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Monday, 23 April 2018

Review - Bill Bryson: At Home

Bill Bryson
At Home: a short history of private life (4*)

I sometimes think that a book, like a good marriage, should make you a better person. My problem with Bill Bryson’s books is that I’m not convinced they do.

That is not to say that At Home is not entertaining. Everything gets the familiar Bryson treatment, highlighting the strange, unusual and eccentric with the typical Bryson humour, but until the very last of its 483 pages I was left wondering why I had bothered.

The book adopts the floor plan of Bryson’s house at the time, a nineteenth century Norfolk rectory, to structure a collection of topics loosely based upon the history of private life in the home. In other words, he uses it as an excuse to write about almost any subject that takes his fancy.

Thus, the garden leads him to the subject of landscape design; the study allows him to talk about pests and mouse traps. There is a whole chapter on the fusebox which takes in candles, oil lamps and gas lights as well as electricity. The passage between rooms is associated with the telephone. On and on he goes through the kitchen, drawing room, dining room and so on, taking in ice, scurvy, the Eiffel Tower and a plethora of other matters, and that’s all before he goes upstairs.

It is impossible to predict where his attention will wander next. The chapter on The Bedroom, for example, quickly gets into the gruesome details of syphilis, which is fair enough I suppose, but from there it progresses on to other ghastly ways in which people expired in Victorian times, and then to a macabre account of burial and cremation. Only right at the end of the chapter does it clumsily get back on-topic by mentioning that cremation was legalized in Britain in 1902, just a few years before the original owner of the house died, but that the Reverend Marsham chose not to take that option.

The research is impressive: there is a 26-page select bibliography and a page-by-page online supplement to check facts or carry out further reading, almost like a Ph.D. thesis. Would it ever have found a publisher had it been by a new author and not Bill Bryson?

It’s a pleasurable enough read but normally you would only pick up a book about social history if you had a specific interest in the subject. It is indeed like a popular, easy-to-digest encyclopaedia: full of interesting and amusing stuff but you rarely come away with any great life-affirming emotion, insight or inspiration.

Near the beginning of At Home there is a photograph of Vere Gordon Childe who excavated the five-thousand year old village of Skara Brae in the Orkneys in 1927. He is standing beside one of the stone dwellings. In the text Bryson dwells upon Childe’s appearance, quoting contemporaries who described him as tall, ungainly, eccentric in dress with a curious and alarming persona and a face so ugly it was painful to look at. Actually, when I first saw the picture, my first impression was that it was of Bill Bryson himself.

Would I have said such a mean thing if the book had made me better person?

But then, relieved at reaching the very last page, I came across this reflection on how the home has evolved to give us lives of ease and convenience:
Of the total energy produced on earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in the last twenty years. Disproportionately it was consumed by us in the rich world ...
Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We ... live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet's other citizens. One day – and don’t expect it to be a distant day – many of those six billion or so less well off people are bound to demand what we have ... and that will require more resources than this planet can  easily, or even conceivably, yield.
The greatest possibly irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither.
Now that did make me stop and think.

I suspect it won’t be the last Bryson book I will read: Thunderbolt Kid looks promising.


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, 15 April 2018

VAX and VAXen

A visit to Jim Austin’s Computer Collection at Fimber, East Riding of Yorkshire


The plural of VAX is VAXen. I read it in a VAX/VMS computer manual in the nineteen-eighties.

VAX (Virtual Address Extension) computers were made by DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) and ran the VMS (Virtual Memory System) operating system. Most universities had them: first the VAX-11/780s and later the VAX 8600s. They usually had several connected in clusters – clusters of VAXen.

A DEC 'dumb terminal'
So it was wonderful to see some of these iconic machines again in Jim Austin’s Computer Collection at Fimber near Fridaythorpe in the East Riding. By “again” I really mean for the first time. Hardly anyone got near them in the nineteen-eighties. The privileged might be allowed to look through the glass of their air-conditioned rooms, but ‘users’ were never allowed in. Their only contact with the computers was through remote ‘dumb terminals’. At Fimber you can touch the machines and even open their cabinets and take the boards out. Of course, they are not switched on now.

I returned full of enthusiasm, thinking of the blog posts I could write. My wife was not impressed.

“Great! A barn full of old grey metal cabinets.”

“Well, some are black. And you can open the doors.”

I babbled excitedly about all the machines I had known so well: the Elliott 903, IBMs, ICLs, PDP-8s and PDP-11s, SWTPC minis, LSI-11s, Sun microsystems, Silicon Graphics, VAXen …

"VAXen!" My wife ran out of patience.

“Did they come in boxen? Ordered by Faxen? Would we call our fridge and freezer Electroluxen? VAXen makes them sound like little animals – or the name of one of Santa’s reindeers.”

“Reindeer(s?)”

