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Friday, 19 January 2018

My New IKEA Bekant Sit/Stand Desk

I don’t usually review things, 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.

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

I broadly accept that sitting for too long is bad for you. Health sites are good at scaring hypochondriacs like me into believing it can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression. Some even make out that sitting is as bad as smoking. Can it really be that 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 someone else’s. Some even put sugar in their tea as well.

So, I 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. 

It is wonderful. 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. 

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Kinder Scout

A favourite Derbyshire walk through the years, possibly a metaphor for life

A walk on Kinder Scout (route from an early John Merrill book)

The bleak Kinder moorland can be incongruously beautiful on a fine day, but it was not like that on my first visit in 1974. It was dark and grim, covered in cloud, difficult to know where you were heading. As we ascended Fair Brook, veils of thick, grey mist closed around us, washing away the last of the autumn colours. Drizzle drifted down from the plateau, permeating our cagoules and soaking my canvas rucksack. It had been drenched so often it was beginning to smell like a bag of old socks. It could have been a metaphor for my life at the time: three jobs inside a year and a pointless, wasted term at teacher training college.

Fair Brook crags: 1974
Seeking shelter: Fair Brook crags, 1974
Kinder is a silly place to be out in bad weather, but Neville and I likened ourselves to hardened Himayalan mountaineers. I had even started to grow a beard like Chris Bonington’s, a new self-image to get life and work back on track. The comparison was ridiculous, of course, but role models and self-images can be helpful. There is nothing wrong in trying to find a bit of mental strength and inspiration, despite the obvious differences between the Himalayas and the Derbyshire Peak District, or for that matter, between a fearless expedition leader and an assistant accountant in an office.

We sheltered under overhanging rocks at the top of Fair Brook to eat our sandwiches. From there we took a rough bearing across the moor to Kinder Downfall: about 255 degrees. In more forgiving terrain, you would pick out a distant landmark and head towards it, re-checking your compass just now and again, but distant landmarks are few on Kinder Scout: there is only moor and sky if you’re lucky, and mist if you’re not. You can believe it the roof of the world where abominable bipeds dwell.

Kinder Scout: spring 1975
An abominable biped on Kinder Scout: spring 1975

The surface is broken into a maze of peat ridges, or ‘hags’, by deep, slippery trenches known as ‘groughs’, which twist and turn like waves in a sea of mud. Groughs can be fifteen feet deep (five metres), and there are a lot of them to cross.

Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau: David Appleyard, Wikimedia commons
Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau, 2005

Just as in life, you glide effortlessly along the tops of the hags until they veer off in the wrong direction or lead to a patch of impassable bog. You backtrack, looking for a place to cross a grough, and descend, half-walking, half-sliding, half in control, struggling to keep your balance and stay clean and dry. Inevitably you end up smeared in black peaty mud. You follow the grough until it narrows to a steep watery ‘V’ where, legs apart, one at each side, you struggle to continue. Or again, the grough turns in the wrong direction or leads into a pond. You look for a place to climb out and follow the tops of the hags again. Before long, you are laughing like a toddler stamping through muddy puddles in Wellington boots.

You check your direction constantly but cannot tell how far to the left or right you have drifted. Soon you can be a hundred yards or more off course. You might be enticed into following footprints, but they can easily be from someone else who was helplessly lost, perhaps one of those abominable bipeds. You might see other walkers and decide to follow them, only to find they are wandering round in circles. You really have to trust your compass, no matter how fallible. Providing you do, then sooner or later you will come upon the River Kinder: not a river in the ordinary sense, but a wider, flatter trench than the groughs, with a stony and sometimes sandy floor. For most of the year you can walk westwards along its bed until you arrive high above the sheer gritstone gorge of Kinder Downfall.

River Kinder: 1974
The Kinder River: 1974

Kinder Downfall is the highest waterfall in the Peak District, where the Kinder River tumbles a hundred feet (30 metres) from the plateau. It is magnificent in spate, especially when the wind blows it back upon itself in a shimmering rainbow cloud. At such times it would not be unreasonable to call it Kinder Upfall.

Kinder Downfall in spate: Dave Dunford, Wikimedia Commons
Kinder Downfall (or should it be called Kinder Upfall?), 2005

We pressed on along the edge of the plateau – part of the Pennine Way – in our murky globe of gloom. We could just about make out the distinctive starfish shape of Kinder Reservoir below, but there were none of the distant views beyond Manchester to the mountains of Snowdonia you see in clear weather. We began to doubt our route. A couple of walkers came towards us, the only others we had seen all day. We asked whether we were on the right path for the Snake Inn. They looked doubtful.

