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Sunday, 9 September 2018

Articled Clerk

Chartered Accountant's articled clerk recruitment ads

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

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

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

“He’s got a shop – Millwoods”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1968 payslips

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

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

* Fee paying boarding schools near York.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Old and New Cars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1972 Mini Van in BMC Flame Red
My 1972 Mini Van

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Yellow Shed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Monday, 20 August 2018

Review - Adam Kay: This is Going to Hurt

Adam Kay
This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor (4*)

This book does make you hurt: you hurt laughing out loud at Adam Kay’s observations, you screw your face up and cringe at his descriptions of injuries and objects in patient’s orifices, you cry when things go wrong and you hurt with sheer anger at the politicians and managers of “change” that have brought the British National Health Service to present state. There is little wonder that doctors leave the profession or go abroad because of the demands they face.

You can see why the book is one of the best and fastest selling this year. It is very readable, in daily diary sized sections. I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed. Get the paperback which has additional content over the hardback first edition.

It may be unjust to score it 4* rather than 5* but that’s only because I am unlikely to read it again. I enjoyed it immensely.
 
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, 12 August 2018

Review - Chris Packham: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

Chris Packham
Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: a memoir (4*)

Chris Packham’s book is simultaneously both brilliant and irritating.

Take the poetic brilliance of his imagery: 

… the thrush’s silver-throated voice fell like pocketfuls of marbles down a church staircase … the song smelled of hailstones …

… the bird stands chopping air, fluttering and then rolling down smooth, slipping and then sliding away to ring a curve across the storm until it pitches at its apex and begins to dance with the wind, its plumes constantly shaken, folding and flicking to steer it still and … balance broken it tumbles and steadies with a twist of grey – cloud-licked and clean, now measuring the weight of the sky again.

It could be Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But the book is also irritating. It flutters back and forth through time, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes in the present tense, sometimes in the past, sometimes from his own perspective, sometimes from someone else’s. The descriptions go on much too long, with too much intensity, without letting up, like a fanatic with Asperger syndrome prattling high-speed, non-stop on an obscure topic.

That’s because Chris Packham does have Asperger syndrome.

I first noticed he was strange some years ago when he presented a programme with, as is so often the case, an attractive and much younger female presenter. It is always interesting with two presenters to look at the one not speaking. Whereas most continue to look convivially at the camera, with perhaps an occasional glance at their co-presenter, Chris Packham stared fixedly at his co-host in a creepy, if not unwholesome manner. One wondered what he could be thinking.

The year after that he revealed he had Asperger Syndrome, a disorder characterised by difficulties in social interaction. It entirely explains his awkwardness and his immense knowledge of the natural world.

‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’ gives a vivid impression of growing up with Asperger’s, so much so that you almost experience it for yourself.


The natural detail is phenomenal, the nineteen-sixties and –seventies childhood cultural backdrop faultless. There is cruelty and tragedy – he had to kill a fox he was unable to free from a snare with a blow to the head. There is humour – his mother refused to let him see One Million Years B.C. because the poster featured a scantily-clad Raquel Welch with legs akimbo, yet he was only interested in the dinosaurs, not what was going on between her legs (not until he eventually did get to see the film that is). And there is bullying, of which he himself is the recurring recipient, an unlikeable and solitary child obsessed with falconry, tadpoles, birds’ eggs and all things animal. It makes for intense and painful reading.

We are all on the spectrum somewhere, some of us further than others. Whenever I take a self-test (e.g. https://psychcentral.com/quizzes/autism-test/ ) I always fall well into the “autism or Asperger’s likely” bracket. I wish I’d known about Asperger’s when younger. It might have saved me a lot of pain. But no one had heard of it then. I even did a psychology degree without it being mentioned. I am nowhere near as bad Chris Packham though.

 
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. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Mrs. Quackworth

With the Operatic Society around 1920
Until I was ten or eleven I had to share a bedroom with my younger brother. We were sent to bed at the same time, which meant he got to stay up later than I had at his age and I had to go sooner than I thought I should. Not only that, but bedrooms were bedrooms in those days, and bed meant bed: curtains drawn, lights out, no entertainments, no talking or even books. Beds were for sleeping.

It was not even dark in summer. We could hear Timmy from next door-but-one bumping along the pavement on his trolley, made from a long board and some old pram wheels. We were in bed but he was still playing out at ten o’clock at night. That was really unfair. He was two years younger than me.

Downstairs we could hear the next-door neighbour talking with our parents. She sounded like a duck, as did her name.

“Mrs. Quackworth,” I quacked in my best duck voice. 

“Mrs. Ackworth,” Martin corrected me.

“Mrs. Quackworth.”

“Mrs. Ackworth,” he said more loudly.

“What’s a quack worth?”

“MRS. ACKWORTH” he yelled, lengthening each syllable as he shouted.

“MIIISSIIIS AAAAAACK WORRRRTH.”

Downstairs, the conversation stopped.

“Why is Martin calling me?”

“Shut up and go to sleep,” mother shouted up the stairs.

“That boy’s spoilt!” Mrs. Ackworth said.

