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Sunday, 20 January 2019

Some Memorable Posts

Posts from other blogs that have stuck in the memory

Although it’s over four years since I started this blog, I don’t have many readers or followers. Would I do better by being more like other bloggers?

Sadly, in my case, the answer is almost certainly “No”. No one would be interested in the beauty products I use, or pictures showing my repertoire of appealing facial expressions. I’m not sure anyone would want to know how comfortable my ten-year old M&S underpants are, or that I have had three Shredded Wheat for breakfast almost every day for the last forty years. I’m not qualified to give tips on how to get thousands of followers in just one week, or how to find commercial partnerships and get paid to promote products. As for hints on parenting and lifestyle, my kids would go ballistic if I posted those childhood photographs of them nude in the bath. 

I have explored linkies, retweet accounts and facebook boosts, but it seems to me that the main beneficiaries of these things are the people who host them. They get them going and within a few weeks are pestering you to say they have “teamed up” with this or that product to bring you the latest feminine lingerie, slimming aids or facial filler creams.

There are, however, some wonderful blogs I do admire, and would like to mention posts from the past few years that left a memorable impression.

I have a soft spot for blogs by middle aged men from the North of England retrospectively trying to construct meaning in their lives. Jonathan Humble’s poetry blog has some pretty powerful stuff, and some amusing stuff too, but it was a short story, Rainbow Friday, that first caught my attention. It could be straight from my own childhood. It is so good, I sometimes wonder why I bother trying to write a blog myself.

I followed Andrew Petcher from fairly early on. He has a well-read travel blog written in his guise as “international man of leisure”, but it was his childhood blog, from when children roamed free without a care, that attracted me first. His memories of a rugby-mad games teacher are spot-on, and his experiences of working in a privatised utility (part 1, part 2) have you gunning for re-nationalisation.

David Hodgson Personal Blog (not the snappiest of titles) is always fascinating. Two pieces I especially remember are one which begins by wondering what became of a large map of East Yorkshire bus routes that used to be on the side of a building overlooking the bus station in Bridlington, and a piece about the bizarre demise of the British electronics company Ferranti which supported him through university.

Moving on from elderly memoir, Estelle Hargraves’ The Skittish Library, a reflection on out-of-print oddities, was another early following. I found it when researching one of my own favourite old books, The Universal Book of Hobbies and Handicrafts. Her posts about the chapters on pet keeping and self defence give questionable advice about the disposal of unwanted kittens and how to pierce an assailant’s throat with the tip of your umbrella.

Brian’s Blog, a philosophical take on anything and everything contradictory in the world, always makes me think. The writer strives for a green and thoughtful life by cycling and recycling, and minimising present-day irrationalities. The diversity of the blog makes it difficult to pick specific pieces, but two recent ones that come to mind are on micro-beads and the idiocy of  GDPR cookies.

Sarada Gray also blogs about anything and everything. I look at all her posts, and especially enjoyed one about her new pair of reading glasses. She also, quite rightly, roused my indignation at how Mo Mowlem has been airbrushed out of history.

Finally, for now, Gary Strachan is possibly the most prolific blogger I follow. At sometimes two or three lengthy posts a day I could never keep up with everything he writes, but I regularly find myself returning for his wit and humour which is up there with Tim Dowling in the Guardian or Eddie Mair in the Radio Times. To be honest, I envy how easily he seems to turn it out. Over the last few days he has even produced a series of posts joking about his recent heart attack.  

I feel that’s enough for now and apologise for not mentioning more of the blogs I follow. I’ve made a mental note to attend to it in due course.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Research Before The Internet

A. S. Byatt: Possession
as evoked by
A.S. Byatt - Possession: a Romance (5*)

The novel, Possession, evokes for me exactly what it was like to carry out research before the age of the internet, when we had to go to libraries to look things up in books and journals, and even use primary sources. More on this below.

It may also be the cleverest novel I have ever read: in fact I read it twice, partly because I enjoyed it so much and partly because a lot of it went over my head the first time through.

