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Saturday, 18 March 2017

Talbot Samba

Never again would I have a French car, not of any kind, and especially not a Peugeot. I used to fantasise that if I were to win a nice one in a competition – no that is simply not possible – a nasty, unreliable, expensively overpriced rustbucket – I would take great delight in inviting the world’s media to come and watch me push it over the edge of a cliff.

click for video

I once had the misfortune of owning a Talbot Samba. It sounds like the name of the dictator of some obscure African republic,[1] but it was actually a French-designed supermini based on the Peugeot 104, manufactured by the Peugeot-Citroen group from 1981 to 1986. It was similar to other French cars of the time like the Renault 5 and the Peugeot 205 which used mainly the same parts.

My Samba was B-registered, brand new in 1985, the first new car I ever had. I reasoned that, properly looked after, it would give me seven or eight years of economical, trouble-free motoring. It seemed a bargain at the time, clinched by blue metallic paint thrown in ‘at no extra charge’. Never was I more misguided. An East German Trabant or a Sinclair C5 would have been better. 

Surely, it cannot be unreasonable to expect a new car, serviced at the correct intervals by the dealer, with all recommended work carried out including the 2-year and 4-year rust inspections, to be still in  good condition after four years. Admittedly mine was kept out of doors, and I did tend to drive it fast on regular long journeys between Yorkshire and Scotland, and I had been doing 12,000 miles a year, and once or twice I did over a hundred on long straight slopes, but in general I looked after it and am a gentle, careful driver. It should still have been good. It wasn’t. I doubt it would have passed its next MoT test.

The trouble started within three months. A small rust bubble appeared on the roof – an unusual place I thought. It was treated under warranty by the Nottingham dealer that supplied it. I was surprised to be told they had in fact re-sprayed the whole top half of the car but, being a trusting sort, I felt entirely secure in the six-year anti-corrosion warranty.

For the next couple of years all seemed well. I moved to a new job in Aberdeen and every couple of months drove the 750-mile round trip home to Yorkshire. In those days you could dash along for miles and miles at ninety without much fear of offending the police, and I often managed the one-way trip, with one stop, in less than six hours. The smooth slate-grey colour of the exhaust pipe was the envy of every motor sport fan.

The drive did not always go so well. Once, stuck in long queues of summer holiday traffic after an incident on the A1, a trip south took more than ten hours, but basically the car always did its job brilliantly. The key to surviving such long drives without becoming too irritable is to plan your stopping points in advance, and so I always ate my sandwiches in the same places depending the route. A shady lay-by on the A68 through Kielder Forest was one regular stop. The trip was a carefree existence outside of normal space and time, rootlessly drifting through an inspiring landscape that changed through Northumberland and opened up north of Edinburgh, and in the other direction, a warm sense of arrival back home in Yorkshire on the A1 approaching Wetherby.

But it was not to last. Rust reappeared when the car was two-years old. After the first treatment the back hatch had not been properly re-aligned, and rust returned where the door seal had been rubbing against the car. I also began to notice that the smallest scratch or chip anywhere in the paintwork would quickly corrode unless touched in immediately, and the paint on the roof guttering was flaking off leaving exposed rusty metal. There was a similar problem with the pinch-weld behind the rear bumper.

Morrison Brothers, the courteous and helpful Peugeot-Talbot dealers in Aberdeen dealt with everything under warranty, and after the back door had been correctly refitted I realised there had been a faint exhaust smell which had now gone away. That was frightening in retrospect, bearing in mind the long trips I had been making. It explained the frequent headaches.

The problem with the rear pinch-weld occurred twice again at yearly intervals. Morrison Brothers dealt with it again on the first occasion, but by the time it reoccurred I had moved back to Nottingham. I took the now four year-old car back to the original dealer and was treated abysmally. “Nothing to do with us,” they claimed, “It’s the Aberdeen dealer’s fault. They didn’t treat it properly. It invalidates the warranty. You will have to take it back to them.” They were entirely unconcerned that Nottingham and Aberdeen are four hundred miles apart.

