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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.  

Sunday, 15 April 2018

VAX and VAXen

A visit to Jim Austin’s Computer Collection at Fimber, East Riding of Yorkshire


The plural of VAX is VAXen. I read it in a VAX/VMS computer manual in the nineteen-eighties.

VAX (Virtual Address Extension) computers were made by DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) and ran the VMS (Virtual Memory System) operating system. Most universities had them: first the VAX-11/780s and later the VAX 8600s. They usually had several connected in clusters – clusters of VAXen.

A DEC 'dumb terminal'
So it was wonderful to see some of these iconic machines again in Jim Austin’s Computer Collection at Fimber near Fridaythorpe in the East Riding. By “again” I really mean for the first time. Hardly anyone got near them in the nineteen-eighties. The privileged might be allowed to look through the glass of their air-conditioned rooms, but ‘users’ were never allowed in. Their only contact with the computers was through remote ‘dumb terminals’. At Fimber you can touch the machines and even open their cabinets and take the boards out. Of course, they are not switched on now.

I returned full of enthusiasm, thinking of the blog posts I could write. My wife was not impressed.

“Great! A barn full of old grey metal cabinets.”

“Well, some are black. And you can open the doors.”

I babbled excitedly about all the machines I had known so well: the Elliott 903, IBMs, ICLs, PDP-8s and PDP-11s, SWTPC minis, LSI-11s, Sun microsystems, Silicon Graphics, VAXen …

"VAXen!" My wife ran out of patience.

“Did they come in boxen? Ordered by Faxen? Would we call our fridge and freezer Electroluxen? VAXen makes them sound like little animals – or the name of one of Santa’s reindeers.”

“Reindeer(s?)”

Now there’s another plural to think about.



Other posts about computers:


 Grandad Dunham's
 Flight Simulator
                 The Mighty Micro
 

 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

A Birthday Surprise

We bought a “Very Hungry Caterpiller” card for a cousin’s two year old granddaughter. Inside was promo suggesting we turn her birthday into a day to remember by buying one of their “perfectly-tailored gift experiences.”

Which of the perfectly-tailored experiences, we wondered, would be the most perfectly-tailored for a two year old? We tried to think back to when we were two. What would we have enjoyed? Gin tasting? Golf tuition? Perhaps Aston Martin and Ferrari thrills?

The organic chocolate making workshop was clearly a strong contender, but in the end we went for either the llama trekking or the flying lesson. We marked them as suggestions and left it for grandma and the parents to make the purchase.

It was hard to imagine being two. In fact, psychologists tell us we remember very little from that age. So how much of a day to remember would it be? It might be better just to give her the promo card to tear the perforations and colour in.



Sunday, 1 April 2018

School Woodwork

In our tough new carpenters’ aprons – loops round necks, strings tied at the back, two deep pockets at the front – we really looked the biz. The room smelt of sandpaper, sawdust and lacquer, and housed around eight or so workbenches: the kind with shoulders at the sides, tool cupboards underneath and a vice at each corner. It was where things got made, like model boats. Well, mine vaguely resembled a boat. I think we had to make them because it involved a variety of tools and techniques, rather than for any functional reason.


With that pencil-behind-ear air of can-do competence that only real woodworkers possess, Tacky Illingworth showed us how to shape a piece of wood into a hull by pointing the bow and rounding the stern, how to chisel out a couple of recesses in the top to leave a bridge, fo’c’s’le and fore and aft decks, and how to attach dowel masts and a funnel, simpler but not dissimilar to the model in the picture. Mine was awful: irregular, lob-sided, gouge marks and splinters where it should have been flush-flat smooth. At the end of the year I didn’t bother to take it home.

A marking gauge
I did learn to love the beautiful, age-old tools though: the tenon saw with its stiffened back, the smoothing plane, the spokeshave, the carpentry square, the brace and bit, the mallet and woodworkers’ chisels, and best of all, the marking gauge. Unless you knew, how could you ever guess what a marking gauge is for? Why does it have a sliding block with a locking screw? What are the spikes for? Why two on one side and one on the other, and why are they moveable? A mystery! I’ve got my own now. I used it to mark how much to plane off the bottom of a door when we got a new carpet.

Stopped or half-blind dovetail joint
A stopped or half-blind dovetail joint

After spending the following year in Metalwork, we were allowed to choose which to continue. I returned to the relative peace and safety of the woodwork shop, the lesser of the two evils. We had to decide upon a project, so I went for the ubiquitous book rack in its simplest form – a flat base with two vertical ends and a couple of pieces of dowel for feet. I selected a beautiful plank of mahogany which my parents had to buy, and began to cut out what were supposed to be stopped (half-blind) dovetail joints – visible underneath but not at the ends. It was far too ambitious. At the end of the year it laid unfinished on a shelf in Tacky Illingworth’s stock room, wrapped in a soft cloth. His school report flattered me.

Year 5 school report for woodwork
 
That could have been the end of the story because there were no crafts in subsequent years when ‘O’ levels took priority, but an unexpected change of policy allowed games-averse weaklings to escape to art or crafts instead. Metalwork was no longer on offer. It had been replaced by pottery, which was tempting, but for some bizarre masochistic reason I went for woodwork again. Maybe I refused to be defeated. Tacky Illingworth proudly retrieved my unfinished book rack from his stock room, still in its protective cloth from eighteen months earlier. 

I even finished the thing. I wrote the date on the bottom: April 1966. It’s a real mess of course. At one end I broke through the wall of the ‘pin’ part of the dovetail and had to stick it back in, and the joints were so loose that even glue could not hold them together. Tacky Illingworth reluctantly allowed me to fix it with screws. It has been on my desk for over fifty years.

