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Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Too Much Television

New month old post, originally posted as part of a longer post on the 19th September 2014. The other part of which was used at the beginning of last month.

We weren’t the last, but late enough for others to exclaim in disbelief: “What! You really don’t have a television?”

Dad thought them a mindless waste of time. After hours talking at work, he was happy to settle down to a book, or poetry, or his bible readings from church, or the B.B.C. “Book at Bedtime”. Mum, when not finishing housework, would be knitting, reading novels from the library or learning lines for her twice-yearly parts with a local drama group. I got through two or three library books a week too, and still had time for other worthwhile activities, not to mention homework. No one needed a television. There was always plenty to do. We were one of the last to have an X- or H-shaped aerial on the chimney stack.

My first viewing memories are therefore all on other peoples’ sets: school friends, the neighbour who regularly invited Mum, with me in tow, to watch ‘Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, another relative who let me watch football cup finals on Saturday afternoons, and one of my Mum’s aunts where I went once a week after school for tea. I remember the now forgotten Don Arrol’s brief stint as Palladium compere when he stood in for the ill Bruce Forsyth in 1960, the 1958 FA cup final when Bolton Wanderers beat a tragically depleted Manchester United after the Munich air disaster, and seemingly no end of escapist adventure series on Granada Television which was then the newly-licenced commercial provider for the whole of the North of England.

How many can you remember? How many theme tunes can you still sing? There was ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘Bonanza’, ‘Rawhide’, ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, ‘The Adventures of William Tell’, ‘The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin’, ‘The Adventures of Long John Silver’, and ‘The Buccaneers’, to name but a few. The only theme tune I can’t remember is ‘The Buccaneers’, despite it being one of my favourite series. The tune was simply unmemorable. But I can still sing you the standby music used by Granada Television before programmes started at five o’clock.

Dad eventually surrendered to the inevitable and bought a set around 1962. I watched the first Transatlantic transmissions over the Telstar satellite in July of that year at home.

But all the many “worthwhile activities” soon disappeared. A year later I was watching the indisputably inane quiz show ‘Take Your Pick’ (the one in which Michael Miles tried to trick contestants into using the word “No”) when news of President Kennedy’s assassination came through. Within a few years, some programmes had become part of the bedrock of British society watched by more than half the population, and activities outside the home gradually dwindled away. For me, homework took second place on Thursdays when ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ were on.

Dad remained a bastion of common sense. As soon as the television was turned on, he retired to his books, radio and other activities. I’m not quite that good, but I do try. Think of all the skills and knowledge lost to all that television. What goes around comes around. While I sit here trying desperately to improve my writing skills and perfect my pirate voice, my family sit the other room watching that embodiment of triviality, ‘The X factor’. 

originally posted as part of a longer post on the 19th September 2014

Monday, 23 January 2023

Mick Copier

Most university lecturers work very hard (at least in my experience). They spend hours planning teaching and helping students, and give up too many of their evenings and weekends dealing with email. I also used to put in further time carrying out research, writing academic papers and applying for external funding. With some success, I might add.

Yet I always had a sneaking regard for those who did basically what was asked of them and little more. One such colleague was called Mick Copier.

I first came across him when I still worked in the software industry. My employer sent me on a course in SSADM (Structured Systems Analysis and Design Method) and Mick was on the same course. Around a year later I got a job at the same university where he worked and found myself sharing an office with him. If truth be told, the course helped me get the job and Mick put in a good word for me.

Part of my role involved visiting students out on their work placement years. Late one morning, arriving back on the train, I was surprised to see Mick at the railway station. “Are you on a placement visit too?” I asked him. “No,” he said, “I’ve done all I need to do today so I thought I would have an afternoon out in York.”

Mick based much of his teaching around the SSADM course we have both been on. I sometimes used it too, but Mick took it to extremes. Every June, our office would fill up with boxes from the reprographics room. Soon they were stacked four or five high and three or four deep. They were his teaching materials for the next academic year. From October to April, all he then had to do was to hand out these pre-prepared notes and worksheets week-by-week and guide the students through them. They nicknamed him Mick Photocopier.

To be fair, he was extremely knowledgeable, and the students liked and respected him.

With his preparation all finished, Mick  then took all his holiday in one block over the summer. While workaholics like me spent our time writing and researching obsessively, he kept a boat on the River Ouse and could comfortably make it to the Mediterranean and back on the French canals. One day I would be like that, I told myself.

