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Wednesday, 10 August 2022

My Very First Mother Goose

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

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

Amongst my favourites to sing were:

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

We probably enjoyed it more than the children.

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

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

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

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

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

                 1 their actual names were used here
                 2 exaggerated southern accent

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

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

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

How many of our traditional rhymes are similarly muddled?


 

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

Monday, 1 August 2022

A Practical Wife

New month old post - last month’s old post was part of a longer piece. This is how it continued (first posted 18th August 2014).

In ‘Dad’s Thursday Helper’, I wrote about the dubiously wonderful things Dad could do with fire, lead, tar, meths, petrol and so many other substances while Mum was out. Yet, Mum never thought him particularly skilled in practical things. There was another reason for this too, which was that Mum was by far the more practically gifted of the two. She did all the gardening and repairs around the house.

She inherited a naturally practical, creative imagination that had run in her family for generations. Her great grandfather had maintained steam engines on barges in the 1870s. One of her brothers was a plumber, another was a self-taught mechanic. I watched the plumber dig down at Grandma’s house to connect a water-toilet to the new drains that had reached the village. And later, the mechanic effortlessly dismantled the broken mini-van lock and made it work with the ignition key. Even Mum once rescued me from a car maintenance disaster with pointed kitchen scissors after I had stupidly twisted the top off a grease nipple. She could use tools in entirely different ways from their intended purpose.

“Aren’t I lucky to have married such a practical wife,” Dad used to say.

I remember them decorating together, a paintbrush each. Mum got on quickly and efficiently with long smooth brush strokes, whilst Dad stabbed away awkwardly, making slow progress. I later realised she had given him an old brush, the stock clogged up with dried paint, stiff and ineffective, but he did his best without realising anything was wrong.

This kind of thing is pretty insidious. Dad, who made himself a cat’s whisker crystal radio as a boy, taught both me and my brother to assemble Airfix models and make things with Meccano, preserved fences with creosote, repaired punctured bicycle tyres, helped maintain his firm’s cars and vans in the 1940s and 1950s, and had the confidence to melt lead and tar on the kitchen cooker and get away with it, gradually came to believe himself functionally incompetent in all matters practical. We all came to think it.

After Dad retired he made some real howlers. He decided to help around the house by cleaning the finger marks off the furniture with a mixture of vinegar and water like his mother used to do. Within minutes he had knocked the vinegar water on to the carpet. “For goodness sake, get a bloody job,” Mum yelled.

Mum spent her final months explaining how to do the household things she had always done for us all. Dad carefully wrote it all down in a notebook, but it did not always help. Mum became so exasperated at his ineptitude as she tried to instruct him how to build cane pyramids for runner bean, she exclaimed “I’ve got more sense in my little finger than you have in your whole body.” Dad knew she you would never harvest them, and she didn’t.

Later, most memorably, he melted the plastic lid of the kettle by putting it on the gas ring without water. The next day, having bought a new lid, he did exactly the same again. “They always used to have metal lids,” he complained.

It was a vicious circle, lack of practice leading to lowered confidence. Were those tar splashes on the yellow shed and the flaming pool of meths creeping across the table, mentioned in the last post, early indications?  

I like to think I inherited Mum’s practical abilities. I can garden, hang wallpaper, service a car, replace light switches, maintain computer software, put new taps on washbasins, mend toilet cisterns and make guinea pigs hutches, to mention but a few. Dad visited us one day to find me hammering a hole in the bedroom wall to fit a new electrical spur socket. The floorboards were up displaying my neat new wiring all ready to connect up. I proudly showed him what I was doing.

“Aren’t you lucky to have married such a practical wife,” he told me.

Sunday, 24 July 2022

Oil Lamp

In Bright In The Background, I recalled how my brother gouged a deep groove into the front of our parents’ brand new sideboard the day after it was delivered (I wasnt entirely blameless). I guess my brother would have been around ten at the time which may excuse things a little. But it did not put an end to our unruly “riving about” as Mum called it. We did a similar around six years later when we should have known better, when my brother was taking his O levels and I had started work.

I can be fairly precise about the date because it was shortly after the February 1972 power cuts. Most of our electricity was then generated from coal, but the miners had gone on strike forcing the government to schedule power cuts to private homes. The Central Electricity Generating Board divided days into three-hourly time-slots and assigned homes to areas. Power was then rationed by areas. Typically, your power would be switched off for two time-slots on three days each week, and you would also be on standby at other times in case further cuts became necessary. Rotas were published in regional newspapers. 