Mahogany book rack

I wondered if I could find it hiding in old photographs, and yes, here it is in various Leeds and Hull corners of the nineteen-seventies. It still holds one of the same books.


If I were to make it again today, in the same way with hand-tools not machines, it might not be perfect but I like to think it would be better. At the very least I would hope not break the ends. It probably comes down to patience, and perhaps a bit of care and confidence as well. As someone once said, education is wasted on the young.

Other school stories include:


 School
 Metalwork
                 Jim Laker, Mr Ellis
and the Eagle Annual
A Silly Christmas
Love Story

 

Friday, 23 March 2018

M Dunham Are Crap

Never use a swear word when you don’t know what it means


“That’s wrong” said Geoffrey Bullard with his thick ape-neck and stare too menacing to return. He ran his fat finger across the words and stabbed the one that offended him: “It should be M Dunham is crap”. He thought everyone else was stupid.

It was too risky to explain it said exactly what I meant. You talk about football teams in the plural: “Rawcliffe United are good this year.” “Howden Town are terrible.” It goes in a song:
M Dunham are crap,
M Dunham are crap,
Ee aye addio,
M Dunham are crap.
Action from a league match between M.Dunham and T.Dunham circa 1960
(click to play digitised cine film)

It was my dad who first pretended we were teams competing against each other in a league. He was B Dunham, I was T Dunham, my brother Martin was M Dunham, and M Dunham were crap. I wrote it down in heavy red wax crayon on the back of the asbestos garage.

I didn’t realise that wax crayon on asbestos panelling is like permanent marker: waterproof, indelible, not-fade-away. So there it was, and there it must have stayed for over fifty years, decades after we had moved. Imagine the disapproving faces of those who later gazed upon it and pitied the poorly educated child responsible for such semi-literate graffiti, and wondered who M Dunham was and why was he crap.

So, Geoffrey Bullard remained in ignorance of our imaginary football teams, and when he wasn’t round at our house bullying me, I could play imaginary football games in the back garden. I had a full league of teams and fixtures, and played out each match on my own on the pitch of dried mud we optimistically called “the back grass”. This differed from “the front grass” only by being slightly bigger and by not actually having any grass, except that is for a few odd blades that struggled out of the earth before being unceremoniously stamped back in again by the boots of make-believe teams of footballers.

I ran up and down with a ball, puffing and panting between one goal defined by chalk marks on the wall of the house and the other by the clothes posts near the back hedge, while providing the roars and boos of the crowd, and an excitable commentary. In my head they were all there: two complete teams of players, spectators, a commentator, the referee, linesmen, and the trainer with his ‘magic sponge’.

I drew up team sheets, match day programmes, fixture lists and league tables. I was everyone and did everything. These days, kids do the same with electronic games with names such as ‘Top European Football Manager III’, but my fantasy was played in the back garden, much healthier for all that running around outside in the fresh air, with more highly developed transferrable skills for all the manual record keeping, and no less unsociable than fantasy football on games consoles.

T Dunham was of course the best team by far. They always won and hardly ever conceded a goal. They usually beat M Dunham (who really were crap) by several goals to nil, and “The” B Dunham by a similar margin (my dad had once been to watch “The” Arsenal while on holiday in London). It was not long before T Dunham were promoted out of the league containing the other Dunham teams into the local district league, where they played against proper teams such as the dockers and the railwaymen, and teams from pubs and the local villages. I picked my players for each match, and posted the team sheet on the wall inside our team hut, in other words the yellow shed. The team was always set out in traditional 2-3-5 formation, with a goalkeeper, two full backs, three half-backs and five forwards. In those days we always had a centre forward, inside forwards and wingers; no one had yet heard of modern formations involving sweepers, overlapping midfielders and offensive 4-3-3 game plans.

One day, Geoffrey Bullard noticed a team sheet on the wall of the shed. “What’s that?” he asked, looking carefully. My team was laid out for all to see, ready for the West Riding Cup Final between T Dunham and Norton Woodseats. The captain, ‘Dunham’, in other words me, was on the left wing, the position I played the only time I was ever selected for my school. Some of the other imaginary players were also names from school. ‘Gelder’ was inside-left, ‘Longthwaite’ was centre-forward, and, as I realised to my consternation about the same time as he spotted it, ‘Bullard’ was centre-half.

“Why am I only at centre-half?” he demanded to know.

I cringed inwardly while he thought about it. He considered himself one of the best footballers in the school, and naturally assumed his rightful role was top goal scorer in the forward line.

“Actually,” he then said weighing it up, “I would make quite a good centre-half,” and proceeded to let me off the hook by showing no further interest.

But the wax crayon was still there on the garage, and in due course my mother spotted it.

“It won’t come off,” she sounded annoyed, “and anyway, what does it mean?”

It dawned on me that I didn’t really know what ‘crap’ meant either. I’d heard people say it, and thought it a satisfyingly grown up word to use. It just seemed to mean someone or something wasn’t very good. You could snarl it in real disgust, curling your upper lip, emphasising the ‘r’ and spitting out the final ‘p’. “C-RAP!” I had been saying it as much as I could.

“What’s this word, ‘crap’?” my dad asked. My mother had obviously been talking to him.

It was my dad’s sister, Aunty Dorothy, a hospital nurse, who gently enlightened us as to what it meant.

“Was it you who wrote in wax crayon on the back of the garage?” she took me aside and asked in her quiet way. “You wrote, ‘M Dunham are crap’, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“Well you do know what it means, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“It’s very very rude,” she said looking concerned., “It means babba.” *

I wanted to giggle, but tried my best to look horrified and apologetic.

