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Thursday, 14 February 2019


HMP Wakefield prison register, June 1900

In my family history research, I keep coming across instances of people being sent to Wakefield Prison for being drunk.

What a good job they don’t do that now. From what I’ve heard about Wakefield on a Saturday night, they’d need a bigger prison.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Limerick Leanings

Limerick - The Young Lady of Niger

It’s an affliction. Whenever I see a quirky or unusual place name, or sometimes quite a straightforward one, I just have to compose a limerick. 

(Limericks, if you are not familiar with them, are humorous five-line poems, in which lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyme and scan with seven to ten syllables, and lines 3 and 4 rhyme and scan with five to seven syllables. The form was popularized by Edward Lear, and well known examples include the nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock, and The Young Lady of Niger, above.)

A popular blogger I started to follow recently (Going Gently) mentioned he had been caught by a speed camera, and, as an alternative to points on his licence and a fine, he had agreed to be indoctrinated on a speed awareness course in Mold. Well, Mold! What a name. Irresistible. A limerick immediately began to form in my head. I posted it as a comment on his blog:

          I went on a short course in Mold,
          To be told what I had to be told,
          The days are now past
          Of me driving too fast,
          My right foot must be more controlled.

We play it as a game in the car on holiday (not to be recommended because it’s so easy to stop concentrating on driving and go too fast through speed traps). As Mold is in Wales, here’s another we came up with in that country (although I’m not sure whether the basic idea is that original):

          A fragile young lady from Wales,
          Tried buttered toast spread with snails,
          She shivered and quivered
          When all the snails slithered
          To the edge of her plate leaving trails.

They don’t emerge only in Wales, or only in the car for that matter. A couple of years ago we went for a walk on Exmoor in Devon, through the village made famous in Lorna Doone, and out came this:

          A naïve young fellow from Oare,
          Was stopped in the street by a whore,
          “Hello love,” she said
          Let’s go to bed,
          Now he’s not so naïve any more.

          (OR - Now he knows what his ***** is for.)

I think that’s quite enough of that for now.

Is anyone else encumbered with this?

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Brendan and the Shared House

Ghana 1970s aerogram with additional stamp

I always assumed we would see each other again one day. We would go to the pub and get pissed and laugh about the people and the good times in the shared houses in Leeds. But it was not to be.

We would remember Ron, the guy who never stopped talking, notorious for ‘ronopolising’ the conversation with his mind-numbing ‘ronologues’ which always began “Did I tell you about the time I …”, and if you had ever been somewhere, done something or seen something, he had always been somewhere, done something or seen something better. He used to leave his towel draped over the hot water cylinder in the bathroom and it stank. He never washed it. You would think a hospital bacteriology technician would have been worried about bugs.

And Dave who gassed the place out with the peculiar aromatic smell of Holland House pipe tobacco. He smoked even when it was his turn to cook, speckling everything with ash. He once accidentally tipped the thing over my food and instead of being sorry just laughed and got on with his own unconcerned. Anyone would think he owned the place. Actually, he did. He was always asking “Can I trouble you gentlemen for some rent please?”

Then there was Nick, who could swear like only someone from the back streets of Manchester could, and Larry who made himself dainty little jellies and custards every Monday and lined them up uncovered on the kitchen table for several days (we had no fridge). And Roger, the Ph.D. student with his clever cryptic comebacks, and Paul with the outrageous ginger beard and silly Lancashire accent. And Stuart who was so well organised you had to make an appointment three weeks in advance just to ask him something. And the other Dave, the Geordie, who did an animated rendition of The Lampton Worm, and was on holiday when the electoral register form came, so we put his middle name down as Aloysius.

And who could forget ‘Pervy Pete’, the television rent collector, who came each month to empty the coin box, greeted us “hello mensies”, and lingered uninvited to take an unseemly interest in which bedrooms we slept? That television always ran out of money right in the middle of Monty Python or just before a punchline in Jokers Wild.

