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Thursday, 30 April 2015

Review - David Lodge: Quite a Good Time to be Born

David Lodge
Quite a Good Time to be Born. A Memoir 1935-1975 (1*)

Having previously enjoyed David Lodge's novels and their wonderful humour, I am sorry to say I found this tedious and gave up. Do we really really want to know the detail of the life experiences that re-emerged in his fiction? It might get better later on, but he's lost me.

Postscript: In January 2018 I read a Guardian review of Lodge's second instalment of autobiography, which came to similar conclusions, such as that he does not discard detail best omitted, e.g. his childrens' 'A' Level results. It wondered where was the comic novelist?

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Hornby ‘O’ Gauge

Tasker Dunham reconstructs his clockwork train set.

I’ve not given it much of a thought in nearly fifty years, but today, just looking at the images hits me in resounding vivid detail: the solid heaviness of the black tank engine in your hand, the oily smell of the high quality clockwork motor, the steady force of the spring against the key as you wound the ratchet, the clunky movement of the brake and gear rods in the cab, the thick paint of the milk wagon in contrast to the tinniness of other rolling stock, the frictionless glide along the rails, the musty scent of track metal on your hands*, the sudden give of point levers and signals switched into position, the whirr and rattle of a train in motion, the made-to-last sturdy red boxes.

Hornby O Gauge 
Yet, at the time, I thought my clockwork Hornby ‘O’ gauge set was second best to ‘OO’ electric. Although smaller, the locomotives, rolling stock and track of the ‘OO’ sets looked real, especially those made by Triang which, being made of plastic, did not need an incongruous third power rail**. ‘OO’ locomotives had accurate wheel arrangements, such as 4-6-2 Pacifics and 4-4-2 Atlantics, with coaches that ran on proper wheeled bogies. The track looked as if it was laid on real wooden sleepers and the points had a lifelike form and movement. On top of all that it had sophisticated remote controllability. In contrast, I thought my hands-on 0-4-0 engines, four-wheeled coaches and track looked like the toys they really were.

I realise now they served different purposes. The ‘OO’ gauge electrics were exact lifelike models. ‘O’ gauge was more tactile, but with sufficient realism to remain credible. My train set still provided hours of entertainment, from my earliest days with my dad in the attic to later years playing with my brother. My dad always set out a ‘Grandad Dunham’s siding’ where we would deliver wagons of imaginary coal, oil, tar and creosote - presumably what real heads of household would buy in those days. By the time my brother was interested we were able to augment the layout with other toys and accessories so that the trains rattled through idyllic pastoral scenes of grazing farm animals and busy urban roads of matchbox cars.

Hornby Trains were the creation of Frank Hornby (1863-1936), who had earlier invented the Meccano construction kit. He developed Meccano for his children around 1898, marketing it as ‘The Mechanics Made Easy’ in 1901, and ‘Meccano’ from 1907. Hornby ‘O’ gauge trains (1:48 scale) were introduced in 1920, and made from metal pressings bolted together with Meccano. ‘OO’ gauge ‘Hornby Dublo’, approximately half the scale of ‘O’ gauge, was introduced in 1938, and made from diecast metal. Both gauge sizes were sold in both clockwork and electric versions before the Second World War, but afterwards Dublo was entirely electric. The company was, however, slow to adapt to changing conditions. Metal models were expensive to make but Hornby didn’t adopt plastic until 1959, which was much too late. Around the same time it invested in retooling ‘O’ gauge production when it should have discontinued it. It was bought out by its rival Triang in 1964. The Hornby and Meccano web sites give more detailed histories.

I have tried to re-construct my entire train set from internet images. I hope these are all in the public domain and copyright free, but if I have inadvertently infringed anyone’s rights then please get in touch and I’ll remove them.

I am going to call things by the names we used ourselves rather than their correct names, for example ‘railway gates’ instead of ‘level crossing’.

To begin, we had two locomotives as pictured above, or engines as we called them, one with tender in L.M.S. maroon livery and the other a black British Railways tank engine with the lion and wheel logo. The L.M.S. engine was part of the initial set and had three matching coaches, one a brake coach or guard’s van with protruding observation ports known as look-out duckets. We later acquired a second set of three coaches in red and cream livery.