“It’s not a word we should be using at all,” she warned sternly. “And in any case,” she continued, “it’s wrong to say that. It should be M Dunham is crap.”


* It seems that use of the word ‘babba’ to mean poo is not as universal as I once thought. An internet search reveals very few examples. Similarly, ‘trump’ meaning an emission of wind (I resist an easy American political quip here) also seems mainly to be a northern expression. Both were common in the part of Yorkshire where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. The word ‘crap’, on the other hand, was beyond vulgarity, and never ever heard. It goes to show how much things have changed. 

This is a revised and rewritten version of a piece first posted on 1st September, 2014

Monday, 19 March 2018

Review - Chris Bonington: Ascent

Chris Bonington
Ascent: a life spent climbing on the edge (3*)

You could say Chris Bonington was one of my influences. I spent too many nineteen-seventies lunchtimes in Leeds Compton Road Library lost in the heights of I Chose to Climb and The Next Horizon, a tranquil refuge from accountancy. I acted them out on walks in Derbyshire, Scotland, the Yorkshire Pennines, the North York Moors, Iceland, Norway, France and Switzerland, an undue comparison, but I longed to be like him: all that climbing and writing. I bought a minivan, grew a beard, scrambled up mountains and tried to write things.

Ascent is Chris Bonington’s definitive autobiography. Much of the content is covered in his earlier books, but, gosh, what a story! As the cover blurb says, it reads like the pages of an epic saga.

The trouble is, to the non-specialist, one mountaineering expedition sounds much the same as another, even down to the extent of the senseless deaths: John Harlin on the Eiger, Ian Clough on Annapurna, Mick Burke on Everest, Dougal Haston skiing in the Alps, Nick Estcourt on K2, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker on Everest. Their bodies often remained where they died. Bonington describes encountering Hannelore Schmatz on Everest in 1985, “sitting upright in the snow, sun-bleached hair blowing in the wind, teeth bared in a rictus grin,” where she had died of exhaustion descending from the summit in 1979. A sane person could only conclude that trailblazing mountaineering is an idiotic venture.

Bonington writes in a matter of fact way. His narrative and descriptions are vivid enough, but you would be hard pressed to find a simile or metaphor anywhere in the book. It is autobiography not memoir, an accurate account of places, people and events rather than an impression or reaction to them. He comes across as self-centred. The first person “I” must appear at least 6 times on every page (as on this one!), more than twice that on many. Yet he does not dwell on things. He is like a climbing machine with little time for imagination or self-reflection, even when writing about personal loss. At the end of the day, anyone who manages to climb the Old Man of Hoy at eighty remains an inspiration, but I’m glad I’m not like him at all. 

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, 6 March 2018

Blessed By Snowdrops


When my dad could no longer manage in his three-bedroomed house, he moved, as many do, to a modest bungalow. Behind was a postage stamp of a lawn bounded by an ancient high wall which sheltered masses of snowdrops. For thirteen Februaries, he delighted in the sweeping drifts of brilliant white flowers that danced in defiance of the winter winds, as they lived into yet another year.

But he was also troubled by them. Come summer, when the leaves had died down, hundreds of tiny bulbs heaved themselves out of the ground and rolled across the lawn, trying to put down roots, as if longing to migrate away from the darkness of the wall towards the light and warmth of the house. Every time I visited I was asked to “go push those snowdrops back in”, and had to spend half an hour or so collecting them up and poking holes to replant them. By the next visit there would always be more trying to escape. When, finally, we sold the bungalow, I gathered a couple of pots full and took them home. We still call them Grandpa’s snowdrops.

In the cemetery where he now lies, planting on the graves is against the rules. It is pointless to try; the grass between the rows of headstones is mown at regular intervals, and any permanent flowers would be brutally hacked down. Even snowdrops, despite flowering well before the first mowing, would never store up future reserves, and weaken, and disappear. So I took a chance and planted a clump close to the headstone, too near for the mower to catch, in deep so they couldn’t get out. 

I went early the next year to check on their luck, but it was seemingly too early. I went again the following year, but it was too late for any leaves to be left. Around every headstone, an ugly margin of dark bare earth hinted at how they dealt with the places the mower could not reach. A later visit confirmed it as I caught the chemical smell of weedkiller drifting in the breeze from an operative with a tank on his back and a long wand. I made irregular visits over the years, but never saw any sign of snowdrops.

This year I happened to make the long drive in mid-February. There, to my surprise, still defiant against the headstone ten years after I planted them, was a triumphant line of delicate milk-white petals heralding hope for the coming spring, …

… along with an inquisitive squirrel who wanted to be in the picture (a transmigrated soul perhaps).

Snowdrops and squirrel on grave


Monday, 26 February 2018

Back In Time For Tea

Dirty messy kitchen
Our Messy Kitchen, 1974

The BBC Back In Time series is having another outing, this time as Back In Time For Tea – that’s tea in the sense of evening meal from the days of breakfast, dinner and tea. If your evening meal was called dinner and your mid-day meal was lunch, you were either posh or a Southerner. The new series does take place in working class Bradford after all.

Episode 3, set in the nineteen-sixties, saw the Ellis children having to get their own tea: Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney Pie, Angel Delight and Mr. Kipling fruit cake.

BBC TV - Back In Time For Tea

Oh yes, steak and kidney pie in a tin! I remember it well! It’s what we ate in the shared house. Those steak and kidney pies were delicious – succulent pieces of steak and kidney in juicy gravy. The pudding version was good too with suet instead of puff pastry. You can still get them, although internet commentators tend to imply they might not be as good as they once were. Is anything?

