, the owner was straight on the phone to complain and the ad was pulled within the week. I never thought I’d see it again. Vauxhall must surely have tried to erase it permanently from the history books. Yet like all things embarrassing, it has resurfaced on the internet. Perhaps they should get in touch with the actor, whoever he is, and get him to have it removed under the right to be forgotten.

Afterword: members of the neo-millenial generation tend to like the ad. They find the griffin no less disagreeable than the meerkats, dogs or opera singers of today’s insurance ads, and the catchphrase “Like me!” fairly memorable. They seem to find nothing untoward about the character at all. Yet to many of the commentators on YouTube he is camp and scary. He reminds me of the effeminate comedian Larry Grayson who before the nineteen-seventies had been considered too outrageous for television. It must be a generational thing. Although, actually, now I’ve watched the ad about a dozen times I’m beginning to like it. Perhaps it was ahead of its time: “Like me!”

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Andy Burnham, Chris Grayling and the Goole to Leeds Train

Trains in Yorkshire are little better than they were in the 1970s, whereas in the South East ...

I’m with Andy Burnham. In a recent letter to Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, Andy Burnham, the elected Mayor of Manchester, complained that the North of England has put up with second-class transport for far too long. Within the space of just a few days, Grayling has downgraded promised rail improvements for the North while overseeing contracts for the ridiculously expensive HS2 line to Birmingham and backing the £30 billion London Crossrail 2 project. Is there any wonder Burnham is angry?

Northern Rail Pacer and Southeastern Javelin
Just compare this screechy Northern Rail Pacer with a high speed Southeastern Javelin

We have just got back from a few days in Kent. If your recent rail experience is mainly of Yorkshire, or even the routes down to London, you would be amazed at what they have in Kent. We were. There, 140 mph high speed Javelins leave London St. Pancras along the HS1 Channel Tunnel route, then branch off to follow various circular paths back to St. Pancras by Faversham, Ramsgate, Canterbury and Dover. They don’t go quite so fast along the North Kent coast, but they still crack on at quite a pace. It is not as if there are big distances between stations either. From Gravesend to Ramsgate there are fifteen stops, some as little as three minutes apart.

We have nothing like it in the North. Our local line still uses screechy four-wheeled nineteen-eighties Pacer trains. Even on faster lines such as the Transpennine route, the Class 185 Desiro units have barely two thirds the speed and acceleration of Southeastern Javelins. It is not as if our services are unused. They are busy throughout the day and peak-time overcrowding is unpleasant and noxious. It truly does feel like a second-class service.

Goole Railway Station circa 1960
Nineteen-sixties DMU at Goole (click for video)

It is like re-living the nineteen-seventies Goole to Leeds line. I’ll never forget the stations: Rawcliffe, Snaith, Hensall, Whitley Bridge, Knottingley, Pontefract Monkhill, Castleford Cutsyke, Woodlesford, Leeds. I used it regularly on Monday mornings after leaving home for four-night-a-week lodgings in Leeds. The train used to leave Goole at 07.20 to arrive in Leeds around at 08.35. It was a bucolic start to the week. Startled rabbits dashed across the fields for cover as the morning mist lifted in the early light. If you sat right at the front you could see along the track ahead, and, oh yes, pretend you were the driver. I wished it could go on forever, until the train filled up with people smelling of fried bacon, stale cigarettes, fetid flannels and musty wardrobes, and then it could not end soon enough.

At first the train used to branch from the Doncaster line just outside Goole station (you can see the junction in the above video at 0.44), but this short length of track (which once served the Goole to Selby line) was pulled up and the train re-routed past the engine sheds. There were other creeping changes too. When Castleford Cutsyke was closed, trains had to go via Castleford Central where they reversed.

At least the line was still dual track. There were six trains per day in each direction, and they could pass anywhere between Knottingley and Goole. Now, this part of the line is single track. The once great Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway that carried long chains of coal wagons from the Yorkshire coalfields to the docks at Goole, and thousands of European emigrants from Hull to the transatlantic liners at Liverpool, is but a thin and spectral palimpsest of its former self.

Indeed, the only remaining train per day from Leeds to Goole, the 17.16, is often referred to as one of Britain’s “ghost trains”. They “wend their eerie way around the rail network almost entirely unknown to the travelling public,” running mostly empty at deliberately inconvenient times. They maintain the fiction that the line is still open for business, allowing train operators to avoid the long and costly public consultation required for complete closure.

Currently, you could just about manage a daily commute from Goole to Leeds over this route, catching the 07.04 from Goole and the aforementioned 17.16 back. The only other train is the returning 17.16 which departs Goole at 18.49. Otherwise you have to go to Doncaster and change, which usually takes longer, or via Brough, which costs more. Or you could drive the few miles to Howden for a Transpennine express, which take as little as 30 minutes to Leeds, but that is something of a cop out. The alternatives are no substitute for the convenience of a direct local train from, say, the lovely villages of Rawcliffe or Snaith.