Hornby O Gauge 
We had masses of track in sections we called straights, curves and points, able to create what seemed a limitless number of different layouts. We had two types of curve, one based on a circle of two feet radius, the other tighter. Points were also in both radiuses, some turning left and some right, switched by fairly realistic trackside levers. Some straights and curves were half-length ‘shorts’. One of the straights was a switch rail, with a left-right sliding tab between the tracks to catch levers underneath the locomotives. Depending on its position, locomotives would either brake, reverse or pass unimpeded. The track could be locked together by means of black connecting plates, which we wrongly called fish plates, which slid in between the section joints.

Over and above the basic sections of track we had a set of railway gates which could be opened and closed, a turntable to reverse locomotives or place them in sidings, and a couple of buffer stops. We didn’t, however, have much trackside furniture other than a signal box and two signal posts, double and distance. The signal box was possibly the most unsatisfactory item in the train set. Its clanky lightness made it so obvious what everything was actually made of, which was pressed tinplate. I also wished the signals were of the kind that raised rather than lowered into the line clear position, as on our local railway. It may also be surprising we did not have a station platform, but we didn’t really need one. Wooden building bricks, cardboard boxes, Airfix kits, Meccano and Lego could be used to construct all the stations, goods yards, tunnels and roads we needed. Making was as fascinating as using.

Locomotive Headlamp Codes

One particularly attentive detail was that if you look carefully at the front of the engines, there are brackets for oil lamps to display a train headlamp code, and similar brackets on the coaches for lamps at the rear of the train. Miniature lamps, red or white, slid on to the brackets to indicate passenger trains, freight trains, and so on.*** Another nice touch was that the handles of the winding keys were shaped to act as rail width gauges, especially necessary after accidental adult footfalls. 

Hornby O Gauge

I’m not sure whether I have collected all the right images for our freight wagons. We had at least one coal wagon, a cattle wagon, a flat bed truck, a petrol tanker, a milk wagon with milk churns and a guard’s or goods brake van. The cattle and milk vans had sliding doors to accommodate our toy farm animals and the milk churns. The guard’s van had hinged doors.

One advantage of ‘O’ gauge clockwork over ‘OO’ electric was that was that it could be set out just about anywhere, such as in the garden. I laid it out on the lawn during the school summer holidays when I was around fifteen, possibly the last time I used it, with a friend from next-door-but-one who was three years my junior. It looked right in the garden, as if meant there, but just as we’d finished assembling the track, two of my own aged school friends arrived on their bikes. It was a difficult and embarrassing clash of developmental phases, one of the Basil Bernstein moments I've mentioned previously, between two friends who shared my emerging teenage interests, and one with whom I still liked to play trains. I’m sorry to say the school friends won, although they did help put everything away into their red boxes. My younger friend went home, and I went off on my bike with my two school friends. I remember the day well because, in just retribution for my disloyalty, I sprained my ankle jumping over a fence. It puffed up like a balloon.

I don’t know what became of the train set. My brother must have had it for a time, and then I guess, as they do, my mother gave it away.

Nowadays children seem to have Brio, with its grooved jigsaw-jointed track and chunky minimalist trains connected by magnets. Just as Meccano was outsold by plastic Danish Lego, Hornby and Triang trains were overtaken by wooden Swedish Brio, triumphs of convenience over realism. They are not for the older children among us. I would happily play with my ‘O’ gauge train set again, if I still had it, but my children’s Brio, with the rest of their junk, is gathering dust in a box in the loft. Perhaps it says it all that to recreate my clockwork set at present day second-hand auction prices would now cost in excess of a thousand pounds, whereas a similar quantity of Brio could be gathered for less than fifty. 

See also later post: Hornby ‘O’ Gauge Revisited

* Actually metal doesn't smell. Its distinctive odour is the caused by a chemical reaction between the metal and moisture from the skin which produces musty smelling aldehydes and ketones. 

