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Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Lost Entitlements

16 seater minibus and 7.5 tonne van and truck
They don’t want you driving these once you’re 70

In 2009, the BBC programme Watchdog reported that DVLA* were removing entitlements from driving licences reissued after a change of name or address. Drivers found they had lost the right to drive motorcycles or other categories of vehicle.

It may be conspiracy theory but the rumour is that many people who are qualified to ride motorcycles have not done so for years, and DVLA do not want them to start again because of the dangers. Some who do still ride motorcycles had to re-take their motorcycle driving test because they were unable to prove they had passed it years ago.

2-stroke Velocette motorcycle (Wikimedia Commons)
2-stroke Velocette
You can understand the outrage. My dad felt the same. He passed his motorcycle test in the nineteen-thirties and rode through the war on his 2-stroke Velocette as an Air Raid Patrol Messenger (childhood polio ruled out active service). Yet, around nineteen-seventy, he was dismayed to notice he no longer had the motorcycle entitlement on his licence. Not that he wanted to ride again – he wouldn’t have dared – it was the principle.

This is a page in his old licence. Until 1973, driving licences took the form of little red books issued by County Councils. They had to be renewed every three years or annually before 1959. West Riding residents sent their licences to 14 St. John’s North, Wakefield, where a new three-year (or one-year) sticker was pasted in.

1950s driving licence

They really knew how to stick things in those days but, as best he could, my dad peeled back through the thick wodge of renewals in his old licence book and discovered that what used to be Category III (later G) “Motor Bicycle (with or without side-car) …” was there in 1939 but not in 1940. I still have his licence with all its stickers and what appears to have happened is that his motorcycle entitlement was not carried forward when he passed his motor car driving test. Oversight or clerical error, he seems to have ridden his Velocette through the war illegally.

What annoyed him even more was that he worked with someone who started to drive before tests were introduced in 1935 and was licensed to drive just about everything you could imagine. Despite never having taken a test of any kind his colleague could drive both cars and motorbikes. My dad had passed to drive both but could now only drive cars. It was no consolation that somehow around 1950 he had bizarrely acquired the right to drive a road roller. 

Now, I feel hard done by too. Did you know they remove some of your entitlements when you get to seventy?

Most people currently in their fifties and sixties can drive 16-seater minibuses and medium-sized vans and trucks (up to 7.5 metric tons or tonnes: categories C1 and D1). They are there on my paper driving licence (many people now have plastic photocards but green paper licences issued before July 1998 remain valid up to your seventieth birthday unless updated due to a change of name or address, but at seventy you have to change to a photocard).

pre-1998 UK driving licence

The rule is that you can drive 16-seater minibuses and 7.5 tonne vehicles if you passed your car driving test before 1997 (partly subject to Restriction 1: not for hire or reward). Those who passed after 1997 are restricted to 8-seater minibuses and smaller vans up to 3.5 metric tons. However, at 70, they take away the higher entitlements and restrict everyone to the lower limits. You can keep the higher ones by taking a test and asking a doctor and an optician to certify your fitness to drive, for which no doubt they charge, but that’s too much faff.

Even to continue driving ordinary cars and smaller vehicles, I have to send back my paper licence, self-certify I’m fit and can see, and get a photocard. It will have to be renewed every three years. I will no longer be able to hire 7.5-tonne trucks or drive minibuses. Not that I ever have. It’s the principle.

What I don’t get is this. If it’s all right to self-certify I’m fit to drive a car or a 3.5-tonne Transit, why can’t I self-certify for slightly bigger vehicles? Maybe we should all go out and hire flatbed trucks and big box vans while we still can, just for the fun of it.

I suppose it’s like with some people who own guns: restrictions should apply to everyone else but themselves.

16 seater minibus and 7.5 tonne van and truck
Hire one while you still can - just for the fun of it.

*DVLA – the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency which until 1990 was called the DVLC for -Centre.

