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Friday, 23 March 2018

M Dunham Are Crap

Never use a swear word when you don’t know what it means

“That’s wrong” said Geoffrey Bullard in a know-it-all way, pointing at the words on the back of the garage. “It should be M Dunham is crap”. He thought everyone but him was stupid.

I couldn’t be bothered to explain it said exactly what I meant. You talk about football teams in the plural: “Rawcliffe United are good this year.” “Howden Town are terrible.” It goes in a song:
M Dunham are crap,
M Dunham are crap,
Ee aye addio,
M Dunham are crap.
Playing football in garden circa 1960
Action from a league match between M.Dunham and T.Dunham circa 1960
(click to play digitised cine film)

It was my dad who first pretended we were teams competing against each other in a league. He was B Dunham, I was T Dunham, my brother Martin was M Dunham, and M Dunham were crap. I wrote it down in heavy red wax crayon on the back of the asbestos garage.

I didn’t realise that wax crayon on asbestos panelling is like permanent marker: waterproof, indelible, not-fade-away. So there it was, and there it must have stayed for over fifty years, decades after we had moved. Imagine the bemused faces those who later gazed upon it and pitied the poorly educated child responsible for such semi-literate graffiti, and wondered who M Dunham was and why was he crap?

So, Geoffrey Bullard remained in ignorance of our imaginary football teams, and when he wasn’t round at our house bullying me, I could play imaginary football games in the back garden. I had a full league of teams and fixtures, and played out each match on my own on the pitch of dried mud we optimistically called “the back grass”. This differed from “the front grass” only by being slightly bigger and by not actually having any grass, except that is for a few odd blades that struggled out of the earth before being unceremoniously stamped back in again by the boots of make-believe teams of footballers.

I ran up and down with a ball, puffing and panting between one goal defined by chalk marks on the wall of the house and the other by the clothes posts near the back hedge, while providing the roars and boos of the crowd, and an excitable commentary. In my head they were all there: two complete teams of players, spectators, a commentator, the referee, linesmen, and the trainer with his ‘magic sponge’.

I drew up team sheets, match day programmes, fixture lists and league tables. I was everyone and did everything. These days, kids do the same with electronic games with names such as ‘Top European Football Manager III’, but my fantasy was played in the back garden, much healthier for all that running around outside in the fresh air, with more highly developed transferrable skills for all the manual record keeping, and no less unsociable than fantasy football on games consoles.

T Dunham was of course the best team by far. They always won and hardly ever conceded a goal. They usually beat M Dunham (who really were crap) by several goals to nil, and “The” B Dunham by a similar margin (my dad had once been to watch “The” Arsenal while on holiday in London). It was not long before T Dunham were promoted out of the league containing the other Dunham teams into the local district league, where they played against proper teams such as the dockers and the railwaymen, and teams from pubs and the local villages. I picked my players for each match, and posted the team sheet on the wall inside our team hut, in other words the yellow shed. The team was always set out in traditional 2-3-5 formation, with a goalkeeper, two full backs, three half-backs and five forwards. In those days we always had a centre forward, inside forwards and wingers; no one had yet heard of modern formations involving sweepers, overlapping midfielders and offensive 4-3-3 game plans.

One day, Geoffrey Bullard noticed a team sheet on the wall of the shed. “What’s that?” he asked, looking carefully. My team was laid out for all to see, ready for the West Riding Cup Final between T Dunham and Norton Woodseats. The captain, ‘Dunham’, in other words me, was on the left wing, the position I played the only time I was ever selected for my school. Some of the other imaginary players were also names from school. ‘Gelder’ was inside-left, ‘Longthwaite’ was centre-forward, and, as I realised to my consternation about the same time as he spotted it, ‘Bullard’ was centre-half.

“Why am I only at centre-half?” he demanded to know.

I cringed inwardly while he thought about it. He considered himself one of the best footballers in the school, and naturally assumed his rightful role was top goal scorer in the forward line.

“Actually,” he then said weighing it up, “I would make quite a good centre-half,” and proceeded to let me off the hook by showing no further interest.

But the wax crayon was still there on the garage, and in due course my mother spotted it.

