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Friday, 27 May 2016

Donkey Stone


We were discussing door steps last week – I can’t remember why – and a very early memory came back to me.

“Did your mother ever colour your door step with a block like a piece of house soap?”

My wife’s expression indicated she thought I was talking gibberish. It is a look I get quite a lot these days – the one she used for her mother before she went into an old people’s home.

“I’m sure my mum used to rub our front door step with something called a dolly stone or something like that, which coloured it red,” I persisted. 

“What a stupid idea. It would get paddled all over the carpets on people’s shoes.”

“I think she did the window sills and boot scraper as well.”

My wife, who is from the South of England, still thinks some of our Northern ways are peculiar, even after twenty-five years in Yorkshire. She is particularly contemptuous of memories of the small West Riding town I grew up in. I tried to explain that by then the boot scraper was the place where you left the empty milk bottles, but it seemed inadvisable to go further and argue that, no, the colour would not have got paddled all over the carpets because we didn’t have any – we had lino and clip rugs – and the topic moved on.  


But there, last night on television, as clear as anything, was Dan Cruickshank in At Home with the British, scouring the door step of a Liverpool terraced house with a DONKEY stone. They were made from pulverised stone, cement and bleach, and originally used in textile mills to make greasy steps non-slip. Subsequently, house-proud housewives in terraced houses used them to clean their stone door steps and window sills. Like clean net curtains, it was a way of fooling all the neighbours into thinking that the rest of your house was spotless as well, even though it might have been a filthy pigsty inside. The practice died out in the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, especially after in some houses the worn soft Yorkshire stone was replaced by coarse concrete.

So I wasn’t talking gibberish. We left that house when I was six, but I have a clear memory of my mum, down on her hands and knees on the pavement one sunny summer’s day, dipping a rectangular block into a bucket of water, rubbing it into a paste all over the front door step and telling me to “keep off it while it dries” (as we would have said then). One of the most common colours was yellow-brown sandstone which I would see as red (explained in Colours I See With).

The only surprise is that I had forgotten about the donkey.


The Donkey Stone advertisement is from an out-of-print 1930s directory. Inclusion of the single frame from “At Home with the British” is believed to be fair use.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

‘A’ Level English 1977

A nostalgic look back at the 1977 Joint Matriculation Board ‘A’ Level English Literature Paper 

Park Lane College saved me. But for their one-year ‘A’ level course, I would have still been struggling with a correspondence course through Woolsey Hall, having no doubt failed to get into university. Instead, I passed with a grade A.

They doggedly tried to put me off. They maintained the one-year course was only for resit students and that the two-year course was more suitable; that it was expecting too much of myself not even having studied English Literature at ‘O’ Level. Somehow I talked my way in. Perhaps it was undersubscribed and they needed the numbers, and my £23.50 (equivalent to about £130 today) was as good as anyone else’s.

‘A’ Level English Literature was one of the most difficult courses I have ever done. Selecting and organising all the quotations, sources of literary criticism and conflicting viewpoints into examination-usable form was gruelling, but it was interesting and enjoyable as well, and developed useful skills for later. It was certainly an intense experience because I can still picture the classroom and where we all sat: me always at the back.

Most on the course were indeed resit students, mainly girls in their late teens, and as late as 1977, in Leeds, only one was Asian. The token teenage lad worked at the tax office and told gleeful tales about the persecution of wayward taxpayers. But there were other older first timers. There was an aloof social worker who gazed contemptuously out under her Joanna Lumley ‘Purdey’ fringe and exchanged hardly more than a dozen words with the rest of us all year. There was a bearded chap in his early thirties who said little more, yet managed to give the impression he knew everything already. And luckily, there was a kindred spirit also aiming for university. His grasp of the coursework, huge vocabulary and sweeping command of the English language put mine to shame. It was enormously helpful to be able to discuss things with someone of similar aims and interests, and hard to believe when the results came out he did not get an A grade as well. A travesty! It really peed him off even though he still did well and went to university too.

The syllabus in those days offered enormous, some would now say excessive choice. You could get away with covering just two out of three Shakespeare plays, one out of three longer poetic works and four out of sixteen set books. So that’s all we did. It would have been silly to try to cover everything, even over two-years. The sagacious course leader, Jonathan Brown, pared things down to what could be achieved in a year. Even within these bounds the exam paper offered a choice of questions.

Do they still let you take the question papers home after G.C.S.E. and ‘A’ level exams? They did then, so here it is (click to enlarge images).

ENGLISH LITERATURE PAPER I (3 hours)

Section A: ShakespeareJulius Caesar, Othello and The Winter’s Tale.  

The rubric was complicated but essentially you had to answer three questions covering at least two of the three plays. In other words you could get away with studying only two. We did Julius Caesar and Othello.


First, you had to answer either Question 1 or Question 2, above, which quoted passages from the plays and asked you to address specific issues relating to them. It looks like I did the Julius Caesar part of Question 2.

