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Wednesday, 1 July 2020

New Month Old Post: Uncle Jimmy

(First posted 28th June, 2015. 1,600 words)

The life of an intersex man born in the 1890s

My mother always said it would have been better if Uncle Jimmy had been brought up as a girl. When I was older, she added: “You see, he didn’t develop properly when he was a little boy.” She also said: “His sister was completely the other way round.” 

Uncle Jimmy was not really an uncle or indeed any relative at all. He attached himself to the family just before the First World War when he crossed the Pennines to take a job in the local branch of the clothing and furniture retailer where my grandfather worked. As Jimmy had nowhere to stay, my grandfather took him home and asked whether they could put him up for a time. Jimmy soon found his own accommodation and later, perhaps surprisingly, a wife, but he remained a close friend of the family for the rest of his life. He appears in no end of our family photographs: a surrogate uncle.

“A jolly little fat man with a high voice,” is how my brother remembered him, “Uncle Jimmy Dustbin,” not his real name but a pretty good homonym. He had been slightly built in his youth. His army attestation papers show he was five feet two inches tall (157 centimetres) with just a 31 inch chest (79 centimetres). He must have suffered terribly at the hands of childhood bullies and may have left his native Cheshire to begin life afresh where nobody knew him.

He tried to join up for war service six times but was rejected because of poor physique. After being accepted at the seventh attempt, he found himself passed rapidly from regiment to regiment like a bad penny. He first joined the York and Lancasters, but on mobilization was transferred back into the army reserve to grow and gain strength. He was mobilized again eight months later but within another six months had been transferred to the Yorkshire Regiment. He managed three months there before being compulsorily transferred to the 5th (Cyclist) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. This was part of the Army Cycle Corps used for coastal defence work inside the United Kingdom. His situation seems to have improved for a while because he qualified as a signaller, but within a year his difficulties had returned and he was transferred to the West Yorkshire Regiment. A month later he was judged physically unfit for war service, permanently discharged, issued with an overcoat and sent home. Jimmy’s war was thus based in such far flung locations as Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Hartlepool and Aldershot. At no time did he see service in France.

Jimmy married while still in the army. He was almost twenty-five and his wife, let’s call her Beatrice, almost twenty-seven. They remained together for forty-seven years until she died. For some years they looked after one of Beatrice’s nephews but were unable to have children of their own. What Beatrice expected is not entirely clear, although she did once say to my grandmother she had little idea of what was supposed to happen on wedding nights, and remained just as mystified afterwards because nothing did. She seemed content to have settled for a marriage of crafts, hobbies and companionship.

Jimmy and Beatrice became grocers. Beatrice’s widowed mother had a corner shop in one of the town’s dense grid of terraced streets, so Jimmy moved in to help with the shop and eventually became the nominal owner. Beatrice did most of the work as Jimmy always found plenty of other things to occupy him. He became a churchwarden along with my grandfather, and a Sunday School teacher. He collected glassware and was a natty dresser, but his greatest joy was motoring. He advertised his services as an express courier and hence became one of the first in town with a private telephone and private motor car.

1922 Bullnose Morris
Uncle Jimmy with his 1922 Bullnose’ Morris on an outing to Bridlington in 1928.
In the car (right to left) are my father (in cap), his sister (in bonnet) and Jimmys wife’s nephew.

His first car was a 1922 ‘Bullnose’ Morris. My father said that whenever his own family took their annual week’s holiday, in those days always to one of the Yorkshire coastal resorts, Jimmy would arrive in his car to join them for a day. On other occasions he would take my father and his sister on trips to the coast. They had a clear memory of one happy outing when they drove under the arched bridge between Bridlington and Filey where the railway embankment crosses the road, when Jimmy jokingly forbade them to shout as they passed through, which of course they did, their high spirited voices echoing back to them in the open-topped car. On another occasion he took my aunt for a ride in an aeroplane at Speeton airfield.

At Speeton Airfield

In later years, after my grandparents had died, Jimmy and Beatrice became surrogate grandparents, especially to my cousins. In fact they remember Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Beatrice by far the more clearly. They spent hours reading, singing, playing games and looking after them. Beatrice shared her jigsaw puzzles and taught them to crochet. Jimmy was the only one with the patience to feed to my elder cousin her breakfast in the way she wanted, one cornflake at a time, even though he was supposed to be at work in his shop. My uncle described him, in bemused admiration, as the only man he knew who had managed to get through life without working.

