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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Reel-to-Reel Recordings

Dad turns to the microphone on the mantlepiece, clears his throat and adopts a suitable air of gravitas. 

I will now read some of my favourite poems,” he says in his most dignified voice. The sound of muted giggling emanates from me and my brother sitting on the floor next to the tape recorder.

“Ernest Dowson’s Vitae Summa Brevis,” he announces.

The noises in the background become audible whispers.

“What’s he on about?”

“He says Ernest Dowson had some Ryvita for his breakfast.” More snorting and sniggering. Dad continues.

“They are not long, ...”

“What aren’t? Is our Sooty’s tail not long?”

“... the weeping and the laughter, Love and desire and hate:”

The disruption intensifies as my mother bangs on the window and shouts something muffled from the yard outside. Dad struggles to keep going.

“I think they have no portion in us ...”

My mother enters the room and interrupts loudly.

“When I tell you your dinner’s ready, it’s ready, and you come straight away.”

The recording ends.

Would Dowson’s melancholy poetry and vivid phrases ever have emerged from out of his misty dream had he married and had such an unsupportive, philistine family?

Christmas 1962 – an unbelievable fifty-two years ago – was when my dad came into some money and bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was really for the whole family, but as I was the only one who knew how it worked it was effectively mine, my parents being too old to understand such modern technology and my brother too young to be trusted with it. The next door neighbour was appalled at the idea of such an extravagant present for a twelve year old. Her eyebrows must have shot even further through the ceiling a month or so later when the new car arrived. As I said, my dad had inherited a useful sum of money.


The Philips EL 3541, as the YouTube video shows, was beautifully designed and built, part of the last triumphant surge of valve-based electronics before the transistor revolution. In contrasting greys and white, preceding the stark ubiquity of brushed aluminium, the case and controls had pleasantly curved profiles. The main buttons were smooth and soft, but clunked and clicked with a satisfyingly businesslike sound. The whole thing felt substantial and robust, with a reassuringly heavy-duty carrying strap. It looked a bit like a wide, trustworthy face with large eyes and beautiful white teeth.

People are beginning to re-discover that using and owning physical objects like tape machines and vinyl records can have value, a sensory quality you don’t get with digital downloads. Why did we ever throw these things away?

Philips reel to reel tape recorder EL 3541

This particular model was a four track machine, which means it could make four separate recordings on each reel of tape, two in each direction. The machine is shown with five inch reels (13cm) which typically held nine hundred feet (270m) of tape, but it could accommodate up to seven inch reels (18cm) holding eighteen hundred feet (540m). Tapes ran at a speed of three and three quarter inches per second (9.5 cm/sec)* which means that a five inch tape ran for around forty-five minutes and a seven inch tape around ninety minutes. So using four tracks, you could record for up to three hours on a five inch tape, and six hours on a seven inch tape, although you did have to turn over and re-thread tapes manually at the end of each track. A seven inch tape could therefore hold the equivalent of eight long playing (LP) records or albums, provided they weren’t excessively long, which they weren’t before the late nineteen-sixties.

Just to complicate things a little more, these numbers are for ‘long play’ tapes. You could also get ‘double play’ (2,400 feet on a 7 inch reel) and ‘triple play’ (3,600 feet on a 7 inch reel) but these were thinner and prone to breaking or stretching, so I avoided them. There were also thicker ‘standard play’ tapes, and five and three quarter inch reels as well, but the boxes always showed the tape length so it wasn’t as confusing as it sounds. Most of my tapes were Long Play five or seven inch reels. Believe it or not, I still have them, some from 1962 and 1963.

Some of the earliest recordings picked up a high pitched whistle through the microphone. Later I used to remove the backs from the television and record player to connect wires to the loudspeaker terminals. It got rid of the whistle but it could so easily have got rid of me as well.

The earliest recording I have is still on the five inch tape that came with the machine, from the Light Programme at four o’clock on the 30th December, 1962, ‘Pick of the 1962 Pops’ – “David Jacobs plays some of the hit records from the past twelve months**.” It starts off with Frankie Vaughan’s ‘Tower of Strength’, which had been number one in December, 1961, and then runs through a further twenty-three top three singles of 1962, ending with Elvis Presley’s ‘Return to Sender’. There are plenty of solo singers but not a British pop group among them. It was only a month or two before the end of that year that I’d first heard of the Beatles when ‘Love Me Do’ came on 208 Radio Luxembourg late one night on my transistor radio underneath the bedclothes.

I recorded the corresponding shows for 1963, 1964 and 1965, and for 1966 to 1969 the ‘Top of the Pops’ year end shows from television (audio only)**. This was a period when the old guard of solo singers such as Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and Frank Ifield appeared less and less in the charts, displaced by emerging new groups like Jerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers and of course The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In 1964 the top spot was almost entirely British, Roy Orbison being the only exception.

The Hits of the Animals, Georgie Fame Sweet Things

I owned only two actual LP records myself, ‘The Hits of the Animals’ (an export version bought in Belgium) and Georgie Fame’s ‘Sweet Things’, but built up a considerable collection of recordings by exchange borrowing with friends. It included Donovan, Manfred Mann, Sandie Shaw, Jim Reeves, and the early Beatles and Rolling Stones LPs, although I later erased most of them by over-recording with music borrowed from the magnificent collection at Leeds Public Library.

I began to develop an interest in classical music. A friend’s elder brother had gone off to university leaving his record collection unattended in their front room. Attracted first by the sumptuous excitement of George Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, I sampled the rest of the collection, such as the Beethoven symphonies and Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’. They all went on my tapes. I don’t think my friend’s brother ever knew. Thanks Mike!

On one tape there are early recordings of broadcast comedy shows: the Christmas ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ from 1970; the first four programmes ever of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ from 1972** which were for many years lost to the B.B.C and possibly still are; and audio recordings of early ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ from television. By then I was living in a shared house in Leeds where one of our favourite diversions was transcribing the Python scripts and acting them out. 

Like snowy pictures on old videotape, the sound quality has not always lasted well. Perhaps with music this doesn’t really matter as you can always replace it, digitally re-mastered with a clarity that far exceeds the original, and usually in stereo rather than the earlier mono.

But you cannot replace the evocative social and family moments that were captured. Despite surviving in only thin and feeble form, they are irreplaceable beyond value.

At a friend’s house a group of us believed ourselves worthy rivals to the likes of comedians John Cleese, Tim Brooke Taylor and Bill Oddie. We wrote and recorded our own biblically themed comedy, ‘The Old Testacles’, most of it unrepeatable because of scurrilous allusions to countless teachers and pupils then at school, and of course the relentless uninhibited adolescent filth.

But the family moments remain the most poignant, like my grandma feeding my baby cousin on her knee, speaking in a village accent fashioned and formed before the First War:  

“Shout o’Sooty. You shout. What does Sooty say? ’Ere y’are. He du’n’t say ’ere y’are. Who’s go’r all t’butter? Yer gre-ased up aren’t yer? Oh heck! Eat it up nice. Yes you eat that up. Yer can’t come up, me shirt buttons‘ll be runnin’ all ove’ we-re n’t the’? Deary me to dae!”

Most precious of all are my dad’s unselfconscious performances. Because his grandad had been a sea captain, he claimed an inherited, natural aptitude in the delivery and interpretation of sea shanties. He announces the well-known windlass and capstan shanty, ‘Bound for the Rio Grande’, and begins to sing:   

“I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea...” followed by a hesitant pause, followed by complete breakdown into helpless uncontrollable laughter.

I am on these tapes too, embarrassing in my unbroken voice and long gone local accent, as my dad begins another poem:

“Miss J. Hunter Dunn. Miss J. Hunter Dunn. Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun...”

As before, my brother and I whisper to each other in the background.

“It’s about Miss J. Hunter’s bum.”

Again we all collapse into irrepressible laughter and my dad is unable to continue further.

 

* In comparison, cassette tapes, which became successful from the late nineteen-sixties, ran at one and seven eighth inches per second. They had to go slower because they were so short. However, the slower the recording speed the poorer the recording quality, which meant that cassettes were prone to distortion and background noise which had to be corrected by electronic sticking plaster such as the Dolby noise reduction system.  But cassettes were so compact and convenient to handle that they soon supplanted reel-to-reel and the rival but troublesome tape cartridge system which emerged around the same time as cassettes. 

