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Sunday, 9 September 2018

Articled Clerk

Chartered Accountant's articled clerk recruitment ads

“You’ll make a lot of money as a Chartered Accountant” was the only thing of substance the headmaster said at the end of grammar school. I could guess what he was really thinking. “Not university calibre.” “Not even college.” Stuck-up southern git!    

It was strange that someone so southern had chosen to become a headmaster in such a working-class northern town. He spoke with such judgemental self-assurance you were convinced his pronunciation must be correct and yours miserably deficient: “raarzbriz” instead of “rasp-berries”, “swimming baarthes” rather than “swimmin’ baths”, “campany derrectorre” not “kumpany dye-recter”. It was not universally welcomed.

“You’ve written here that your faarther is a campany derrectorre. What sort of campany derrectorre?”

“He’s got a shop – Millwoods”

“Really? I thought Millwoods was owned by Susan Mellordew’s faarther.”

He appeared not to believe me. Oh to have that conversation again knowing what I know now. 

“Perhaps the Mellordews would like others to think that,” I should have said.

Grammar schools were set up to get people into university, or at least teacher training college. Everyone else was a failure to be eased into the grubby world of banking, accountancy or other forms of servility, unless you were a girl, in which case they didn’t really care either way because you would be married with kids in a few years’ time. I didn’t care either. I was quite taken by the idea of making a lot of money, especially as all six of my university choices had given me straight rejections. 

At least the local accountants wanted me. They phoned my dad to change my mind about going off to a job in Leeds. “He’ll get just as good experience here,” they told him, but he decided not to pass the message on, as if they wanted me but he didn’t.

I had tried York first. The area training coordinator at The Red House sent me round to Peat, Marwick and Mitchell, one of the biggest and most powerful firms in the country (as KPMG they still are), to be interviewed by another stuck-up posh git whose laconic disinterest oozed the impression that he had indeed made a great deal of money. He would have got on just fine with my headmaster. Not for the last time did I feel I might have done better had I been to Bootham’s or Queen Ethelburga’s.* Real chip-on-the-shoulder stuff!

The Leeds firm were more down to earth. Their offices were in what had once been a cloth warehouse with large airy windows; less depressing than the pokey accommodation of the other firms. A simple half-hour chat with one of the partners, during which I managed to avoid showing too much stupidity, and the job was mine: five years as an articled clerk. I started on the 9th September, 1968; exactly fifty years ago today. 

The thing is though, in those days, firms of accountants were desperate for articled clerks. At face value it was attractive: a form of indentured apprenticeship under which a qualified accountant undertakes to inculcate an articled clerk into the principles and practices of the profession. In reality it was cheap labour. They sold it to school leavers through discreet ads in the situations vacant columns, next to those for hair restorers and varicose veins. “Leaving school? Why not become a Chartered Accountant?” It would not have looked out of place if they had added: “No one need know; confidentiality guaranteed.”

Ads were discreet because accountants were not allowed to tout for business, although as things began to change, the bigger firms pushed the boundaries with larger, more flamboyant offerings designed by expensive agencies. One of the most memorable went: “Some think Wart Prouserhice is just as good as Horst Whiterpart, but we know it’s best at Price Waterhouse.”

Today, accountancy training places are so sought after they won’t even look at you unless you have at least a 2:1 and an impressive portfolio of extra-curricular leadership activities – an internship in the House of Commons; volunteering with Ebola victims in Africa; representing Great Britain in the Winter Olympics; that kind of thing. You might then get invited to a day of written tests and observed activities, and if successful to a nerve-racking interview panel. Those who went to Bootham’s or Queen Ethelburga’s might then be offered a place. Back in the nineteen-sixties, five ‘O’ levels and you were in.

Not so many years beforehand, articled clerks had been expected to pay a premium for the privilege of the job. At least by 1968 you got a salary, if that’s what you could call it. Mine was £360 per annum.