Now there’s another plural to think about.



Other posts about computers:


 Grandad Dunham's
 Flight Simulator
                 The Mighty Micro
 

 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

A Birthday Surprise

We bought a “Very Hungry Caterpiller” card for a cousin’s two year old granddaughter. Inside was promo suggesting we turn her birthday into a day to remember by buying one of their “perfectly-tailored gift experiences.”

Which of the perfectly-tailored experiences, we wondered, would be the most perfectly-tailored for a two year old? We tried to think back to when we were two. What would we have enjoyed? Gin tasting? Golf tuition? Perhaps Aston Martin and Ferrari thrills?

The organic chocolate making workshop was clearly a strong contender, but in the end we went for either the llama trekking or the flying lesson. We marked them as suggestions and left it for grandma and the parents to make the purchase.

It was hard to imagine being two. In fact, psychologists tell us we remember very little from that age. So how much of a day to remember would it be? It might be better just to give her the promo card to tear the perforations and colour in.



Sunday, 1 April 2018

School Woodwork

In our tough new carpenters’ aprons – loops round necks, strings tied at the back, two deep pockets at the front – we really looked the biz. The room smelt of sandpaper, sawdust and lacquer, and housed around eight or so workbenches: the kind with shoulders at the sides, tool cupboards underneath and a vice at each corner. It was where things got made, like model boats. Well, mine vaguely resembled a boat. I think we had to make them because it involved a variety of tools and techniques, rather than for any functional reason.


With that pencil-behind-ear air of can-do competence that only real woodworkers possess, Tacky Illingworth showed us how to shape a piece of wood into a hull by pointing the bow and rounding the stern, how to chisel out a couple of recesses in the top to leave a bridge, fo’c’s’le and fore and aft decks, and how to attach dowel masts and a funnel, simpler but not dissimilar to the model in the picture. Mine was awful: irregular, lob-sided, gouge marks and splinters where it should have been flush-flat smooth. At the end of the year I didn’t bother to take it home.

A marking gauge
I did learn to love the beautiful, age-old tools though: the tenon saw with its stiffened back, the smoothing plane, the spokeshave, the carpentry square, the brace and bit, the mallet and woodworkers’ chisels, and best of all, the marking gauge. Unless you knew, how could you ever guess what a marking gauge is for? Why does it have a sliding block with a locking screw? What are the spikes for? Why two on one side and one on the other, and why are they moveable? A mystery! I’ve got my own now. I used it to mark how much to plane off the bottom of a door when we got a new carpet.

Stopped or half-blind dovetail joint
A stopped or half-blind dovetail joint

After spending the following year in Metalwork, we were allowed to choose which to continue. I returned to the relative peace and safety of the woodwork shop, the lesser of the two evils. We had to decide upon a project, so I went for the ubiquitous book rack in its simplest form – a flat base with two vertical ends and a couple of pieces of dowel for feet. I selected a beautiful plank of mahogany which my parents had to buy, and began to cut out what were supposed to be stopped (half-blind) dovetail joints – visible underneath but not at the ends. It was far too ambitious. At the end of the year it laid unfinished on a shelf in Tacky Illingworth’s stock room, wrapped in a soft cloth. His school report flattered me.

Year 5 school report for woodwork
 
That could have been the end of the story because there were no crafts in subsequent years when ‘O’ levels took priority, but an unexpected change of policy allowed games-averse weaklings to escape to art or crafts instead. Metalwork was no longer on offer. It had been replaced by pottery, which was tempting, but for some bizarre masochistic reason I went for woodwork again. Maybe I refused to be defeated. Tacky Illingworth proudly retrieved my unfinished book rack from his stock room, still in its protective cloth from eighteen months earlier. 

I even finished the thing. I wrote the date on the bottom: April 1966. It’s a real mess of course. At one end I broke through the wall of the ‘pin’ part of the dovetail and had to stick it back in, and the joints were so loose that even glue could not hold them together. Tacky Illingworth reluctantly allowed me to fix it with screws. It has been on my desk for over fifty years.

Mahogany book rack

I wondered if I could find it hiding in old photographs, and yes, here it is in various Leeds and Hull corners of the nineteen-seventies. It still holds one of the same books.


If I were to make it again today, in the same way with hand-tools not machines, it might not be perfect but I like to think it would be better. At the very least I would hope not break the ends. It probably comes down to patience, and perhaps a bit of care and confidence as well. As someone once said, education is wasted on the young.

Other school stories include:


 School
 Metalwork
                 Jim Laker, Mr Ellis
and the Eagle Annual
A Silly Christmas
Love Story

 

Friday, 23 March 2018

M Dunham Are Crap

Never use a swear word when you don’t know what it means


“That’s wrong” said Geoffrey Bullard with his thick ape-neck and stare too menacing to return. He ran his fat finger across the words and stabbed the one that offended him: “It should be M Dunham is crap”. He thought everyone else was stupid.

