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Sunday, 23 October 2016

One Man’s Week 1974

This was written after reading One Man’s Week in the London Sunday Times. The contributors were always authors, artists, musicians, humourists, television personalities and so on, all of whom led wildly exciting daily lives. As its name suggests, there were never any female correspondents. This particular week the column was by a well-known writer, presenter of television arts programmes and professional Northerner who, frankly, I was sick of seeing and reading about. This was my reaction. Perhaps it exaggerates my lack of direction, hopelessness and want of stimulation at the time, but not by much.

One Man’s Week by Tasker Dunham who works in an office in Leeds


Thank goodness it’s Sunday. Staying with Parents for the weekend, I pick up their Sunday Times and come across One Man’s Week. As usual it is by some irritating celebrity who leads a full and exciting life, has an interesting, creative job and mixes with sparklingly famous and admired people. Why don’t they get someone who does nothing, goes nowhere and knows no one, someone with a boring and hated job, someone like me?

Dreading the impending working week, I sit unoccupied for the rest of the day until it is time to return to my bedsit. Parents wave goodbye from the doorstep and after an hour in my blue Mini I am in my room in Leeds. It is cold, lonely, empty, and the bulb has gone. Must get a new one. I greet my four little fish: they don’t exactly come bounding up to welcome me.

I switch on the television for half an hour before bed time. The picture flickers on. It’s him again: the One Man’s Week columnist. I turn it off and go to bed. Why can’t I have a job like his?


8:15 Eyes open. Radio on. I’ve got to go to work. Must get up. I’ll just have another five minutes.

8:20 Groan! I really ought to get moving, but another five minutes won’t matter.

This continues until 8:45 when a feeble John Timpson joke on the radio gets me up.

At 9.15 I arrive at work. Napoleon, the boss, looks at his watch disapprovingly with raised eyebrows. He says nothing. He is busy working frenetically in his shirtsleeves behind his glass partition. I try to look productive with thoughts miles away. I make a mental note to be on time tomorrow.

Lunchtime arrives. There must be something wrong when the most enjoyable part of the day is going to the shop for a lunchtime sandwich. And they’re so expensive! I must start to make my own.


It must be terrible to work in London where the journey to work might take two hours. I can do it in ten minutes, yet I still can’t make it on time. I set off at nine and arrive ten minutes late. Napoleon looks at his watch disapprovingly with raised eyebrows. He is still working frenetically in his shirtsleeves behind his glass partition. Has he been home at all? I genuinely resolve to arrive on time tomorrow.

At lunchtime I return a pile of books to the library, all unread, and have to pay twenty pence in fines. It’s quite reasonable really. Browsing round the shelves I spot a name on a row of novels. Hell! It’s him again: One Man’s Week. Not only television programmes; he writes novels as well. I borrow them all hoping to find the secret of his success.

In the evening I don’t get round to reading them. I am too exhausted after work and have not yet replaced the light bulb. There must be something wrong with me. I’m always tired, I have lots of headaches, I never feel well. I need to visit the doctor.


Today I am not going to be late for work. I spring out of bed at 6.15. I spring back in at 6.20.

I wake up again at 9.30. That can’t be right. Oh dear! 9.30. It is right. I walk to the phone box and tell Napoleon I will be in late on account of having run over a dog on the way to work. I arrive sheepishly at 10.30. Napoleon calls me in and I bleat out my excuse once more, with embellishments. I look disapprovingly at my watch with raised eyebrows.

“Must get on,” I say, retreating.

When lunchtime arrives I reflect that I am still not making my own sandwiches. At least I remember to buy a new light bulb. It gives me a deep sense of accomplishment. 

Back home the fish regard my presence with less enthusiasm than ever. Their tank probably needs cleaning out. Indeed, it smells a bit and there seem only to be three of them now. The other appears to have turned into a transparent husk glistening at the bottom with a kind of wriggling, leechy thing attached. I make a mental note to deal with it.

I pick up one of that man’s books but reading is difficult because the new bulb is too dim. I become lost in thoughts about changing vocation. I decide I am definitely in the wrong job. I will go for occupational guidance to see what they say. Blast! I forgot to make an appointment to see the doctor.