1968 payslips

Really? Well yes. Here are my first two pay slips. The first covers from the 9th to the 30th September, 1968, i.e. twenty-two thirtieths of a month. So 22/30 x 360/12 equals a straight £22, with a deduction of £3 6s 8d for National Insurance, leaving £18 13s 4d for my first three weeks’ pay. My first full month’s take-home pay was £26 13s 4d. I didn’t have to pay tax because I only started work in September, but I did after April when I got a £2 per month rise. It doesn’t look any better even when adjusted for inflation – £26 13s 4d in 1968 is the equivalent of around £400 today, less than half the minimum wage for an eighteen year-old.

I never did become a Chartered Accountant. I stuck it for a few years, failed a few exams, and then escaped to university. Would I have fared better in my parochial home town of canners, carriers, barbers, farmers, shippers and shopkeepers? I might have fitted in – like a pile of coke outside the gas works – but maybe not. Thirty years later, the lad who took the local job in my place ended up as one of the senior partners in charge of the whole outfit. He did make a lot of money.

* Fee paying boarding schools near York.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Old and New Cars

`Compare the Honda Civic SR to a Lightning F-35

Wondering whether to change my ten year old Golf Estate, I went for a test drive in a fairly new Honda Civic Tourer - the SR version. What a sensation! I could have been in the cockpit of an R.A.F. stealth fighter.

If you have recently driven a new car then you might not be overawed, but I haven’t and I was. There were coloured lights all over the dashboard and more switches than I could imagine what they were for. The digital speedometer rolled up and down, a glowing blue bar grew and shrank with the engine speed and a bright satnav map pinpointed the current location. A camera recognised speed limit signs and displayed a corresponding symbol, and another camera showed what was behind when the car was in reverse. Illuminated gauges indicated fuel and temperature levels and lights flashed in the exterior mirrors to warn of vehicles in the blind spots. The engine cut out to save fuel in stationary traffic and started again as soon as you pressed the clutch. I didn’t get round to asking about the cruise control, heated seats and entertainment system, and that’s not even the half of it. The technology was incredible. I don’t know if you could talk to the car, or whether it answered back, but it would not have surprised me if you could and it did.

1960s Mini dashboard and instrument cluster
1960s Mini dashboard and instrument cluster

What a difference from the first three cars I had, all Minis – a car and two vans. They had a speedometer, a fuel gauge and a few warning lights, and that was it – oh yes, and an ashtray. The steering wheel would not have looked out of place on a tractor and the gear lever stuck out of the floor like something in a signal box. They had sliding windows fastened by a thief-friendly catch, and the doors opened by means of a dangly pull-cord. In the vans the battery was under the driver’s seat and you fired up the engine by pulling out the choke and pressing a huge button on the floor. Primitive but functional.

The first, a ten-year old dark blue Austin Mini Van with a white roof, cost me £50 in 1971. I bought it from a lad called John Leason who lived off Holderness Road in Hull. I saw his ad in the Hull Daily Mail, a friend took me to look, I paid by cheque and drove it home – no doubt untaxed and uninsured.

John Leason must have been punching his fist in the air like he’d won the football pools. As I braked at the end of the street, the driver’s door burst open and I had to be quick to reach out and catch it. I had to hold it all the way home. It was by no means the only thing wrong. It smelt like a smoking dung heap, rasped like a rusty moped and rattled like a push bike with a loose chain. A local mechanic took it off my hands a few weeks later, rebuilt the engine and used it as a run-around for the next two years.

1966 Morris Mini-Minor
My 1966 Morris Mini-Minor (also see blog banner)

Then I had a six-year old Morris Mini-Minor, a blue one, funded by concerned parents. It would have been fine except for the hydrolastic suspension – a system in which the front and back wheels are connected by pressurised pipes. They must have leaked because they needed to be re-pressurised every nine months or so to stop the tyres scraping against the wheel arches. I stuck it out for a couple of years until I could afford to swap it for a three-year old Mini Van.