The others came and went, but Brendan and I stayed longest. We were from ordinary Yorkshire backgrounds, shared the same sense of humour and had under-achieved our ‘A’ Levels. Brendan was the liveliest among us, and the best looking. In his long Afghan coat, with his smooth young face and long centrally-parted hair, the kids in the street called him “that lad who looks like David Cassidy.” He made us laugh with his silly puns and deliberate misunderstandings. He could play guitar better than me and instantly put chords to almost any song at all. He could throw a lighted cigarette in the air and catch it the right way round in his mouth. He had an impossibly beautiful girl friend who was training to be a doctor.

We were both desperate to escape our mundane jobs, me from an accountants’ office and Brendan from a veterinary laboratory, and did so around the same time in 1977, me to university and Brendan on Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). He dreamed of some idyllic tropical paradise where nubile young girls danced to the drum-beat naked in the twilight, and was dismayed to be sent to sub-Saharan Africa, to an isolated rural village in Northern Ghana called Pong-Tamale, around 400 miles from the coast. It was not even much of a change of job: he went to run a laboratory in a veterinary college.

Pong-Tamale, Ghana (click to play video)
In those days, people still wrote letters, and I looked forward to his aerograms dropping through the letterbox with their exotic stamps and tales of distant Africa. Things were not easy. It was oppressively hot. He suffered tropical ailments and diseases. They were short of supplies and equipment. He asked to be sent books as there was little to read and no television, not that they always had electricity to run one.

Yet, after an initial term of eighteen months, he decided to stay. He found a salaried post for three years with the Overseas Development Ministry in the city of Kumasi, about two hundred and fifty miles to the south. Then, after a year back in England, he found a post at Mtwara in Tanzania, and then another at Morogoro. It sounded like a television wildlife documentary: horses, Land Rovers, lions, zebras, and trekking in the Ngorongoro highlands.

I saw him a couple of times over these years during his brief visits home. He was now married with children, and I was busy with my life too. Letters became less frequent. He suggested I visit them in East Africa but it was never the right time.

Then we lost touch. We both moved within a short space of time and I no longer had his address. Due to a downturn in the property market, we rented out my wife’s house where we had been living, and it was ten years before we finally sold it. In emptying it we came across various papers stuffed at the back of a cupboard by tenants, including a ten year old unopened letter from Brendan.

Replying after ten years seemed pointless. Perhaps I should have tried to find him, but didn’t. Did I fear the collision of past and present? We had surely both moved on.

But, it was already too late, as I distressingly discovered yet another decade later. Out of pure curiosity, I typed his distinctive name into a genealogy web site and was shaken to find a record of his death in 2001. It took more time to find what had happened. They had returned permanently to England in the nineteen-nineties, and Brendan had died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 49. He had been living less than ten miles away. All that time ago, and I had no idea.

We’ll never have that drink now.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Twelve Balls

Things that amused us when we should have been working

Solution to the Twelve Balls Problem and other matters

I came across a note I made in 1970 (on the right of the notepad, above):

                                        SHINE BALD TOP
                                        BALD SPOT
                                        SLAB DINE
                                        HEAP LIST

It took me a while to remember what it was. Eventually it came back: it was the solution to the twelve balls problem (sometimes known as the twelve coins problem). One of the management staff posed it in November, 1969, when we were auditing Spencer and Halstead, an engineering manufacturer at Ossett. We couldn’t solve it. Insufferably, he wouldn’t tell us the answer until our next visit four months later.

The Problem: You have twelve identical-looking balls (or they could be coins or anything similar). One of them is a forgery and is therefore different in weight to others: it could be heavier or it could be lighter but you do not know which. You have a simple balance to weigh the balls against each other, but you can use it only three times – no more. How do you identify the fake ball and whether it weighs more or less than the others?

Note that you do not know whether the fake is heavier or lighter. If you knew for certain that it was, say, definitely lighter than the others, the problem is slightly different: it becomes a question of how to find a single fake out of nine coins in two weighings, or out of twenty-seven coins in three weighings. This is simpler and is not addressed here.