Then, questions 3, 4 and 5 were discussion questions on the three Shakespeare plays. You had to do two, but each offered an either/or choice. I did 3(a) on Julius Caesar and 4(b) on Othello.

From the notes made after the exam on the first page, it seems I estimated I had got no more than a C in this paper.
Section B: Longer Poetic Works.

There were three set texts: Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Wordsworth’s The Prelude and T. S. Elliot’s East Coker and Little Gidding, with one question on each. As you had to answer just one of the three questions, we only studied Pope’s Epistle.

Again, there was an either/or choice within each of question. It looks like I did 6(a).

ENGLISH LITERATURE PAPER II (3 hours)

Novels, Plays and Poetry: four from sixteen set texts.


The syllabus offered sixteen different works, but the examination only required you to answer questions on four, so we covered only four: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the selected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poems of Wilfred Owen, and Arthur Miller’s plays A View from the Bridge and All My Sons. Again, the paper had an either/or choice within each question. I think I answered questions 7(b), 10(a), 12(a) and 14(b).

The other twelve items on the Paper 2 syllabus were parts of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Metaphysical Poetry, Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Sheridan’s The Rivals and The School for Scandal, Keats Lamia and other poems, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Poetry of the Thirties, Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

ENGLISH LITERATURE PAPER III (2 hours)

Literary Criticism. Two compulsory questions quoting passages from unnamed works followed by lists of points to be addressed.


Paper III was the joker in the pack, impossible to prepare for fully in advance. I really thought I had messed this up.

Question 1: two poems. With the help of the internet I can now identify them as John Stallworthy’s A Poem about Poems About Vietnam, and Seamus Heaney’s The Folk Singers.

Question 2: a passage I recognised in the exam as being from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. I remember timidly deciding not to say I knew what it was. I don’t know whether you got extra marks if you did. 

Looking back over nearly forty years, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry left the strongest impression. I can still quote Pied Beauty by heart. A lot of people find his poetry dense and unintelligible, as in ‘The Windhover

          I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
                dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
                Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
          High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
          In his ecstasy! . . .

It was a real privilege to be able to take the time to dissect and understand this stuff: his ‘conglomerate epithets’ and his obsession with the different roots of the English language. His lines still come back both in moments of elation (“... what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour of silk-sack clouds!”) and despair (“Pitched past pitch of grief, ...”).

Wilfred Owen too, remains familiar from his regular outings in television programmes and newspaper articles about the First World War. Years later, attending a conference at the Craiglockart campus of Edinburgh Napier University, I could not help but be aware that this was where Owen and Siegfried Sassoon had been treated for shell shock almost a century earlier. Sitting on the lawn in front of the main building, eating lunch in the sun, I imagined they might once have done exactly the same, discussing poetry during Owen’s brief respite from his doomed youth. Sadly, the topic of our own lunchtime conversation was human-computer interaction.

Arthur Miller revealed a great deal about how plays are put together. I later felt there were more than just situational similarities between the film Saturday Night Fever and A View from the Bridge, although to be strictly accurate they were different bridges.

I was astonished by Alexander Pope’s verbal dexterity and can still remember chunks of the Epistle, but my favourite from his heroic couplets comes from another work, An Essay on Criticism

          True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
          What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,

On the other hand, despite my enthusiasm at the time, I am ashamed to say I read no more Shakespeare. I know he was myriad-minded, but it takes effort, and I became too tied up with other things (like human-computer interaction) to try.

The same is true of Persuasion, despite the once-or-twice stand-in teacher at Leeds Park Lane College, Mr. Trowbridge, declaring that whenever he felt disheartened there was no better remedy than to go to bed with Jane Austen. He even got a laugh from us with that one.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Teenage ‘X’ Certificate

Now there’s a title to increase the hit rate! I had better say up front that this is about ‘X’ certificate films I saw before I was eighteen. Apologies if you were searching for something else, but please stay: at least then you won’t be looking at things you shouldn’t – unlike I thought I was when I saw What’s New Pussycat?, Alfie and Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush.

It would once have impressed my son:

Did you see any ‘X’ films before you were eighteen?”
Yeah, loads!”
Can I go see one?”

In fact, if my memory is correct, I saw just these three ‘X’ films while still at school. It was a big deal: a coming of age thing; something to brag about. It is interesting to look back to see what all the fuss was about. Not much is the short answer.

It would have been late 1965 or early 1966 when, barely sixteen, and propped up by the company of four or five mates, I plucked up the courage to go up to the box-office to buy a ticket for What’s New Pussycat? The fact it was ‘X’ rated was more important than the actual film. One of us was not even sure what we had paid to see. He thought we were there for Tom Jones who of course sang the theme tune. We laughed at that more than the interminably dull and irrelevant film.