I wrote a letter of complaint to Peugeot-Talbot but got no response whatsoever. It looked like they were playing for time – using excuses and delaying tactics until the car was out of warranty. Also unbeknown to me the Nottingham dealer was on the point of losing its Peugeot-Talbot franchise.

I suspect they had also looked at the car more closely than I had, and realised the full seriousness of the problems. When I looked more carefully I found severe rusting on the horizontal box section below the radiator grill. Under the back seat was a crumbling pinch-weld which appeared to be coming apart. The paint inside the boot was bubbling where the wheel arch joined the floor. When I pressed gently my finger went straight through the metal leaving a hole through to the road wheel. It was obvious that corrosion was raging inside the box sections. Outside, the roof sills were flaking again, and generally the paintwork was appalling. I suppose that after conveying me between Yorkshire and Aberdeen so many times, the car did not owe me much, but I kept coming back to the fact that it was little more than four years old. It was infuriating to observe other B-registered Sambas, even X- and Y- registered ones, driving around seemingly in pristine condition.

Perhaps the rust-proofing had not been done properly when new, I don’t know, but to my mind these are exactly the kind of faults that should be covered by a six-year anti-corrosion warranty. I also had a list of other problems that seemed excessive in a car of its age: leaks in the radiator bunged up with Radweld; a deteriorating clutch and gearbox; a broken door handle; a window winding handle that came off in your hand; a wobbly, squeaky and I thought inaccurate speedometer; a non-functioning fuel gauge; broken clips for anchoring the back seat; and more broken clips for holding down the tool kit. The slightest dampness in the air would prevent the engine from starting or make it run erratically if it did. As well as all that, the service and MoT test were coming round again, and it needed new tyres and brake shoes.

I wanted trouble-free motoring, not delays and excuses. I am ashamed to admit I part-exchanged the Samba for a year-old Volkswagen Polo. I would never have dared sell it privately. The VW dealer hardly gave it a glance. By then it was four years and nine months old with 59,000 miles on the clock. They only allowed me £1,395 for it but I could hardly get off the forecourt fast enough. I should apologise to whoever got the Samba after me, but really, you should have examined it more carefully. I was delighted with the Polo. It was so solid you could hear the stereo at 70 mph, and the doors closed with a thud like the doors of a railway carriage.

From then on I resolved never to have anything more to do with Peugeots, or any French car for that matter. And the recent news that Peugeot are to take over Vauxhall adds a whole new set of models to my list. It’s probably irrational. ‘Friday afternoon’ cars can be anywhere, but being fobbed off in the face of such incontestably serious deficiencies is unforgivable: hence the fantasy of pushing a Peugeot over a cliff.

But Jeremy Clarkson did it for me. I would not normally endorse either him or his antics, but in his 2009 DVD ‘Duel’ he catapulted a Talbot Samba, “a terrible little car,” at high speed into a wall (see from 1:13:15 at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2mb96v). What a pity it wasn’t a brand new top of the range Peugeot.


[1] I was probably thinking of Dr. Hastings Banda of Malawi formerly Nyasaland.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Alt-0247 and Rule: the Ed Sheeran Prize for Computer Science Education

Perhaps there should be a new category at the next Brits, the award for the year’s most outstanding contribution to computer science education, the first winner to be Ed Sheeran for his new album ÷ (pronounced Divide). This follows up his previous albums (or LPs as I still call them) + (Plus) and × (Multiply).

In trying to search for the new album, my daughter was frustrated by the lack of a ÷ key on her computer. She was about to go through the tedious procedure of using the ‘Insert Symbol’ menu in Microsoft Word to create one, which she could then copy and paste into the search box, when I said “Just type Alt-0247”, and the stargate opened into a whole new world of understanding. Ed Sheeran’s title had brilliantly illustrated the concept that everything you do on a computer has an underlying numerical representation.

The concept is ASCII – the American Standard Code for Information Exchange. I found it extremely useful in the early nineteen-eighties in working with Tandy TRS-80 and BBC computers, when I had the dubious honour of being the author of an educational computer program called Munchymaths.

