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Friday, 9 August 2019

From Ferrybridge to Finland

Demolition of Ferrybridge Tower 6 (click to play video)
Demolition of Ferrybridge Tower 6 (click to play video)

Those huge cloud factories, the eight enormous cooling towers of Ferrybridge C Power Station, have stood beside the A1 in Yorkshire for over fifty years (the power station itself has existed one form or another for over ninety), but not for much longer. One tower was demolished on July 28th, four more will go in October and all will be gone by 2021.  The site has become a multifuel power generating plant burning waste and biomass, and using all the steam it generates.

Perhaps it’s for the best. In its heyday, Ferrybridge was one of the worst contributors to Scandinavian acid rain, which in 1993 memorably led the Norwegian environment minister Thorbjoern Berntsen to call his British counterpart, John Selwyn Gummer, the biggest “dritsekk” he had met in his life. Even so, I will miss its majestic scale.

I’ve contemplated the towers from miles away: from the top of the Wolds at South Cave near Beverley, from the top of the Pennines at High Flats near Huddersfield and from vantage points in the low lying Humberhead Levels. They have presided over my journeys to and from Leeds by train, bus and car after I left school, and welcomed me back to my part of Yorkshire when I’ve lived away. I have seen them from the air when flying from Scotland where I once lived to give a talk at a London conference, and from a flight to Helsinki. That’s my best memory.

It was in December, 1991, when I was with a Nottingham software company. I set off for the airport at Birmingham in the dark, in fog so thick I had to drive at walking pace with the window open just to be able to make out the white line in the middle of the road. The motorway wasn’t much better but I got there just in time, still in a gloomy blanket of fog.

I had a window seat but it was some time before things on the ground started to become visible. I could see what seemed to be moorland and dry stone walls, probably Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. Then suddenly we were out of it and over three enormous power stations in a straight line, and an island in a river with a familiar hook-shaped bend: unmistakeably Ferrybridge, Eggborough, Drax and the town of Goole laid out like a street plan. And there: a certain crossroads I knew so well. I was looking down on my dad’s house. He would be in his kitchen getting breakfast, absolutely oblivious to me peering down from an aeroplane two or three miles above.

Then, in next to no time we were over the Humber and flying past Hull with Hornsea Mere and the Yorkshire coast curving North to Flamborough just like on the map, and out over the North Sea to Copenhagen, and I realised I’d missed my complimentary whisky.

Oh my, Helsinki is cold in December. They have to run their car engines at least ten minutes with the heat full up the windscreen and lots of vigorous scraping before they can set off. I walked to the clients from the dingy hotel in the snow trying consciously not to breath in too much of the cold. Everyone had thick woolly mitts, hats and scarves in the brightest colours.

Back at the hotel there was evening entertainment from a lookalike John Shuttleworth keyboard and drums combo which I tried to ignore as I ate my tea. A forty-something woman asked me to dance. She said it was bad manners in Finland to refuse a woman who asks a man to dance. I said I was working and she said so was she. I made my excuses and left. I went to my room and locked the door. In the early hours I was awoken by a fight outside in the corridor. Dritsekks! Paska potkuts!

If you have to go to Helsinki, don’t go in December.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Petrol Rationing

Could a no-deal Brexit lead to fuel rationing? There’s not much talk of it as yet but the Government would be negligent not to have plans in place.

In a recent post about petrol cans, I mentioned the 1973-74 oil crisis when rationing came close. Revisiting it again in archive newspapers reminded me what a comical tale of widespread selfishness and bureaucratic ineptitude it was. An indication of things to come, perhaps (~1400 words).

Here are some of the pages from my 1973 motor fuel ration book. Page 2 tells you to keep it safe. As you can see, I did.


According to most accounts now, the problems began in October 1973 when Arab oil exporters embargoed countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. But you could see it coming months before then. The Government denied any possibility of a crisis as early as July: a sure sign one was on the way.

In early August, they sent out ration books to Post Offices. They said it was “only a precaution”, and even at the end of October, Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Walker was still assuring us there was no need for concern. We had stocks for another 79 days, with 30 more on the way in tankers on the ocean. By then, no one believed it and there was an outbreak of ‘fill-up fever’. We began to keep our tanks full to the brim, with extra in cans for emergencies. This made things worse. Petrol stations began to limit how much you could buy so as not to run out.

Peter Walker lays down the law
Come mid-November, Peter Walker was wagging his finger saying we had to conserve fuel by driving at no more than 50 m.p.h. and staying home on Sundays. Supplies to retailers were cut by 10% and the sale of petrol in cans was banned. But it was hard to keep to a dutiful 50 while bastards in Jags were whizzing past at 80, and we just filled our cans by surreptitiously siphoning from our vehicle tanks in private.

It was, in any case, illegal to store more than four gallons at home. Even then it had to be in the correct containers (such as my Paddy Hopkirk can pictured in the earlier post). Some thought they could ignore these rules. In Banbury, a taxi driver was fined £150 for storing 30 gallons in five-gallon drums in a garage, in Hinckley another man was fined £50 for having 90 gallons in a shed, and in Coventry an engineering rep. who drove 32,000 miles a year was fined £110 for hoarding 148 gallons. They must have spent hours siphoning it through rubber tubing. Some were even found to be storing petrol in cellars and attics, which, fire chiefs correctly warned, was extremely dangerous and could be ignited by a single spark. Simply switching on a light could result in a massive explosion.

On Monday 26th November, the Government announced that petrol coupons would be distributed to motorists from Thursday of that week, again, of course, “only as a precaution”. Coupons were to be issued at Post Offices on different days according to the initial letter of your surname, beginning with A and B on Thursday 29th November.

Postmasters complained. It was one of their busiest days of the year when pensioners collected their Christmas bonuses. Queues spilled out into the streets, swelled by motorists trying to renew their tax discs before the end of the month as they were needed to claim coupons and those that expired on the 30th November would not be accepted after that date despite normally being allowed fourteen days’ grace.

Coupons were then available progressively until names beginning W-Z collected them on the 12th December. Businesses then followed a similar rota. It does not seem to have been made clear what happened if you went late or on a wrong day; I suspect you got your coupons anyway. There were warnings from Scottish postmasters of potential chaos on ‘M’ day, December 6th, because nearly everyone’s name there began with M or Mc. Extra ‘M’ days were allocated in Lewis, Harris, Barra, and North and South Uist.

The coupons were actually left over from the 1967 Arab-Israeli War when they had been printed “as a precaution” but not needed, which was just as well because that war had taken place in June and the coupons were still being printed in December. At least it meant they were ready in good time for 1973.

