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Thursday, 9 April 2020


Piano, 'toy' xylophone and tenor guitar

How many musical instruments are there in your house?

It came up in conversation a few weeks ago at the orchestra where Mrs D plays bassoon. Some answers were truly astonishing.

Our answer is 29. That surprised us but it is nowhere near as many as some. At the folk band I’m in, one chap, let’s call him Clive, could probably outdo them all. He spends every spare moment attending residential workshops of one kind or another, for ever having just come back from a few days playing Dixie banjo or resonator slide guitar, or making Bodhráns, or something similarly esoteric. He keeps bringing along his latest instrument to show us. You get the impression he could single-handedly equip an attempt on the world record for the largest ceilidh band (at present 288). 

To get to our 29, I have counted anything capable of playing a simple melody in tune with other instruments. It is boosted by the kids’ instruments that are still here as they haven’t really left yet. Son takes after mum and did grades in piano and violin. Daughter is more of a dabbler like me but can get a tune out of almost anything.

Electronic Keyboard
Son’s violin
Daughter’s violin
Clarinet (Buffet B12)
Clarinet (Selmer Signet)
Epiphone jumbo acoustic guitar
Teisco Tremo Twenty electric guitar
Ashbury electro-acoustic tenor guitar
Tanglewood electro-acoustic guitar
Nylon stringed acoustic guitar
Soprano ukulele
Baritone ukulele
Single octave ‘toy’ xylophone in D
Chromatic harmonica
Tenor recorder
Alto recorder
6 descant recorders
Penny whistle
Set of ‘toy’ plastic whistles in C

The Cramer upright piano (pictured), from my wife’s childhood, is the oldest, followed by the electric guitar acquired for £10 from a friend of my brother around 1972, but it still plays. The bassoon is next, then my Epiphone acoustic guitar from Kitchen’s music shop in Leeds around 1975. I still have the receipt for the Buffet clarinet for £237.58 dated the 14th March, 1990. Except for some of the recorders, the others are mostly less than twenty years old. The four-string GDAE tenor guitar (also pictured above) is newest, bought this year. I am still too much in denial to admit how much it cost.

We have, between us, also had other harmonicas, bassoons, violins and guitars, including an electric bass lost many years ago during a house move. It seems only yesterday I was pretending to be able to do an A-chord on my first guitar (a metal stringed Sheltone) around 1965. It wasn’t an easy guitar to play, but it strengthened my hands and toughened the ends of my fingers.

Monday, 6 April 2020

The Signalman’s Dilemma

A railway signalman spots a runaway truck hurtling down the line, about to crash into an elderly couple who are not paying much attention to anything other than taking photographs of flowers between the tracks (growing there because of lack of maintenance?).

The signalman could divert the runaway truck on to a different track by changing the points. However, there are people on the other track too, a group of five railway workers who (owing to privatisation policies?) have been badly trained and are eating their sandwiches and not keeping proper watch.

Should the signalman switch the points so that the truck will run over the railway workers, or do nothing and watch the elderly couple die?

Now, a different dilemma.

You are the dictator of a country in the grip of a lethal virus. You can minimise the number of deaths by making most people stay at home for months so that they don’t come into contact with each other. This, however, will cause long-term levels of unemployment, poverty, hunger, untreated illness and inequality not seen since the early nineteen thirties, as a result of which an unknown number of people will die.

Alternatively, you can impose fewer restrictions and avoid damaging the economy, but this will result in certain deaths from the virus, possibly including your family, friends and even yourself.

Which would you choose? A difficult decision would have to be made.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

New Month Old Post: School Metalwork

(first posted 21st November 2017)

Metalwork Forge
The heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture - it was like entering the bowels of hell

By the time Tinplate Thompson had finished describing the gruesome horrors of the metalwork shop, we were too scared to move. He went over and over all the ways to hurt or injure yourself: cutting your skin on sharp edges, scraping it on rough surfaces, hitting your fingers with a hammer, trapping them in pincers, burning your flesh with a soldering iron, melting it with molten metal, ripping off your scalp by catching your hair in a machine, or an arm by catching a sleeve, … the list went on and on. It was so terrifying that none of us made light of it when he ended with “... 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 knew when Thompson had walked down a corridor before you because it hung in the air behind him in an invisible cloud. You could follow it like a bloodhound. Sometimes, you catch a reminder from plumbers who have been soldering 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, powered 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 cooking or needlework. There would have been no shortage of feisty girls eager to swap. 