8.30 Why should I have to do this job? Why should I, a person of my considerable intelligence and ability, have to carry out such mind-numbing, menial tasks? Why do I put up with work so beneath my capabilities? I’m not going in. I am definitely not going in. That’s that. I will phone and say I’m ill.

I feel so guilty I remain bedbound until 2.00 as if authentically ill. I stay in bed so long that hunger and headache make me feel truly ill.


I arrive at work five minutes early but Napoleon has gone to a meeting in London for the day. People ask after my state of health. I explain that I had migraine and stomach ache and was unable to phone in. Well, it’s true. I really was ill.

Conscientious people like me enjoy their jobs. If on a particular day they cannot face work, there must be something wrong: they must be ill. Staying home is the sensible course of action.

I am still not making my own sandwiches. It does not matter today as Friday is liquid lunch day, the end of the firm’s unofficial four and a half day week.

The car sounds a bit rough but I drive back to Parents, to cooked meals, clean rooms and country air. Not for the first time I am told I ought to pull myself together, find a wife and be properly looked after. There might be something in that.

Tomorrow I will read one of that man’s books, service the car, get a brighter bulb, buy food for next week....


Instead I stay in bed all morning and then watch wrestling on television. I must make an effort to get things done.

Right! Starting from next week I will make my own sandwiches, read that man’s books, sort out the fish, get a brighter bulb, tidy my room, service the car, go to the doctors, arrive at work on time, seek occupational guidance.....

Thank heavens it’s the weekend.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Man With The Hebrew Bible

My father was always puzzled by a strange teenage memory. In 1937 he went with his parents to visit distant relatives at Boston in Lincolnshire. In one house, an elderly Jew was sitting at a high desk in skull cap and prayer shawl reading a Hebrew bible, his finger tracing the curious lettering right to left across the page. Who could this have been? My father was never aware of any Jewish relatives. He began to wonder whether he had imagined the whole thing. The truth, when it emerged, is like a tale from Dickens.

Years later, after his parents were gone and there was no one left to ask, the image kept returning to bother him like a recurring dream. He wished he had paid more attention, except you don’t when you are sixteen, or even when you are thirty-three or forty, his ages when his mother and father died. He struggled to reconstruct the event: the one-day railway excursion from Goole; meeting his mother’s cousin, Lucy Mann, who gave them dinner (i.e. lunch); climbing the three hundred and sixty five steps to the top of Boston Stump with his father (i.e. Boston St. Botolph, the tallest church tower in England). But the man with the Hebrew bible remained a mystery.

The Hull Daily Mail, 1937
Much of the story made sense. Railway excursions were very popular in the nineteen-thirties before the days of mass car ownership. They ran to destinations far and wide from every major town and city. The London and North Eastern Railway advertised numerous trips from Hull and Goole in 1937, including several to Boston. One such excursion, for a fare of four shillings and nine pence (24p in new money), left Goole at 10.50 a.m. on Sunday 7th November and would have arrived in Boston before one in the afternoon. Presumably they spent the afternoon there and returned that evening.

On the way home, my grandfather, amused by what they had seen, began to tease my grandmother about her distant relative. It was still unusual for people from a small Yorkshire town to encounter other religions or ethnicities, even for those who had seen service abroad during the First World War. It was cause enough for suspicion to be Roman Catholic, or sometimes Methodist. “Well, you kept quiet about that all these years, didn’t you!” he mocked. “I didn’t realise I’d married a Hebrew!”

My grandmother’s cousin, Lucy Mann, is also no mystery. The two cousins had spent the First World War together in service as shop assistants at Southport in Lancashire. They had a common bond: the childhood loss of a parent. Lucy’s father had died of heart disease in 1893 when she was two, and my grandmother’s mother of kidney disease in 1910 when she was fourteen. Lucy can be found in my grandparents’ wedding photographs in 1919. They remained in touch for the rest of their lives.  

But who was the man with the Hebrew bible? My father gradually came round to thinking he could have been married to one of his mother’s aunts. We looked for clues in the snippets of family history I traced, but to no avail. None of the twelve aunts we found fitted the bill.

The truth came to light only after my father had died. It was the result of a set of events that would never occur today – like a nineteenth century Dickensian tale, convoluted as a Catherine Cookson saga.