It was too risky to explain it said exactly what I meant. You talk about football teams in the plural: “Rawcliffe United are good this year.” “Howden Town are terrible.” It goes in a song:
M Dunham are crap,
M Dunham are crap,
Ee aye addio,
M Dunham are crap.
Action from a league match between M.Dunham and T.Dunham circa 1960
(click to play digitised cine film)

It was my dad who first pretended we were teams competing against each other in a league. He was B Dunham, I was T Dunham, my brother Martin was M Dunham, and M Dunham were crap. I wrote it down in heavy red wax crayon on the back of the asbestos garage.

I didn’t realise that wax crayon on asbestos panelling is like permanent marker: waterproof, indelible, not-fade-away. So there it was, and there it must have stayed for over fifty years, decades after we had moved. Imagine the disapproving faces of those who later gazed upon it and pitied the poorly educated child responsible for such semi-literate graffiti, and wondered who M Dunham was and why was he crap.

So, Geoffrey Bullard remained in ignorance of our imaginary football teams, and when he wasn’t round at our house bullying me, I could play imaginary football games in the back garden. I had a full league of teams and fixtures, and played out each match on my own on the pitch of dried mud we optimistically called “the back grass”. This differed from “the front grass” only by being slightly bigger and by not actually having any grass, except that is for a few odd blades that struggled out of the earth before being unceremoniously stamped back in again by the boots of make-believe teams of footballers.

I ran up and down with a ball, puffing and panting between one goal defined by chalk marks on the wall of the house and the other by the clothes posts near the back hedge, while providing the roars and boos of the crowd, and an excitable commentary. In my head they were all there: two complete teams of players, spectators, a commentator, the referee, linesmen, and the trainer with his ‘magic sponge’.

I drew up team sheets, match day programmes, fixture lists and league tables. I was everyone and did everything. These days, kids do the same with electronic games with names such as ‘Top European Football Manager III’, but my fantasy was played in the back garden, much healthier for all that running around outside in the fresh air, with more highly developed transferrable skills for all the manual record keeping, and no less unsociable than fantasy football on games consoles.

T Dunham was of course the best team by far. They always won and hardly ever conceded a goal. They usually beat M Dunham (who really were crap) by several goals to nil, and “The” B Dunham by a similar margin (my dad had once been to watch “The” Arsenal while on holiday in London). It was not long before T Dunham were promoted out of the league containing the other Dunham teams into the local district league, where they played against proper teams such as the dockers and the railwaymen, and teams from pubs and the local villages. I picked my players for each match, and posted the team sheet on the wall inside our team hut, in other words the yellow shed. The team was always set out in traditional 2-3-5 formation, with a goalkeeper, two full backs, three half-backs and five forwards. In those days we always had a centre forward, inside forwards and wingers; no one had yet heard of modern formations involving sweepers, overlapping midfielders and offensive 4-3-3 game plans.

One day, Geoffrey Bullard noticed a team sheet on the wall of the shed. “What’s that?” he asked, looking carefully. My team was laid out for all to see, ready for the West Riding Cup Final between T Dunham and Norton Woodseats. The captain, ‘Dunham’, in other words me, was on the left wing, the position I played the only time I was ever selected for my school. Some of the other imaginary players were also names from school. ‘Gelder’ was inside-left, ‘Longthwaite’ was centre-forward, and, as I realised to my consternation about the same time as he spotted it, ‘Bullard’ was centre-half.

“Why am I only at centre-half?” he demanded to know.

I cringed inwardly while he thought about it. He considered himself one of the best footballers in the school, and naturally assumed his rightful role was top goal scorer in the forward line.

“Actually,” he then said weighing it up, “I would make quite a good centre-half,” and proceeded to let me off the hook by showing no further interest.

But the wax crayon was still there on the garage, and in due course my mother spotted it.

“It won’t come off,” she sounded annoyed, “and anyway, what does it mean?”

It dawned on me that I didn’t really know what ‘crap’ meant either. I’d heard people say it, and thought it a satisfyingly grown up word to use. It just seemed to mean someone or something wasn’t very good. You could snarl it in real disgust, curling your upper lip, emphasising the ‘r’ and spitting out the final ‘p’. “C-RAP!” I had been saying it as much as I could.

“What’s this word, ‘crap’?” my dad asked. My mother had obviously been talking to him.

It was my dad’s sister, Aunty Dorothy, a hospital nurse, who gently enlightened us as to what it meant.

“Was it you who wrote in wax crayon on the back of the garage?” she took me aside and asked in her quiet way. “You wrote, ‘M Dunham are crap’, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“Well you do know what it means, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“It’s very very rude,” she said looking concerned., “It means babba.” *

I wanted to giggle, but tried my best to look horrified and apologetic.