ASCII had been developed twenty years earlier by IBM’s Bob Bemer and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as a standard way to represent characters in computers. It allows computers to communicate with each other.

In ASCII, the divide (or obelus) symbol is represented by the number 247, and can be produced by typing Alt-0247 on the number keypad.

To do it, hold down the Alt key while typing 0247 on the number pad, (number lock must be switched on), and the ÷ symbol appears when you release the Alt key. Some of us know this, and some of us don’t. It’s the Great Alt-0247.

Here are some other well known phrases or sayings in ASCII format:

  • To be, or not to be; that is the Alt-63
  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created Alt-61
  • Alt-62 love hath no man than this
  • To see the World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Alt-8734 in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour

Apologies if some or all of these symbols do not work or render as intended on your device. They appear correctly in the most used fonts in Windows 10 on Microsoft computers, but different devices, software and font selections use different codes. There are now several versions of the extended ASCII table to provide for the enormous number of characters computers are called upon to represent, such as  ê   €  Œ   ¶  and so on. The infinity symbol ∞ is particularly troublesome. Unfortunately, ASCII is not as standard as it could or should be.

Furthermore, ASCII is only an intermediate representation to make things easier for us stupid humans to understand. Underneath ASCII there are lower-level concepts such as octal, hexadecimal and binary, but let’s not go there now.

Ed Sheeran, however, is always going to be spoilt for choice for new album titles.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Dad’s 1950s Films

After posting recently about Nevil Shute and the R100, I found myself dreaming about the film of his book On the Beach which I saw around the age of ten. If you know it, you might wonder how a ten year old in 1959 got to see something so pessimistically awful and depressing. It was because my dad took me. We went once or twice a year from perhaps as young as four. It was always to see what he wanted to see. I had no idea what was on.

Over the next couple of weeks the names of other films came back. I am surprised to be able to recall twelve titles, all from before the age of twelve. They were mostly nautical, or about the war, or both, and are listed below with links to trailers or clips, together with my own vague, idiosyncratic, reconstructed childhood impressions.

What an unsuitable catalogue of horror they are: casual violence; cold blooded killing; wartime death and destruction; the stuff of nightmares. Although most had ‘U’ certificates meaning Universal or suitable for children, that does not mean they really were. Films tended to be restricted more often because of sexual content than violence. The films I saw would now be considered highly inappropriate for children. But fear not. I think I emerged undamaged. For most of the time I was completely mystified as to what was going on: a feeling not experienced again until I sat through films in French during foreign exchange trips to Belgium.

Just as with everything else, children have to learn how to make sense of the special language of film and moving images, and those of us born before every home had a television would have came late to this kind of literacy. It was especially true for me. We did not get a set until I was around twelve, and as I went to my grandma’s on Saturdays I never went to Saturday morning children’s cinema. It is no surprise I did not understand the films I saw. Sometimes I don’t even now.

We can now easily look up film release dates and work out my age at the time, although they may have taken a few months to reach our small Yorkshire town. 

Shane (Certificate A, released April 1953, aged 3)

Shane had lots of shooting and fighting in magnificent landscapes. It also had an ‘A’ certificate which meant children were allowed to see it only if accompanied by an adult. It is pretty violent. Did my dad really take me to see this aged four at best?

He always enjoyed a good ‘cowboy’, as he called Westerns, and I remember his infatuation with Alan Ladd’s quick draw, but how can I be sure it was this particular Alan Ladd Western we saw? On seeing the trailer again now on YouTube, I feel sure it was indeed Shane. Not even a four year old could forget nasty Jack Palance’s flat nose, deep-set eyes and wide cheekbones. 