For the first time, the arrival of ready meals in the late nineteen-sixties made it possible for single lads living in flats, bed-sits and house shares to eat well without the needless mental and physical exertion of planning, shopping and cooking. Deciphering a recipe, patronising butchers and grocers, and assembling a steak and kidney pie from scratch would have been well beyond the ingenuity of spoiled brats brought up by their mothers to expect everything done for them, but wielding a tin opener and turning on an oven was just about within their capabilities. This was especially true of the five social misfits, connected through schools and workplaces, who in 1970 moved into a strange back-to-front house off Monk Bridge Road, with its rear to the road and front to a narrow path beside Meanwood Beck.

My previous year in Leeds had been spent in Monday-to-Thursday lodgings where meals were provided. It was good home-cooking to keep hunger at bay but the snooty husband of the elderly couple I lodged with charged in guineas rather than pounds: five guineas a week, that’s five pounds five shillings, £5.25 in new money, equivalent to around £75 now in terms of price inflation, and £150 in terms of earnings inflation. Perhaps that sounds reasonable compared with housing costs today, but it was nearly all I earned as a trainee accountant. My contribution to the shared house rent was less than half as much.

At first we ate together, taking turns to serve unimaginatively greasy concoctions of sausage or fried eggs, with chips and baked beans. One lad’s weekly pièce de résistance was spaghetti Bolognese with so much liquid it would slop over the edge of your plate when anyone knocked the table – “as if we haven’t enough on our plates already,” someone said. The local fish and chip shop was a regular beneficiary of our largesse too.

But convenience foods were just beginning to appear and our diet quickly changed. Why go to all that inconvenience of peeling, boiling and mashing potatoes when you could get Cadbury’s Smash? It wasn’t too bad if you put plenty of butter in. Instant mashed potato with a Fray Bentos pie and a tin of peas or carrots really filled you up. Finish with strawberry or banana Angel Delight (a powder mixed with milk to make an instant mousse-like desert) and it was heaven. You were living like a king.

BBC TV - Back In Time For Tea
Probably butterscotch Angel Delight: I preferred banana or strawberry

Individuals came and went and the sharing arrangement moved to a new address off Brudenell Road in the Hyde Park area. Mostly, we now ate individually at different times. I still had an unhealthy reliance on the “Up-Steps Fish Shop”, but as there were as yet no Chinese or Indian takeaways, pizza or kebab shops nearby, fish and chips was the only bought in meal. For other days, Vesta dehydrated packet meals were now available: food for bachelors from Batchelors.

1970s Vesta dehydrated packet meals advertisement
“Come on a Vesta Package Tour” read the advert, to India for beef curry (“not too hot”), Italy for beef risotto (“the real taste of the Continent”) or China for chow mein with crispy noodles (“You like, yes?” – would they dare say that now, or wish you “bon appétit” with the chicken supreme from France, or claim that the Spanish paella had “a touch of Olé”).

The noodles looked like translucent strips of plastic until tipped into hot oil upon which, spitting and sizzling, they crisped up like expanding polystyrene into gnarled and crunchy yellow whorls. Except that there always seemed to be one or two that didn’t work, and stayed hard and sticky enough to pull your fillings out. The curry looked like a packet of something you might collect from a crematorium until you added boiling water and it reconstituted itself into peculiarly light and watery chunks that were supposed to be beef. The risotto seemed best, especially when you fried the rice in butter (with extra Uncle Ben’s rice to bulk it up) and then added the meat and vegetable powder with a bottle of Newcastle Brown instead of water. The only time I’d had rice at home was as rice pudding, and other than spaghetti, it was my first experience of exotic food. It was mouthwatering if you overlooked all the monosodium glutamate, although you usually had to fire up the toaster before bed time, even when you had eaten a ‘serves two’ sized packet.

I never prepared anything from scratch. Vegetables, spaghetti hoops, even potatoes, came out of tins. Frozen foods such as fish fingers, beef burgers or the delicious boil-in-the-bag cod in butter sauce were all bought on the day as we had no fridge. Everything was heated by hob, grill or oven, as microwaves would not be common for another decade. I bought a ‘cooking for one’ cookbook which made out that everything was so simple, no one need end up dipping grilled fish fingers into a jar of tartar sauce, which was the only recipe I took from the book, although they were better with piccalilli. And much to the bewilderment of my family, I retain a weakness for tinned oranges with Carnation evaporated milk.

Nearly all of these convenience foods remain available, but as a vegetarian convert I wouldn’t eat them now. However, we did try banana Angel Delight with our tea the other night. Surprisingly, it was just as good as I remember.

Inclusion of the clips from the BBC Back In Time For Tea programme and the Alamy Vesta image are believed to be fair use. The stills are clipped from single frames and linked to the programme web site. The Alamy image is linked to its source. The Vesta image is also available at The Advertising Archives.

See also:



Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Review - Raimond Gaita: Romulus, My Father

Raimond Gaita
Romulus, My Father (4*)

In 1950, Raimond Gaita emigrated with his Romanian father and German mother to Victoria, Australia. His father, Romulus Gaita, was a skilled blacksmith, but was sent to a migrant labour camp to work on the construction of the Cairn Curran reservoir.

Raimond and his mother were able to join him only later when he began to share a desolate nearby farm called Frogmore. It had no electricity and no running water and barely sheltered them from the elements. Raimond’s mother was promiscuous, suffered mental illness, and left and returned several times. Eventually she committed suicide. Despite these terrible circumstances, this is a moving and unsentimental memoir of post-war European immigration to Australia, set in the bleak but beautiful landscape of Central Victoria.

Raimond Gaita emerged from this dreadful background to achieve a university degree in Melbourne, a Ph.D. from the University of Leeds, U.K., and to become a Professor of Moral Philosophy at King’s College, London, and later the Melbourne Law School.