It begins in the eighteen-fifties. My grandmother’s maternal family lived in a hamlet called Amber Hill in the Boston fens: an expanse of low lying farmland to the west of The Wash in South Lincolnshire. It is a bleak, wet landscape of isolated villages surrounded by field after field of crops. But for a network of deep drains and pumping stations originally powered by windmills, it would quickly turn back into marshland. You could imagine it as Holland; in fact one fen is actually named Holland Fen. Families were large, and the children went on to have large families themselves. Work on the land was hard and death came early and often.

My grandmother’s mother was one of at least twelve siblings. The two eldest, both girls, married the same man, the elder sister having died at the age of twenty. Between them they had fourteen children with the surname Sellars. One, Thomas Sellars, moved north to the town of Goole, then a booming port in Yorkshire. It promised a kinder life than on the land, with plentiful work on the docks, on the railway, and in the industries springing up around the town. Thomas found work as a coal porter, married and quickly had four children, but one died soon after birth, and then his wife died. It was May, 1906. Thomas was left alone with three children: Albert aged four, Beatrice, three, and Edmund, one.

Other siblings and cousins had moved to Goole too, including my grandmother’s parents. It would not have been entirely alien to them because, like the Boston fens, the land is flat and artificially drained. The families remained close, some lodging with or living next door to each other. They would have rallied round straight away to help Thomas with the children. A working man at that time could not have looked after them alone. 

Soon, however, Thomas was on his own again. He remained in Goole, but the 1911 census shows him living alone in lodgings. Albert is back with Thomas’s parents in the Lincolnshire Fens. Edmund, the youngest child, had died in 1908. Beatrice is nowhere to be found. It seemed that she had disappeared from the records.

It is not unusual to have loose ends in family history research. Sometimes they are never resolved. My grandmother had at least fifty first cousins just on her mother’s side of the family, some of whom also seem untraceable.

Thomas died three years later in 1914. He is buried with his wife and children in a pair of forgotten and neglected plots in Goole cemetery. My grandmother would certainly have remembered her cousin Thomas and his family, being only a little older than his children. 

This sad tale was all we could find for many years. We knew most of it before my father died. At that time it seemed to have absolutely no connection to the man with the Hebrew bible. It never occurred to either of us there might be one.

But the great thing about internet genealogy is that not only does it provide untold resources for tracing your family history, it also facilitates communication between distant relatives and others researching the same families. One day, out of the blue, I received a message from Beatrice’s grandson, actually my third cousin once removed, and the rest of the story fell into place. The man with the Hebrew bible acquired a name.

He was Samuel Isaac Niman, born in 1867 at Plock in central Poland. When he was two his family moved to England and settled in Leeds where he grew up. He trained as a tailor and at some point during the eighteen-nineties emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, to set up in business as a gentleman’s outfitter.

The Melbourne Advocate, 1901

One of Thomas Sellers’ sisters, Mary Ann Sellars, had also moved to Melbourne. When, how and why remains unknown. She had been in domestic service in the 1891 census, but had then become another of those loose ends that disappeared from the family tree. It transpired that she had married Samuel Isaac Niman in Melbourne in 1900.

News of the death of Thomas’s wife would have been slow to reach them in 1906. One imagines letters sent back and forth by sea with an interval of six or seven weeks between dispatch and delivery. They would have touched upon the uncertain future of Thomas’s children. Exactly how the dialogue then developed one can only guess, but it seems the Nimans were unable to have children of their own and it was agreed they should take one of Thomas’s to live with them in Australia. In March, 1907, Mary Ann sailed from Melbourne, arriving in London in mid-May. Then on the 26th September she sailed back from Liverpool accompanied by five-year old Beatrice, and Beatrice Sellars became known as Beatrice Niman. One wonders what the little girl thought, sailing off to a new life on the other side of the world with an aunt she had known for just four months.