** It would be a shame if these recordings were lost for ever so I have digitised them, put them on YouTube with private access (you can only hear them if you have the URLs) and linked them below. 
There are problems with the Pick/Top of the Pops programmes because nearly all the music has copyright restrictions. In any case, many items were cut short at the time of recording, generally not very well, and one or two were even omitted in order to fit one hour programmes on to 45 minute tapes. The sound quality has also not lasted well. But here is a list of what there is.
  • Pick of the 1962 Pops presented by David Jacobs on The Light Programme, 30th December 1962 at 4.00 p.m.
  • Pick of the Pops 1963 (presenter unknown but it might be Don Moss)
    Pick of the Pops 1964 presented by Alan Freeman on The Light Programme, 20th December 1964 at 5.00 p.m.
  • Pick of the Pops 1965 presented by Alan Freeman on The Light Programme, 26th December 1964 at 4.00 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1966 Part 1 BBC1 26th December 1966 at 6.15 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1966 Part 2 BBC1 27th December 1966 at 6.17 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1967 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1967 at 2.05 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1967 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1967 at 5.25 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1968 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1968 at 1.25 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1968 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1968 at 6.35 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1969 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1969 at 2.15 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1969 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1969 at 6.20 p.m.  

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Ghost of Airmyn Crossings

Tasker Dunham offers a ghost story for Christmas.

Over the years, countless children of Goole have grown up, moved away and made their lives in distant places. Yet they retain a passion for the town, that ‘Port in Green Fields’, with its distinctive history and treasured memories. They record nostalgic recollections of childhood on the internet, wonder at any mention of Goole on television, and always look for their home town football result. Some, when nearby, even after all formal and familial ties are gone, make a special detour simply to pass their old school on Boothferry Road. But not Matt Wetherell. Rather than go out of his way to see Goole, he keeps well away. When duties take him to Hull from his home across the Pennines, he always turns right on to the M18 at Langham, and drives through Lincolnshire to enter the city over the Humber Bridge. Anything to avoid Goole.

Over fifty years ago, when still at school in the sixth form, Matt and a group of friends became regular drinkers at the Percy Arms in Airmyn. In those days, sixth formers caught in a public house would have been in serious trouble at school, even when legally old enough to buy alcohol. It was a misuse of privilege, squandering the opportunities of sixth form study while those less fortunate were cleaning railway engines or keeping the peace in Cyprus. So Matt and his friends kept discreetly out of sight in the taproom, and the handful of teachers that frequented the same public house were careful to stay in the lounge so as not to notice them.

The comforts of the taproom were basic: plain walls, wooden floorboards, bench seats and bare tables, but there was always a warm fire burning. It was perfectly adequate for the main activities there: drinking, smoking, playing cards, playing dominoes and telling yarns. Matt and company tested each others’ memories of the Latin fish names on the faded pictorial chart on the wall. They became familiar with the other regulars: the farmer, the garage owner and the cinema manager who always arrived late with his wife after the last show, never removed his trilby hat and always had a rude story to tell.

To reach the Percy Arms, Matt and his friends walked the mile or so across the fields using the track known as the bridle path or Airmyn Crossings. It was lonely and remote in those days before the roaring motorway was built at the Goole end, and the housing estate encroached at the Airmyn end. It was a pleasant stroll on a warm evening, more of a challenge in wind and rain and undeniably menacing after dark, especially where the trees and bushes joined overhead. The darkness added adventure to the walk home which was always late. Pubs were not supposed to serve drinks after half-past ten, but the landlord bent this rule a little, especially if the cinema manager was delayed. The local police knew when to be diplomatic. Sometimes, it could be nearly midnight before Matt and his friends started home along the pitch black track with several pints of Smith’s inside them, their apprehension kept at bay by vulgar songs and loud bravado. Sometimes a couple of the group would steal ahead to hide in the bushes ready to jump out and frighten the others with piercing cries. It was rowdy, but innocuous enough compared to what some teenagers get up to nowadays.

Matt never finished his sixth form studies. Before his friends went off to university he had left school for a job in a local office, his ambition diverted by a girl friend, the accomplished and beautiful daughter of an affluent local solicitor. They made plans and imagined their future together, but much to her father’s relief, she left for university too. Despite ardent promises to remain true, she gradually drifted away. When Matt last heard of her, she was organising famine relief in Africa.

Thus, one Christmas Eve, Matt found himself alone. He decided for old times’ sake to walk the bridle path to Airmyn. Nothing had changed. The taproom was just as it had been. The floorboards still knocked to his footsteps; the seats remained hard; the tables, bare; the faded fish chart still on the wall. There were few signs it was Christmas, but the coal fire had a more cheerful glow than usual and everyone was in a happy frame of mind. Matt played dominoes with the farmer. The garage owner enquired as to his well-being. The cinema manager arrived late with his hat, wife and rude story.

When Matt eventually started back along the deserted track, a little unsteadily due to the beer inside him, it was late and an ominous fog had descended. It was thick, the kind of fog you only get around Goole, where moisture from the rivers and low-lying fields conceives a dense, cold vapour that penetrates deep inside your lungs and shrouds the sight and sound of your footsteps. Matt’s shadow hung eerily in the mist around him; shapes and silhouettes moved in and out of the bushes and trees nearby; dark forms both ahead and behind gave the impression of something approaching and then dissolving away. The only thing Matt heard was the sound of his own breathing. It intensified his unease.

Suddenly, just where the path bends beneath overhanging trees, Matt sensed something tumbling from above, as if someone was falling on him, and then, inches away from his own face, another face, a terrifying face with hollowed-out eyes and grimacing, uneven teeth. Matt raised his arm to push it away. His hand slipped into the mouth; it felt wet and cold; his fingers scraped across rough teeth. He shuddered and screamed, staggered sideways and fell into the adjacent field, the surface of which lay some two or three feet below the level of the path.

Looking up from the ground, Matt realised he was alone. No one else was on the path. Yet, surely, he was certain it had been real. His fingers were wet where they had entered the open mouth, and sore where they had rubbed across the teeth. Beside him, on the ground, was something round. It took a few moments to realise it was a human skull. It had the same uneven teeth as the face that had materialised in front of him. Matt cursed. Stone cold sober, he scrambled back up to the path and ran as fast as he could to the safety of the lights on Airmyn Road.

Rationalising afterwards, Matt decided the skull must indeed have been real. He still had a graze on his hand to prove it. In his drunken state, he must have fallen from the path, dislodging the skull from the loose earth at the side of the field; it only seemed to have dropped from above as the ground came up towards him, an illusion. He had probably covered it up again as he scrambled back up to the track. He never related the incident to anyone, and there was never any report of human remains found on Airmyn Crossings.

The following week, Matt’s employer offered him a promotion away from Goole. It was several years before he visited the Percy Arms again. When he did, reluctantly, but necessarily because of a family function, much had changed. Outwardly, the place looked the same, but internally it had become a single large, refurbished lounge. There was no sign that the taproom had ever existed. He drove there by car, but passing along Airmyn Road, he just had time to register that the route of the old Airmyn Crossings had been diverted at the Goole end to accommodate the new motorway.

All of this was now fifty years ago. The farmer, the garage owner, the cinema manager and his wife must be long gone. Recently, Matt heard a tale that seemed to have some bearing on the events of that Christmas Eve when last he saw them. A distant cousin, Louisa, of whom he knew only vaguely, visited him in the course of tracing her family history. Matt was unable to add much to her findings by way of family memories or old photographs, but she told him a story previously told by her grandmother, who had in turn heard it from her grandmother.

His name, Matt, or Matthew, had run through the Wetherell family for generations. An earlier Matthew had been born, not in the Goole area, but in a village many miles away to the North. That Matthew had worked on the lands of the Northumberland estates, and one summer had transgressed unwritten social expectations by becoming too familiar with the daughter of the incumbent of the local Parish. To prevent the friendship developing into anything more serious, it had been arranged that Matthew would be moved to other lands owned by the Northumberland estates in distant Airmyn. Matthew’s brother Mark also had to move with him for no reason other than that he was Matthew’s brother. In due course, the news arrived that the vicar’s daughter of whom Matthew had been so fond, was now married, and had moved to the colonies with her new husband. Matthew, distressed, took to wandering like a tramp in the woods and fields. He disappeared just before Christmas and nothing was seen or heard of him again.

More happily, Matthew’s brother, Mark, remained in Airmyn. He married and had a large family. He was the common ancestor of both the present day Matt and Louisa who had told him of these far-off events. If you care to look in the Airmyn Parish registers for the early years of the nineteenth century, you will find mention of a Mark Wetherell, servant in husbandry, son of John and Mary Wetherell of Melsonby, which is in North Yorkshire, near Richmond.

The precise location of Matt’s disturbing experience that dark Christmas Eve must now be somewhere beneath the Eastbound carriageway of the M62, after you drive past the end of West Park but before you reach the Airmyn Road flyover. Strange things happen just at that point: engines misfire, sudden gusts of wind cause vehicles to swerve, drivers slow down for no apparent reason. You should concentrate and take extra care there, especially on Christmas Eve. Matt Wetherell avoids it like it was haunted.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Adsense, Blogger and YouTube

(An off-topic post) The trials and tribulations of enabling Adsense ads on both YouTube and Blogger.