To claim your coupons, you had to show your vehicle log book and current road tax disc. Motorists in Sheffield were among the first to be booked by traffic wardens for not displaying a tax disc while collecting their coupons. 

Your log book was stamped to show your coupons had been issued. It was said some people were getting extra coupons illicitly by claiming to have lost their logbooks and obtaining replacements. It was left to motorists to enter the vehicle registration number on the front of the ration book. Books were therefore not necessarily tied to the vehicle for which they were issued, leading to fears of a black market.

Ration books contained six month’s worth of coupons. Everyone got a basic allowance depending on the size of their engine, so my 848cc Morris Mini (the blue one in the blog banner) fell into the ‘not exceeding 1100cc’ category, allowed four N units and two L units per month. The bigger the engine the more you got, the other categories being 1101-1500cc (they got 6N+2L or 4N+2L on alternate months), 1501-2200cc (7N+3L per month) and 2201cc plus (7N+4L or 7N+3L)*. Motor cycles got less, and buses and lorries more. Essential vehicles and drivers with special priority (doctors, nurses, vets, ministers of religion, welfare workers and some disabled people) could claim extra, and you could apply for a supplementary allowance in cases of severe domestic hardship (e.g. for getting to and from work where there was no public transport).

This all sounds very carefully thought out and precise, except that some Post Offices ran out of some categories of ration books and the Government would not say how many gallons each N and L unit might allow you to buy before rationing actually came in. You could make a guess based on the 1956-57 Suez crisis when motorists had a basic allowance for around 200 miles per month, but by 1973 the number of private cars on the road had more than tripled to 13.5 million so it could have been less.

Linwood 1970s Locking Petrol Cap
While all this was going on, the miners and electricity workers had begun an overtime ban and the miners then went on strike for a 16.5% pay rise. Prime Minister Edward Heath announced a State of Emergency and the 50 m.p.h. speed limit was made compulsory from the 8th December, with motorists fined for exceeding it. Reduced street lighting brought an increase in petrol theft by siphoning, so we all had to buy locking petrol caps (they were not standard fittings then). Mine is still in a cupboard in the garage. Television broadcasts went off at 10.30 p.m. and the use of electricity for floodlighting and advertising was banned. We were urged to switch off lights and turn down the heating at home, and papers subsequently released under the 30-year rule reveal that the Government even considered making it illegal to heat more than one room. They would have needed officious A.R.P.-like wardens knocking on doors to check your room temperatures. Power cut rotas were drawn up as in the miners’ strike two years earlier and published in regional newspapers, but never implemented. However, from the 1st January 1974, most businesses were only allowed to use electricity on three days per week. It lasted until the 7th March.

I suffered no great hardship myself. At the time I was a mature student for a few futile months at Teacher Training College. I drove in and out of college each day, and further afield on teaching practice, days out walking in the dales and home to my parents at weekends, and was never short of petrol. Rationing was never implemented and my spare can remained full for at least a couple of years. It turned out to be a good investment because four-star doubled in price to around 75p per gallon (16½p per litre) between 1973 and 1975. 

In the end, it was indeed only a precaution, but there was real irony to the 1973 Christmas Number One: So here it is Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun.


* I think these coupon quantities are correct.


Sunday, 28 July 2019

Playing With Dictionaries


A recent post on Elizabeth Slaughter’s blog Saved By Words reminded me how in the days before teenagers spent most of their time watching Love Island and YouTube videos we played with dictionaries. We used to thumb through looking for rude and amusing words.

It got off to a good start at Junior School where I swear we had a dictionary containing “trump: a small explosion between the legs”. I’m afraid I have been unable to find any confirmatory evidence of it.

Others we later became fans of include:

         cunette: a trench at the bottom of a ditch
         fustigate: to beat with a stick
         fustilug: a fat and untidy person
         steatopygia: excessive fatness of the buttocks

Oh how witty to call someone a fustilug with steatopygia or to threaten to fustigate them. Never would it have occurred to Oscar Wilde himself to refer to someone as a stupid cunette.

Or were we just being sanguinarily crepuscular?

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Where were you?

‘Buzz’ Aldrin, Apollo 11 (Wikimedia commons)
Sunday, 20th July 1969

To add to all the other bloggers today, I had just hitch-hiked back from Hornsea.

I had been at work almost a year but most of my friends were still in education, either at university or waiting for ‘A’ level results hoping to go. I envied them. One was spending summer at his family’s caravan in Hornsea (see Hornsea Pottery), so on Saturday seven of us set off on scooters to look for him.

We found him where we knew we would, in the Marine Hotel. Later we sat around talking with some lads from Liverpool until two in the morning. On Sunday we got up early and built a driftwood fire on the beach. Most of the others then went off to Bridlington but I had to go to work on Monday, so hitch-hiked back on my own. If the ride there on the back of a scooter had been uncomfortable, part of the ride back at high speed on the pillion of a motorbike was terrifying (no compulsory crash helmets in those days). I also remember walking between lifts through the snobby and exclusive village of Walkington shortly before a police car drew up to investigate reports of a vagrant in the village.

I then saw the BBC coverage of the landing which consisted of little more than James Burke and the ever-excitable Patrick Moore talking over the audio feed from mission control. I did not stay up into the small hours to see the moon walk because I had to be up for the early train to Leeds. In the morning there was just time to see a few images of Armstrong and Aldrin “jumping around on the moon” as my mother put it, before I had to leave. On Monday I was not back to my digs from work in time for blast off so only saw it later on the news. None of the images were very clear anyway, except in the imagination. 

As for other “Where were you?” questions my answers are: (i) watching Take Your Pick on Friday, 22nd November 1963, when a news flash caused me to rush to the kitchen to tell Mum; (ii) walking from Manchester Victoria to U.M.I.S.T. on the morning of Tuesday, 9th December 1980, when I saw a newsstand headline; and (iii) checking the Teletext news headlines on the morning of Sunday, 31st August 1997, when I rushed downstairs to tell my wife and son. Not that I cared much about that last one. Should I remember any others? 

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Moo

Yesterday, windows open in the warm weather, I heard what I took to be the long plaintive moo of a cow on a nearby farm, but it was only the sound of machinery, perhaps a builder’s circular saw cutting wood. There were farms in the village when we moved here twenty-five years ago but they are long-gone for housing, and I haven’t seen animals in the nearby fields for some time now.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Angry Young Men

Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning John Braine: Roome At The Top

Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (4*)
John Braine: Room at the Top (4*)

Two more nineteen-fifties, angry-young-man novels: tales of northern working-class life set just after the war before the sixties and seventies provided an escape route from lives which would otherwise have been as predetermined as those of our parents. Thank goodness I was not born ten years earlier. I would never have had a chance, let alone a fourth chance after blowing the first three.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning begins with a nauseating scene of drunkenness and extra-marital sex. Arthur Seaton is a lathe operator doing piecework in a Nottingham bicycle factory. He earns good enough money to spend on nice suits and as much as he can drink at weekends. He can certainly drink a lot: eleven pints and seven gins to start, and then fall down a flight of stairs, wake up and drink a lot more and still have enough left to go to bed with a married woman while her husband is away.