“Probably, but it must be at least ten miles,” they thought.

That worried us. But that’s the thing about walking. It is a metaphor for life. Whether you are slogging up a mountain, plodding endless distance or trailing others in wretched misery, you have to keep going through the grit and grimness. You have to get back on the hags and leave the groughs behind. Usually you do. In my case, it was the accountancy that got left behind. The Chris Bonington thing really did help, even though Bonington would never have been an accountant in the first place, or had his sandwiches made by his mum.

It turned out we were right and the other walkers wrong. Within half an hour we reached the corner of the plateau above Ashop Head, where a steep slope descends to a signpost at the junction of the Snake Path and Pennine Way. Within another half hour we were at the derelict Ashop Clough shooting cabin where we stopped for the last of our coffee, and for Neville to smoke his pipe and reflect upon the meaning of things.

Ashop Clough shooting cabin: 1975 and 2011
The derelict shooting cabin in Ashop Clough: 1975 and 2011

Such as what did the shooting cabin mean? In 1974, it still sheltered you from the worst of the elements. You could just about visualise the cosy refuge it must have been for the privileged few before the “right to roam” trespass of 1932. The likes of us would not have been welcome then on the Kinder moors, I would have not been exploring different careers, and most of Bonington’s mountaineering pals would have been at work instead of climbing. The derelict structure was like a monument to social progress and freedom of opportunity. 

Tellingly, it provides no shelter at all now. During the last forty years or so, the east gable end, the fireplace and roof have disappeared without trace. The only slight improvement is to the bridge across the stream to Black Ashop Moor, which is now marginally sturdier than the precarious plank you once dared cross at your peril. Fortunately, you never had to. The route continues on the northern side of the stream and soon passes through woods to steps back up to the road.

Seal Edge looking towards Fair Brook
Looking along Seal Edge towards Fairbrook Naze on the far right

Since then, I have wandered this northern part of Kinder Scout at least a dozen more times, in every kind of weather. One summer day, when the sun was shining and the ferns and heather at their loveliest, I took my son and daughter, she was then only seven, across the bottom of Fair Brook and up to Seal Edge, forgetting just how far it is to return down the Fair Brook valley, but she did it without complaint. Another day, on the same route, I surprised two wild wallabies at the western end of Seal Edge, although not as much as they surprised me. They jumped out and disappeared across the moor before I could get my camera, leaving me wondering whether I had simply imagined them.

Icicles on the Snake Path: winter 1976
Icicles on the Snake Path through Ashop Clough: winter 1976

I have been on the Snake Path when the Ashop was frozen hard and long icicles lined the banks like crystal chandeliers. I have walked east along The Edge aiming for the top of Fair Brook and completely failed to recognise it (not alone I should add), and had to hitch a lift back to the car after finally descending to the road. That’s what happens on Kinder Scout when you arrogantly think you know it well enough not to look at your map and compass. I once tried to cross the top of Kinder from the Downfall to Fair Brook, which requires more accurate compass use than east to west, and after what seemed like an eternity, emerged way off course near Fairbook Naze looking over The Edge. Not accurate enough! When I eventually reached Fair Brook that day, the descent just about finished my knees. Lessons, lessons, lessons, but things turn out right in the end.

I suppose now, with satnav, you know exactly where you are all the time, but I’m not having one of those. It’s cheating. I don’t want to make things too easy for myself. It doesn’t fit my self-image, even though, unlike Sir Chris Bonington, I won’t be shimmying up The Old Man of Hoy at the age of eighty.

Ascent to Kinder Scout via Fair Brook, 1974 and 2007
Fair Brook with Kinder Scout in mist in 1974, and clear in 2007

You might also like Road To The Isles

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

What Is Wrong With This Steamer?

Having failed so miserably to identify the seventeen errors in What Is Wrong In This Room?, I need to try again, if only for my self-esteem. So here goes, another puzzle from my 1927 copy of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia: What Is Wrong With This Steamer?

