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Sunday, 28 June 2015

Uncle Jimmy

My mother used to say Uncle Jimmy should have been brought up a girl and his sister a boy. When I was a bit older she added “You see, he didn’t develop properly when he was growing up.”

Uncle Jimmy wasn’t really an uncle or indeed a relative of any kind at all. He attached himself to the family just before the First World War when he crossed the Pennines to take a job in the local branch of Dalewoods, a clothing and furniture retailer where my grandfather worked. As he had nowhere to stay, my grandfather took Jimmy home and asked whether they could put him up for a time. Jimmy soon found his own accommodation and later, perhaps surprisingly, a wife, but he remained a close friend of the family for the rest of his life. He appears in no end of our family photographs, a surrogate uncle.

“A jolly little fat man with a high voice,” is how my brother remembered him, “Uncle Jimmy Dustbin,” not his real name but a pretty good homonym, the kind of name a small child would come up with. He was five feet two inches tall (157 centimetres) and had been slightly built in his youth – his army attestation papers show he had just a 31 inch chest (79 centimetres). He must have suffered terribly at the hands of childhood bullies, and he possibly left his native Cheshire to begin life afresh in a town where nobody knew him.

His army papers also record that when he attempted to volunteer for war service, he was rejected six times on the grounds of poor physique before being accepted into the York and Lancaster Regiment at the seventh attempt. Even then, on mobilization, he was immediately transferred back into the army reserve, perhaps in the hope he would grow and gain strength, but it seems unlikely he did. He was mobilized again after eight months but then, just six months later, he was transferred to the Yorkshire Regiment. He managed three months there before being compulsorily transferred to the 5th (Cyclist) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. This was part of the Army Cycle Corps used for coastal defence work inside the United Kingdom. His situation seems to have improved for a while because he qualified as a signaller, but within a year his difficulties had returned and he was transferred to the West Yorkshire Regiment. A month later he was discharged permanently as physically unfit for war service, issued with an overcoat and sent home. Jimmy’s war was thus based in such far flung locations as Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Hartlepool and Aldershot. At no time did he see service in France.

Jimmy married in 1917 while still in the army. He was almost twenty-five and his wife, let’s call her Beatrice, almost twenty-seven. They remained together until she died forty-seven years later. What Beatrice expected is not entirely clear, although she did once tell my grandmother she had little idea of what generally happened on wedding nights, and remained just as mystified afterwards because nothing did. It seems she was content to settle for a marriage of crafts, hobbies and companionship. For some years they looked after one of Beatrice’s nephews but were unable to have children of their own.

Jimmy and Beatrice became grocers. Beatrice’s widowed mother had a corner shop in one of the town’s dense grid of terraced streets, so Jimmy moved in to help with the shop and eventually became the nominal owner.

It seems that Beatrice did much of the work. Jimmy always found plenty of other things to occupy himself. He became a churchwarden along with my grandfather, and a Sunday School teacher, and he collected glassware and was a natty dresser, but his greatest joy was motoring. He advertised his services as an express courier and hence became one of the first people in the town with a private telephone and private motor car.

His first car was a 1922 ‘Bullnose’ Morris. My father said that whenever his own family took their annual week’s holiday – in those days always to one of the Yorkshire coastal resorts – Jimmy would arrive in his car to join them for a day. On other occasions he would take my father and his sister on trips to the coast. They had a clear memory of one happy outing when they drove under the arched bridge between Bridlington and Filey where the railway embankment crosses the road, when Jimmy jokingly forbade them to shout as they passed through, which of course they did, their high spirited voices echoing back to them in the open-topped car. On a later trip he took my aunt up for a ride in an aeroplane at Speeton airfield.

1922 Bullnose Morris
Uncle Jimmy with his 1922 Bullnose’ Morris on an outing to Bridlington in 1928.
In the car (right to left) are my father (in cap), his sister (in bonnet) and Jimmys wife’s nephew.