In contrast, Joe Lampton in Room at the Top seems more civilised. He moves from the ugly industrial town of Dufton to the pleasant manufacturing town of Warley, both in Yorkshire, to take up a post in the municipal accountant’s department. From his thoughts you know he later becomes a wealthy man and that this is the story of how he got there.

While Arthur is uneducated and lives in the large extended family where he was born, Joe has accountancy qualifications and is making his way alone in a new town. What they have in common is that both are good-looking and clever, and both are trapped. Arthur is set to spend the rest of his life tied to a lathe and Joe will remain a local-government functionary, perhaps a gentler existence but hardly any better-off. White- or blue-collar the same: you slaved for small reward. Both resent it but respond in different ways.

At first, you want Joe to do well. It’s hard living in lodgings where you know no one, I’ve done it. But soon you begin to see into Joe’s vain and selfish mind and don’t much like what you find. He judges people, especially women, on a social scale from 1 to 10 and is determined to shag himself to the top. He starts at the town’s amateur dramatic society where he takes up with a worldly married woman, ten years his elder, for whom he develops some feeling, and also with the innocent high-class daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the town, who he doesn’t really love:
I was the devil of a fellow, I was the lover of a married woman, I was taking out the daughter of one of the richest men in Warley, there wasn’t a damn thing I couldn’t do.
Joe’s story leads to tragedy after he gets the wealthy daughter pregnant so he can marry upwards and join her father’s business, and then ditches his married lover who dies in a suicidal drunken car crash. Joe knows he is responsible, leaving an enduring sense of guilt, but it makes him no more likeable.

With Arthur, it’s the other way round. You think he’s disgusting at first but gradually come to understand and even have time for him. He is a rebel fighting against social norms:
I'm me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that's what I'm not, because they don't know a bloody thing about me.
Eventually, he is badly beaten by one of the husbands he has been cuckolding and confined to bed for a week. Recovering during a lively, crowded family Christmas, he comes to realise that even a rebel can be happy “where there’s life and there’s people”. At the end of the novel he is courting a single girl and planning to marry, but is never going to knuckle down completely:
And trouble for me it’ll be, fighting every day until I die… with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government… dragged up through the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, and the sirens rattling into you every night while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter. Slung into khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at the weekend and getting to know whose husbands are on the night shift, working with rotten guts and an aching spine… well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken.
Truly an angry young man.

Two and three decades later, I knew the settings of these books. Warley is perhaps Bradford or Bingley where Braine grew up and became a librarian. Life chances had increased for the young by the time I was travelling the mills and factories as an auditor, but I came across hundreds of all ages still stuck in the same old class-bound tram tracks. Things did change. We know now that a real Joe Lampton in a town hall would probably have become moderately successful through local-government expansion. But the one that stepped up through marriage would have had to be pretty smart when his business inevitably went bust.

Later, I lived in Nottingham for five years and remember the local dialect so brilliantly captured in Sillitoe’s novel (shopkeepers used to ask: “D’yer want enythink else duck?”). I went to Goose Fair and drank in The Trip to Jerusalem, and walked the country paths around Wollaton and Strelley where Arthur takes women and goes fishing (the locations are described by The Sillitoe Trail web site).

‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is the only truly working-class story of the four so-called angry-young-man novels I’ve written about (the other two being university lecturer Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim and draughtsman/shop manager Vic Brown in A Kind of Loving; and should I include Billy Liar as well?). A real Arthur Seaton would have faced the hardship of redundancy and the dole when the factories closed. Had I come across anyone like him or his hard-drinking, hard-knuckled family, I wouldn’t have dared go near them. I guess that’s because I did indeed escape and now my family mock when I claim to be working class.


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.  

Previous book reviews 

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Mrs Quackworth (reposted by Smorgasbord Blog Magazine)

Sally Cronin’s fourth and final selection from my archives for her Smorgasbord Blog Magazine is a post from a year ago about a next-door neighbour we nicknamed Mrs. Quackworth. I dont know how she ever put up with our muck-chucking fights across her garden.

It has been interesting to see which items Sally would select, it being hard to know for sure which posts others particularly like. Had I been asked to select four myself they might have been completely different. Thanks, Sally, for the many hours you must have spent looking back through our archives - not just mine but all the others too.

The Smorgasbord repost invitation is here

The reposted post is here

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.

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 ...
 
Read original post (~1200 words)

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

250 Words A Minute

Funny what you find to read in holiday cottages.

This year among the usual Readers’ Digests and paperback novels in a well-stocked bookcase we found a history of hymns which gave us an uplifting Sunday morning sing-song, and Teach Yourself Pitmans Shorthand.

No doubt, many will remember using shorthand, but it has long been a mystery to me. In my early working days, bosses dictated letters and reports to secretaries for typing. Secretaries kept up with what was said, no matter how quickly, by writing in shorthand. Journalists also used it to record verbatim court proceedings and interviews. To me, it looked like impenetrable lines of squiggles. It might as well have been in Persian or Arabic.

Not being sufficiently important to dictate to a secretary, I usually had to draft things for typing in ordinary longhand. By the time I’d climbed up the hierarchy we had computers so I had to type content myself. Shorthand remained a dark art. 

In the holiday cottage, I left the book out on the breakfast table with a notepad to practice. Obviously, no one is going to learn shorthand in a week but at least I might gain some understanding of how it works.

Pitmans shorthand (there are other forms) uses a system of heavy and light, straight and curved strokes, together with dots, dashes, hooks, loops and circles to represent the sounds of the English language.

Here are some exceedingly basic examples:

  • The ‘p’ sound is represented by a lightly written \ and the similar sounding but voiced ‘b’ by a heavier \
  • Similarly, ‘t’ and ‘d’ are represented by a light and heavy | and |
  • ‘ch’ and ‘j’ are represented by a light and heavy / and /
  • Consonants at the start of words are written above the line and those at the end below.
  • Vowels are represented by strokes placed before or after a consonant, such as light and heavy – and to represent short ‘o’ or long ‘oa’ sounds (i.e. the sounds not the spelling so 'note' and 'boat' are the same).
  • ‘s’ is represented by a small loop on either the top or bottom of the consonant depending on whether it occurs before or after.