Picture puzzle from Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia

I am going to cruise through this because I know all about ships. I’ve got nautical blood. My great-grandpa was a master mariner and my dad used to take me to watch tide-time at Goole docks. We had books about ships, used to play with toy ships and went to see the Queen Mary sail. I’ve been on the cross channel ferry, sailed a model yacht across the West Park pond and circumnavigated Peasholm Park lake in a swan pedalo. My wife’s grandfather wrote books about sailing. It’s going to be a sea-breeze. I’m on course for a fleet of ten out of ten. So, full steam ahead Captain, all hands on deck, let’s cast off and get under way.

Just look at those Roman numerals on the bow. They are supposed to show how deep the ship is floating in the water so should obviously run from bottom to top. And while we’re looking at the bow, where is the ship’s name? As for those rope ladders up the mast, they have no rungs at the top. Easy! We’ve logged 3/3, a fair rate of knots.

Is this the calm before the storm? Sailing close to the wind, I sneak a look at the answers. I must have had only one oar in the water not to realise that portholes open inwards, not outwards, as should that square shaped hatch. Evidently it’s a scupper for draining water from the deck. That scuppered me. But is the marking scheme above board to tally these as two answers? If so, it’s only 3/5 now.

We’re into deep water. We’ll batten down the hatch and press on, but I can’t fathom out any more. The answers say that the foremast and funnels should lean backwards rather than forwards. Oh come on! You can hardly tell. It might help if the drawing was shipshape. And does it fit the bill to score these as yet another two. I’m all at sea with 3/7. 

The next ones leave us becalmed in the doldrums. The waste steam pipes should be in front of the funnels rather than at the sides – I didn’t even realise what they were – and you would really need to know the ropes to realise that ships do not lower their anchors in dock. The answers then say that the anchor-chain hole is the wrong way: presumably it should be more vertical than horizontal. All right, I didn’t spot these, but ahoy Arthur Mee, matey, don’t you know that an “anchor-chain hole” is correctly called a hawsehole? I’ll hazard that every nineteen-twenties child would have known that. I should get extra credit, even if I only remembered it because it sounds rude. I’m sunk with 3/10.

But what’s this – an eleventh answer, or is it thirteen? It said there were only ten. There are no ventilators (those sticking up tuba shaped things you see on ships). Nor are there any halyards or foretop-mast stays. No what? I’ve had to google those. It’s beginning to sound like a verse from What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor.

Well, I’m pooped. Shiver my timbers. That’s taken the wind out of my sails. But if Arthur Mee is going to take us aback with supernumerary answers, then I should get my extra hawsehole mark, so 4/11, or 36%. In my university days that would have been a refer grade. I demand another re-sit, to start again with a clean slate. I’m up in the crow’s nest on look out for another puzzle.

Answers to picture puzzle from Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Hayley Payley Snow On The Ground

My dad used to sing a strange Christmas song that hardly anyone seems to know now. It went like this:
Haley paley snow on the ground
The wind was bitter and cold
When a poor little sailor boy covered in rags
Came to a lady’s door.

The lady looked out of her window on high
And cast her eye upon him
Come in, come in you poor little child
You never shall want any more.
When he got to “come in, come in”, he pretended to pull me towards him, malevolently, like a monster or one of those evil deviants we never used to mention. 

“What’s all that about?” I wanted to know in later years. “What does ‘haley paley’ mean?”

“No idea” he said, “but Franky Drury used to sing another verse, a rude one.”

He would never tell me what it was.

Some years ago I looked for the song on the internet and found nothing. Looking again now, there is still very little. The story it tells seems to have been related to an old English and American ballad called The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy or The Poor Little Sailor Boy. Recordings include a 1927 version by the Johnson Brothers, one from the Max Hunter Folk Collection sung by Reba Dearmore in 1969 and a 1922 recording by C. K. Tillett. In at least one version, the lady takes the boy in because her own son has been killed in battle. In others the boy turns out to be the lady’s long lost son “William that’s come from the sea”. There were more verses with several variations, but my dad only sang the words above. 

