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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 don’t believe anyone was ever caught.

Attack on Mrs Dorothy Leeman, 1971

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Lonely Brown Hair

Was it for that wild man of the mountains look, the Chris Bonington, or that you were too lazy to get shaved in the morning?

Then came the snow: the unwanted single white ones, thicker and longer, waving out from the middle, to be summarily snipped out with the pointy scissors from the dissecting kit you nicked from school.

Later, there were more, too many more, giving that distinguished, salt and pepper, silver fox look, or so you liked to think. It was a glorious dappled thing, turning gradually, except for a couple of mucky patches near your ears.

Now it’s complete. Except, just now and again, just here and there, a few solitary warm brown strands poke out, fuelling vanity, cruelly taunting you about what it used to look like all over.

Does Chris Bonington get them too?

An earlier post about Sir Chris Bonington

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Adsense Revisited

Old Blogger+Adsense screen
Old Blogger + Adsense Screen, 2014

By far the most visited and commented-upon post on this blog is one of the earliest: Adsense, Blogger and YouTube from November 2014. It’s one of several off-topic, technical pieces written out of an interest in how the web works behind the scenes, using some of the skills I learned writing user manuals for a software company around nineteen-ninety. 

The post describes a way of setting up Adsense ads on both Blogger and YouTube together, something Google used to make difficult. It was easy enough easy to have ads either on one or the other, but not both. From the comments, it appears some found the post helpful, although, from a technical point of view, the original post is now redundant. It became so some time ago when Google changed the criteria for YouTube ads. It also never applied to WordPress where you have no choice: with a free WordPress blog, you get ads, like it or lump it.

To test things out at the time, I set up ads on this blog where they still appear above (unless your browser blocks them). I set them up as a demonstration, not to make money – I would need to produce far more interesting content and get thousands more hits and clicks to make it financially worthwhile. In the month just ended, it generated the exhilarating sum of 10p, which is typical. Often it’s less, but just occasionally, it will be more if someone shows interest in an ad. In the unlikely event of me still being here if and when it reaches the £60 payout threshold, I’ll donate it to a worthy cause, perhaps by asking long-suffering readers for nominations. 

Unfortunately for me, some readers detest blogs that carry ads and shun them. Some have actually said so as if I’m unclean. It’s a pity because many of them write rather interesting blogs.

Actually, I quite like the attractive blocks of colour that, by means of some impenetrable algorithm, Adsense places at the top of the page. I wonder about them. I can see why the original post about Adsense attracts ads from computing businesses, and why posts about stamps and coins pull in ads for philately or numismatics, and why posts about school and college get ads for educational services. I feel miffed that some posts are apparently unworthy of ads. I’m disappointed when a post gets one of those ads that crop up indiscriminately almost anywhere, such as the ones for genealogy or PDF converters. And sometimes, there is the delight of an absurdly misplaced ad – the ones Private Eye call “malgorithms”.

I can’t match Private Eye’s quality of malgorithms: e.g. reports of overseas terrorist incidents accompanied by ads for holidays in those countries, or articles about paedophiles attracting ads claiming child models have never been so much in demand, but the other day I did notice that one of my posts about hi-fi stereo was adorned by an ad for hearing aids. Or was I just targeted because of my age?

Ads may be putting off some readers, but I am going to keep them, at least for now. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Living Memory

My father used to say he once knew someone who remembered a man who fought against the French at the Battle of Waterloo.

How could this be? I doubted it at first, but, considering it more carefully, it is easily possible. It would have been a memory from around 1940. Those who fought at Waterloo in 1815 would have been born not much later than 1795. If they had survived into their eighties we come to around 1880. And someone born in the eighteen-sixties could have met them and still have been around in 1940.

Deaths of the last Waterloo veterans

In fact, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that even my generation, born around 1950, could have known someone who remembered someone who fought at Waterloo. The last British veteran died in Canada in 1892, and one French veteran lived until 1898. I knew people born in the eighteen-seventies who could have met them had their paths crossed.

Projecting this forward, I used to know people who fought in the First World War, such as my grandfather who was in the Hull Pals. If I said that to someone young today, they might still remember it in 2100. In fact, those who cared for Harry Patch, the last surviving First World War veteran, who died aged one hundred and eleven in 2009, could still themselves be alive in 2080. So, conceivably, there might be people born around 2070 who in 2160 will be able to say they once knew someone who remembered a man who fought in the First World War.

Second and third order living memory is astonishly long; sometimes as much as two hundred and fifty years.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

George Gibbard Jackson

George Gibbard Jackson

Amongst my dad’s childhood books are two volumes in matching red bindings: The Splendid Book of Aeroplanes and The Splendid Book of Steamships by G. Gibbard Jackson. My dad’s name and address are inscribed inside both of them in my grandfather’s neat hand, together with the dates they were bought: the 25th and 26th of July, 1932. The steamships volume seems to have been bought the very next day on the strength of the aeroplanes one.

If so, it was a mistake. The Splendid Book of Aeroplanes is indeed a splendid book, packed with splendid tales, from the pioneers of flight right up to the nineteen-thirties. In contrast, the steamships book is unremarkable and prosaic, little more than a descriptive record.