The Student Prince (U certificate, released June 1954, aged 4) 

The only film not to have guns, ships or aeroplanes. Not at all what you would think my dad would see. Despite being only four or five I retain some faint impressions. It was in colour and there was lots of singing, most memorably the Drinking Song, “Drink, Drink, Drink”. My dad believed he could sing as well as Mario Lanza whose voice was used in the film.
The Dam Busters (U certificate, released May 1955, aged 5)

Some of my dad’s school friends had flown in bombers, and many had died in them. He talked about having a drink one wartime Thursday evening with a lad who flew as a navigator and had to return to his squadron on the Monday. He was terrified. He was lost over Germany a week later.

The Dam Busters might have given my dad some idea as to what it was like but all I saw was lots of aeroplanes flying. The only incident I specifically remember is the black dog belonging to one of the pilots being run over and killed. It was most distressing. Today people only get upset at its unfortunate name.

Thanks to Uncle Mac and Children’s Favourites we can all still hum the iconic theme tune (‘Derrr der der der de de der der’). I also subsequently learned that some of the aerial sequences were filmed over the River Don at Goole, otherwise known as the Dutch River, a dead ringer for the Dutch canals.

Reach for the Sky (U certificate, released July 1956, aged 6)

Another war film. Kenneth More walks about with a stiff upper lip and even stiffer legs playing Douglas Bader, the amputee wartime fighter ace. Again there were lots of aeroplanes but More’s delivery was far too fast and clipped for my Yorkshire ears.


Around the World in 80 Days (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)

Another display of British stiff upper lip, this time with David Niven playing Phileas Fogg who bets he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. He arrives back five minutes late, losing £20,000. The twist is that because he travelled eastwards he gained a day, so wins the bet after all. That was useful in school Geography, years later.

Afterwards I always recognised David Niven and remembered the odd name of his character from before it became a brand of crisps, and also that of his sidekick Passepartout. The film now seems like an attempt to get the most stars possible into one production, but I knew none of them at the time.

The Battle of the River Plate (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)

My dad especially liked films about the sea because his grandpa had been a captain and his cousin was in the merchant navy, so he knew all about it. Three Royal Navy cruisers chase the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee around the Atlantic Ocean. There was lots of naval shelling and one of ours, the Exeter, was hit and caught fire. The main thing I remember though, was wondering what on earth was a “pocket” battleship.

Dunkirk (U certificate, released March 1958, aged 8)
 
I remember this quite well, especially the terrifying Stuka dive-bombers with their wailing sirens, and men queuing chest deep out into the cold sea to be picked up by small civilian boats. I wonder whether the new film to be released this summer will be anywhere near as good.

I was fascinated by my dad's personal acquaintance with small boat owners on the Yorkshire Ouse who had sailed down to Ramsgate to take part in the evacuation. 
 

The Vikings (A certificate, released June 1958 , aged 8)

Did my mum really know what my dad had taken me to see – a violent certificate ‘A’ Norse saga?

Kirk Douglas with his ridiculous dimpled chin has his eye pecked out by a falcon and leaps about with a disgusting blind eye for the rest of the film. When he dies at the end his body is cast out to sea in a burning Viking longship with dragon heads at the ends and a big square sail.

I recognised other actors who later became familiar as having been in the film, most notably the tousled head of Tony Curtis and the lined face and wide toothy grin of Ernest Borgnine. The most memorable thing however was the theme tune played over a backdrop of animated Viking scrolls. I can still hum it after nearly sixty years.

A Night To Remember (Certificate U, released July 1958, aged 8)

A film about the sinking of the Titanic, said to be the most historically accurate of them all. Kenneth More’s stiff upper lip made another appearance but with working legs this time. I remember thinking I would not want to be a stoker down in the boiler room, and also asking what was wrong with the wobbly guy who drank the best part of a bottle of whisky which later supposedly protected him from the cold, but don’t think I followed much else at all. Events take place calmly and without panic so as not to frighten the passengers – or the audience.