I remember being in our shared house in Leeds, playing chess by candlelight. At least we had a gas cooker and a gas fire. 

At home, Mum brought an oil lamp back from Grandma’s after she moved into a smaller house. I remember she had three or four of them from the days before electricity reached her village. Mum must have used them in her childhood and Grandma in hers too, because the wheels that adjust the height of the wicks are embossed:

        Evered No. 4 Duplex
        Evered & Co. Ltd.
        London and Birmingham

which dates them as Victorian, perhaps from as early as 1850. All parts, including the glass shades, were original. I never thought to ask about them, or how long they had been in the family.

Mum filled the lamp she had brought home with fuel, trimmed and adjusted the wick, and set it alight. As far as lighting was concerned, there might well have been no power cuts at all. It was easily bright enough to read by quite comfortably.

That was the last time it burned. A week or so later, the two naughty too-old-to-be-boys knocked it over and broke the shade. Zoom in and you can see where my brother stuck it back together with Evo-Stik.

And so, fifty years later, it found itself in our loft. And a leaflet came through the door from a Mr. Madgewick of Wombell. It gave me great expectations. The leaflet was covered in drawings of gold and jewellery, coins, military items, furniture, musical instruments, china and ceramic, typewriters, cameras … I immediately thought of the oil lamp in the loft. 

      Anything old and interesting considered
      Instant cash paid

And he did. It was like the daytime TV antiques programme ‘Dickinson’s Real Deal’. At first he said he was not interested, that he might have been had the shade been intact. But as he started to leave without it, he suddenly turned back andto do me a favour named a figure and pulled a roll of bank notes out of his pocket. I’m not kidding it could have been £10,000 thick. It was my turn to pretend not to be interested. Eventually, he and counted some notes into my hand.

Another piece of clutter gone from the loft.

Of course, I’m sure I’ve been done.

Sunday, 17 July 2022

Panora

This is my dad’s school Panora photograph from the nineteen-thirties. Its length makes it difficult to show. The firm, Panora Limited, specialized in school and college groups and was founded in Clerkenwell in 1916. Groups sat in a semi-circle, the camera panned round, and the picture was printed to make it look as if the whole school has been sitting in a long straight line.

Dad always imagined that when we eventually came to clear out his house, all his things would be dumped in a large skip on the drive with the Panora picture smashed on top. But it’s not. It’s on the wall in our office.

I recognise a few of the teachers: the new headmaster on the second row from the front behind the gap between the seated boys and girls, and the young English mistress five places to his right. Both remained at the school until they retired during my time there. I can name some of the other teachers too from staff and class photographs taken shortly before I went, such as the man with facial injury from the First World War, and my dad’s form teacher. How privileged to be a grammar school teacher prior to around 1960, esteemed, unhassled and reasonably well-paid.

And here is Dad. He’s the serious-looking one on the left of the middle row in this small group (from near the top-right of the main picture).
  

You may notice he is standing with one shoulder higher than the other. That’s because he had a short leg caused by poliomyelitis contracted as a toddler just after he had learned to walk. He had to learn to walk a second time. The boy who lived two doors along the street caught it first, and the infection is thought to have spread along the drains of the outdoor toilets. My dad had to wear a leg-iron for several years and had an awfully thin leg for the rest of his life. It didn’t stop him walking a lot, but it did eventually do for him because he broke it in a fall at home, ended up in hospital, and died of respiratory failure in his eighties.

On the other hand, it may
considerably have prolonged his life, and nor might I be here. It made him unfit for war service, so he spent the Second World War on his Velocette motorcycle as an air raid patrol messenger. In contrast, his friend, Arthur Mann, who is next-but-one at the other end of the middle row wearing glasses, became a pilot officer on bombers in the Royal Air Force.

My dad went for a drink with Arthur whilst he was on leave, just before he was due to return to his squadron at the end of November, 1943. “I could see in his eyes he didn’t want to go back, and how frightened he was,” Dad told me many years later. A few days later, Arthur and his aeroplane were lost over Germany.

Rawcliffe War Memorial. Arthur Mann is on the 1939-1945 panel.
I know about many of the other names too. The stupidity of war.


From the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other records, I can see that Pilot Office Arthur Mann, son of Arthur and Annie Mann of 30 High Street, Rawcliffe, Yorkshire, 207th Squadron of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, died aged 23 on the 2nd December, 1943. He had been in the R.A.F. for three years, having trained in Canada. He had been a qualified pilot for about fifteen months, and taken part in ten raids over Germany as Captain of an Avro Lancaster Bomber. The squadron had recently moved to R.A.F. Spilsby in Lincolnshire.