Summary: This describes how I enabled my blog for AdSense when already showing ads on YouTube - something others seem to have had difficulty with. It required registering my own top level domain because you can't use an AdSense account created with YouTube for hosted Blogger blogs. The post is off-topic as far as the blog goes, but the tale may be helpful to other bloggers. Apologies to regular Yorkshire Memories readers, but at least the ads might earn me a bit of pocket money.

*                   *                  *

I enabled AdSense on my two YouTube channels in August 2014. I wish I’d enabled it sooner considering I’ve had nearly 400,000 views over several years.

I also started this Blogger blog in August 2014 with the aim of linking it to AdSense. However, for the first three months the “Sign up for AdSense” button in the Earnings section was greyed out. Reading various forums, it seemed I might need to wait until the blog was 6 months old with perhaps as many as 40 posts before my blog would be eligible (I found Get Google Adsense Approval! 7 Things to Do That Really Work very helpful, despite it being more oriented to WordPress than Blogger).

I was therefore pleased to find the “Sign up for AdSense” button became active after just 3 months (exactly to the day) and only 12 posts. This may surprise some people who have been waiting for longer. It may be significant that (1) I am in the UK and (2) all my posts are very nearly text-only with between 1000 and 2000 words per post. 

Blogger and Adsense

Another problem was that when the “Sign up for AdSense” button first seemed to be active, it actually wasn’t. All that happened on clicking it was that a “Loading” message appeared briefly and then nothing else. Forums indicated this was a fault that was being corrected. After a few days it worked properly, and took me to the next screen.

Blogger and Adsense 

As I already had an AdSense account created from YouTube, I used my Google account sign in. After this my Blogger Earnings page provided a link to my AdSense dashboard.

Blogger and Adsense 

When “Show ads on blog” was set to “Yes”, then the “About Me” panel on my blog moved down to leave a blank space where the sidebar ad would go, and there was another space between the first two posts for another ad.

I thought I’d succeeded but the ads remained blank. I thought I just had to wait for them to activate but after a week they were still blank.

Again referring to the forums, it seems you can no longer place ads on Blogger using an Adsense account that was initially set up with YouTube. This was confirmed by a banner on my AdSense dashboard: 

“Your AdSense account is enabled only to show ads on YouTube. If you want to show ads on a different site, you’ll need to provide us with the URL of the site you want to monetise. You can do this via a one-time application form.”

Blogger and Adsense 

In other words, if the AdSense account was accepted through YouTube you can only use it with YouTube. To use it anywhere else you have to apply for an upgrade but this can only be done with a top level domain name.

Again, looking around the forums, there seemed to be two possible things I could do.

(1) set up a second AdSense account just for Blogger. I have not tried this. It would involve creating a second Google ID, and would mean that any ad earnings from Blogger would go into a different AdSense account from the earnings from YouTube. A second ID would also violate the AdSense terms and conditions. As my earnings will be little enough as it is I want them all to go to the same AdSense account. In fact it’s hardly worth my while at all except for a sense of satisfaction. To be precise, my YouTube channels have earned just £1.41 over three months!

(2) register my own top level domain and assign this to the blog so that instead of a blogspot.co.uk address my blog would have its own address, and then I could apply to upgrade AdSense using the one-time application form.  This is what I decided to do.

I wanted a private domain registration to protect my name and address details. After looking at various options I decided to register www.taskerdunham.com through Namecheap.com with their free WhoisGuard subscription. It cost me $10.87 (£6.90) for one year’s private registration. It was very easy and became active immediately. If I had not wanted anonymity I could have done it elsewhere for much less than that. I know others have done it for free using a .tk domain.

The next step was to alter my custom domain www.taskerdunham.com to redirect to my Blogger blog. This means in effect that my blog has two addresses, (i) taskerdunham.com and (ii) taskerdunham.blogspot.co.uk – it will still be found at both URLs so I don’t have to worry about telling any existing readers of the change.

So in Blogger I went to Settings Basic and select  “Set Up A Third Party URL” and entered www.taskerdunham.com under Blog Address.

Blogger and Adsense

I clicked “Set up a third party URL” which produced a field to enter my new domain name www.taskerdunham.com and then clicked the Save button.

DONT PANIC! -this immediately produces the following Error 12 message which lists two CNAMES (canonical names used in domain registration): [DO NOT CLICK SAVE AGAIN JUST YET]

Blogger and Adsense 

All this means is that you have to redirect your custom domain name so that it points at your Blogger blog. You have to go to your domain registrar's website and alter the settings by entering the two CNAMES

                                        www                          ghs.google.com
                                        cfo5........                   gv-ii ......dv.googlehoosted.com

Different domain registrars will have different procedures and you may have to search around for instructions and examples. Blogger has a help page for the common ones. In my case I signed in to my Namecheap account and found their useful help page “How do I use my domain with my Blogger account?” showing exactly how to do this and where to enter the two CNAMES (there is a video as well, but not specific to setting up Blogger blogs). In case anyone else opts for Namecheap, here is my completed screen accessed by the “All Host Records” link:

Modify domain CNAMES for Adsense

I only entered the CNAMES - I did not touch the '1800' field or the other fields underneath this section.

Having done this at Namecheap, I returned to Blogger and clicked Save on the screen shown above, which produced the following screen listing the two URLs for my blog. Here I also clicked Edit next to www.taskerdunham.com and checked a box which seems to cover the possibility of someone missing the www from the front and typing just taskerdunham.com. I don’t know whether that’s essential because most browsers seem to handle that anyway.

Blogger and Adsense

Success! All seems to work. My blog can be seen at www.taskerdunham.com and www.taskerdunham.blogspot.co.uk and www.taskerdunham.blogspot.com and it still works if the www. is omitted as well.  I can also still edit my blog and make new posts by signing in to Blogger with my Google ID in the usual way.

But I'm not finished yet. Now I have to apply to AdSense for approval for my top level domain using the one-time application form. Actually it's just a field you fill in.

Domain and Adsense 

You then get a Thanks for applying screen and have to wait. It also says that “In order for your application to be approved, you must place your ad code on one or more webpages at the URL you entered in your upgrade application. Note that blank ads will be shown until your application is approved.”

Domain and Adsense

Well, ad codes and blank ads were already on my blog because the “Show ads on blog” box on the third screen above was still ticked and there were still blank spaces on the page. I could see these had been set up in the My Ads section of my AdSense account as below. I don’t think you need to do anything else at this point other than wait. However, just to make sure, I did click the +New Ad Unit button and created some new code, which I placed at the end of my blog using Layout – Add a Gadget – HTML/JavaScript on the Blogger menu and copying and pasting the new code into the box that appears. But I doubt you have to do this.

Domain and Adsense 

Some forums say it can take a few days or even a month for the AdSense upgrade to be approved. In fact mine happened within two or three hours. I got the following email, and WOW! as you can see, the ads are on the blog!

Domain and Adsense

I suspect that if I do not want to maintain my custom domain, then after a year I can revert my blog back to being a hosted account, and ads will continue to appear. I have yet to find out.

LATER

1. I find that on the AdSense website, the ads for the blog sidebar and between-posts are now listed as status Idle. I think this is because no on has clicked them for a week - well they couldn’t could they because they haven’t been displaying. This is nothing to worry about. They become active again if and when someone clicks them .... later still - they are now showing as active again.

2. I also now find I can generate AdSense code and put it on my free Weebly site. That is now displaying ads too. I just have to wait a few days now to check whether they are showing as impressions on AdSense.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Talk like a pirate

Tasker Dunham wishes he hadn’t wasted his childhood watching so much television

We weren’t the last by any means. The physics teacher’s family held out Canute-like against the incoming electromagnetic tide for at least a decade longer, his children pitied in their Dark Age deprivation. But we were still late enough for my schoolmates to gasp in incredulity “What! You don’t have a television!”

It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford one – they were cheap enough to rent – it was because my dad thought them a mindless, brain numbing waste of time. After long hours talking with endless numbers of people at work, he settled down in contented tranquillity, lost in poetry, history or the bible readings from church, or occasionally the B.B.C. Home Service. My mum, when housework was done, would be knitting, gobbling novels from the library or learning lines for her twice-yearly parts with a local drama group. I got through two or three books a week too and still had time for constructive, creative and educational hobbies, not to mention homework. No one ever really needed a television, there was always plenty to do.

The outcome was that ours was just about the last house in the street to have an X- or H-shaped aerial on the chimney stack. So my earliest viewing memories are all on other peoples’ sets: the neighbour who usually invited my mum, with me in tow, to watch ‘Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium’; my grandma’s cousin who let me watch F.A. cup finals on Saturday afternoons; the occasional glimpse of the Lone Ranger at friends’ houses. I remember the now forgotten Don Arrol’s brief stint as the Palladium compere in 1960, and the 1958 F.A. cup final when Bolton Wanderers beat a tragically depleted Manchester United just after the Munich air disaster, the only two goals scored by Nat Lofthouse, the second when he controversially bundled goalkeeper Harry Gregg over the line, for which these days he would immediately be sent off.