Mick came unstuck in the end. Well, sort of. The university decided it needed to reduce the number of lecturers and began a redundancy consultation. I survived, largely because of my research output. Mick didn’t. Instead, he accepted a large voluntary severance payment and walked straight into a new and highly paid position with a nearby passenger transport authority, restructuring their database of bus and train timetables. He even took some of our students on placement. He knew what he was doing, in more ways than one.

I never did get to be like Mick. I think now that I drove myself far too hard.

Sunday, 15 January 2023

Night Cleaner

My mother would have said it was the only proper job I ever had. Being stuck in an accountants’ office didn’t count. Nor did poncing around in universities. But twelve-hour nights in a canning factory, well, that was the kind of work her family had always done, and people from her village too.

I was a night cleaner: not the sort of cleaner that normally comes to mind with mops, buckets and toilets, but sturdier stuff involving wellington boots, waterproofs and hosepipes. Our job was to clean the factory machinery overnight in readiness for the following day’s production. I spent three university summers there. It was very well paid.

Some of the permanent employees resented the students for the easy opportunities they had, especially Ken the electrician. His job seemed mainly to keep everything covered in a thick layer of grease to protect switches and circuits from all the water swilling around, but it was no match for our high pressure hoses. From the ladders we climbed to wash stray peas and other vegetables from the hoppers and seamers, it was impossible not to short-circuit his electrics now and again. It sent him apoplectic.

“Call yourselves bloody students? You don’t even have the intelligence you were born with. What the hell do they teach you at university? You can’t even piss straight.”

I once accidentally filled his toolbox trolley with water, the stream from my hose tracing a perfect arc across the factory ceiling. What he thought of that is unrepeatable. It involved the contents of my underpants and what would happen to them were I to do it again. 

The “regulars” knew how to keep the students in their place. The names they gave us, the sayings they used, the jokes they told, were outrageous. Mick, another night shift “regular”, had one of the most creative and imaginative senses of vulgarity I have encountered. He said if anyone tried to drink his tea while he was in the “bog” (toilet), he would tear open their throat and get it back while it flowed through. He didn’t just spit in his cup to make sure no one drank from it, he rubbed a certain part of his anatomy round the rim.

When Nevil Shute (in ‘Slide Rule’) wrote that people from this part of the world were “brutish and uncouth, … the lowest types … ever seen in England, and incredibly foul mouthed”, he simply didn’t get it. It might have been unsophisticated, but it was clever and hilarious.

Donny, however, was different. He was gentle and softly-spoken. He was the night cleaning foreman, our boss. He did not put you down when you missed something, but patiently showed you what was wrong so that you gradually learnt the job. Being quiet, he came in for a lot of teasing from the other “regulars”.

Much of this took place in the factory canteen. Typically, we would start our shift at six in the evening and help in the factory until production ended. We would then take a meal break before the canteen closed. One of the canteen staff was called Josie, a divorced lady who lived in Donny’s village. With her lovely dark hair, she must have been extremely attractive when young. It was made out that Donny had a soft spot for her. This led to rampant invention about what Donny dreamed about. How often did he walk secretly past her house? When would he pluck up the courage to ask her out? Did he keep her picture on the wall next to his bed? Josie laughed, but was clearly embarrassed. Donny said nothing, but took it in his stride. 


The final year I worked at the canning factory was its last. It was to close permanently at the end of the season. The “regulars” were served with redundancy notices. During the final week only Donny and I were on nights. We often finished early except for in the yard where we had to wait for daylight. Donny asked if I would run him to his girlfriends’ in my Minivan, finish on my own outside when it was light, and clock off his time card at six, which I did. It was the first I had heard of a girlfriend. He revealed it was Josie. 

I didn’t see Donny again, but thirty years later I noticed an obituary notice in the local newspaper which my father always saved for me. It was Josie. The final line read, “With heartfelt condolences to Donny, her long-time loving partner”.

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Talk like a pirate

New month old post (first posted 19th September 2014)

Robert Newton: the man who taught us to talk like a pirate

Although we did not yet have a television set at home, I used to see Newton in ‘The Adventures of Long John Silver’ at great Aunty Gina’s, where I would go once each week after school for tea. The series was made in Australia in 1954, but by the time it appeared on our screens in England some three years later, he had died from heart failure brought about by chronic alcohol consumption. He had previously played the role in the film, ‘Treasure Island’, in 1950.