Earlier, from his village school, Arthur had won a County Minor Scholarship to the Grammar School and then joined the clerical staff of the Electricity Board. He had played for Rawcliffe Cricket Club, and as outside right for Rawcliffe United Football Club. He is commemorated in Berlin 1939-1945 War Cemetery and on Rawcliffe War Memorial.

Lancaster 1 ED601 took off 16.37 on 2nd December, 1943, from RAF Spilsby. Crashed near Saalow 6km NW of Zossen. Crew of 7: Flying Officer Harry Frederick Charles Bonner, Sergeant Frederick Lloyd Brisco (Canadian), Flying Officer Edward Vincent Harley, Pilot Officer Arthur Mann, Sergeant Sydney Martin, Sergeant Norman Farrar Petty and Sergeant Alfred Sugden Rushby.

Monday, 11 July 2022

Lenses and Tubes

I’ve been in the loft again. This time it was old photographic stuff.

The lens on my present digital camera (a 7.1 megamixels Canon Digital Ixus 70 bought in 2007 for £170) has a 3x optical zoom and a 12x digital zoom if one is happy with loss of image quality. That, of course, is nowhere near as good as more recent digital cameras where 20 megapixels and a 25x optical zoom (or more) would not be uncommon, and even many camera phones would now better it. Even so, I still find it adequate for everyday purposes (note to family: it may be time I had a new one).

But in the old days of film cameras, lenses were usually of fixed focal length. You could get zoom but they tended to be expensive, so people usually used interchangeable fixed lenses, typically a standard lens, a wide-angle lens and a telephoto lens.

My Zenith E came with a standard 58mm lens which was a little long, a bit like always being on 1.2x zoom. It also had quite a narrow field of view, so I bought a 35mm wide-angle lens for indoor shots, and also a 135mm lens for distance. My understanding is that the 135mm lens is equivalent to 2.7x zoom. For 4x zoom I would have needed a 200mm lens, and for 8x zoom a 400mm lens. As well as being  expensive, they would have been very heavy to carry around when out walking.

Here, captured from mid-auditorium by the 135mm lens, is my brother receiving his degree at the University of Bradford from “that old man with a dirty hanky” as my aunt put it (he was younger than I am now). I stood up to take the picture, the Zenith gave off its customary loud “clunk”, and I managed to sit down again before people on the rows in front turned round to see what the noise was.

But what did we do for close-ups? My digital camera has quite a useful close-up ‘macro’ feature, but lenses were not so straightforward. They could be near-focused to some  extent, but true close-ups required a set of extension tubes (sometimes called extension rings) which screwed between the lens and camera body.

I had a set of three tubes of 7mm, 14mm and 28mm, which, in combination, gave seven different levels of magnification. They screwed together with such satisfying precision. I took this close-up of Southern Iceland from a map of Scandinavia in an atlas in 1977.

Here are the lenses and tubes down from the loft. They are destined for the charity shop, although whether they are worth anything when these days you can pick up top of the range Leica, Canon and Nikon stuff for next to nothing, I don’t know.

 
 
 

And for the true nerds, here is the instruction leaflet for the extension tubes.

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Nice Little Earner

Fixed-term Indexed-linked Savings Certificates, once nicknamed “Granny Bonds”. 9.0% interest this year. Not bad! And it’s tax-tree.

They are no longer on sale. National Savings and Investments withdrew them in 2011. However, if you already owned some, you have been allowed to renew them for another period at the end of their fixed term. These are now two years into their fourth five-year term. They started off at £10,000 in 2005 and were last renewed in 2020.

They used to be linked to the Retail Price Index (RPI) but NS&I switched then to the poorer Consumer Price Index (CPI) in 2019. Even so, interest of 9% (8.99 + 0.01) is good. I doubt I’ve ever had as much as that before on anything. But we have endured years of low interest because inflation has been low. More than once I’ve considered cashing them in.

To calculate the average compound interest over 17 years the formula is (no doubt Mr. Brague will correct me if wrong):

    £10,000 x interest17 = £15,287 
    therefore, interest = 17 √ 1.5287  (the seventeenth root of 1.5287) = 1.02528
    In other words around 2.528%

Which I guess is probably about what you would have received over that period in a Building Society account.

It’s swings and roundabouts. High inflation was inevitable. It affects everything. So perhaps we should not be trying to take seats off swings and rides off roundabouts. It puts things out of balance and makes us dissatisfied.

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.