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Friday, 1 July 2022

Dad’s Thursday Helper

New month old post (first posted 18th August 2014)

Thursday afternoon was half-day closing. The whole town seemed to shut down. Retail businesses got the afternoon off in part-compensation for being open on Saturdays. So, Dad came home and Mum went off to Grandma’s leaving him to get on with his Thursday afternoon jobs. I ‘helped’.

We cleaned and brushed his boots and shoes, black and brown, with Cherry Blossom polish from a round tin with cherries on the lid, and Wren’s waterproof dubbin with a little bird. 

We replaced brake blocks and pumped tyres, and mended punctures by immersing the inner tubes in bowls of water to see the bubbles, marking with chalk, and sticking on puncture patches with stringy rubber solution. I learnt about tyre levers and tubular (box) spanners. We polished the wheels and handlebars with rags (old underpants were good) and mustard coloured chrome cleaner, transforming dirty grey to silver shine. We smeared on vaseline for protection from the weather – a magnet for yet more grime. 

We soaked the chains in trays of petrol to remove the oily grit, and then disposed of the petrol by setting it alight. Dad once just tipped it on the garden but had to stop after Grandpa came for tea one day and complained: “This lettuce tastes of petrol.” 

We cleaned Dad’s pipes, scraping out the burnt black ash with a gadget barbed like a miniature medieval mace, and soaking up the evil-smelling gunge with fluffy pipe-cleaners.

Then it was time for nicer smells and sounds: the matchsticks that rattled in their flat green and red box with a picture of a swan on the top, the firework hiss and smell of sulphur when he struck one, and the clouds of sweet St. Bruno smoke. He would pack the pipe bowl with tobacco from a black and white metal tin (with new tins, you had to pull a rubber vacuum seal from the bottom before you could open the lid), put the stem between his teeth, suck a flame down into the bowl, and blow smoke from the side of his mouth with a satisfied expression and popping ‘p’ sound.

“Can I have a puff?” I begged. “Let me have a puff”. I was only four.

“Oh all right,” said Dad reluctantly. He held the stem of the pipe near my mouth. I was instantly sick.

And then there were the fun jobs – playtime. We had a model steam engine, the “steam boiler”, which drove a flywheel through dual pistons, exactly like the one pictured. It had a brass water tank heated by a methylated spirit burner that slid underneath. Dad loved to take it out of its oily cardboard box and fire it up on the back room table. Once steam was up, it could be set in motion. The flywheel revolved at a fair old pace, puffing and rattling, spitting out a lethal mixture of hot oil and boiling water. It had a screeching whistle and a safety valve that blew like a railway engine when the pressure got high.

It was important the pistons were always oiled and that the water tank did not run dry. The spirit burner needed topping up frequently. The smell of methylated spirit mixed with hot emulsified oil is unforgettable. Once, we spilled methylated spirit on the table and it caught light. I watched fascinated as a lucent blue pool of flame spread slowly across the surface, Dad flapping it frantically with his hands, looking panicky.

A move to another house brought a whole new set of Thursday afternoon jobs, sanding and painting skirting-boards and staining wooden floors around the edges of carpet squares before fitted carpets became the norm. 

We painted the garden shed banana yellow. It leaked, so we mended the roof. I sat up there with Dad, ‘helping’ him tack down new sheets of roofing felt and painting it with hot black tar. Dad heated the tar to boiling point in an old paint pot on the kitchen gas cooker. Then, holding it with just a wooden cane through the handle, carried it bubbling and the smouldering tar acoss the kitchen floor, across the garden, and up on a rickety stepladder and on to the shed roof. It must have been a thoroughly hazardous operation. There were splashes of black tar on the yellow paint for years.

But there was still room for play-jobs.