“It won’t come off,” she sounded annoyed, “and anyway, what does it mean?”

It dawned on me that I didn’t really know what ‘crap’ meant either. I’d heard people say it, and thought it a satisfyingly grown up word to use. It just seemed to mean someone or something wasn’t very good. You could snarl it in real disgust, curling your upper lip, emphasising the ‘r’ and spitting out the final ‘p’. “C-R-A-P!” I had been saying it as much as I could.

“What’s this word, ‘crap’?” my dad asked. My mother had obviously been talking to him.

It was my dad’s sister, Aunty Dorothy, a hospital nurse, who gently enlightened us as to what it meant.

“Was it you who wrote in wax crayon on the back of the garage?” she took me aside and asked in her quiet way. “You wrote, ‘M Dunham are crap’, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“Well you do know what it means, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“It’s very very rude,” she said looking concerned,  “it means babba.” *

I wanted to giggle, but tried my best to look horrified and apologetic.

“It’s not a word we should be using at all,” she warned sternly. “And in any case,” she continued, “it’s wrong to say that. It should be M Dunham is crap.”

* It seems that use of the word ‘babba’ to mean poo is not as universal as I once thought. An internet search reveals very few examples. Similarly, ‘trump’ meaning an emission of wind (I resist an easy American political quip here) also seems mainly to be a northern expression. Both were common in the part of Yorkshire where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. The word ‘crap’, on the other hand, was beyond vulgarity, and never ever heard. It goes to show how much things have changed. 

This is a revised and rewritten version of a piece first posted on 1st September, 2014

Monday, 19 March 2018

Review - Chris Bonington: Ascent

Chris Bonington
Ascent: a life spent climbing on the edge (3*)

You could say Chris Bonington was one of my influences. I spent too many nineteen-seventies lunchtimes in Leeds Compton Road Library lost in the heights of I Chose to Climb and The Next Horizon, a tranquil refuge from accountancy. I acted them out on walks in Derbyshire, Scotland, the Yorkshire Pennines, the North York Moors, Iceland, Norway, France and Switzerland, an undue comparison, but I longed to be like him: all that climbing and writing. I bought a minivan, grew a beard, scrambled up mountains and tried to write things.

Ascent is Chris Bonington’s definitive autobiography. Much of the content is covered in his earlier books, but, gosh, what a story! As the cover blurb says, it reads like the pages of an epic saga.

The trouble is, to the non-specialist, one mountaineering expedition sounds much the same as another, even down to the extent of the senseless deaths: John Harlin on the Eiger, Ian Clough on Annapurna, Mick Burke on Everest, Dougal Haston skiing in the Alps, Nick Estcourt on K2, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker on Everest. Their bodies often remained where they died. Bonington describes encountering Hannelore Schmatz on Everest in 1985, “sitting upright in the snow, sun-bleached hair blowing in the wind, teeth bared in a rictus grin,” where she had died of exhaustion descending from the summit in 1979. A sane person could only conclude that trailblazing mountaineering is an idiotic venture.

Bonington writes in a matter of fact way. His narrative and descriptions are vivid enough, but you would be hard pressed to find a simile or metaphor anywhere in the book. It is autobiography not memoir, an accurate account of places, people and events rather than an impression or reaction to them. He comes across as self-centred. The first person “I” must appear at least 6 times on every page (as on this one!), more than twice that on many. Yet he does not dwell on things. He is like a climbing machine with little time for imagination or self-reflection, even when writing about personal loss. At the end of the day, anyone who manages to climb the Old Man of Hoy at eighty remains an inspiration, but I’m glad I’m not like him at all. 

Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Blessed By Snowdrops

When my dad could no longer manage in his three-bedroomed house, he moved, as many do, to a modest bungalow. Behind was a postage stamp of a lawn bounded by an ancient high wall which sheltered masses of snowdrops. For thirteen Februaries, he delighted in the sweeping drifts of brilliant white flowers that danced in defiance of the winter winds, as they lived into yet another year.