To describe the book first, the plot concerns two nineteen-eighties scholars who discover correspondence between two fictional Victorian poets revealing a previously unknown love affair. It is a discovery of immense historical significance, akin, say, to finding revelatory private correspondence by major literary figures such as Alfred Lord Tennyson or Christina Rossetti. As the two present-day scholars investigate the lives of the poets, they themselves are drawn into a relationship echoing that of the two Victorians. The two stories are revealed in parallel through five hundred pages of narrative, fictional poetry, letters, journals and diaries. So as well as the two love stories, and a cracking mystery story, A. S. Byatt has created substantial bodies of work attributed to the fictional poets and numerous pieces of writing attributed to other characters.

I struggled the first time through because: (i) the Victorian setting is rich in classical, biblical, literary and contemporary references of the kind with which educated Victorians of the time would have been very familiar but most of us today are not; and (ii) the nineteen-eighties setting alludes to numerous arcane and specialist approaches to textual analysis and criticism; e.g. we learn one of the scholars is trained in post-structuralist deconstruction. It found my own education sorely lacking.

Some might say the author is simply showing off, but essentially she is poking fun, and is abundantly able to do so because of her sweeping knowledge of Victorian and modern scholarship, poetry and literature. Some might say this is self-indulgent, but surely that is what all writers are. Her descriptions of beautiful things are dazzling, be they Victorian bathrooms, snowfall, the North York Moors or libraries. The 1990 Booker judges were clearly impressed.

That she put this sumptuous book together before 1990, before the internet, makes the achievement all the more impressive. She has not simply googled a tapestry of ideas and stitched them in, it stems from a lifetime’s study and expertise.

And that is what Possession strongly evokes for me: the pleasure and excitement of academic work before the age of abundant electronic resources and the internet. Anyone whose university days predated the turn of the century, perhaps researching a thesis or dissertation, or a final-year project, will find Possession brings it all back. You feel as if you are researching the Victorian poets yourself.

For me it was the light and quiet in a corner of the top floor of the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull, looking through the raked windows across the city to the distant Humber where bogies high above the river crossed slowly back and forth spinning the Humber Bridge suspension cables. Later it was the darkness and claustrophobia of the open stacks deep in the bowels of the John Rylands Library at Manchester.

The silence; the decades of collected journals; the Dewey Decimal index; the chance discovery of a promising book next to the one you were looking for; deliberately mis-shelving books so that no one else can deny you them the next day (I plead guilty, but I never stole anything, unlike one of the scholars in Possession); pages of handwritten notes from volumes piled six or seven high on your desk; coloured pens and paper clips, sore fingers; treasure-trails through the impenetrable Science and Social Sciences Citation Indexes (the SCI and SSCI); flip-lidded index card boxes; inter-library loans; journal offprint requests; scratchy, smelly, chemical photocopies; microfilm readers; hours following leads and loose ends which led to nowhere; puzzling new words and terminology in need of clarification; flashes of insight on encountering new ideas and making what you hoped, but rarely were, entirely original associations. More than anything else, the Csikszentmihalyian sense of flow: the buzz of your own thoughts, total immersion in the task at hand, suspended in time so that nothing else seemed to matter.

Through the nineteen-nineties things gradually changed. It became possible to research whole topics instantly and with plausible thoroughness through just a screen in an austere book-free room. Things were never the same again. I was still recommending books for my courses into the new century, but in rapidly changing subject areas such as computing, and even the social sciences, some of the university lecturers I knew stopped using print sources completely.

I hung on to my collection of academic books until retirement when they had to go. I kept a few that no one wanted, and ones that had once been especially useful and dear to me.

Key to book 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. 

Thursday, 27 December 2018

The Morecambe and Wise IRA Sketch

Morecambe and Wise: The Lost Tapes

It’s hard to believe what I saw on television last night: two Morecambe and Wise shows from 1968, believed lost, recovered from a forgotten film canister found in a cinema in Sierra Leone, and broadcast now for the first time in over fifty years.

Morecambe and Wise IRA Sketch
Ronnie Carroll hands out the shillelaghs
The second of the two shows (first broadcast BBC2, Monday, 30th September, 1968) had a sketch in which the Northern Irish singer Ronnie Carroll played an IRA commander testing the Irish credentials of Eric, Ernie and writers Sid Green and Dick Hills by asking them to speak in an Irish accent and dance a jig. The running joke was that Eric Morecambe was unable to do these things (his accent was more Long John Silver) and therefore kept getting beaten with shillelaghs.*

The writing, the timing, the general silliness – it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen for some time, but can you imagine anyone on television today daring to make fun of the Irish Republican Army and speak in a mock Irish accent? Admittedly, the show was originally broadcast before the riots in 1969 and subsequent deployment of British troops, but even so, would it not today be greeted by howling accusations of bad taste, political incorrectness and even xenophobia, and taken off air?