How on earth he managed it must, to a considerable extent, be down to the close bond with his father who, despite mental illness of his own, maintained a consistent, highly principled moral stance throughout his difficult life. This is the main theme throughout the book: Romulus Gaita’s approach to love, honesty, friendship, family, relationships, migrant culture, landscape, work (he eventually established a business making and selling wrought iron furniture), wealth, self-image, suffering, violence, loyalty and forgiveness. It is, it seems, a philosopher’s examination of his father’s influence upon his own beliefs and thinking. It is also a remarkable and inspiring story. 

I was motivated to read Romulus My Father by a piece in Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look, in which she discusses people and events in the book with Raimond as he shows her around the sites of his childhood. She describes the book as having changed the quality of Australia’s literary air. It is not hard to see why.

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.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Agents Of Maths Destruction

Who needs brains any more except to ponder how computers and calculators have changed the way we do everyday calculations?

At one time we needed brains for long multiplication and long division, drummed into us at primary school from time immemorial. It is so long since I tried I’m not sure I can remember. Let’s try on the back of a proverbial envelope.

Long mulitiplication and division
Long multiplication and long division with numbers and with pre-decimal currency

To do it you had to be able to add up, ‘take away’ and know your times tables – eight eights are sixty four, and so on – but just about everyone born before 1980 could do these things without having to think. 

Those of us still older, born before say 1960, could multiply and divide pre-decimal currency – remember, twelve pence to the shilling, twenty shillings to the pound. You had to have grown up with this arcane system to understand it. Perhaps we should have kept it. It might have put foreigners off from wanting to come here and there would have been no need for Brexit. As the example reveals, even I struggle with the division.

Logarithms and Antilogarithms
Logarithms and Antilogarithms

Then, there were logarithms and antilogarithms, as thrown at us in secondary school. To multiply or divide two numbers, you looked up their logs in a little book, added them to multiply, or subtracted to divide, and then converted the result back into the answer by looking it up in a table of antilogs. For example, using my dinky little Science Data Book, bought for 12p in 1973: 

To multiply 2468 x 3579:
log 2468 = 3.3923; log 3579 = 3.5538; sum = 6.9461; antilog  = 8,833,000

To divide 3579 by 24:
log 3579 = 3.5538; log 24 = 1.3802; subtraction  =  2.1736; antilog  149.1

It’s absolute magic, although the real magicians were individuals like Napier and Briggs who invented it. How ever did they come up with the idea? It was not perfect. Log tables gave only approximate rounded answers and it was tricky handling numbers with different magnitudes of ten (represented by the 3., 6., 1. and 2. to the left of the decimal points), but it was very satisfying. You needed ‘A’ Level Maths to understand how they actually worked, but not to be able to use them. Some also learned to use a slide rule for these kinds of calculations – a mechanical version of logarithms – but as I never had to, I’ll skip that one.

Slide Rule
A Slide Rule

Due to a hopeless lack of imagination, I left school to work for a firm of accountants in Leeds. Contrary to what you might think, our arithmetical skills were rarely stretched beyond adding up long columns of numbers. We whizzed through the totals in cash books and ledgers, and joked about adding up the telephone directory for practice. The silence of the office would be punctuated by cries of torment and elation: “oh pillocks!” as one desolate soul failed to match the totals they had produced moments earlier, or a tuneless outbreak of the 1812 Overture as another triumphantly agreed a ‘trial balance’ after four or five attempts.

Sumlock Comptometer
A 1960s Sumlock Comptometer.

But when it came to checking pages and pages of additions we had comptometer operators. Thousands of glamorous girls left school to train as Sumlock ‘comps’, learning how to twist and contort their fingers into impossible shapes and thump, thump, thump through thousands of additions in next to no time without ever looking at their machines. By using as many fingers as it took, they could enter all the digits of a number in a single press. It probably damaged their hands for life. I still don’t understand how they did it. There was both mystery and glamour in going out on audit with a comp.

Friden Electromechanical Calculator
A 1950s Friden Electromechanical Calculator

Back at the office we had an old Friden electro-mechanical calculating machine. What a beast that was. I never once saw it used for work, but we discovered that if you switched it on and pressed a particular key it would start counting rapidly upwards on its twenty-digit register.

“What if we left it on over the bank holiday weekend?” someone wondered one Friday. “What would it get to by Tuesday?”

Fortunately we didn’t try. It would probably have burst into flames and set fire to all the papers in the filing room. But we worked it out (sadly not with the Friden). It operated at eight cycles per second. So after one minute it would have counted to 480, after one hour to 28,800, and after one day to 691,200. So if we had started it at five o’clock on Friday, it would have got to 2,534,400 by nine o’clock on Tuesday morning. So, counting at eight per second gets you to just two and half million after three and a half days! It shows how big two and a half million actually is.

The obvious questions to us awstruck nerdy accountant types were then “what would it get to in a year?”– about two hundred and fifty million, and “how long would it take to fill all twenty numbers in the top register with nines?”– about thirty nine million million years. As the building was demolished in the nineteen eighties it would have been switched off long before then. But what would it have got to? 

ANITA 1011 LS1 Desktop Calculator
An ANITA 1011 LS1 Desktop Calculator (c1971)

The first fully electronic machine I saw was a late nineteen-sixties ANITA (“A New Inspiration To Accounting”, one of the first of many truly cringeworthy acronyms of the digital revolution) which looked basically like a comptometer with light tube numbers.  Then, fairly quickly with advances in integrated circuits and chip technology, came the ANITA desk top calculator followed by pocket handhelds that could read HELLHOLE, GOB and BOOBIES upside down, and 7175 the right way up. Intelligence was as redundant as comptometer operators. We revelled so much in our mindless machine skills that I once saw a garage mechanic work out the then 10% VAT on my bill with a calculator, and get it wrong and undercharge me. It can still be quicker to do things mentally rather than use a calculator.