Gibbard Jackson: The Splendid Book of Aeroplanes p96-97

For example, until I read the aeroplanes book, I had never heard of Mrs. Victor Bruce who made the first flight from London to Tokyo in 1930; a riveting story of forced landings, sheltering with desert tribesmen on the shores of the Persian Gulf, and contracting malaria in the Mekong jungle. This was just one of her many exploits in a life of derring-do. Incredibly, she lived until 1990. Why is she not as famous as Amy Johnson or the Campbells?

Then there is the moving story of Saloman Andrée’s balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897, which failed to make the expected progress. The explorers despatched their last messenger pigeon, then nothing further was known of them until over thirty years later when their remains, diaries and exposed photographic plates were found by chance. They had been forced to land on the ice where they survived for over three months. The discovery of their final camp in 1930 was a global sensation.

George Gibbard Jackson
George Gibbard Jackson (1878-1935)
George Gibbard Jackson turned out books like these on a production line. Fifteen works by the same author are listed in the fronts of the Splendid Books, covering topics such as locomotives, submarines, engineering, exploration, postal services, sports and hobbies. A quick search of the internet doubles the number. Among his last publications were a guide to the Isle of Wight, and From Track to Highway: a story of British Roads.

Who was this prolific writer that few today will have heard of? A little research reveals that when he died, George Gibbard Jackson (1878-1935) was postmaster at Fareham, Hampshire. He had joined the postal service in his native Warwickshire, and worked his way up from the position of sorting clerk. Before Fareham he had spent several years as postmaster at Cobham, Surrey. He married twice, first to telegraphist Kate Emery in Coventry in 1901, and then, after Kate died, to Mabel Elizabeth Millington in Stivichall, Coventry, in 1915. He had four sons, one of whom died in childhood.

So writing was really a sideline. How could someone with a full-time job, bringing up a family between the wars in small-town southern England, find time to research and write so many books? Did his job have slack periods during the daytime? Did he spend all his spare time writing and researching? Did he neglect his family?

What about resources? In a previous post about research before the internet, I was at least referring to research in well-resourced university settings. Gibbard Jackson would have had to rely mainly on local libraries, newspapers, home encyclopaedias and similar works of reference, possibly books borrowed by post from national libraries, and maybe an occasional visit to larger resources in London or Southampton.

For example, he might have used Encyclopedia Britannica or Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. Arthur Mee says quite a bit about the early days of flight – the Wright Brothers and so on – and while it makes only the briefest reference to the mystery of Andrée’s expedition, the newspapers were full of it in 1930 and 1931 after their final camp was discovered. Similarly, newspapers closely followed Mrs Victor Bruce’s flight during September, October and November, 1930. These secondary sources would have been sufficient for a writer of cracking tales, like Jackson, to be able to put together books for boys. And possibly his Isle of Wight book was planned on holiday. Only when you begin to look at the detail that is now available on the internet do you discover the omissions and deficiencies. For example, Jackson includes none of the photographs that emerged from the plates found in Andrée’s final camp. 

He must have been pleased with his achievements. Perhaps he even made a bit of money from his writing – he was comfortably well-off when he died. But it’s not the kind of writing I would want to do for long. It’s too much like work.

Some of Jackson’s books are now accessible in full-text format, such as The Splendid Books of Engineering, Locomotives and Steamships, but so far there seems to be no online version of the aeroplanes book.  (locomotives)  (steamships) (engineering)

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Review - Keith Waterhouse: Billy Liar

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959)
Keith Waterhouse
Billy Liar (4*)

Another book from the list of those I should have read in my teens and early twenties, but didn’t because of the television we got when I was around twelve, which cut my reading from two or three books a week down to zero for the next ten years. I’ve never read the 1959 book, or seen either the 1963 film or the 1973 television series.

I could easily have become wrapped up in Billy Liar. He might have been me, or at least the rebellious subversive I wished I could be. You have to remember we were under the anarchic influences of The Who, Jethro Tull and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Billy Liar would have been another

Billy lives in a dismal Yorkshire town, cares nothing for his job as a clerk, has only contempt for his parents and keeps three girls on the go at the same time. He tells outrageous fibs to suit his shifting impulses, acts out jokey sketches with a chum from work and escapes into fantasy where, among other things, he dreams of being a comedy writer. Almost me, except for the three girls on the go: wouldn’t chance have been a fine thing, even just one?

This was nineteen-fifties, working-class Britain, not quite on the cusp of the youth consumer boom, before the upsurge of opportunity, when people worked long hours and made do: such as with the old raincoat Billy uses as a dressing gown. There isn’t a television set or record player in sight, and an Italian-cut suit is the only mention of fashion. Remnants of this life were still around in the late nineteen-sixties when I left school for office work instead of university, especially in office work, but things were beginning to change. I had more choice and was able to get away. Billy couldn’t. I felt disappointed at the end when he bottles his chance and goes back to his home and job.

Keith Waterhouse was one of Britain’s funniest writers. “I don’t mind dark satanic mills,” says Billy, “but by gum when it comes to dark satanic shops, dark satanic housing estates and dark satanic police stations –”, although Billy has no ending to this pre-prepared sentence (p90). He keeps one girl friend’s postcards from her trips to various places around the country because they are at least literate: “I felt mildly peculiar to be treasuring love-letters for their grammar,” he says (p19).