You may wish to pause to consider it further at this point. Or, if you’ve glazed over already, you may wish to jump to the end to find out about the other notes on the notepad.

                                                                *          *          *

The answer is to label the twelve balls with the letters of the first phrase above, and then weigh them in groups of eight – four against four – as specified in the three pairs of words.

For example, if the three weighings come out as (i) balance (ii) left heavy (iii) right heavy, then you know the faulty ball is not one of those in the first weighing, so it must be H, I, N or E. The second weighing eliminates H which is not there, and because I, N and E are on the light side, one of these must be lighter than all the others. Of these only E is on the light side in the third weighing, so E is the fake, and it is lighter than the others.

I wondered how this could work for all possible answers. Well, first of all, because each weighing can have three possible outcomes – left heavier, right heavier or balance – there are 3 x 3 x 3 i.e. 27 possible outcomes across the three weighings. Secondly, as there are twelve balls, and as we know that only one of them is either heavier or lighter, there are 24 possible answers. So the number of possible outcomes exceeds the number of possible answers, suggesting that each outcome could identify a different answer, with three outcomes unused.

One of the unused outcomes has to be where all three weighings are in balance, because that would mean all balls had identical weight. 

Not being one to let this kind of thing pass by without further thought, I could not resist creating the following table (L means left heavy, R means right heavy and B means balance). Hey, some people enjoy crosswords, I enjoy doing this. Get over it!

      S heavy = RLR       S light = LRL
      H heavy = BBL       H light = BBR
      I heavy = BRR       I light = BLL
      N heavy = BRB       N light = BLB
      E heavy = BRL       E light = BLR
      B heavy = LLB       B light = RRB
      A heavy = LLL       A light = RRR
      L heavy = LLR       L light = RRL
      D heavy = LRB       D light = RLB
      T heavy = RBR       T light = LBL
      O heavy = RBB       O light = LBB
      P heavy = RBL       P light = LBR
      Not used: BBB, RLL, LRR

You can see that the outcomes for heavy balls are mirror images of the outcomes for light balls. Also, the ‘unused outcomes’ are ones which do not occur.

In fact, the table also tells you where to place each ball in the three weighings. Looking just at the left hand column: Ball A should be placed on the left of the balance in all three weighings; Ball O should be placed on the right in the first weighing and omitted from the second and third weighings.

With this insight, we could now create our own mnemonic for the solution. How about:

                                        READ THIS BLOG
                                        READ BITS
                                        BEAR GOLD
                                        THOR SLED

I think it works. It’s just a case of finding a phrase consisting of twelve different letters, and then jiggling the letters and weighing patterns around until you get words.

I wondered why a pair of outcomes is left over: RLL / LRR as well as BBB. It is because the solution only needs 24 rather than the full 26 of the 3 x 3 x 3, i.e. 27 possible outcomes. So could it be used for a thirteenth ball? Unfortunately not, because if you placed a thirteenth ball on the balance you would be weighing six balls against seven each time, which would tell you nothing. However, I think you could use this outcome instead of one of the others provided you switched round other balls to preserve the equality of the three four-against-four weighings.

Could you do four balls in two weighings? Theoretically, this has 8 possible answers with 3 x 3 i.e. 9 outcomes from two weighings. But, you get only a partial solution. You have to weigh one against one each time (with two two-against-two weighings, neither would balance, and five of the nine possible outcomes would be non-occurring). For example, labelling the balls A, B, C and D, and weighing A against B and then A against C:

      A heavy = LL       A light = RR
      B heavy = RB       B light = LB
      C heavy = BR       C light = BL
      D heavy =BB       D light = BB (also)
      Not used: RL, LR            

It identifies all outcomes except when ball D is the fake, which is identified correctly but not whether heavy or light. However, it would work if you had only three balls and two weighings. I suspect this was the starting point for the person who originally formulated the problem.

