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Sunday, 12 August 2018

Review - Chris Packham: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

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

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

Take the poetic brilliance of his imagery: 

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

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

It could be Gerard Manley Hopkins.

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

That’s because Chris Packham does have Asperger syndrome.

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Mrs. Quackworth

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

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

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

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

“Mrs. Ackworth,” Martin corrected me.

“Mrs. Quackworth.”

“Mrs. Ackworth,” he said more loudly.

“What’s a quack worth?”

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

“MIIISSIIIS AAAAAACK WORRRRTH.”

Downstairs, the conversation stopped.

“Why is Martin calling me?”

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

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

*                             *                              *

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

“WHAT A GOAL!”

“FOUL! SEND HIM OFF!”

“WHOAAAAAAA! YEEEAAAYYY! WHEEEEEE!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs. Quackworth,” the children would say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My father struggled to hold his tongue.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

This Hi-de-Hi Government

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

Does anyone else think he looks like Simon Cadell?

Does Dominic Raab look like Simon Cadell?

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

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

Hi-de-Ho!

Thursday, 12 July 2018

1966


Yet again, England are out of the World Cup, eliminated by a tactical master class from Croatia that revealed the wobbly defence and ineffectual attack hinted at in previous games, overshadowed by goals from set-pieces. The team did well to get to the semi-final, and should get better as they get older, but it seemed unrealistic to expect they would win it this time. So we have to wait at least another four years for another chance to repeat the glories of the 30th July, 1966.

This time was quite reminiscent of 1966. Like now, the north of England at least had seen some warm, dry, sunny days, although not as dry as this year, and everyone was behind the team. I watched it on television with a few friends. It was a Saturday afternoon. Our Belgian foreign-language exchange pen-friends were staying and Hugo was cheering for West Germany. When they scored first we had to expel him from the room. He went upstairs to listen on the transistor radio.

England then scored twice to take the lead, and we would probably have allowed him back in had he wanted, but he stayed upstairs until, one minute from the end, the Germans equalised and he came down mocking and taunting, and was immediately banished again. The rest is history. The match went to extra time, and England scored twice and won.

Not only can I remember watching it, I can still list the whole of the winning team: Gordon Banks in goal, full-backs George Cohen and Ray Wilson, half-backs Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton and captain Bobby Moore, forwards Alan Ball, Geoff Hurst, Roger Hunt, Martin Peters and Bobby Charlton. I asked someone of similar age to me whether he could still name them all, and he did so without difficulty: Englishmen of a certain age with shared memories. Sadly, some members of the team still living remember nothing of it at all because of football-induced head trauma.

Was it really fifty-two years ago? Am I old? In those days anyone whose memory reached back that amount of time, say back to the First World War, really did seem old. I hope that’s no longer true.

This time, England will now play Belgium in the third-place play-off. I suspect the Belgians will win; they are far too good for us at the moment. I wonder what Hugo is thinking, and if he remembers where he was in 1966.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Penistone

My recent lack of posts here is down to one of my occasional splurges of interest in family history research, which can be all-consuming. I discovered a previously unknown daughter to one set of my great-great-great grandparents and have been tracing her descendants. I find this intriguing because most of my ancestors are from the same area, and many of their descendants including my own family remained there, so I keep finding that people I know are not-so-distant relatives. For example, one lad with whom I went all the way through secondary school turns out to be a third cousin, although we had absolutely no idea of the connection at the time.

One family name I have been looking at is Penistone. Some may find this name, with its rude hints, implausible or amusing, but it is very common in parts of Yorkshire. My research, however, has been made unnecessarily difficult by inaccuracies in the data on Ancestry.com – the genealogical resource I use. Time and time again, Penistone has been transcribed at Penestone or Panistone or numerous other variations, with the effect that searching the indexes produces incomplete results. For example, if you look for all the Penistones living in the village of Snaith in the 1891 and 1901 censuses, you will find Panistones and Pennistones, even Kenistons, but hardly a Penistone in sight.


In fact, there are so many spurious entries in the indexes – literally hundreds and possible thousands – that it cannot be due to error. A handful, perhaps, but not hundreds. Most of the original sources from which the indexes are drawn are clear as the top line of an optician’s chart, so it is as if some transcribers have deliberately chosen not to write down the name Penistone, but written something else instead. It would also be difficult to mistake Penistone for Penestone because they appear in the index in alphabetical order, so Penistone would be after Penfold and not before. Some of these records came from another resource called FreeBMD where they appear correctly. Has someone carried out a global substitution? Could it be prudery – bowdlerisation on a massive scale? Could it have anything to do with Ancestry’s Mormon origins? Without insider knowledge, one can only speculate about the history of these mistranscriptions.


I am not saying I fail to see the funny side of the name. My brother had a friend called Penistone, whose wife was appalled when she received her new driving licence to discover that in those days the driver number always began with the first five letters of the surname. And a group of us from school had to suppress our sniggers when travelling between Sheffield and Manchester by train on the now closed Woodhead line in the presence of a teacher, and the train stopped in the small Yorkshire town of Penistone. Two of the girls were adamant the station sign had an extra gap between the S and the T. And then there were the tales of people in the early days of the internet, who were unable to enter their names or addresses on internet forms because filters were cruder than the words they were supposed to filter out; those named Penistone from Penistone or Scunthorpe particularly affected. Yes, I’m glad it’s not my name.