“We can make anything in this workshop from a teaspoon to a motorcycle,” Thompson told us. 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 jagged and misshapen 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 wrinkled 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 hammer 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, it is 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 Tinplate Thompson himself. Ignoring his own advice, he picked up a piece of hot metal without spitting on it first and burnt his hand. You should have heard him swear!

The photograph of the forge is from and is in the public domain

Friday, 27 March 2020

Review - Penelope Lively: Treasures of Time

Penelope Lively: Treasures of Time
Penelope Lively: 
Treasures of Time (4*)

Sometimes, it can be difficult writing these occasional book reviews, but it helps in reflecting upon what I have just read and what I understand of it. This elaborate tale was harder than most.

Treasures of Time is about the truth of our perceptions and memories. Do we live the lives we think we live? Are things as they seem? Penelope Lively deftly handles multiple points of view and multiple time frames to show how different people can experience and remember the same places and events differently – edifying stuff for a memoir writer.

Laura Paxton is approached by a BBC documentary film maker planning to make a programme about her late husband, the acclaimed archaeologist Hugh Paxton. She still lives in their idyllic Wiltshire cottage close to the site of the excavation that made her husband famous, and remains stunningly beautiful. But she is no intellectual. She is one of those classic comic creations, like a Jane Austen character, who seeks social and cultural approval and belittles those beneath her standards. She accepts the BBC’s approach with alacrity, unaware of the misgivings of her historian daughter, Kate, and her invalid sister, Nellie.

I’ve come across too many people like Laura. They want to take over and organise your social life and cannot understand why you might not want to comply. They disapprove of your sense of humour and take offence when your opinions differ from theirs. When the television crew arrives, she engages them in genteel sherry parties with her society friends, although they would much prefer a pint at the local pub and being left to get on with their work. “Ma has always found people’s tendency to work a nuisance,” her daughter Kate explains. “It stops them doing other things she might be wanting them to do.”

I identify with Kate’s boyfriend, Tom, who is just about to complete a Ph.D. thesis on William Stukeley, the eighteenth century investigator of Stonehenge. Tom has climbed to Oxford from an ordinary upbringing and observes things most clearly. He wonders how Laura has “so extraordinary a knack of instantly putting everyone else at a disadvantage … You could go far, with a talent like that.” And, as one does when you find yourself unexpectedly in the company of those of more advantageous background, Tom says and does the wrong things, such as outspokenly criticising one of Laura’s friends for selling off a historically significant family heirloom. I’ve been similarly tactless, it has given me sleepless nights, but what I like about Tom is that he is not troubled by imposter syndrome or self-doubt.

So, we have archaeology, academic research, history, social mobility, the impact of the past upon the present and an almost farcical mesh of contradictory perceptions. Laura, Kate and Nellie look at a scene and see or remember it differently. From these differences we learn that Laura’s marriage was far from perfect. She had no interest in archaeology. It was her sister Nellie who was Hugh Paxton’s soul mate. She worked with him all his life, accompanied him on digs and co-authored academic papers. Kate has vague flashbacks of their intimacy, and of her mother’s indiscretions too. Hugh Paxton had been bedazzled by Laura’s beauty, and married the wrong sister.

The novel, originally published in 1979, is now in the Penguin Decades series, considered landmarks of their time. At under 200 pages it is relatively short. Written more recently it might be three times as long with extensive period detail and sumptuous descriptions of archaeological artefacts. It keeps to what it is, essentially a miniaturist tale in which nothing much happens, or as the blurb says, “an acutely observed story of marriage and manipulation.”

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

Previous book reviews 

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Ready Steady Go

Click through images to BBC iPlayer

What a super two hours on BBC4 on Friday: Ready Steady Go, the music show that ran at 6 p.m. on Fridays on ITV from August 1963 to December 1966: The Weekend Starts Here.