Friday, 1 November 2019

The Peter Rabbit Plate

Wedgewood Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Plate

Decided to stay in bed after not sleeping because of a painful throat and a constant stream of mucus running down inside threatening to choke me. What with shivering and various aches, I felt terrible. But Mrs D. cares for me well. She asked if I wanted anything. A cup of tea and a couple of plain oat cakes duly arrived. It was all I could face. The only thing is that when you are not well you are supposed to get the Peter Rabbit Plate. The oat cakes were not on the Peter Rabbit plate.

The Peter Rabbit plate spends most of the time in its original cardboard box and comes out only when someone is ill. You might know the story it shows: the one in which Peter has been naughty by sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s garden and eating so many vegetables he feels sick, and Mr. McGregor spots him and chases him with a rake, and Peter gets wet hiding in a watering can but eventually makes it home tired and frightened. Then, Peter is unwell during the evening so his mother puts him to bed and makes him some camomile tea; ‘One table-spoonful to be taken at bed-time.’ It is a suitable plate for someone who is ill.

Wedgewood Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Plate
So, there I was, really poorly, hands gripping the bed clothes to pull them up over my head just like Peter in the picture (except that my ears weren’t sticking out), and yet no Peter Rabbit plate. Anyone would think I was only pretending.

You won’t believe that I’ve never been thought ill enough for the Peter Rabbit plate. Even when I had proper flu and lost two stones in weight, or when I came home in pain after a nasty operation for an epididymal cyst, there was no Peter Rabbit plate. Mrs D. once got it. So did the children. But me, never!

The day I get the Peter Rabbit plate I shall have very grave cause for concern.

Wedgewood Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Plate Box Wedgewood Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Plate

Monday, 28 October 2019

Review - Stan Barstow: The Watchers On The Shore and The Right True End

Stan Barstow
The Watchers On The Shore (3*)
The Right True End (3*)

Two sequels that continue Vic Browns story from where we left him in A Kind of Loving: trapped in an unfulfilling nineteen-fifties marriage in the Yorkshire mining town where he grew up, and managing a record and electrical shop which the owner had implied would eventually pass to Vic.

The Watchers On The Shore and The Right True End take us into the nineteen-sixties, but whereas A Kind of Loving was rich in the details of time and place which vividly capture what it must have been like coming of age in the young northern working-class ten or fifteen years before my time, these elements are not major parts of the sequels. They do, however, capture something of the changing social context that allowed those like Vic to escape the restricted lives of their parents. 

Vic does not inherit the record shop and must choose between continuing there as an employee of a large company or returning to his previous work as a draughtsman. He chooses the latter, but instead of going back to his earlier employer he moves to a firm in the south of England. The distance strains his marriage to breaking point, especially as Vics cultural and intellectual horizons expand through an affair with an actress at the local theatre, although she eventually dumps him.

What was it about local theatre groups as a place for clever nineteen-fifties northern lads to meet classy birds? Were they epitomes of culture? It crops up in John Braine’s Room At The Top, and in real-life I am reminded of the much-liked teacher from school who joined the local amateurs and married one of the lovely Dale Sisters.

In the third book, Vic is a globe-trotting, London-based design and development engineer, having picked up a degree and lots of women. Yet something is missing, which is of course his actress friend with whom he designs and develops a ‘chance’ re-encounter. There is a twist at the end, not difficult to see coming, and all seems certain to be happy ever after.

The stories are brilliantly written and enjoyable page turners so long as you don’t expect the first-person present-historic narrative to be from any viewpoint other than Vics, with nineteen-sixties concerns and attitudes: man striving to win ideal woman who is at first out of his league but otherwise rather docile and incompletely drawn as a character. The book covers say it all.

And as Vic Brown finds, the problem with all this expansion of horizons stuff is that it fills your head with ideas and pretensions so that your family and those where you came from no longer understand you and you no longer understand them. Like once when I phoned my aunty on her farm and overheard my uncle say “th’s some posh bugger f’yer on t’phoo-an”, and her saying to him, “Why, it’s nor anybody posh, it’s owwer Tasker”, and then to me “Ah suppoo-as y‘ave to talk proper like that when yer at wok.” Ah suppoo-as they would have thought the same about Vic Brown.

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 

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