We found some old lead piping in the shed. Dad melted it on the kitchen cooker in an empty tin can, and then, holding it with pliers, poured the molten metal into toothpaste tins which had originally contained hard, flat, tablets of ‘dentifrice’ wrapped in red cellophane. You rubbed it with a wet toothbrush to form a lather. The empty tins were just right for moulding make-believe medals – possibly something Dad had himself made in this own childhood. After pouring the lead, the medals were dropped into a bowl of water and sizzled as they cooled. The embossed ‘Gibbs’ lettering transferred perfectly to the moulded medals. No one knew about lead poisoning then.

Perhaps it was just as well Mum went to Grandma’s on Thursdays. 

‘Dad’s Thursday Helper’ would have continued for me until I started school, but Dad was then able to do it all over again with my brother.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

A Body Like Mine

I was always a thin and awkward child, and not very strong. It might have been genetic, but I also put it down to having had whooping cough at six months, a serious illness at that age. Whichever, it left what would now be called self-esteem and body-image issues, although, of course, such things did not exist in those days.

You could count each rib individually, and my sternum ended in what looked like a hole in the centre of my chest. My collar bones were lumpy protrusions jutting from the tops of my shoulders like razor shells, as if I’d been pegged out on washing line. School swimming lessons, scrutinised by the masses of girls watching from the balcony each week (how did so many manage to get out of it?), were humiliating. I grew to 6 feet (183cm) tall but weighed only nine and a half stones (60.3kg or 133 pounds), a body mass index (BMI) of 17.5, very much underweight in other words.

Who would want a body like mine? Not me. I wore jumpers all year round, kept my jacket on, and avoided beaches and swimming pools. I couldn’t gain weight whatever I ate. That might sound enviable, but not when you’re too thin.

I revived the sadistic games teacher’s gym exercises, puffing and panting through press-ups, sit-ups, heel-lifts and squat-jumps. Press-ups were particularly difficult, but starting with just one or two several times a day in secret, I gradually built up to five, then ten, then more. But I looked just as thin.  

I sought salvation in the small ads discreetly scattered throughout the press, and sent off for details of the Charles Atlas body building course. The ads omitted to mention the price, which was £8, too much, even after starting work. They sent reminders, and after a while reduced the price to £6. They sent more reminders and the price fell to £4, so I went for it. Someone told me if I’d waited longer it would have dropped to £2.

Charles Atlas, Angelo Siciliano (1893-1972), claimed to have transformed himself from a scrawny, seven-stone weakling into ‘The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man’ after having sand kicked in his face by a bully. Thus began one of the longest and most memorable advertising campaigns of all time.

In one unforgettable ad, a frail young man is taunted in front of his girl friend with “Hey, Skinny! Yer ribs are showing!”. When he protests he is pushed in the face and told “Shut up you bag of bones!” It could have been me, except that I didn’t even have a girl friend.

The course consisted of exercises to help gain strength by setting muscles in opposition against each other, trademarked the ‘Dynamic Tension’ method. One exercise was to form a fist with one hand, and press downward against the other hand in front of you for several seconds. This was then repeated with the other hand on top. Another exercise involved pulling hooked hands against each other.

It is not difficult to see how regular repetition might build muscle. However, to gain weight the course included diet sheets touting overpriced food supplements. It was also padded out with tips on jujitsu, wrestling, boxing and feats of strength to amaze your friends, such as tearing a telephone directory in half and lifting a pony into the air. A triumph of advertising over substance. Perhaps I did gain a bit of muscle, but nothing like Charles Atlas.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be like him anyway. I decided against a trip to the beach to check whether my physique was now more of an attraction than a curiosity.

In the end, I just got used to it. My BMI gradually crept up to the lower end of normal and more or less stayed there. I still do a few exercises each morning, not Atlas ones but bending and stretching, and lifting a pair of 2 x 5 Kg dumb bells, not to get fitter or stronger, but not to get worse. They nearly killed me carrying them from Argos.