There are also possible references to the Poor Little Sailor Boy title in nineteenth century newspapers. The earliest I found was in the Norfolk Chronicle or Norwich Gazette of 25th July, 1807. If that does not seem particularly old, we should bear in mind that many of what we think of as ancient Christmas carols were written as recently as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The tune for Haley Paley, however, is quite different to The Poor Soldier/Sailor Boy. The Yorkshire Garland Group (an archive of Yorkshire folk song heritage) has a seven-verse version in 6/8 time, which appeared on a 1971 LP Transpennine, performed briskly by Harry Boardman and Dave Hillery (unfortunately, the YouTube links to the individual tracks are now blocked). The site also refers to a shorter variation called Early Pearly sung in slower 3/4 waltz time by an eighty-five year old from Hull in 2009. At the end she moves into a second tune similar to the American recordings above. If “hayley payley snow” is a corruption of “early pearly snow”, that at least makes sense. There is also a discussion at The Mudcat Café which suggests the song was sung mainly in Yorkshire. I wonder how many of these orally-transmitted songs are now lost forever.

My dad’s tune (below) differed only slightly from the Hull one. As the Garland Group web site observes, such variation is the nature of oral transmission.

Hayley Paley Snow On The Ground

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

School Metalwork

Metalwork Forge
The heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture - it was like entering the bowels of hell

By the time Tinpot Thompson had finished describing the gruesome horrors of the metalwork shop, we were too scared to move. He went over and over all the ways to hurt or injure yourself: cutting your skin on sharp edges, scraping it on rough surfaces, hitting your fingers with a hammer, trapping them in pincers, burning your flesh with a soldering iron, melting it with molten metal, ripping off your scalp by catching your hair in a machine, or an arm by catching a sleeve, … the list went on and on. It was so terrifying that not a single one of us thought it amusing when he ended with “... and remember, before you pick up any metal, spit on it to make sure it’s not hot.”

The first thing you noticed about the place was the smell: sharp, bitter and pungent, a mixture of metal polish, machine oil, cutting fluid and soldering flux. It clung to your hair and clothes. You could tell when Thompson had walked down a corridor because it hung in the air behind him in an invisible cloud. You could follow it like a bloodhound. Sometimes you get a reminder from plumbers who have been joining pipes, or brass musicians. It brings it back: the heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture. It was like entering the bowels of hell.

There were lethal looking hand tools, lathes, drills, cutters, grinders, a blacksmith’s forge and anvil, and welding equipment with a Darth Vader face mask. We made feeble jokes about bastard files and horizontal borers, but most of us would rather have stayed with the lesser perils of woodwork, or, safer still, been allowed to do cookery or needlework. There would have been no shortage of girls willing to swap. 

“We can make anything in this workshop from a spoon to a motorcycle,” Thompson claimed. Guess which we got to make.

We each cut the shape of a tea caddy spoon out of a brass plate, hammered out the bowl over a wooden form, and smoothed the edges with a file. Mine was such a jagged and misshapen catastrophe I decided to ‘lose’ it in the acid bath where, hopefully, it dissolved away to nothingness. Yet it was magnificent compared to my sugar scoop. That was made out of soldered tinplate and supposed to look like a box with a slanted opening. Oh dear! A three-year old would have done better cutting it out with blunt scissors and sticking it up with paste. I might just as well have scraped on the solder with a builder’s trowel. It was ridged and lumpy, and didn’t hold together very well at all. Thompson wrinkled his nose in disgust as he marked it, as reflected in my school report.

Year 3 School Report for Metalwork

Everyone else’s work looked neat, smooth and functional. But I did have one minor success. It was a hammer. It turned out right because the lathe did most of the work. All you had to do was squirt milky fluid on to the cutting tool while turning a handle. Even I could manage that. I was not even troubled by the springy coils of ‘swarf’ that flew off like shrapnel, threatening to slice your skin to shreds. My next report grade leapt from Very fair to Fair.

Hammer made in metalwork lessons at school

The head consisted of a sawn-off rod cut with a couple of grooves and drilled with a hole to accommodate the handle. The handle was a longer, narrower rod with a non-slip grip pattern milled into one end, and cut thinner at the other end to fit through the head. I can no longer remember exactly how the head was fixed to the handle – it might have involved heat and expansion – but mine didn’t fall apart. I’ve still got it. You can see from the battered ends I still abuse it now and again.

Thinking back to that one year of metalwork, I find it surprising that, so far as I know, no one was ever seriously injured. There were a few minor cuts and scrapes, but the nastiest accident was to Tinpot Thompson himself. Ignoring his own advice, he picked up a piece of hot metal without spitting on it first, and burnt his hand.