In later years, after my grandparents had died, Jimmy and Beatrice became surrogate grandparents, especially to my cousins. In fact they remember Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Beatrice by far the more clearly. They spent hours reading, singing, playing games and looking after them. Beatrice shared her jigsaw puzzles and taught them to crochet. Jimmy was the only one with the patience to feed to my elder cousin her breakfast in the way she wanted, one cornflake at a time, even though he was supposed to be at work in his shop. My uncle described him, in bemused admiration, as the only man he knew who had managed to get through life without working.

Eventually Jimmy and Beatrice retired from the grocers shop and moved for around fifteen years to a large house in a green and leafy part of town overlooking the river, but after Beatrice died Jimmy moved back to the same terraced street they had lived in previously, and was very lonely and unhappy. It was by then the nineteen-sixties. Society was changing and the street had lost its sense of community. Jimmy was a frequent visitor both to our house and my cousins’, arriving in his car, always a Morris. He showed a lifelong loyalty to the Morris marque.

Jimmy lived to eighty-one. During his last illness, unable to eat, he turned to my aunt for help, and she told him she thought he should be in hospital. “All right,” he said, “but let’s have a cig first. We’ll have one of yours.” It was his last one. My aunt, a nurse, looked after him during his final days, and in dealing with his most intimate needs was dismayed to observe just how incompletely developed he was, “more female than male” she later confided.

Again, we were spared the details but some years ago, thirty five years after his death, I looked at Jimmy’s army service record in an online genealogy resource. It included Army Form B, 178A, Medical Report on a Soldier Boarded Prior to Discharge or Transfer to Class W, W(T), P or P(T), of the Reserve. Across the various sections of the form I was disturbed to read:

Feminism. Undesirability of retaining with hommes militesque. Congenital. Poor physique from infancy and puberty. Pain with equipment. Tastes and habits male. Married 12 months, no children. Enlarged breasts, female type. Poor general physique. R. testicle incompletely descended. Penis abnormally short. Embryonic pocket in scrotal line. Voice female. Was rejected 6 times on grounds of physique and accepted the 7th time. Discharge as permanently unfit.

And what of his sister, a back-slapping sporty woman who my mother said should have been brought up a boy. She also married but after several years her husband was granted an annulment. She then became a champion ladies golfer who represented her county and country. It was said she astonished other golfers by driving consistently long distances from the men’s tees. She spent her life organising competitions and golfing associations, and was still playing in veterans’ tournaments at the age of seventy. Did she have a similar congenital condition? And we can now easily see that there were four other siblings who survived into adulthood. What about them? They seem to have produced very few children and grandchildren.

Today, abnormal sexual development is much better understood than when Jimmy and his sister were born in the eighteen-nineties. For example, research into sex hormones did not make any real progress until the nineteen-thirties. The various conditions are now handled sympathetically and have a range of treatments. How very different from when Jimmy and his sister were young. What desperately miserable and lonely episodes they must both have endured. Yet to us, Uncle Jimmy always seemed happy and jovial. He was kind and thoughtful, very much loved. I think we must have given him something of the family life he would never otherwise have had.

There was one last thing we could do for him. It was saddening to see his medical condition displayed so openly. Although British Army First World War service and pension records, if they survive, are now accessible through online genealogical resources, medical records are usually confidential. Publicly online they afford too much scope for abuse. We wrote to the National Archives at Kew to ask whether it was possible, on the grounds of respect and decency, to remove the medical report from the online resource, to which they agreed. Genuine researchers can still go to Kew, look up the microfiche copy of his army service record, and find Army Form B178A included, but in the online version it is no longer there. In wanting to tell Jimmy’s sad and touching story, albeit with names changed, and in quoting from the form, I hope I am not indulging in the kind of prurience we want to avert.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Heathkit AD-27

A 1960s quest to play music in stereo leads to the purchase of a Heathkit hi-fi

“I’d never spend a hundred and thirty quid on a record player,” Stuart scoffed in contempt when I told him what my Heathkit stereo had cost, “especially when I had to make it myself.”