My children have applied for Irish nationality. They can because my wife’s father was born in Bray near Dublin. They are fearful of losing their right to work and travel freely throughout Europe after Brexit. The likely outcome is that all the family except me will be Europeans, and that I will have to pay for a permit to set foot across the Channel.

Their applications required extensive supporting documentation – identity documents, witness statements, ancestral birth, marriage and death certificates, and large cheques – which took quite some time to put together. If all you had to do was to be able say “Top of the morning” in a pantomime Irish accent, dance a jig and set out for Tipperary with me shillelagh under me arm and a twinkle in me eye, I might have had an outside chance of getting in. ‘Tis a shame, to be sure, bejabers!

The Morecambe and Wise Show: The Lost Tapes is available on BBC iPlayer for the next month: is the episode described above with guest Ronnie Carroll. is another episode introduced by Michael Aspel who appears as guest on the show.

* Shillelagh: an Irish word for a stout wooden cudgel, immortalised in a song by Bing Crosby who had an Irish grandmother and released L.P.s full of sentimental songs with Irish themes, e.g. 

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Get Tret Better

Doncaster Market

English is a strange thing, especially in its regional forms.

Yesterday, BBC Television News had a report about how insurance companies ramp up premiums so that customers who renew their policies year after year end up paying far more than they should. One poor chap who had kept his home insurance with the same insurer for twenty-one years received a renewal bill of £1,930, but after shopping around he got the same cover for £469. 

They asked people at Doncaster Market what they thought about it, including two ladies behind a food stall:

“Well,” said one in comforting Yorkshire tones, “I think it's a disgrace, actually, because I think loyal customers should get tret better.”

“Tret better?” I wanted to rush straight to Doncaster Market, give her a big hug, and sit beside the stall listening to her all day. It’s what my mother would have said.

I’m no grammaticist, but I suppose it’s like met instead of meeted, sat instead of seated, or het instead of heated, as in I’m all het up

At one time I would have said “tret better” too, but, sadly, I’ve had it educated out of me.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Not The Best Policy

This year’s Christmas story is a tale of deception gone wrong, from the early nineteen-seventies.

Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
“You idiots, you scoundrels, you rogues and vagabonds! Be sure thy sin will find thee out!”

Brendan’s impression was spot-on. It was as if Grimston Stewart was right there in the room with you spouting his pretentious, second-hand drivel. It was all there: the rhythms, the cadences, the clipped intonation, the rolled ‘r’, the arrogance.

“You riff-raff! You ne’er do wells! You scum of the earth!  ...”

Brendan could stretch and twist his face to look as silly and pompous as Grimston too, with all the quirks and mannerisms you didn’t notice until pointed out. You could imagine Grimston in his Noel Coward dressing gown, posturing like some vain intellectual exhibitionist: Oscar Wilde or Aubrey Beardsley, perhaps. The only thing missing was the long cigarette holder.

“I shall not dull my palm with felony. Honesty is the best policy.”

Grimston was a fake. He would have you believe his clever quips and jibes were his own invention, but we knew he got them from a dictionary of quotations hidden in his room. Nick, the other member of our shared house, had a theory he was really called Stuart Grimston but had changed it to Grimston Stewart to sound more impressive. I thought Grimston sounded like a dog’s name. At least it wasn’t hyphenated – not yet.

Whatever his name, we were making the most of his absence. Grimston had left for a winter holiday with wealthy friends, and the shared house was less censorious without him; and noisier. We could stay up late drinking and smoking, playing our guitars, singing vulgar songs, having beer-mat fights and shouting foul language at each other. We could leave the lights on, bottles all over the floor, bins overflowing, the toilet filthy, crumbs on the kitchen table and the sink full of dirty plates, like “the dunghill kind who delight in filth and foul incontinence.” House sharing works best when everyone is compatible, but Grimston, some kind of accountant, did not fit in, the wayward liberals we were. There is always one.