My only regular television was the one day each week I went after school to my mother’s aunt’s house and watched adventure series on Granada which was then the ITV provider across the whole of the North of England. Escapist adventures were very popular in the early days of children’s television – I’m sure everyone then around will remember The Adventures of Robin Hood, William Tell and Rin Tin Tin, to name but a few. On the day I watched it was either Long John Silver or my particular favourite, The Buccaneers. I can still sing you the theme tunes and the music Granada used to play before the early evening programmes started.

‘The Adventures of Long John Silver’ was made in 1954 in colour in Australia for television, but by the time it appeared on our screens three years later, Robert Newton, the actor who played the title role, had died from a heart attack at the age of only fifty, a consequence of chronic alcoholism. His portrayal of the character, both in the series and in the 1950 film Treasure Island, was so memorably idiosyncratic, he became the much-parodied, stereotypical pirate for the next half century. The wild eyes and oddly exaggerated, throaty West country accent can still be seen as an influence in some of the performances in the 2003 film Pirates of the Carribean. Two Americans even thought it fitting to declare September 19th each year to be ‘International Talk Like A Pirate Day’ when everyone should greet each other with phrases such as “Ahoy, matey!”, and liberally sprinkle their speech with the pirate growl “Aaarrrh”.

The opening titles of the series had Newton, as Silver, reciting the first verse of Robert Louis Stevenson’s epigraph ‘To The Hesitating Purchaser’ from the beginning of ‘Treasure Island’* over a skull and crossbones flag and map of The Spanish Main. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube we can remind ourselves of it today, although an even better use of the lines is for practising your own pirate voice. The words are perfect. Just growl them out, rhoticising and stretching the ‘r’s, missing the ‘d’ out of ‘adventure’, and you’ll sound pretty authentic:

                              If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
                              Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
                              If schooners, islands, and maroons,
                              And buccaneers and buried gold,
                              And all the old romance, retold,
                              Exactly in the ancient way,
                              Can please, as me they pleased of old,
                              The wiser youngsters of today:
                              So be it (Aarrrh Aarrrh), and fall on!

I preferred the less eccentric protagonist, Captain Dan Tempest in The Buccaneers. As its title implies, this was also set in the sixteenth century age of pirates. Tempest was an ex-pirate, pardoned by the King and turned privateer, a naval mercenary, to fight other pirates and the despicable Spaniards. He never caught the imagination in the same way as Long John Silver, perhaps because he lacked the Newton and Stevenson credentials, or more likely because he didn’t actually sound like a pirate in the way that Newton had taught us they should.

My dad eventually surrendered to the inevitable and bought a television during 1961 or 1962. I know we didn’t have one at the beginning of 1961 because I watched Bruce Forsyth do a routine about the new year on the next door neighbour’s set (I’m sure it was Bruce Forsyth, although archives suggest he was taking a rest from his role as compere of the Palladium show at that time). Aided by a printed card, he explained that 1961 looked the same if you turned it upside down, that he had last used the same gag in 1881, and would show us it again in 2002 – the ‘2’ being drawn in a flippable font. I don’t know whether he did, but if not then it would be great to see it again, and we should certainly remind him not to miss the opportunity in 2112.

We definitely had a set by the 23rd July, 1962, when the first live images were beamed into European homes from America by the Telstar satellite. The first scheduled pictures at 8.00 p.m. were to have been of President Kennedy’s regular weekly news conference, but the connection to the satellite was established a couple of minutes early, and so we were treated to a far more interesting and all too brief section of baseball. The Chicago Cubs fielder George Altman was amazed to discover he had been seen “... all the way from Wrigley Field in Chicago to the Colosseum in Rome” catching a hit from Tony Taylor of the Philadelphia Phillies.

In Britain we were told the signals had been caught all the way from Andover, Maine, via Telstar, by the Goonhilly station near Helston in Cornwall, but it later transpired that what we saw had been relayed from the French receiving station near Lannion in Britanny because the Goonhilly reception was of poor quality. The despicable French had been much better at tracking the satellite to within the required one third of a degree of arc from the first experimental transmissions on July 11th, the day after Telstar was launched. How dare they! Captain Dan Tempest would soon have sorted them out.

By the end of the decade we were watching live transmissions from the moon, but perhaps my dad’s concern that we would waste our lives watching drivel turned out to contain more than just an element of truth. The rot set in pretty quickly. On the 22nd November, 1963, I was watching the indisputably mindless quiz show ‘Take Your Pick’ presented by ‘your quiz inquisitor’, Michael Miles. This was the show that included the ‘Yes-No Interlude’ in which the host tried to trick contestants into saying the word ‘No’,** and another section in which he tried to persuade them to sell ‘the key to Box 13’. I know the exact date and time because at around ten past seven the programme was interrupted with the news that President Kennedy had been shot, and I rushed into the kitchen to tell my mother.

The following day I saw the very first episode of Dr. Who, ‘An Unearthly Child’, and yes Ron Grainer’s theme music from the B.B.C. Radiophonic Workshop was truly frightening, and yes I did hide behind the settee. The programme made such impact nationally that the first episode was repeated the following week immediately before the second episode, but the aspect of the story that caught my imagination most was that part of it took place in a school science laboratory.

From then on the reading and the hobbies gradually dried up. I eagerly looked forward to favourite shows: it wasn’t long before Thursday evenings were the non-negotiable preserve of ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’

As a nation, we really did spend excessive amounts of time watching television. We planned our time around the weekly schedules and measured our lives against world events shown on the news. Some programmes, watched by just about every other person in the country, would have regular audience figures of over twenty million.

A survey in 2005 found that children typically watch three to four hours per day, more time than on any other leisure activity. Reading now hardly gets a look in. If you add it all up, as many as three out of the first eighteen years can be spent in front of the television. If that alone doesn’t alter the way we think about the world, we are likely to see more than twenty five thousand adverts per year, even more in America, all cleverly designed to manipulate our desires. Even if television more recently has been displaced by social media and so on, I doubt the total number of hours spent in front of screens has gone down at all.

Admirably, my dad remained a bastion of common sense. As soon as the television was turned on, he retired to his books and radio in the other room. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that all television is bad, but it pains me to think of the skills and knowledge and educational attainments I might have had by following my dad’s example. But as if to show what goes around comes around, while I sit here trying desperately to improve my writing skills and perfect my pirate voice, the rest of the family are in the other room watching that embodiment of ephemeral triviality, ‘the X factor’. 

* During the course of looking up the epigraph at the beginning of Treasure Island, I started reading the book and didn’t want to stop. I read the whole thing over three or four days. What an exciting story it is, and so readable you would never believe it was first published in 1883. I've now started reading Andrew Motion’s recent sequel “Silver: Return to Treasure Island” and going by the first few chapters it is every bit as good, possibly better, and I’m not saying that just because I remember him as a young lecturer in Hull in the 1970s, before his stint as Poet Laureate. LATER: I have to say I enjoyed the first half of “Silver” more than the second - I feel it becomes too tied up in its plotlines, and the ending could be more cheerful too, but on the whole it's worthwhile read.

** I may be denigrating ‘Take Your Pick unfairly. Some politicians were clearly big fans of the ‘Yes-No Interlude’. In the recent referendum, they tricked the Scots into voting ‘No’ and then banged a big ‘gong’ at them.

Monday, 10 November 2014

School Chemistry

Tasker Dunham remembers his science marks, and wonders what might have been if he hadn't joined the ranks of the idiots. 

January 21, 1965. Thursday. Got 20/20 in a Chemistry test.
January 25, 1965. Monday. Got 10/10 in a Geometry test. Also did a fab. experiment in Physics: the water equivalent of a copper calorimeter.
March 2, 1965. Tuesday. Back to school. Interim positions. Biology 1st.
October 20, 1965. Wednesday. Science Society lecture on Atomic Power Stations.
December 7, 1965. Tuesday. Science Society lecture on wine making - with free samples.

What an insufferable swot!

There was a time when things looked promising at school. I was doing satisfyingly well in most subjects, especially science, but sometimes in different subjects because of fads. Yet I only scraped through ‘O’ level by just enough to avoid total disgrace, messed up ‘A’ level completely, and had absolutely no chance of getting into university. I never did science again. What went wrong?

I was spellbound by the old science labs the moment I went to grammar school. Hidden in an out-of-the-­way upstairs corridor, with a permanent smell of pungent chemicals, coal gas, rubber tubing and wood polish, they hinted at mysterious secret knowledge. As an impressionable eleven year-old I wondered at what went on at those ancient dark benches with their sinks, water taps, gas taps, equipment cupboards and intriguing glass-stoppered bottles with names etched on the front: tincture of iodine, nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, lime water. Things took place here that were beyond understanding. They could make explosives and powerful poisons. They could turn base metals into gold. They had the philosopher’s stone with the potion of eternal life. If you paid attention, you might have these things too.

