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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?



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.

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. 

Friday, 27 April 2018

How Well Do You Know Morse Code?

It was one of those click-bait headings I found irresistible, so I clicked.

Page 1470 of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia falls open automatically as soon as you pick up Volume 2, a page opened so many times fifty to sixty years ago. Opposite is a picture of how the telegram we might have handed in at the post office forty years before that would have been sent by Morse Code to a friend a hundred miles away. On the following pages are more photographs of the incredible electronic equipment of the day: Wonders of the Telegraph Office, How a Picture is Telegraphed, The Wonder Machine That Brings The News. They still captured your imagination as late as the nineteen-sixties.


But it was the table of Morse Code on page 1470 I always turned to. It shows only the letters, not the number or punctuation codes, but it was enough to get started.


Terry Hardy lived across the road. I could see his bedroom window from my bedroom window. Equipped with flashlights, we could send each other messages at night in Morse Code, a short flash for a dot, a long one for a dash, just like the battleships in Sink the Bismark.

••••     •     • – ••     • – ••     – – –   (HELLO)

After a long pause he replied

••••     •     • – ••     • – ••     – – –   (HELLO)

• – –     ••••     •     • – •     •     • –     • – •     •     – • – –     – – –      •• –     (WHERE ARE YOU)

Then after another long pause

• – –     ••••     • –     –     (WHAT)

The problem was, of course, that it takes so long to become proficient in Morse Code we couldn’t do it. Apart from having nothing to talk about. We were never able to send messages from one end of the street to the other, or get our Cubs Signaller Badges. You have to take your hats off to the Monty Python cast learning to perform Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Morse Code, not to mention Julius Caesar on an Aldis Lamp and Wuthering Heights in Semaphor. Kids don’t know they’re born these days with their Snapchat and Instagram.

On clicking the link I was told that Samuel Morse was born on this day (April 27th) in 1791, and that he patented his telegraph system in 1838 and worked with Alfred Vail to create the Morse Code to translate letters into long and short pulses and back again.

So on to the quiz. How well do you know your dots and dashes? Pretty well, it seems. I got them all right. Our childhoods weren’t entirely wasted.   


Monday, 23 April 2018

Review - Bill Bryson: At Home

Bill Bryson
At Home: a short history of private life (4*)

I sometimes think that a book, like a good marriage, should make you a better person. My problem with Bill Bryson’s books is that I’m not convinced they do.

That is not to say that At Home is not entertaining. Everything gets the familiar Bryson treatment, highlighting the strange, unusual and eccentric with the typical Bryson humour, but until the very last of its 483 pages I was left wondering why I had bothered.

The book adopts the floor plan of Bryson’s house at the time, a nineteenth century Norfolk rectory, to structure a collection of topics loosely based upon the history of private life in the home. In other words, he uses it as an excuse to write about almost any subject that takes his fancy.

Thus, the garden leads him to the subject of landscape design; the study allows him to talk about pests and mouse traps. There is a whole chapter on the fusebox which takes in candles, oil lamps and gas lights as well as electricity. The passage between rooms is associated with the telephone. On and on he goes through the kitchen, drawing room, dining room and so on, taking in ice, scurvy, the Eiffel Tower and a plethora of other matters, and that’s all before he goes upstairs.

It is impossible to predict where his attention will wander next. The chapter on The Bedroom, for example, quickly gets into the gruesome details of syphilis, which is fair enough I suppose, but from there it progresses on to other ghastly ways in which people expired in Victorian times, and then to a macabre account of burial and cremation. Only right at the end of the chapter does it clumsily get back on-topic by mentioning that cremation was legalized in Britain in 1902, just a few years before the original owner of the house died, but that the Reverend Marsham chose not to take that option.

The research is impressive: there is a 26-page select bibliography and a page-by-page online supplement to check facts or carry out further reading, almost like a Ph.D. thesis. Would it ever have found a publisher had it been by a new author and not Bill Bryson?

It’s a pleasurable enough read but normally you would only pick up a book about social history if you had a specific interest in the subject. It is indeed like a popular, easy-to-digest encyclopaedia: full of interesting and amusing stuff but you rarely come away with any great life-affirming emotion, insight or inspiration.

Near the beginning of At Home there is a photograph of Vere Gordon Childe who excavated the five-thousand year old village of Skara Brae in the Orkneys in 1927. He is standing beside one of the stone dwellings. In the text Bryson dwells upon Childe’s appearance, quoting contemporaries who described him as tall, ungainly, eccentric in dress with a curious and alarming persona and a face so ugly it was painful to look at. Actually, when I first saw the picture, my first impression was that it was of Bill Bryson himself.

Would I have said such a mean thing if the book had made me better person?

But then, relieved at reaching the very last page, I came across this reflection on how the home has evolved to give us lives of ease and convenience:
Of the total energy produced on earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in the last twenty years. Disproportionately it was consumed by us in the rich world ...
Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We ... live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet's other citizens. One day – and don’t expect it to be a distant day – many of those six billion or so less well off people are bound to demand what we have ... and that will require more resources than this planet can  easily, or even conceivably, yield.
The greatest possibly irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither.
Now that did make me stop and think.

I suspect it won’t be the last Bryson book I will read: Thunderbolt Kid looks promising.


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.