And what about all the other lost routes of Yorkshire? What would the Hornsea and Withernsea branches do for Hull if they were still open, or the line through Market Weighton into York, or the Woodhead line from Sheffield to Manchester? You can find example after example. How much would they benefit the local and regional economies?

Let’s face it, if this were Kent, ALL these routes, including the Goole to Leeds line, would still be fully open, running regular all-day timetables, served by fast modern electric trains with ample comfortable accommodation. They would be well-used.

Further videos: 
driver’s cab view from the Leeds to Goole train in the late 1980s;  
the same train changing tracks at Goole station

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Old House

"Miss Huntley's" house near Leeds

There was something of the Miss Havisham about the place. Once it had been the fine eighteenth century home of a wealthy livestock auctioneer in the countryside between Leeds and York, with a grand oak staircase, roomy rooms and extensive kitchens. But after two centuries it had fallen into dark, brooding shabbiness. Crumbling mortar had left gaps between the blackened bricks. The once abundant gardens were covered in weeds. Earthy molehills dotted the tennis courts. The tangled vine stems hung dead and leafless. Yet I was sure it would be an inspiring place to work. It seemed my luck had changed. 

Perhaps it matched my mood. It had not been easy to find a job. I had met only doubt and distrust. It was justified to be honest. To be seeking work as an accountant just months after deciding that accountancy was not the life for me, and going off to teacher training college only to decide I didn’t want to be a teacher either, was not exactly impressive. Having chucked it in once, what were the chances I would do it again? It was hard to sound sincere, probably because I wasn’t.

Let’s call the firm Huntley and Palmer, Chartered Accountants. Miss Huntley had moved the practice out of central Leeds some years before, along with a few staff and one other partner. They offered me the post of audit clerk on a salary of £1,750 p.a. (about £17,000 today adjusted for price inflation).

I suspect they were desperate too. My interview must have been on one of the rare days the wind was blowing the other way. Most of the time a sickly sweet smell wafted up the stairs from the pig farm next door, pervading the communal office at the end of the building where we worked. It would have put most people off. It would have put me off too if I had other offers. You can also gain enthusiasm for the most illogical reasons. The receptionist’s soft green-blue top, tousled hair and retroussé nose was a carbon copy of Carly Simon on the cover of the ‘No Secrets’ LP.

But there was no Carly Simon smile. She moaned constantly about the pig smell. She was seeing out the next few months until her wedding later in the year. The other staff were strange too. One, a glamorous middle aged woman, went on incessantly about her dogs’ accomplishments in shows and competitions and her husband’s heart condition. Another, a semi-retired sixty-something, was always talking about his previous job in the Inland Revenue. You might have thought they were having a conversation, but neither listened to the other much at all. It was bearable only because they were part-time, and the afternoons were quieter. Then I was often alone in the office, dreamily gazing out of the window at the swirling wind-patterns in the corn field across the valley.

Mr. Palmer, the other partner, was another oddity. He went off each lunchtime supposedly to meet clients in the nearby pub, returning to spend the afternoons in a daze. Once or twice he had been found flat out asleep on the floor of his office. On a couple of occasions he called me in to complain angrily that he could not understand some of the work I had done for him. Patient explanation only assuaged him so far.

The sticking power of a mucilage bulldog
There was also an articled clerk. I cannot imagine how he managed to qualify as a Chartered Accountant in such an environment, but eventually he did. He must have had the sticking power of a mucilage bulldog.

Miss Huntley was easier to work with. She lived in the house with her Airedale dogs, and was a prominent Soroptimist (a womens’ voluntary organisation similar to the freemasons). She was always happy with my work. She once sent me out for a couple of weeks to audit an unusual business that supplied fish and chip shops throughout the north of England. It was a relief to be working again in central Leeds where there were things to do at lunchtime.

Perhaps when she first moved the practice out of town Miss Huntley imagined a happy band of staff enjoying a beautiful rural setting, but the reality was otherwise. I don’t think any of us liked it there. We were stuck up the back stairs out of the way in the servants’ quarters. I endured it for seven months, none too soon escaping back to Leeds to a post with a large clothing manufacturer. Huntley and Palmer lasted around six more years. The old house is still there, modernised and renovated, converted into serviced office space for a variety of businesses.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Brian Cant and Play Away

                                It really doesn’t matter if it’s raining or it’s fine
                                Just as long as you’ve got time
                                To P-L-A-Y playaway-play, playaway,
                                Play-a-play, playaway. 

