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Sunday, 14 October 2018

Review - Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice


Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice (3*)

Continuing my interest in campus novels, A Very Peculiar Practice was originally a 1986 BBC television comedy series set in the health centre of a fictitious low-ranking university somewhere in central England. It was written by the prominent television writer Andrew Davies, and starred Peter Davison in the leading role as newly appointed young doctor Stephen Daker. I didn’t watch it at the time, but this book is the ‘novelisation’ of the seven-part series, with each chapter corresponding to an episode.

Everything takes place to the background of short-sighted opportunism I recognise from my own university experiences: funding cuts; redundancies; bullying, the introduction of managerialism and business practices; the push for external funding while short changing the students. In other words, changing the nature of universities from being trusted guardians, creators and communicators of knowledge who provide a public service into dubious commercial outfits who rip-off customers and employees alike in order to maximise profits. If it was not for the values and ethos of the staff these things would have gone much further than they already have. 

The book is very much of its time, with nineteen-eighties sexist humour, predictable sitcom plots and stereotypical characters. The head of the practice is a going-to-seed drunken Scot. Another colleague is a self-seeking ruthless advantage seeker. A third is a bisexual feminist sexpot who sees everything from the women’s point of view. We also come across the high-achieving workaholic professor, the scheming vice chancellor and the impossibly perfect girlfriend. The central character feels completely out of his depth, but turns out of course to be far more up to the challenge than his lack of self-belief leads him to expect. Also, in a surrealist twist, there is a creative writer in residence who in discussing and thinking about his writing is actually discussing and thinking about the plot and characters of A Very Peculiar Practice.

But if you can put up with all of this, then it’s an extremely funny book.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Stair Rail

Soon after moving to our current home more than a quarter of a century ago, I fitted a handrail to help my ageing father and mother-in-law get up and down stairs. They hauled themselves up, breathless, unbending backs and aching knees, and eased themselves down, woodwork and bone groaning as one.

I remember bringing it home on top of the car, which was a bit risky because at 14 feet long (4.25 metres) it stuck out both front and back. It’s a pig’s ear handrail – a reference to the cross-sectional shape, not the quality of fitting.

Sadly, my father and mother-in-law no longer need it. I fitted it for them. Even in my darkest moments, I never thought it would be for me.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny
Haeckel’s 1874 drawing of stages of development in the embryos of
fish, salamander, turtle, chick, pig, calf, rabbit and human.

Professor Clarke stood at the blackboard with assured elegance. It was not just the beauty of his layout and lettering, it was the poise of his whole demeanor. Arm outstretched, extending exactly the right proportions of wrist and cuff beyond suit sleeve, he grasped the chalk delicately between thumb and forefinger, and with an economy of effort, calmly progressed through his lecture. What a privilege to be in the presence of such a highly esteemed international reputation.

He was talking about pre-natal and neo-natal human development: physical and mental growth before and around birth. He concluded with a short quotation. None of us quite caught it. He said something like: “Antigen capital file genre.”

In those days students weren’t given all the slides and notes on the internet to learn and parrot back in examinations. We used to read around lectures. We went to the library and made notes from text books and academic journals. We even owned quite a lot of expensive text books ourselves. So before long I worked out that what he had actually said was: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Furthermore, I understood what it meant: a chunk of lecture succinctly summarised in three words.

The point is, as became clear when we later learned about how we acquire the power of speech and language, if we don’t understand something, if we cannot make sense of how the words fit together, we find it difficult to say. Think of the novelty song Mairzy dotes and dozy dotes and liddle lamzy divey.

Twenty years later the children were laughing.

“I bet you can’t say “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppercorns,” said my wife, and recited the full verse, faultlessly. She followed it with “She sells sea shells …” as an encore.

“The British soldiers’ shoulders,” I added, not to be outdone. “The Leith police dismisseth us,” and then out of nowhere, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

Within a few days my eight year old son had got it. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” he would tell anyone who would listen. At school, he was in Mr. Price’s class.

“Hello Mr. Price,” he said. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

“Aunty Jenny was late for what?” queried Mr. Price.

“It means when a baby grows in its mummy’s tummy, it starts off like a little tadpole, and then looks like a little frog, and then like a little bird, and then a little horse, and then a little monkey, and then a little baby.”

That guy recently passed all his law exams.

What a pity that Meckel and Serres’ theory of embryological parallelism, perfectly encapsulated in Ernst Haeckel’s catchy phrase, illustrated by his somewhat dishonest drawing and so urbanely recapitulated by Professor Clarke, has been discredited as biological mythology.