On The Beach (Certificate A, released December 1959, aged 10)

A film about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Only the Southern Hemisphere remains inhabitable. To the strains of Waltzing Matilda, men spend interminable boring hours in a submarine sailing from Australia to America to investigate the source of telegraph signals which they discover are caused by a bottle suspended as much as your disbelief from a fluttering window blind so that it rests upon a Morse key which happens still to be powered and switched on. They then go back to Australia where everybody either kills themselves or dies of radiation sickness. It is so boring that the trailer has to focus on telling you how good it is rather than showing you excerpts from the film. Oh well, Nevil, at least it would have put an end to those brutish and uncouth Yorkshire women, as you describe my grandmother’s social group in your autobiography.

Sink the Bismarck (Certificate U, released February 1960, aged 10)

The fifties have ended but my dad is still taking me to see yet more rousingly patriotic films about the war at sea. Again we see Kenneth More and his unintelligible stiff upper lip. H.M.S. Hood explodes when hit in the magazine (armoury) by a German shell but we begin to get our own back when we attack with torpedoes delivered by Fairey Swordfish biplanes. I still know the names of all the English and German battleships.

The Alamo (Certificate U, released October 1960, aged 11)

At last I get to see something I had asked to see: Davy Crockett in his bizarre hat – basically a dead raccoon on his head with its tail hanging down the back. There were lots of people fighting, riding horses and shooting each other. It was just as boring as my dad’s films.

I had only wanted to see it because of the Davy Crockett song (thanks to Children’s Favourites again):
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.

Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.
But the song wasn’t in the film. I didn’t like John Wayne’s sanctimonious voice either. 

Davy Crockett was the last one. Soon afterwards we got a television which put paid to our joint cinema outings for a decade.

I may have forgotten one or two. I definitely remember going to see Bambi at some point, but it wasn’t with my dad and certainly not in 1942 when it came out.

I think we only went to the pictures together twice again, for The Battle of Britain in 1969 and Murder on the Orient Express in 1974 which we saw in Leeds. That was another film with a lot of stars. My dad wanted to see it because of Lauren Bacall.

Now I wish we’d gone more of course.





The links to the trailers on YouTube may cease to work if blocked by the copyright owners.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Real Marigold Hotel

Amanda Barrie, Paul Nicholas, Bill Oddie, Lionel Blair, Dr Miriam Stoppard, Dennis Taylor, Rustie Lee and Sheila Ferguson


Watching the second series of The Real Marigold Hotel (currently on Wednesdays on BBC1) makes me wonder what the elderly celebrities say to each other when the cameras aren’t rolling. In particular, has Bill Oddie apologised to Lionel Blair for what now seems the less than politically correct song ‘Les Girls’ he wrote to end the sketch about the Miss World contest in the ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ New Year Special broadcast on BBC Radio Four on the 31st December 1970.

The song later re-appeared in a 1975 episode of ‘The Goodies’ called ‘Chubby Chumps’, described on a fan site as follows:
The 'Housewife Of The Year' contest in 'Chubby Chumps' is kicked off by Bill masquerading as Lionel Bleeeah performing a very camp rendition of 'Les Girls' with the help of a troupe of pink-suited male dancers. As Bill sings "Boys, she'll really make you a man ..." one of the dancers sashays up to him and utters "Oh will she make me one too?!" and at the end of the song Lionel prances off the stage hand in hand with another of the dancers before Terry (Graeme in disguise) introduces the judges and housewives.
This, of course, is from the era of shows such as ‘Are You Being Served?’, ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’, when racist and homophobic comedy was endemic. Those who weren’t around in those days look now in sheer disbelief that they were ever broadcast. And apart from all that, the ISIRTA/Goodies song was so unjust to Lionel Blair anyway. But it so happens that I recorded the ISIRTA programme, and still have it. Here is my transcript:

[spoken]
And so with a fitting climax to this annual cavalcade of beauty, let’s take one last look at this sparkling line of lovelies. Yes, here they are, Lionel Bleeagh and his boys, to sing their tribute to Les Girls.

[spoken over intro music]
Come on come on come on lads. Are you ready?
Yeah.
John! John! Straighten your tie.
Slow down I’ve got a ladder.
Let me climb up it.
Cheeky cat.
That’s enough!
It’s not enough.
Butch voices, right?
Right hard face.
One two three ...