Some of Waterhouse’s descriptions remind me of his contemporary, Les Dawson:
It was quiet outside the Roxy. The evening was warm, but on the crisp side. The sodium lamps were beginning to flicker on and off, dismally. The old gaffers who manned the Alderman Burrows memorial bench at the abandoned train terminus were beginning to crane themselves stiffly to their feet and adjust their mufflers… (p142)
His mimetic rendering of Yorkshire accents is a joy:
Does ta think ah could climb down yon ashpit?
Nay, tha’d break thi neck, Councillor!
Aye, well ah’sll have to manage it, whether or no. Ah’m bahn down to t’ police station.
What’s ta bahn down theer for, then?
We’re pulling t’ bugger down.
Tha’s not, is ta?
Aye, we are that. All yon cottages anall … It’s all change. All change, nowadays. T’ old buildings is going. T’ old street is going. T’ trams, they’ve gone.
Aye …
It we’re all horse-drawn trams, and afore that we had to walk. It’s all change. T’ old mills is going. T’ old dialect, that’s going, …
I think I know where Monty Python got the idea from.

Many accounts of Billy Liar make more of his grand fantasies about the imaginary country of Ambrosia, but I found this merely a contextual element, one of several running through the book, a device now well-used by writers to milk for laughs.

Billy Liar is fun to read. It is one of the great nineteen-fifties novels which, along with others by Alan Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Stan Barstow and others, paved the way for a new style of fiction. Waterhouse’s later novel, Billy Liar on the Moon, set in the nineteen-seventies, might be a good follow up.

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, 10 March 2019

We Know Where You’re From

The British-Irish Dialect Quiz

British-Irish Dialect Quiz: results

Growing up in a unicultural Yorkshire town (as they nearly all were in the nineteen-fifties), I’m not sure when I first realised there were variations in the way people spoke. I remember a boy climbing around on Filey Brigg with a hammer who said he was “Luckin’ fer fawssls”, and the pen-friends from Bingley, organized by one of the teachers at junior school, who, when we met them, sounded different and used strange words. To my childhood eyes, they even looked different. Goodness, even people from Eastrington and Howden spoke and sometimes looked different to people from across the river in Swinefleet or Rawcliffe: places within a five-mile radius. 

Later, meeting different people and living around the country, accents fascinated me. I love hearing Buchan Scots and Asian Yorkshire, and used to have great fun winding-up my South London mother-in-law as to whether it was “rasp-berries” or “raazbriz”.  She could give as good as she got.

So, when I read about the British-Irish Dialect Quiz on the New York Times web site, of all places, it was irresistible. I was bound to try it out and join thousands of other bloggers writing about it.

It asks 25 questions about how you pronounce various words, such as “scone” or “last”, and what words you use for certain things, such as for feeling cold or for the playground game in which one child chases the rest and the first person touched becomes the pursuer. It then gives you a map of Great Britain with your area of origin shaded in. If you want, you can continue with a further 71 questions to refine the results further.

It got me pretty much spot-on. Words like “breadcake” and “twagging”, and the way I say ‘a’ and ‘u’, give me away most.

The explanation of the results is interesting too. It mentions that in Britain and Ireland, unlike North America, local dialect sometimes used to change wildly within ten or twenty miles. Such village-by-village distinctions have now eroded, but the article suggests there is no evidence that regional differences are disappearing, even in the face of technological influences. I find that reassuring.

Some other posts about accents and language:

Get Tret Better
M Dunham Are Crap
People who can’t say ‘ull
Get back on t’land whe’re y’belong

Wednesday, 6 March 2019


Castleford, Yorkshire: Church Street at the end of Bradley Avenue, early 1970s

Conversations can be disturbing. They come back to trouble you decades later, especially when they involve some element of social awkwardness, which in my case is quite a lot of conversations.

Not long after taking a job at a university in Scotland over thirty years ago, I was invited to a regular end-of-term gathering at a professor’s house where everyone and everything exuded an air of intellectual wealth and entitlement. Most people there were Scottish, with that precise self-assurance an educated Scottish accent gives you. I felt out of place with my English ears and English voice. I tried to look comfortable in such surrounding.

The professor’s wife, like me, was English – in her case posh plummy English. She had left her brick of a Ph.D. thesis, with its absurdly long title, casually out for all to see on an out-of-the-way occasional table we had to pass, or wait beside, on our way to the loo.

It was only a matter of time before someone was going to bring up the issue of my accent: my “dulcet Yorkshire tones” as they put it. The professor’s wife showed unexpected interest.

“Oh! I’m from Yorkshire too,” she revealed. I was taken in by the hint of something in common.

“Where abouts in Yorkshire?” I asked, predictably.

“C-aaastleford”, she replied, the ‘a’ drawn out as long as the title of her Ph.D. thesis.

Well, you probably know that Yorkshire people have a tendency to blurt straight out what they are thinking, and I did.

“Y’don’t sound as if ya coom from Cassalfud,” I said, in my normal voice of the time.

She looked like she wanted to pick up the thesis and hit me with it.

I wish I could say I passed it off with poise and confidence, but I didn’t. I flinched at every flashback for the next few weeks. I still do, sometimes. It’s like that for some of us who score highly on Asperger tests. At least it means you remember things you otherwise wouldn’t.

I was only invited there the once.

