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Sunday, 18 November 2018

Jokers Wild

Jokers Wild 1970

Leeds 1970. Mondays. Back to work. Accountancy 8.45 to 5.30. I’d better get used to it because it could be for the next forty years. One of the older guys could find his own handwriting in ledgers from the nineteen-thirties: like in Cat Steven’s Matthew and Son.

But there was one good thing about Mondays: Jokers Wild. The show had returned for a second series just after we moved into the first of our shared houses in March, 1970. I could be home for 6.15 when it went out on Yorkshire Television.

Jokers Wild was a classic comedy show in which two teams of comedians competed by telling jokes on topics from cards drawn by Barry Cryer. Bonus points could be scored by interrupting a joke part-way through and completing the punchline. It was pretty much the first British example of many similar show formats: the Mock the Week of fifty years ago.

Old copies of that wonderful provincial newspaper The Yorkshire Post, which at parochial odds with almost every other newspaper and magazine in the country, listed Yorkshire Television ahead of the B.B.C., named the regular team captains as Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, with team members Les Dawson and Ray Martine. On the 6th April, 1970, the day my wild joking accountant boss had wished me a happy new fiscal year, they were joined by guests Clive Dunn and Stubby Kaye.

Ray Cameron (father of the present day comedian Michael McIntire), who invented the show, appeared in some episodes. Other regulars and guests read like a who’s-who of British comedy from the last days of music hall to the nineteen-seventies. Many of them smoked cigarettes overtly on-screen. Some are now so gone and forgotten they don’t even have Wikipedia pages.

Jokers Wild Trophy
Barry Cryer with the Jokers Wild Trophy (click to play)
A YouTube clip advertising a DVD of some of the shows has guests Joe Baker and Lance Percival, probably from the 13th or 20th April, 1970. In subsequent weeks the Yorkshire Post lists Jack Douglas, Ray Fell, Ted Rogers, Graham Stark, Kenneth Connor and Arthur Worsley. Other online clips include Michael Aspel, Warren Mitchell, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Sid James. Wikipedia and IMDb also mention that over its five-year, nine-series run, others on the show included Eric Sykes, Jimmy Edwards, Roy Hudd, Alfred Marks, Professor Stanley Unwin, Norman Collier, Bob Monkhouse, Peter Goodwright, Jack Smethurst, Lennie Bennett, David Nixon, Roy Kinnear, John Cleese, Charlie Chester, Freddie Starr, Michael Bentine, Paul Andrews, Lonnie Donegan, Milo O’Shea, Kenneth Earle, Kenny Cantor, Clement Freud, Mike Hope, Albie Keen, Tony Brandon, John Junkin, Mike Burton, Don Maclean, Bobby Pattinson, Tony Stewart, Dick Bentley, Deryck Guyler, Laurence Harvey, Dickie Henderson, Bernard Bresslaw, Rolf Harris, John Pertwee and Fred Emney. As was the spirit of the time, few women appeared on the show, the only ones listed (including hostesses) being Isabella Rye, Diana Dors, Audrey Jeans, ‘the lovely’Aimi MacDonald and June Whitfield. I can remember most on the list, but by no means all. Some were actually singers, actors or presenters rather than comedians.

They told a lot of sexist, racist, men-in-pub, wife and mother-in-law jokes. I remember Tim-Brooke Taylor being allowed almost to complete a joke about a town in Devon before being interrupted and reminded that the subject was supposed to be painting. “Oh,” he said sounding surprised. “I thought you said Paignton.” Ray Martine, a Polari-speaking, camp Jewish comedian with a reputation for witty and effective put-downs, became more and more ill-at-ease and hesitant as the series progressed. He seemed unable to cope with constant teasing and interruptions, especially from Les Dawson. On one program he looked so fed up he launched into a stream of jokes about Barry Cryer’s wife, which was taking things a bit too far. Barry Cryer took it with good grace and said that after the break they would be back with more jokes and a letter from his solicitor. And it was all done without a single swear word.

One might also reflect on prominent comedians of the time who were not on the show: no Morecambe and Wise; no Ronnies; no Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, Dick Emery, Harry Worth, Charlie Drake, Benny Hill or Jimmy Tarbuck; only a minority of Carry-Ons, Pythons, Goodies and Goons; and so many, many others. Perhaps they were too busy, or under exclusive contract to the B.B.C., or maybe it was just not their format.