Take note of Gillian Lynne, the ballerina, who was still carrying out a daily exercise routine (more demanding than mine) and teaching and demonstrating dance moves at 90. She said that just one day off because you feel a bit tired is one step down the slippery slope to oblivion.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Slide Copier

If you want to copy of an old photographic colour slide or negative, say, to post online or to make a copy of someone else’s slide, what do you do? You take a photo scanner if you have one (I have a Canon flatbed scanner with a film and slide copier in the lid), scan in the image (I use 3200 or 4800 dots per inch), and, of you are a perfectionist, tidy up to dust marks and scratches with Photoshop or similar. It makes for a better quality image than you ever used to get projecting the slide on to a glass bead screen.

But what did you do in the pre-computer nineteen-sixties and seventies? Think: Tandy TRS-80 introduced 1977, Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81 in 1980 and 1980, the 8-colour BBC Microcomputer in late with 1981 and the Sinclair SX Spectrum in 1982. None of these would have been capable of running photo-scanning devices even if they had been available. For example, to Hewlett-Packard Scanjet was introduced in 1987. It operated in black and white at 300 dots per inch, could handle only reflected documents and not film or slides, and cost a fortune.

So what did you do? Another trip to the loft has found my slide copier.

I have the cheapo SLR Mk II version, basically which is a metal frame that just screws to the front of a camera lens. It appears to have cost me £5.34 in around 1974. Here it attached to the front my Zenith E single-lens reflex camera. I have also used extension tubes between the camera body and the lens.

It was terrible. I could never get it to produce a decent image no matter what kind of lighting I used.

For example, here, in a copy from a friend’s slide, I am nearing the top of Ben Nevis in April, 1974, straight up from the Glen Nevis car park. It has not been Photoshopped. I did not even manage to get the light consistent on this one. You didn’t get to see it until the film was processed, and the cost meant you couldn’t have as many goes keep trying until it was right.

Looks like another item for metal recycling. Thank goodness for modern photo scanners.

For the sake of completeness, here are the instructions that were in the box (or download as pdf)  

Thursday, 9 June 2022

The Mirror

I recently mentioned this 1966 photograph in a post about objects in the background of old photographs, and how evocative they can be. On the wall is a round mirror.

That mirror forms part of my earliest memories. It must be at least eighty years old, possibly a lot more. I never thought to ask about its origins. It was in the main room where we lived until I was six, then in the house after that as pictured. I looked in it to see what the school dentist had done to my teeth, for marks on my face after being attacked by Modern School bullies, at teenage spots and scratches, and at the awful short back and sides inflicted by the barber. Why couldn’t I have a Beatles cut? It followed my parents through each house move until, in emptying my dad’s bungalow fifteen years ago, it came to rest in out loft.

One side-effect of steroids I was recently prescribed (thankfully a reducing dose, now ended) was to generate intense bursts of physical energy lasting several hours. It does not make you popular at four in the morning. You also become very focussed, decisive and ruthless - even nasty at times. I don’t really recommend it, but it does mean your get lots of things done: such as sorting out the clutter in the loft.  

Here is the mirror now, and very nice it is too. I remember being fascinated by the magnifying mirrors-within-a-mirror effect created by the decorative pattern.

The mirror hangs by a sturdy metal chain affixed to a solid wooden backing which makes it rather heavy. I would be concerned it might damage or fall off the wall. We have no use for it now. We took it to a local charity which has a shop in Denby Dale. They were delighted. I hope they get a really good price for it.

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Belgian Youth Abroad

(New month old post: first posted 13th January 2015)

Hugo, my foreign language exchange partner, thought himself the Belgian equivalent of Dick Rivers “the French Elvis Presley”. He dressed like Dick Rivers, sang like Dick Rivers and combed his hair like Dick Rivers. And like his role model, he was fascinated by popular American culture.

I think that was the main reason he wanted to visit England – he thought it was like America. English fashion and music were taking over the world. ‘Swinging’ London was also the fictional home of Hugo’s other hero, ‘The Saint’, alias “the famous Simon Templar”, played by the young and debonair Roger Moore, recently syndicated with subtitles on Belgian television. He looked so good I could almost have fancied him myself.