[sung to showbizzy tune which begins a bit like ‘Back Home’ by the 1970 England World Cup squad]
Les Girls, Just show us the way to
Les Girls, Let’s do it their way.
I’m a red blooded fella with hair on my chest,
I got my hat got my cane and a pink woolly vest.

Les Girls, I'm simply astounded,
Les Girls, I'm completely surrounded
By dimple cheeks and beautiful curls.
Les Girls. Les Girls.

[spoken]
I’m as butch as the next man.
I’m the next man.

[sung]
Les Girls, Oh that’s what they call us.
Les Girls. We’re the gentlemen’s chorus.
I love the way they wiggle of their big blue eyes,
I love the low cut dresses. Oh just my size!

Les Girls, I wanna kiss them quick.
Les Girls, I think I'm going to be sick.
Big big diamonds, rubies and pearls, [and me]
Les Girls. Les Girls.

Oh you’ll do a lot of things you never knew you could do,
If you’ll only let a woman get a hold of you,
Boy she’ll make you a man.
Will she make me one too?
Les Girls. Les Girls. Les Girls.

[spoken on telephone]
All right all right! Director General Here again. We don’t want any nancy poofta nonsense on the B.B.C. Let’s have some nice seasonal entertainment. Some jolly Christmassy songs. Eh? Not too late for those.
[on to Censored Bawdy Christmas Songs sketch]


Oh dear! I’ll be carefully observing the interaction between Bill and Lionel.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Hi there Duggy!

A student sends an awkward email to an eminent professor

Early in the nineteen-nineties, I came across a strikingly enlightening piece of research which suggested that girls who work together can be much better learners than boys. It was an experiment in which pairs of eight-year-old children worked from an interactive multimedia videodisk – a very new and unusual experience at the time. Some weeks later they were asked to write essays about it on their own. The surprising result was that girls who had worked with other girls remembered twice as much as either boys or girls paired in other combinations.* There were many other aspects to the experiment too, making a useful contribution to the idea that educational software can encourage collaboration as well as individual learning.

I stumbled upon this research as a newly appointed lecturer at a recently upgraded northern ex-polytechnic, hoping to develop a career by devising innovative courses about the new technologies. I asked each student to lead a short seminar discussion about a published research paper they had chosen from a list. One student, let us call him Arshad, chose the paper about the pairs of children and the videodisk. 

Email was also relatively new in those days. Some university staff still resisted its use, and those who welcomed it were having to come to terms with the accessibility and informality it brings. We took pains to educate our students about the possible pitfalls. It seemed inevitable that it would sometimes be used inappropriately, but it was with disbelief that I read the email Arshad sent to the author of the research paper.

The author was Professor Dougman Fairwood, an eminent and influential Head of School in a top Russell-group university, author of numerous books, review articles and research papers across a wide range of topics. He had been awarded several high-value research grants, guided no end of doctoral students to successful completion, served on government advisory committees and was internationally respected in his field. You get the idea. Most of these over-achieving professors are pathological workaholics and take themselves very seriously. They get upset if you don’t address them formally, or fail to treat them with the respect and deference they think they deserve.

This is the email Arshad sent:
From: sexyarshad@screaming.net
To: d.p.fairwood@-----.ac.uk

Subject: Study questions?
Hi there
Duggy,
Hows it going, My name is Arshad A-----, Im a student at --- University, Currently I am reviewing one of your publications titled “--------- ------------ --- ------- --------”. I would be very gratefull if you would be so kind to answer a few questions reagding the study.
1 - Was there any initial assumptions taken into account about the children taking part in the study? (if any, how valid were the assumptions?).
2 - Taking a retrospective look at the study, how well do you think the study was carried out?, do you think anything was overlooked in terms of implemantaion or methodolgy?
3 - Do you think your study has any implications or links to other ideas?
4 - How importantly do you think your study is relevent today and more importantly in the future?
Thanks in advance
Arshad A-----.
It was not long before an angry reply was circulated to staff.
Dear Colleagues

The attached is a message received both here and by my co-author, and comes, apparently, from a --- University student. The student does not identify his Department, so I’m sending this complaint to the Heads of Psychology, Education, Computer Science, Engineering, Multimedia and Information Systems, with a copy to the Vice Chancellor.

