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Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Loch Muick

After the unrelenting succession of public duties and merciless scrutiny, no one should begrudge the King and Queen Consort a few days’ peace and quiet at Balmoral. That is where I would be in his place, with perhaps a couple of nights at Glas-allt-Shiel.

For me, events vividly brought back the time I lived near there. Place names from thirty-five years ago became familiar again, as did the way they rolled off the tongue. Best was “Pitterrr Cootterrr” (Peterculter)

One of my favourite walks then was the eight-mile circuit of Loch Muick (pronounced “Mick”) on the Balmoral estate. It was a comparatively undemanding way to experience the rugged Highland countryside, ideal for the short winter days or long summer evenings they have up there. I often took visiting friends there and must have done the walk more than half a dozen times. In those days you could park for free at Spittal, eight miles south of Ballater, and see no one else all day.

The walk is on public paths, so there are no access problems. One nutcase I worked with liked to plan his own off-path routes across the Balmoral estate and was more than once stopped by security.

Here is Loch Muick from the southern end (I didn’t take many photographs at that time, so all the images here are others’).

About half way around the walk in trees on the western shore of the loch (on the left in the photograph) is the lonely lodge of Glas-allt-Shiel, built by Queen Victoria in 1868 as an escape from the world after the death of her husband. The Royal Family still use it occasionally despite the lack of mains electricity.

Usually it was closed up, but on one occasion, although deserted, the blinds were open and you could see into a dining room exquisitely set with spectacular china and silverware. We stood at the window and stared in wonder for a time before continuing around the loch. Suddenly, three Royal green Range Rovers came speeding
along the track towards us. We couldn’t see who was in them.

My only other brush with Royalty was when the Queen visited the university where I worked. She gave us her famous warm and uplifting smile through the window of her Bentley and then disappeared into the Vice Chancellor’s building.

Not as close as others’ encounters, but they are mine.

Sunday, 11 September 2022


In scanning my parents’ photograph albums to share with the family I came across the following picture: 

Did we really slick this scented white grease through our hair?

The adverts said it aided the natural flow of sebum (yuk!); that it gave a clean, smart look safe from dandruff - presumably by sticking the dandruff to your head. How long did it take to wash out? Probably ages, bearing in mind that we only washed our hair about once a week. Jars had finger grooves to minimize risk of drops. Upholstery had to be protected by antimacassars. What did it do to pillows? Did Richie Benaud oil his bat with it?

Thank goodness for The Beatles.

Thursday, 1 September 2022

Lytton Strachey

New month old post (originally posted 20th June, 2016)

As a young, unreconstructed, heterosexual male from a northern working-class monoculture, it was a most unlikely book to be reading: Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), an effete, gangling homosexual with a big nose, unkempt beard and light, reedy voice. I got it by forgetting to cancel the default selection from the book club I was in.

I cautiously dipped into its 1144 pages, wondering what on earth it was, and was quickly drawn in by the preface, an account of Holroyd’s researching and writing of the book.

Lytton’s archive was so extensive it took Holroyd five years to work through it, a period he describes as “… a way of life and an education.” As he ploughed through the plethora correspondence with its detailed accounts of faulty digestion, illness, apathy and self-loathing, he began to experience the same ailments himself, wondering whether they could be posthumously contagious. He resolved that his next subject must be someone of extraordinary vitality.

Even so, Holroyd’s life as a writer and researcher seemed hugely preferable to mine as a trainee accountant. There had to be more edifying things than an accountancy correspondence course. Constructing control accounts and trial balances was anything but an education.

If Holroyd’s account of writing the biography drew me in, his descriptions of the Strachey family had me hooked. There were numerous uncles, cousins and other visitors, many either distinguished, completely potty, or both. Holroyd describes them as “the flower of originality gone to seed.” One uncle who had lived in India continued to organise his life by Calcutta time, breakfasting and sleeping at odd times of day.

Other oddballs walk on and off stage throughout the book. One of my favourites could have been invented by the comedian Ronnie Barker. He was “dr. cecil reddie” Lytton’s one-time headmaster and a leading member of “the league for the abolition of capital-letters.” In retirement he corresponded with “lytton” from his address at “welwyn-garden-city, hertfordshire.”