The photograph epitomises how I imagine Castleford was in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies, when, as in my own Yorkshire home town, the National Coal Board were still recruiting mining apprentices (“Look Ahead Lads!”).  If you find the location now on StreetView, the building in the right foreground is the only thing that still remains, barely recognisable. The other buildings have all gone, including what looks like a Tetley’s pub in the row of buildings on the left (they still use the same sign). The cars date the scene to the early nineteen-seventies: from left to right I think they are (all British made) a Triumph Herald, an Austin or Morris 1100, a Ford Escort and possibly an Austin estate on the right. I can hardly begin to make a stab at the cars in the modern picture.

Saturday, 23 February 2019


Bill and Jack

The well-turned-out chap on the left is my great uncle Bill. I never met him. He died in his early thirties a decade before I was born. He is pictured with his friend, Jack, neat in a bow tie. They were inseparable. They had this postcard made of themselves together. They look like a nineteen-thirties American songwriting duo: Rogers and Hart or Gershwin and Gershwin, perhaps.

For some years, Jack lived with Bill and his parents. Jack was undoubtedly the liveliest of the pair, and Bill, rather his sidekick. In the makeshift pre-war census known as the 1939 Register, Jack is constantly on the go as a window cleaner, transport driver and police despatch rider. Bill is simply a general labourer in a paper mill. When Jack played in the village football team, Bill had only a supporting role as treasurer. When Jack played drums in a nineteen-thirties dance band, Bill would sit next to him on stage, even though, as someone who knew them once said, “he didn’t have a musical bone in his body”.

When Bill died, Jack ensured he was buried in one half of a double plot with a single stone surround. He reserved the other half for himself and had his own name inscribed on the vacant side with the dates to be added later. The two plots were divided by only a small marker bearing the word “Pals”.

I’m sure I can guess what many of you may be thinking: something that would never have been mentioned, suspected or even thought about in a self-contained, out-of-the-way, nineteen-thirties Yorkshire village. You may be right, or at least half-right, but a few years after Bill’s death, Jack got married. It was during the war, somewhere in the Midlands. Jack was thirty-nine and his wife, twenty-two. They returned to live in Yorkshire and had several children. The names and dates of both Jack and his wife are now inscribed on the stone surround on the other half of the double plot.

I never knew Bill, but have two memories of Jack. One is at my grandma’s house when I was no more than four or five. Jack was smoking heavily, talking in a loud voice, agitated about something. Every other word was “bloody” – “bloody” this, “bloody” that, with the occasional “bugger” thrown in. He spat out the words with the cigarette smoke, jerking and shaking his head, his whole face wobbling as if to emphasise everything he said. I’ve no idea what it was about but he seemed entirely unconcerned that a young child could be watching and listening.

I saw him once more, maybe seven or eight years later. By then he was important as Secretary of the local amateur football league for workplace teams such as Thorne Colliery and the railwaymen, pub teams such as the Victoria and the Buchanan, village teams such as Pollington, Eastrington and Swinefleet, and even a team of Methodists. It was Jack’s duty to present the league cup to the winning finalists. All gathered around after the match for the ceremony and Jack made a short speech. I was surprised he did it without saying “bloody” or “bugger” at all, not even once.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Review - A. S. Byatt: The Children's Book

A. S. Byatt: The Children's Book
A.S. Byatt
The Children’s Book (4*)

The Children’s Book traces the lives of an enormous cast of characters through the years from 1895 to 1919. Most belong to families of socio-political visionaries: Fabians, Quakers, socialists, anarchists, artists, writers and free-thinkers, living in cottages around the Kentish Weald and North and South Downs. The children grow up and enter into relationships, the adults have muddled secrets which are gradually revealed. Then along comes the brutal cull of the First World War.

Byatt’s descriptions of artworks such as the Gloucester Candlestick are lavish as ever. Her portrayal of the 1900 Grande Exposition Universelle de Paris is exquisite. Pottery, puppetry and fairy stories form central elements of the story, and time and time again we are given lovingly detailed accounts, such as descriptions of shapes and glazes, and how they change when you hold and feel, rather than simply look:
The glaze was silver-gold, with veilings of aquamarine. The light flowed round the surface, like clouds reflected in water. It was a watery pot. There was a vertical rhythm of rising stems, waterweeds, and a dashing horizontal rhythm of irregular clouds of black-brown wriggling commas, which turned out, inspected closely, to be lifelike tadpoles with translucent tails. The jar had several asymmetric handles which seemed to grow out of it like roots in water, but turned out to have the sly faces and flickering tails of water-snakes, green-spotted gold. It rested on four dark green feet, which were coiled, scaled lizards. Or minor dragons, lying with closed eyes and resting snouts. (p23)
The overwhelming, almost clinical detail is the problem. The book reads in places like a social, cultural and political history of the period. There are so many characters (Wikipedia lists 44 fictional characters plus 10 historical who play some part in the novel) it is difficult to keep track of who’s who. You do begin to feel you know most of them before the end of the 615 pages, but I wished I had printed out a list for reference before starting. 

Like Possession, it needs a second reading. On just one, it was not as satisfying. I know I’ll be back, but can’t face another month with it just yet.  

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

Thursday, 14 February 2019


HMP Wakefield prison register, June 1900

In my family history research, I keep coming across instances of people being sent to Wakefield Prison for being drunk.