Haeckel's 1874 illustration of embryos is out of copyright.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Review - Two Early Campus Novels

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People Is Wrong

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954) (4*)
Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People is Wrong (1959) (2*)

I used to enjoy campus novels – stories about university life – immensely.

As a mature student, I soaked up the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man with Anthony Sher as Howard Kirk, gripped by the unconstrained, free-thinking lifestyle it portrays, and wanted it for myself. Not until I read the actual novel many years later did I realise what an objectionably selfish snake the anti-hero is.

Later, having somehow pulled-off the unlikely trick of getting a job in a university, I was greatly entertained by David Lodge’s campus trilogy, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, written in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties. There was a lot in the wranglings between staff, pointless activities and scrabbling for advancement that rang true, as did the chaos lower down the academic hierarchy depicted in Tom Sharpe’s Wilt which I experienced first-hand on moving to a Polytechnic.

In recent weeks I have been catching up on two early campus novels from the nineteen-fifties: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong. Both books are very much of the nineteen-fifties in the social attitudes they portray. I guess they helped frame the way we thought of provincial universities during the nineteen-sixties when I was at school, unsuccessfully applying through UCCA.

Lucky Jim (1954) was for me the most enjoyable of the two. It ages well and is often hilarious. As David Lodge points out in the introduction, the humour comes not only from Amis’s wonderful comic timing in the handling of situations, but also from his original, educated but classless writing style, which often makes use of original twists to everyday turns of phrase:
To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act…
He’d found his professor standing, surprisingly enough, in front of the Recent Additions shelf in the College Library…
Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way.
I found myself sympathising with the predicament of misfit young lecturer Jim Dixon, and felt very satisfied at the end when he walks off with the girl and everything else. However, many of the comic situations, for example when Dixon accidentally burns holes in his Head of Department’s bedsheets whilst staying at his house, and his subsequent attempts to conceal the damage, could be in any comic novel rather than one specifically set in a university. It could be from a Brian Rix Whitehall farce. I might well look out for more by Kingsley Amis.

Eating People is Wrong (1959) I found less than satisfactory. It concerns the prematurely old-fashioned Professor Treece and his difficulties in making sense of the changing post-war world of the nineteen-fifties. There are too many characters, none very likeable, most under-developed, too many switches of viewpoint from the thoughts, opinions and dilemmas of one to those of another and then to those of the author, and a tendency to tell rather than show – all the things that writing experts say you should avoid, but who are they to find fault with the acclaimed founder of the famous MA in Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia? It is no real defence that these things appear to be conscious and deliberate.

I suppose the novel resembles university life where people fall into and out of each others’ lives without reaching any kind of resolution, to an incessant background buzz of brilliant yet pointless wordplay. Much of the dialogue would not be out of place in an Alan Ayckbourne play. Perhaps it tries too ostentatiously to be clever by trying to generate too many epigrammatic quotations, and twists and turns to accepted clichés:
With sociology one can do anything and call it work.
... it had always seemed to Louis that a fundamental desire to take postal courses was being sublimated by other people into sexual activity;
… if you are interested in [old] houses, you know what the world is like and it is not like you.
… soon it won’t be necessary to go to America. It will all be here.
After nearly two hundred pages of nothing much happening, a subversive writer called Carey Willoughby arrives to give a talk and declares: “With my sort of book theres no resolution, because theres no solution. The problems aren’t answered in the end because there is no answer. They’re problems that are handed on to the reader …

Was Bradbury referring to himself?

Having grasped all of this, scoring it two stars is mean. I’m sure I would get more out of it on slow second reading, but life’s too short.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up. 

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Articled Clerk

Chartered Accountant's articled clerk recruitment ads

“You’ll make a lot of money as a Chartered Accountant” was the only thing of substance the headmaster said at the end of grammar school. I could guess what he was really thinking. “Not university calibre.” “Not even college.” Stuck-up southern git!    

It was strange that someone so southern had chosen to become a headmaster in such a working-class northern town. He spoke with such judgemental self-assurance you were convinced his pronunciation must be correct and yours miserably deficient: “raarzbriz” instead of “rasp-berries”, “swimming baarthes” rather than “swimmin’ baths”, “campany derrectorre” not “kumpany dye-recter”. It was not universally welcomed.

“You’ve written here that your faarther is a campany derrectorre. What sort of campany derrectorre?”

“He’s got a shop – Millwoods”

“Really? I thought Millwoods was owned by Susan Mellordew’s faarther.”

He appeared not to believe me. Oh to have that conversation again knowing what I know now. 