It was at least a last chance to see some of the older generation: the wartime generation and earlier. Arthur Askey and Fred Emney were over 70 when they appeared, with Ted Ray not much younger. From all of these lists it is astonishing to realise just how many brilliant comedians there have been over the years.

It looks terribly dated now and was probably more scripted than improvised, but it still raises a laugh. The DVDs for Series 1 and 2 are tempting. A positive review of the first appears here.

Jokers Wild Series 1 Jokers Wild Series 2

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Ram

When Paul McCartney’s long playing record Ram came out in 1971, a lot of people hated it. They were especially irritated by the embarrassing sight and sound of Linda McCartney and her wooden, astringent vocals. Why was she on the record anyway: as if it were a primary school music class where everyone has to join in enthusiastically banging tambourines and triangles, even the talentless? She was even accredited fully as co-creator, which no one really believed.

I simply dismissed it. It was not The Beatles. I was fed up with it emanating from Brendan’s room in the shared house. After all, I had more sophisticated tastes. I was a knowledgeable connoisseur of serious music like progressive rock, particularly Jethro Tull who had just released Aqualung. How could the McCartneys’ frivolous and inconsequential warbling possibly compare?

The only legacy, for me, was that even to this day, whenever we drive past a certain cut-price supermarket I sing the following mondegreen:
Lidl Lidl be a gypsy get around
Get your feet up off the ground
Lidl Lidl get around.
I mentioned this recently in commenting on another blog about post-Beatles Paul McCartney. I looked up the lyrics to discover that the actual words are “Live a little” from the track Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey who “had to have a bath or he couldn’t get to sea” – another misheard lyric, it’s “berth”.

One thing led to another and I ended up recently getting the CD as a birthday present (I don’t do streaming). What a revelation! Judging it inferior to Jethro Tull was being Thick as a Brick.

I now think Ram is amongst Paul McCartney’s best and most innovative output: so rich in ideas – melodies, harmonies, arrangements, decorations, quirky bits – almost every part of every track is different. It‘s an amusing, joyful record, a bit late-Beatles, like the brightest parts of Abbey Road and The White Album.

Another reviewer describes it as a “domestic-bliss album”. Despite personal and contractual pains in disentangling himself from the Beatles, Paul was now living a contented and enviable lifestyle, very happy with Linda and children in their rural retreat. You hear it throughout. And Linda’s voice is just about OK too, or at least you get used to it. 

Maybe I liked Ram all along but did not want to admit it.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Review - Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods?

Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (2*)

In 1965, through the Top Deck Shandy promotion mentioned in a previous post, I acquired a book by Frank Edwards called Stranger than Science, originally published in 1959. It was based upon the author’s American radio series which described things beyond our scientific understanding, such as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), the Loch Ness Monster and a man who suddenly disappeared in full view of several witnesses. I’m not ashamed to admit it was a favourite which I enjoyed enormously and devoured uncritically.

I don’t know what became of my copy, but in 1974, Book Club Associates sent me another of the same genre: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken, which was a best seller on first publication in 1968. Although not as satisfying as Edwards’ book, it covers much of the same material and has remained on my bookshelf ever since.

The central proposition is that at one or more points in our pre-history, the earth was visited by aliens with unimaginable powers who influenced early human culture. We may even be descended from them.

I would dearly, dearly like to be able to believe this but, well, let’s not kid ourselves, most of it is complete bollocks. Much of our most popular fiction, such as 2001: a Space Odyssey and Raiders of the Lost Ark, draws upon similar ideas. It might excite your imagination but no one else claims it to be true.

To support his proposition, von Daniken argues that ancient structures such as the Egyptian pyramids demonstrate higher technical skills than were available at the time they were built, and that prehistoric texts such as the bible contain descriptions of aircraft and advanced technology. They could therefore only have been created by extra terrestrials or by lessons learned from them.  

To give just a few examples:

He claims that the Sarcophagus of Palenque in the ancient Mayan Temple of the Inscriptions in Mexico, as drawn above on the dust jacket, shows a spaceman sitting in a rocket;

He contends that the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert are the remains of spaceship landing sites built to alien instructions;

He suggests that the biblical account of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom is actually a description of a nuclear explosion.

He believes that the Tungusta event in Siberia in 1908 was another nuclear explosion.