But he was also troubled by them. Come summer, when the leaves had died down, hundreds of tiny bulbs heaved themselves out of the ground and rolled across the lawn, trying to put down roots, as if longing to migrate away from the darkness of the wall towards the light and warmth of the house. Every time I visited I was asked to “go push those snowdrops back in”, and had to spend half an hour or so collecting them up and poking holes to replant them. By the next visit there would always be more trying to escape. When, finally, we sold the bungalow, I gathered a couple of pots full and took them home. We still call them Grandpa’s snowdrops.

In the cemetery where he now lies, planting on the graves is against the rules. It is pointless to try; the grass between the rows of headstones is mown at regular intervals, and any permanent flowers would be brutally hacked down. Even snowdrops, despite flowering well before the first mowing, would never store up future reserves, and weaken, and disappear. So I took a chance and planted a clump close to the headstone, too near for the mower to catch, in deep so they couldn’t get out. 

I went early the next year to check on their luck, but it was seemingly too early. I went again the following year, but it was too late for any leaves to be left. Around every headstone, an ugly margin of dark bare earth hinted at how they dealt with the places the mower could not reach. A later visit confirmed it as I caught the chemical smell of weedkiller drifting in the breeze from an operative with a tank on his back and a long wand. I made irregular visits over the years, but never saw any sign of snowdrops.

This year I happened to make the long drive in mid-February. There, to my surprise, still defiant against the headstone ten years after I planted them, was a triumphant line of delicate milk-white petals heralding hope for the coming spring, …

… along with an inquisitive squirrel who wanted to be in the picture (a transmigrated soul perhaps).

Snowdrops and squirrel on grave

Monday, 26 February 2018

Back In Time For Tea

Dirty messy kitchen
Our Messy Kitchen, 1974

The BBC Back In Time series is having another outing, this time as Back In Time For Tea – that’s tea in the sense of evening meal from the days of breakfast, dinner and tea. If your evening meal was called dinner and your mid-day meal was lunch, you were either posh or a Southerner. The new series does take place in working class Bradford after all.

Episode 3, set in the nineteen-sixties, saw the Ellis children having to get their own tea: Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney Pie, Angel Delight and Mr. Kipling fruit cake.

BBC TV - Back In Time For Tea

Oh yes, steak and kidney pie in a tin! I remember it well! It’s what we ate in the shared house. Those steak and kidney pies were delicious – succulent pieces of steak and kidney in juicy gravy. The pudding version was good too with suet instead of puff pastry. You can still get them, although internet commentators tend to imply they might not be as good as they once were. Is anything?

For the first time, the arrival of ready meals in the late nineteen-sixties made it possible for single lads living in flats, bed-sits and house shares to eat well without the needless mental and physical exertion of planning, shopping and cooking. Deciphering a recipe, patronising butchers and grocers, and assembling a steak and kidney pie from scratch would have been well beyond the ingenuity of spoiled brats brought up by their mothers to expect everything done for them, but wielding a tin opener and turning on an oven was just about within their capabilities. This was especially true of the five social misfits, connected through schools and workplaces, who in 1970 moved into a strange back-to-front house off Monk Bridge Road, with its rear to the road and front to a narrow path beside Meanwood Beck.

My previous year in Leeds had been spent in Monday-to-Thursday lodgings where meals were provided. It was good home-cooking to keep hunger at bay but the snooty husband of the elderly couple I lodged with charged in guineas rather than pounds: five guineas a week, that’s five pounds five shillings, £5.25 in new money, equivalent to around £75 now in terms of price inflation, and £150 in terms of earnings inflation. Perhaps that sounds reasonable compared with housing costs today, but it was nearly all I earned as a trainee accountant. My contribution to the shared house rent was less than half as much.

At first we ate together, taking turns to serve unimaginatively greasy concoctions of sausage or fried eggs, with chips and baked beans. One lad’s weekly pièce de résistance was spaghetti Bolognese with so much liquid it would slop over the edge of your plate when anyone knocked the table – “as if we haven’t enough on our plates already,” someone said. The local fish and chip shop was a regular beneficiary of our largesse too.

But convenience foods were just beginning to appear and our diet quickly changed. Why go to all that inconvenience of peeling, boiling and mashing potatoes when you could get Cadbury’s Smash? It wasn’t too bad if you put plenty of butter in. Instant mashed potato with a Fray Bentos pie and a tin of peas or carrots really filled you up. Finish with strawberry or banana Angel Delight (a powder mixed with milk to make an instant mousse-like desert) and it was heaven. You were living like a king.

