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Sunday, 20 October 2019


Ivy aged about 18

An early memory. One warm autumn day (someone later said it was a Monday afternoon in October), Mum took me into town in the push chair. We would have gone past a cinema (since demolished), a post office (now a beauty clinic), a garage (shops), some bombed buildings (more shops), a school (a community centre), a flour mill (a supermarket) and a church (derelict), and turned into a leafy avenue of fifty-year-old trees (long felled). It is all very different now.

We went down a cindery back lane behind some houses. We stopped and Mum called towards the upstairs of a large building over a high wall, waving to attract attention. I was told I shouted too and stood on the push chair so I could see. Someone opened a window and spoke to us. Mum explained why we were there. Nanna appeared and waved. She was in hospital after an operation. My aunt took my infant cousin for a similar walk a few days later.

Heartbreakingly, the operation was what was then known as “an open and shut case” and Nanna died soon afterwards. How sad that one of my first memories would be one of her last. It was sixty-five years ago this autumn: longer ago than the entire span of her life.

I was told she had heard me shouting “Nanna, Nanna” outside the window, and how pleased she was to see me. That day aside, I have only vague impressions of her and wonder what might have been different had she lived.

Pancreatic cancer is an awful disease. It creeps up undetected and is hardly any more survivable now than in 1954.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Rewriting Rewritten Writing

One of my first university jobs was as a research assistant to a very eminent professor. He was well known in his subject to students and academics both at home and abroad, and to the interested public through magazines such as New Scientist. He was the author of a large number of academic papers and editor of a best-selling textbook that had been translated into other languages including Japanese. I was elated to be offered the job and jumped at it, but that feeling did not last long. 

“Goodness! It must be fantastic working with him,” an envious researcher from another university told me. “He’s published lots of papers.”

“Well not really,” cynics in his own university would have said, “but he has published the same paper lots of times.”

You could say there was an element of truth in that: he did a lot of repetition, but the project on which I had been working produced an entirely new paper. It was to be submitted for possible publication to a leading American academic journal. As I had carried out the work he asked me to write a first draft. I doubted I could do it. It took me weeks: weeks of agony. When, at last, I had something not too awful to let someone else see, I left it with him.

He didn’t like it. He called me in to help rewrite it. I watched as he re-drafted one of the paragraphs.

It was laboured, tortuous, painful. He changed the main subject, he changed the emphasis. He tried it active, he tried it passive. He joined two sentences together with “and”, altered it to “but”, then split them back into two sentences in reverse order. He modified some of the terminology, thought of different wording and modified it again. Some of us by then were using the Unix vi text editor but he still used scraps of paper, pencil, rubber and more scraps of paper, with an excruciating running commentary to which I occasionally nodded. More than an hour went by and he still wasn’t satisfied. And that was just one paragraph. 

“Well,” I thought after going home and leaving him to it, “if it takes all that time and trouble for him to write something, someone of his reputation, then I’ve got absolutely nothing at all to worry about.”

*                   *                  *

That flippant ending is what I had in mind in starting this piece, but then more came out: buried resentment resurfacing. The thing was that the finished paper was not much different from the draft I had initially given him. It seemed that the main change was that, when the paper was published, his name was down as sole author and I was at the end of a list of people thanked for their assistance, some with hardly any involvement at all.

All too many power career academics are like that: very quick to claim all the credit for themselves. Some are workaholic, self-centred, self-justifying obsessives. They think they are infallible. They can be outright psychopaths. Universities seem to reward that sort of behaviour. There can be a pernicious culture of bullying. It happens in other places too, of course.

On first acquaintance, this guy seemed caring, thoughtful and softly-spoken, but soon revealed himself as the control-freak he was. Hints that sounded like promises never came to pass. Women, in particular, had the greatest difficulties, although I don’t know of any research staff that stayed longer than two or three years. One person took him to an employment tribunal claiming to have been misled about the nature of her role. My successors and predecessors had many similar stories (it was inevitable we would come across each other in the academic Small World). It put me off universities and I got a job elsewhere.

Resentment, yes, and ungrateful too, because the spell there didn’t half look good on the cv.

“We’re all difficult to work with here,” he said after I had infuriated him by handing in my notice. “We couldn’t survive anywhere else because we’re all eccentric.” He included me in that. He turned out to be right, probably on all three counts.

Thankfully, there are a lot of nice people in universities too.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

A Tale of Two Tea Pots

As mentioned before, I once lived in Scotland. I still carry around this now very crumpled Scottish one pound note as a reminder of that time.

