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Monday, 18 August 2014

Dad's Thursday Helper

“Can I have a puff?” I begged.

I had been ‘helping’ my dad clean his dirty pipes, a regular Thursday afternoon job. He would scrape black burnt ash out of the bowls using a key-like gadget with barbs like a miniature medieval mace, and soak evil-smelling gunge from the stems by poking them through with fluffy white wires he called pipe-cleaners. Then it was time for nicer sounds and smells, wooden matchsticks that rattled in their flat green and red box with a picture of a swan on the top, a firework hiss and the smell of sulphur when he slid them out and struck one, and clouds of sweet St. Bruno smoke. He would pack a pipe bowl with tobacco from a black and white metal tin, put the stem between his teeth, suck a match flame into the bowl, and blow smoke from the side of his mouth with a popping ‘p’ sound, looking very self-satisfied. 

“Let me have a puff,” I asked again. He hesitated. I was only five.

“Oh all right,” he said reluctantly, and held the stem of the pipe near my mouth. I was immediately sick.

Thursday afternoon was my dad’s half day off, when the whole town seemed to close down, and my mother went out to grandma's and left him to his jobs, which I used to ‘help’ him with. We cleaned and brushed his boots and shoes, black ones and brown ones, with Cherry Blossom polish which came in a round metal tin with a bunch of cherries on the lid, and waterproofed the seams with Wren’s dubbin which bore a corresponding little bird on top. We pumped up his bicycle tyres, and mended punctures using bowls of water to see bubbles from the leaks, chalk to mark them, and puncture patches stuck to the inner tubes with stringy rubber solution. We polished the wheels and handlebars with rags and mustard coloured chrome cleaner, transforming them from a dirty grey to a silvery shine, and smeared them in vaseline to protect them from the weather, which seemed to be a magnet for yet more grime. We removed accumulations of oily grit from the chains by soaking them in trays of petrol, then disposed of by setting it alight. At one time my dad just tipped it on the garden, but had to end that practice after Grandpa had been for tea one day and, chewing his salad thoughtfully, had observed that “This lettuce tastes of petrol.” 

Some ‘jobs’ were more for fun than necessary. We had a model live-steam engine with dual pistons driving a flywheel, referred to as ‘the steam-boiler’. It had a small brass water tank heated by a methylated spirit burner that slid underneath. My dad loved to get it out from its oily cardboard box and fire it up on the back room table. Once the 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 too high. 

You had to make sure the pistons were always oiled and that the tank did not run out of water, and the spirit burner needed topping up frequently. The smell of hot emulsified oil mixed with methylated spirit is unforgettable. Once, we accidentally 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. My dad frantically flapped at the flame with his hands, looking panicky. 

We moved to another house, which 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, or perhaps it was a more solid yellow that faded. But there was still room for play-jobs. We found some bits of old lead piping in the shed. Dad melted them in a tin on the gas cooker in the kitchen, and then, holding it with just a pair of pliers, poured the molten metal into moulds made from empty toothpaste tins. It was actually called dentifrice rather than toothpaste, and came in the form of a hard, flat tablet wrapped in red cellophane in a round metal tin. You rubbed it with your wet toothbrush to form a lather. The empty tins were just right for moulding make-believe medals. It was probably a game my dad had played himself in his own childhood. After pouring the lead, he dropped the medals into a bowl of water, where they sizzled as they cooled down. ‘Gibbs’, the name of the toothpaste maker, embossed on the bottom of the tins, transferred perfectly on to the moulded metal medals. No one knew about lead poisoning then. 

The shed leaked, so we mended the roof. I sat up there with my dad, ‘helping’ him tack down new sheets of roofing felt. Then, we painted the felt with hot black tar. It must have been a thoroughly hazardous operation. The things my mother never saw when she left us to our jobs on Thursday afternoons! Again it involved the kitchen cooker. Dad heated the tar to boiling point in an old paint pot, and then, holding it with just a wooden cane through the handle, carried it bubbling and smouldering across the kitchen floor, across the garden, and up on to the shed roof by means of a rickety step ladder. There were splashes of black tar on the yellow paint for years. 

Despite all this, my mother regarded my dad as generally next to useless at practical things. Perhaps it was because she was always out and never knew about the wonderful things he could do with fire, lead, tar, methylated spirits and petrol. Maybe it was just as well that she was. 