His absence was fortuitous because the scheme Nick had conceived would have sent him into a torrent of protest, with or without acknowledgement to the Bible, Shakespeare and other luminaries from his dictionary of quotations.

“We shall find ourselves dishonourable graves,” mimicked Brendan. 

“Hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” I wondered. “Three hundred quid each just for telling a few stories! It seems so easy.”

“It is,” Nick reassured us, “as long as we think it through properly and don’t say anything stupid ...”

“Les absents ont toujours tort.”

“... like that!”

It certainly seemed a fascinating idea. For Nick, it was a project – an intellectual exercise with a profitable conclusion. Brendan just liked the thought of the money.

Nick went through it again. We were to hide all our valuables in his lock-up garage, disarray the house to give the appearance of a break-in, go back home to our parents for Christmas, and on our return report the burglary to the police and make an ‘authentic’ insurance claim for the loss of our possessions. We congratulated ourselves on the ingenuity. It was so simple – the perfect crime.

We ransacked the house according to plan, broke open the cellar window, forced the locks on our room doors and decanted the contents of drawers and cupboards on to the floor. Late at night we discreetly packed our possessions into Nick’s car and transferred them to the seclusion of his garage: our guitars, my hi-fi, Nick’s bicycle and Brendan’s camera. No one saw us at all.

Back at the house, elated, phase one complete, a big bottle of Strongbow each, we rehearsed our interview with the police.

“Now tell me again,” said Brendan in his best Chief Inspector Barlow voice, “where did you say you were at the time of the break-in?”

“Er – staying with my parents,” I replied unconvincingly.

“I see. Do you have insurance?”

“Yes, thank goodness.”

“It’s an insurance fiddle isn’t it?”

“No, I was away visiting ...”

“Don’t lie to me you piece of filth.”

“Honest! It’s true. I really was ...”

Brendan switched into his Grimston Stewart voice.

“Honest implies a lie. Isn’t that right Chief Inspector Barlow?”

I only hoped the investigator assigned to our case lacked the analytical aggression of television’s Detective Chief Inspector Barlow.

Suddenly I realised we had overlooked one important point, the one critical mistake.

“How do we explain why our rooms have been burgled, but not Grimston’s?”

Nick and Brendan were taken aback. How could we have forgotten that? Either we had really to break into Grimston’s room and steal his stuff, or we had to invite him to join in the scheme. The first seemed a whole level of dishonesty higher than insurance fraud. The second was out of the question, Grimston would never participate.

We stood outside Grimston’s door.

“I am no petty villain,” preached his voice. “You must reinstate the status quo and make good the damage, or I shall report you to Her Majesty’s Constabulary.”

“Shut up Brendan,” I said. “It’s not funny.”

I kicked at Grimston’s door in disgust and turned away, only to turn back on Nick’s gasp. It had not been locked. The door had swung open.

“That’s not like him,” said Brendan, for once using his own voice.

Nick disappeared into the room and quickly identified the reason for the lax security. Grimston had taken most of his things with him. Typical! He trusted no one. All we had to do was tip the remaining contents of his drawers and cupboards on to the floor to give the appearance of a search. There was nothing anyone would have wanted to pinch, but Grimston would believe we really had been burgled.

In one drawer we found the notorious dictionary of quotations. Nick picked it up.

“I think this will have to be stolen,” he said triumphantly.

The plan was exceeding expectations. Not only would Grimston be speechless when he found out about the burglary, he would not be able to look up anything to say about it either.

We could now put phase two into action. The three of us went home for Christmas to secure Barlow-proof alibis. Grimston, returning from holiday, was first back, and went to the phone box to report the crime to “Her Majesty’s Constabulary”. When I got back a bored, solitary policeman was wandering around. I passed off my anxiety as distress. We had to answer one or two simple questions, none of them unexpected. Next day a fingerprint man visited and went through the motions of dusting a powdery mess of graphite on doors, windows, mirrors and drawer handles, but left without finding anything sufficiently well-defined for evidence. We submitted our insurance claim. Grimston even claimed for the loss of his silly dictionary. Well, he had been the one to insist we took out insurance in the first place.

The total value was impressive. The insurance company wanted to see receipts for the most expensive things. We each had a stereo and records, and I had a tape-deck as well. Guitars, fan heaters, cameras, slide projectors, electric toasters, books, clothing, the house television set and Nick’s bicycle brought the total claim to nine hundred and thirteen pounds, over three hundred each after Grimston’s miniscule claim.