The book is packed with this sort of stuff. The trouble is that a little googling reveals that most of these things can be accounted for by more plausible, more mundane explanations. For example, evidence strongly suggests that the Tungusta event was actually caused by an asteroid bursting around five miles above the earth’s surface, and there are now more plausible scientific theories of how the pyramids were built.

There are however some things in the book which seem to defy explanation. It seems unbelievable that during the first or second century B.C. the Greeks were able to construct a complex clock-like machine, now known as the Antikythera mechanism, which followed and predicted the movements of the moon and sun through the zodiac over decades. It incorporated 37 bronze gear wheels of a complexity not seen again until the fourteenth century.

Similarly, some of the supposed UFO sightings are a mystery: such as the incident at Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1965 when a considerable number of witnesses – von Daniken states 58 – saw a large, glowing red flying object. Although it has since been suggested that it may have been an in-flight refuelling aircraft and boom, a quick online search reveals later incidents that remain harder to explain.

What I really disliked about the book, though, is that it is appallingly written and organised. Perhaps something has been lost in translation from the original German, but online cross-checking of events and phenomena reveals numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies in details, names and dates, suggesting sloppy scholarship. Chapters supposedly on one topic jump across other topics, times and locations. Descriptions and interpretations are blatantly embellished, one-sided and tendentious with little attempt at balance. Some part of the book are entertaining, but much is tedious. I have marked and supervised several Ph.D. theses in my time, and believe me, von Daniken’s stuff would fail outright.

Why did I keep it so long? I suppose I must have enjoyed it in 1974. Not any longer. It’s going to the charioty shop of the gods. I wish I had re-read Stranger Than Science instead.


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, 28 October 2018

Mists: a tale for Halloween

Vintage Coca Cola drawing Ending a family walk through the sun-dappled woods of the Sussex countryside, we headed to the village shop for an ice cream, a reward for our exertions on the hottest day of the year. My son chose a bottle of Coke, the real thing, cold and misty from the fridge, thirst-quenchingly irresistible. I decided to have one too. 

“Do you know what it is?” He sounded worried. “Are you sure you can handle it? It won’t send you hyper will it?”

I had never seen him look so concerned. You would have thought it was still the original recipe with coca leaves. I felt like a child asking for a glass of absinthe or some other inappropriate, drug-infused concoction.

“How old do you think I am?” was all I could say.

It must have been forty years since I’d last had Coca-Cola. We got through crates of the stuff in the local coffee-bar when “Happy Days” culture ruled the world, even in Yorkshire. We sat there through the autumn and winter months when we should have been working for our ‘O’ levels, making each bottle last an hour in the hope of being allowed to stay without buying another. The owner’s patience extended only so far as the table space.

“We used to drink loads of it,” I remembered.

My son frowned as I finished most of the bottle in one go. The distinctive spicy taste brought back memories of another walk, all those years ago, on Halloween, at the dead of night through the eerie gloom of the cemetery.

Cemetery in mist

Halloween was not for tricks and treats in those days. If noted at all, it was as a rarely-observed remnant of pagan, pre-Christian myths and legends: a night you might just dare mention ghosts and ghouls in jest.

“All Hallows Eve!” someone said in the coffee bar. “You wouldn’t want to walk through the graveyard tonight.” Was it my idea, or Ron’s, or Neville’s? I am no longer sure, but none of us noticed Bill and Frank sniggering at the next table.

The cemetery lay beside the river on a quiet stretch of road out of town. Neville, Ron and I made our way through the deserted winter streets, shoulders hunched, misty breath thickened by cigarette smoke, eyes firmly ahead, not seeing Bill and Frank surreptitiously following behind and then turning off.

The iron gate opened with a heavy groan. We hesitated, then stepped into the blackness. Icy moisture dripped from trees. Footsteps echoed through the chapel arch. There were vague silhouettes, high gravestones, angels whispering omens of destiny, bent and broken wings, limbs writhing and twisting, stiff from decades of decay, grasping for us, reaching for our ankles, dragging us to their cold graves.

The fog thickened as we neared the end of the cemetery. River mist. On top of the bank was a muddy track back to town. As we climbed, two floating spectral figures emerged above us and a chill voice spoke out in incantation.

“Be ye ready. For in such hour as ye think not the reaper cometh.”

Neville froze like a gravestone effigy. I screamed in terror. Ron turned and fell down the bank. Bill and Frank, unable to keep up the pretence, broke down laughing, almost falling after Ron, their prize for shivering in the bushes. 