Such derision was painful coming from one of my best friends, but he did have a point. £130 in 1970 was today’s equivalent of around £1,750 in terms of prices, and possibly twice that in terms of earnings, so it was indeed a worrying amount to spend on just “a record player”.

Stuart’s dismissiveness should not have been a surprise. To begin with, he was not particularly musical – having heard his hymn singing in school assembly I think he may have been tone deaf. Secondly, his main interest was animals. If he had managed to save £130 he would have expanded his menagerie of amphibians, reptiles and cage birds. I would have quipped just as quickly that I’d never spend a hundred and thirty quid on a twittering flock of Java sparrows, especially then to have to feed them and clean out the bird mess.

I've always liked music. When my mother did her housework to Housewives’ Choice on the Light Programme in the nineteen fifties, all the songs went straight into my head and stayed there (e.g. almost at random: Mitch Miller’s ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’; The Four Lads’ ‘Standing on the Corner’; Eve Boswell’s ‘Pickin’ a Chicken’; Michael Holliday’s ‘Story of My Life’; Perry Como’s ‘Delaware’;  ... ). And later through the nineteen sixties pop explosion I recorded hours of LPs and singles on my reel-to-reel tape recorder. I learned to play guitar and clarinet, and even began to like classical music.

The attraction was always the music rather than the words. I could never understand the appeal of the tuneless Bob Dylan or the droning Leonard Cohen, and when performers came along who were more concerned with how they looked than how they sounded, they left me cold – I’m thinking here of posers such as David Bowie and Marc Bolan. I belatedly came round to appreciating Bob Dylan’s genius, and even Leonard Cohen’s, but in 1970 I would have always gone for the spectacular musicianship of The Who or Jethro Tull any day.

It therefore seemed entirely justifiable to spend a large sum of money on audio equipment – not a “record player” but ‘hi-fi’ – high fidelity stereo, the high quality reproduction of sound. Something of similar quality would be costly even today, despite the shrinking price of consumer electronics over the intervening decades.

People forget now that when the early Beatles and Rolling Stones records came out they were in single channel mono rather than binaural stereo, played in most homes on simple self-contained Dansette-type record players. Mine was a Philips, but basically the same – it had a built in amplifier with a single loudspeaker, the turntable speed could be adjusted for 33 rpm LPs (later called albums), 45 rpm singles and the old 78 rpm records, and it had a drop-down autochanger which allowed around half a dozen records to be played automatically in succession. The sound quality was not all that great.

The Hits of the Animals, Georgie Fame Sweet Things, Holst The Planets

My first LPs were all monophonic: ‘The Hits of the Animals’ (an export version bought in Belgium), Georgie Fame’s ‘Sweet Things’ and Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’. I didn’t own any others for some years  because I could lend these out in exchange for others to record on tape. LPs began to appear in stereo during the latter half of the nineteen sixties, but as they were downwards compatible most people continued to play them on mono equipment. I first heard true stereo at a friend’s house and was thrilled by the way Jimi Hendrix’s guitar floated ethereally across the room from one speaker to the other.

Shure phono cartridge and stylus
Shure phono cartridge and stylus, with boxes (these are from later in the 1970s).

When I got the Beatles White Album in 1968 it was in stereo, and I wanted to know what it really sounded like. I bought a Shure stereo phono cartridge – the cartridge is the part that holds the stylus underneath the head of the record player arm – and wired it up so that one stereo channel played internally through the record player as usual, and the other externally through my tape recorder. It worked, but not very well. The aeroplane at the beginning of the first track, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, did just about fly across the room in front of me, but it wasn’t all that convincing. Trials with other bits and bits and pieces of equipment fared no better.* It might have been stereo but it was certainly not high fidelity. After a while I gave up and went back to mono. As my uncle put it, “Good mono is better than bad stereo.” There was nothing for it but to save up for a proper system. It had to wait until after I started work.