Eventually Jimmy and Beatrice retired from the grocers shop and moved for around fifteen years to a large house in a green and leafy part of town overlooking the river, but after Beatrice died Jimmy moved back to the same terraced street they had lived in previously, and was very lonely and unhappy. It was by then the nineteen-sixties. Society was changing and the street had lost its sense of community. Jimmy was a frequent visitor both to our house and my cousins’, arriving in his car, always a Morris. He showed a lifelong loyalty to the Morris marque.

Jimmy lived to eighty-one. During his last illness, unable to eat, he turned to my aunt for help and she told him she thought he should be in hospital. “All right,” he said, “but let’s have a cig first. We’ll have one of yours.” It was his last one. My aunt, a nurse, looked after him during his final days, and in dealing with his most intimate needs was disturbed to observe just how incompletely developed he was, “more female than male” she later confided.

Again, we were spared the details but some years ago, thirty five years after his death, I looked at Jimmy’s army service record in an online genealogy resource. It included Army Form B, 178A, Medical Report on a Soldier Boarded Prior to Discharge or Transfer to Class W, W(T), P or P(T), of the Reserve. Across the various sections of the form I was dismayed to read:

Feminism. Undesirability of retaining with hommes militesque. Congenital. Poor physique from infancy and puberty. Pain with equipment. Tastes and habits male. Married 12 months, no children. Enlarged breasts, female type, none secretial. Poor general physique. R. testicle incompletely descended. Penis abnormally short. Embryonic pocket in scrotal line. Voice female. Was rejected 6 times on grounds of physique and accepted the 7th time. Discharge as permanently unfit.

And what of his sister, a back-slapping sporty woman who my mother said should have been brought up a boy. She also married but after several years her husband was granted an annulment. She then became a champion ladies golfer who represented her county. It was said she astonished other golfers by driving consistently long distances from the men’s tees. She spent her life organising competitions and golfing associations, and was still playing in veterans’ tournaments at the age of seventy. Did she have a similar congenital condition? We can now easily see that there were four other siblings who survived into adulthood. What about them? They seem to have produced few children and grandchildren.

Today, abnormal sexual development is much better understood than when Jimmy and his sister were born in the eighteen-nineties. For example, research into sex hormones did not make any real progress until the nineteen-thirties. The various conditions are now handled sympathetically and have a range of treatments. How very different from when Jimmy and his sister were young. What desperately miserable and lonely episodes they must have endured. Yet to us, Uncle Jimmy always seemed happy and jovial. He was kind and thoughtful, very much loved. I think we must have given him something of the family life he would never otherwise have had.

There was one last thing we could do for him. It was saddening to see his medical record on public display. Although British Army First World War service and pension records, if they survive, are now accessible through online genealogical resources, medical records are usually confidential. We wrote to the National Archives at Kew to ask whether it was possible, on the grounds of respect and decency, to remove the medical report from the online resource, to which they agreed. Genuine researchers can still go to Kew, look up the microfiche copy of his army service record, and find Army Form B178A included, but in the online version it is no longer there.*

In wanting to tell Jimmy’s sad and touching story, albeit with names changed, and in quoting from the form, I hope I am not indulging in the kind of prurience we want to avert.

* Unfortunately, since the original post, other genealogical resource providers have been permitted to scan the documents and it is now visible on several sites.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Brain Fog

Levothyroxine 100 microgram tablets

Another blogger recently described being in a very familiar place but feeling he had never been there before. He was unsure of the way home. It must have been an alarming sensation.

I’ve had similar experiences: inability to think or concentrate; forgetting things; feeling lost; mental fatigue. Secretly, you think you might have dementia.

A particular incident stands out. I forgot where I had left my car. It was usually in one of three places. If early to work, I would go for one of two car parks nearby. If later, I would use another a ten-minute walk away. I always remembered which.

One evening I walked back to the wrong car park. I set off for the distant one but just before getting there remembered the car was in one of the others. Annoyed with myself, I turned back. But which of the others was it in? Was it in either? I could not remember. No, it was in the more distant one after all. I turned round again. Or was it? I must have walked there and back twice.

Confused, I returned to work and sat quietly for a time, perhaps half an hour. I phoned home to let them know I was late, without saying why. Eventually, I decided the car must be in the distant car park after all. After quickly glancing round the two nearer ones, I set off again and found it, by that time one of just a few still there. What a relief. 