Having chuckled my way through the early chapters, I became immersed in Lytton’s school and university days, identifying with his shyness and awkwardness in company, the feeling of somehow not fitting in, and his difficulty in making friends. But when he got to Cambridge University he began to thrive. He was elected to the Conversazione Society, otherwise known as the Apostles, a highly secretive group which met in members’ rooms on Saturday evenings to eat sardines on toast and discuss intellectual topics.*

Through the Apostles, Lytton became friends with leading writers and intellectuals of the day, such as Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes and leading members of the now-famous Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals which included writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, and the post-impressionist painters Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Many rated Lytton as one of the cleverest people they had encountered, but immediate success eluded him. His history degree was Second Class, his application to the Civil Service unsuccessful, and he was twice rejected for a University Fellowship. He found himself back home writing reviews for periodicals and generally drifting. Churning out articles left little of his scant energy for the great work he hoped to write. Eventually, at the age of thirty-one, he did produce a book, a history of French literature, but it brought neither the wealth nor the success he sought.

I still envied him. I would have been happy to get into any university, let alone Cambridge, and it would have been the sauce on the sardines to be invited to join a secret club. My not-so-exclusive group of mates who met in the Royal Park Hotel to drink five pints and tell sexist and racist jokes did not have quite the same intellectual mystique.

Lytton’s life at this time seemed no more purposeful than mine, with a similar pattern of futility and wasted energies. But it must have been nice, when feeling a bit fed up as Lytton often did, to be able to take oneself off to relatives in the Cairngorms, or to friends in Sussex or Paris. He was no slave to the thirty-seven hour week and three weeks’ annual holiday.

One of the most startling revelations in Holroyd’s book was its frank treatment of bi- and homosexuality. There was irony in Lytton’s alleged response to the First World War military tribunal that assessed his claim to be a conscientious objector. When asked: “What would you do if you saw a German soldier attempting to rape your sister?” he is said to have answered: “I should try to come between them.”

Nevertheless, some women were attracted to Lytton, and Lytton to some women. At one point he proposed to Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), who accepted him, although both rapidly decided it not to be a good idea.

Then, in 1915, he was captivated by an androgynous young painter, (Dora) Carrington (known by her surname only). Their story begins when she crept stealthily upon Lytton’s sleeping form intending to cut off his beard in revenge for an attempted kiss. Lytton suddenly opened his eyes and gazed at her. Holroyd takes up the tale: “... it was a moment of curious intimacy, and she, who hypnotized so many others, was suddenly hypnotized herself.” From that moment they became virtually inseparable. They set up home together and were often simultaneously besotted with the same person, usually male.

Look how much she loved him:

Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

In 1918, Lytton’s fortunes changed. His book, ‘Eminent Victorians’, caught the mood of a war-shocked nation, cynical and distrustful of the rigid Victorian morality that had led to the conflict. The title is of course ironic. It dismantles the reputations of four legendary Victorians. To summarise Holroyd: Cardinal Manning’s nineteenth-century evangelicism is exposed as the vanity of fortunate ambition; Florence Nightingale is removed from her pedestal as the legendary ‘Lady of the Lamp’ and revealed as an uncaring neurotic; Dr. Thomas Arnold is no longer an influential teacher but an adherent to a debased public school system; and General Gordon, the ‘hero’ of Khartoum, is shown to have been driven by the kind of misplaced messianic religiosity all too familiar to those returning from the trenches.

The book reflected the attitudes of Lytton’s Bloomsbury circle, in many ways foreshadowing how we live now, especially the displacement of public duty and conformity by private hedonism and individuality. It also revolutionised the art of biography, showing off Lytton’s virtuosity as a writer: his repertoire of irony, overstatement, bathos and indiscretion, his fascination with the personal and private.

Holroyd’s reputation, too, was shaped by his Strachey biography, establishing him as part of England’s literary elite.

For me, both Strachey and Holroyd were a revelation. Despite being worlds away from my own time, place and social class, they helped strip away the veils of convention and conformity that school, church, state and society had thrown over us. The parade of larger-than-life eccentrics showed it was not unacceptable to be different; that you did not have to follow convention or do what others expected; that not everyone had launched themselves into an upward trajectory by their twenties; that we can all have doubts and be demoralised, yet still come good. 

Northern working-class England in the fifties and sixties was as rigidly Victorian as the mores rejected by Bloomsbury. People worked long hours, had few holidays and were poor. Authority went unquestioned and unchallenged. But the times they were a-changin’. There were opportunities in abundance. For me, it was not so much Bob Dylan or John Lennon that brought this message home, but a rare biography of Lytton Strachey.


This was the 1973 edition of the Holroyds biography published by Book Club Associates. The biography was revised in 1995 to incorporate material that had become available since the earlier editions, but I still prefer the detail of the 1973 version. There is now an enormous amount of other material about Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington and the Bloomsbury Group.

* The Cambridge Apostles are rumoured still to be active. Members consider themselves the elite of the elite. Membership is by invitation only and potential recruits are unaware they are being considered. Despite the secrecy, one has to wonder whether they might easily be identified by their supermarket trolleys overstocked with excessive quantities of tinned fish and toasting bread on Saturdays. They need to address this security weakness urgently.