It is said that Woody Allen’s original script was hijacked by Peter Sellers for his own glorification with the result that even Peter O’Toole and a cast of delectable actresses were unable to redeem things. If you are amused by characters with silly names and the occasional weak joke (e.g. the Goon Show past its heyday), then you might find it funny. None of us did.
Lascivious adulterer,” accuses the wife of demented psychoanalyst Dr. Fritz Fassbender.
Don’t call me that until I’ve looked it up,” replies Peter Sellers, overdoing the mock Austrian accent.
Why it was given an ‘X’ certificate is hard to see. I suppose that as a farce laced with with sexual innuendo  (“Satire, slapstick and sex  ... swinging sixties style!”) it had to be, but it was very tame by today’s standards, and more ‘beatnik fifties’ than ‘swinging sixties’. Even the word ‘square’ was square to us.

Some months later we went to see Alfie, a classier film with a deeper philosophy, fascinating to watch again now, but just as hard to like as it was then. I suspect we found Michael Caine’s philandering and thoroughly objectionable character, Alfie Elkins, too self-assured and sophisticated to relate to. He wore smart suits, blazers, shirts and ties, and inhabited a world where people were bus conductors, chauffeurs, lorry drivers and brewery workers: not the kind of life we aspired to. I remember Alfie’s monologues to camera, and the stylish background jazz track, but not too much of the plot or other characters.

Were we supposed to cultivate his misogynistic attitude in ourselves? 
I find I'm quite willing to overlook the odd blemish in a woman, provided she’s got something to make up for it. Well, that’s what were all here for, innit - to help each other out in this life.
Alfie’s ‘X’ certificate was undoubtedly justified due to scenes of extra-marital sex and abortion, even though they were implied rather than explicit. Again, the period was pre-Beatles, early nineteen-sixties.  Not what we wanted to see.

It almost put me off the cinema completely until around another year passed and along came an ‘X’ rated film that was actually enjoyable. In Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, Barry Evans played a likeable sixth former unable to concentrate on his ‘A’ Levels in face of distractions from some of Britain’s trendiest and most fanciable young actresses. Now that was more like it: the permissive Sixties. At last a film about us, or at least how we liked to think of ourselves.

Evans, with his good-looking boyish face, infectious smile and just the right degree of gullible innocence, was perfect in the leading role, but there was scant storyline and some awful fantasy sequences. Watching again now, I persevered to the end (admittedly in chunks), and the longer you watch, the more you want to travel back in time to re-experience the joy and optimism of the nineteen-sixties: at least for a brief visit. It is reassuring that a writer of Hunter Davies’s calibre can be responsible for such mindless claptrap. Maybe the book, set in Carlisle, is better than the film made in Stevenage.

I can see why we thought it the height of groovy at the time. It was exactly how we imagined the swinging sixties to be, even though it took another decade for our small Yorkshire town to catch up. The music track, mainly from Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group, was spot on. The ‘X’ certificate seems to be down to what was then considered strong language (Denholme Elliott gets “pissed”), the focus on sex with suggestions of promiscuity, and outrageous nudity when Barry Evans goes skinny dipping with lovely Judy Geeson.

Only a couple of things stayed with me from the film. One is when Barry Evans toasts the Queen with a cup of eye lotion. The other is the film’s most profound philosophical reflection:
The ones you fancy don’t fancy you, and the ones that fancy you, you don’t fancy. 
I wish though that I had paid more attention to the ending: that despite all the parties and revelling, these sixth formers still did enough work to get into Manchester University.

After Mulberry Bush, most of the cast became film and television regulars (e.g. Diane Keen, Adrienne Posta, Christopher Timothy, Nicky Henson, George Layton). Many of them turned up in one rôle or another in the Doctor series based loosely on Richard Gordon’s books. Barry Evans became the callow medical student Michael Upton in Doctor In The House, then a newly qualified doctor in Doctor at Large and later an evening class tutor in Mind Your Language. Sadly, he died in mysterious circumstances in 1997 at the early age of 53.

I could watch episode after episode of the Doctor series, most of which are on YouTube. The five programmes from the 1971 series of Doctor at Large written by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie are hilarious. They feature Arthur Lowe as Dr. Maxwell, the drop-dead-gorgeous Madeline Smith as his daughter and a set of patients played by an accomplished troupe of British character actors. I was helpless with laughter at the idiotically surreal episode Congratulations it's a Toad, which harks back to the days when toads were used in pregnancy testing. The ‘Tadpoles in the Ice Cubes’ sequence (from 19:15 for approx. 5 minutes) is a master class in comedy acting from Arthur Lowe and Fulton Mackay.

Two similar ‘X’ films I might have liked around this time were Georgie Girl and Blowup. I saw neither until much later.

What’s New Pussycat, Alfie and Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush are now all ‘15’ certificates on DVD. But in finding this I also realise that their certificates have hardly changed from when I first saw them myself. I am dismayed to discover that until 1970 it was perfectly legal to watch ‘X’ certificate films at the age of sixteen. In other words I did not see any ‘X’ films under age at all. Just don’t tell my son.


The inclusion above of the promotional poster images is understood to be fair use. The links to the trailers for What’s New Pussycat and Alfie, and to the whole of Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush and the Doctor at Large episode on YouTube may not work indefinitely if the copyright owners block them. At the time of writing you can also find the whole of Alfie on YouTube in several parts.