BBC TV - Back In Time For Tea
Probably butterscotch Angel Delight: I preferred banana or strawberry

Individuals came and went and the sharing arrangement moved to a new address off Brudenell Road in the Hyde Park area. Mostly, we now ate individually at different times. I still had an unhealthy reliance on the “Up-Steps Fish Shop”, but as there were as yet no Chinese or Indian takeaways, pizza or kebab shops nearby, fish and chips was the only bought in meal. For other days, Vesta dehydrated packet meals were now available: food for bachelors from Batchelors.

1970s Vesta dehydrated packet meals advertisement
“Come on a Vesta Package Tour” read the advert, to India for beef curry (“not too hot”), Italy for beef risotto (“the real taste of the Continent”) or China for chow mein with crispy noodles (“You like, yes?” – would they dare say that now, or wish you “bon appétit” with the chicken supreme from France, or claim that the Spanish paella had “a touch of Olé”).

The noodles looked like translucent strips of plastic until tipped into hot oil upon which, spitting and sizzling, they crisped up like expanding polystyrene into gnarled and crunchy yellow whorls. Except that there always seemed to be one or two that didn’t work, and stayed hard and sticky enough to pull your fillings out. The curry looked like a packet of something you might collect from a crematorium until you added boiling water and it reconstituted itself into peculiarly light and watery chunks that were supposed to be beef. The risotto seemed best, especially when you fried the rice in butter (with extra Uncle Ben’s rice to bulk it up) and then added the meat and vegetable powder with a bottle of Newcastle Brown instead of water. The only time I’d had rice at home was as rice pudding, and other than spaghetti, it was my first experience of exotic food. It was mouthwatering if you overlooked all the monosodium glutamate, although you usually had to fire up the toaster before bed time, even when you had eaten a ‘serves two’ sized packet.

I never prepared anything from scratch. Vegetables, spaghetti hoops, even potatoes, came out of tins. Frozen foods such as fish fingers, beef burgers or the delicious boil-in-the-bag cod in butter sauce were all bought on the day as we had no fridge. Everything was heated by hob, grill or oven, as microwaves would not be common for another decade. I bought a ‘cooking for one’ cookbook which made out that everything was so simple, no one need end up dipping grilled fish fingers into a jar of tartar sauce, which was the only recipe I took from the book, although they were better with piccalilli. And much to the bewilderment of my family, I retain a weakness for tinned oranges with Carnation evaporated milk.

Nearly all of these convenience foods remain available, but as a vegetarian convert I wouldn’t eat them now. However, we did try banana Angel Delight with our tea the other night. Surprisingly, it was just as good as I remember.

Inclusion of the clips from the BBC Back In Time For Tea programme and the Alamy Vesta image are believed to be fair use. The stills are clipped from single frames and linked to the programme web site. The Alamy image is linked to its source. The Vesta image is also available at The Advertising Archives.

See also:

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Review - Raimond Gaita: Romulus, My Father

Raimond Gaita
Romulus, My Father (4*)

In 1950, Raimond Gaita emigrated with his Romanian father and German mother to Victoria, Australia. His father, Romulus Gaita, was a skilled blacksmith, but was sent to a migrant labour camp to work on the construction of the Cairn Curran reservoir.

Raimond and his mother were able to join him only later when he began to share a desolate nearby farm called Frogmore. It had no electricity and no running water and barely sheltered them from the elements. Raimond’s mother was promiscuous, suffered mental illness, and left and returned several times. Eventually she committed suicide. Despite these terrible circumstances, this is a moving and unsentimental memoir of post-war European immigration to Australia, set in the bleak but beautiful landscape of Central Victoria.

Raimond Gaita emerged from this dreadful background to achieve a university degree in Melbourne, a Ph.D. from the University of Leeds, U.K., and to become a Professor of Moral Philosophy at King’s College, London, and later the Melbourne Law School.