One teaching room seemed like the Faraday lecture theatre at the Royal Institution, before the modern seating, a raked amphitheatre with beautiful tiered benches on stepped oak floors. Seated on high, you could look down on Mr. Page as he made oxygen by heating potassium chlorate and manganese dioxide in the blue-yellow flame of a Bunsen burner, collecting the gas as it bubbled into an upturned jar. He became a wizard, an alchemist, demonstrating how the gas reacts with different substances. “Magnesium burns with a bright white light” he would say, conjuring up a dazzling ball of flame too bright and too white to look at.

Spectacular effects aside, my dysfunctionally over-active memory readily absorbed the names of anatomical structures and physiological processes: mitochondria, mitosis, xylem, osmosis, islets of Langerhans. In physics, I was captivated by the sheer ingenuity of some of the procedures, such as the use of a calorimeter to measure and calculate the heat changes in physical and chemical reactions. In mathematics, the interactions of shapes and numbers were as beautiful as any art form.

In Biology we listened to a weekly series of schools programmes on the radio. What a cheat! I must have been the only person in the class with a reel-to-reel tape recorder (a Philips EL3541 model - see later post Reel-to-Reel Recordings). I showed my mother how to record the programmes at home, and handed in an outstanding essay about them. Just being able to listen to them again meant I soaked up the content like a sponge.  

For Christmas I got a Kay chemistry set. I wrote about that in the previous post, but doing your own experiments at home is another guaranteed way to turbo-charge your levels of interest and enthusiasm. My parents must have felt pretty confident I would eventually get a science degree and then on to a job in what Harold Wilson had that very year called the white heat of Britain’s technological revolution.

But as I said, I never did. From doing well at school without really trying, I started to do badly without really trying not to. Of course, I have excuses such as forgetting to revise for the summer science exam which determined the ‘O’ level groups we were put into. My school report has the evidence: position in class 2nd, position in exam 25th, “a disappointing exam result”. “I’m good at this,” I had thought, “it’ll be all right,” but it was a bad day, and I found myself in the second stream where people messed about, and I made the mistake of wanting them to like me. Things became harder too. Chemistry progressed from observation to true experimentation, quantitative measurement and atomic models. And the new school labs, light and airy in a purpose built science block, lacked the exciting, mysterious atmosphere of the old ones. The benches were now in front facing rows rather than islands, and the teachers could no longer see everything their pupils were up to, especially at the back, in other words the jokers, whose ranks I had joined.

The once admired Mister Page, who by now had become Doctor Page, not that any of us understood what that meant, was not well equipped to deal with continuous low level disruption. Thin, with a small bony face, an odd toothy mouth and a permanent worried frown, he was simply insufficiently dominant to control a second stream chemistry class full of idiots determined not to take things seriously. His doctorate in due course became his escape route from teaching to lecturing. As the saying goes, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”

Every time Dr. Page turned his back to write on the blackboard, the disruption began. The cupboards underneath the benches had little metal label-holders that made a musical “ping” when you picked the top bar, and the doors had catches that clicked on opening and closing. As soon as Dr. Page turned away, an orchestral ensemble of pings and clicks would start up, continuing until he spun round angrily, only to be faced by a silent and diligent looking class innocently paying attention. 

Occasionally he spotted someone still smirking, and gave them the blame by shouting their name: Bullard!”; “Langrick!” Geoffrey Bullard perfected the ability to click the cupboard door with his foot while the rest of him remained motionless, his face expressionless. He could continue his covert clicking after Dr. Page had spun round, causing someone else to laugh, and their name to be called out:Thompson!”; Bowcock!” 

Peter Bowcock began to keep a league table of the number of times each person was named. Trevor Thompson went straight to the top after causing an uproar when he caught a wasp in a measuring cylinder and dropped it down into a bottle of sodium hydroxide. It didn’t half fly around fast inside the bottle. Before long, everyone in the back two rows had points except for Jupp , who remained at the bottom of the league on zero until almost the end of term. But the day arrived when, suffering intolerable harassment from others, Jupp was spotted not sitting quietly, and had his name called out. Everyone stood up, cheering and applauding. We had to stay late that day.

Jupp’s downfall was brought about by water. The taps in the benches could not have been better designed for mischief. They were the typical tall laboratory taps, shaped like a lower case ‘r’ with the spout pointing downwards. They could be turned on just enough to drip slowly, so that a well-timed finger could flick drops of water at the head of anyone sitting in front, and if they dared to turn round, Dr. Page would see them and shout out their name. The top of a fountain pen, the kind of top with a small hole in the side for equalising air pressure, could be pushed on the tap to squirt a powerful jet of water directly at someone sitting yards away. The rubber teat from a teat-pipette could do the same job if you made a tiny pin hole, except the spray was so fine the recipient might not notice until the back of his jacket was soaked through. A teat without a pin hole would slowly expand like a balloon, growing bigger and bigger until it became a water bomb primed to explode. There was not a lot you could do about it. Pulling off the teat was suicidal, it guaranteed a soaking. The best thing was simply to turn the tap off, hoping you had correctly remembered which way was off, and trust that the thing remained stable.

Needless to say, hardly anyone from the back of that class has an ‘O’ level in chemistry.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Home Chemistry and Explosives Precursors

Tasker Dunham’s chemistry set boosted his school science marks, but how easy is home chemistry today?

Without anyone really noticing, new regulations relating to the “supply of explosives precursors” have recently been introduced in Britain. From September, 2014, you need a Home Office licence to buy chemicals that could be used in the illicit manufacture of explosives. From March, 2016, you need a licence simply to possess them. The list includes potassium chlorate, sodium chlorate, hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid. The licence also covers a number of poisons, including mercury, and there is a further secondary list of reportable substances for which any suspicious transactions or thefts must be reported. This includes sulphuric acid, acetone, and ammonium, sodium, calcium and potassium nitrates.

What strikes me most of all about these regulations, is that these are chemicals of interest to the home scientist. I used to have several in my childhood chemistry set. It seems we now need a licence to pursue an innocent educational interest. The licence costs £39.50 and must be renewed every three years. Children under eighteen will only be granted a licence in exceptional circumstances subject to additional conditions requiring adult supervision. See the gov.uk web site for the official guidance.

Do these regulations really prevent terrorists from making explosives, or do they just make things unnecessarily difficult for innocent members of the public? I would have thought any chemist worthy of the name would easily be able to make or extract any chemical they need from sources such as weed killer, fertiliser, bleach and drain cleaner. It used to be common knowledge that if you wanted to make a bang, you just mixed sugar with weed killer, taking care not to blind yourself or blow your hands off. You can't have your hands sewn back on if you can't pick them up to take them to the hospital.

I have some concentrated acetone in my garage, a half-full nineteen-eighties bottle of nail varnish remover. It was my mother’s, but I kept it because acetone is useful as a solvent for removing sticky marks and so on, and as well as that, it's nice to have a quick sniff now and again. Am I in danger of being arrested for terrorism if I fail to take proper care of it?

Kay Chemistry Set 1960s

My Kay chemistry set was one of the best Christmas presents I ever had. I had drooled over it in the toy shop window for months. It had an array of exciting chemicals in stoppered glass test tubes: blue and green sulphates (sometimes irritatingly now spelt with an ‘f’, which just looks wrong) , purple needles of potassium permanganate, white powders, silver-grey chunks of zinc and glittering grey-brown iron filings. Its apparatus included further test tubes, a teat pipette and a round bottomed flask, together with litmus paper, a plastic funnel and filter papers. There was a stand to keep the test tubes upright, and a device to hold them as they were heated in the flame of a methylated spirit burner standing on a heat-resistant asbestos mat. There was a booklet of experiments, ‘The Wonders of Chemistry, prepared for the young experimenter by an experienced science master.”

The experiments in the booklet were interesting enough to begin with: growing differently shaped crystals from hot saturated solutions as they cooled – most memorably the bright blue diamond gemstones of copper sulphate; turning litmus paper from red to blue in alkalis, and blue to red in acids; mixing brown ‘logwood chips’ with alum to extract a vivid blue-purple natural dye. It was even possible to make small quantities of oxygen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas, but not enough to match the fabulous wizardry of some of the things we did in chemistry at school. Let’s face it, you don’t just want a chemistry set to grow crystals and change colours, you want to make invisible ink, smoke bombs, poisons, evil smells and explosions.

F Sherwood Taylor: The Young Chemist

I got hold of a better book, ‘The Young Chemist’ by F. Sherwood Taylor, which is not easy to find these days but my ragged copy remains in my bookcase. It was great. There were new experiments which, the dust jacket claimed, “… can be carried out at home cheaply, easily and without danger.” Looking at the contents now one has to question the absence of danger. There are sections on gases: carbon dioxide, oxygen, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, chlorine; sections on acids: sulphuric, hydrochloric, nitric; and sections on various other substances: sulphur, caustic soda, iodine. But any nagging concerns were clearly unfounded because, as the dust jacket reassured, “… it [the book] has been ‘vetted’ by the Home Office.”