Your student appears to be writing an assignment on one of our papers, and the questions that we are being asked would be just the kinds of questions that a tutor might set. Is it your practice to have your students get the answers to their questions by doing the equivalent of looking at the back of the book? Obviously not, and you might want to take some action to inform the student about your preferred practice.

But the main reason for writing is to complain about the e-mail itself. The interrogational style had ---- and I phoning each other to ask what was going on here. Speaking for myself, I am decidedly cheesed off with this e-mail. Being asked to justify the validity of my own assumptions, or the relevance of my work, is something that I do not expect from a student hoping to pass a term paper. Of course, if you believe that your student is doing exactly the right thing here, then I would be especially grateful to hear from you.

Best regards

Dougman Fairwood.

Professor Dougman P. Fairwood BSc PhD DSc CPsychol FBPsS
Head, School of -----
University of -----
I can think of at least five so-called rules of email etiquette Arshad ignored, but even had all been correct, the content was way out of order. Students may well have genuine grounds for writing to staff at other universities, but they should always pass it by their own supervisors first. They certainly should not do it in such a clumsy and tactless way.

I drafted a grovelling apology but never had to send it. It turned out that our Head of School had already apologised on behalf of the university believing that Arshad had been looking at the paper for his final-year project. No one ever associated his email message with the course I was teaching. That was fortunate because at the very next conference I attended, I got into conversation with the friendly chap sitting next to me and asked his name. “I’m Doug Fairwood,” he answered. “Going for a coffee?” We had an interesting chat about interactive talking books.

When Arshad’s seminar came along it was fairly obvious that either he had not understood or had not read the paper at all. He still graduated that year with a respectable degree – well, he was a nice enough lad and the university did not like us to fail people. I wonder what he’s doing now.


* One possible reason for the girls’ so much stronger recall is rehearsal. Girls, being more sociable, seem more likely to have talked about their experiences afterwards, possibly in play. Strangely, the authors did not consider this in their paper.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Restless Friend

From Great Heck and the Norfolk Broads to Southern Rhodesia: the contrasting lives of childhood friends.


High on the mantelpiece in the back room of the house where I grew up, were photographs of my mother and father taking turns to wear a captain’s hat at the wheel of a houseboat on the Norfolk Broads. My dad’s pipe is jauntily raked at an angle that would not have been out of place in someone commanding a much larger vessel. He puts on a show of self-importance while my mum looks relaxed and happy. How young and carefree they seem; from a time before I was born. 

My dad remembered this post-war holiday fifty years later. They went with his school friend Freddy and wife Sylvia. My mum, Freddy and Sylvia went on ahead because Dad had to work the first Saturday. He took his suitcase in the firm’s van and was dropped off at Heck railway station, between Selby and Doncaster, where he took a direct train to Norwich. He remembered the splendid sight of Ely Cathedral in the evening sun. He was young, the war was over and he was off on holiday with his new wife and friends: for all of them the future was rosy. 

You might be surprised to learn there was ever a direct train from Heck to Norwich, but during the war the tiny station at Great Heck gained unusual importance due to its proximity to No. 51 Heavy Bomber Squadron, R.A.F. Snaith, a short distance along a country lane between Heck and nearby Pollington. Also at Pollington were army barracks and one of the largest Women’s Land Army quarters in the country. Some 3,200 extra personnel were drafted into a village of 650. My dad’s train was a residual wartime service. He actually caught it on the very last Saturday it ran.

Great Heck has no railway station at all now. It disappeared around nineteen-sixty along with its neighbours at Temple Hirst, Balne and Moss. My dad once took me there in the nineteen-fifties to watch powerful Atlantic and Pacific locomotives race through non-stop on the East Coast Main Line between York and Doncaster. By then the station had already declined into obscurity and might never have been heard of again had it not been the site of the terrible Great Heck rail crash in February, 2001. Even that is often referred to as the Selby rail crash.