“Perhaps the Mellordews would like others to think that,” I should have said.

Grammar schools were set up to get people into university, or at least teacher training college. Everyone else was a failure to be eased into the grubby world of banking, accountancy or other forms of servility, unless you were a girl, in which case they didn’t really care either way because you would be married with kids in a few years’ time. I didn’t care either. I was quite taken by the idea of making a lot of money, especially as all six of my university choices had given me straight rejections. 

At least the local accountants wanted me. They phoned my dad to change my mind about going off to a job in Leeds. “He’ll get just as good experience here,” they told him, but he decided not to pass the message on, as if they wanted me but he didn’t.

I had tried York first. The area training coordinator at The Red House sent me round to Peat, Marwick and Mitchell, one of the biggest and most powerful firms in the country (as KPMG they still are), to be interviewed by another stuck-up posh git whose laconic disinterest oozed the impression that he had indeed made a great deal of money. He would have got on just fine with my headmaster. Not for the last time did I feel I might have done better had I been to Bootham’s or Queen Ethelburga’s.* Real chip-on-the-shoulder stuff!

The Leeds firm were more down to earth. Their offices were in what had once been a cloth warehouse with large airy windows; less depressing than the pokey accommodation of the other firms. A simple half-hour chat with one of the partners, during which I managed to avoid showing too much stupidity, and the job was mine: five years as an articled clerk. I started on the 9th September, 1968; exactly fifty years ago today. 

The thing is though, in those days, firms of accountants were desperate for articled clerks. At face value it was attractive: a form of indentured apprenticeship under which a qualified accountant undertakes to inculcate an articled clerk into the principles and practices of the profession. In reality it was cheap labour. They sold it to school leavers through discreet ads in the situations vacant columns, next to those for hair restorers and varicose veins. “Leaving school? Why not become a Chartered Accountant?” It would not have looked out of place if they had added: “No one need know; confidentiality guaranteed.”

Ads were discreet because accountants were not allowed to tout for business, although as things began to change, the bigger firms pushed the boundaries with larger, more flamboyant offerings designed by expensive agencies. One of the most memorable went: “Some think Wart Prouserhice is just as good as Horst Whiterpart, but we know it’s best at Price Waterhouse.”

Today, accountancy training places are so sought after they won’t even look at you unless you have at least a 2:1 and an impressive portfolio of extra-curricular leadership activities – an internship in the House of Commons; volunteering with Ebola victims in Africa; representing Great Britain in the Winter Olympics; that kind of thing. You might then get invited to a day of written tests and observed activities, and if successful to a nerve-racking interview panel. Those who went to Bootham’s or Queen Ethelburga’s might then be offered a place. Back in the nineteen-sixties, five ‘O’ levels and you were in.

Not so many years beforehand, articled clerks had been expected to pay a premium for the privilege of the job. At least by 1968 you got a salary, if that’s what you could call it. Mine was £360 per annum.

1968 payslips

Really? Well yes. Here are my first two pay slips. The first covers from the 9th to the 30th September, 1968, i.e. twenty-two thirtieths of a month. So 22/30 x 360/12 equals a straight £22, with a deduction of £3 6s 8d for National Insurance, leaving £18 13s 4d for my first three weeks’ pay. My first full month’s take-home pay was £26 13s 4d. I didn’t have to pay tax because I only started work in September, but I did after April when I got a £2 per month rise. It doesn’t look any better even when adjusted for inflation – £26 13s 4d in 1968 is the equivalent of around £400 today, less than half the minimum wage for an eighteen year-old.

I never did become a Chartered Accountant. I stuck it for a few years, failed a few exams, and then escaped to university. Would I have fared better in my parochial home town of canners, carriers, barbers, farmers, shippers and shopkeepers? I might have fitted in – like a pile of coke outside the gas works – but maybe not. Thirty years later, the lad who took the local job in my place ended up as one of the senior partners in charge of the whole outfit. He did make a lot of money.

* Fee paying boarding schools near York.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Old and New Cars

`Compare the Honda Civic SR to a Lightning F-35

Wondering whether to change my ten year old Golf Estate, I went for a test drive in a fairly new Honda Civic Tourer - the SR version. What a sensation! I could have been in the cockpit of an R.A.F. stealth fighter.