What a good job they don’t do that now. From what I’ve heard about Wakefield on a Saturday night, they’d need a bigger prison.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Limerick Leanings

Limerick - The Young Lady of Niger

It’s an affliction. Whenever I see a quirky or unusual place name, or sometimes quite a straightforward one, I just have to compose a limerick. 

(Limericks, if you are not familiar with them, are humorous five-line poems, in which lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyme and scan with seven to ten syllables, and lines 3 and 4 rhyme and scan with five to seven syllables. The form was popularized by Edward Lear, and well known examples include the nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock, and The Young Lady of Niger, above.)

A popular blogger I started to follow recently (Going Gently) mentioned he had been caught by a speed camera, and, as an alternative to points on his licence and a fine, he had agreed to be indoctrinated on a speed awareness course in Mold. Well, Mold! What a name. Irresistible. A limerick immediately began to form in my head. I posted it as a comment on his blog:

          I went on a short course in Mold,
          To be told what I had to be told,
          The days are now past
          Of me driving too fast,
          My right foot must be more controlled.

We play it as a game in the car on holiday (not to be recommended because it’s so easy to stop concentrating on driving and go too fast through speed traps). As Mold is in Wales, here’s another we came up with in that country (although I’m not sure whether the basic idea is that original):

          A fragile young lady from Wales,
          Tried buttered toast spread with snails,
          She shivered and quivered
          When all the snails slithered
          To the edge of her plate leaving trails.

They don’t emerge only in Wales, or only in the car for that matter. A couple of years ago we went for a walk on Exmoor in Devon, through the village made famous in Lorna Doone, and out came this:

          A naïve young fellow from Oare,
          Was stopped in the street by a whore,
          “Hello love,” she said
          Let’s go to bed,
          Now he’s not so naïve any more.

          (OR - Now he knows what his ***** is for.)

I think that’s quite enough of that for now.

Is anyone else encumbered with this?

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Brendan and the Shared House

Ghana 1970s aerogram with additional stamp

I always assumed we would see each other again one day. We would go to the pub and get pissed and laugh about the people and the good times in the shared houses in Leeds. But it was not to be.

We would remember Ron, the guy who never stopped talking, notorious for ‘ronopolising’ the conversation with his mind-numbing ‘ronologues’ which always began “Did I tell you about the time I …”, and if you had ever been somewhere, done something or seen something, he had always been somewhere, done something or seen something better. He used to leave his towel draped over the hot water cylinder in the bathroom and it stank. He never washed it. You would think a hospital bacteriology technician would have been worried about bugs.

And Dave who gassed the place out with the peculiar aromatic smell of Holland House pipe tobacco. He smoked even when it was his turn to cook, speckling everything with ash. He once accidentally tipped the thing over my food and instead of being sorry just laughed and got on with his own unconcerned. Anyone would think he owned the place. Actually, he did. He was always asking “Can I trouble you gentlemen for some rent please?”

Then there was Nick, who could swear like only someone from the back streets of Manchester could, and Larry who made himself dainty little jellies and custards every Monday and lined them up uncovered on the kitchen table for several days (we had no fridge). And Roger, the Ph.D. student with his clever cryptic comebacks, and Paul with the outrageous ginger beard and silly Lancashire accent. And Stuart who was so well organised you had to make an appointment three weeks in advance just to ask him something. And the other Dave, the Geordie, who did an animated rendition of The Lampton Worm, and was on holiday when the electoral register form came, so we put his middle name down as Aloysius.

And who could forget ‘Pervy Pete’, the television rent collector, who came each month to empty the coin box, greeted us “hello mensies”, and lingered uninvited to take an unseemly interest in which bedrooms we slept? That television always ran out of money right in the middle of Monty Python or just before a punchline in Jokers Wild.

The others came and went, but Brendan and I stayed longest. We were from ordinary Yorkshire backgrounds, shared the same sense of humour and had under-achieved our ‘A’ Levels. Brendan was the liveliest among us, and the best looking. In his long Afghan coat, with his smooth young face and long centrally-parted hair, the kids in the street called him “that lad who looks like David Cassidy.” He made us laugh with his silly puns and deliberate misunderstandings. He could play guitar better than me and instantly put chords to almost any song at all. He could throw a lighted cigarette in the air and catch it the right way round in his mouth. He had an impossibly beautiful girl friend who was training to be a doctor.

We were both desperate to escape our mundane jobs, me from an accountants’ office and Brendan from a veterinary laboratory, and did so around the same time in 1977, me to university and Brendan on Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). He dreamed of some idyllic tropical paradise where nubile young girls danced to the drum-beat naked in the twilight, and was dismayed to be sent to sub-Saharan Africa, to an isolated rural village in Northern Ghana called Pong-Tamale, around 400 miles from the coast. It was not even much of a change of job: he went to run a laboratory in a veterinary college.

Pong-Tamale, Ghana (click to play video)
In those days, people still wrote letters, and I looked forward to his aerograms dropping through the letterbox with their exotic stamps and tales of distant Africa. Things were not easy. It was oppressively hot. He suffered tropical ailments and diseases. They were short of supplies and equipment. He asked to be sent books as there was little to read and no television, not that they always had electricity to run one.