Around 1972, my dad saw one of the first pocket calculators for sale in Boots. It could add, subtract, multiply and divide, pretty much state of the art for the time, but at £32 (about £350 in today’s money) and not as compact as now, it required large pockets in more ways than one. I told him it was ridiculously overpriced. Infuriatingly, he ignored me and bought one. On the following Monday they reduced the price down to just £6. It was his turn to be annoyed but the store manager refused to give a refund. He stuck with that calculator for the next thirty years.

How often now do we even use calculators? Not a lot for basic arithmetic. Do we ever doubt the calculations on our computer generated energy bills and bank statements? Do we check the VAT on our online purchases? Do accountants ever question the sums on their Excel spreadsheets? Just think, a fraction of a penny here, another there, carefuly concealed, embezzlement by a million roundings, it could all add up to a nice little earner.


I believe the above images to be in the public domain except for the first which is mine.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Review - Helen Garner: Everywhere I Look

Helen Garner 
Everywhere I Look (5*)

I'd not heard of Helen Garner until a newspaper interview caught my interest. It mentioned a short piece about playing the ukelele which I found online and was instantly captivated by her rich and clever blend of observation, reflection, personal experience and human reaction. Exactly the kind of thing countless bloggers try to turn out, me included, but so much better.

Such as when, after seeing and hearing a ukelele for the first time, and then finding the Oxford Companion to Music's snotty description of them as popular amongst those whose desire to perform exceeds their willingness to acquire technique or musical ability, she writes:
So. It was a cop-out for the lazy and talentless. I went straight downtown and bought the first one I saw ...
I wondered why anyone should bother to read us when they can read her. The reality, I suppose, is that we write for ourselves and are thrilled if others like it.

Everywhere I Look is a collection of around thirty essays, diary entries and other short pieces, most of them previously published elsewhere during the last couple of decades. The ukelele piece, Whisper and Hum is the opening item, but I also loved The Journey of the Stamp Animals about a nineteen-forties children's book which had left strong memories but was now so elusive she doubted it had ever existed, From Frogmore, Victoria about Raimond Gaita and his memoir Romulus, My Father, a memory of a former teacher Dear Mrs Dunkley who she belatedly learns to respect, Red Dog: A Mutiny about reaching a compromise with her daughter's dog, The Insults of Age which is about not accepting any more bullshit from people ... I could go on - I loved it all and was sorry when I reached the end. Nothing in the collection disappoints and Helen Garner is rightly described as one of Australia's finest writers. Make that one of the world's.

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, 26 January 2018

Self-Doubt, Imposter Syndrome and Hegemonic Masculinity

A couple of weeks ago, the normally so impeccable Hadley Freeman, writing about self-doubt in her Guardian column, said:

 “I have yet to meet a man who has worried he’s not good enough for a job he’s been offered, whereas I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t.”

Well, I don’t know what circles she moves in but that is simply wrong, as many of the responses to the online article make clear. Imposter syndrome is not just a female thing.

She finds it impossible to imagine a woman who, like certain men she amusingly identifies, is “perennially mediocre, untouchably arrogant, and eternally gifted by opportunity and protection by the establishment”. You only have to look at some of the women in high political office to see the error in this.

As regards men who worry they are not up to jobs they have been offered, there are lots, myself included. When I got good grades at ‘A’ Levels the second time round in my mid-twenties, and then a good degree, I felt that almost anyone could do it, and still do. When that led to jobs in universities, it felt like unmerited good fortune. When I got research papers into academic journals, I wondered why no one had seen the gaping holes they contained.

This is of course both blowing and sucking my own trumpet at the same time, but I just want to say that even for those who invented the concept*, hegemonic masculinity was never assumed to be universal.

* Connell and Messerschmidt.
The cartoon is from startupbros.com - click to link to its source.
Here is another relevant article from The Guardian.

Friday, 19 January 2018

My New IKEA Sit/Stand Desk

Bekant sit/stand desk 120x80cm
Bekant sit/stand desk, oak/black, 120x80cm

Health sites are good at scaring hypochondriacs like me into believing that sitting down for too long can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression. Some even make out that sitting is as bad as smoking. Can it really be so harmful? I am not so sure. Being a complete couch potato is obviously undesirable for lots of reasons, not least that you begin to hate yourself, but what is unclear is how sitting at a desk relates to other levels of activity. It might not be all that bad for those who are otherwise reasonably active.

All I know for sure is that lengthy computer sessions, seated, make my back sore. Despite trying different seating configurations, I end up shuffling around like an arthritic super-centenarian. I have also seen the effects of entire working lives spent at the deskface. Men (mainly) with bad backs, stiff necks, severe stoops, obesity, shortage of breath, high blood pressure and other problems were all too common in the offices of the sixties and seventies – an unrecognised industrial disease from the public health dark ages. We had to put up with any old chair and desk available, no matter how worn out and unergonomic. Worst affected were those who sat down all day in a cloud of cigarette smoke – either their own or other peoples’. Some even put sugar in their tea as well.

So, I broadly accept that sitting down for too long is bad for you, and have for some time been thinking about getting a standing desk. What made me hesitate was (i) not knowing which type to get – a desktop frame or a complete desk, and (ii) the cost – it might be an expensive waste of money.