It was not the only incident. There was the time I missed a regular turning off the motorway and drove for some distance without realising. There were two or three mornings I dropped the children at school and was flashed by other motorists for vacantly crawling along at fifteen miles an hour. I tried to make a cardboard model for my son but could not make sense of the instructions. Out on a work visit, I got lost for much too long in South Manchester and later sat in someone’s office unable to take in much of what they were saying (I made appropriate noises and hopefully got away with it). There were times when my walking felt awkward and disjointed. I fell asleep all the time: like, at half past nine in the morning.

I kept it to myself. You do. Although Mrs. D. did observe bluntly: “There must be something wrong with you when you need to go to sleep at half past nine in the morning.”

In due course I mentioned it to the doctor. I was there about something else but mentioned about feeling extremely tired recently. I didn’t tell him everything: I was too afraid of failing the “What year is it? Who is the Prime Minister? Can you read this address? By the way, what was that address I asked you to read five minutes ago?” examination. He thought it best to do a blood test.

And the result: underactive thyroid. He was surprised. I don’t look like an underactive thyroid. I tend to be underweight. It is four times more common in women than in men. Yet, I had high levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (which means the pituitary is trying to compensate for the underproduction of actual thyroid hormone). It should normally be between 0.4 to 4.0 milliunits per litre. Mine was nearly 10.

I have had to take Levothyroxine every day since. It takes several monthly tests and dosage adjustments to get it right, and then needs to be checked annually, but once it right is you become aware of odd things such as how brittle your nails had become, and that the outer ends of your eyebrows had thinned to nothingness.

That was fifteen years ago. It seems to be sorted now. Either that or I’ve still got it and am too far gone to know.

As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. Hypothyroidism is one of the things that gets you free NHS prescriptions before the age of 60. It’s a bit of a cheek really. It is disturbing to be diagnosed with a “chronic condition” in your fifties until you realise it is hardly any inconvenience at all. Far more serious things don’t get you free prescriptions. Cynic that I am, I suspect that when the list of exemptions was drawn up in the nineteen-fifties, there must have been some government advisor with an underactive thyroid. 

Lots of other things can cause brain fog too, such as stress, lack of sleep, hormonal changes, dietary deficiencies, food allergies, medications and quite a number of medical conditions. For example, see:

Thursday, 25 June 2020

A Very British Revolution

Thatcher: A Very British Revolution (BBC)

I have been enjoying very much the re-runs of Thatcher: A Very British Revolution each night on BBC2 this week (the last one is tonight). I missed it when shown the first time last year.

Having lived through the period, and perhaps not always taken full notice of what was happening, it has been fascinating to watch this open-minded account of her rise and fall, to see the archive news footage and to hear the reflections of the likes of Michael Heseltine, Norman Tebbit, Nigel Lawson, and especially her press secretary Bernard Ingham, personal assistant Cynthia Crawford and speech writer Michael Dobbs (who later wrote House of Cards). It is very even-handed, and all from the supposedly lefty-ridden BBC!

At the time, a lot of people in the circles I moved hated her apparent impassiveness over the communities her policies destroyed, but the series gives you a sneaking admiration for the woman in giving leadership and having some kind of vision of how the country should be run. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have something more like that now! I think she was undoubtedly right that the coal mines and the unions could not continue as they were, but I still think the privatisations a step too far (despite having profited from them).

Anyway, I’m not going to say more. If you want a review, I like Lucy Mangan’s in The Guardian. My own position is perhaps a little to the right of this, but not much.

Even better, the five-episode series is available for the next 11 months on iPlayer. It’s brilliant.


Saturday, 20 June 2020

More from the IR Night Camera

A further compilation of video clips from the infra-red night camera (6 minutes)

Only one hedgehog this time: they seem to have abandoned us after the dry weather last month. However, the one that did appear put in a sterling performance trying to find biscuits it could smell but not reach.

Instead, we have been thinking up jumping and climbing and tricks for the field mice that live under the shed. I am fairly sure they are field mice and not house mice because they are lighter coloured underneath. We placed hedgehog biscuits on top of bricks and upturned plant pots so they had to climb, jump or run along a wooden ruler to pick up biscuits in their mouths and carry them away to safety.