It gets much more complicated with marks for other vowels and consonants, for common prefixes and suffixes, and various simplifications, but just with the above you can write:


Even from these simple examples, it is easy to see how shorthand can be written more quickly than longhand. The preface to the book says:
The compilers wish to place on record their acknowledgement of the help rendered in the preparation of this volume by Miss Emily D. Smith, only Holder of the National Union of Teachers’ Certificate for shorthand speed writing at 250 words a minute.
She achieved this on the 22nd March 1934 during a five-minute test using a passage of 1,250 words. Two hundred and fifty words a minute for five minutes! That’s more than four a second. How can anyone speak that fast to dictate them? She must have spent all her time practising. Perhaps that’s why she was only ‘Miss’ Emily D. Smith.

But no, that completely unacceptable feline and sexist remark is wrong. She married Thomas Law in Croydon in 1935 and moved to Glasgow and later to Birmingham. I found these:


What an amazing skill! Especially when combined with high-speed typing. It was clearly equal to skills needed in many higher paid men’s jobs, say, in manufacturing and transport. Yet they were “only” shorthand-typists and paid as such.

Actually, I did once dictate a letter. I remember one phrase exactly. I said, “For the sake of clarity, we set out the details in the table below.” It came out as “For the sake of charity, …” and would have gone off like that to the Inspector of Taxes had a partner not spotted it. I got rollocked for not checking it more carefully.

Since returning from holiday I have been playing with this shorthand transcription resource and can therefore sign my name as:


I can just about see how it works, e.g. the initial ‘T’ and ‘D’, although these are more complex two-syllable words. And no, I didn’t pinch the book from the cottage. I put it back in the bookcase. I got to the end of Lesson 1.

What did you do on your holiday?

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Research Before The Internet (reposted by Smorgasbord Blog Magazine)

Sally Cronin’s third selection from my archives for her Smorgasbord Blog Magazine is my review of Antonia Byatt's novel Possession along with an account of how it brings back to life what it used to feel like carrying out university research before the days of abundant electronic resources and the internet. 

The Smorgasbord repost invitation is here

The reposted post is here

Research Before The Internet (as evoked by A. S. Byatt - Possession: a Romance)


The plot concerns two modern day scholars researching the lives of two fictional Victorian poets, and it’s a lot more exciting than that makes it sound - a cracking mystery story in fact.

For anyone whose university days predated the turn of the century, when we had to go to libraries to look things up in books and journals, or even use primary sources, perhaps researching a thesis, dissertation or final-year project, Possession brings it all back. You feel as if you are researching the Victorian poets yourself.

Read original post (~800 words)

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Review - Stan Barstow: A Kind of Loving

Stan Barstow
A Kind of Loving (4*)

Continuing to catch up on books I wish I’d read at twenty, A Kind of Loving captures the young northern working-class generation around ten or fifteen years older than me, aged twenty in the late nineteen-fifties. I think of my uncle getting washed at my grandma’s kitchen sink (the only water in the house), putting on a clean shirt and brushing back his thick dark hair, all spruced up, ready to catch the bus for a Saturday night out on the town in Goole.

"I hope you’re not running after women,” my dad once teased him. “I don’t have to,” he answered back, “they run after me.”

Vic Brown is twenty and a bright lad. He is a draughtsman with a local engineering firm in a Yorkshire mining town. He also works on Saturdays in a record and electrical shop just as the consumer boom is taking off, and subsequently, with the promise of a partnership, moves there full-time. He goes to dance halls, pubs and cinemas. He takes pride in his appearance, wearing sharp suits and ties and visiting the barbers every two weeks: virtues that were scoffed at just a few years later.

Vic desperately fancies Ingrid Rothwell, a classy typist with the same firm, and gets off with her, except things are not right. He is grammar-school working-class with sophisticated tastes. She is not as well educated but lower-middle-class with popular tastes. She irritates him with her lowbrow gossip. When Ingrid becomes pregnant they have to get married. They go to live with Ingrid’s dragon-mother who constantly criticises Vic. The story accelerates to a soap-opera-ish conclusion involving a miscarriage and an almighty row after which Vic and Ingrid work out a way to move forward together: a kind of loving.

Vic tells his story in a monologue in the present historic tense (e.g. I’m walking down the High Street when I see someone coming towards me) that runs all the way through the book, immersing you in an immediacy and realism that keeps the pages turning. The contextual detail is wonderful. It is also of its time (first published 1960): mildly sexist and even racist, but that is how things were. It put me right back in the West Yorkshire manufacturing firms and other businesses we audited at the end of the sixties, still much the same. One of them was an Ossett engineering company very like the one where the author Stan Barstow worked in the drawing office after leaving school. He was writing about a world he knew and doing it well.


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.  

Previous book reviews 

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Great Yarmouth, June 1960

Early nights, top entertainment and lots of healthy fresh air: that’s what you got with seaside holidays in the nineteen-fifties.

As it’s the holiday season (so I might go quiet for a while), here is a posthumous post from a guest contributor – my dad – written shortly after a week’s holiday exactly fifty-nine years ago in a boarding house at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.

We were taken by car on the Sunday morning (he would have been working on the Saturday) and returned by train the following Saturday. Below, I am t–, my mother is M– and my brother who was then aged 4 is mj.
 
Great Yarmouth circa 1960

Notes On a Seaside Holiday.
YARMOUTH June 19th to June 25th 1960


Sunday: Mr. Mapplebeck of Rawcliffe took us by car. We were away from the front door by 7.55 a.m., a pleasant but fast ride; mj was sick twice on the journey. We were ready for lunch in the digs when the dinner gong went at 1 p.m. Beach in the afternoon, then a walk round a fun fair in the evening. Bed 8 o’clock.

Monday morning; lovely walk and bus to town, sea trip from the River Yare. Beach in the afternoon, show (Charlie Drake) in the evening. Later drink by myself in the pub, reflected on the atmosphere of seaside pubs.

Great Yarmouth: Norwich Belle 1960
mj, dad, M- and t- on board the Norwich Belle at Great Yarmouth.
Date and time on the back: Monday 20th June 1960, 10.15 a.m. 

Tuesday: all down to the station for details of the return journey, followed by lovely Broads cruise to Reedham. Afternoon on beach, evening shopgazing with M– and boys. Reflected we do not often have an opportunity for a family loiter. Returned 8 p.m. continued reading Richard Church’s “Golden Sovereign”, bed 10 p.m.

Wednesday: mj slept while 10 a.m. t– rowing by himself on the boating pool, I enjoying reading the Daily Telegraph, later t–, mj and I sea trip in Filey type cobble. Beach in the afternoon, open air type theatre entertainment in the evening very mediocre, took mj back to digs and he was ready for bed before the finish, all in bed by 10 p.m.