The foreign language exchange scheme, ‘La Jeunesse Belge à l'Étranger’ (Belgian Youth Abroad), made England easily accessible. It paired Belgian and English teenagers to stay with each other and their families.

And so, one sunny July afternoon in the mid nineteen-sixties, Hugo, and around thirty other excited Belgian teenagers, travelled north on a train to Yorkshire. As they rattled over the river and canal bridges, those that had been in previous years knew they had reached their destination.

Meanwhile, waiting expectantly on the station platform, their exchange partners squinted into the glare to catch a first glimpse of the approaching train. The clatter and thump of railway gates locking against their stops, and the clunk of railway signals bouncing into the clear position, announced its imminent arrival. I was oddly distracted by the image of Wendy Godley standing quietly at the end of the platform with the sun shining straight through her thin summer dress.

How on earth would we match Hugo’s expectations? It wasn’t Elvis Presley or Roger Moore that had recently performed in our town, it was Wilfred Pickles and his quiz and interview show ‘Have A Go!’, broadcast on the Light Programme, the most old-fashioned and parochially working-class show on the wireless. Its mainly elderly audience always joined in to sing the opening theme song: 

Have a go, Joe, come on and have a go, You can’t lose owt, it costs you nowt, To make yourself some dough. So hurry up and join us, don’t be shy and don't be slow. Come on Joe, have a go!
Hugo would surely be bored out of his mind.

The train drew up in a hiss of hot steam, a whiff of coal smoke and the turmoil of slamming doors, waving, cheek-kissing and excited foreign accents. I found Hugo and helped carry his luggage to our house.

I need not have worried. A big difference between our own trip abroad and Hugo’s to England was that whereas we had stayed mainly with families dispersed across French-speaking Belgium, the Belgians stayed close together in our small Yorkshire town. At the same time we were hosts to a similar number of German exchange students. So we had thirty Belgian teenagers and thirty German teenagers, many for the first time away from their parents, all in effect on holiday together with their sixty English hosts. There would be no difficulty in finding things for them to do; they would create their own entertainment. Indeed, Hugo had already been hard at work creating distractions of his own.

“Zehre was zees gehrl on zee trhrain,” he said, “Marie-Christine. Vehry byutifurl. She stay ‘ere en England too. She stay weedz an Engleesh gehrl called Wendee. You know whehre she leev?”

That disclosed Hugo’s main preoccupation for the next two and a half weeks. Whereas my activities in Belgium had depended almost entirely on Hugo and his family, Hugo quickly started to organize things for himself. As a handsome, energetic combination of Dick Rivers and the famous Simon Templar, he was irresistible to Belgian, German and English girls alike, and all their friends and sisters too. He worked through them one by one, sometimes in twos and threes, greatly assisted by my dad’s ancient bicycle which he had commandeered to give himself a level of independence that often left me to my own devices. Hugo was entirely different to how he had been at home in Belgium: “un garçon sérieux,” his parents had said.

Most afternoons, groups of Belgian, German and English teenagers congregated in the park, played tennis or football, and wandered around visiting each others’ houses or drinking Coca Cola in coffee bars. Most evenings there were lively parties, some still remembered for entirely the wrong reasons. I got to participate too. Such an intensity of social activity was completely new to me. I had to learn quickly.

One afternoon, Hugo having gone off somewhere with Wendy Godley and Marie-Christine, I found myself on my own at the park with Wendy’s sister, Sandra, who was also ‘vehry byutifurl’. Whereas Wendy had always completely ignore me, Sandra was the opposite. She kept asking me things that seemed to mean more than just the words she used. With reference to the pictures (cinema): did I think it cosy at the Carlton? Would I like a ‘Wonderful Life’? Had I thought about ‘A Hard Day’s Night’? Would I enjoy ‘Sex and the Single Girl’? She was forever touching me, walking near enough to brush hands, and sitting so our knees came into contact.