This compilation is 6 minutes long. Some of the things in it (with timings):
  • 0.00: mice climb and jump up to increasingly high bricks and plant pots; eventually they are too high for some mice to jump up.
  • 1:20 the hedgehog appears and seems to be able to smell the hedgehog biscuits on the stool, but cannot reach them.
  • 2:02: mouse cannot climb the stool.
  • 2.35: “Black Kitty” shows interest but does not eat any biscuits.
  • 3.00: mouse does not try to climb knotted string.
  • 3.34: mouse picks up one biscuit and accidently kicks the other off the bricks.
  • 3.38: robin.
  • 4.51: mouse tries to jump across to bricks and misses.
  • 5.40: mouse climbs bricks, walks along ruler and steals biscuit from snail (this is the clip used in the previous post “Snail Bogeys”).

Friday, 12 June 2020

Snail Bogeys

Children can be very fussy eaters. I was. As was my brother: for years and years, the only vegetable he would eat was peas. It might be genetic. One of our cousins would only eat one cornflake at a time.

Well, you reap what you sow, as they say, and in due course I experienced the joy of being a parent of fussy eaters myself. “I’m not eating that,” they would complain, “I don’t like it. It’s revolting.” Or “Yuk! It’s covered in nasty stuff”, or “Errrgghh! What are all these black bits in it?” and in the end you run out of patience and snap back at them: “They’re snail bogeys”.

It does not help.

But I had coined a phrase and in due course it became a family saying:

“What’s this?” “What’s for tea?”

“Snail bogeys!”

The kids tell me, should the blood line survive, that in two hundred years time there will be some exasperated descendant yelling at their infant offspring to eat up their food and “stop being so faddy because there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s only snail bogeys,” without either of them having any idea that one of their ancestors was the brilliant wordsmith who coined the expression.

Talking of snails, here is a still from the infra-red night camera mentioned in last month’s posts (it will take a day or two to compile another video of selected clips). You can see a hedgehog biscuit placed in the middle of a suspended wooden ruler, and a snail that has crawled along to consume it. This is one of the jumping and climbing tricks we have been dreaming up for the field mice that live under the shed, except the snail got there first.

Being cold blooded, it is not the snail that has activated the camera; it has been set off by Mummy Mouse on the ground. She bravely scales the bricks, nimbly tiptoes along the ruler and snatches the hedgehog biscuit right out of the jaws of the snail, from under its very nose. She dashes back down the bricks with it and darts under the shed to feed her mouse babies who are waiting for their tea. Because they are ours – i.e. they live in our garden – they too are fussy eaters.

“I’m not eating that,” they say, “It’s disgusting.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” she yells at them, “Get it eaten.”

“But what are these slimy bits?” they say.

“Snail bogeys!” she snaps at them.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Review - Penelope Lively: A House Unlocked

Penelope Lively: 
A House Unlocked (4*)

As a child, Penelope Lively often stayed at her grandparents’ country house, Golsoncott, between Dunster and Watchet in Somerset. Years later, when the house was sold, the contents brought back memories of the people who had lived there, and caused her to reflect upon how life had changed. It is twentieth century social history.

Bill Bryson used a similar idea in At Home (reviewed here) in which the layout of his nineteenth century Norfolk house triggered a collection of topics about the history of private life. It is interesting to contrast the two. Bryson is readable and entertaining; Lively is weightier and more demanding. Bryson writes about anything that takes his fancy, especially the eccentric or sensational; Lively is focussed and thorough. Bryson leaves me amused but wondering why I bothered; Lively leaves me with much to think about; Bryson is the livelier writer, Lively the deeper and more sentient.

At Golsoncott, plants in the garden lead to tales of Victorian shrub collectors who roamed Asia in search of new specimens. A picnic rug and a painting generate discussions of the differences between town and country, how they regard each other, and how these things have altered over time. A prayer book sparks off an account of churchgoing and its decline, contrasting Lively’s own ambivalence with her grandmother’s certainty.

In other chapters, Lively writes of wartime evacuees, a Russian friend who had fallen upon hard times, and an orphaned teenage boy who had escaped from Vienna just before the war, all of whom lived for a time at Golsoncott. She tells how they came to be there: “It is fascinating to contemplate with the wisdom of hindsight the trajectories of utterly disparate lives that will one day intersect” (p87).