“It’s not a word we should be using at all,” she warned sternly. “And in any case,” she continued, “it’s wrong to say that. It should be M Dunham is crap.”


* It seems that use of the word ‘babba’ to mean poo is not as universal as I once thought. An internet search reveals very few examples. Similarly, ‘trump’ meaning an emission of wind (I resist an easy American political quip here) also seems mainly to be a northern expression. Both were common in the part of Yorkshire where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. The word ‘crap’, on the other hand, was beyond vulgarity, and never ever heard. It goes to show how much things have changed. 

This is a revised and rewritten version of a piece first posted on 1st September, 2014

Monday, 19 March 2018

Review - Chris Bonington: Ascent

Chris Bonington
Ascent: a life spent climbing on the edge (3*)

You could say Chris Bonington was one of my influences. I spent too many nineteen-seventies lunchtimes in Leeds Compton Road Library lost in the heights of I Chose to Climb and The Next Horizon, a tranquil refuge from accountancy. I acted them out on walks in Derbyshire, Scotland, the Yorkshire Pennines, the North York Moors, Iceland, Norway, France and Switzerland, an undue comparison, but I longed to be like him: all that climbing and writing. I bought a minivan, grew a beard, scrambled up mountains and tried to write things.

Ascent is Chris Bonington’s definitive autobiography. Much of the content is covered in his earlier books, but, gosh, what a story! As the cover blurb says, it reads like the pages of an epic saga.

The trouble is, to the non-specialist, one mountaineering expedition sounds much the same as another, even down to the extent of the senseless deaths: John Harlin on the Eiger, Ian Clough on Annapurna, Mick Burke on Everest, Dougal Haston skiing in the Alps, Nick Estcourt on K2, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker on Everest. Their bodies often remained where they died. Bonington describes encountering Hannelore Schmatz on Everest in 1985, “sitting upright in the snow, sun-bleached hair blowing in the wind, teeth bared in a rictus grin,” where she had died of exhaustion descending from the summit in 1979. A sane person could only conclude that trailblazing mountaineering is an idiotic venture.

Bonington writes in a matter of fact way. His narrative and descriptions are vivid enough, but you would be hard pressed to find a simile or metaphor anywhere in the book. It is autobiography not memoir, an accurate account of places, people and events rather than an impression or reaction to them. He comes across as self-centred. The first person “I” must appear at least 6 times on every page (as on this one!), more than twice that on many. Yet he does not dwell on things. He is like a climbing machine with little time for imagination or self-reflection, even when writing about personal loss. At the end of the day, anyone who manages to climb the Old Man of Hoy at eighty remains an inspiration, but I’m glad I’m not like him at all. 

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, 6 March 2018

Blessed By Snowdrops


When my dad could no longer manage in his three-bedroomed house, he moved, as many do, to a modest bungalow. Behind was a postage stamp of a lawn bounded by an ancient high wall which sheltered masses of snowdrops. For thirteen Februaries, he delighted in the sweeping drifts of brilliant white flowers that danced in defiance of the winter winds, as they lived into yet another year.

But he was also troubled by them. Come summer, when the leaves had died down, hundreds of tiny bulbs heaved themselves out of the ground and rolled across the lawn, trying to put down roots, as if longing to migrate away from the darkness of the wall towards the light and warmth of the house. Every time I visited I was asked to “go push those snowdrops back in”, and had to spend half an hour or so collecting them up and poking holes to replant them. By the next visit there would always be more trying to escape. When, finally, we sold the bungalow, I gathered a couple of pots full and took them home. We still call them Grandpa’s snowdrops.

In the cemetery where he now lies, planting on the graves is against the rules. It is pointless to try; the grass between the rows of headstones is mown at regular intervals, and any permanent flowers would be brutally hacked down. Even snowdrops, despite flowering well before the first mowing, would never store up future reserves, and weaken, and disappear. So I took a chance and planted a clump close to the headstone, too near for the mower to catch, in deep so they couldn’t get out. 

I went early the next year to check on their luck, but it was seemingly too early. I went again the following year, but it was too late for any leaves to be left. Around every headstone, an ugly margin of dark bare earth hinted at how they dealt with the places the mower could not reach. A later visit confirmed it as I caught the chemical smell of weedkiller drifting in the breeze from an operative with a tank on his back and a long wand. I made irregular visits over the years, but never saw any sign of snowdrops.

This year I happened to make the long drive in mid-February. There, to my surprise, still defiant against the headstone ten years after I planted them, was a triumphant line of delicate milk-white petals heralding hope for the coming spring, …

… along with an inquisitive squirrel who wanted to be in the picture (a transmigrated soul perhaps).

Snowdrops and squirrel on grave