If you have recently driven a new car then you might not be overawed, but I haven’t and I was. There were coloured lights all over the dashboard and more switches than I could imagine what they were for. The digital speedometer rolled up and down, a glowing blue bar grew and shrank with the engine speed and a bright satnav map pinpointed the current location. A camera recognised speed limit signs and displayed a corresponding symbol, and another camera showed what was behind when the car was in reverse. Illuminated gauges indicated fuel and temperature levels and lights flashed in the exterior mirrors to warn of vehicles in the blind spots. The engine cut out to save fuel in stationary traffic and started again as soon as you pressed the clutch. I didn’t get round to asking about the cruise control, heated seats and entertainment system, and that’s not even the half of it. The technology was incredible. I don’t know if you could talk to the car, or whether it answered back, but it would not have surprised me if you could and it did.

1960s Mini dashboard and instrument cluster
1960s Mini dashboard and instrument cluster

What a difference from the first three cars I had, all Minis – a car and two vans. They had a speedometer, a fuel gauge and a few warning lights, and that was it – oh yes, and an ashtray. The steering wheel would not have looked out of place on a tractor and the gear lever stuck out of the floor like something in a signal box. They had sliding windows fastened by a thief-friendly catch, and the doors opened by means of a dangly pull-cord. In the vans the battery was under the driver’s seat and you fired up the engine by pulling out the choke and pressing a huge button on the floor. Primitive but functional.

The first, a ten-year old dark blue Austin Mini Van with a white roof, cost me £50 in 1971. I bought it from a lad called John Leason who lived off Holderness Road in Hull. I saw his ad in the Hull Daily Mail, a friend took me to look, I paid by cheque and drove it home – no doubt untaxed and uninsured.

John Leason must have been punching his fist in the air like he’d won the football pools. As I braked at the end of the street, the driver’s door burst open and I had to be quick to reach out and catch it. I had to hold it all the way home. It was by no means the only thing wrong. It rattled like a rusty moped, smoked like a dirty dredger and smelt like a Swinefleet dung heap. A local mechanic took it off my hands a few weeks later, rebuilt the engine and used it as a run-around for the next two years.

1966 Morris Mini-Minor
My 1966 Morris Mini-Minor (also see blog banner)

Then I had a six-year old Morris Mini-Minor, a blue one, funded by concerned parents. It would have been fine except for the hydrolastic suspension – a system in which the front and back wheels are connected by pressurised pipes. They must have leaked because they needed to be re-pressurised every nine months or so to stop the tyres scraping against the wheel arches. I stuck it out for a couple of years until I could afford to swap it for a three-year old Mini Van.

1972 Mini Van in BMC Flame Red
My 1972 Mini Van

It was the love of my life. BMC flame red. I blazed up and down the M62 and flashed around Leeds burning up other drivers and flickering round buses stranded in the snow. It was an eight-seater – one passenger in the front and three along each side in the back (no seat belt requirements in those days). I put down a carpet and lined the roof and sides with matt black hardboard. It took me walking in the Peak and Lake Districts, the Pennines and North York Moors, and up to Scotland with a tent and walking boots no end of times. I drove it to university interviews on my way to becoming a mature student and it saw me through three years in Hull.

Camping Glen Brittle Isle of Skye Easter 1976
Camping at Glen Brittle, Isle of Skye, Easter 1976.
The meagre Mini dashboard is visible beyond all the clutter.

Would I want one now? You bet! You can get beautifully reconditioned nineteen-seventies Mini Vans for seven or eight thousand pounds (and renovation projects for a fraction of that). But it would need to be garaged out of the weather and I would want to pay someone to maintain it and keep the rust in check. It would be just an expensive toy: costly and non-functional. A lot of fun though.

The Honda Civic seems a nice idea too but one wonders whether all the technology is just something waiting to go wrong. It’s fine in a newish car but you know what software is like – would it still work after ten years? One hears of issues such as losing all the radio settings when put into reverse, which can be expensive to diagnose and fix. And if the car tells you the speed limit all the time, then would you stop bothering to look for the road signs, like losing all sense of geography and direction when you blindly follow the satnav. Most new cars now have electronic handbrakes and hill-hold assistance. Does that mean you forget how to do hill starts? I like to do these things for myself. The Honda felt a bit detached from the world, like managing ice cream in a darkened cinema, glancing occasionally at the screen.

So I’ll probably keep the Golf Estate for a while. Its M.O.T. test is due but I’m confident it will pass. There is a lot of life left in a low-mileage ten year old car these days – certainly not the case in the nineteen-seventies, and perhaps not in the twenty-twenties. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Yellow Shed

Yellow Shed
Three views of the yellow shed – I don't have a complete photograph.

“Every man should have a shed” the saying goes. Well, I got a shed at the age of twelve when I took over the yellow one in the garden. Did that make me a man?