1972 Mini Van in BMC Flame Red
My 1972 Mini Van

It was the love of my life. BMC flame red. I blazed up and down the M62 and flashed around Leeds burning up other drivers and flickering round buses stranded in the snow. It was an eight-seater – one passenger in the front and three along each side in the back (no seat belt requirements in those days). I put down a carpet and lined the roof and sides with matt black hardboard. It took me walking in the Peak and Lake Districts, the Pennines and North York Moors, and up to Scotland with a tent and walking boots no end of times. I drove it to university interviews on my way to becoming a mature student and it saw me through three years in Hull.

Camping Glen Brittle Isle of Skye Easter 1976
Camping at Glen Brittle, Isle of Skye, Easter 1976.
The meagre Mini dashboard is visible beyond all the clutter.

Would I want one now? You bet! You can get beautifully reconditioned nineteen-seventies Mini Vans for seven or eight thousand pounds (and renovation projects for a fraction of that). But it would need to be garaged out of the weather and I would want to pay someone to maintain it and keep the rust in check. It would be just an expensive toy: costly and non-functional. A lot of fun though.

The Honda Civic seems a nice idea too but one wonders whether all the technology is just something waiting to go wrong. It’s fine in a newish car but you know what software is like – would it still work after ten years? One hears of issues such as losing all the radio settings when put into reverse, which can be expensive to diagnose and fix. And if the car tells you the speed limit all the time, then would you stop bothering to look for the road signs, like losing all sense of geography and direction when you blindly follow the satnav. Most new cars now have electronic handbrakes and hill-hold assistance. Does that mean you forget how to do hill starts? I like to do these things for myself. The Honda felt a bit detached from the world, like managing ice cream in a darkened cinema, glancing occasionally at the screen.

So I’ll probably keep the Golf Estate for a while. Its M.O.T. test is due but I’m confident it will pass. There is a lot of life left in a low-mileage ten year old car these days – certainly not the case in the nineteen-seventies, and perhaps not in the twenty-twenties. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Yellow Shed

Yellow Shed
Three views of the yellow shed – I don't have a complete photograph.

“Every man should have a shed” the saying goes. Well, I got a shed at the age of twelve when I took over the yellow one in the garden. Did that make me a man?

There I drank my first bottle of John Smith’s Magnet Pale Ale, brazenly bought from the corner shop with my own pocket money in the confidence they would assume I was on a parent’s errand. And there I tried one of my mother’s menthol flavoured Consulate cigarettes and well and truly wished I hadn’t.

John Smiths Magnet Pale Ale - a magnet for me Consulate - cool as a mountain stream

Whether these experiments in manliness were as masculine as they seemed at the time I’m not sure. Magnet Pale Ale might have been copiously consumed by Tristan Farnon in the James Herriot books, but it was promoted by the image of a comely young woman with smooth bare legs and shoulders, long ear rings dangling evocatively below blonde Marilyn Monroe curls as she alluringly raises her stemmed glass to declare it “a magnet for me!” Consulate cigarettes, “cool as a mountain stream”, also employed a preponderance of girly social situations, not at all like the manly virility of the Player’s Navy Cut sailor or the Marlboro cowboy, or the self-assured independence of the raincoated, Sinatra-like, “never-alone” Strand character.*

The yellow shed became my own private space. It was my dark-room, games room, chemistry laboratory and music studio. I imagined myself carrying out investigations into original problems, creating new knowledge, an academic in the making. Apart from a few gardening tools, yard brushes and a stepladder, most of the clutter had moved to our new asbestos garage.

Among my old, self-developed 127-sized negatives were two photographs of the inside. Oh what memories!

Inside the yellow shed 
We made a folding bench to go on the end wall. I painted the inside with clean white paint and hung curtains over the window and door. I constructed a cement ridge to stop water pooling under the door. It was icy cold in winter and swelteringly hot in summer. I arranged my great-uncle’s cigarette card collection in their packets along the ledge near the roof. The damp gummed them all together and my mother threw them out.