And there was a bonus. Within a week Grimston had left. The area was “a den of iniquity unfit for habitation by righteous souls”. There would be no one to ask awkward questions as to how we had recovered our possessions when the time came to move them back.

Luckily, we did not retrieve them immediately. A few days later a detective constable visited the crime scene.

“It’s a good job you were insured,” he said. “There have been a lot of break-ins in this area recently. I have to say that unfortunately there is very little chance of recovering your possessions.”

Afterwards, we judged it safe to go for our things.

Nick had not been to the garage since the day of the ‘crime’. There wasn’t room for his car and in any case, he was worried someone might see inside and become suspicious. So we were already a little apprehensive when we drove round under cover of darkness. Nick turned off his lights and opened the door. It was difficult to see but I knew something was wrong. Nick felt it too.

Nick returned to the car and flashed the lights, flashed them again, and then put them on full beam. The garage was empty. A broken panel at the rear told us what had happened.

Brendan spoke first, in his own voice.

“The world’s full of bloody criminals. We can’t even claim on insurance ’cos we already have.”

I could see Nick’s thoughtful face in the headlights, and then it was he, not Brendan, who began to speak in quotations.

“Our worldly goods are gone away,” he declared. “We are wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”

Things were worse than I thought. In that awful moment I realised what had happened to that ridiculous dictionary of quotations.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Does Anyone Want Some Drinks?

Returning to Yorkshire on the 15:56 First TransPennine Express service yesterday after a family day out in that wonderful city of Liverpool, a man came along the train with the refreshments trolley and asked: “Does anyone want some drinks?”

We wondered how one should answer this oddly-worded question. He seemed to be inviting each passenger to consume several drinks. It seems unlikely that anyone would want, say, a cup of tea, a soft drink and a bottle of water, unless they were very thirsty. And what about snacks? There were a load of those on his trolley too. Weren’t they for sale as well?

“No, but I would like one drink,” might have been an appropriate answer, or perhaps “No, but I would like a packet of crisps.”

There again, he might have been asking whether any one of us wanted to purchase several drinks to be shared amongst our travelling companions, in which case it was extremely perceptive of him to spot that we were travelling as a group.

What should he have asked to take account of all these eventualities?

“Would anyone like any drinks?” is one very minor adjustment that might have worked, although that would exclude snacks. Perhaps TransPennine should therefore radically overhaul their refreshment trolley operative training so that they ask, simply “Refreshments?”

Why does it bother me?

Could it be in any way related to the fact that we were travelling on Diesel Multiple Unit set 185113 and that I’ve always made a mental note of such things?

See also: Andy Burnham, Chris Grayling and the Goole to Leeds Train

Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Commercialisation of Universities

First-class degrees and unconditional offers

Two items in the recent press about Higher Education:

1. Universities are awarding too many first class degrees. The think-tank Reform argues that universities risk losing their credibility due to “rocketing grade inflation”. Apparently, 26% of U.K. students now get first-class degrees and one university awards them to over 40% of students. Similarly the proportion of 2:1 degrees, nationally, is now nearly 50%. The think-tank suggests the number of first-class degrees should be capped at 10%, 2:1 and 2:2 degrees at 40% each, with the lowest 10% getting a third. (Guardian; BBC).

2. Universities are making too many unconditional offers. Ucas reports that a third of 18-year-old university applicants received some form of unconditional offer last year, made up of true unconditional offers, and conditional offers which became unconditional when an applicant makes that university a firm choice. Some institutions are also offering students four-figure bursaries. (Guardian).

The reports highlight massive increases in the numbers: a doubling of high grades over ten years, and an almost thirty-fold increase in unconditional offers over five years. 

Well, when I graduated in 1980, out of the 70 people who started the course, just 2 got firsts, less than 3%, and that was an exceptional year. Some years there weren’t any. And it was completely unknown for universities to make unconditional offers to 18-year-olds yet to take their ‘A’ levels; it might not even have been allowed.

Isn’t it simply a case of commercial organisations providing the service their customers want? In almost any other sector it would be singled out for praise. Perhaps if universities had not been turned into competing businesses in the first place, these things would not be happening.