Great Yarmouth boating lake

Thursday: t– on the rowing pool, mj in a pedal car, then all into town for a little present shopping. Once again I thought how privileged we were being able to stroll about together. Beach in the afternoon, in the evening M– took t– to the Charlie Chester show. I strolled mj round the front, he had an ice cream cornet, we walked round the pin table alleys and I considered the tastes of the contemporary world, but then everybody can’t go abroad. Then mj had another ride in a pedal car, mj a little boy of 4 years old going round and round, I’ll keep that memory, they soon grow from one stage to another. The different phases are very short. We went back to the boarding house and I put mj to bed.

Great Yarmouth 1950s tourism video
One of several 1950/60s Yarmouth videos on YouTube - click to play

Friday, we all went for a walk in the morning, children went in the fun fair cars. I was a little apprehensive the cash was getting a bit short by now. Beach in the afternoon, both the boys playing and digging well, I bought a packet of paper flags. In the evening M– took the children for a walk, I gave them 4/6d. to spend while I went to the pictures.

Saturday. The taxi picked us up as arranged, we left Yarmouth at 10.10 a.m. a little disconcerted to find there was no restaurant or buffet car on the train. M– dashed off the train at March station and procured three sandwiches, two small packets of biscuits and a couple of cartons of orange juice for the noble sum of 8/-. Anyhow after that mj fell asleep, we had to awaken him to change trains at Doncaster, we arrived in Goole about 4.45 p.m. and were fortunate in getting a taxi home. Lovely. We had a very good week for weather and the following week it broke, so we were very lucky.

Thursday afternoon July 7th 1960

Norwich Belle, Great Yarmouth, around 1960
The Norwich Belle sailed out of Great Yarmouth until around 1981

The above images are so widespread on the internet one can only assume they are now free of copyright restrictions.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Grandad Dunham’s Flight Simulator (reposted by Smorgasbord Blog Magazine)

Sally Cronin’s second selection from my archives to share in her Smorgasbord Blog Magazine is Grandad Dunham’s Flight Simulator which like the first is from November 2015.

The Smorgasbord repost invitation is here

The reposted post is here

Grandad Dunham's Flight Simulator


Grandad Dunham's Chair - Flight Simulator

Like something from the future, it was the most amazing colour graphics workstation we had ever seen. I had got a job in a university where it was being used to understand complex proteins by constructing and manipulating computer-generated images of the kind of ball and stick molecular models photographed with Watson and Crick in the nineteen-fifties.

It came with a set of demonstration programs, among them a flight simulator called SGI Dogfight, which was well in advance of anything any of us had seen before. You may wish to speculate about the relative amounts of time we spent flying aeroplanes and modelling proteins.

Yet my brother had a flight simulator twenty years earlier in the early nineteen-sixties. How could that be possible?

Read original post (~750 words)

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Rather a studious kind of boy

A few years ago I contributed to a book about the firm where my father used to work. Recounting people and incidents over the phone I was told: “I remember you as being rather a studious kind of boy”.

I suppose that’s right. I was too timid to join football, rugby or cricket teams and rarely participated in any other sports. I read a lot, played and listed to music and spent possibly too much time on my own.

It occurs to me that, as they age, those sporty people who played highly physical team games can no longer do so. Some manage to keep up club and racquet games for a while, and others take up the likes of bowls and walking football, etc., but eventually even these can become too much. Readers, writers, musicians and creative people, on the other hand, can keep going until they lose their marbles, or even longer.

I’m glad to have been rather a studious kind of boy.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Gram Motherem (reposted by Smorgasbord Blog Magazine)

I responded a few weeks ago to an invitation from Sally Cronin who runs the wonderful Smorgasbord Blog Magazine allowing her to look through my archives and select four posts to share.

I am delighted to see the first she has selected is Gram Motherem from November 2015.

The original invitation is here

The Smorgasbord repost is here

Gram Motherem: how early are our earliest memories?


“I’ve made up a new game to play,” I told Peter Abson in the school playground. “It’s called Gram Motherem.”

It was a bit like tig. If you were ‘it’ you had to chase others and catch them. When you caught someone you hugged them tight and rubbed the front of your body firmly up and down against them while repeating the words “Gram Motherem, Gram Motherem” over and over again. I showed him but he didn’t seem too keen on the idea. Wendy Godley wouldn’t let me show her at all. In fact, she hardly ever spoke to me again after I tried.

I tell you this at risk of being branded some kind of rampant six year-old pervert because I believe it tells us something about our earliest memories.

Read original post (~1850 words)

Monday, 3 June 2019

Review - Keith Waterhouse: Mondays, Thursdays

Keith Waterhouse: Mondays, Thursdays
Keith Waterhouse
Mondays, Thursdays. (2*)

I didn’t like this. I got it on the back of the thoroughly enjoyable Billy Liar (see review) because Waterhouse fans say it is just as good, but gave up dissatisfied about three-quarters of the way through.

Mondays, Thursdays is a collection of over a hundred of Keith Waterhouse’s Daily Mirror columns from the first half of the nineteen-seventies. In length they range from half to two book pages and could easily today be imagined as a blog. He writes about the same kinds of nostalgia as me, such as toys, cigarette cards and being converted to natural gas. Much of it remembers his Yorkshire childhood. The pieces are full of the wit and inventiveness you would expect from someone once described as one of Britain’s funniest writers. And yet, I didn’t like it.

Perhaps the problem is in the style: too chatty, too light-hearted, too much about the author with too many ‘I’s on the page. There is a sense of always looking for the humour rather than genuinely caring about the topics he writes about. He didn’t make me care about them either.

There are exceptions. A wonderful piece tells of the author’s ninety-five year-old granddad who lived alone in a remote village and liked to send and receive letters even though he could neither read nor write. In order to keep in touch, Waterhouse’s mother posted him an envelope every Monday containing nothing but another stamped-addressed envelope for a reply. Grandad always opened it immediately and popped the empty reply straight back in the letter box, usually to arrive on Wednesday. They then knew he was safe and well. One week there was no reply. Waterhouse’s mother caught the bus to where he’d lived, and buried him.

As an unfinished book it should get only one star, but the odd pearl raises it to 2.

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.  

Previous book reviews 

Monday, 27 May 2019

Half Length and Mrs. Rat Poison

Do you make up names for people you see often but don’t know?