The photograph of the forge is from pixabay.com, and is in the public domain

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Day We Saw The Queen Mary Sail

(and C. P. Snow’s surprising digital footprint)

R.M.S. Queen Mary

My dad was captivated by ships from childhood when ocean-going liners were surely the most exhilarating machines that would ever be built. He knew the names and colours of the British shipping lines – Cunard: red and black funnel, yellow lion on a red flag; Union Castle: also red and black funnel, red cross on a white and blue flag; Peninsula and Oriental: buff yellow funnel, blue, white, red and yellow flag – and some of the foreign ones too. It was at least partly the reason we found ourselves on holiday near Southampton, the first time we had ever been so far from Yorkshire. Once there, it was inevitable we would visit the docks.

Video - RMS Queen Mary arriving at Southampton 1967 Video - RMS Queen Mary departing Southampton 1967
RMS Queen Mary arriving at and departing from Southampton (click to play)

As we approached Ocean Terminal, three towering Cunard funnels told us the Queen Mary was in port. Small boat owners vied for passengers to take on sea trips to see her sail that same afternoon: an opportunity not to be missed.

Southampton pleasure boat

We boarded a launch and sped off down Southampton Water leaving the Queen Mary at the quayside. Any doubts as to why we had sailed so far ahead were soon answered. “The Mary’s moving,” our own captain announced, and within a short time she had overtaken us, a vast floating palace gliding high above us, smoothly and effortlessly as a huge white cloud in a steady breeze. Her powerful engines were easily capable of 28 knots (about 30 miles or 50 kilometres per hour) compared to our 6 or 7. We were left bobbing like corks in her wake as she turned into the Solent. Dad remembered the day for the rest of his life.

From photographs and postcards I can work out it was towards the end of August, 1960, during the last dying years of the transatlantic passenger trade. From genealogical web sites, I can actually pinpoint the date as Thursday 25th. The Queen Mary called briefly at Cherbourg before crossing the Atlantic to arrive in New York on Tuesday 30th, a five-day voyage. Not only that, but, incredibly, you can see the ship’s manifest listing the individual names and details of every one of the 1,024 passengers and 1,203 crew under the command of Commodore John W. Caunce. It is an incredible digital footprint.

Ships manifest: RMS Queen Mary, 25th August 1960

Many of the first class passengers are Googleable, among them two writers, Charles and Pamela Snow. They were the distinguished novelist and scientist C. P. Snow and his equally-accomplished wife, the novelist and playwright Pamela Hansford Johnson, travelling with their son Philip and her teenage daughter Lindsay Stewart. Philip was just one of eighty children on board. Some of them stood on deck and followed that incomprehensible human instinct to wave to strangers in the accompanying flotilla of pleasure boats. I wonder if any of them noticed a ten-year old boy waving back.

At the time, C. P. Snow was enjoying the controversy caused by his Two Cultures lecture the previous year, in which he had lamented the gulf between science and the Arts. He had implied that many scientists would struggle to read a classic novel, and that many humanities professors would be unable to explain simple scientific concepts such as mass and acceleration, making them the scientific equivalent of illiterate. Most resented the insinuation that a poor knowledge of science rendered them uneducated and ignorant, including the acclaimed literary critic F. R. Leavis. He let loose an astonishingly abusive and vitriolic response, part of which went:
Snow is, of course, a – no, I can't say that; he isn't. Snow thinks of himself as a novelist [but] as a novelist he doesn't exist; he doesn't begin to exist. He can't be said to know what a novel is. The nonentity is apparent on every page of his fictions.
Leavis continued the attack at length, giving examples of what he said was Snow’s characterless, unspeakable dialogue, his limited imaginative range, and his tendency to tell rather than show. Others jumped to Snow’s defence, suggesting it was in fact Leavis who could not write. It was brilliant, sensational stuff, still talked about decades later. Both academia and the general public, including my dad, soaked up the spectacle in pitiless delight, entertained by intellectual heavyweights slugging it out with metaphorical bare knuckles.

None of this meant anything to me at the time, of course. It would be another twenty years before I discovered and found it greatly entertaining, but my dad would have been fascinated to learn that Snow and his wife were on board. A little more Googling reveals they were on their way to spend the autumn at the University of California at Berkeley. Before their return, both, along with the prominent English writer Aldous Huxley and the American Nobel chemist Harold C. Urey, took part in seminars on Human Values and the Scientific Revolution at the University of California Los Angeles on the 18th and 19th of December. The Staff Bulletin described it as “one of the most distinguished intellectual occasions in the history of the University of California”.