More likely, she thought him useless because she was practically so much more capable. She did all the gardening and repairs around the house. She had a naturally constructive, creative imagination that had run through her family for generations. Her great grandfather had worked with 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 my grandma’s house to connect a water-toilet to the new drains that had recently reached the village. And later, the mechanic effortlessly dismantled the broken back door lock of my mini-van, and altered the levers so it worked with the ignition key. Even my mother rescued me from a mini-van maintenance disaster with a pointed pair of kitchen scissors after I had stupidly twisted off the top a grease nipple. She could utilise tools in completely different ways to how they were originally intended. 

“Aren’t I lucky to have married such a practical wife” my dad always used to say.

I remember them once painting some gates together, one gate each. My mother got on quickly and efficiently with long smooth brush strokes whilst my dad stabbed awkwardly, making slow progress. She finished hers before he had done half, but he persisted dutifully. You had to look carefully to see that he was using an old brush, the stock clogged up with dried paint, stiff to the point of ineffectiveness, but did not seem to realise anything was wrong.

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

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

My mother spent her last months explaining how to do all the household things she had always done for us all. My dad carefully wrote it down in a notebook, but it did not always help. Most memorably, he melted the plastic lid of the kettle which he had forgotten to fill with water before putting it on the gas ring. The next day, having bought a new lid, he did exactly the same again. “Well they always used to have metal lids,” he complained.

Perhaps his ineptitude was a vicious circle, a simple lack of practise leading to a lowering of confidence, or perhaps the early indications really were there in the pool of flaming methylated spirits creeping across the table, and the splashes of tar on the yellow shed.

I like to think I inherited my mother’s practical skills. I can do gardening, decorating, service the car, replace light switches, install software on the computer, put new taps on washbasins, mend toilet cistern float mechanisms and build hutches for guinea pigs, to mention but a few. My dad came one day to find me hammering a hole in the bedroom wall to fit a new electrical socket. The floorboards were up displaying my neat new wiring all ready to connect up. I showed him proudly what I was doing.

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

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Colours I See With

Yet another look at Tasker Dunham’s childhood diary

March 15, 1965. Monday. Medical examination at school. Found I was colour blind. Have to go for a test. Also have to have my lugs syringed out.
May 28, 1965. Had my right lug washed out and found I have red/green colour blindness.

I was only three or four, drawing with my crayons at my grandma's house, when I first knew I definitely had a problem. I had drawn a house and some trees, and had just about finished colouring in the grass when Uncle Terence pointed at it.

“What’s that bit?”

“That’s the grass.”

“Why have you made it brown?” I took it to mean I was stupid and started to cry.

“Hold on,” he tried to reassure me. “It’s not too bad. We can make it right.

He shaded over the brown with a green crayon, pressing heavily. “There, it looks all right now.” But it didn’t.

It was not the first time I had got green and brown mixed up. I’d confused them before. To me they looked nearly the same. I had tried not to let on but people kept catching me out. When it came to colours I felt useless.

Later, at school, about seven years old, we were all making a fairground collage to put on the classroom wall. Some other children were busy painting a background of green grass and blue sky on a long piece of paper, while the rest of us were drawing and painting small characters and other objects to paste on to it. I had drawn a little man and, so as not to slice off his arms and legs, had cut around him in smooth curves, giving him his own coloured background to match the collage. Except it didn’t match. Not only that, when I stuck him into place, he looked about half the size he should have been.

“Which idiot put that silly little man there?” snorted Geoffrey Bullard, pointing at it. Everyone looked and sniggered.

“It was Tasker Dunham,” Peter Longthwaite said dismissively.

“Why is 'e stuck in a pile of 'oss muck?” That came from Harvey Gelder whose dad worked on a farm.

“It spoils it,” muttered Wendy Godley, and expertly detached my contribution from the collage, screwed it up, and threw it into the waste paper basket. Everyone seemed in agreement with her. That really wounded me because Wendy Godley was the one person I most wanted to sit next to. She had blonde hair, lots of freckles, an intelligent gaze and could do everything perfectly.

There was little wonder I publicly avoided all situations involving paint, crayons and colours. But there was no escaping the attention of the school nurse, a terrifying woman aptly named Nurse Pratt. After asking me spot the numbers hidden in circles of multicoloured blobs, which I learnt some years later were called Ishihara colour circles, she unfeelingly announced her diagnosis. “You are colour blind,” and put me on a list for further tests at the Bartholomew clinic.