Thursday, 25 August 2022


Last months post about photographic lenses and extension tubes set me thinking about the cameras I’ve used over the years. Some were also in the loft.


The first would have been our nineteen-fifties family camera, an Ensign Ful-Vue II. No, that wasn’t in the loft, but my dad had kept the instruction booklet:

It is surprising how vividly it brings things back: the large silver winding knob; loading the size 120 roll film (frames of 2¼ inches or 57mm square) with its thick black backing paper; the “ruby window” for viewing the frame numbers printed on the back – twelve per roll. Lovely colour, Ruby! 


The Ensign took most of our family photographs until 1962 when I received a Kodak Brownie Starmite camera for Christmas and became the family photographer. This used smaller 127-sized frames (40mm square), also 12 per roll. Pictures from both the Ensign and the Starmite have appeared many times on this blog, especially indoor flash. 


After starting work I wanted a 35mm single-lens reflex colour slide camera. One of the most economical to buy was the Russian Zenith E. It cost £33 from York Camera Centre in January, 1973. 

Comparing the quality of the Zenith images with the Ensign and Starmite negatives, you can see why it was cheap. I would have been better with something slightly more expensive, perhaps Pentax or Praktica, but the Zenith was fairly robust and I used it into the nineteen-nineties. It survived hours in rucksacks including two weeks backpacking in Iceland, and once rolled several hundred feet down a mountainside in Switzerland. Unfortunately, the fabric shutter is now torn beyond repair. As the lenses have gone to the charity shop, the camera body might as well go for metal recycling. 

One nice touch was that the Zenith came with a free book, “Discover Rewarding Photography: the Manual of Russian Equipment”, which, despite its name, contained helpful hints and useful information.


The Zenith and its lenses were heavy and bulky to carry around, especially out walking, so around 1994 someone took pity and bought me a 35mm Pentax Espio 738G compact camera. It was a nice, easy-to-use, lightweight camera, but I never really liked it. It had the irritating feature (at least with the films I used) that, on loading, it automatically wound the film  all the way to the far end, and then back again frame-by-frame as each shot was taken. This meant that numbers printed on colour slides were in reverse sequence: e.g. slide 36 was really slide 1.

It still works: Daughter used it for an art project a few years ago. It might be fun to get a black and white film to develop myself just one more time: extracting the film from its cartridge under blankets in the dark, sliding it into the developing tank, salivating at smell of sodium thiosulphate fixer. I’ll keep the camera and tank for now. No need to print the negatives these days; better just to scan them in.


And so to digital: a 2.1 megapixels Olympus D-490. It cost £399.99 in January 2001. The lens glided satisfyingly forward when you slid front the cover open. It had pop-up electronic flash on top. It had 3x zoom (35-105mm) and a macro function, but you could buy longer lenses and extension tubes. Its 72 dots-per-inch, 1600 x 1200 pixels jpg images used around 400MB of storage, so you could get around twenty on an 8MB memory card. It also took 20-second silent videos. 

The software for transferring images from the memory cards was awkward. You couldn’t just stick it into a computer slot like now because the ‘Camedia’ cards were enormous – seen here beside a standard SD card for comparison. I bought additional 16MB cards to take more photographs. A hundred was luxury after 35mm film. The camera was also a little heavy because it used four AA batteries. It still works but is worth at most £20 on ebay. Should it go to the electrical equipment recycling skip?

With two young children the Olympus was used a lot, but after a few years I noticed that the images had a small number of blank pixels. It seemed time to upgrade.


Technology was advancing rapidly and getting cheaper too. My 7.1 megapixels Canon Digital Ixus 70 cost £169.99 in April 2006, and I still use it today. It has a similar spec. to the Olympus: a 3x optical zoom (35-105mm), a macro function and built in flash, but also an extensive range of image settings and unlimited movie time with sound. Mine is set to 3072 x 2304 pixels at 180 dots per inch which creates jpg images of 3.5MB. Even a ‘small’ 4GB SD card stores loads. 

You can get much higher spec. cameras now, even on phones, but this is fine for most purposes. However, one might say that it isn’t as much fun, and doesn’t have the same mystique as the Zenith.

Not wanting to disappoint the technical amongst us, here are links to the Ensign Ful-Vue, Zenith E and Pentax Espio instruction booklets and manual.

Friday, 19 August 2022


Last year we grew leeks from seed for the first time, quite successfully.

One leek, however, was too small and weedy to pick, so we left it in the garden where it survived the winter.

This year it grew too quickly to pick, and sent up a four-foot high shoot with a globe topped by a long spike. It remained like that for weeks. The other morning we were surprised to see the globe and spike had split and were left dangling beneath a rather spectacular flower.