There I drank my first bottle of John Smith’s Magnet Pale Ale, brazenly bought from the corner shop with my own pocket money in the confidence they would assume I was on a parent’s errand. And there I tried one of my mother’s menthol flavoured Consulate cigarettes and well and truly wished I hadn’t.

John Smiths Magnet Pale Ale - a magnet for me Consulate - cool as a mountain stream

Whether these experiments in manliness were as masculine as they seemed at the time I’m not sure. Magnet Pale Ale might have been copiously consumed by Tristan Farnon in the James Herriot books, but it was promoted by the image of a comely young woman with smooth bare legs and shoulders, long ear rings dangling evocatively below blonde Marilyn Monroe curls as she alluringly raises her stemmed glass to declare it “a magnet for me!” Consulate cigarettes, “cool as a mountain stream”, also employed a preponderance of girly social situations, not at all like the manly virility of the Player’s Navy Cut sailor or the Marlboro cowboy, or the self-assured independence of the raincoated, Sinatra-like, “never-alone” Strand character.*

The yellow shed became my own private space. It was my dark-room, games room, chemistry laboratory and music studio. I imagined myself carrying out investigations into original problems, creating new knowledge, an academic in the making. Apart from a few gardening tools, yard brushes and a stepladder, most of the clutter had moved to our new asbestos garage.

Among my old, self-developed 127-sized negatives were two photographs of the inside. Oh what memories!

Inside the yellow shed 
We made a folding bench to go on the end wall. I painted the inside with clean white paint and hung curtains over the window and door. I constructed a cement ridge to stop water pooling under the door. It was icy cold in winter and swelteringly hot in summer. I arranged my great-uncle’s cigarette card collection in their packets along the ledge near the roof. The damp gummed them all together and my mother threw them out.

Pinned to the wall is a map of the East Riding from Flamborough to Spurn, Bridlington to Barnsley, and photographs of singers and pop groups. The large one is The Animals, and although the others are too small to make out, I think The Hollies and The Searchers are among them.  Beneath them, on the ledge above the white ‘meat safe’ cupboard, my half-sized cricket bat lies next to a wooden block drilled with holes to hold pens and pencils.

You can see my ‘new’ bicycle with its straight handlebars, white mudguards and three speed Sturmey Archer gears, and the Philips EL 3541 reel-to-reel tape recorder used to record pop-music from the radio, and to boost my homework grades by recording the series of science programmes we listened to at school.

Chalked around the half-sized dartboard are the words “TRY TO HIT THE BOARD NOT THE WALL”. Impressively, there seem to be no tell-tale dart holes in the woodwork, even on my high resolution image. However, I hope I moved the tape recorder and bare-bulbed table lamp out of harm’s way before throwing any darts. I especially hope I remembered to protect the bottle in the corner just behind the watering can, because this is the hexagonal emerald-green bottle of hydrochloric acid, still three quarters full, mentioned in a previous post.

One can only be appalled by the electrical wiring. It’s a wonder I didn’t electrocute myself or burn the place down. The power supply enters the shed through a hole in the wall above the stepladder – you can just make it out running along the wall outside from the house, above the coal house door in the first picture. At the same end of the shed, a very old fashioned electric fire stands on a couple of wooden blocks nailed to the ledge, its mains cable hanging by a hook. The supply to the tape recorder and table lamp at the other end runs along the roof. There seem to be rather a lot of joins wound round with insulating tape, or perhaps, horrifyingly, sellotape. However, the twisted pair cable along the rear wall, running through a home-made switch box, is merely the lead to the extension loudspeaker fixed above the electric fire – the very same speaker on which my dad listened to Hancock’s Half Hour in the front room in the nineteen fifties.

One warm summer afternoon, the shed door wide open and the extension speaker full on, I switched on the tape recorder, plugged in the microphone, and began to broadcast my own music programme complete with jokes and witty repartee. The Animals, Searchers and Hollies could clearly be heard a dozen or so houses in all directions, up and down the street, across the road, and at the back. Between records came the jokes. “Did you hear about the constipated mathematician?” I was heard to ask, and before my mother could come running out of the house to put a stop to it I provided the answer. “He worked it out with a pencil.” Outrageous in the polite company of the early nineteen-sixties.



* One could write a whole piece about cigarette advertising. One amusing fact is that Marlboro cigarettes were originally marketed for women with slogans such as “Red beauty tips to match your lips and fingertips”, but Philip Morris gave the brand a sex change in 1954 when they began to advertise it as a filter cigarette for men, and introduced the ‘Marlboro Man’ who exuded masculine virility.