Newton’s idiosyncratic one-eyed, one-legged and parrot-shouldered portrayal of Silver was much parodied and instantly memorable. The wildly gyrating eyeball and oddly exaggerated throaty West Country accent became the stereotypical pirate for the next half-century. Its influences are still prominent in the 2003 film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. Two Americans even thought it fitting to declare September 19th each year to be ‘International Talk Like A Pirate Day’ when everyone should greet each other with phrases such as “Ahoy, matey!”, and liberally sprinkle their speech with the pirate growl, “Aaarrrh”.

Exactly how do you talk like a pirate? It strikes me that the opening lines of ‘To The Hesitating Purchaser’ which begins Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel ‘Treasure Island’ provides a great model. Newton recites it at the start of every episode:

         If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
         Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
         If schooners, islands, and maroons,
         And buccaneers and buried gold,
         And all the old romance, retold,
         Exactly in the ancient way,
         Can please, as me they pleased of old,
         The wiser youngsters of today:
         So be it (Aarrrh Aarrrh), and fall on!

Just growl it out, stretching and rhoticising the ‘r’s and omitting the ‘d’ out of ‘adventure’, and you’ll sound pretty authentic.

To tell you the truth, I preferred the cleaner-cut, less eccentric Captain Dan Tempest in ‘The Buccaneers’, which was also set in the sixteenth-century age of pirates. Tempest was an ex-pirate, pardoned by the King and turned privateer to fight other pirates and the despicable Spaniards. He never caught the public imagination in the same way as Long John Silver. Perhaps it was because he didn’t talk like a pirate.

Thursday, 1 December 2022

Airfix Modelling

New Month Old Post (first posted 14th August, 2014).

In 2009, I came across a magazine called ‘Down Your Way’ which published pieces submitted by readers. I was dismisses of most of the content, which was unjust because the best way to improve one’s writing is to write lots, and getting something into print gives the ultimate encouragement. Teenage Son had the right attitude:
    
“Well, if you’re so good, let’s see you get something in there.”

The result was ‘Airfix Modelling’, published the following year. It may not be entirely accurate, especially with regard to the present day, and there are other things I would change too, but I have resisted the urge to tinker. It seems to be trying too hard to entertain. I also dislike the captions used in the magazine (“model boyhood”, “glued to a hobby”) which were added by the editor.

It was, in effect, the start of this blog, although it did not appear in this form for some years. 


January 1, 1965.  Friday. Made F4 UID Corsair from Airfix, and also a station booking hall.
January 2, 1965. Saturday. Made Airfix station platform.

Most of us remember Airfix, the make-it-yourself model aeroplane kits. There were also ships, vehicles and even, it seems from my diary, railway buildings. The Airfix company flew off the ground, so to speak, in 1955, in a World War Two Supermarine Spitfire. It sold well and became the first of an enormous product range. For a couple of decades, Airfix was a very profitable business. Its faithfully reproduced, 1/72 scale models, came as injection-moulded plastic ‘trees’ of parts that slid and rattled enticingly inside their sturdy cardboard boxes. You broke off the parts one by one and glued them together with clear, stringy, cellulose adhesive, which the instructions called ‘cement’. You squeezed it out of a metal tube, releasing an exhilarating chemical vapour. 

Some parts, such as wings and the fuselage, were fairly large. Others, like the engines, fuel tanks and ailerons (to be an Airfix modeller you really had to get to grips with aero-terminology), were smaller, but still easy to handle. The tiniest parts, such as the pilot’s joystick, the propeller shaft and the machine gun barrels, which in the finished model were all supposed to move forwards, backwards, up, down and round in a realistic manner, usually ended up glued firmly to your fingers in a horrid sticky mess. You knew you were going to be spending the next couple of hours peeling rubbery ‘cement’ from your fingertips, nails, nose, hair, ears and any other exposed and unexposed bits of the body it had managed to stick to. 

You could always spot inexperienced Airfix modellers by what appeared to be globs of mucous matted into the sleeves of their jumpers. The best way to glue very small parts was to apply minute amounts of ‘cement’ with a pin or matchstick, but you needed to have progressed beyond the novice stage to know that.

Kits were graded according to difficulty, but that was not as helpful as it seemed. The easiest kits, with the largest parts, were also the smallest models. What boy, no matter how young and inexperienced, would truly want to build the smallest and easiest models, when the largest and most difficult had the most impressive pictures on their boxes?

For me, the ultimate was the Short Sunderland III Coastal Command’s Fighting Flying Boat, which came in a massive box with an all-action painting of four powerful engines, roaring away on a high-mounted aerofoil above a magnificent white hull, banking to the right on the lid. Once I had one, my younger brother had to have one too. It took my Dad ages to make it for him, about three months of sticky fingered Sunday afternoons, and the ruined sleeves of several jumpers.