That day in the park, I was sitting on my bicycle with hands on the brakes, and Sandra stood so closely that, oh so casually and accidentally, her tummy pressed firmly against my fingers. She felt warm through the softness of her strikingly red top. Then, with mischievous blue eyes looking straight into mine in a way that was impossible to refuse, she asked whether she could have a ride, pausing excessively before adding “on your bike, I mean.” I got off, she got on, wobbled a bit because it was too big for her, and then rode off towards the park exit, her ample bottom astride my saddle. I followed on foot, but she had disappeared. To be truthful, I was rather annoyed. If I wanted my bike back, I had to go get it.

I walked the half-mile to the Godleys’ house wondering what to say. The front door opened and Sandra waved me inside. She was alone in the house and had changed out of her red top into what looked like a flimsy nightdress. I wasn’t sure where I should look. Then, in one of those instants when different choices could have taken my life along a very different course, “I made my excuses and left” as newspaper reporters used to say. “Fled” would be a better word.

I often wondered how things might have turned out otherwise. It would have been good for me at that stage of my life to have had a very special friend, especially someone so funny, lovely and ‘byutifurl’. My coldness must have been hurtful. But we weren’t in ‘swinging’ London. The ‘swinging sixties’ did not reach our part of Yorkshire until the nineteen seventies or eighties. We would have become the subjects of the kind of nudges, winks and whispers that circulated round town for weeks.

There was one other thing too. It sounds terrible now, but Sandra went to the Secondary Modern School. Grammar school boys did not go out with modern school girls. We were turned into arrogant snobs.

I didn’t tell Hugo. Goodness knows what he would have made of it.  

Sunday, 29 May 2022

Blogging and Memoir

I continue blogging and commenting with reduced output. 

Thank you, however, for the encouraging comments; they mean a lot. I was pleased many said they enjoyed my last post about the surprisingly evocative objects visible in the background of old photographs.

It is also enormously enriching to read other blogs about lives, locations, concerns, thoughts, opinions, feelings, humour, annoyances and so many other things, of so many others, who I would never meet in real life. We might not always like each other there, but I think for the most part we do on Blogger. We are able and intelligent people trying to make sense of this imperfect world as best we can. Long may it continue. I hope that’s not too pompous.

I am not really a proper blogger, this being mostly a memoir rather than a diary. It is not a “web log”. I started with the notion of accumulating some kind of printed book, probably private rather than published. So, alongside new posts, I will continue to revise and repost earlier, poorly thought-out stuff.

What is memoir? How does it differ from history or autobiography, or even fiction? One could do worse than to read one of my favourite writer’s, Ian Jack’s, article on this. He recalls, as editor of Granta, receiving a piece based on a childhood memory of a Scottish fishing village where two trawlers and their crews were lost in a storm. He asked the writer to make some revisions, and when the piece came back the names of the trawlers had changed. It transpired that the writer had combined two separate events, years apart. “But this is memoir,” was the writer’s defence, “it is not non-fiction.” The writer appeared to be saying: “it makes a better story if it had happened like this” rather than reporting what actually did happen.

Revisionism occurs in factual history too: consider how accounts of British Empire are now being re-interpreted. I also remember being fascinated on reading the revised edition of Michael Holroyd’s brilliant biography of Lytton Strachey, to discover that a friend called Clare Bollard in the earlier editions was actually the vivacious and voluptuous artist Valentine Dobrée, whose open marriage and indiscretions caused much disruption within the Bloomsbury group. It had been necessary to change her name for legal reasons while she and her husband were still living.

How much do I change? I have certainly obscured identities, especially of bullies and manipulators. I have sometimes amalgamated multiple characters into single ones, such as in the perfect but unattainable Wendy Godley. I have sometimes compressed events that took place longer apart. Where stories are fictional, even when based on true events, I have been open about it. But for the vast majority of the time by far, I tell it as it was. Perhaps I apply a bit of varnish so as not to sound too much of a shit, but what happened, happened. My interest is in how Britain and the world have changed over the decades I lived through, and how those changes and events have affected the way we are today. It is important to stay as true as possible to the spirit of things.