Royal Bank of Scotland One Pound Note 1989

I had a close friend there. She was attractive and intelligent, and gave short shrift to nonsense. We went to the cinema, classical concerts, the ballet and on country walks. She taught me Scottish words and phrases, and introduced me to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair. She stayed with me a few days when she moved house, and I stayed with her for my last couple of days in Scotland after getting my own house ready to rent out. Perhaps, in other circumstances, at a different time, it might have been more than a friendship.

I left Scotland at the end of the nineteen-eighties for a job in Nottingham. Soon after, walking along Pelham Street, or was it Goose Gate, I spotted a cheery Chinese tea pot in a shop window. I bought one, packed it up very carefully and posted it to my Scottish friend for her birthday. She was absolutely delighted.

Chinese Style Tea Pot

I then fell in love with the future Mrs D. who was also attractive and intelligent but did put up with nonsense. Wondering what to buy for her birthday, I thought of my Scottish friend’s tea pot, so returned to the shop and bought another, exactly the same. She was absolutely delighted. It seemed neither necessary nor appropriate to mention the earlier one and I forgot it. We were married around a year later. My Scottish friend came to the wedding and was pleased to say grace because she was by then a Church of Scotland Minister.

My house in Scotland had been rented out not through choice but because at the time it was impossible to sell. Eventually, market conditions changed and someone bought it. I drove up with Mrs D. to sort things out for the last time. Before coming home we called to see my Scottish friend at her Manse near Stirling. 
She offered us tea and biscuits. On the tray was her Chinese tea pot. My wife spotted it immediately. She was not delighted.

There's more about my Scottish friend in this earlier post: Jumped Down Catholics (it's quite long)

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Review - Alan Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Alan Sillitoe
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (4*)

What made me pick this volume of nine Alan Sillitoe short stories so soon after reading Saturday Night and Sunday Morning? I must be a glutton for punishment. Most of the characters are distinctly unpleasant.

Best known is the title-story filmed in 1962 by Tony Richardson with Tom Courtenay in the leading role as shown on the cover. As with Saturday Night…, it is a bleak, post-war, working-class Nottingham story in which a difficult-to-like hero is in other ways admirable. Borstal boy Colin Smith explains his personal philosophy around events leading to his incarceration and the emergence of his natural athetic talent. Selected to compete in a race he is sure to win and thereby enhance the reputation of the borstal, he throws it in the home straight to spite the Governor because he believes it the right thing to do. What was there for him to go back to? Nothing: not even running.

The same sense of hopelessness runs through the whole collection. All the stories are set in similar sad and underprivileged backgrounds. Some might better be described as vignettes. This is the suffocating world of working-class people before post-war consumerism and expansion of opportunity. You wonder, like Ian Dury or Kate Atkinson perhaps, how close you came to any one of these lives being your own.

Like the penniless schoolboys in Noah’s Ark who swindle and steal to afford the rides at Nottingham’s Goose Fair. Did one of them later become Colin Smith? Or the boy who watches impassively as a man attempts to hang himself On Saturday Afternoon. Or Frankie Buller, a young man with what we would now call a learning disability, who leads an “army” of younger boys in military games.

Or, later in life, what about Uncle Ernest, a damaged and solitary middle-aged man who befriends two undernourished schoolgirls in a café simply because he is lonely and wants to help in exchange for friendship? Of course, no one trusts his motives, especially the police. Or Mr. Raynor the School-teacher, who ogles girls in the draper’s shop across the road from his classroom window? Or the postman in The Fishing-boat Picture who lives alone after his wife leaves him for a housepainter but years later returns to visit every Friday evening, leaving so much unsaid that she never reveals her true circumstances? Or Lennox, whose wife walks out with the kids when he comes home in a mood and picks a fight after watching Notts County lose? Or Jim Scarfedale, a working bloke, who, after the breakdown of his marriage across the class-divide, returns “to his mother’s apron strings” and turns to molesting little girls?

There but for the grace of God! But I was born as the world began to open up, and passed to go to Grammar School, which created chance after chance despite poor exam results and false starts. The trouble is, contest it as you might, it can turn you into something of a snob. Is that why I don’t like the characters?

Not a comforting read, but a strangely satisfying one.

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.  

Previous book reviews 

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Kitchens Old and New

New Kitchen 2019

New Kitchen 2019 New Kitchen 2019

The new kitchen; not quite finished. Still awaiting new blinds and flooring. I also have bits of painting left to do such as the skirting board, ceiling and around the windows. At least the two weeks of takeaways, eating out, ready meals and washing up in the bathroom are over. Zoomers can get to work on the pictures and scrutinize our minutiae: Who is Katharine? Who takes max strength congestion relief? Who’s the Big Mug? (it’s me) Good job we haven’t hung up the calendar and notice board yet. It all feels much lighter and roomier than the worn-out, twenty-five-year-old configuration it replaced, although even that was luxury compared to kitchens of old.