If it is possible discover this much about the activities of (albeit well-known) individuals in 1960, one fears to imagine what digital footprints we might leave behind ourselves. Most of what we buy, our social interactions, our medical and educational records, our motoring activities, and so much more, are now all stored on a computer somewhere, possibly in perpetuity. I wonder who is going to be looking at mine in sixty years time.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

What Is Wrong In This Room?

Brian’s Blog recently reminded me of the puzzles in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia.

Browsing Volume 3 a month or two ago, I came across the puzzle “What Is Wrong In This Room?” which invites you to find seventeen things wrong in a drawing of, presumably, a typical early twentieth-century sitting room. It struck me how different it is from today’s homes, so different that finding all seventeen is nigh impossible. 

Picture puzzle from Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia

I got off to a good start: it slowly dawned on me that the door knob should not be on the hinge side of the door and that the picture above the fireplace is upside down. I didn’t spot the problems with the other two pictures though: that the one near the window is not hooked on to the picture rail, and that the hook for the picture near the door is upside down. How many rooms still have picture rails these days anyway? And what about the large skirting board? Who would spot that it is upside down in the drawing? It looks fine to me. (Score so far: 2/5).

Oh dear, but now for two I might have got with the shrewd intelligence of Miss Marple and the observational acuteness of Sherlock Holmes: qualities I clearly do not possess. The floorboards at the two sides of the carpet run in different directions (no fitted carpets then), and the hands on the clock are not in the correct positions because if the big hand is showing quarter-past, then the little hand should be past the hour rather than before. I got neither of these. It is starting to be as demeaning as University Challenge. (Score now 2/7).

It gets harder. Do any of us still have maids (unless you count wives), or coal fires for that matter? It appears that the hinged handle of the coal-scuttle is unusable – some people will never have heard of coal scuttles – and that the fire the maid is about to load with coal is a gas fire (you just can’t get the staff!). When you look carefully you can see that it is not fully inside the fireplace, and there is also a supply pipe. We used to have a portable stand-alone gas fire similar to that which connected to a gas tap by a long rubber tube. That was in the nineteen-fifties. Where did the fumes go? Poison! Perhaps that’s why my score now sinks to 2/9. 

I put my failure to identify the next ones down to the poor resolution of the drawing – a convenient excuse, I know, but did you notice that the curtain-pole support is fastened on top rather than at the side, making it impossible to put the pole over it, or that the window shutter knob is (like the door) on the wrong side? I didn’t but I’m getting irritated now because is it not possible to slide the pole through, and don’t the window shutters look like folding double-hinged ones which open out to the middle, in which case the knob would be on the right side? Who has window shutters anyway? The answers also say that the window fastener is the wrong way round (the flatter part you move with your thumb is against the window), and that the handle by which we lift the lower half is fixed back to front. I suppose when it comes down to it they are, but you’d think they would be drawn so as to give you at least half a chance of being able to see. Maybe those still with sash windows did better here. An unjust 2/13.

Did you do any better with the soft-furnishings? The box-shaped thing next to the dog is evidently a hassock – a what – a hassock, like the cushions you kneel on in church (well that’s if you go). You are doing very well if you realised that the handle-lugs should be at the ends rather than at the sides. And then there is the chair. The answers say the pattern is upside down. When you rotate the image you can see it appears to show a bird on some kind of perch, but really? And then there is the chair castor which is supposed to be fixed the wrong way round so that it would break under weight. I don’t understand that one at all. When were swivelling ones invented? (2/16).

Lastly, the dog. I’m not a doggy person, that’s my excuse, but I would be surprised if you got it even if you are. It is a spaniel with a collie’s tail. Couldn’t it be just a mongrel?

So, 2/17 for me, 12%, an unmitigated, dismal fail. Even with a lucky resit I doubt I would manage more than six or seven. 

The ten volumes of this encyclopedia were bought in 1927. Were children a lot cleverer then, or is it just that the once-familiar has changed beyond recognition?

Perhaps we should set a modern version that they wouldn’t be able to do – a central heating radiator with the pipes attached to the top rather than the bottom, a light with a missing bulb and a television with an image on the screen despite not being plugged in. And how wrong they would be when they said that that our pictures had no support at all. That would show ‘em we‘re not stupid.


You might also like What Is Wrong With This Steamer? and Knockout, Knowledge and Arthur Mee.