You could literally spend weeks making Airfix aeroplanes, and that was only the first stage. Next came painting. The paints were in tiny containers. One brand was Humbrol, a Hull company that had originally made paint for bicycles. Their paint came in delightful tiny tinlets, with little metal lids you prised off with a coin, just like real full-sized paint tins. Airfix’s own brand was in little glass bottles, like nail varnish bottles with a brush fixed to the underside of the screw top. I liked gold and silver best. They looked dense and sparkly against the glass of their bottles, and glittered as they flowed from the point of your brush. 

Sadly, there was not much call for gold and silver. The largest aircraft surfaces, such as the wings and fuselage, tended to be green or blue. I found it impossible to apply the colour evenly over these large areas. I was so disappointed when, after painting a Dornier Do217E, one of the first models I made, a splendid World War Two German bomber with realistic rotating gun turrets and elevating barrels, it dried as patchily green as a forest canopy from the air. 

My disappointment was replaced by disbelief when my mother, with real enthusiasm, exclaimed, “Oh Tasker, it looks just like a real one!” Whether it really looked like a real one in camouflage, or whether she was just trying to cheer me up, I still do not know. 

You then had to apply the ‘decals’. You and I would call them ‘transfers’, but the instructions always called them ‘decals’. Looking this up now, I find it is short for decalcomania, derived from the French ‘decalquer’, a ceramic decorative craze from the 1870s, but let us stay with ‘transfers’. They came on a card from which, when moistened, you could slide the transfers on to the model. 

You positioned the German crosses, the RAF ‘roundels’ (red, white and blue rings to you and me) and other markings, exactly as they would be on the original, a finishing touch that made for a highly realistic model, although not realistic enough for some. Perfectionists took things a stage further using a repertoire of illusions, such as filing the bottoms of the wheels flat to give the impression of bulging pneumatic tyres.

There was just one overriding, inescapable problem with Airfix models. They did not actually fly. They were not that kind of model. You could only pretend to fly them. Holding them in your outstretched hand you could, climb, dive, yaw, pitch, roll, bank and loop around the living room, making terrifying explosive sounds and screaming engine noises as you machine-gunned the family cat. Mind you, Sooty the cat had his own ideas about that and was pretty adept at leaping acrobatically up from the floor and smashing the model out of your hand with his teeth and claws, gouging out a couple of strips of flesh in the process. What would Churchill have given for air defences like that in the war? Enemy bombers ferociously snatched out of the air and disembowelled by batteries of enormous furry felines. The Battle of Britain would never have happened, and Churchill’s ‘never in the field of human conflict’ speech would have had to be completely different.

Alternatively, you could admire your models standing on the bookcase in your bedroom, until they got squashed beyond recognition by a busy mother with a pile of sheets and blankets. Or, you could hang them from the ceiling with invisible threads of black cotton, except that the Short Sunderland III Flying Boat was so heavy it would have necessitated a length of steel cable, a Bob the Builder safety helmet, and a rolled steel joist up in the roof. You could end up with a couple of dozen models suspended in perpetual dogfights all around your bedroom, until one day, when light had rotted the cotton, and you had imperceptibly grown a few more tenths of an inch taller, you inadvertently nudged one with your head, sending it crashing to the floor in a plume of accumulated dust that hung thick in the air like smoke, as you accidentally tripped on your model and trod it into the carpet.

To be truthful, there was not a great deal you could do with the finished models. The interest was in the making of them. It taught you patience and perseverance, and gave you confidence in the use of terms like fuselage, ailerons and landing gear, admirable qualities and skills even today. 

It seems hardly anyone makes Airfix models these days. The activity fell into decline from the late ‘70s and the company went bankrupt. Ownership of the rights went through several financial crises and takeovers, with at one point Airfix being owned by Humbrol, the paint company. You can still buy the kits, but at prices that in 1965 would probably just about have bought you the real thing. Those who do still make them are as likely to be adults as children. A fifteen-year-old boy who made model aeroplanes today would need to keep pretty quiet about it to avoid being beaten up at school. 

Maybe the increase in the cost of plastics contributed to the decline, or maybe it was more down to social change and the emergence of computer games. One thing that did not occur to many of us in 1965 was that for some fifteen-year old-boys, breathing cellulose vapour would become an entire pastime in itself, rather than just a small part of the pleasure of model making.