Pinned to the wall is a map of the East Riding from Flamborough to Spurn, Bridlington to Barnsley, and photographs of singers and pop groups. The large one is The Animals, and although the others are too small to make out, I think The Hollies and The Searchers are among them.  Beneath them, on the ledge above the white ‘meat safe’ cupboard, my half-sized cricket bat lies next to a wooden block drilled with holes to hold pens and pencils.

You can see my ‘new’ bicycle with its straight handlebars, white mudguards and three speed Sturmey Archer gears, and the Philips EL 3541 reel-to-reel tape recorder used to record pop-music from the radio, and to boost my homework grades by recording the series of science programmes we listened to at school.

Chalked around the half-sized dartboard are the words “TRY TO HIT THE BOARD NOT THE WALL”. Impressively, there seem to be no tell-tale dart holes in the woodwork, even on my high resolution image. However, I hope I moved the tape recorder and bare-bulbed table lamp out of harm’s way before throwing any darts. I especially hope I remembered to protect the bottle in the corner just behind the watering can, because this is the hexagonal emerald-green bottle of hydrochloric acid, still three quarters full, mentioned in a previous post.

One can only be appalled by the electrical wiring. It’s a wonder I didn’t electrocute myself or burn the place down. The power supply enters the shed through a hole in the wall above the stepladder – you can just make it out running along the wall outside from the house, above the coal house door in the first picture. At the same end of the shed, a very old fashioned electric fire stands on a couple of wooden blocks nailed to the ledge, its mains cable hanging by a hook. The supply to the tape recorder and table lamp at the other end runs along the roof. There seem to be rather a lot of joins wound round with insulating tape, or perhaps, horrifyingly, sellotape. However, the twisted pair cable along the rear wall, running through a home-made switch box, is merely the lead to the extension loudspeaker fixed above the electric fire – the very same speaker on which my dad listened to Hancock’s Half Hour in the front room in the nineteen fifties.

One warm summer afternoon, the shed door wide open and the extension speaker full on, I switched on the tape recorder, plugged in the microphone, and began to broadcast my own music programme complete with jokes and witty repartee. The Animals, Searchers and Hollies could clearly be heard a dozen or so houses in all directions, up and down the street, across the road, and at the back. Between records came the jokes. “Did you hear about the constipated mathematician?” I was heard to ask, and before my mother could come running out of the house to put a stop to it I provided the answer. “He worked it out with a pencil.” Outrageous in the polite company of the early nineteen-sixties.



* One could write a whole piece about cigarette advertising. One amusing fact is that Marlboro cigarettes were originally marketed for women with slogans such as “Red beauty tips to match your lips and fingertips”, but Philip Morris gave the brand a sex change in 1954 when they began to advertise it as a filter cigarette for men, and introduced the ‘Marlboro Man’ who exuded masculine virility.
 

Monday, 20 August 2018

Review - Adam Kay: This is Going to Hurt

Adam Kay
This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor (4*)

This book does make you hurt: you hurt laughing out loud at Adam Kay’s observations, you screw your face up and cringe at his descriptions of injuries and objects in patient’s orifices, you cry when things go wrong and you hurt with sheer anger at the politicians and managers of “change” that have brought the British National Health Service to present state. There is little wonder that doctors leave the profession or go abroad because of the demands they face.

You can see why the book is one of the best and fastest selling this year. It is very readable, in daily diary sized sections. I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed. Get the paperback which has additional content over the hardback first edition.

It may be unjust to score it 4* rather than 5* but that’s only because I am unlikely to read it again. I enjoyed it immensely.
 
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, 12 August 2018

Review - Chris Packham: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

Chris Packham
Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: a memoir (4*)

Chris Packham’s book is simultaneously both brilliant and irritating.

Take the poetic brilliance of his imagery: 

… the thrush’s silver-throated voice fell like pocketfuls of marbles down a church staircase … the song smelled of hailstones …

… the bird stands chopping air, fluttering and then rolling down smooth, slipping and then sliding away to ring a curve across the storm until it pitches at its apex and begins to dance with the wind, its plumes constantly shaken, folding and flicking to steer it still and … balance broken it tumbles and steadies with a twist of grey – cloud-licked and clean, now measuring the weight of the sky again.