How on earth he managed it must, to a considerable extent, be down to the close bond with his father who, despite mental illness of his own, maintained a consistent, highly principled moral stance throughout his difficult life. This is the main theme throughout the book: Romulus Gaita’s approach to love, honesty, friendship, family, relationships, migrant culture, landscape, work (he eventually established a business making and selling wrought iron furniture), wealth, self-image, suffering, violence, loyalty and forgiveness. It is, it seems, a philosopher’s examination of his father’s influence upon his own beliefs and thinking. It is also a remarkable and inspiring story. 

I was motivated to read Romulus My Father by a piece in Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look, in which she discusses people and events in the book with Raimond as he shows her around the sites of his childhood. She describes the book as having changed the quality of Australia’s literary air. It is not hard to see why.

Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Agents Of Maths Destruction

Who needs brains any more except to ponder how computers and calculators have changed the way we do everyday calculations?

At one time we needed brains for long multiplication and long division, drummed into us at primary school from time immemorial. It is so long since I tried I’m not sure I can remember. Let’s try on the back of a proverbial envelope.

Long mulitiplication and division
Long multiplication and long division with numbers and with pre-decimal currency

To do it you had to be able to add up, ‘take away’ and know your times tables – eight eights are sixty four, and so on – but just about everyone born before 1980 could do these things without having to think. 

Those of us still older, born before say 1960, could multiply and divide pre-decimal currency – remember, twelve pence to the shilling, twenty shillings to the pound. You had to have grown up with this arcane system to understand it. Perhaps we should have kept it. It might have put foreigners off from wanting to come here and there would have been no need for Brexit. As the example reveals, even I struggle with the division.

Logarithms and Antilogarithms
Logarithms and Antilogarithms

Then, there were logarithms and antilogarithms, as thrown at us in secondary school. To multiply or divide two numbers, you looked up their logs in a little book, added them to multiply, or subtracted to divide, and then converted the result back into the answer by looking it up in a table of antilogs. For example, using my dinky little Science Data Book, bought for 12p in 1973: 

To multiply 2468 x 3579:
log 2468 = 3.3923; log 3579 = 3.5538; sum = 6.9461; antilog  = 8,833,000

To divide 3579 by 24:
log 3579 = 3.5538; log 24 = 1.3802; subtraction  =  2.1736; antilog  149.1

It’s absolute magic, although the real magicians were individuals like Napier and Briggs who invented it. How ever did they come up with the idea? It was not perfect. Log tables gave only approximate rounded answers and it was tricky handling numbers with different magnitudes of ten (represented by the 3., 6., 1. and 2. to the left of the decimal points), but it was very satisfying. You needed ‘A’ Level Maths to understand how they actually worked, but not to be able to use them. Some also learned to use a slide rule for these kinds of calculations – a mechanical version of logarithms – but as I never had to, I’ll skip that one.

Slide Rule
A Slide Rule

Due to a hopeless lack of imagination, I left school to work for a firm of accountants in Leeds. Contrary to what you might think, our arithmetical skills were rarely stretched beyond adding up long columns of numbers. We whizzed through the totals in cash books and ledgers, and joked about adding up the telephone directory for practice. The silence of the office would be punctuated by cries of torment and elation: “oh pillocks!” as one desolate soul failed to match the totals they had produced moments earlier, or a tuneless outbreak of the 1812 Overture as another triumphantly agreed a ‘trial balance’ after four or five attempts.

Sumlock Comptometer
A 1960s Sumlock Comptometer.

But when it came to checking pages and pages of additions we had comptometer operators. Thousands of glamorous girls left school to train as Sumlock ‘comps’, learning how to twist and contort their fingers into impossible shapes and thump, thump, thump through thousands of additions in next to no time without ever looking at their machines. By using as many fingers as it took, they could enter all the digits of a number in a single press. It probably damaged their hands for life. I still don’t understand how they did it. There was both mystery and glamour in going out on audit with a comp.

Friden Electromechanical Calculator
A 1950s Friden Electromechanical Calculator

Back at the office we had an old Friden electro-mechanical calculating machine. What a beast that was. I never once saw it used for work, but we discovered that if you switched it on and pressed a particular key it would start counting rapidly upwards on its twenty-digit register.