We’ve so named our neighbours for years, during which we’ve known Action Man who simply looked the part and drove a Land Rover, and Mrs. Washing who lived at the back and possessed some kind of meteorological sixth-sense that told her when she could hang out the washing without getting it rained on. The rest of us used her as a guide to when we could put ours out. Nearby was Mrs. Rat Poison who once knocked on the door to complain that our bird feeder and compost heap were attracting rodents into the gardens, and her husband, the Pyromaniac, who was always setting off fireworks, lighting fires and burning food on a barbecue. Another was Cloth Legs who covered the table and chair legs of her new dining suite to stop them being scratched.

It is always tempting to identify people by their animals, like Mrs. Slow Dog who used to stroll past with her elderly dog. The dog died but we still see her out and about on her ancient horse – Mrs. Slow Horse. Others have been named after someone better-known to whom they had a vague resemblance, such as Debbie McGee and Judi Dench. Then there was Toby Jug who looked, well, like a toby jug.

There are lots at the local swimming pool, such as Mr. Poser and Mr. Pigtail. Named after their swimming behaviours are Half Length, Bath Toy and Mrs. Bow Wave. Never, ever, swim behind Half Length because he’ll suddenly turn and start swimming back at you. You also learn to keep away from Bath Toy who bobs up and down and zig-zags so erratically you never know where he’s going next. And you’ll be swamped by Mrs. Bow Wave if you’re anywhere in the vicinity when she turns at the end of the pool.

The Walrus splashes and snorts a lot. Turtle Girl moves along large-eyed and smiley in a shiny swim-hat without so much as a ripple, imperceptibly propelled by the tiniest of arm and leg movements. Mr. and Mrs. Crocodile glide slowly up and down, invariably him behind her in line, with interesting repercussions when they line up behind Half Length. Mrs. Exercise does not swim but dances up and down one side of the pool using a variety of weights and floats.

Others are named because of their changing-room conversation, such as the Scotsman and the Wood Turner. The three Flyers go to the pool more for the conversation than the exercise, wallowing at the shallow end of the slow lane like bathing Romans, exchanging tales about the aeroplanes they own. 

I could mention more, but I’m probably already in trouble for having said this much.

Neighbours …
Just a friendly wave each morning
Helps to make a better day
.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Checked Out

A wet day at the Eden Project

Among the parking machine tickets of the last post was a small sticker from The Eden Project in Cornwall – a horticultural attraction near St. Austell in which plants from diverse climates and environments are housed in enormous transparent bio-domes. It reminded me.

It was a wet day with over an inch and a half of rain forecast (4cm), so along with thousands of other holidaymakers we drove to the Eden Project where we would be under cover. We were thankful of the bus from the car park. The bio-domes were packed and the rain on the roofs deafening.

Inside is like walking around abundant outdoor gardens: a tropical rain forest garden in one dome, a Mediterranean garden in the other.

I had been walking along with my ten-year-old daughter some distance behind my wife and son for some time. She was taking lots of photographs of flowers and plants; there were over a hundred in the camera.

We entered a bushy side channel off the main path to look at a coffee plant. Immediately an officious-looking woman came up behind and said, quite unexpectedly, “Sorry we haven’t any red ones for you at the moment”. There ensued one of those polite but unwanted conversations with an intrusive stranger about there not having been enough sun to turn the pods red, there being two beans in each pod and it taking about thirty pods to make a cup of coffee, and how busy it was today because the rain brings in the visitors, which was a pity because they then miss the 75% of the project outside.

It was a while before I noticed she was wearing a small Eden Project badge. All the other staff were in Eden Project polo shirts. She strode off purposefully through the crowd without talking to anyone else.

Is this what it comes to? After a certain age when your brown beard is turning grey and your hair is falling out and you look a bit like a seedy Harold Shipman, and you are innocently enjoying a day out with your daughter, they pick you up on CCTV and send someone to check you out as a suspected paedophile.

I understand the concerns but still felt pretty indignant. It’s equivalent to being stopped on sus just because of your appearance.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Parking Machine Tickets

Could this be the most boring blog post ever: parking machine tickets?

One of the door pockets in the car we sold recently contained an assortment of tickets acquired over our period of ownership except for the first couple of years when we must have kept it tidy. Many of the tickets were local, but those from further afield provide a record of our journeys, mainly day trips and holidays, albeit not a complete collection.

Bloggers usually post photographs and postcards from their travels. Instead, here is our record told through a hundred and thirty pounds worth of parking machine tickets.

July 2010: The Lake District with a short stop at Richmond on the way home

August 2010: Cornwall

2011: North Wales (note the Welsh language), and trips to Filey and Beverley

July 2012: North Devon

August 2012: North Wales again

2013: Not many this year. The first is from Blackpool and the second Appleby in Westmoreland on our way home from a week in Scotland

2014: The Yorkshire Coast, including the North York Moors Railway at Grosmont

2015: Pembrokeshire (South Wales)

2017: Cumbria, Whitby and Lincoln, but also a longer trip to West Sussex from which the Wakehurst ticket is the only reminder

2017: Exmoor (Devon and Somerset)
2018: a trip to Chester in January and Dorset in the summer, with an afternoon on Brownsea Island

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Every Car We’ve Owned

Ever wondered what happened to your old cars? Here’s how to find out.

This is looking like a month of car-related posts following our recent change of car.

When you buy a car in the U.K., you now receive an official document called the V5C registration certificate, historically known as the “log book”. It shows you are the “registered keeper” – not necessarily the same as the owner, as in the case of a company vehicle, for example.

Our new V5C came through the post with a reminder that it was our responsibility to ensure the vehicle had been taxed – “tax it or lose it”, it said. In other words, to ensure that Vehicle Excise Duty had been paid, also known as the road tax, the tax disc, or, as I sometimes call it, the Road Fund Licence, a remnant of my days in accountancy many years ago. We don’t even have physical tax discs for the windscreen any more.

The reminder pointed to a web site where you can check your vehicle’s road tax and MOT test (roadworthiness) status: https://www.gov.uk/check-vehicle-tax. It confirmed we’re all legal, even though I knew that already.  The page also has a link to an insurance checker: https://ownvehicle.askmid.com/, which reassuringly confirmed that our old cover had been cancelled and the new cover was in force.

Interestingly, these web sites let you check any car at all. Want to know about your friends’ or neighbours’ cars? Just enter their registration numbers and look (although the insurance site does warn that it is a data protection offence to look up the insurance status of a car you are not permitted to drive).

It set me thinking about all the cars we had owned, like my 1966 Morris Mini in the blog banner above, bought in 1972. Unsurprisingly, neither that nor its short-lived predecessor appear in the database. It was too long ago. 
 