The clinic, in Bartholomew Avenue, was a dreadful place, a square, flat-roofed, single story, unimaginatively designed building in functional Victorian redbrick. It had echoing bare floor and walls, tubular steel and canvas chairs, and a pervasive smell of medical disinfectant undiminished by the relentless flow of freezing fresh air from the always-open doors and windows. Through the years, we had been sent there with fluttering stomachs to queue for injections: polio and diphtheria at junior school, and later the awful BCG tuberculosis jab. It was where the school optician had put stinging atropine drops into my eyes and told my mother I was long sighted and had astigmatism, at which Nurse Pratt had loudly broadcast “You will have to start wearing glasses, and you will have to wear them all the time,” and the other mothers had laughed when I timidly said, “What, even in bed?” It was where Nurse Pratt tested your hearing by going to the other side of the room and whispering “Five five nine”, “Nine five five”, “Five nine five”, what a finely-tuned test that must have been, and then held your testicles and asked you to cough (apparently a hernia test). And it was where, one morning, after a week of squirting slimy oil into my ears, I had them whooshed out with a large syringe of warm water, and then found myself trying to sort pieces of coloured wool into matching pairs, and failing miserably. The shame of it!

Colour blindness is an inherited condition that bears a passing resemblance to a family version of the football pools. If you, your parents, and their parents, all have Xs in the right rows and columns, you get a first dividend. The main difference is that you don’t choose your Xs yourself.

The Xs are X-chromosomes. Women have two of them, one from each parent, and men only one, from their mother. Colour blindness is described as X-linked recessive, meaning that it only manifests itself in the absence of a more dominant unaffected X-chromosome. Because men have only one X-chromosome, then if they get a colour blind one from their mother, they will spend the rest of their lives mistaking grey cars for green, and colouring grass brown. That, at least, is the most common version. There are rarer types in which you can’t tell blue from yellow, or can’t even see colour at all. Actually, this traditional understanding has recently had to be revised in light of findings from the human genome project, which suggests that many different chromosomes, not just the X ones, are capable of causing deficient colour vision to some degree.

I got the colour blind X, as did my brother. We could talk car colours to the bafflement of everyone else. “I really like your green Polo,” except the log book said it was grey. “We'll be in a silver Metro,” except it was metallic green. But we both knew what we meant. Uncle Terence was colour blind too, but had learned ways to cope: how else could he have known I had coloured the grass brown, and try to be so helpful about it? Eventually, I developed coping strategies too. Although I would never have been allowed to become an electrician, I built my own stereophonic record player from a kit, which involved identifying the values of a hundred or so colour-coded resistors. It worked fine. I am all right with traffic lights too, but just in case of problems, red is at the top.

There are some advantages as well. It’s a good excuse for being slow at the pick-your-own fruit farm. Your wife thinks you can’t see the raspberries properly, but in reality your slowness results from a combination of ineptitude and gluttony. Also, some colour blind people can easily spot differences between colour shades indistinguishable to those unaffected - it is said they could easily see through camouflage during the war. Others find you interesting. And you can always play at political correctness.

“What colour does that look to you?”

“I don’t know, what does it look like to you?”

“It must be awful being colour blind.”

“That’s not very nice. I’m not blind.”

“Oh! Sorry … to have a ‘colour deficiency’. ”

“It’s just that my colour vision is not the same as yours.”

Once someone asked me “Tasker, what colours is it that you see with?”

That’s the best way of putting it I’ve come across. I just see with different colours to you.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Doing the Pools

A Life of No Publicity

Tasker Dunham takes another look at his childhood diary
January 4, 1965. Monday. Sent Football Pools
January 9, 1965. Saturday. No win on pools.
January 30, 1965. Saturday. No pools win.
February 27, 1965. Saturday. No pools win but got six draws.
March 13 1965. Saturday. Got 8 draws. 21½ and 22 points. But there were 17 draws overall so might not get anything.
March 18, 1965. Thursday. Pools winnings came but only 16 shillings as only 4 dividends were paid. Dad says I can have it all if I pay this week.