“What if we left it on over the bank holiday weekend?” someone wondered one Friday. “What would it get to by Tuesday?”

Fortunately we didn’t try. It would probably have burst into flames and set fire to all the papers in the filing room. But we worked it out (sadly not with the Friden). It operated at eight cycles per second. So after one minute it would have counted to 480, after one hour to 28,800, and after one day to 691,200. So if we had started it at five o’clock on Friday, it would have got to 2,534,400 by nine o’clock on Tuesday morning. So, counting at eight per second gets you to just two and half million after three and a half days! It shows how big two and a half million actually is.

The obvious questions to us awstruck nerdy accountant types were then “what would it get to in a year?”– about two hundred and fifty million, and “how long would it take to fill all twenty numbers in the top register with nines?”– about thirty nine million million years. As the building was demolished in the nineteen eighties it would have been switched off long before then. But what would it have got to? 

ANITA 1011 LS1 Desktop Calculator
An ANITA 1011 LS1 Desktop Calculator (c1971)

The first fully electronic machine I saw was a late nineteen-sixties ANITA (“A New Inspiration To Accounting”, one of the first of many truly cringeworthy acronyms of the digital revolution) which looked basically like a comptometer with light tube numbers.  Then, fairly quickly with advances in integrated circuits and chip technology, came the ANITA desk top calculator followed by pocket handhelds that could read HELLHOLE, GOB and BOOBIES upside down, and 7175 the right way up. Intelligence was as redundant as comptometer operators. We revelled so much in our mindless machine skills that I once saw a garage mechanic work out the then 10% VAT on my bill with a calculator, and get it wrong and undercharge me. It can still be quicker to do things mentally rather than use a calculator.

Around 1972, my dad saw one of the first pocket calculators for sale in Boots. It could add, subtract, multiply and divide, pretty much state of the art for the time, but at £32 (about £350 in today’s money) and not as compact as now, it required large pockets in more ways than one. I told him it was ridiculously overpriced. Infuriatingly, he ignored me and bought one. On the following Monday they reduced the price down to just £6. It was his turn to be annoyed but the store manager refused to give a refund. He stuck with that calculator for the next thirty years.

How often now do we even use calculators? Not a lot for basic arithmetic. Do we ever doubt the calculations on our computer generated energy bills and bank statements? Do we check the VAT on our online purchases? Do accountants ever question the sums on their Excel spreadsheets? Just think, a fraction of a penny here, another there, carefuly concealed, embezzlement by a million roundings, it could all add up to a nice little earner.

I believe the above images to be in the public domain except for the first which is mine.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Review - Helen Garner: Everywhere I Look

Helen Garner 
Everywhere I Look (5*)

I'd not heard of Helen Garner until a newspaper interview caught my interest. It mentioned a short piece about playing the ukelele which I found online and was instantly captivated by her rich and clever blend of observation, reflection, personal experience and human reaction. Exactly the kind of thing countless bloggers try to turn out, me included, but so much better.

Such as when, after seeing and hearing a ukelele for the first time, and then finding the Oxford Companion to Music's snotty description of them as popular amongst those whose desire to perform exceeds their willingness to acquire technique or musical ability, she writes:
So. It was a cop-out for the lazy and talentless. I went straight downtown and bought the first one I saw ...
I wondered why anyone should bother to read us when they can read her. The reality, I suppose, is that we write for ourselves and are thrilled if others like it.

Everywhere I Look is a collection of around thirty essays, diary entries and other short pieces, most of them previously published elsewhere during the last couple of decades. The ukelele piece, Whisper and Hum is the opening item, but I also loved The Journey of the Stamp Animals about a nineteen-forties children's book which had left strong memories but was now so elusive she doubted it had ever existed, From Frogmore, Victoria about Raimond Gaita and his memoir Romulus, My Father, a memory of a former teacher Dear Mrs Dunkley who she belatedly learns to respect, Red Dog: A Mutiny about reaching a compromise with her daughter's dog, The Insults of Age which is about not accepting any more bullshit from people ... I could go on - I loved it all and was sorry when I reached the end. Nothing in the collection disappoints and Helen Garner is rightly described as one of Australia's finest writers. Make that one of the world's.

Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.