The insects seem to like it too.

Sunday, 14 August 2022


I usually photograph places where I’ve lived. Here is one corner of my room in Leeds in the summer of 1976. The washbasin was handy for peeing in as the toilet was on the floor below. Well, you can be like a slob when you live on your own.

What do I see? Towels strewn around. Swan electric kettle, toaster and fan heater on the floor. An anglepoise lamp I still have. The wooden book rack I made at school which I still use, containing books I still have. A naff set of biros designed to look like quill pens. A tiny nineteen-fifties transistor radio in front of the mirror on the edge of the dressing table … and in the corner on the floor some bottles of water.

Yes, we had a drought in 1976. It was one of the warmest years of the last century, not surpassed until this century. The highest temperature recorded was 35.9°C (96.6°F), not quite reaching 36.7°C (98.1°F) of 1911. The drought was caused by low rainfall the previous summer which lasted through the autumn and winter. By the autumn of 1976 water was rationed in some places by means of standpipes in the streets. My parents’ house had an infestation of seven-spotted ladybirds.

Could we be heading there again? I am no climate change denier, but despite the clear upward trend I hope that once we are through it we will have experienced an outlier, at least for long enough to see me out. As for my children, both still in their twenties, they could be well-advised to move to somewhere like Fort William, Portree, Stornoway or Kirkwall, preferably on high ground not too near from the sea.

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

My Very First Mother Goose

In the small collection of items I put aside to blog about at some future time, is an obituary of Iona Opie, children’s folklorist, who died in 2017 aged 94. If this post interests you, you will enjoy her life story.

Her delightful book ‘My Very First Mother Goose’, an illustrated collection of nursery rhymes, gave us hours of fun when the children were little. Bedtime after bedtime, we would turn through the pages, pointing at the pictures, singing the rhymes we knew the tunes to, and reciting those we didn’t. Now in a box of books in the loft, it is definitely not one to be disposed of. 

Amongst my favourites to sing were:

         Polly put the kettle on
         Half a pound of tuppenny rice
         I had a little nut tree
         Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been
         Elsie Marley’s grown so fine, she won’t get up to feed the swine
         Dickory, dickery, dock
         Sing a song of sixpence
         Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle
         Ride a cock ‘oss to Banbury Cross
                 (we are certainly not going to sing ‘cross’ to rhyme with ‘horse’ in Yorkshire)
         Horsie, horsie, don’t you stop
         Boys and girls come out to play
         Jack and Jill
         Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake
         Down at the station early in the morning
         Wee Willie Winkie

We probably enjoyed it more than the children.

“I don’t like that Wink Willie Wee-Wee,” son J said one day.

Iona Opie, with her husband Peter, began collecting nursery rhymes during the war when, one day out walking in the countryside, the rhyme “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire, your children all gone,” came into her head. She wondered what it meant and where it had come from. Nursery rhymes had never been codified before. From scratch, they unearthed a rich vein of children’s rhymes, traditions and folklore that had been passed down through generations, which they sought to record before it was erased by the commodification of childhood.

As in “Ladybird, ladybird”, many hint at untold horrors. The Opies suggested this was uniquely British, “All part of being frightfully tough and not minding the weather; we’re nourished with this nonsense and it does us a lot of good.” 

With us, the rhymes took on a life of their own, with changed words and new verses. “Down at the station” acquired a second verse in a minor key:

         Grandson and -daughter1 wave goodbye to Grandma,
         She’s on the train, she’s on her way home,
         Ten minutes later a face at the window,
         “Hello, it’s me, I’m baaack2 again.

                 1 their actual names were used here
                 2 exaggerated southern accent

The odd thing about this is that it is not entirely true. Our extra verse refers to an incident that occurred before either of the children was born.

Grandma used to travel up from the South on the main line to Sheffield and then take a local train through Barnsley. She was appalled by the thought that any future grandchildren might grow up with Barnsley accents.

On this particular day, we saw her off home on the local train, but she returned an hour or so later and knocked on the window. What had happened is that, just outside our station where the line becomes single-track, the driver of the train coming in the opposite direction stopped to inform Grandma’s driver about a broken joint in the track which had allowed him to pass but would have derailed Grandma’s train. Grandma’s driver then had to wait for permission to reverse back to our station. 

How many of our traditional rhymes are similarly muddled?


Iona and Peter Opie (rhymes with ‘soapy’) published several other books, including ‘The Oxford Dictionary Of Nursery Rhymes’. We also bought ‘Here Comes Mother Goose’ which is in the same Walker Books series as ‘My Very First Mother Goose’, but most of the rhymes are unfamiliar to us.