I began to do the football pools at the age of twelve. Yes, I know that isn’t allowed, that in 1965 you had to be at least twenty-one, and that even though the minimum age was later eighteen and is now sixteen, parents who allow their twelve-year-old to gamble on the pools risk being put on some kind of social services register, but I did indeed start at twelve. I submitted entries in my dad’s name, on his behalf, with his full blessing. He paid for the weekly, half-crown postal order, and I had the time and the inclination to work out the predictions, complete the coupon, and put it expectantly into the post box. 

The football pools, betting on the outcomes of football matches, was a massive business in the 1960s. Around ten million people dreamed of becoming rich overnight, gambling millions of pounds each week by sending in their coupons to the three main pools companies, Littlewoods which was the biggest, Vernons, or Zetters.

Our own entry used a special grid called ‘Lit Plan 30’, which amounted to an entry of thirty ‘lines’ at one old penny per line. Explaining what this means can get seriously complicated in lots of ways - not least old pennies, ‘Lit Plans’ and ‘lines’ - but essentially each ‘line’ contained a selection of eight football matches which you hoped would all end as drawn games. Each correctly predicted draw was worth three points, so a line of eight could give you a maximum possible twenty-four points, which would win a ‘first dividend’.

With ‘Lit Plan 30’, you picked twelve matches, and your thirty lines of eight were generated using different combinations of those twelve matches alone. So when in March, 1965, we correctly predicted eight draws as noted in the diary, it was eight out of twelve rather than eight out of eight, and none of the lines defined by the ‘Lit Plan’ corresponded exactly to the eight draws. The closest were worth only 22 and 21½ points, winning us a fourth dividend and a fifth dividend. I said it could get complicated. Believe me, that’s not the half of it. 

Some weeks, a first dividend could be worth a colossal fortune. It depended on how many games on the entire coupon had resulted in draws that week. Sometimes there might be fifteen or more, in which case lots of people would have managed to pick eight, and, shared out between them, the first dividend could be as little as just a few pounds. Other weeks there might be only eight draws overall, with only one person in the entire country predicting them correctly. That was when you won the whole jackpot. It could be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds. 

It is incredible now to remember just how much of a national obsession the football pools once were. Before the National Lottery it was the only way you might win astronomical sums for small stakes. Systems which claimed to maximise your chances of winning were advertised in newspapers and on the radio. Ask almost anyone born before 1950 to tell you about “Keynsham”, and just about every one of them, correctly pronouncing it “cane-sham” not “keen-sham”, will spell it out meticulously, pausing between letters in exactly the same way:  “Department One, Keynsham, spelt ‘K’, ‘E’, ‘Y’, ‘N’, ‘S’, ‘H’, ‘A’, ‘M’,  Keynsham, Bristol”. Such was the incantation of one Horace Batchelor every evening on 208 Radio Luxembourg when he advertised his ‘famous Infra Draw Method’ to help you win the jackpot. He persuaded listeners to send their stakes to him, and then filled in their coupons for them, only asking for further payment if and when they were successful. 

It seems, though, pools companies aside, the biggest winner was Horace himself. In comparison to our own paltry thirty-line entry, the ‘famous Infra Draw Method’ effectively gave him a personal share in an enormous combined entry of tens of thousands of ‘lines’ each week, . By submitting such a large number of entries, he increased the chance that one of them would win a large amount, exactly like buying ten thousand different national lottery tickets, and when one of them won, he got his percentage. When he died in 1977, he left a hundred and fifty thousand pounds, around five million in terms of average earnings today, the equivalent of several top dividends. 

Big winners found themselves thrust into the public consciousness to serve the pools companies’ marketing machine, especially if they were young and photogenic. Perhaps the most famous was blonde, twenty five year-old, but otherwise ordinary Castleford housewife Viv Nicholson, who won one hundred and fifty thousand pounds in 1961. Actually it was her husband, Keith, who had won, but the press preferred to make out it was her. She announced in a firestorm of publicity that she was going to “spend, spend, spend”, as indeed she did, fascinating the press for years through her exuberant extravagance, the tragedy of Keith’s death in his crashed Jaguar, her subsequent marriages, and her inevitable bankruptcy. 