Yet, after an initial term of eighteen months, he decided to stay. He found a salaried post for three years with the Overseas Development Ministry in the city of Kumasi, about two hundred and fifty miles to the south. Then, after a year back in England, he found a post at Mtwara in Tanzania, and then another at Morogoro. It sounded like a television wildlife documentary: horses, Land Rovers, lions, zebras, and trekking in the Ngorongoro highlands.

I saw him a couple of times over these years during his brief visits home. He was now married with children, and I was busy with my life too. Letters became less frequent. He suggested I visit them in East Africa but it was never the right time.

Then we lost touch. We both moved within a short space of time and I no longer had his address. Due to a downturn in the property market, we rented out my wife’s house where we had been living, and it was ten years before we finally sold it. In emptying it we came across various papers stuffed at the back of a cupboard by tenants, including a ten year old unopened letter from Brendan.

Replying after ten years seemed pointless. Perhaps I should have tried to find him, but didn’t. Did I fear the collision of past and present? We had surely both moved on.

But, it was already too late, as I distressingly discovered yet another decade later. Out of pure curiosity, I typed his distinctive name into a genealogy web site and was shaken to find a record of his death in 2001. It took more time to find what had happened. They had returned permanently to England in the nineteen-nineties, and Brendan had died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 49. He had been living less than ten miles away. All that time ago, and I had no idea.

We’ll never have that drink now.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Twelve Balls

Things that amused us when we should have been working

Solution to the Twelve Balls Problem and other matters

I came across a note I made in 1970 (on the right of the notepad, above):

                                        SHINE BALD TOP
                                        BALD SPOT
                                        SLAB DINE
                                        HEAP LIST

It took me a while to remember what it was. Eventually it came back: it was the solution to the twelve balls problem (sometimes known as the twelve coins problem). One of the management staff posed it in November, 1969, when we were auditing Spencer and Halstead, an engineering manufacturer at Ossett. We couldn’t solve it. Insufferably, he wouldn’t tell us the answer until our next visit four months later.

The Problem: You have twelve identical-looking balls (or they could be coins or anything similar). One of them is a forgery and is therefore different in weight to others: it could be heavier or it could be lighter but you do not know which. You have a simple balance to weigh the balls against each other, but you can use it only three times – no more. How do you identify the fake ball and whether it weighs more or less than the others?

Note that you do not know whether the fake is heavier or lighter. If you knew for certain that it was, say, definitely lighter than the others, the problem is slightly different: it becomes a question of how to find a single fake out of nine coins in two weighings, or out of twenty-seven coins in three weighings. This is simpler and is not addressed here.

You may wish to pause to consider it further at this point. Or, if you’ve glazed over already, you may wish to jump to the end to find out about the other notes on the notepad.

                                                                *          *          *

The answer is to label the twelve balls with the letters of the first phrase above, and then weigh them in groups of eight – four against four – as specified in the three pairs of words.

For example, if the three weighings come out as (i) balance (ii) left heavy (iii) right heavy, then you know the faulty ball is not one of those in the first weighing, so it must be H, I, N or E. The second weighing eliminates H which is not there, and because I, N and E are on the light side, one of these must be lighter than all the others. Of these only E is on the light side in the third weighing, so E is the fake, and it is lighter than the others.

I wondered how this could work for all possible answers. Well, first of all, because each weighing can have three possible outcomes – left heavier, right heavier or balance – there are 3 x 3 x 3 i.e. 27 possible outcomes across the three weighings. Secondly, as there are twelve balls, and as we know that only one of them is either heavier or lighter, there are 24 possible answers. So the number of possible outcomes exceeds the number of possible answers, suggesting that each outcome could identify a different answer, with three outcomes unused.

One of the unused outcomes has to be where all three weighings are in balance, because that would mean all balls had identical weight. 

Not being one to let this kind of thing pass by without further thought, I could not resist creating the following table (L means left heavy, R means right heavy and B means balance). Hey, some people enjoy crosswords, I enjoy doing this. Get over it!

      S heavy = RLR       S light = LRL
      H heavy = BBL       H light = BBR
      I heavy = BRR       I light = BLL
      N heavy = BRB       N light = BLB
      E heavy = BRL       E light = BLR
      B heavy = LLB       B light = RRB
      A heavy = LLL       A light = RRR
      L heavy = LLR       L light = RRL
      D heavy = LRB       D light = RLB
      T heavy = RBR       T light = LBL
      O heavy = RBB       O light = LBB
      P heavy = RBL       P light = LBR
      Not used: BBB, RLL, LRR

You can see that the outcomes for heavy balls are mirror images of the outcomes for light balls. Also, the ‘unused outcomes’ are ones which do not occur.

In fact, the table also tells you where to place each ball in the three weighings. Looking just at the left hand column: Ball A should be placed on the left of the balance in all three weighings; Ball O should be placed on the right in the first weighing and omitted from the second and third weighings.

With this insight, we could now create our own mnemonic for the solution. How about:

                                        READ THIS BLOG
                                        READ BITS
                                        BEAR GOLD
                                        THOR SLED

I think it works. It’s just a case of finding a phrase consisting of twelve different letters, and then jiggling the letters and weighing patterns around until you get words.