Most experiments in ‘The Young Chemist’ needed additional equipment - a Bunsen burner and a crucible - and additional chemicals. “Real iodine,” it says to distinguish it from tincture of iodine, “is a black shiny solid. Ordinary chemists stock it, and it costs 2s 4d an ounce. A quarter of an ounce will do for quite a number of experiments.” It seems unlikely that if you walked into your local branch of Boots today and asked for thirty grams of elemental iodine you would be very successful. In America you have to have Drug Enforcement Agency authorisation to buy iodine or its compounds because of its use in the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamines such as ‘crystal meth’.

But in those days, buying chemicals really was as straightforward as the book made out. My dad called at the chemists and came home with bottle of hydrochloric acid, in a hexagonal emerald-green poison bottle. That same bottle, empty, was still on a ledge at the back of his shed when I cleared it out forty years later. We mixed the acid with zinc to produce hydrogen gas which went pop to a match flame held at the mouth of the test tube. ‘The Young Chemist’ goes on to show how to make enough hydrogen to fill a balloon, but I could never get a seal tight enough not to leak.

Safely guided by the book, I made free chlorine gas from hydrochloric acid and bleaching powder. “It is not wise to make any considerable quantity of chlorine,” it warns, “but it is quite safe to make small quantities and use them at once, if care is taken not to let the gas escape.” So I carefully made just a small quantity of the greenish-yellow gas in a test tube, and was curious to know what it really smelled like. Having previously sniffed a tube of ammonia I’d made by heating ammonium carbonate, and lived to tell the tale, I felt sure the warning could be ignored. Maybe if I had reflected on the fact that my fascination with chlorine stemmed from its use as a chemical weapon during the First World War, I might have been a bit more sensible. Even a cautious sniff had me coughing and reeling with a burning pain inside my nose.

The book explains how to ferment glucose and distil alcohol, which it acknowledges as illegal, but “… as long as the alcohol is not drunk or sold it is unlikely that the excise authorities would object.”

Even the humble Bunsen burner had its potential dangers. Nineteen sixties houses had brass gas taps emerging through the floorboards beside the hearth for the purpose of supplying gas through a rubber tube to a free standing gas fire. As mains gas appliances now have to be permanently plumbed in by ‘Gas Safe’ engineers with all the right up-to-date certificates, gas taps and free standing gas fires that burn mains gas must now be illegal. I haven’t seen a domestic gas tap for years, yet all seemed perfectly safe at the time. You simply needed to be aware of the dangers. Everyone knew the fires gave off noxious fumes, caused terrible condensation and were easily knocked over, and that gas taps could be turned on by curious children wanting to know what happens when you fill a room with gas, which in those days was poisonous coal gas rather than the less toxic North Sea gas. So we were very careful. It seemed entirely natural to run a gas supply to my Bunsen burner through a long rubber tube, around ten yards in length, from the gas tap, across the room, out through a partly open window and then a short distance across the yard to my ‘laboratory’ in the shed. What could possibly go wrong?

Bunsen burners mixed gas with air so, unlike methylated spirit burners, they were hot enough to melt glass. ‘The Young Chemist’ shows how to bend tubes and blow glass bulbs. I only burnt myself once.

Today, the book’s claim to be without danger might not stand up litigious scrutiny, and the Home Office would be unlikely to ‘vet’ it so leniently. Perhaps this is why some of the cheaper chemistry sets now, especially for children under twelve, seem particularly feeble compared to sets from the nineteen sixties. Some are so safe they have only plastic test tubes and no glass, substances ‘warmed’ by immersion in hot water because there are no flames, and the biggest deficiency of all, no actual chemicals, or at least nothing you can’t eat. The bleaches and disinfectants under the kitchen sink are more dangerous and more poisonous than the contents of these so-called chemistry sets. Some sets contain only materials such as balloons, clay and starch, with serious warnings to handle them carefully. The largest and most prominent item is often a pair of safety goggles. Woe betide anyone who blows up a balloon without wearing safety goggles!

In America, things are even worse. In some schools, science teachers have to sign out ‘dangerous’ substances like vinegar and baking powder from locked cupboards. This, in a country where guns and ammunition are freely available! You even need a criminal background check to buy laboratory glassware. Coffee machines contain three items that would violate the drugs agency regulations if found in a home laboratory: a filter funnel, a Pyrex beaker and a heating element. There are reports of innocent home chemicals suppliers being raided by police under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, accused of supplying banned substances such as sulphur and potassium nitrate which might be used to make illegal fireworks.

The most expensive chemistry sets now available, costing over £150 (such as Brightminds Chemlab 3000), do still seem to measure up to the old sets in terms of apparatus, but you have to obtain many of the chemicals yourself, especially anything liquid, such as meths for the burner, sodium hydroxide, ammonia solution, hydrochloric acid and silver nitrate solution. The internet now makes these easier to find, but safety and regulation still take precedence over interest. And £150 might be more than most families would be willing to pay, especially if a £39.50 licence is required as well.

It is all a far cry from my school science days, when bottles of sulphuric acid were always on the benches, we rounded up droplets of mercury spilled on the floor by the previous class, and wafted large asbestos mats at each other. One wonders how children are supposed to gain confidence in the handling of hazardous substances and with other risks, when chemistry sets are so bland, ineffectual and uninteresting. I was dismayed to see my own children’s uneasy clumsiness in trying to strike matches to light a candle.

One also has to wonder whether the hands-off passivity of demonstrations, videos and simulations, enthuses as much interest in science as running experiments first hand. My own chemistry set, at least for a time, boosted my school marks, and although in my case these interests later waned, there are many professional scientists who fondly remember how their careers developed out of a passion for carrying out experiments at home. It isn’t right to impose too many restrictions on these things.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Get back on t’land whe’re y’belong

Aunty Bina's Farm

The Vale of York locks fingers with the Trent, Ouse, Aire and Don across an expanse of low-lying land known as the Humberhead Levels. In winter there is little protection from the cold winds that blow uninterrupted up and down the vale, or along the estuary from the North Sea. In the autumn, thick fogs drift in from the rivers and rise up from the fields. In summer the baking sun cracks the soil into deep fissures. Parts of it are warpland, where turbid river waters were once diverted to flood the fields to deposit layers of fine, fertile silt. Some call it ‘pancake country’ because of its never-ending flatness. Stand upon the slightest rise and in one direction you can see the chalky yellow-green line of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds. Turn the other way, and you can just make out the grey-brown smudge of the Yorkshire Pennines.

The region is dotted with remote villages and isolated farms. Aunty Bina’s farm was along a deserted lane that stretched straight and level from the village where my grandma lived, past enormous, silent fields of sugar beet, wheat, potatoes and fallow grass. Hardly anyone goes down that lane now except in a motor vehicle, but in days gone by we walked from the village, a good two miles, me and my younger brother running happily ahead of grandma wheeling baby cousin Anna in her pram. In my imagination it was an expedition through a strange and extraordinary land. It came back vividly, years later, on reading about the distant tracts of Tolkein’s Middle Earth and the care-free floating islands of C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra.

Cousin Anna had been living with us while Aunty Bina had been in hospital for an operation. She was supposed to have been in for just a couple of weeks, but things went wrong and it was four months before she got out. Even then she was still too ill to cope with a one-year old, so Anna stayed with us for longer. She had learned to walk and talk before she went home. Some of our neighbours assumed my mother must have had another baby. It meant, though, that we visited the farm frequently for Bina to see Anna. It also meant we could play on the farm with cousin Brian.

I loved going to the farm. There were sweet smelling hay stacks to climb and burrow in, quiet shady barns to explore, nests of semi-wild, warm, furry kittens to stroke and befriend, and away across a field a mysterious, dark wood with fallen tree trunks to scramble over. In summer, when the wheat grew long, you could make mazes of channels and trenches to crawl through and hide, so long as Brian’s dad, Uncle Ben, didn’t spot you. He was usually somewhere out on the farm, but the one time he caught us flattening his corn just before harvest time there was hell to pay, especially by Brian after we had left.

I liked playing with Brian, despite being twice his age. I never found it hard being with younger children, possibly because my brother was quite a lot younger too. It was only awkward when another friend my own age was present, when it seemed both embarrassing and inconsiderate at the same time; embarrassing because playing with the younger friend risked ridule from the older one, and inconsiderate because paying attention to the older friend was to ignore the younger one. I even became expert at entertaining baby Anna, provided none of my school friends were around.

If I could have analysed this more deeply at the time, I might have beaten Basil Bernstein to his concept of restricted and elaborated linguistic codes, the obvious idea that you talk to different people in different ways. I knew exactly what he meant when I came across it in some dull sociology text book years later. But, as they say, sociologists only tell us what we know already.