Grandma's kitchen 1964

Here is my grandma in her kitchen in 1964; in fact, it was not just the kitchen, it was the bathroom and the laundry room as well. The (what is now known as a) Belfast sink was the only place in the house with running water. It was not so many years since they had to fetch water from the village pump. The tall screen on the left was unfolded and placed across the alcove for privacy when washing. It would be mostly in cold water: the electric geyser was a relatively recent addition. Previously, water had to be heated on a large, black and silver, cast-iron, coal-fired range to the left of the camera and carried across the room. Look at the damp on the wall behind her.

For many years there was no flushing toilet. She had one outside by this time, but originally there was only an earth closet, the contents of which would be shovelled through an opening in the wall into the adjacent open-roofed ‘ash midden’ and burnt with the household rubbish.

She brought up a family of four there.

Mum's kitchen 1963

My mum’s kitchen around the same time is better equipped but not dissimilar. There is a top-loading washing machine on the right, a gas cooker on the left, and gosh, is that a mixer tap? By this time water was heated by an electric immersion heater in the bathroom water cylinder. There was also a Baxi back boiler behind the front room fireplace.

The sink and draining board are enamelled and mounted on formica/melamine cupboards. Above is a high wooden shelf for pans, and behind were floor-to-ceiling drawers and cupboards which were built-in new with the house in the nineteen-twenties; the other houses in the row had the same. The plastic bag hanging on the wall contains ‘silver paper’ (aluminium foil) and milk bottle tops for charity. Like her mother, she has a mirror hanging above the sink. The walls are tiled and free of damp and we have a separate bathroom, but by today’s expectations, it’s still quite basic.

Mum's kitchen 1972

Later in the sixties, we moved to a house with a serving hatch and an Aga cooker: real ‘Abigail’s Party’ stuff. But it still had the same kind of laminate drawers, cupboards and worktops. My mum now has a food mixer and there is a stand-alone spin dryer beneath the work surface in the corner. We also now had a fridge. I have no recollection of what the dispenser-like gadget screwed to the wall of the serving hatch could have been. It was a nuisance keeping the Aga going all summer, but in winter the house was always warm despite a vague but persistent sulphurous smell from the smokeless fuel. Mum didn’t like it. It was too like cooking on her mother’s coal-fired range. She eventually replaced it with a gas cooker.

Leeds kitchen 1973-74

On to the pigsty of the shared house in Leeds where I lived in the nineteen-seventies: if anything a step back. Along with 40% of other households, we had no fridge or washing machine, and domestic freezers were almost unknown in the U.K. I think the black and white picture was taken to prove Brendan did sometimes do the washing up.

The room is populated by a chip pan, dirty cups and beer glasses. The black and white picture contains a ubiquitous Russell Hobbs K2 electric kettle, although I think we lost that when someone moved out because the later colour picture has one that heats on the gas cooker.

Look in the other direction and you see what I mean by ‘pigsty’. No one ever did any cleaning. The formica/melamine unit with its gathering of nineteen-seventies tins and packets is simply disgusting. No wonder we had mice. The medieval toy soldiers above the cellar door, shields glinting in the flashbulb, came free inside breakfast cereal packets.

Leeds kitchen 1974

My kitchen standards have clearly come a long way in fifty years. No doubt, commenters such as arty Rosemary from her ex-gamekeeper’s cottage in the South-West of England with it's beautiful grounds and one hundred elegant objects will say of the new one (going by what she so woundingly said of our garden because she’s Northern and has to say it straight): “It’s not much of a kitchen is it?” She will explain it simply follows the humdrum nineteen-fifties American form originating in Benita Otte’s nineteen-twenties Bauhaus design: the seamless look of built-in worktops and cabinets with integrated appliances. She might even go so far as to say the flat panels in the cabinet doors clash with the raised panels of the room door.

Well, bollocks! I apologize for not living in a listed Country Life residence. We like the rounded corners and sage green doors. Mrs D. has been saving up for four years to pay for it. The only thing is, it cost more than a whole house would have cost in the nineteen-seventies.