But, Ian Jack trumps all. In order to spare the writer’s embarrassment, he altered the details of the story submitted to Granta. In other words, it appears that no trawlers were sunk at all. I would certainly never make a change as big as that.

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Bright In The Background

In the early nineteen-sixties, I received a Kodak Brownie Starmite camera for Christmas. I developed and printed its 127-sized (4cm2) black and white negatives at home. Despite being a fairly basic camera, it is striking how good the image quality could be if you managed to avoid camera shake.

The pictures of Sooty the cat in one of my June 2021 posts reminded me that, in old photographs, objects in the background can often be as evocative as the main subject. They bring back endless associations, and a tale of two naughty boys and a new sideboard.

One outdoor picture shows Sooty sitting on the back doorstep with an old-shaped tall milk bottle instead of the more squat ones we have now (if we have them at all). The only colour picture of him I have, on a Kodacolor film I was given in 1964, finds him sitting next to the asbestos garage. It leaked water underneath the sides, so boards were placed to deflect rain falling from the roof.

Indoor pictures tend to have more things in the background. The Starmite camera had a built-in flash for single-use, magnesium flash bulbs. They shine bright through the years.

Here again is Sooty in our nineteen-sixties living room with its flowery wallpaper. The 405-line black and white television reflects the flash bulb. I am surprised to see we already had a fitted carpet rather than stained floorboards around a central carpet square.

The tiled open fireplace has brass tools and a fireguard. That was a job to get going on a cold winter morning, holding sheets of newspaper across the front to create a roaring updraft. The ships-wheel ash tray had belonged to my great grandfather; its wheel was a cigar-trimmer. In the corner is an ancient (even then), stand-alone electric fire with exposed elements mounted on an insulator. People sometimes lit cigarettes with it.

At the other side of the room, a curtain over the door excludes drafts, with a ‘roly-poly’ draft excluder blocking the gap at the bottom. Also in the living room is the fold-down dining table. The other room, less-used, was kept for ‘best’. 

A fruit bowl stands on the sideboard. It is now in my office, a container for things like device chargers and USB leads. I still pile books on top of it. The circular mirror that was above it is now unused, somewhere in my loft.

I remember the wooden-armed armchairs with spotty red upholstery and antimacassars over the chair backs to protect them from grease when people washed their hair no more than once or twice a week at best, and some men wore Brylcreem or Silvikrin hair oil. I can see, smell and feel it now, white in the jar.

My brother and I would sit in those chairs in the house on our own on Saturday afternoons watching the wrestling on the television (along with up to 20 million others in Britain). There was Mick McManus the villain who always beat the good guy, Jackie Pallo, with his underhand antics. Another great was Yorkshireman Les Kellett, a friend of a friend at Hensall. But my favourite was Ricki Starr, the wrestling ballet dancer, who caused great amusement at the height of sixties homophobia by prancing and pirouetting effeminately around the ring in ballet shoes and tight trunks, a prelude to the delivery of an unexpected lethal drop-kick to his opponent’s head. It was so exciting, particularly the cheating that went on behind the referee’s back in two-man tag-team bouts. Pure entertainment! We laughed, cheered and shouted, and when something decisive happened, we celebrated by pushing down with our feet, kicking the chairs over on to their backs.

One Friday, our parents had a brand new sideboard delivered – the one in the above photograph – to replace the scratched and ancient second hand one we’d had. I can smell its beautifully polished wood. The very next day, my brother and I watched the wrestling on television as usual. Perhaps it was Ricki Starr finishing off his opponent with one of his aeroplane spins, or Jackie Pallo administering his trademark sit on back breaker and arm lever. We jumped and cheered as ever, and kicked our chairs over. The side posts of those chairs were hard. My brother’s hit the brand new sideboard and gouged out a semi-circular groove on the front of the bottom drawer. Zoom in and you can see it. Believe me, there was hell to pay.