It was sad to hear yesterday of the death of Brian Cant, once polled the most-loved voice on UK children’s television. I used to love Play Away. I would never miss it unless I had to, despite being in my twenties at the time.

Brian Cant in Play Away
Brian Cant, Tony Robinson, Toni Arthur and Julie Stevens in Play Away (click to play)

Luckily, Play Away was on a Saturday afternoon when I wasn’t at work. It was full of silly jokes and sketches, some of them Pythonesque, and very musical. Its talented presenters had a vivacious energy that was simply uplifting. Children’s television is sometimes much too good for children.

And shining through it all was the childlike spirit of Brian Cant. He had a mischievous screen presence – a way every now and then of glancing into the camera as if to let you into the secret that this was every bit as daft as it looked. You never quite knew what he was going to do next. Just when he had drawn you in, he would give you a naughty nip like a playful Yorkshire terrier.

So I’ve spent a nostalgic couple of hours watching clips of Play Away on YouTube. The one above represents everything in it that was wonderful. Brian Cant hamming it up, the beautiful voice of Toni Arthur, crazy Julie Stevens, and an implausibly youthful Tony Robinson in the Court of King Caractacus.

If you want to eulogize about a man who sang a song about the fascinating witches who put the scintillating stitches in the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus …

... he’s just passed on by.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Little Ships

H.M.S. Hood edged slowly for’ard towards the lock at the far side of the attic floor.

“Engines full astern” bellowed the captain. “Ding ding, ding ding!” signalled the bridge to the engine room. “Boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom,” sounded the propeller, spit splashing from my dad’s lips like sea spray.

“Watch out!” he warned. “Don’t get caught in the propeller.” He pushed me to the floor. “Man overboard!” He trapped me in his arms and legs and started to spin me round and round. “That man’s got caught in the propeller. Boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom.”

“Stop engines. Ding ding, ding ding!” The ship blew five blasts, one long and four shorts: “Bvvvvvvvvvv, bvvv, bvvv, bvvv, bvvv,” to warn she was about to swing round. “Drop anchor. Diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle, splshhhhhh!” I’m not sure whether the coughing that followed was supposed to be part of the sound effects or not. 

Meccano Dinky Toys Ships of the British Navy

We were playing ‘Little Ships’. Most of them were waterline models of battleships. We had H.M.S. Nelson and H.M.S. Rodney (identical sister-ships), H.M.S. Hood, a couple of submarines and three or four destroyers. Finding them again now, online, I am fairly sure they were from the pre-war Dinky Toys diecast metal set number 50: Ships of the British Navy. They were modelled to a scale of 1:1800 (150 feet to the inch), which meant they varied in size from five inches (12.75cm) down to two inches (5cm). They were of course my dad’s childhood toys and he still liked to play with them. He pushed them around the attic floor making appropriate engine and captain noises. He knew all about ships because his grandfather had been a master mariner. At first I just used to watch.

Like the ones pictured, most of the battleships had already lost their guns by the time I came along, but that did not matter because, living in a seafaring town, we pretended they were merchant ships. We had a toy dock made out of box wood, with glued-on strips to represent the quays. The lock gates were made out of strips of tin plate, and the rest of the surface was crayoned blue to represent water. It had a strange fusty smell. Ships sailed upriver from abroad, swung round on their anchors, manoeuvred through the lock and moored against the quays inside. The tiny destroyers were make-believe tugs to help the larger ships move around in tight spaces. My dad glued a wooden jetty to the attic floor so ships could tie up downriver to wait for the tide – just like at Blacktoft.

Dinky Toy scale model of the Italian liner Rex

We had just one merchant ship, the Italian liner Rex, also a pre-war Dinky model, which, together with half a destroyer, are all that now survive. Of the rest, H.M.S. Hood, emulating its real-life counterpart, was accidentally smashed to smithereens by someone’s foot. The others rattled around inside a Crawford Tartan Shortbread tin until they disintegrated and were thrown out: a pity because they are now much-in-demand collectors’ items. Even the biscuit tin is a collectors’ item. We found it with the ships in my dad’s sideboard.

Also gone are the wooden models we made ourselves. The tray-shaped softwood strips that used to hold propelling pencil leads made an ideal starting point. You pointed the bow and rounded the stern with sandpaper, glued on a matching fo’c’s’le and bridge, and cut a thin piece of dowel for the funnel. You painted the deck white, the sides black and the funnel whatever colour you wanted. It made a passable scale model merchant ship.

After seeing my dad make them I tried myself. The outcome was a poorly finished, vaguely ship-shaped blotchy white lump. I should have started with something better than a knotty strip of firewood. I proudly took my ship to show Jack who sat next to me at school. I didn’t notice the funnel had come off and fallen on the floor in front of Miss Walker’s desk.