Before the nineteen seventies, ‘hi-fi’ was an expensive minority interest and proper systems were expensive. One of the first affordable products was Alan Sugar’s Amstrad 8000 stereo amplifier which cost £17, but Sugar himself now admits that it wasn’t very good – possibly no better than my own first faltering trials. Hi-fi also still came as a collection of separate units – a turntable or record deck, a radio tuner, a tape deck, a pre-amplifier, an amplifier and loudspeakers – interconnected by a confusion of wires hanging behind in a spaghetti-like, dust-collecting tangle. Integrated music centres which came along around 1973 avoided some of this wiring mess, but their sound quality at first still tended to be poor. It was some time before consumers began to look for higher quality.

Heathkit AD-27
My Heathkit AD-27 Stereo Compact

Before these things came to market, the most cost-effective way to get high fidelity stereo was as a build-it-yourself kit – a collection  of wooden cabinets, chassis parts, printed circuit boards and electronic components. I bought a Heathkit AD-27 stereo centre comprising a stereo tuner/amplifier (Heathkit AR-14) and integrated record deck (BSR McDonald 500A), together with large Heathkit speaker cabinets containing bass and treble loudspeakers.

It took several weeks to put it together. One problem for me was that there were around a hundred and forty resistors of around sixty different values identified by colour-coded bands: green-blue-brown for 560 Ω (ohms), grey-red-brown for 820 Ω, yellow-violet-orange for 47 kΩ. Now, as previously posted, distinguishing red from brown from orange from green from grey is no simple matter for me, but I managed by sorting them into piles and checking I had the correct numbers of each according to the list of components. It’s a wonder I did it right, but I did.

Heathkit AD-27 documentation
Extracts from Heathkit AD-27 documentation
See the full manual and documentation at www.ad27.weebly.com

For the next few weeks I soldiered on with my soldering iron, mounting resistors, transistors, capacitors, diodes, chokes and other components on to printed circuit boards. I screwed together the metal chassis and wired in the boards, power supply, knobs, switches, sockets and other parts. I sometimes worked on it in the early hours of the morning. One night my dad walked wondering why the light was on, and seeing a stream of smoke rising from the soldering iron said in surprise, “Oh! Are you having a cig son?”

The speakers came flat packed and had to be put together. The back used a surprisingly large number of screws. One of the bass speaker cones had to be sent back and replaced because it rattled.

When at last it was finished it didn’t work. Despite re-soldering all the joints I wasn’t getting anything like the correct voltage readings at specified points on the circuit boards. I sent it back to Heath of Gloucester for attention, and for a nominal charge they quickly fixed it. Whether the problem was my fault is unclear because although they carried out more re-soldering, they also had to replace a faulty component.

On its return, I installed the unit in its wooden cabinet and switched it on, and it worked. My ‘good mono’ uncle rushed round to witness the moment, and as the full orchestra came in and rose to a crescendo near the beginning of the Peer Gynt Suite, without any sign of distortion, he gave me a thumbs up sign and said, simply, “It’s a good ‘un.” And it was. It had a wonderfully rich, warm tone.

It malfunctioned once more when about four years old, and I couldn’t mend it. I sent it back to Gloucester a second time and again they replaced a component and re-heated some of the joints. As well as making wonderful equipment they gave wonderful service.

It gave me years of enjoyment. Even my dad started buying records to listen to on his Thursday half-days off.  I was a bit put out to find Bing Crosby, Vera Lynn and Mrs. Mills among the LPs in my record box.

Despite the expense and derision, the Heathkit was well worth the money. But the fortune Stuart spent on animals was a much better investment. I never became a rock star but he later became a vet.


Here are a couple of YouTube videos of AD-27s, although the first one is in a completely different cabinet and you have to look near the end for a good view of the deck.