But the next one I had does: a flame-red 1972 Morris Mini Van I bought when it was three years old. It shows it was first registered in 1972, that its tax ran out three years after I sold it at the end of October, 1984, and that there is no current MOT test certificate in force: as expected because I know that the person who bought it from me ran it for three years and then scrapped it.

It is also possible, in the case of any vehicle on the road after 2005, to check the MOT test history from the link at the bottom right of the screen above, which is https://www.gov.uk/check-mot-history. This records the date of each MOT test, the vehicle mileage at the time, whether it passed or failed, and if it failed, the reasons why. The database also holds the location of each MOT test but you need to have the latest V5C number to access that, so you can only see it for vehicles you currently keep. Even if there are no tax details, there may still be an MOT history.


Well, as the kind of nerd who delights in these things, I wanted to check up on every car I or anyone in my family had ever owned. There was at least partial information for every vehicle I could remember except my first two mentioned above. It reveals some fascinating details.

For example, the eleven year old Golf Estate we sold recently to webuyanycar.com. The database shows it passed its MOT test two weeks after we sold it. During this time it gained a further 377 miles on the clock. How can this be while it remained untaxed and uninsured? I am certain of the numbers because I noted the mileage when we sold it, and the MOT history shows the mileage when it passed its MOT.

Or my 1985 Talbot Samba, previously blogged about here, the first new car I ever had, and by far the worst. Within months it began to suffer all kinds of corrosion and mechanical problems which Peugeot-Talbot, basically, refused to acknowledge. It was in a terrible state when traded in after five years and 59,000 miles. I am, frankly, astonished to discover it ran for a further five years. Pity the poor owner. Unfortunately, it was too early for a record of the MOT details.

Our later cars lasted much longer. A Ford Fiesta we took over from my dad in early 2002 after he gave up driving, eighteen months old with only 1,500 miles on the clock, ran for a further nine years and 70,000 miles after we traded it at the end of 2006. Its MOT record suggest no major problems other than brake pipe corrosion, until near the end in 2015 when, at fifteen years old, structural corrosion seems to have done for it. 

We also had three VW Polos which lasted very well. One of them we had from three years old in 1993 until 2001. It then ran for another six years until, over sixteen years old with a mileage of 117,145, it failed its MOT test in January, 2007. From the list of faults (see screen image above), it looks like a sensible decision to give up on it.

But the longest lasting is an oceanic green VW Golf Estate, a lovely car bought new in February 2002, part-exchanged in 2008 at six and a half years and 55,000 miles, which, according to the latest records, is still on the road with 120,000 miles on the clock.

We’re now on to our seventh Volkswagen. It could well be my last. We must like them, although everyone has their preferences.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Review - Gyles Brandreth: Have You Eaten Grandma?

Gyles Brandreth
Have You Eaten Grandma? Or the life-saving importance of correct punctuation, grammar, and good English. (5*)

You might expect a book about punctuation, grammar and usage to be useful but dull. Useful: it certainly is. Dull: nothing could be further from the truth.

Described on the book jacket as a writer, broadcaster, actor and former MP, Gyles Brandreth sounds like one of those metropolitan smarty-pants always on television telling you how clever they are. He is, but differs from the others (e.g. Fry, Self, Coren-hyphen) in being rather likeable. If you have seen or heard him on The One Show or Just A Minute you will know of his unstoppable exuberance and unassuming sense of fun. They permeate this book and make it a joy to read.

Yes, it is a useful volume to keep handy by your desk and laptop to check on all those things you are never quite sure of. Should the full-stop go before or after the closing speech mark? Am I making correct use of the colon? What’s the difference between an n-dash and an m-dash? Should that be practice or practise, aggravate or annoy? There are hints, tips and lists of irregular plurals, internet acronyms, bad language, innocent place names that sound rude, rhyming slang, annoying words and phrases such as upcoming and no-brainer, euphemisms, useful Scrabble words, rules for writers, differences between English and American English … in fact everything to do with language.

But it is the way these things are described and handled that make the book stand out. I was surprised it was so laugh-out-loud funny:
  • Asterisks, we learn, can be used to show the omission of letters to help disguise words – e.g. President T**** is a w****r. A footnote then tells us that President Truman was indeed a wonder, the only President with no name to go with his middle initial.
  • The Brandreth rule on hyphens: hyphenate only for clarity, otherwise don’t. For example, a real newspaper headline, ‘Students get first hand job experience’, needs a hyphen either between ‘first’ and ‘hand’ or between ‘hand’ and ‘job’, depending.
  • How to remember the spelling of ‘diarrhoea’: Dash in a real rush – hurry, or else accident!
  • From the texting guide for seniors:  BTW = bring the wheelchair.
I’m not going to pinch all his jokes. You’ll have to buy it for the rest.


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, 1 May 2019

Petrol Cans

Did you know you can’t siphon petrol any more?

Petrol Cans

We decided to change our eleven-year-old car; not an easy decision because it has low mileage for its age and could easily keep going a fair few years yet. On the other hand, it does need well over a thousand pounds spending on it (tyres, major service, MoT test, dented front wing, one of the back doors no longer locks and the air-con smells terrible, and those are just the things we know about), and it has let us down a few times recently (flat battery, faulty ABS brake sensor, petrol leak). We need a car we can rely on as one child still needs ferrying with a full load several times each year to and from university 125 miles away, and the other will soon be going 50 miles in the opposite direction. And I suppose we’ll have to visit them. And we use it for holidays. I know that some people these days manage to run cars for twenty years and 120,000 miles, but I don’t feel it’s extravagant to say we need a better car. We found one but had to wait.

Still waiting, and anticipating a couple of longish journeys in the next few days, I filled up to the top with petrol: fifty-five pounds worth. The same afternoon, the garage rang: they had the car. Well, I know when it comes to buying cars, fifty-five pounds is small change, but it’s not an amount I would willingly give to a motor trader if I didn’t have to. I got out the petrol cans from their longstanding hidey-hole at the back of the shed and spent an hour cleaning off the cobwebs.

I can’t remember when they were last used. There are two five-litre plastic cans, a larger ten-litre metal one, an ancient two-gallon can with ‘Pratts’ embossed on all four sides, plus spouts, pipes and funnels. The Pratts can and at least one of the five-litre plastic ones came from my dad’s house. Together, they would hold over half a tank full.

Pratts Motor Spirit Advertisement 1930s
Pratts Motor Spirit Advertisement, 1930s
Or perhaps not. The Pratts can is dodgy. It must be from the nineteen-twenties: the kind you strapped to the running board in case you couldn’t find a petrol station. It would once have been spruce green but is rusty all over now. It looks all right inside though, and the heavy brass screw-cap is as serviceable and satisfying as ever. It would spray-up nicely for a vintage car owner. Pratts of Duckinfield: suppliers of motor spirit and lubricating oil, later part of Anglo-American Oil and then absorbed into the Esso empire around 1935. Strangely, the screw-cap bears the Shell name.