The book becomes more personal as Lively compares her grandparents’ marriage with her own and contemplates how the roles of husbands and wives have changed. She, herself, grew independent of traditional expectations by taking a post as a research assistant at Oxford University. There, she heard talk of a bright new research fellow called Jack Lively whose name “sounded like a character in an eighteenth-century novel.” They were married within a year. As she says, they met “in the clear blue air of higher education, both … freed from the assumptions and expectations of [their] backgrounds.” It would have been nigh impossible for a girl from the southern gentry to meet and marry a young man from the northern working class in a previous age.

There was, however, an earlier independent-minded woman in the family, her aunt, the artist Rachel Reckitt, who had little time for convention. She was the last inhabitant of Golsoncott before its sale in 1995.  Lively’s grandfather was a grandson of the Hull industrialist Isaac Reckitt who made his money from the manufacture of starch: the firm later became known as Reckitt and Colman. Her grandfather, an architect, did not go into the firm, but one his sons became chairman.

The book visits Lively’s recurring themes and concerns throughout: memory, past and present, and personal history. Moments that once were the present are overlaid by re-interpretations. Sometimes, “it seems that the sunlight through the wisteria spattered the veranda tiles in exactly the same way in 1995 as … in 1945” (p83). She finds a rusting iron bedstead in a pigeon loft and sees the room where the fifteen-year-old Viennese boy slept, “thinking in another language, his head full of images far removed from west Somerset, hearing the same peaceable pigeon rumblings … heard still”.
“Now I am the commentator … I have double vision: fifty years ago is both now, and then. It is all still going on, quite clear and normal, the world as I know it, but those other eyes see a frozen moment … ahead lies everything that will happen … life and death, and beneath that the shifting sands of public events.” (p202).
She is right. For example, I could go back to Leeds and walk the route I used to take to work fifty years ago. I would see both what is there now and what used to be there, all still going on, clear and normal, but that would be another blog post. 

I picked up A House Unlocked from the books that came from my late mother-in-law, after reading Treasures of Time (reviewed here), and have now sent off for Moon Tiger.

STOP PRESS - 10th June 2020
Golsoncott is currently on the market. The estate agent's pdf has external and internal pictures. Oh to win the lottery! See 

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 

Monday, 1 June 2020

New Month Old Post: M Dunham Are Crap

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

(First posted 1st September 2014)

“That’s wrong” said Geoffrey Bullard, with his thick ape-neck and menacing stare. “It should be M Dunham is crap”. His fat finger stabbed at the offending word.

He thought he knew everything, and everyone else was stupid. It was too risky to explain. Football teams are plural: Rawcliffe United are great this year; Howden Town are terrible; M Dunham are crap. You can chant it:
M Dunham are crap,
M Dunham are crap,
Ee aye addio,
M Dunham are crap.

A league match between M Dunham and T Dunham c1960

It was my dad who first pretended we were football teams in a league. He was B Dunham, I was T Dunham, my brother Martin was M Dunham, and M Dunham were crap. It said so in red wax crayon on the back of the asbestos garage where Geoffrey Bullard had spotted it.

I didn’t realise that wax crayon on asbestos panelling is like permanent marker: waterproof, indelible, not-fade-away. There it was, and there it must have stayed for decades. Imagine the disapproving faces that pitied the ignorant child responsible, and wondered who was M Dunham, and why was he crap.

So, Geoffrey Bullard remained oblivious of the imaginary football teams, and, when he wasn’t round at our house bullying me, I could play imaginary football games in the 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 footballers.

I ran up and down with the 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, the 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 like ‘Top European Football Manager III’, but my fantasy was played in the back garden, much healthier for all the running around in the fresh air, with better transferrable skills from the manual record keeping, and no less unsociable than games consoles.

T Dunham were 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 colliery, the dockers and the railwaymen, and teams from pubs and local villages. I picked my players for each match and posted their names on the wall inside our team hut, in other words the yellow shed.

The team was always set out in traditional 1-2-3-5 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, my position the only time I had ever been selected for the school team. 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 the same moment he spotted it, ‘Bullard’ was centre-half.

“Why am I only 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 scorer in the forward line.

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

But the wax crayon was still on the garage, and in due course my mother saw 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. She took me aside and asked in her quiet way: “Was it you who wrote in wax crayon on the back of the garage? 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 serious. “It means babba.” *

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

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

* It seems that using 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, also seems to be mainly 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 heard. It goes to show how much things have changed.