* In due course all the bits and pieces of equipment got thrown away: my Philips reel-to-reel tape recorder, an almost identical two track machine acquired for nothing from a friend who no longer used it, my uncle's old Grundig tape recorder, an extension loudspeaker and belatedly the Heathkit around 2003 after spending years in the loft. People are now interested in these things again, and I wish I still had them. I have a photograph from a wet morning in spring, 1978, showing my old record player, an extension loudspeaker and my uncle's old Grundig tape recorder waiting forlornly at the side of the road for their fate with the dustmen.

Old record player, speaker and tape recorder

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Philip Larkin’s Foot

“There I was driving through Holmfirth,” someone said, “and who did I see but Dora Bryan getting out of her car! She must have been filming ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. She’s ever so agile for eighty. It must be the dance training.”

“That’s nothing,” someone else said. “I queued next to John Simpson in Lakeland Plastics in York. He was on crutches through being injured in Bosnia.”

“Well we spotted Ed Miliband in the buffet at Sheffield station,” said a third, “and then Nick Clegg came in as well. They were joshing each other.”

Why do we have such a need to tell everyone about our encounters with famous people? There’s a pattern: someone you know has seen someone you’ve vaguely heard of in some kind of situation at a particular location. You could probably write a computer program to generate them, although it would never replicate the vicarious celebrity of talking and hearing about it.

We all do it. It’s like an addiction. I can’t even resist talking about other people who have encountered someone famous, such as the bloke at work whose cousin was the actor Bernard Hepton, or my landlady who lived in the next street to the parents of the actress Diana Rigg. It’s great to feel the warmth of the spotlight of third-hand idolatry.

Some tales can be conspicuously revealing. Another landlord often told me how, when he worked the night shift in the ticket office at Leeds Central Station, “that great puff” Jimmy Savile would arrive in the middle of the night after the dance halls had closed. He would walk through the station concourse in his long bleached hair and flamboyant clothes noisily drawing attention to himself. “Here he comes again,” they used to say, “that big pansy, looking for somebody to talk to and hoping to cadge a cup of tea.” We now know he was probably looking for something else too, but I thought my landlord’s views a little outdated at the time. In any case, he always used to break the spell by adding that his daughter had been at school with Philip Stone an actor with a head shaped like a light bulb who was in every other television series you saw.

The same kind of gossip even goes on within the fame business itself. In my first job we used to audit a studio where they made television adverts, where the staff thought it important that you knew they had B.B.C. Look North presenters in to record voiceovers, and that they once filmed with Benny Hill. “He went off on his own. No one knew where he’d gone. We thought we’d lost him. Turned out he’d gone to the pictures.”

Celebrity didn’t impress my uncle. He met lots of well-known people through his job but never mentioned it. He was in Health and Safety at the Greater London Council just when lasers were beginning to be used in visual effects at concerts. He was pretty annoyed about having to work one evening to evaluate the potential dangers. “It’s been a bad week,” he complained to his trendy young secretary, “just about everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. And to top it all I’ve got to observe some noisy pop concert tonight ... Tom Bowie? ... John Bowie? ... something like that.” His secretary wasn’t very sympathetic. My uncle was subsequently quoted in the press as saying that some young girl will end up with her eyes burned out before people realise how dangerous lasers can be.

Well, let me tell you, I’ve had my own encounters with famous people too. There was the occasion with my mum on the promenade at Great Yarmouth when she suddenly said “That was Des O’Connor”, referring to a slim young man in sunglasses carrying a light coloured jacket over his shoulder, who had just sauntered past in the opposite direction. “Who?” I asked, and remained little the wiser because his show was the one we didn’t bother to see.

But my greatest claim to fame is that I once stood on Philip Larkin’s foot. I was killing time in the university library to avoid having to bike home without a coat in the rain, when I came across an exhibition of original poetry manuscripts. There were some by Stevie Smith, and one in Andrew Motion’s tiny hand about an aeroplane appearing over the brow of a hill. No one had heard of Andrew Motion then. I only knew him through being in one of his tutorial groups.