“What’s this?” she asked the class, prodding it with the toe of her shoe, disgust in her voice. “Is it a sweet or something?” I had to go out to the front and pick it up. I would have been about seven.

Triang scale models: SS United States, RMS Aquitania, SS Varicella

Later, in the nineteen-sixties, we bought some new little ships for my brother, but at 1:1200 scale they were slightly too big. These were Triang models: M704 the S.S. United States, M705 the R.M.S. Aquitania, and M732 the Shell tanker S.S. Varicella. They had plastic masts, most now lost. These were also in the biscuit tin.

I looked up the real S.S. Varicella. She was built on Tyneside in 1959 and sailed under the Union Jack with a mainly British crew until sold in 1976 and scrapped in Taiwan in 1983. Its battered model survives it by many years. Yet it has to be said that any real ship in that condition would be towed off to the breakers yard, its place taken by a foreign-built ship, with a foreign crew, sailing under a foreign flag. Perhaps no one but oldies would want to play ‘Little Ships’ now.

“Bvvvvvvvvvv! Ding ding, ding ding! Half ahead.”

My mum gave us one of her withering looks. “How ridiculous! How could anyone have half a head?”

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong

A visit to Leeds Grand Theatre revives memories of near disaster with sound effects fifty years ago.

Last week I was at Leeds Grand Theatre & Opera House for the first time in forty-four years. It was an evocative return. We sat in the same area of the upper balcony and saw almost the same kind of show. In 1973 it was Monty Python on Tour (remembered here). This time it was The Play That Goes Wrong.

Poster: The Play That Goes Wrong

The setting is an amateur production of a nineteen-twenties murder mystery, during which just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Ornaments and pictures fall off the wall; a door won’t stay shut except when needed open; a platform collapses with actors on it; members of the cast are knocked senseless and have to be replaced by stage hands reading from the script, which of course gets dropped on the floor and scrambled; a corpse has to crawl off stage unnoticed after a stretcher rips apart. The production is brilliant. It had us all giggling hysterically.

At one point the characters on stage all stop and stare towards the sound technician on the balcony who is obliviously reading a book, unaware the play has reached the point where he needs to produce twelve clock chimes. The wait is interminable. And not to disappoint, when he does become aware of the cue, he fails to count the chimes correctly.

That could have been me fifty years ago. A few friends at the youth club we went to had joined a drama group and were rehearsing George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. It would have been good to have had a part, but having missed out by getting involved too late, I attached myself to the support team.

There is a moment, early in Act I, when Professor Henry Higgins calls Eliza Doolittle a liar for claiming not to have enough money for her lodgings. “You said you could change half-a-crown” he reminded her. “You ought to be stuffed with nails, you ought,” Eliza replies as she flings her flower basket at his feet. “Take the whole blooming basket for sixpence.”

Just then, a church clock strikes the second quarter, and Higgins, hearing in it the voice of God rebuking him for his lack of charity, utters the words “a reminder”, throws a handful of cash into the basket, and leaves.

Grandfather clock
I don’t know why we didn’t just clang a length of pipe for the clock sound effect. I think we took the instruction “strikes the second quarter” too literally. I offered to tape-record my dad’s heirloom grandfather clock which did the full Big Ben chimes. Later we decided that “bing-bong-bing-bong, bing-bong-bing-bong” took too long, and that we would have just a single chime. But unthinkingly, the tape-recorder mindset remained.

I sat backstage at Snaith Secondary School, tape-recorder on pause, awaiting the cue. We were presenting Act I of Pygmalion in some kind of drama competition. The cue came.

“Take the whole blooming basket for sixpence,” said Eliza.

I set the tape going.

Now I truly wish I could tell you I had put the wrong tape in the machine and that Manfred Mann’s Five-Four-Three-Two-One blared out of the sound system, exactly as happens with Duran Duran in The Play That Goes Wrong. The truth is more ordinary. I had wound the tape back a little too far, so instead of producing an immediate clock chime, I watched the reels silently turning for what seemed like an eternity, while the actors on stage paused not knowing quite what to do. It might only have been two or three seconds, but it was far too long. A scared rigid Henry Higgins must have heard far more than the voice of God during the hiatus. When the bong finally came, he hurriedly squeaked “a reminder” and seemed rather too eager to get off the stage. 

It makes you appreciate just how slick the effects in The Play That Goes Wrong actually are.

The artwork for the 2017 UK tour of The Play That Goes Wrong is owned by the Mischief Theatre Company and its reproduction here is believed to be fair use, serving as a means of visual identification within this posting.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Trump and Tusk

Donald Trump meets Donald Tusk
When Donald Trump met Donald Tusk, what did they talk about - the elephant in the room?