What if you were allowed four weighings? What, then, would be the maximum number of balls from which you could identify a lighter or heavier fake? There would then be 3 x 3 x 3 x 3, i.e. 81 possible outcomes. Forty balls would have eighty possible answers, but I suspect you would have insufficient non-occurring / unused outcomes to be able to do it.

Well, I’ve worked it out (I told you I’m a loony). Four weighings would allow you to find the fake amongst thirty-nine balls. If you want to know how I did it, look here. It actually gives quite an insight into how the whole things works. It appears there is always a variety of ways to formulate the groups used in the weighings.

What if, rather than just one, there were two fake balls? How would you weigh them then? O.K., this is beginning to go beyond even my limits of pointless curiosity. Proper mathematicians have come up with formulae to show how many balls can be done in N weighings (in the main case considered here it’s ½(3n-1)-1 if you want to know, but it can get a lot more complicated).

It’s clever stuff. Out of the millions of ways in which twelve balls can be weighed against each other, it is genius to realise that you can arrange things so that each combination of outcomes identifies a different solution. And just as brilliant is the realisation that the balls can be labelled with the letters of a phrase so that the three weighings can be selected using pairs of words made from the letters of that phrase. But cleverest of all is whoever it was that came up with the problem in the first place.

                                                     *                 *                *

The other notes on the paper, by the way, are also things which amused us during our working hours.

The first is supposedly a telegram sent by a sailor to his wife on returning from a long voyage. It was intended to read “In today, home tonight, lots of love, Rodney” but got garbled during transmission and came out probably as what he was really thinking.

The second refers to a philanderer who took out policies with different insurers to provide for his loved ones. The policy for his baby was with General Accident, and so on.

So, we did not spend our entire time thinking about combinations and permutations. Welcome to the wonderful misogynistic world of business and commerce, 1970.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Some Memorable Posts

Posts from other blogs that have stuck in the memory

Although it’s over four years since I started this blog, I don’t have many readers or followers. Would I do better by being more like other bloggers?

Sadly, in my case, the answer is almost certainly “No”. No one would be interested in the beauty products I use, or pictures showing my repertoire of appealing facial expressions. I’m not sure anyone would want to know how comfortable my ten-year old M&S underpants are, or that I have had three Shredded Wheat for breakfast almost every day for the last forty years. I’m not qualified to give tips on how to get thousands of followers in just one week, or how to find commercial partnerships and get paid to promote products. As for hints on parenting and lifestyle, my kids would go ballistic if I posted those childhood photographs of them nude in the bath. 

I have explored linkies, retweet accounts and facebook boosts, but it seems to me that the main beneficiaries of these things are the people who host them. They get them going and within a few weeks are pestering you to say they have “teamed up” with this or that product to bring you the latest feminine lingerie, slimming aids or facial filler creams.

There are, however, some wonderful blogs I do admire, and would like to mention posts from the past few years that left a memorable impression.

I have a soft spot for blogs by middle aged men from the North of England retrospectively trying to construct meaning in their lives. Jonathan Humble’s poetry blog has some pretty powerful stuff, and some amusing stuff too, but it was a short story, Rainbow Friday, that first caught my attention. It could be straight from my own childhood. It is so good, I sometimes wonder why I bother trying to write a blog myself.

I followed Andrew Petcher from fairly early on. He has a well-read travel blog written in his guise as “international man of leisure”, but it was his childhood blog, from when children roamed free without a care, that attracted me first. His memories of a rugby-mad games teacher are spot-on, and his experiences of working in a privatised utility (part 1, part 2) have you gunning for re-nationalisation.

David Hodgson Personal Blog (not the snappiest of titles) is always fascinating. Two pieces I especially remember are one which begins by wondering what became of a large map of East Yorkshire bus routes that used to be on the side of a building overlooking the bus station in Bridlington, and a piece about the bizarre demise of the British electronics company Ferranti which supported him through university.