Other manuscripts were by the great man Philip Larkin himself, the Hull University librarian. That’s what I’d been peering at when, in the limbo-esque silence, I stepped back to move from one display case to the next and trod heavily on something lumpy, which turned out to be Philip Larkin’s foot. His gloomy, bespectacled hulk had been attempting to creep past unheard. I got the full-on, forehead-focused, withering laser-glare, directed through industrial strength frames and lenses. Bits of my brain were crisped and frizzled as any hopes I had of becoming a proper writer were clinically extirpated. Lucky I didn’t get my eyes burned out. He skulked off without a word.

Philip Larkin

I fear even this story is pretty feeble. The poet Roger McGough tells a much better one about his friend Neville waiting for a bus in the soaking rain when up walks Larkin protected by “the black dome of a capacious umbrella”. Neville eventually plucks up the courage to speak, “I did enjoy The North Ship [a collection of Larkin’s early poems],” at which Larkin glares back and says, “If you think you can begin a conversation with me in order to share my umbrella you’ve got another think coming.”

My day will come! Imagine them all, burning in some blazing afterlife inferno, enduring eternal damnation for their vanity.

O’Connor: “Tasker Dunham? His mother smiled at me at Great Yarmouth. Wonderful people! They loved my show there.”

Rigg: “Oh I know him so well. I adored him. He lodged near my parents.”

Stone: “How coincidental! He lodged with one of my school friend’s parents too. Marvellous sense of humour.”

Savile: “Now then now then! That was my great friend, Mr. Night Time Ticket Office Man. Hows about that then?”

Hepton: “Was he the clever chap who worked with my cousin?”

Hill: “Yes of course, where I filmed an ad. I wish I'd asked him to write a script for me.”

Motion: “Well I had the deep privilege of actually teaching him. Very bright profound postmodern-romantic sensibility.”

Larkin: “Oh that b******! There he was, hatless in his cycle clips, perusing my verse in awkward reverence, when he stamped on my foot. Deliberately. Said he did not mean to but he did. As if he’d stepped off a coastal shelf. They f***ed him up his mum and dad. Filled him with all the faults. What misery! Glad I had no kids myself. I was only going to suggest he write one of those blog things to develop his style.”


Philip Larkins image above is from the cover of his book ‘All What Jazz’. Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a leading English poet, novelist and jazz critic, who from 1955 was also the University Librarian at Hull. My last paragraph plagiarises two of his best known poems, ‘This Be The Verse’ (which he reads below) and ‘Church Going’.

Other characters mentioned:
  • Dora Bryan (1923-2014) was an English actress and comedienne. One of her last television roles was in  the comedy series ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ filmed in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire.
  • John Simpson (born 1944) is a B.B.C. foreign correspondent.
  • Ed Miliband (born 1969) and Nick Clegg (born 1967) are prominent British politicians who led the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Both resigned from their leaderships immediately after the 2015 General Election.
  • Bernard Hepton (born 1925) and Philip Stone (1924-2003) were actors from Bradford and Leeds who appeared in numerous British film and television productions during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
  • Diana Rigg (born 1938) is an acclaimed English actress known for her major television, film and theatre roles, but perhaps most famous for her roles in the television series ‘The Avengers’ (1965-68) and more recently ‘Game of Thrones’ (2013-).
  • Jimmy Savile (1926-2011) was a well known television personality and charity fundraiser who originated from Leeds. After his death it emerged he had been a highly prolific predatory paedophile and sex offender of gargantuan proportions. 
  • Benny Hill (1924-1992) was an English comedian and actor. He was widely popular in his day but subsequently fell out of favour because many considered his humour to be sexist.
  • David Bowie (1947-2016) was an English singer and songwriter considered innovative by some.
  • Des O’Connor (born 1932) is an English comedian, singer and television presenter.
  • Andrew Motion (born 1952) is an English poet, novelist and biographer who lectured at Hull University from 1976 to 1980 and served the country as Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009.
  • Roger McGough (born 1937) is an English poet and author who was a student at Hull University from 1955, arriving during the same year as Philip Larkin.