*                             *                              *

I don’t know how she put up with us. We would run around, yelling at the tops of our voices:

“WHAT A GOAL!”

“FOUL! SEND HIM OFF!”

“WHOAAAAAAA! YEEEAAAYYY! WHEEEEEE!”

The ball rattled against the fence, thudded into her French windows, bounced across her garden and flattened her plants. We climbed over her rockery and ran across the lawn to retrieve it leaving a trail of dislodged stones and scuff marks.

We had muck-chucking battles with Timmy whose house was the other side of hers, depositing debris and detritus across her path. She rarely complained as she swept it up. One day we used blackberries as ammunition, stolen from the allotments near the railway, too bitter to eat. Most went astray, leaving lasting purple stains on her green shed. Stray brambles grew around her garden for some years afterwards.

I was six when we moved in next door. Mrs. Ackworth seemed ancient, but she would still have been only in her fifties. She had a deep, cultured, musical voice which had for several years gained her leading contralto parts with the local operatic society, although it had since been ruined by smoking – giving a duck sound. In her day, she had sung all around Yorkshire. Newspapers had said she was one of the best contraltos in the county. She listened to classical music on the wireless, talked about opera and the arts, and helped with the local Conservatives. The effect was formidable. She was always “Mrs. Ackworth”, never “Ethel”. People thought her fearsome.

Despite more than a twenty year age difference, she struck up a close friendship with our mother who had the knack of taking people as she found them.

“She only came from a fish and chip shop,” mother told us when we said she frightened us and asked why they were always in and out of each others’ houses, “and it’s lonely in a house on your own.”

Mrs. Ackworth had lived there the thirty years since her marriage, but her husband had died just a few months later leaving her with little means of support. Male admirers quickly gathered to help, admirers of her voice you understand, especially a wealthy property owner, himself married and twenty-eight years her senior, who set her up with a small milliners shop. She had been at school with his eldest daughter. It was said that during the nineteen thirties, when cars were rare, there would be only one in the street, her benefactor’s car, parked late at night outside her house. There were rumours they had toured Europe together. When he died he left her a considerable sum of money but his family somehow managed to deprive her of it.

Mrs. Ackworth used to watch us from the kitchen window as we played in the garden. It felt intrusive, but I know now she was thinking about the children she never had. She was distraught when we moved again after a decade or so, but we kept in touch through the years, through the inevitable succession of marriages, births and deaths. In effect, she became a surrogate grandma.

“You’d better go see Mrs. Ackworth,” my brother and I were told when we were home, and so we did, to sit and be criticised beside her coal fire and look out through her French windows at the rockery, lawn and shed. Later, we took our wives, and then our children. The house still had all the original nineteen-twenties fixtures, with kitchen cupboards and fireplaces with grained paintwork. Her furniture was of the same period too, or older. Her face brightened like the sun on seeing she had visitors.

“Mrs. Quackworth,” the children would say.

“They're spoilt. You’ll turn that girl into a proper trivet.”

The house smelled of cigarettes and boiled rabbit, and she always had a bottle of sherry on the go on the sideboard. Age made her more and more outspoken. We used to say we went to be insulted.

“What colour is that you're wearing? Grey? How drab! And what’s the matter with your hair? Are you going bald?”

“Your father says he’s going to give up smoking. I can’t see why. He’s not a smoker. One or two a day doesn’t count.” She considered herself a proper smoker: one or two packets a day.

One day she found him waiting for his pension in the Post Office. “What are you doing in here taking up a space?” she said to the amusement of the long queue. “Surely you don’t have any need for your pension, not you with all your money.”

She complained he had offered her a lift home “in case I had any heavy bottles to carry” she told us. “Anyone would think I was a drinker.”

She stayed active into her nineties, making the coal fire in the mornings, trudging to the supermarket for shopping and carrying home her heavy bottles. We were beginning to think she would outlive us all. When the time eventually came and her will was found there was a surprise in store. Although it was not worth anything like as much as she might have imagined, and a fifth of what it would fetch today, my brother and I were astonished to discover she had left us the house. For just a few weeks, the open fireplaces, grained paintwork, French windows, green shed, rockery and garden belonged to us. I swear if we had looked carefully enough, we could have found stray brambles still growing in the dark corners.

Some months later, my father bumped into Timmy’s parents shopping in town.

“We see Mrs. Ackworth’s house is sold at last,” they said. “The end of an era! Does anyone know what happened to her money?”

My father struggled to hold his tongue.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

This Hi-de-Hi Government

So Theresa May has appointed Dominic Raab as Brexit Secretary following David Davis’s resignation.

Does anyone else think he looks like Simon Cadell?

Does Dominic Raab look like Simon Cadell?

Simon Cadell (1950-1996) was best known for his portrayal of Jeffrey Fairbrother in the BBC situation comedy Hi-de-Hi, which Wikipedia describes as being set in a fictional holiday camp, revolving around the lives of the camp’s entertainers, most of them struggling actors or has-beens.

More than just a visual resemblance then. Just perfect for this Hi-de-Hi government.

Hi-de-Ho!