But the first rule for any genealogical transcriber is that you record what is there, even if obviously wrong. If someone’s name appears in an original source as Taster Dunman, you record it as Taster Dunman, even if you know it should be Tasker Dunham. There is no excuse for recording Penistone as Penestone or Peinistone or Panistone. If it says Penistone you record it as Penistone, and if it says Stiffcock, you write it down as Stiffcock, no matter how offensive you think it is. 

To quote Tom Lehrer:
All books can be indecent books
Though recent books are bolder,
For filth, I'm glad to say, is in
The mind of the beholder.
When correctly viewed,
Everything is lewd

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Review - The Secret Barrister

The Secret Barrister
Stories of the Law and How It's Broken (3*)

British justice is in a pitiful state: a broken system struggling on its knees; whether because of amateur magistrates for whom ignorance of the law is no barrier to appointment, prosecution and defence barristers given only a few minutes’ sight of the incomplete papers on which a complex case is based, defendants trying to defend themselves because they cannot afford proper representation, hearings postponed at the last minute because witnesses have not been able to get to court on time by public transport (their local court having closed), politicians cutting budgets and meddling with the law for cheap popular appeal, sentencing guidelines too complex for even professional judges to understand, the appallingly inhuman conditions in prisons, … the list goes on and on. 

Did you know, for example, that if you are wrongfully accused of something – perhaps simply because you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – you could incur tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal defence fees, yet receive no financial help whatsoever. It can mean goodbye to your house or your pension, and probably your job and your marriage as well because of the years of anxiety while the case comes to court. Few now qualify for legal aid.

Even worse, you could be like Victor Nealon who spent seventeen years in prison, branded a dangerous sex offender, wrongly convicted on vague and conflicting evidence against which he was poorly defended. And when eventually his conviction was quoshed he received nothing in compensation because the government had changed the rules to make it nigh impossible. The Secretary of State for Justice at the time was Chris Grayling, who in his more recent persona as Secretary of State for Transport introduced generous compensation for passengers whose trains were delayed by more than fifteen minutes, because they should not be inconvenienced by events outside their control. What would they get for the inconvenience of a train delayed by seventeen years?

But we don’t care about these things. The popular press rarely mentions state miscarriages of justice, or appeals that result in reduced sentences, as opposed to the hue and cry with which they report sentences they regard as too light, or the parole of prisoners who have served their time: the recent John Warboys furore for example.

We should care. We should be furious. We should be very disturbed by this book. But no politician ever won votes by promising more money for the justice system or better conditions for prisoners. These things are easy to cut. We proudly believe, as we are told, that British Courts are the best and fairest in the world. 

Relatively few of us will ever encounter the Justice system. For the rest of us the whole thing is just too tedious to bother with. Which is the problem with the book. Despite its brilliant humour, outrage, satire, importance and readability, parts of it are like a legal textbook. You have to persist to get to the end, but it’s eye-openingly worth it.

I hope our Members of Parliament, all of whom received a free crowd-funded copy, do persist to the end and take note. I also hope I never have to face a day in Court, whether as juror, witness or defendant, innocent or guilty.

 
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. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Review - Xiaolu Guo: Once Upon a Time in the East

Xiaolu Guo
Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up (5*)
(American title: Nine Continents: A Memoir In And Out Of China)

What a remarkable memoir this is. Born in 1973 and brought up by her grandparents in malnourished poverty in a remote fishing village in southeastern China, then taken back by her parents to the nearby industrial city of Wenling, before going to study in Beijing, she saw what to some families in Yorkshire would be two hundred years of change played out before she was twenty.

Her massive stroke of luck was to gain one of just eleven places at Beijing Film Academy in competition with over seven thousand other applicants. But of course, you make your own luck. She read and studied to the point of obsession, became fascinated with western literature and the beat generation, and later won a British Council scholarship to the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. She settled in England, but it was still tough until, gradually, her films and novels gained critical acclaim.

At the heart of the memoir is her relationship with her parents. Her father was an artist, earlier imprisoned for “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution. While he was supportive and encouraging, her mother was emotionally hard and distant. Xiaolu resented that, as the daughter, she had to do all the household chores. Otherwise she was left much to her own devices. She suffered sexual abuse by an older boy in Wenling, and instigated an affair with one of her teachers. It sounds almost Dickensian, but it isn’t. What drew me to the book was a newspaper interview in which she dismisses Dickens as overrated, sentimental and lacking in poetry. None of these things can be said of Xiaolu Guo. She writes beautifully, in English, her second language, making nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties China real.

I complained in my last review about best-selling books which leave you without any life-affirming emotion, insight or inspiration. This memoir is not like that in any way. It had me admiring Xiaolu Guo’s intelligence and determination, and her sheer ability to survive, and looking at maps of southeastern China and wondering at the chance of life that enabled her to escape.

There are a number of interesting films of her talking about her books on YouTube, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-ksxzU8Hv0

 
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.