Moving on from elderly memoir, Estelle Hargraves’ The Skittish Library, a reflection on out-of-print oddities, was another early following. I found it when researching one of my own favourite old books, The Universal Book of Hobbies and Handicrafts. Her posts about the chapters on pet keeping and self defence give questionable advice about the disposal of unwanted kittens and how to pierce an assailant’s throat with the tip of your umbrella.

Brian’s Blog, a philosophical take on anything and everything contradictory in the world, always makes me think. The writer strives for a green and thoughtful life by cycling and recycling, and minimising present-day irrationalities. The diversity of the blog makes it difficult to pick specific pieces, but two recent ones that come to mind are on micro-beads and the idiocy of  GDPR cookies.

Sarada Gray also blogs about anything and everything. I look at all her posts, and especially enjoyed one about her new pair of reading glasses. She also, quite rightly, roused my indignation at how Mo Mowlem has been airbrushed out of history.

Finally, for now, Gary Strachan is possibly the most prolific blogger I follow. At sometimes two or three lengthy posts a day I could never keep up with everything he writes, but I regularly find myself returning for his wit and humour which is up there with Tim Dowling in the Guardian or Eddie Mair in the Radio Times. To be honest, I envy how easily he seems to turn it out. Over the last few days he has even produced a series of posts joking about his recent heart attack.  

I feel that’s enough for now and apologise for not mentioning more of the blogs I follow. I’ve made a mental note to attend to it in due course.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Research Before The Internet

A. S. Byatt: Possession
as evoked by
A.S. Byatt - Possession: a Romance (5*)

The novel, Possession, evokes for me exactly what it was like to carry out research before the age of the internet, when we had to go to libraries to look things up in books and journals, and even use primary sources. More on this below.

It may also be the cleverest novel I have ever read: in fact I read it twice, partly because I enjoyed it so much and partly because a lot of it went over my head the first time through.

To describe the book first, the plot concerns two nineteen-eighties scholars who discover correspondence between two fictional Victorian poets revealing a previously unknown love affair. It is a discovery of immense historical significance, akin, say, to finding revelatory private correspondence by major literary figures such as Alfred Lord Tennyson or Christina Rossetti. As the two present-day scholars investigate the lives of the poets, they themselves are drawn into a relationship echoing that of the two Victorians. The two stories are revealed in parallel through five hundred pages of narrative, fictional poetry, letters, journals and diaries. So as well as the two love stories, and a cracking mystery story, A. S. Byatt has created substantial bodies of work attributed to the fictional poets and numerous pieces of writing attributed to other characters.

I struggled the first time through because: (i) the Victorian setting is rich in classical, biblical, literary and contemporary references of the kind with which educated Victorians of the time would have been very familiar but most of us today are not; and (ii) the nineteen-eighties setting alludes to numerous arcane and specialist approaches to textual analysis and criticism; e.g. we learn one of the scholars is trained in post-structuralist deconstruction. It found my own education sorely lacking.

Some might say the author is simply showing off, but essentially she is poking fun, and is abundantly able to do so because of her sweeping knowledge of Victorian and modern scholarship, poetry and literature. Some might say this is self-indulgent, but surely that is what all writers are. Her descriptions of beautiful things are dazzling, be they Victorian bathrooms, snowfall, the North York Moors or libraries. The 1990 Booker judges were clearly impressed.

That she put this sumptuous book together before 1990, before the internet, makes the achievement all the more impressive. She has not simply googled a tapestry of ideas and stitched them in, it stems from a lifetime’s study and expertise.

And that is what Possession strongly evokes for me: the pleasure and excitement of academic work before the age of abundant electronic resources and the internet. Anyone whose university days predated the turn of the century, perhaps researching a thesis or dissertation, or a final-year project, will find Possession brings it all back. You feel as if you are researching the Victorian poets yourself.