Aunty Bina and Uncle Ben had married at the church across the road from my grandma’s house on a snowy February day when I was little. They lived in a series of smallholdings of gradually increasing size, one of them a winding walk along the river bank. Later they took the farm at the end of the long lane, where some of the farm buildings were at least two hundred years old.

Ben was a hands-on farmer, accustomed to hard lonely hours on the land, with the farmer’s practical toughness towards matters of life and death. Once, making our way along the lane, we spotted him in the distance, across a field, standing motionless with his shotgun, daring any crows or wild rabbits to covet his crops, or as he would have said, “shuttin’ t’crows an’ t’rabbits.” He had sheds of egg-laying hens, but for farmers, there can be no room for sentiment when a hen’s egg-laying begins to decline. He had a series of farm dogs, loud, ferocious, vicious things that sprang up at your face on chains, snarling as you edged past, back against the wall. I never thought to ask what happened when they got too old, or what became of the litters of kittens produced by the semi-wild farm cats. In later years, he regularly bought white Charolais calves, and raised them almost like his own family, but in the end they were always dispatched off for slaughter and replaced by new ones. He called them “be-asts”, splitting the word into two syllables.

He was a big man. I once sat behind him at a wedding and marvelled at the breadth of his back, just like one of his own ‘be-asts’, the result of years of hard physical work. But he knew his job thoroughly, the diversity of skills involved, how to operate complicated machinery, how to calculate quantities of feeds and fertilisers, how to buy calves, when to sow and harvest crops, when the weather said to wait a little longer, and when the weather said it was all right to hide indoors out of harm’s way and play pool with Brian, or watch cricket on television. Aunty Bina would have been quite happy to retire to a little cottage in the village, but Ben would not entertain the idea, and continued raising Charolais for market, even when he was “pushin’ eighty”, as Bina put it.

Uncle Ben’s rural toughness applied to his dealings with people too. He could seem rude and aggressive if you were not used to him, and more than one relative refused to have anything to do with him. We used to tell ourselves we went to the farm to be insulted. As I got older he always looked me critically in the beard and said, “You scruffy bugger! What’s up? Can’t th’afford a razor?” And when it started to go grey it was, “Why! Bloody ‘ell! Look who it is! It’s bloody Father Christmas.”

I once went with my dad in a new car I’d bought, and he came in saying, “I couldn’t see who it wa’ from ove there across o’t’ field, except it wa’r a rich bugger wi’ a new car an’ a scruffy bugger wi’ whiskers.” I didn’t dare tell him it was my car, and I was both the rich and the scruffy bugger.

I don’t know how many of Brian and Anna’s prospective girl- and boyfriends he saw off with his dismissive manner. One of Brian’s girlfriends was a teacher. You can imagine the likely scene when he eventually took the educated young lady home to meet his father.  

“What the ‘ell do you see in ‘im then? He’s a right ugly sod! Still, you won’t bugger up two ‘ouses.”

Ben’s confrontational style of humour came straight out of pre-war country village life, stemming from the days when field workers were always in the company of others, laughing, joking and exchanging banter as they laboured in groups, forking straw on to wagons drawn by horses. But by the nineteen sixties things had changed, and farmers worked long hours on their own, driving up and down, up and down, on their tractors. So Ben saved up his acerbic wit for visitors. If you were in tune with it, he was one of the wittiest people you could ever hope to meet.

“What! y’don’t ‘ave sugar in y’tea? Bloody ‘ell! What d’y’think we grow it fo’?”

“Vegetarian? Y’r a vegetarian? We wo’k our bloody guts out raisin’ t’be-asts fo’t’market, and y’come in ‘ere sayin’ y’r a vegetarian!”

Ben had been born in another village, some distance across the river, and implied he only married Aunty Bina to improve the local blood line.

“If t’Blue Line bus ‘adn’t started comin’ thro’ t’village, th’d ‘ave all bin imbecil’s ‘cos o’ t’inbreedin’.”

If I ever had an accent like that, then regretfully I lost it living in other parts of the country. I was unaware just how much until one day, over the telephone, I was dismayed to hear Ben telling Bina “th’s some posh bugger asking fo’ y’r on t’phone.” When Bina came on the phone I could hear her defending me. “Why, it’s not anybody posh,” she told Ben, “it’s on’y our Tasker,” and then to me said “I suppose y‘ave to talk proper like that when y’r at work.”

Farmers had to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Life was unforgiving and there was no place for layabouts and moaners. You just got on with it, no matter what problems chance dealt you. Aunty Bina had a bad leg which started when she fell off a stepladder at one of their early smallholdings. It damaged the blood supply to her hip, but it wasn’t properly diagnosed at the time, and the bone died. That’s why she had been in hospital. She had a hip replacement that didn’t work, and ended up with an immobilised hip and permanent abscesses on her leg and foot. But she still did her jobs, limping around the house and farm without complaint, even when in later life the treatment for the abscesses raised the levels of copper in her bloodstream, causing partial sightedness. She once wrote me a letter from hospital, mentioning she had had a “minor” stroke, but not to worry because she had seen the doctor straight away, and had been all right since. “She wants bloody shuttin’,” Ben would say.

Ben had his own problems, blood pressure, farmer’s lung from years of exposure to hay and fertiliser dust, and he was not allowed to drive because of epilepsy. I once saw him cutting winter turnips “fo’ t’be-asts” and was shocked by his breathlessness, and the colour he turned. But he, too, just got on with things. In any case, even with epilepsy, farmers are still allowed to take their tractors on public roads, and he would if he felt so inclined, holding back long queues of impatient drivers, desperate to overtake.

The best way to handle Ben’s prickly comments was just to shake your head and ignore them. That’s what Aunty Bina did, but there were some who returned as good as they got. One day, they were visited at the farm by ‘our Mary’, an overweight elderly relative, and a similarly overweight friend, who arrived side by side on bicycles, gliding slowly down the lane, tyres bulging to bursting point, suspension compressed to the limits, fat thighs straining at the pedals, saddles submerged inside the overhanging folds of their abundant bottoms.

“Look who it is!” shouted Ben from his stackyard. “It’s t’bloody Rolly Pollies.”

“Bugger off y’dirty farmer all blattered up in cow muck”, came the reply. “Get back on t’land where y’belong!”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty good put down.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Lookin’ for a ‘feet’

Tasker Dunham gets beaten up

“You two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?” said a coarse voice behind. We both pretended not to hear and kept on walking.

We were on our way home from school for what we used to call our ‘dinner’, now usually ‘lunch’, and had gone by way of the back lanes so we could take off our school caps. You had to wear your uniform to and from school at all times, including the hideous cap: navy blue, badge on the front, four showy yellow triangles joined on top. Be caught without it and you got an automatic Saturday morning detention. This applied just as much to sixth formers as younger pupils, even those who stayed on an extra year to try for Oxbridge entrance, and they could be nearly twenty! Caps on sixth formers looked even more ridiculous than on us, as nobody ever bought a new one, and so they walked to and from school with tiny first-form caps perched insecurely on huge sixth-form heads.

Nonetheless, we all knew that once out of sight, concealed beneath the high walls of the back lanes and cross streets where you were unlikely to be seen by a teacher, it was safe to put your cap in your pocket, so long as you kept away from where the German teacher lodged. The only danger was that the lanes and cross streets were frequented by secondary modern school boys who flaunted their toughness and maturity by walking home smoking. Modern School boys detested Grammar School boys, considering them anything other than tough and mature.

The voice behind was quiet for a time, so my friend Burling resumed talking about school work. He was usually top of the ‘A’ stream, and apart from cricket, talked about little other than what he was currently studying. That particular day he had been going on about surds, managing to convince me that the square root of fifty was equal to five times the square root of two, and had then switched to early nineteenth century history, prattling enthusiastically about William Pitt the Younger and George Canning. He could almost convince you it was fascinating, but from the way the disagreeable voice behind had pronounced fight as “feet”, I suspected we were being overheard by someone who thought surds were absurd, a pit was where you might get a job, and that canning was what they did with peas and carrots at the factory on the Doncaster Road.

“You two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?”

There were two modern school boys behind us, both smoking. I recognised one as the notorious Pete Jibson, who although only a couple of years older than us, was one of those lads who by the age of fourteen could pass for twenty. He was heavily built, with greasy hair, dark stubble, a lined forehead and a perpetually malicious expression. I had once seen him ask for three Woodbine in the corner shop. He was definitely not someone you would want to fight. My experience in these situations was that it was essential to be conciliatory; better to lose face than teeth. Unfortunately, Burling lacked any sense of self-preservation. He never went out enough to acquire it.

“I said you two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?” repeated Jibson.

“Why?” asked Burling, brightly. “Have you lost one?”

This, of course, was not at all a sensible thing say. Jibson pushed forward, picked up Burling by the lapels of his school blazer and rammed him backwards, hard against the wall.

