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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 rent was five guineas a week – the husband of the elderly couple I lodged with snootily thought himself sufficiently refined to charge in guineas rather than pounds: five guineas was five pounds five shillings, £5.25 in new money, now equivalent to around £75 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 it was 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.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Self-Doubt, Imposter Syndrome and Hegemonic Masculinity

A couple of weeks ago, the normally so impeccable Hadley Freeman, writing about self-doubt in her Guardian column, said:

 “I have yet to meet a man who has worried he’s not good enough for a job he’s been offered, whereas I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t.”

Well, I don’t know what circles she moves in but that is simply wrong, as many of the responses to the online article make clear. Imposter syndrome is not just a female thing.

She finds it impossible to imagine a woman who, like certain men she amusingly identifies, is “perennially mediocre, untouchably arrogant, and eternally gifted by opportunity and protection by the establishment”. You only have to look at some of the women in high political office to see the error in this.

As regards men who worry they are not up to jobs they have been offered, there are lots, myself included. When I got good grades at ‘A’ Levels the second time round in my mid-twenties, and then a good degree, I felt that almost anyone could do it, and still do. When that led to jobs in universities, it felt like unmerited good fortune. When I got research papers into academic journals, I wondered why no one had seen the gaping holes they contained.

This is of course both blowing and sucking my own trumpet at the same time, but I just want to say that even for those who invented the concept*, hegemonic masculinity was never assumed to be universal.

* Connell and Messerschmidt.
The cartoon is from - click to link to its source.
Here is another relevant article from The Guardian.

Friday, 19 January 2018

My New IKEA Sit/Stand Desk

Bekant sit/stand desk 120x80cm
Bekant sit/stand desk, oak/black, 120x80cm

Health sites are good at scaring hypochondriacs like me into believing that sitting down for too long can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression. Some even make out that sitting is as bad as smoking. Can it really be so harmful? I am not so sure. Being a complete couch potato is obviously undesirable for lots of reasons, not least that you begin to hate yourself, but what is unclear is how sitting at a desk relates to other levels of activity. It might not be all that bad for those who are otherwise reasonably active.

All I know for sure is that lengthy computer sessions, seated, make my back sore. Despite trying different seating configurations, I end up shuffling around like an arthritic super-centenarian. I have also seen the effects of entire working lives spent at the deskface. Men (mainly) with bad backs, stiff necks, severe stoops, obesity, shortage of breath, high blood pressure and other problems were all too common in the offices of the sixties and seventies – an unrecognised industrial disease from the public health dark ages. We had to put up with any old chair and desk available, no matter how worn out and unergonomic. Worst affected were those who sat down all day in a cloud of cigarette smoke – either their own or other peoples’. Some even put sugar in their tea as well.

So, I broadly accept that sitting down for too long is bad for you, and have for some time been thinking about getting a standing desk. What made me hesitate was (i) not knowing which type to get – a desktop frame or a complete desk, and (ii) the cost – it might be an expensive waste of money.

I thought about making one. It would be fairly simple to construct a sturdy table to stand on an existing desk, although it would not be height adjustable, and deciding its exact height might be a bit hit and miss. I know that a standard four-drawer filing cabinet is quite comfortable for someone of my height to work on, although I don’t know for how long, and getting it wrong could be worse than not having a standing desk at all. Anything I made would probably look naff anyway.  
Desktop frames are the cheapest option to buy, albeit not that cheap. For under £250 you can find a work surface to go on top of your existing desk, which can be raised and lowered by means of a pantograph mechanism. Some also have separately-adjustable keyboard trays. But you would have to put the whole thing aside to revert to the original height and space of your desk, and they look several times more naff than my imagined self-made version – lots of cold and clanky metal, like working on the roof of an electric train.

It therefore had to be a full adjustable sit/stand desk or nothing. They are expensive. Some cost over £1,000. A more affordable one was the Bekant desk from IKEA, but it has some damning reviews – unreliable, wobbly, poorly made. It is also 80cm deep (2 feet 7 inches), which is 20cm (7 inches) deeper than my normal desk. The hesitation continued.

Fortunately, we live near enough to an IKEA be able to look in-store. We twice braved the rank smell of Swedish meatballs to play with it, and it looked all right. We wondered whether a cheaper hand-cranked model might suffice rather than an electrically adjustable one. No. Stiff and awkward.

So, a month ago I splashed out £475 on a 120 x 80 cm Bekant electric sit/stand desk. It was Christmas after all. The price included a little extra for the oak veneer top which looks attractive with the black legs. 

I don’t usually review things (except books), and probably wouldn’t even if you paid me (although everyone has their price) but I am so happy with my new sit/stand desk that this once I will. I am not going to go into the technical specifications, plenty of other sites do that, but let me tell you about the experience. It was simple to assemble. It is not poorly made. The height adjustment mechanism, hidden in the legs, seems sturdy and reliable. The desk is not wobbly – the 80 cm depth allows you to stand and lean on it with the full length of your forearms, with the keyboard in the centre of the desk. It does not tilt when you do this. Alternatively, and perhaps better for your posture, you can place your keyboard or papers at the front of the desk to stand and work tall and free. It seems perfect for home use. I don’t know how well it would cope with commercial use but the IKEA staff have them in-store.

Just a few tips if you get one. During assembly, look carefully at the orientation of the brackets in the diagram when fixing them to the underside of the desk. I initially put mine on the wrong way round so that the flanges were too far apart to fit the base, although it was not too much of a problem to take them off and refit. Secondly, if you put weight on your arms while standing, get a foam pad for support, otherwise your elbows might feel sore. Third, replace your office chair with a light stool that can easily be moved aside when you want to stand, and brought back when you want to sit down. You might even want to lower the desk as far as it will go and kneel on the floor. Lastly, the buttons for adjusting the height are fiddly, but easy to use once you get used to them. And a warning: the legs and frame are very heavy.

After a month I find I can stand and work non-stop for a couple of hours or longer, although my ankles, knees and hips did twinge a bit at first. Nothing too bad – I have yet to experience ‘cankles’. Sometimes my shoulders ache a little as well, but moving the desk up or down an inch soon gets round that. And best of all – my back no longer suffers after a long computer session. Costly, but worth it.

I wish standing desks had been around during the years I spent in accountancy in the sixties and seventies, and in computing in the eighties. You would have been labelled a weirdo just for thinking about it.

What next? A treadmill desk? A cycling desk? A hamster wheel desk? I don’t think so. They really are only for weirdos.