Friday, 13 September 2019

The Exorcist (reposted by beetleypete)

Pete Johnson (the prolific WordPress blogger beetleypete) generously offered space for guests on his blog. I jumped at the chance because he has almost 5,000 followers. I wondered whether there might be interest in my piece about the film The Exorcist originally posted over four years ago during my early blogging days. In all that time it had less than 200 views. Pleasingly, it turned out to be one of Pete’s most viewed posts this week with a cacophany of comments. [my spelling is corrected in the comments below]

beetleypete's guest post invitation is here

the reposted post on Pete's blog is here

The Exorcist

When my son was about eight, he wanted to know what was the scariest film I had ever seen.

“Well,” I said, “there are quite a few, but one of them is so scary that even its name is too frightening to say.”

No eight year-old would let me off that easily, and when it became obvious he was not going to give up I said that I would only tell him when he was eighteen. For now, all I was prepared to say was that it began with an ‘e’. “The rest is too terrifying to think about,” I repeated.

“Excalibur” he said without hesitation, trying to guess.

“I don’t think there is such a ....”

“Yes there is,” he said, “what about The Executioner?”

“Even if it was I wouldn’t tell you,” I said after again having been corrected about the existence of such a film.

“Excrement,” he guessed. I really doubted that one, but not wanting to risk being found ignorant a third time I simply repeated what I’d said already.

This continued on and off for the next few weeks ....
Read original post (~1200 words)

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Köhler’s Apes

rotary clothes drier or whirly

Blogger Tom Stephenson described recently how he retrieved a small, ancient metal blade that had mysteriously appeared on an out-of-reach flat roof by using a long pole and a magnet. I could sense his immense satisfaction in the flash of insight into how to retrieve it and it gave me vicarious joy to read how the blade popped on to the magnet for him to haul it in. Köhler’s apes would be impressed. This is how culture, in its widest sense, is passed on. 

Wolfgang Köhler, if you’ve not heard of him, was one of those psychologists whose ideas made the study of that subject a pure delight before it became all numbers and logic. He described how insight and problem-solving are not confined to humans; how chimpanzees, after puzzling a while to gain insight, would stack boxes or join two sticks to retrieve bananas that were out of reach. They do it for the thrill of it. I could go so far as to say that dogs enjoy doing clever things such as learning the name of a toy, and Phoebe our cat certainly looked pleased with herself when she realised she could open the sliding doors between the back and front rooms (that’s the dining room and the sitting room for those of you who don’t speak Northern) in order to sleep on the settee and be sick on it, but scientific psychologists would call that anthropomorphic nonsense.

Moments of insight seem to stick in our memories. The photograph above shows our rotary clothes line, a well-made and robust one (now over thirty years old) brought from a previous house in Scotland where they call them whirlies. Blow the ‘h’ and roll the ‘r’ to say it properly. When we moved to our current house there was a rusty old clothes post concreted into the middle of the lawn. We wanted rid of the ugly thing to make a hole for the whirly. Help, insight. Were we a match for Tom Stephenson and Köhler’s apes? (NB not “the Coca Cola apes” as a student once wrote in an exam.)

base of rotary clothes drier or whirly

Half an hour with a hacksaw cut off the clothes post at ground level leaving a suitable hole. It was too wide, but more patient hacksaw work cut down a length of old road-railing pipe to make a sleeve which fitted perfectly into the hole to accommodate the whirly. Very satisfying! 

But there was a further problem. Things used to fall down the hole when the whirly wasn’t in. On one occasion a nauseating smell was found to be coming from the decomposing body of a bird that had fallen to the bottom. We got the poor thing out with a stick, disinfected the hole with Jeyes Fluid and used a threadbare tennis ball to cover the open top.

Then Phoebe the cat started to play with the ball. She liked nothing better (more anthropomorphic nonsense) than knocking it off the hole and chasing it around the garden. If we didn’t put it back things still fell in.

I don’t know what made me look down one day when about to drop in the pipe to put up the whirly, but something caught my eye at the bottom of the hole. It seemed to be moving. I crouched down to peer in. I had to get a torch. There was a large frog at the bottom.

Problem: how do you rescue a frog from fifteen inches (37 centimetres) down at the bottom of a narrow pipe without harming it?

Phoebe the cat, from the comfort of her nest of garden sacks in the garage, suggests hooking it out with your claws and ignoring the screams. The idea that frogs feel pain is felineomorphic nonsense. She also thinks Köhler’s apes must have been stupid. Why stack up all those boxes when you can just spring up on your hind legs, and who would want a banana anyway? As for Tom Stephenson, well, why didn’t he leap across from his balcony and bring back the blade in his mouth? It was one of her friends who left it there in the first place after using it to poke frogs with.

Are there any other suggested solutions to the problem?