I thought about making one. It would be fairly simple to construct a sturdy table to stand on an existing desk, although it would not be height adjustable, and deciding its exact height might be a bit hit and miss. I know that a standard four-drawer filing cabinet is quite comfortable for someone of my height to work on, although I don’t know for how long, and getting it wrong could be worse than not having a standing desk at all. Anything I made would probably look naff anyway.  
   
Desktop frames are the cheapest option to buy, albeit not that cheap. For under £250 you can find a work surface to go on top of your existing desk, which can be raised and lowered by means of a pantograph mechanism. Some also have separately-adjustable keyboard trays. But you would have to put the whole thing aside to revert to the original height and space of your desk, and they look several times more naff than my imagined self-made version – lots of cold and clanky metal, like working on the roof of an electric train.

It therefore had to be a full adjustable sit/stand desk or nothing. They are expensive. Some cost over £1,000. A more affordable one was the Bekant desk from IKEA, but it has some damning reviews – unreliable, wobbly, poorly made. It is also 80cm deep (2 feet 7 inches), which is 20cm (7 inches) deeper than my normal desk. The hesitation continued.

Fortunately, we live near enough to an IKEA be able to look in-store. We twice braved the rank smell of Swedish meatballs to play with it, and it looked all right. We wondered whether a cheaper hand-cranked model might suffice rather than an electrically adjustable one. No. Stiff and awkward.

So, a month ago I splashed out £475 on a 120 x 80 cm Bekant electric sit/stand desk. It was Christmas after all. The price included a little extra for the oak veneer top which looks attractive with the black legs. 

I don’t usually review things (except books), and probably wouldn’t even if you paid me (although everyone has their price) but I am so happy with my new sit/stand desk that this once I will. I am not going to go into the technical specifications, plenty of other sites do that, but let me tell you about the experience. It was simple to assemble. It is not poorly made. The height adjustment mechanism, hidden in the legs, seems sturdy and reliable. The desk is not wobbly – the 80 cm depth allows you to stand and lean on it with the full length of your forearms, with the keyboard in the centre of the desk. It does not tilt when you do this. Alternatively, and perhaps better for your posture, you can place your keyboard or papers at the front of the desk to stand and work tall and free. It seems perfect for home use. I don’t know how well it would cope with commercial use but the IKEA staff have them in-store.

Just a few tips if you get one. During assembly, look carefully at the orientation of the brackets in the diagram when fixing them to the underside of the desk. I initially put mine on the wrong way round so that the flanges were too far apart to fit the base, although it was not too much of a problem to take them off and refit. Secondly, if you put weight on your arms while standing, get a foam pad for support, otherwise your elbows might feel sore. Third, replace your office chair with a light stool that can easily be moved aside when you want to stand, and brought back when you want to sit down. You might even want to lower the desk as far as it will go and kneel on the floor. Lastly, the buttons for adjusting the height are fiddly, but easy to use once you get used to them. And a warning: the legs and frame are very heavy.

After a month I find I can stand and work non-stop for a couple of hours or longer, although my ankles, knees and hips did twinge a bit at first. Nothing too bad – I have yet to experience ‘cankles’. Sometimes my shoulders ache a little as well, but moving the desk up or down an inch soon gets round that. And best of all – my back no longer suffers after a long computer session. Costly, but worth it.

I wish standing desks had been around during the years I spent in accountancy in the sixties and seventies, and in computing in the eighties. You would have been labelled a weirdo just for thinking about it.

What next? A treadmill desk? A cycling desk? A hamster wheel desk? I don’t think so. They really are only for weirdos. 

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Kinder Scout

A favourite Derbyshire walk through the years, possibly a metaphor for life

A walk on Kinder Scout (route from an early John Merrill book)

The bleak Kinder moorland can be incongruously beautiful on a fine day, but it was not like that on my first visit in 1974. It was dark and grim, covered in cloud, difficult to know where you were heading. As we ascended Fair Brook, veils of thick, grey mist closed around us, washing away the last of the autumn colours. Drizzle drifted down from the plateau, permeating our cagoules and soaking my canvas rucksack. It had been drenched so often it was beginning to smell like a bag of old socks. It could have been a metaphor for my life at the time: three jobs inside a year and a pointless, wasted term at teacher training college.

Fair Brook crags: 1974
Seeking shelter: Fair Brook crags, 1974
Kinder is a silly place to be out in bad weather, but Neville and I likened ourselves to hardened Himayalan mountaineers. I had even started to grow a beard like Chris Bonington’s, a new self-image to get life and work back on track. The comparison was ridiculous, of course, but role models and self-images can be helpful. There is nothing wrong in trying to find a bit of mental strength and inspiration, despite the obvious differences between the Himalayas and the Derbyshire Peak District, or for that matter, between a fearless expedition leader and an assistant accountant in an office.

We sheltered under overhanging rocks at the top of Fair Brook to eat our sandwiches. From there we took a rough bearing across the moor to Kinder Downfall: about 255 degrees. In more forgiving terrain, you would pick out a distant landmark and head towards it, re-checking your compass just now and again, but distant landmarks are few on Kinder Scout: there is only moor and sky if you’re lucky, and mist if you’re not. You can believe it the roof of the world where abominable bipeds dwell.

Kinder Scout: spring 1975
An abominable biped on Kinder Scout: spring 1975

The surface is broken into a maze of peat ridges, or ‘hags’, by deep, slippery trenches known as ‘groughs’, which twist and turn like waves in a sea of mud. Groughs can be fifteen feet deep (five metres), and there are a lot of them to cross.

Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau: David Appleyard, Wikimedia commons
Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau, 2005

Just as in life, you glide effortlessly along the tops of the hags until they veer off in the wrong direction or lead to a patch of impassable bog. You backtrack, looking for a place to cross a grough, and descend, half-walking, half-sliding, half in control, struggling to keep your balance and stay clean and dry. Inevitably you end up smeared in black peaty mud. You follow the grough until it narrows to a steep watery ‘V’ where, legs apart, one at each side, you struggle to continue. Or again, the grough turns in the wrong direction or leads into a pond. You look for a place to climb out and follow the tops of the hags again. Before long, you are laughing like a toddler stamping through muddy puddles in Wellington boots.

You check your direction constantly but cannot tell how far to the left or right you have drifted. Soon you can be a hundred yards or more off course. You might be enticed into following footprints, but they can easily be from someone else who was helplessly lost, perhaps one of those abominable bipeds. You might see other walkers and decide to follow them, only to find they are wandering round in circles. You really have to trust your compass, no matter how fallible. Providing you do, then sooner or later you will come upon the River Kinder: not a river in the ordinary sense, but a wider, flatter trench than the groughs, with a stony and sometimes sandy floor. For most of the year you can walk westwards along its bed until you arrive high above the sheer gritstone gorge of Kinder Downfall.

River Kinder: 1974
The Kinder River: 1974

Kinder Downfall is the highest waterfall in the Peak District, where the Kinder River tumbles a hundred feet (30 metres) from the plateau. It is magnificent in spate, especially when the wind blows it back upon itself in a shimmering rainbow cloud. At such times it would not be unreasonable to call it Kinder Upfall.

Kinder Downfall in spate: Dave Dunford, Wikimedia Commons
Kinder Downfall (or should it be called Kinder Upfall?), 2005

We pressed on along the edge of the plateau – part of the Pennine Way – in our murky globe of gloom. We could just about make out the distinctive starfish shape of Kinder Reservoir below, but there were none of the distant views beyond Manchester to the mountains of Snowdonia you see in clear weather. We began to doubt our route. A couple of walkers came towards us, the only others we had seen all day. We asked whether we were on the right path for the Snake Inn. They looked doubtful.

“Probably, but it must be at least ten miles,” they thought.

That worried us. But that’s the thing about walking. It is a metaphor for life. Whether you are slogging up a mountain, plodding endless distance or trailing others in wretched misery, you have to keep going through the grit and grimness. You have to get back on the hags and leave the groughs behind. Usually you do. In my case, it was the accountancy that got left behind. The Chris Bonington thing really did help, even though Bonington would never have been an accountant in the first place, or had his sandwiches made by his mum.

It turned out we were right and the other walkers wrong. Within half an hour we reached the corner of the plateau above Ashop Head, where a steep slope descends to a signpost at the junction of the Snake Path and Pennine Way. Within another half hour we were at the derelict Ashop Clough shooting cabin where we stopped for the last of our coffee, and for Neville to smoke his pipe and reflect upon the meaning of things.

Ashop Clough shooting cabin: 1975 and 2011
The derelict shooting cabin in Ashop Clough: 1975 and 2011

Such as what did the shooting cabin mean? In 1974, it still sheltered you from the worst of the elements. You could just about visualise the cosy refuge it must have been for the privileged few before the “right to roam” trespass of 1932. The likes of us would not have been welcome then on the Kinder moors, I would have not been exploring different careers, and most of Bonington’s mountaineering pals would have been at work instead of climbing. The derelict structure was like a monument to social progress and freedom of opportunity. 

Tellingly, it provides no shelter at all now. During the last forty years or so, the east gable end, the fireplace and roof have disappeared without trace. The only slight improvement is to the bridge across the stream to Black Ashop Moor, which is now marginally sturdier than the precarious plank you once dared cross at your peril. Fortunately, you never had to. The route continues on the northern side of the stream and soon passes through woods to steps back up to the road.

Seal Edge looking towards Fair Brook
Looking along Seal Edge towards Fairbrook Naze on the far right

Since then, I have wandered this northern part of Kinder Scout at least a dozen more times, in every kind of weather. One summer day, when the sun was shining and the ferns and heather at their loveliest, I took my son and daughter, she was then only seven, across the bottom of Fair Brook and up to Seal Edge, forgetting just how far it is to return down the Fair Brook valley, but she did it without complaint. Another day, on the same route, I surprised two wild wallabies at the western end of Seal Edge, although not as much as they surprised me. They jumped out and disappeared across the moor before I could get my camera, leaving me wondering whether I had simply imagined them.

Icicles on the Snake Path: winter 1976
Icicles on the Snake Path through Ashop Clough: winter 1976

I have been on the Snake Path when the Ashop was frozen hard and long icicles lined the banks like crystal chandeliers. I have walked east along The Edge aiming for the top of Fair Brook and completely failed to recognise it (not alone I should add), and had to hitch a lift back to the car after finally descending to the road. That’s what happens on Kinder Scout when you arrogantly think you know it well enough not to look at your map and compass. I once tried to cross the top of Kinder from the Downfall to Fair Brook, which requires more accurate compass use than east to west, and after what seemed like an eternity, emerged way off course near Fairbook Naze looking over The Edge. Not accurate enough! When I eventually reached Fair Brook that day, the descent just about finished my knees. Lessons, lessons, lessons, but things turn out right in the end.

I suppose now, with satnav, you know exactly where you are all the time, but I’m not having one of those. It’s cheating. I don’t want to make things too easy for myself. It doesn’t fit my self-image, even though, unlike Sir Chris Bonington, I won’t be shimmying up The Old Man of Hoy at the age of eighty.

Ascent to Kinder Scout via Fair Brook, 1974 and 2007
Fair Brook with Kinder Scout in mist in 1974, and clear in 2007

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