I wondered why a pair of outcomes is left over: RLL / LRR as well as BBB. It is because the solution only needs 24 rather than the full 26 of the 3 x 3 x 3, i.e. 27 possible outcomes. So could it be used for a thirteenth ball? Unfortunately not, because if you placed a thirteenth ball on the balance you would be weighing six balls against seven each time, which would tell you nothing. However, I think you could use this outcome instead of one of the others provided you switched round other balls to preserve the equality of the three four-against-four weighings.

Could you do four balls in two weighings? Theoretically, this has 8 possible answers with 3 x 3 i.e. 9 outcomes from two weighings. But, you get only a partial solution. You have to weigh one against one each time (with two two-against-two weighings, neither would balance, and five of the nine possible outcomes would be non-occurring). For example, labelling the balls A, B, C and D, and weighing A against B and then A against C:

      A heavy = LL       A light = RR
      B heavy = RB       B light = LB
      C heavy = BR       C light = BL
      D heavy =BB       D light = BB (also)
      Not used: RL, LR            

It identifies all outcomes except when ball D is the fake, which is identified correctly but not whether heavy or light. However, it would work if you had only three balls and two weighings. I suspect this was the starting point for the person who originally formulated the problem.

What if you were allowed four weighings? What, then, would be the maximum number of balls from which you could identify a lighter or heavier fake? There would then be 3 x 3 x 3 x 3, i.e. 81 possible outcomes. Forty balls would have eighty possible answers, but I suspect you would have insufficient non-occurring / unused outcomes to be able to do it.

Well, I’ve worked it out (I told you I’m a loony). Four weighings would allow you to find the fake amongst thirty-nine balls. If you want to know how I did it, look here. It actually gives quite an insight into how the whole things works. It appears there is always a variety of ways to formulate the groups used in the weighings.

What if, rather than just one, there were two fake balls? How would you weigh them then? O.K., this is beginning to go beyond even my limits of pointless curiosity. Proper mathematicians have come up with formulae to show how many balls can be done in N weighings (in the main case considered here it’s ½(3n-1)-1 if you want to know, but it can get a lot more complicated).

It’s clever stuff. Out of the millions of ways in which twelve balls can be weighed against each other, it is genius to realise that you can arrange things so that each combination of outcomes identifies a different solution. And just as brilliant is the realisation that the balls can be labelled with the letters of a phrase so that the three weighings can be selected using pairs of words made from the letters of that phrase. But cleverest of all is whoever it was that came up with the problem in the first place.

                                                     *                 *                *

The other notes on the paper, by the way, are also things which amused us during our working hours.

The first is supposedly a telegram sent by a sailor to his wife on returning from a long voyage. It was intended to read “In today, home tonight, lots of love, Rodney” but got garbled during transmission and came out probably as what he was really thinking.

The second refers to a philanderer who took out policies with different insurers to provide for his loved ones. The policy for his baby was with General Accident, and so on.

So, we did not spend our entire time thinking about combinations and permutations. Welcome to the wonderful misogynistic world of business and commerce, 1970.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Some Memorable Posts

Posts from other blogs that have stuck in the memory

Although it’s over four years since I started this blog, I don’t have many readers or followers. Would I do better by being more like other bloggers?

Sadly, in my case, the answer is almost certainly “No”. No one would be interested in the beauty products I use, or pictures showing my repertoire of appealing facial expressions. I’m not sure anyone would want to know how comfortable my ten-year old M&S underpants are, or that I have had three Shredded Wheat for breakfast almost every day for the last forty years. I’m not qualified to give tips on how to get thousands of followers in just one week, or how to find commercial partnerships and get paid to promote products. As for hints on parenting and lifestyle, my kids would go ballistic if I posted those childhood photographs of them nude in the bath. 

I have explored linkies, retweet accounts and facebook boosts, but it seems to me that the main beneficiaries of these things are the people who host them. They get them going and within a few weeks are pestering you to say they have “teamed up” with this or that product to bring you the latest feminine lingerie, slimming aids or facial filler creams.

There are, however, some wonderful blogs I do admire, and would like to mention posts from the past few years that left a memorable impression.

I have a soft spot for blogs by middle aged men from the North of England retrospectively trying to construct meaning in their lives. Jonathan Humble’s poetry blog has some pretty powerful stuff, and some amusing stuff too, but it was a short story, Rainbow Friday, that first caught my attention. It could be straight from my own childhood. It is so good, I sometimes wonder why I bother trying to write a blog myself.

I followed Andrew Petcher from fairly early on. He has a well-read travel blog written in his guise as “international man of leisure”, but it was his childhood blog, from when children roamed free without a care, that attracted me first. His memories of a rugby-mad games teacher are spot-on, and his experiences of working in a privatised utility (part 1, part 2) have you gunning for re-nationalisation.

David Hodgson Personal Blog (not the snappiest of titles) is always fascinating. Two pieces I especially remember are one which begins by wondering what became of a large map of East Yorkshire bus routes that used to be on the side of a building overlooking the bus station in Bridlington, and a piece about the bizarre demise of the British electronics company Ferranti which supported him through university.

Moving on from elderly memoir, Estelle Hargraves’ The Skittish Library, a reflection on out-of-print oddities, was another early following. I found it when researching one of my own favourite old books, The Universal Book of Hobbies and Handicrafts. Her posts about the chapters on pet keeping and self defence give questionable advice about the disposal of unwanted kittens and how to pierce an assailant’s throat with the tip of your umbrella.