Pollington Airfield has also gone. A few derelict hangars remain but the runways and taxiways have all but crumbled and the site is used now by haulage and storage companies. For much of the nineteen-sixties and -seventies it was a popular off-road spot for learner drivers to make their first juddering attempts at starting, steering, stopping and changing gear.

Back in the photographs, it is Freddy’s cap they are wearing. On leaving school he had initially begun to train as a ship’s officer, but wartime on the ominous North Atlantic convoys had left him restless. He exchanged his sextant for the cricket team and a job in a railway office. The drudgery was too much. While my dad remained in his small Yorkshire town, Freddy left for the champagne air of colonial Southern Rhodesia, seeking excitement and adventure over caution and insularity. Sylvia followed soon after with their two young children. That is what wives did in those days whether or not they really wanted to. 

They left in 1952 and lived very comfortably for a time. Whites in Rhodesia had servants, sizeable houses with pleasant gardens and swimming pools, and good health care and education. The climate was wonderful and it was one of the richest communities in the world. I don’t know whether Freddy ever came back. Online ships’ manifests only show Sylvia and the children spending five months in Yorkshire without Freddy in 1955, but the records are incomplete.

What I do remember is that each Christmas Freddy sent my dad a subscription to the Reader’s Digest. My dad thought it the affected urbanity of a smug high-flier and was irritated by the complacent, patronising content. But children have time to read such things: the features such as ‘Laughter the Best Medicine’, ‘Humour in Uniform’, ‘Life’s Like That’ and ‘Test Your Word Power’, the biographies and articles on technology and medicine, the condensed books. I still, for old time’s sake, go straight to the piles of back-issues in holiday cottages and waiting rooms. Thankfully my word power fairs better now. It is easy to see why it was once one of the highest-circulation periodicals in the world, despite all the junk mail that comes with it.

The gift subscription continued into the nineteen-sixties despite nothing ever being sent back in return, not even a Christmas card, as we did not know Freddy’s address. It may have been in Bulawayo. One year the subscription stopped. Perhaps he had decided not to bother any more. We gradually forgot about it. It was a long time before we heard what had happened.

Two decades later, Sylvia unexpectedly returned to England, alone and penniless. It transpired that Freddy, clever with money, had made a small fortune on the stock market, but had also developed an alcohol problem. Eventually he left and moved to Hong-Kong where he later died. Sylvia had remained in Rhodesia (by then Zimbabwe) until, forced by the economic and political situation there, she returned to Yorkshire. She had not been allowed to bring any money out of the country. She came back to be near her daughter, but her daughter died fairly soon afterwards. Sylvia spent the rest of her days in our small Yorkshire town on benefits in a bedsit, surrounded by second-hand furniture.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Dill in Mustard Sauce?


“But dill is a herb!” My wife looked at me in such a way she did not need to use the word ‘stupid’. I still thought I was right.

“They’re little fish - dill in mustard sauce.”

She began to sound exasperated. “It’s a herb. You wouldn’t get dill in mustard sauce. That would be like having basil in Worcestor sauce or parsley in pineapple marinade.”

I sighed. “There was a tin in one of those Christmas hampers your mother gets from the pension company: a tin of dill in mustard sauce. They were little fish. She gave it to us and they were really nice.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t sild?”

“No it was definitely dill. As in a shoal of dill.”

The dictionary made no mention of dill as a fish, only as Anethum graveolens, a European, pungent, aromatic, umbelliferous, annual yellow-flowered herb of the celery family Apiaceae, used in flavouring pickles or to relieve excess wind, although in Australia and New Zealand it colloquially means a fool. I said we should get a better dictionary.

At Christmas, I can usually guess my presents before I unwrap them, but this one had me wondering. It was too hard for a paperback and the wrong shape for a DVD. In the end I had to unwrap it without guessing. It was two tins of John West herring fillets in mustard and dill sauce.