“You clever grammar school c***,” he growled, Woodbine still in mouth. He let Burling go and turned to walk away with his accomplice, smirking.

“Charming!” I whispered as they left, but a bit too loudly, and Jibson turned back to give me the treatment.

“What was that, you b******? What did you say?”

“I didn’t say owt,” I protested in anxious, conciliatory, wide-eyed innocence. “I didn’t say owt.” I didn’t want to sound too posh.

Jibson let me go and turned again to leave. I was just about to give a sigh of relief when Burling, like the idiot he was, piped up, “He said you two were charming.”

“Oh! Right!” said Jibson menacingly as he turned back. There was a sudden flash, a heavy thump under my chin, and I staggered backwards to the ground. As I struggled to get up I could see Burling being smashed against the wall again. When Jibson had made his point he flicked the smouldering stub of his Woodbine at my head, and swaggered off.

We waited until they were well ahead before continuing home. Burling had a few scrapes and scratches, and I suffered no worse than damaged pride and a bruised chin. We took the main roads home for the next few weeks, and kept our caps on.

*                   *                  *

Such fiery animosity between the two different kinds of school is hardly surprising. Only around a quarter of eleven year olds went to the grammar schools, yet they enjoyed typically three times the resources of the secondary moderns. Grammar schools had the pick of the best teachers, and guided their pupils intellectually and culturally towards membership of an elite new middle class. Even their own families could feel left behind. As interests and horizons expanded and widened, old friends at the secondary moderns gradually dwindled away. Although perhaps none of us were truly aware of it at the time, it was social engineering on a grand scale. Grammar schools and modern schools were likely to lead to very different jobs, levels of pay and ways of life.

The vast majority at the secondary moderns were thought to have no future in education and encouraged to leave at fifteen, whereas most at the grammar schools were still in education at seventeen, and usually went on to university, teacher training, the civil service or the professions. Meanwhile, boys from the modern schools found themselves in blue-collar or unskilled jobs, typically in the engineering industries, the building and motor trades, the railways, road transport, shipping, the armed forces, mining and agriculture. Girls might at first go to work in shops or factories, but most saw this as a temporary measure on the road to marriage, children and home making.

At the grammar schools, we enjoyed for free the kind of privileged, public-school style of education some parents now pay tens of thousands of pounds for. We had rugby, cricket and hockey teams, summer athletics sports days, outdoor pursuits such as climbing, rambling and pot holing at the school hut in the Yorkshire Dales, foreign exchange trips to Belgium and Germany, geography and biology field excursions, drama productions, arts, crafts, hobby and debating societies, all led by highly-qualified, experienced, content and enthusiastic staff. We studied for G.C.E. ‘O’ and ‘A’ level qualifications across the full range of sciences, humanities, arts and classics. We had well stocked science laboratories with work benches for individual experiments in physics and chemistry, dissections and examinations in biology, all housed in a purpose-built science block. There was a magnificent, fully equipped stage with a proscenium arch and modern lighting rig, and in the hall, a multi-keyboard organ with bass pedals, the preserve of the ancient but gifted head of music who accompanied our uplifting Christian hymns at daily morning assembly. We had a dedicated gymnasium with retractable beams, ropes and wall bars, with vaulting horses, spring boards and basketballs in the overflowing store cupboards. Everything was respected and looked after; there was very little theft or vandalism. They only things the modern school had that we didn’t were vegetable plots, greenhouses and chicken pens for lessons in horticulture and animal husbandry.

Even the buildings shouted different levels of privilege; the grammar school’s attractive Georgian architecture in Flemish-bond yellow-orange brick, its Queen Anne cupola, the town coat of arms carved over the door, and the foundation date in prominent Roman numerals high above, all scorned the modern school’s plain functional redbrick.

The injustices become even more conspicuous when one realises that selection for the grammar schools was not entirely based on merit. Middle-class children, perhaps from homes full of books, culture, intelligent conversation, and the time and space to enjoy them, were far more likely to get through the ‘eleven plus’ than those from poorer backgrounds, and if there was any doubt about their abilities, ambitious parents would pay for private tuition to ensure they did. One study found that in Nottingham, two thirds of children from one middle class suburb went to grammar school, against fewer than one in fifty from a neighbouring poorer area. In some depressed northern industrial towns, less than ten per cent of all children got in. Then there were children who actually did make the grade, but found their grammar school place turned down by their parents, often on grounds of cost, as they were needed to earn a wage as soon as possible. I also remember two boys from council houses who would easily have passed, except they were discovered to have ‘dirty magazines’ in their school desks, and in an act of such unbelievably small-minded, puritanical snobbery, were peremptorily denied any opportunity of a grammar school education. They were eleven for goodness’ sake! Their places must have gone to two others, innocently unaware of the inexcusable circumstances of their arbitrary good fortune.

Even the ideology of selection at eleven was influenced by the outrageous fraud of the educational psychologist and government advisor, Sir Cyril Burt, who faked his studies of separately-raised identical twins to declare that intelligence and ability were fixed at conception, primarily determined by genetics rather than upbringing. Had he been right, then selecting children for different kinds of education by measuring their intelligence might have been sensible, but the Nottingham findings, mentioned above, are just one of the many pieces of evidence that he could not have been more wrong; such a large difference between communities could never be down to intelligence alone, indicating that they were measuring something other than what they thought was fixed at birth. 

Not only was selection so very, very unfair, it was also wasteful of talent. Many late-developers found it impossible to recover from eleven plus failure. They and countless others, given the opportunity, could have succeeded in the grammar schools just as well as their more fortunate peers. I know of several eleven plus ‘rejects’ who went on to demonstrate this in the most superlative way. One, after a year at the modern school, was thrown the lifeline of a transfer back into the first form at the grammar school, which he then passed through a year late before getting into Cambridge University and qualifying as a veterinary surgeon. Another first form transfer went on to qualify as a solicitor, although he did need two goes at his ‘A’ levels, which meant he was nearly twenty-one by the time he left the sixth form. Thankfully for him, a new headmaster had by then pronounced the old school caps and uniform archaic. Significant numbers of others too, allowed to transfer to the grammar school at sixteen after having overcome the considerable hurdle of passing their ‘O’ levels at the modern school, went on to respectable careers. It goes to show that with encouragement and determination, most of us can achieve anything. But how many ‘false negatives’ and ‘late developers’ did the system miss?

Grammar schools brought in a never-before, and perhaps never-again seen era of social mobility for those lucky enough to get in. When we had left, we could look forward to a wide range of influential and well-paid careers throughout the country, if not throughout the world, at the highest level our abilities could take us. Despite being from fairly ordinary homes, the opportunities were limitless.

Perhaps today there may be something in the view that we have gone too far the other way. Almost half of young people now go to university, which means that large numbers of recent graduates would never in the past have got through eleven plus. This is undoubtedly a change for the better, but during my later career at one of the less-prestigious universities, I came across some students who simply lacked the basic levels of literacy, numeracy, ability or diligence to gain much at all from degree level study. They didn’t seem to grasp what we were doing, or why they were there. “Pass them anyway,” said the management, off the record, “because that’s what the government wants us to do.” I suppose at least now, few can genuinely claim they were not given some kind of a chance. But if comprehensives and academies had achieved their declared aim of providing a universal grammar school quality of education, it seems unlikely that private education would have flourished as it has. Selection and networking through wealth and class now seem even more prevalent.

*                   *                  *

Jibson and his mate of the ‘feet’ incident both left school soon afterwards. In all likelihood, Jibson would never have enjoyed a grammar school or university education. I heard he went to work at the local concrete factory making reinforced panels - dangerous, corrosive and life-shortening work. I saw his accomplice again only a few months later. To my consternation he was at our house, whistling and joking noisily with the local firm of decorators as they painted the outside woodwork. I don’t think he recognised me, but just in case, I crept in quietly from school each day and made myself scarce until they had all gone home. His job, as a new apprentice, seemed to consist mainly of fetching and carrying things for the more experienced decorators, and pushing an enormous two-wheeled flat barrow around the town, loaded with boards, ladders, paint pots, brushes, turpentine, and so on, which was how tradesmen moved their tools and equipment before they all had vans. He may later have progressed from fetching and carrying to become a qualified painter, perhaps even rising to the heights of grainer, a specialist in creating artificial grain effects in paintwork to give ordinary wood a façade of quality. That would have been his working life, until, that is, we all installed uPVC doors and windows, renewed our interior woodwork with laminated grain-effect surfaces, took up DIY and did our own decorating, and painters and grainers were no longer needed.

Ironically, one of the factors in putting so many tradesmen out of work by facilitating our home DIY efforts, was the availability of a particular, ingenious, folding workbench, initially patented by one of my grammar school near-contemporaries (although it is said that he and the company he worked for may have stolen the idea after seeing it on display at a trade fair). As for Burling, he went up to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics. He later became an economist at the Bank of England.