It could be Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But the book is also irritating. It flutters back and forth through time, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes in the present tense, sometimes in the past, sometimes from his own perspective, sometimes from someone else’s. The descriptions go on much too long, with too much intensity, without letting up, like a fanatic with Asperger syndrome prattling high-speed, non-stop on an obscure topic.

That’s because Chris Packham does have Asperger syndrome.

I first noticed he was strange some years ago when he presented a programme with, as is so often the case, an attractive and much younger female presenter. It is always interesting with two presenters to look at the one not speaking. Whereas most continue to look convivially at the camera, with perhaps an occasional glance at their co-presenter, Chris Packham stared fixedly at his co-host in a creepy, if not unwholesome manner. One wondered what he could be thinking.

The year after that he revealed he had Asperger Syndrome, a disorder characterised by difficulties in social interaction. It entirely explains his awkwardness and his immense knowledge of the natural world.

‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’ gives a vivid impression of growing up with Asperger’s, so much so that you almost experience it for yourself.


The natural detail is phenomenal, the nineteen-sixties and –seventies childhood cultural backdrop faultless. There is cruelty and tragedy – he had to kill a fox he was unable to free from a snare with a blow to the head. There is humour – his mother refused to let him see One Million Years B.C. because the poster featured a scantily-clad Raquel Welch with legs akimbo, yet he was only interested in the dinosaurs, not what was going on between her legs (not until he eventually did get to see the film that is). And there is bullying, of which he himself is the recurring recipient, an unlikeable and solitary child obsessed with falconry, tadpoles, birds’ eggs and all things animal. It makes for intense and painful reading.

We are all on the spectrum somewhere, some of us further than others. Whenever I take a self-test (e.g. https://psychcentral.com/quizzes/autism-test/ ) I always fall well into the “autism or Asperger’s likely” bracket. I wish I’d known about Asperger’s when younger. It might have saved me a lot of pain. But no one had heard of it then. I even did a psychology degree without it being mentioned. I am nowhere near as bad Chris Packham though.

 
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. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Mrs. Quackworth

With the Operatic Society around 1920
Until I was ten or eleven I had to share a bedroom with my younger brother. We were sent to bed at the same time, which meant he got to stay up later than I had at his age and I had to go sooner than I thought I should. Not only that, but bedrooms were bedrooms in those days, and bed meant bed: curtains drawn, lights out, no entertainments, no talking or even books. Beds were for sleeping.

It was not even dark in summer. We could hear Timmy from next door-but-one bumping along the pavement on his trolley, made from a long board and some old pram wheels. We were in bed but he was still playing out at ten o’clock at night. That was really unfair. He was two years younger than me.

Downstairs we could hear the next-door neighbour talking with our parents. She sounded like a duck, as did her name.

“Mrs. Quackworth,” I quacked in my best duck voice. 

“Mrs. Ackworth,” Martin corrected me.

“Mrs. Quackworth.”

“Mrs. Ackworth,” he said more loudly.

“What’s a quack worth?”

“MRS. ACKWORTH” he yelled, lengthening each syllable as he shouted.

“MIIISSIIIS AAAAAACK WORRRRTH.”

Downstairs, the conversation stopped.

“Why is Martin calling me?”

“Shut up and go to sleep,” mother shouted up the stairs.

“That boy’s spoilt!” Mrs. Ackworth said.

*                             *                              *

I don’t know how she put up with us. We would run around, yelling at the tops of our voices:

“WHAT A GOAL!”

“FOUL! SEND HIM OFF!”

“WHOAAAAAAA! YEEEAAAYYY! WHEEEEEE!”

The ball rattled against the fence, thudded into her French windows, bounced across her garden and flattened her plants. We climbed over her rockery and ran across the lawn to retrieve it leaving a trail of dislodged stones and scuff marks.

