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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

School Metalwork

Metalwork Forge

By the time Tin Pot Thompson had finished describing the gruesome horrors of the metalwork shop, we were too scared even to move. He went over and over all the ways to burn or injure yourself, especially the effects of getting your hair or clothing caught in a machine. It was so terrifying that not one of us made light of the invitation “... and remember, before you pick up any metal, spit on it to make sure it’s not hot.” 

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

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

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

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

Year 3 School Report for Metalwork

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

Hammer made in metalwork lessons at school

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

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

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Day We Saw The Queen Mary Sail

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

R.M.S. Queen Mary

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

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

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

Southampton pleasure boat

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

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

Ships manifest: RMS Queen Mary, 25th August 1960

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

What Is Wrong In This Room?

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

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

Arthur Mee Children's Encyclopedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You might also like Knockout, Knowledge and Arthur Mee.