For me it was the light and quiet in a corner of the top floor of the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull, looking through the raked windows across the city to the distant Humber where bogies high above the river crossed slowly back and forth spinning the Humber Bridge suspension cables. Later it was the darkness and claustrophobia of the open stacks deep in the bowels of the John Rylands Library at Manchester.

The silence; the decades of collected journals; the Dewey Decimal index; the chance discovery of a promising book next to the one you were looking for; deliberately mis-shelving books so that no one else can deny you them the next day (I plead guilty, but I never stole anything, unlike one of the scholars in Possession); pages of handwritten notes from volumes piled six or seven high on your desk; coloured pens and paper clips, sore fingers; treasure-trails through the impenetrable Science and Social Sciences Citation Indexes (the SCI and SSCI); flip-lidded index card boxes; inter-library loans; journal offprint requests; scratchy, smelly, chemical photocopies; microfilm readers; hours following leads and loose ends which led to nowhere; puzzling new words and terminology in need of clarification; flashes of insight on encountering new ideas and making what you hoped, but rarely were, entirely original associations. More than anything else, the Csikszentmihalyian sense of flow: the buzz of your own thoughts, total immersion in the task at hand, suspended in time so that nothing else seemed to matter.

Through the nineteen-nineties things gradually changed. It became possible to research whole topics instantly and with plausible thoroughness through just a screen in an austere book-free room. Things were never the same again. I was still recommending books for my courses into the new century, but in rapidly changing subject areas such as computing, and even the social sciences, some of the university lecturers I knew stopped using print sources completely.

I hung on to my collection of academic books until retirement when they had to go. I kept a few that no one wanted, and ones that had once been especially useful and dear to me.

Key to book 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. 

Thursday, 27 December 2018

The Morecambe and Wise IRA Sketch

Morecambe and Wise: The Lost Tapes

It’s hard to believe what I saw on television last night: two Morecambe and Wise shows from 1968, believed lost, recovered from a forgotten film canister found in a cinema in Sierra Leone, and broadcast now for the first time in over fifty years.

Morecambe and Wise IRA Sketch
Ronnie Carroll hands out the shillelaghs
The second of the two shows (first broadcast BBC2, Monday, 30th September, 1968) had a sketch in which the Northern Irish singer Ronnie Carroll played an IRA commander testing the Irish credentials of Eric, Ernie and writers Sid Green and Dick Hills by asking them to speak in an Irish accent and dance a jig. The running joke was that Eric Morecambe was unable to do these things (his accent was more Long John Silver) and therefore kept getting beaten with shillelaghs.*

The writing, the timing, the general silliness – it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen for some time, but can you imagine anyone on television today daring to make fun of the Irish Republican Army and speak in a mock Irish accent? Admittedly, the show was originally broadcast before the riots in 1969 and subsequent deployment of British troops, but even so, would it not today be greeted by howling accusations of bad taste, political incorrectness and even xenophobia, and taken off air?

My children have applied for Irish nationality. They can because my wife’s father was born in Bray near Dublin. They are fearful of losing their right to work and travel freely throughout Europe after Brexit. The likely outcome is that all the family except me will be Europeans, and that I will have to pay for a permit to set foot across the Channel.

Their applications required extensive supporting documentation – identity documents, witness statements, ancestral birth, marriage and death certificates, and large cheques – which took quite some time to put together. If all you had to do was to be able say “Top of the morning” in a pantomime Irish accent, dance a jig and set out for Tipperary with me shillelagh under me arm and a twinkle in me eye, I might have had an outside chance of getting in. ‘Tis a shame, to be sure, bejabers!

The Morecambe and Wise Show: The Lost Tapes is available on BBC iPlayer for the next month: is the episode described above with guest Ronnie Carroll. is another episode introduced by Michael Aspel who appears as guest on the show.

* Shillelagh: an Irish word for a stout wooden cudgel, immortalised in a song by Bing Crosby who had an Irish grandmother and released L.P.s full of sentimental songs with Irish themes, e.g.