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” my son said. I did warn you. It’s got caffeine and sugar. You could have a heart attack at your age.”

I looked at the empty bottle in my hands. It was plastic, thin, insubstantial, not thick and heavy like they used to be. The surface cleared as it warmed, and the mist evaporated like the mists of time.


The vintage drawing of a Coca Cola bottle and the cemetery photograph are understood to be in the public domain.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Review - Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice


Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice (3*)

Continuing my interest in campus novels, A Very Peculiar Practice was originally a 1986 BBC television comedy series set in the health centre of a fictitious low-ranking university somewhere in central England. It was written by the prominent television writer Andrew Davies, and starred Peter Davison in the leading role as newly appointed young doctor Stephen Daker. I didn’t watch it at the time, but this book is the ‘novelisation’ of the seven-part series, with each chapter corresponding to an episode.

Everything takes place to the background of short-sighted opportunism I recognise from my own university experiences: funding cuts; redundancies; bullying, the introduction of managerialism and business practices; the push for external funding while short changing the students. In other words, changing the nature of universities from being trusted guardians, creators and communicators of knowledge who provide a public service into dubious commercial outfits who rip-off customers and employees alike in order to maximise profits. If it was not for the values and ethos of the staff these things would have gone much further than they already have. 

The book is very much of its time, with nineteen-eighties sexist humour, predictable sitcom plots and stereotypical characters. The head of the practice is a going-to-seed drunken Scot. Another colleague is a self-seeking ruthless advantage seeker. A third is a bisexual feminist sexpot who sees everything from the women’s point of view. We also come across the high-achieving workaholic professor, the scheming vice chancellor and the impossibly perfect girlfriend. The central character feels completely out of his depth, but turns out of course to be far more up to the challenge than his lack of self-belief leads him to expect. Also, in a surrealist twist, there is a creative writer in residence who in discussing and thinking about his writing is actually discussing and thinking about the plot and characters of A Very Peculiar Practice.

But if you can put up with all of this, then it’s an extremely funny book.


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, 9 October 2018

Stair Rail

Soon after moving to our current home more than a quarter of a century ago, I fitted a handrail to help my ageing father and mother-in-law get up and down stairs. They hauled themselves up, breathless, unbending backs and aching knees, and eased themselves down, woodwork and bone groaning as one.

I remember bringing it home on top of the car, which was a bit risky because at 14 feet long (4.25 metres) it stuck out both front and back. It’s a pig’s ear handrail – a reference to the cross-sectional shape, not the quality of fitting.

Sadly, my father and mother-in-law no longer need it. I fitted it for them. Even in my darkest moments, I never thought it would be for me.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny
Haeckel’s 1874 drawing of stages of development in the embryos of
fish, salamander, turtle, chick, pig, calf, rabbit and human.

Professor Clarke stood at the blackboard with assured elegance. It was not just the beauty of his layout and lettering, it was the poise of his whole demeanor. Arm outstretched, extending exactly the right proportions of wrist and cuff beyond suit sleeve, he grasped the chalk delicately between thumb and forefinger, and with an economy of effort, calmly progressed through his lecture. What a privilege to be in the presence of such a highly esteemed international reputation.

He was talking about pre-natal and neo-natal human development: physical and mental growth before and around birth. He concluded with a short quotation. None of us quite caught it. He said something like: “Antigen capital file genre.”

In those days students weren’t given all the slides and notes on the internet to learn and parrot back in examinations. We used to read around lectures. We went to the library and made notes from text books and academic journals. We even owned quite a lot of expensive text books ourselves. So before long I worked out that what he had actually said was: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Furthermore, I understood what it meant: a chunk of lecture succinctly summarised in three words.

The point is, as became clear when we later learned about how we acquire the power of speech and language, if we don’t understand something, if we cannot make sense of how the words fit together, we find it difficult to say. Think of the novelty song Mairzy dotes and dozy dotes and liddle lamzy divey.

Twenty years later the children were laughing.

“I bet you can’t say “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppercorns,” said my wife, and recited the full verse, faultlessly. She followed it with “She sells sea shells …” as an encore.

“The British soldiers’ shoulders,” I added, not to be outdone. “The Leith police dismisseth us,” and then out of nowhere, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

Within a few days my eight year old son had got it. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” he would tell anyone who would listen. At school, he was in Mr. Price’s class.