The Lincolnshire Standard and Boston Guardian, 1933

The Nimans remained in Melbourne for a further six years until, in July 1913, they returned to England and settled in Boston. Samuel started another business there, apparently with Mary Ann and Beatrice, eventually opening a ladies clothing shop at 55 West Street. They lived on the premises, which is where my father and his parents would have visited them in 1937. Beatrice by then was married with children of her own, but she still lived in Boston and may also have been present. We no longer know how well Mary Ann knew my grandmother or whether Beatrice remembered her. She would have remembered very little about her time in Goole with her own parents, but might have visited on returning from Melbourne in 1913 because her father, Thomas Sellars, was still alive. One can only wonder. The more you find about family history, the more questions you have.

So my father had not imagined the whole thing. The man with the Hebrew bible was real. He was Samuel Isaac Niman, the husband of one of my father’s mother’s cousins. Beatrice’s son remembered him as very religious. As a child he would sit on his knee at the high desk as he read the Hebrew bible.

Sadly, my father died six or seven years before I was able to tell him.

After Samuel's death, Mary Ann went to live with Beatrice and her family who had moved to Muswell Hill, London. She died there aged 84 in 1956.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Keith Richards' Lost Weekend

What a treat on BBC Four television this weekend when Keith Richards’ “pirate broadcast” took over the channel from dusk to dawn for three nights, replacing the usual schedule with his own selection from the past, such as Tony Hancock’s Twelve Angry Men, Captain Pugwash, and Hitchcock’s 1935 version of The Thirty Nine Steps, all billed as Keith Richards’ Lost Weekend. I didn’t stay up all night with Keef but the bits I did see were great. 

One particular clip had me in hysterics: Spike Milligan’s Raspberry Song from 1977. I’d never seen it before.* I squirmed in agony until my family decided it had to be switched off – “before he wets himself” was the phrase used.

They turned over to the other channel for Would I Lie To You in which two teams of metropolitan smart alecs compete to make viewers feel witty and sophisticated. Next to Milligan they are no different from any of those pompous, pedestrian panellists of the past, like Frank Muir, Robert Robertson and Robin Ray. Raspberries to them all.

* For the lyrics see

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Hedge Trimmer Safety 1968

The Black & Decker D470 (U-272) Hedge Trimmer

If you want the kids to cut the hedge and mow the lawn for you, get them some dangerous power tools and they’ll happily do it while you’re at work. On no account should you stay home to watch over them or they won’t do it. Or if they do, you will be so frightened by the risks that you’ll have to do it yourself.

My brother and I certainly fell for it. It started in 1968. The previous December we had moved to a house with a wide lawn and a six-foot hedge along the side. The hedge ran the full length of the front and back gardens – around a hundred feet – and we had to cut both sides because it was next to a field. My dad came home with two seriously businesslike items of gardening equipment: an Atco petrol mower and a Black & Decker electric hedge trimmer with a sixteen-inch blade. The mower, to which I owe a useful understanding of engines, particularly the operation of the clutch, is long gone, but the hedge trimmer is in my shed. It still works, and I still use it.

Electric hedge trimmers are brutal pieces of equipment. They cause more than three thousand injuries in the U.K. every year, mainly lacerated fingers and electric shock. After all, they are designed to cut through twigs the thickness of your fingers. Today they boast numerous safety features. They have two switches to ensure you keep both hands on the machine at all times. The blades stop the instant either switch is released. They have blade extensions: fixed teeth which extend beyond the cutting blades so you cannot hurt yourself by accidentally brushing the trimmer against your leg. They have cable protection such as coiling and a belt clip to stop you cutting through it. They have guards to protect your hands from flying or falling debris.

Not only that, they also come with pages of warnings against the ill-advised actions of idiot users. They tell you to wear heavy duty gloves, non-slip shoes and suitable clothing, not to wear a scarf or neck tie, and to tie up long hair. They suggest eye and ear protection, but to be aware that ear protection impedes your ability to hear warnings. They advise against using the trimmer in damp weather, and to watch out for roots and other obstacles you might fall over. And you should always use an RCD (GFCI) circuit breaker.