From an earlier post (link at end), here is my dad in 1928 standing in Uncle Jimmy’s Bullnose Morris. Below him is what could be the very same petrol can. 


At least the big red metal can looks all right. It still has its label: Paddy Hopkirk Products. That must be the Paddy Hopkirk who won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally in a red Mini Cooper S. His petrol can, the label says, “has been manufactured using only the best materials available to the highest standards demanded by Paddy Hopkirk”, and, most importantly, “... has been individually checked by me to guarantee it leaves our factory in perfect condition.”


Wow! Individually checked by Paddy Hopkirk. That explains why it is still so good after forty-five years. I bought it around the time of the 1973-74 oil crisis and kept it full of petrol under the seat of my red Mini Van. That never won the Monte Carlo Rally. It went like a bomb though, or could have done at almost any moment. 

Having cleaned up all the petrol cans, I pushed the flexible hose into the car filler pipe, and pushed, and pushed. It went in a long way, but when I sucked all I got was petrol-flavoured air. No petrol at all. I’ve siphoned petrol many times in the past and know how to do it, and how not to get a blistering mouth full, and the other hazards, but it would not work at all this time.

I didn’t know that cars have anti-siphon devices now.

As things turned out, the Easter weekend intervened and we used more than half the petrol. We took the old car to webuyanycar.com and they did. I expected respectable premises, not a lad on his own with a computer in a smelly Portacabin surrounded by dirty skips. All he did was record the numerous marks and scratches and check that the engine started. When the computer said yes, and how much they could offer, I forgot to argue.

As regards the new car, well, it’s like a spaceship – six gears, adaptive cruise control, electric handbrake with automatic hill-hold, parking sensors, automatic stop-start in traffic queues*, satnav “infotainment” screen – almost like learning to drive all over again.


* It even re-starts the engine in a traffic queue when the car in front starts to move forward. Spooky!

You might also be interested in:


further reflections on old and new cars.

more about Uncle Jimmy, the owner of the Bullnose Morris

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Wrong Door

At one university where I worked, Diana, the Departmental Secretary, had to put up with men walking into her office in the process of absent-mindedly unzipping their flies. It was down a long corridor of identical green doors. Her office was next door to the men’s loo.

When you’ve done it once, you don’t do it again. 

Friday, 19 April 2019

Easter 1971

When The Police Told My Parents I Went In Pubs

The Green Bottle, Knottingley (c) Betty Longbottom, Creative Commons

My generation was nothing like as open with our parents as our children are with us, at least not in my part of the North of England, or maybe it was just me. I never told my parents I went in pubs. Not even when old enough. The police told them. It was Easter Sunday, 11th April, 1971.

It was the day after I had been with three friends to The Green Bottle in the curiously named Spawd Bone Lane, Knottingley. The pub was packed with noisy, holiday-weekend drinkers, and we took little notice of a short-haired man in a suit sitting alone at a table in the middle of the room until he asked us one by one to go over to have a few words with him. He was a detective investigating a vicious attack on an elderly lady the previous afternoon.*

I can still remember some of what he asked – name, age, address, where I been between 4.30 and 6.30 the previous afternoon, and where I worked. I told him I was a Chartered Accountants’ articled clerk with Goodwill and Ledger in Leeds (actually, I did give their real name), to which he said, “Oh! Do you know Mr. Black?” I said no, there was no Mr. Black where I worked, to which he replied that he worked at the Huddersfield office. It so happened that we did have an office in Huddersfield, and being naïve and trusting, thinking it a genuine question, I said I wasn’t sure but thought I might have seen that name on the letterheads, and that Mr. Black might be a partner at the Huddersfield office. It seemed to arouse the detective’s interest. I had never been grilled by the police before, and found it unsettling, although I tried hard not to show it.

The detective moved on to my friends, one of whom was in the middle of a Fine Art degree, with a bolshy “I’m an art student” attitude, full of the deep and mysterious philosophies to which such beings are prone. He was going through a phase of always answering straight questions with enigmatic answers, that’s if he could be bothered to answer at all. He had once been approached on a train in the Midlands by a woman carrying out a travel survey and told her he was on his way to Johannesburg. No matter who was asking, or how serious the situation, he took the same line. It was also the case, coincidentally, that he had the same surname as me, which drew the obvious follow-up from the detective.

“Oh! Are you related?” the detective asked.

“I suppose we must be,” he answered.

“What does that mean?”

“Are we not all related in some way?”

The detective was suspicious. Did he think I had given him a false name, that of my art student friend? We had a bit of a laugh about it afterwards.

When you consider the gravity of the situation, it was not really funny at all, but we were still at that stage of youthful innocence which takes little seriously. Without actually being part of it (as I said, I was a Chartered Accountants' articled clerk), we liked to imagine we followed the trendy, counterculture of underground bands and magazines such as Oz which was about to face an obscenity trial. You don’t realise now when you see old clips of bands such as Black Sabbath, just how excitingly anti-establishment they seemed, even in name. The police were joked about: you would see “Screw the Pigs” scrawled in four-foot letters on garage doors. This pushing of the limits, I would now say, was only possible because England, on the whole, was a much safer and law-abiding place than it is today, which makes the attack on the old lady all the more shocking.  And of course, we did not yet know the awful details of the incident. 

The following day, Easter Sunday, I was upstairs at home, going through the pointless motions of revising for my accountancy exams, when my dad called me down to the front room where two more short-haired men in suits wanted to see me. “These two gentlemen are police officers,” my dad said, “and would like to ask you some questions.”

Being the sort of person who feels guilty even if not (you know, when the teacher asks who peed on the floor and you go red, terrified she thinks it was you, even though it was someone else), it really scared me. I had to explain about the pub in Knottingley and about being questioned, and the two detectives went off satisfied, but it felt very awkward.

And that’s how my parents found out I went in pubs, although, they probably knew already.

The Green Bottle, Knottingley

There is now no sign The Green Bottle ever existed. It closed for good and was boarded up by 2009, burnt out in 2010, demolished, and the site redeveloped as business units.

*From newspaper archives, I can see that the elderly lady was 88 year-old Mrs. Dorothy Leeman. She had been beaten around the head, bound, gagged and robbed of £80 on Good Friday in her roadside shop at Hilltop, Knottingley, Yorkshire. She never properly recovered and died less than six months later. It was an appalling attack and I don’t believe anyone was ever caught.

Attack on Mrs Dorothy Leeman, 1971