** I could be wrong, but I think because the Hornby sets were metal, they made an electrical connection between the two main rails of the track, and therefore a third rail was needed to provide power. The Triang sets did not have this problem because they were made of plastic.

*** There are several different express freight codes in the diagram to account for trains made up rolling stock with different brake configurations.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Peyton Place and Top Deck Shandy

Top Deck shandy and the naughty bits in Peyton Place.
Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay. 
“Why would anybody ever want to read or write such stupid nonsense?” was my fifteen year-old self’s first thought. But something in that luxuriant opening sentence and the sensuous description of New England’s “lovely womanly Indian summer” that follows enticed me to read just a little further, and by the end of the first few pages with their sprinkling of references to whores, peckers and venereal disease, I decided it might be prudent to study it more discreetly. I looked up the meaning of Indian summer and read on by torchlight under the bedclothes.

In those days, a child reading ‘Peyton Place’, even a fifteen year-old, would have been as shocking as the furore which followed its publication in 1956. The book was banned in Canada until 1958 and even longer for the more delicate Australians. In London, the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial took place as late as the end of 1960.

It is tame stuff compared to what children are exposed to now, but unlike today our innocence was well-protected. In contrast, our physical safety received little thought. We could wander off for hours to play near roads, rivers and railway lines, and climb trees and light fires, things now regulated to the point of paranoia. Our carefree freedoms have gone the same way as our childhood innocence. We now have heavy-handed supervision and oppressive health and safety at the same time as unrestrained consumerism and internet depravity.

One affair that illustrates these changes for me is the Top Deck Shandy Pan Books promotion of the 1960s.

It was when I had my first party. Hugo, my Belgian exchange partner, was staying with us, and something like fifty other Belgians and Germans were staying with others nearby. The party was subject to three parental conditions: (i) numbers were limited and by invitation only; (ii) the bedrooms were out of bounds, enforced by my mother’s washing line wound tightly round the door knobs; and (iii) there would be no alcohol. We were, however, allowed Top Deck Shandy, so we bought in several dozen cans.

Top Deck Shandy
1970s 2% Top Deck Shandy. In the 1960s it may have had paper labels.

What is incredible about Top Deck Shandy is that despite it being supposedly a low-alcohol drink marketed to children, it then had an alcohol content of 2% proof (about 1% by volume), equivalent to around one quarter the strength of beer. Nowadays, the 2003 Licensing Act would prohibit its sale to anyone under 18, along with any other alcoholic drink stronger than 0.5% by volume (see section 191 ‘meaning of alcohol’). Yet in the 1960s and 1970s, Top Deck Shandy could even be seen on school trips without any concerns at all being raised by teachers.

Things are now so very different. Children have been excluded from school for innocently taking in cans of ‘Shandy Bass’ or ‘Ben Shaw’s Bitter Shandy’ which, with an alcohol content of less than 0.5%, are not age-restricted, and often to be found among the soft drinks shelves in supermarkets.

The situation is still more ridiculous with ‘alcohol-free’ wines and lagers, which typically have an alcohol content of less than 0.05% (a tenth as strong as the legal shandy), and in some cases zero. Retailers will generally not sell these products to under-18s at all, and have been known to deny them to adults unable to furnish proof of age, despite in some cases being obviously well beyond their teens. The concern here seems to be that because alcohol-free wines and lagers are shelved and sold as alcoholic drinks, retailers who sell them to children could be accused of promoting under-age drinking. Similar misgivings led to the demise of liquorice smokers’ outfits and the replacement of sweet cigarettes by candy sticks (which are exactly the same as sweet cigarettes except for different packaging and the removal of the ‘burning’ red end).

In other words, children are protected so obsessively that they can’t even have perfectly legal ‘pretend alcohol’. Bearing in mind that standard sized cans of 0.5% shandy contain a measly 330ml, you would need to drink at least fifteen to consume the equivalent amount of alcohol to one can of beer or lager. You would probably be sick before you got there. I still say they should be banned, but not because of the alcohol content, because of the sugar.  