There was an hour of documentary clips and memories from director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, producer Vicki Wickham, and the likes of Paul Jones of Manfred Mann, Gerry The Pacemakers Marsden, Martha Reeves and Georgie Fame (whose music I always rated for its sophistication). Then a further hour of archive performances.

Many of the original videotapes were wiped, popular music being thought ephemeral, but enough survives along with colour film footage shot for a documentary. As you might expect, there was a bit too much emphasis on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – it would have been nice to see more of the less well remembered acts – but we did get to see Dusty Springfield singing Dancing In The Street with Martha and the Vandellas (way better than the Supremes any day) and Otis Redding performing with Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe. Absolute magic. Some bits did look very dated, though, especially the mime competition.

Ready Steady Go was innovative and influential in the acts it booked – one of the first showcases for Tamla Motown on British television – and in the way it blended together with camera, audience, dancers and acts all mingling together. Many in the audience were Mods down from Sheffield’s King Mojo club.

I remember watching some of the programmes at the time: many at school thought it unmissable. For me it spanned those years from stamp collecting and trains to what was happening in the wider world.

I had to look up what happened to main presenters. The lovely and iconic Cathy McGowan is now around 77 but did not appear in the programmes. She was originally recruited to set off the smooth professional Keith Fordyce who died in 2011, aged 82.

The programmes are on BBC iPlayer until around 18th April, but knowing BBC4 they will probably be repeated ad infinitum.

Thursday, 19 March 2020


I like this photograph. It was taken in the late nineteen-twenties at the Yorkshire seaside resort of Bridlington. The location appears to be beside the harbour wall looking up to Garrison Street.

Bridlington Harbour: c1929

There is something about the figures, their clothes and expressions, the composition, the depth of focus and the greyscale tones that reminds me of photographs by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, the celebrated Whitby photographer. They all look very serious, as if about to emigrate to the New World perhaps, whereas, actually, they are on board for a short trip around Flamborough Head.

My dad, aged about 7, is to the right with his Jackie Coogan cap tight on his head, and my grandfather, in front of him, looks very smart in a suit and flat cap. They seem to be the only ones without raincoats or waterproofs, unless those loose ones are for their use. None appear to have life jackets. One wonders who the others in the picture were: are they three couples or is one of the women the daughter of the older man: Somerset Maugham with a pipe? Who could now know? My dad could easily be assumed to be with the couple behind him.

We have lots of other family pictures at Bridlington in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties: in deck chairs, on the beach by the sea wall, digging in the sand, paddling in the sea, walking around town. One, some two decades later, shows my pregnant mum with my dad and others on the sands. Nanna is gazing down at her bump with me inside as if for a caption competition.

On Bridlington beach

Later, when I was little, we continued to go to Bridlington. Here I am in front of the Spa buildings, digging on the beach near the breakwater in my baggy white underpants. They look as if they would still fit me. I bet they made wonderful car polishing cloths. We went on the same trip around Flamborough, and when the sea was calm Dad would hire a rowing boat and row us out beyond the harbour mouth. I also remember visiting the Flamborough headland and being frightened by the fog-horn.

I haven’t been back much since. It seems to have a lot of noisy rides and fast food smells now. But, hoping to repeat history, I went with my young family one day in 2004. The cold wind and rough sea were too daunting for a sea trip, so we drove to Flamborough instead and climbed the 119 internal steps to the top of the lighthouse, terrified of the drop down the middle. Scary place, Flamborough.

Lamp room: Flamborough lighthouse

For the nerds amongst us, Flamborough Head is a promontory to the north of Bridlington, the northern end of a band of cretaceous chalk that stretches through Eastern England down to the South Coast. A  27-metre lighthouse sits on top of 30-metre cliffs, giving a range of 28 miles to the horizon, high enough on a clear day to be able to see the Humber Bridge to the south near Hull. Inside the lamp room, a four-panel catadioptric lens revolves around an enormous light bulb (in the top central  square in the picture) to create a signature code of four flashes every fifteen seconds. It continues to revolve even when the bulb is off so as not to concentrate the sun’s rays and start fires. The light was automated in 1996 but when we visited there were still reserved parking places for the non-existent staff.

Flamborough Head from the air (looking South)