I remember the American Corsair fighter mentioned in the diary as the last model I made. The first had been a Fairey Swordfish, an early World War Two torpedo biplane with fiddly wing struts. But other parts of my diary show that by fifteen my interests were poised to move on, from making models at home to more outgoing things in the real world, although I know now I still had some way to go. 

“You still have,” said Teenage Son, unimpressed.
 

[Originally published as ‘An Essential Piece of Kit in a Model Boyhood’ by Tasker Dunham in Down Your Way: Yorkshire’s Nostalgic Magazine, Issue 145, January 2010, pages 46-48. ISSN 1365  8506. Country Publications Ltd., Skipton, North Yorkshire.]
 

Thursday, 10 November 2022

Thanks

Thank you for all your good wishes on yesterday's post. 

It has been harder to post than I thought.

I am going to take a few week's break from blogging. 


Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Cancer Treatment

I am not all that keen to post this, and not everyone will want to read it, but if it helps anyone then it’s worthwhile. These things need to be talked about. We can find interest and enrichment in the most unlikely situations. 

Until this year I thought I was a healthy and active seventy-something year-old enjoying jobs around the home, gardening, walking, music, and so on. Here I am along one of our local lanes. As you can see, we are not serious cyclists. 

Old git with bike (or git with old bike)

Then J found me unconscious and having a fit. I eventually recovered enough to walk out to the emergency ambulance and two nights in hospital. The only warning was swirling black and white patterns in my upper right visual field. An MRI scan found a small tumour in the occipital lobe at the back of my brain. This was causing swelling which led to the seizure. The occipital handles some aspects of vision and reading, hence the odd errors I’ve been making.

The tumour was successfully treated by ‘gamma knife’ radiotherapy in a single hour-long session. This focuses two-hundred low-intensity X-ray beams upon precise high-intensity spots. It involves the discomfort of having an aluminium frame screwed (literally) to your skull to keep your head still in the treatment chamber, and to plot the 3D coordinates for the treatment sequence. Otherwise it is entirely painless. It can treat objects as small as two millimeters across.

Unfortunately, the brain tumour was a ‘met’ (a secondary) from a small lung tumour. This gave me no symptoms. Without the seizure I would have had no idea that anything was wrong. Last autumn, we were walking up mountains in North Wales.   

Things looked bleak. At one point the word “palliative” was spoken. However, a positron (PET) scan revealed no other unusual activity except in the brain and lung. Some patients light up all over like a Christmas tree. Things began to look more hopeful.

I went through three months of chemotherapy. It was awful. Some days I was so sick as to wonder whether it was worth it. At one point I ended up back in hospital for two nights on a drip.

Then I had a month’s lung radiotherapy (although side-effects last longer). It was considered preferable to surgery in my case.

For me, radiotherapy was far more tolerable than chemo; just tiredness and mild discomfort. This was fortunate as some find it too painful to swallow without anaesthetic suspensions, and can even have to have feeding tubes taped up their noses. They put the fear of God into you in warning what could go wrong.

The worst part was having to travel Monday to Friday to Leeds and back every day for four weeks, where, with twelve linear accelerators, St. James’s Hospital zap around 450 patients a day. Their record is 750. People travel from all over Yorkshire.

As I was not allowed to drive, I was eligible for free Patient Transport. If you asked for early appointments, you usually get a private taxi. The return journey could be taxi, volunteer driver or a small ambulance, sometimes shared. With travel time, the 10-minute treatment including its 25 seconds of irradiation took at least three hours. Most days it was more: nearly six on the worst occasion. With Patient Transport you have to be patient.

Some drivers became regulars. I spent over ten hours sitting with one friendly chap in the Leeds traffic, talking about all kinds of things and learning Urdu phrases. He came from Kashmir in the nineteen-eighties without a word of English and is proud that his children have had the education he never had.    

I have clearly had several tens of thousands of pounds worth of NHS treatment and may well need more. I could say so much more about it: the endless appointments and tests, the CT-guided lung biopsy which gave me a pneumothorax air pocket and another night in hospital, the radioactive dye squirted into my bloodstream from a lead canister by a nurse in an anti-radiation suit, the wholesale consumption of pills, how the challenge is as much psychological as physical, and the effects upon family, but I’ll leave things there.

I’m well again now. I have even been out on my bike. It is now a matter of monitoring scans. How long can any of us say we have: 2023? 2027? 2032? I might be lucky, but no delusions.

These things happen. As my Yorkshire grandparents would have said: “It’s a bugger in’t it!”