The party with the Belgians and Germans was brilliant. No one turned up uninvited, no one got drunk, and thanks to Hugo’s popularity with the girls, boys were hugely outnumbered. Nothing got out of control, unlike at a couple of other legendary parties around this time. There were just two consequences. One was that my young brother had to take the next morning off school because he was kept awake very late. The other was that I had several dozen Top Deck Shandy labels. At the time, Top Deck Shandy was running a Pan books promotion. For every six labels you sent off, you could select a free paperback book from a list. I had enough labels for nearly them all.

I know what I got because some are still in a box in the loft. My first choices were predictably macho: ‘The Dam Busters’ by Paul Brickhill, ‘Dr. No’ by Ian Fleming, ‘The Saint Goes On’ by Leslie Charteris and ‘The Satan Bug’ by Ian Stuart (a pseudonym of Alistair MacLean), books I would probably have bought or borrowed from the library anyway. Frank Edward’s bestseller ‘Stranger Than Science’ was another memorable selection, literally a fantastic collection of supposedly true accounts of strange events beyond scientific explanation. I’m not ashamed to say I devoured it uncritically. Then, beginning to run out of options, I decided that Nevil Shute’s ‘A Town Like Alice’ was likely to be all right because, after all, he had been the chief engineer building the R100 airship at nearby Howden. It turned out to be a soppy romance but enough of an adventure story to be enjoyable. Lastly, with hardly anything left to choose, I sent for ‘Peyton Place’ by Grace Metalious.

 Grace Metalious: Peyton Place

Peyton Place was published in America and sold 60,000 copies within the first ten days. It has been described as a depiction of the dark secrets of life in a small New England town, stark and crude in its search for realism. Of course, I knew none of this at the time. I thought the small New England town in which it was set might be interestingly like the small Yorkshire town where I lived. It wasn’t.

It goes on quite a lot about straining, such as when, observed from a distance by her husband, Ginny Stearns walks off with a stranger, “... her breasts and thighs straining through her dress to rest against the stranger’s side” (page 81). Then on page 108, when the thirteen year old Allison MacKenzie parades in front of a mirror wearing padded foundation garments “... the top of her new dress swelled magnificently, the fabric straining against her rubber breasts...”

The book is obsessed with breasts. One biographer of Grace Metalious suggests that defining women according to their breasts was only to be expected in an age when Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield filled the screens, but feminist ideologies escaped me then. I was simply fascinating that Betty Anderson’s nipples were “always rigid and exciting and the full, firm flesh around them always hot and throbbing” (page 203), and I paid close attention to the dangers explicit in the scene when Rodney Harrington, driving a speeding car, takes his hand off the wheel to reach for the hard exposed breasts of his female companion and drives straight under a brightly lit trailer truck (page 314).

I know the page numbers because I noted them down faintly, in pencil, just inside the back cover, so I could find them again quickly. I especially liked page 150 when Michael Kyros rips off Constance MacKenzie’s still wet bathing suit and “... she felt the first red gush of shamed pleasure that lifted her, lifted her, lifted her and then dropped her down into unconsciousness.”

Clive Anderson once pointed out that radio is like television but with better pictures. If this, by extension, applies to novels, it was surely true of Peyton Place. I’ve never seen either the film or television series it spawned, but I can’t image that five hundred episodes of the 1960s soap could sustain the same intensity, despite having Ryan O’Neal, Dorothy Malone and a very young Mia Farrow. On the 14th August, 1965, around a year after the author, Grace Metalious, drank herself to death at the age of thirty-nine, I noted in my diary it was one of the best books I’d ever read.

Today similarly scandalous tales of drunkenness, incest, rape, abortion, illegitimacy, high-school sex and patricide are everywhere, not least on pre-watershed mainstream television drama set in schools. They leave nothing to the imagination, and you are in no doubt that these things could easily occur even in small towns in Yorkshire. Still uglier things, obnoxious and amoral, are widespread on the internet. Peyton Place would not even count as soft porn now.

Am I mistaken in thinking the world a much kinder place, free and innocent, when you could feel grown-up drinking 2% shandy, and reading Peyton Place under the bedclothes was the height of wickedness? 

--- Here is an interesting article touching upon just how insidiously our health and safety culture and gender stereotyping were already beginning to change by the 1970s.