“Hello Mr. Price,” he said. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

“Aunty Jenny was late for what?” queried Mr. Price.

“It means when a baby grows in its mummy’s tummy, it starts off like a little tadpole, and then looks like a little frog, and then like a little bird, and then a little horse, and then a little monkey, and then a little baby.”

That guy recently passed all his law exams.

What a pity that Meckel and Serres’ theory of embryological parallelism, perfectly encapsulated in Ernst Haeckel’s catchy phrase, illustrated by his somewhat dishonest drawing and so urbanely recapitulated by Professor Clarke, has been discredited as biological mythology.


Haeckel's 1874 illustration of embryos is out of copyright.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Review - Two Early Campus Novels

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People Is Wrong

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954) (4*)
Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People is Wrong (1959) (2*)

I used to enjoy campus novels – stories about university life – immensely.

As a mature student, I soaked up the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man with Anthony Sher as Howard Kirk, gripped by the unconstrained, free-thinking lifestyle it portrays, and wanted it for myself. Not until I read the actual novel many years later did I realise what an objectionably selfish snake the anti-hero is.

Later, having somehow pulled-off the unlikely trick of getting a job in a university, I was greatly entertained by David Lodge’s campus trilogy, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, written in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties. There was a lot in the wranglings between staff, pointless activities and scrabbling for advancement that rang true, as did the chaos lower down the academic hierarchy depicted in Tom Sharpe’s Wilt which I experienced first-hand on moving to a Polytechnic.

In recent weeks I have been catching up on two early campus novels from the nineteen-fifties: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong. Both books are very much of the nineteen-fifties in the social attitudes they portray. I guess they helped frame the way we thought of provincial universities during the nineteen-sixties when I was at school, unsuccessfully applying through UCCA.

Lucky Jim (1954) was for me the most enjoyable of the two. It ages well and is often hilarious. As David Lodge points out in the introduction, the humour comes not only from Amis’s wonderful comic timing in the handling of situations, but also from his original, educated but classless writing style, which often makes use of original twists to everyday turns of phrase:
To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act…
He’d found his professor standing, surprisingly enough, in front of the Recent Additions shelf in the College Library…
Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way.
I found myself sympathising with the predicament of misfit young lecturer Jim Dixon, and felt very satisfied at the end when he walks off with the girl and everything else. However, many of the comic situations, for example when Dixon accidentally burns holes in his Head of Department’s bedsheets whilst staying at his house, and his subsequent attempts to conceal the damage, could be in any comic novel rather than one specifically set in a university. It could be from a Brian Rix Whitehall farce. I might well look out for more by Kingsley Amis.

Eating People is Wrong (1959) I found less than satisfactory. It concerns the prematurely old-fashioned Professor Treece and his difficulties in making sense of the changing post-war world of the nineteen-fifties. There are too many characters, none very likeable, most under-developed, too many switches of viewpoint from the thoughts, opinions and dilemmas of one to those of another and then to those of the author, and a tendency to tell rather than show – all the things that writing experts say you should avoid, but who are they to find fault with the acclaimed founder of the famous MA in Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia? It is no real defence that these things appear to be conscious and deliberate.

I suppose the novel resembles university life where people fall into and out of each others’ lives without reaching any kind of resolution, to an incessant background buzz of brilliant yet pointless wordplay. Much of the dialogue would not be out of place in an Alan Ayckbourne play. Perhaps it tries too ostentatiously to be clever by trying to generate too many epigrammatic quotations, and twists and turns to accepted clichés:
With sociology one can do anything and call it work.
... it had always seemed to Louis that a fundamental desire to take postal courses was being sublimated by other people into sexual activity;
… if you are interested in [old] houses, you know what the world is like and it is not like you.
… soon it won’t be necessary to go to America. It will all be here.
After nearly two hundred pages of nothing much happening, a subversive writer called Carey Willoughby arrives to give a talk and declares: “With my sort of book theres no resolution, because theres no solution. The problems aren’t answered in the end because there is no answer. They’re problems that are handed on to the reader …

Was Bradbury referring to himself?

Having grasped all of this, scoring it two stars is mean. I’m sure I would get more out of it on slow second reading, but life’s too short.


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, 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 rattled like a rusty moped, smoked like a dirty dredger and smelt like a Swinefleet dung heap. 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