We had muck-chucking battles with Timmy whose house was the other side of hers, depositing debris and detritus across her path. She rarely complained as she swept it up. One day we used blackberries as ammunition, stolen from the allotments near the railway, too bitter to eat. Most went astray, leaving lasting purple stains on her green shed. Stray brambles grew around her garden for some years afterwards.

I was six when we moved in next door. Mrs. Ackworth seemed ancient, but she would still have been only in her fifties. She had a deep, cultured, musical voice which had for several years gained her leading contralto parts with the local operatic society, although it had since been ruined by smoking – giving a duck sound. In her day, she had sung all around Yorkshire. Newspapers had said she was one of the best contraltos in the county. She listened to classical music on the wireless, talked about opera and the arts, and helped with the local Conservatives. The effect was formidable. She was always “Mrs. Ackworth”, never “Ethel”. People thought her fearsome.

Despite more than a twenty year age difference, she struck up a close friendship with our mother who had the knack of taking people as she found them.

“She only came from a fish and chip shop,” mother told us when we said she frightened us and asked why they were always in and out of each others’ houses, “and it’s lonely in a house on your own.”

Mrs. Ackworth had lived there the thirty years since her marriage, but her husband had died just a few months later leaving her with little means of support. Male admirers quickly gathered to help, admirers of her voice you understand, especially a wealthy property owner, himself married and twenty-eight years her senior, who set her up with a small milliners shop. She had been at school with his eldest daughter. It was said that during the nineteen thirties, when cars were rare, there would be only one in the street, her benefactor’s car, parked late at night outside her house. There were rumours they had toured Europe together. When he died he left her a considerable sum of money but his family somehow managed to deprive her of it.

Mrs. Ackworth used to watch us from the kitchen window as we played in the garden. It felt intrusive, but I know now she was thinking about the children she never had. She was distraught when we moved again after a decade or so, but we kept in touch through the years, through the inevitable succession of marriages, births and deaths. In effect, she became a surrogate grandma.

“You’d better go see Mrs. Ackworth,” my brother and I were told when we were home, and so we did, to sit and be criticised beside her coal fire and look out through her French windows at the rockery, lawn and shed. Later, we took our wives, and then our children. The house still had all the original nineteen-twenties fixtures, with kitchen cupboards and fireplaces with grained paintwork. Her furniture was of the same period too, or older. Her face brightened like the sun on seeing she had visitors.

“Mrs. Quackworth,” the children would say.

“They're spoilt. You’ll turn that girl into a proper trivet.”

The house smelled of cigarettes and boiled rabbit, and she always had a bottle of sherry on the go on the sideboard. Age made her more and more outspoken. We used to say we went to be insulted.

“What colour is that you're wearing? Grey? How drab! And what’s the matter with your hair? Are you going bald?”

“Your father says he’s going to give up smoking. I can’t see why. He’s not a smoker. One or two a day doesn’t count.” She considered herself a proper smoker: one or two packets a day.

One day she found him waiting for his pension in the Post Office. “What are you doing in here taking up a space?” she said to the amusement of the long queue. “Surely you don’t have any need for your pension, not you with all your money.”

She complained he had offered her a lift home “in case I had any heavy bottles to carry” she told us. “Anyone would think I was a drinker.”

She stayed active into her nineties, making the coal fire in the mornings, trudging to the supermarket for shopping and carrying home her heavy bottles. We were beginning to think she would outlive us all. When the time eventually came and her will was found there was a surprise in store. Although it was not worth anything like as much as she might have imagined, and a fifth of what it would fetch today, my brother and I were astonished to discover she had left us the house. For just a few weeks, the open fireplaces, grained paintwork, French windows, green shed, rockery and garden belonged to us. I swear if we had looked carefully enough, we could have found stray brambles still growing in the dark corners.

Some months later, my father bumped into Timmy’s parents shopping in town.

“We see Mrs. Ackworth’s house is sold at last,” they said. “The end of an era! Does anyone know what happened to her money?”

My father struggled to hold his tongue.

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?

Does Dominic Raab look 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. Just perfect for this Hi-de-Hi government.

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