Jim Anderson Football Pools Win

Top prizes gradually grew in size and began regularly to exceed the million pound mark in the 1980s. I still have a Littlewoods booklet from around 1988 showing photographs of euphoric winners receiving large cheques from smiling celebrities. “Lorry driver Jim Anderson picked up a world record load, a £1,339,358 cheque from Littlewoods.” The booklet appeals to our greed and taste for the high-life. “A sleek ‘limo’ swept Jim and his family off to London … After a night in a top London hotel, it was on to the Ritz for the celebrity presentation of that massive cheque. For Jim, Elaine Paige’s voice has never sounded sweeter.” The record win of all time on the traditional pools, just under three million pounds, occurred in 1994, coincidentally in the first week of the National Lottery. 

We never did make it to that top London hotel and swanky celebrity presentation, but even if we had won a million, there was an unobtrusive little box in a corner of the coupon which said “tick for no publicity”, and we always ticked it. Of course, the pools companies always tried their hardest to persuade winners who had ticked the box to change their minds, but if we had won, I know for certain Dad would have wanted to keep it all as quiet as possible. 

In due course, I became old enough to send in the coupon in my own name. The age of legal majority in England and Wales changed to eighteen from twenty-one on the 1st January, 1970, which was after I became eighteen, but before I reached twenty one. I became an adult, legally speaking, allowed to submit pools coupons in my own name and to do other almost as important things such as vote, at the age of twenty. 

I continued the pools for over forty years. Over all that time I must have won about a dozen times, usually just a couple of pounds for a fifth dividend, once just over two pounds for a first dividend in a week when there were lots of draws, and one week the massive sum of seventy five pounds. Why did I stop? In part, it was because the experience gradually changed, but the main reason was the National Lottery. 

The weekly trip to buy a Postal Order was superseded by cheques. The weekly entry was overtaken by a ‘standing-forecast’, covering twenty weeks at a time. Rather than trying to forecast actual results, you gambled on a fixed selection of the sequence numbers by which matches were listed. Originally the Pools companies had successfully avoided gambling legislation by claiming they ran competitions of skill rather than chance. You were not a gambler but an “investor”. You were paid dividends, not winnings. There was no skill involved in simply picking sets of numbers. The process became more and more detached from the football on which it was based; the names of the teams ceased to appear on the coupons. It all became simpler and simpler. Reduced emphasis on permutations and ‘Lit-plans’, removed even the mathematical interest. I stopped bothering to check whether I had won each week and waited for the Pools company to tell me. Basically, it just wasn’t fun any more. But still I fought on in the sad belief that one day they would attempt to persuade me to allow some synthetically cheerful celebrity to present me with a large cheque at a posh London hotel.  

One day, in 2008, Littlewoods Pools telephoned me out of the blue. Perhaps you can guess the anticipation that went through my mind, just for the briefest of moments. Sadly, they had phoned only to suggest I start paying my stake by direct debit, removing the trouble of posting in the entries at all, despite being now required only twice a year. That prompted me to re-examine the whole process. It was surprising to find the regular jackpots were no longer in the hundreds of thousands, and you would actually be lucky to win the price of a new car. Big wins were now rare. I had not noticed that after the National Lottery started in 1994, the number of Pools players had dropped from over ten million per week, to around seven hundred and fifty thousand, with a consequent fall in the prize monies. 

The Pools then took another hit from the growth in online gambling, where you could bet not only on the outcome of a football match, but the final score, the half-time score, the first player to score, which team would be next to score, and so on, with odds changing in real-time as the match progressed. How much more fun is that? 

Please don’t get me wrong, it would be very nice to win the price of a new car, if you offered to buy me one I would graciously accept, but that is not why I entered the football pools for all those years. I was in to win a life-changing sum of money. After half a lifetime, I deserted the football pools for good, and increased my lottery entry from once to twice per week. More recently, when money-grasping Camelot, the National Lottery operator, put the entry stake up to two pounds, like hundreds of thousands of others, I cut back to just once a week. I wonder how my old pools standing-forecast numbers are doing.

There was just one other thing I didn’t realise. The box for no publicity didn't just apply to the pools coupon. Its jurisdiction extended to the rest of my life as well. 


In April, 2018, I was contacted by one of Jim Anderson’s relatives to say he had recently died, and that this blog now seems to be the only mention of his pools win anywhere on the internet. After the win Jim ran his own haulage business and had a nice house, a large whisky collection and a pool table in the garage.