Your imagination starts to work overtime as you recognise the wisdom in these warnings and begin to picture the terrible accidents and injuries that could occur if you ignore them. But the manufacturers don’t just leave things there; they really do think you are an idiot. You should never use the equipment, they caution, while tired or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You must not permit bystanders, especially children and animals. You should not cut where you cannot see, and should always first check the other side of the hedge you are trimming. Never hold the trimmer with one hand, they say, hinting that those who do might henceforth be left with only one hand to hold it with. And to be sure they have covered absolutely everything, including themselves, they tell you never to use the trimmer for any purpose other than for cutting shrubs and hedges. It appears they are unable to envisage what these other purposes might be or they would surely mention them. “Do not use the trimmer for shearing sheep,” they might say, “or for grooming your poodle.”

Some manufacturers even include warnings about vibration-induced circulatory problems (“white finger disease”), and provide advice specifically for those whose heart pacemakers might be affected by the magnetic fields around the motor. And all of this is before they get on to things that might go wrong with petrol driven trimmers and their toxic exhaust fumes and inflammable fuel, which I suppose would have applied to the motor mower my brother and I used to enjoy unsupervised.

The warnings seem so comprehensive they must be based on real accidents and incidents that have occurred over the years since home power tools emerged in the nineteen-sixties. Did someone, somewhere, really magnetically disrupt their heart pacemaker and fall down dead? Did someone else, still in their business suit straight from the office, catch up their necktie and die through strangulation? Could you really (like Philip Larkin and the hedgehog) chop up your pet cat hiding at the other side of the hedge? And did some simpleton under the influence of drugs or alcohol once imagine their hedge trimmer to be a light sabre and prance down the garden wielding it in front of them like Obi-Wan Kenobi, only to be tripped into the fish pond and electrocuted by the power lead tightening around their ankles.

So, just how many of these safety features and warnings do you think are designed into the 1968 Black & Decker D470 (or U-272 in the United States) electric hedge trimmer? Practically none of course. I concede it does have blade extensions, that the nameplate warns it should not be used in rain and that the accompanying instructions suggest it is not a good idea to cut through the power cable, but that’s about it. The manufacturers thought it more important to tell you about its power, speed and ruggedness, and the sharpness of the tempered spring steel blade. There is nothing to prevent you from using it one-handed or indeed no-handed – it will keep going even when you put it down. One-handed is actually an advantage: you can reach further without having to move your step-ladder.

When you do switch it off it does not stop instantly: it takes a couple of seconds to slow down. This is why my brother did have an accident. At home on his own one summer afternoon aged about fifteen he helpfully thought he would trim the hedge. He had to phone Mum at the shop where she worked to ask her to come back because he thought he might need to go to hospital. He had caught the end of his finger in the blade, cutting about a third of the way into the side of his nail. He didn’t notice until his arm felt wet. There was quite a lot of blood.

Maybe I shouldn’t use it, but I do. It may be so old as not even to get a mention on the Black & Decker web site, and the wiring colours are perilously obsolete, but why buy a new one when it is still good? Modern ones are so shoddily made they are likely to need replacing within ten years, but this one has already lasted almost fifty.

In any case, hedge trimmers are only the third most frequent cause of gardening injuries requiring hospital treatment. Far more people are hurt by lawn mowers. And hedge trimmers cause nowhere near as many injuries as plant pots.

Instruction sheet for the Black & Decker D460 and D470 (U-272 or 8120) hedge trimmers

Friday, 9 September 2016

Help ... my courgette looks like a duck!

It’s like something out of That’s Life – a 1973-1994 BBC Television magazine-style consumer affairs and entertainment programme presented by Esther Rantzen and a panel of male co-presenters. During its Sunday evening run in the mid nineteen-seventies it made for a relaxing and usually mindless end to the weekend. Among the serious and often worthwhile consumer rights campaigns, the show contained numerous items that were just plain silly: there were “Odd Odes”; stooges would burst into song in supermarkets; there was a dog that could growl the word “sausages”; and viewers would send in unusually shaped vegetables such as intertwined carrots, teddy-bear shaped potatoes and parsnips that looked like legs with male genitalia.

Well here Esther, around forty years too late, is my contribution – a courgette that looks like a duck. Pareidolia.

It was hiding in the vegetable patch. It must have twisted round to grow against its stalk. Concealed beneath the leaves at the back of the plant, it surreptitiously became this three and three-quarter pound (1700g) monster.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

‘A’ Level Geography 1977

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Section A: map reading. One compulsory question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 July 2016

My Picture Book of Ships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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