Brian’s Blog, a philosophical take on anything and everything contradictory in the world, always makes me think. The writer strives for a green and thoughtful life by cycling and recycling, and minimising present-day irrationalities. The diversity of the blog makes it difficult to pick specific pieces, but two recent ones that come to mind are on micro-beads and the idiocy of  GDPR cookies.

Sarada Gray also blogs about anything and everything. I look at all her posts, and especially enjoyed one about her new pair of reading glasses. She also, quite rightly, roused my indignation at how Mo Mowlem has been airbrushed out of history.

Finally, for now, Gary Strachan is possibly the most prolific blogger I follow. At sometimes two or three lengthy posts a day I could never keep up with everything he writes, but I regularly find myself returning for his wit and humour which is up there with Tim Dowling in the Guardian or Eddie Mair in the Radio Times. To be honest, I envy how easily he seems to turn it out. Over the last few days he has even produced a series of posts joking about his recent heart attack.  

I feel that’s enough for now and apologise for not mentioning more of the blogs I follow. I’ve made a mental note to attend to it in due course.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Research Before The Internet

A. S. Byatt: Possession
as evoked by
A.S. Byatt - Possession: a Romance (5*)

The novel, Possession, evokes for me exactly what it was like to carry out research before the age of the internet, when we had to go to libraries to look things up in books and journals, and even use primary sources. More on this below.

It may also be the cleverest novel I have ever read: in fact I read it twice, partly because I enjoyed it so much and partly because a lot of it went over my head the first time through.

To describe the book first, the plot concerns two nineteen-eighties scholars who discover correspondence between two fictional Victorian poets revealing a previously unknown love affair. It is a discovery of immense historical significance, akin, say, to finding revelatory private correspondence by major literary figures such as Alfred Lord Tennyson or Christina Rossetti. As the two present-day scholars investigate the lives of the poets, they themselves are drawn into a relationship echoing that of the two Victorians. The two stories are revealed in parallel through five hundred pages of narrative, fictional poetry, letters, journals and diaries. So as well as the two love stories, and a cracking mystery story, A. S. Byatt has created substantial bodies of work attributed to the fictional poets and numerous pieces of writing attributed to other characters.

I struggled the first time through because: (i) the Victorian setting is rich in classical, biblical, literary and contemporary references of the kind with which educated Victorians of the time would have been very familiar but most of us today are not; and (ii) the nineteen-eighties setting alludes to numerous arcane and specialist approaches to textual analysis and criticism; e.g. we learn one of the scholars is trained in post-structuralist deconstruction. It found my own education sorely lacking.

Some might say the author is simply showing off, but essentially she is poking fun, and is abundantly able to do so because of her sweeping knowledge of Victorian and modern scholarship, poetry and literature. Some might say this is self-indulgent, but surely that is what all writers are. Her descriptions of beautiful things are dazzling, be they Victorian bathrooms, snowfall, the North York Moors or libraries. The 1990 Booker judges were clearly impressed.

That she put this sumptuous book together before 1990, before the internet, makes the achievement all the more impressive. She has not simply googled a tapestry of ideas and stitched them in, it stems from a lifetime’s study and expertise.

And that is what Possession strongly evokes for me: the pleasure and excitement of academic work before the age of abundant electronic resources and the internet. Anyone whose university days predated the turn of the century, perhaps researching a thesis or dissertation, or a final-year project, will find Possession brings it all back. You feel as if you are researching the Victorian poets yourself.

For me it was the light and quiet in a corner of the top floor of the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull, looking through the raked windows across the city to the distant Humber where bogies high above the river crossed slowly back and forth spinning the Humber Bridge suspension cables. Later it was the darkness and claustrophobia of the open stacks deep in the bowels of the John Rylands Library at Manchester.

The silence; the decades of collected journals; the Dewey Decimal index; the chance discovery of a promising book next to the one you were looking for; deliberately mis-shelving books so that no one else can deny you them the next day (I plead guilty, but I never stole anything, unlike one of the scholars in Possession); pages of handwritten notes from volumes piled six or seven high on your desk; coloured pens and paper clips, sore fingers; treasure-trails through the impenetrable Science and Social Sciences Citation Indexes (the SCI and SSCI); flip-lidded index card boxes; inter-library loans; journal offprint requests; scratchy, smelly, chemical photocopies; microfilm readers; hours following leads and loose ends which led to nowhere; puzzling new words and terminology in need of clarification; flashes of insight on encountering new ideas and making what you hoped, but rarely were, entirely original associations. More than anything else, the Csikszentmihalyian sense of flow: the buzz of your own thoughts, total immersion in the task at hand, suspended in time so that nothing else seemed to matter.

Through the nineteen-nineties things gradually changed. It became possible to research whole topics instantly and with plausible thoroughness through just a screen in an austere book-free room. Things were never the same again. I was still recommending books for my courses into the new century, but in rapidly changing subject areas such as computing, and even the social sciences, some of the university lecturers I knew stopped using print sources completely.

I hung on to my collection of academic books until retirement when they had to go. I kept a few that no one wanted, and ones that had once been especially useful and dear to me.

Key to book 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.